December 31, 2010

Writing and the New Year

Ecstatic bliss! I’m in the groove. In the zone. The writing’s flowing. I’ve gotten 55 solid pages of the novel rewritten so far, with three more days to get more written. I’ve been getting about four or five a pages a day done. The rewrite is extensive enough that, so far, I haven’t used hardly any of the previous text, just the plot and characters. Hopefully I’ll be able to use more as I go along.

But I’m in that place that I can remain in that world pretty much all day. Even when I’m making supper or picking up the kids, I’m still cogitating on it, and when I sit down, the words immediately start to flow.

And it’s the last day of 2010, can you believe it?! Tomorrow, it will no longer be a space odyssey! It will be the beginning of a whole new odyssey ~ let’s hope it’s as great as it’s been so far. (And I’ll get back to longer more-thoughtful posts.)

The happiest of New Years, guys, and be safe!

December 30, 2010

Stephen Sondheim and the Creative Process

A great interview on NPR's Fresh Air (with Terry Gross) of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

I love all the great things he has to say about the creative process, things like "art is order out of chaos" and how collaborative his work is.  It goes to show the way in which we create art spans all media.  I also love how precise his mind is.  He's very specific about the definitions of terms ~ something near and dear to my heart.

December 29, 2010

Charles Dickens's Bleak House

Since I'm working fast and furious on fiction set in the 1880s, my brain is all Dickensian.  So, to honor that, here's the great first bit of Dickens's Bleak House.  Talk about your atmospherics.  In one of my original drafts of this novel, I modeled my first pages on this.

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.

Questions of the Day: What's your favorite Dickens?

December 28, 2010

A Ham-and-Egger

Today, I was going to point out my friend Jenny Shank's great column in this month's Poets & Writers.  Unfortunately, it's only in the print issue and not online, so you'll have to seek it out in hard copy. It's well worth it, though.

I love her point about being a ham-and-egger writer ~ not one of the lauded greats, but as good as you can be.  I think it's a healthy attitude to take, and I would imagine some who are considered great continue to see flaws in their work and also think of themselves as ham-and-eggers.  It's part of the motivation to write ~ to get better, to try to realize the vision you had for the work in your mind but that's never achieved.

I also love her point about the baseball player Tommy Hottovy, the left-handed pitcher:
Tommy's task is harder than mine.  There are more published novelists in the country than there are major-league baseball players, who number 750 at any given moment in the season.  And your chances of publishing a novel don't depend on whether Don DeLillo or Lorrie Moore breaks an arm that season. I toil on projects that don't work out, but my rejectionas and failures are private. While Tommy struggled and rehabbed, every armchair manager in Red Sox Nation with a blog wrote about how old he's getting (he's twenty-eight).  I couldn't take that.  I could only imagine reading on some blog while I worked on my novel: "How old's Shank?  Thirty-three?  And she's got two kids?  She's never going to make it.  Stick a fork in her."
Now that's some great and insightful ~ not to mention entertaining ~ writing.  Thanks Jenny!

Questions of the Day:  Are you a ham-and-egger?

December 27, 2010

The Best Present

I hope you had the happiest of holidays and you’re looking forward to a great New Year’s eve!

So, I took last week and this week off to write, and I thought I’d update you on my progress. It’s going well! Thank God. I was really nervous that I would end up blowing it all, which would be horrible, since I have a deadline of next Monday.

I’ve been despairing of my writing. I have been having a hard time getting words to paper. And when you’re that far away from your writing, it’s really hard to get back into it. Like climbing Everest ~ you gotta get over the initial (monstrous) resistance. I didn’t get much written Monday and Tuesday of last week, but I sat at my computer or read my research diligently and edited what I had and tried really hard, and then finally on Wednesday I got a few paragraphs of new material, and now I’m sailing downhill! It’s coming easier and easier. I’ll make my deadline ~ whew!

One thing: I haven’t been online hardly at all. I haven’t been on Facebook and I have cranked up Tweekdeck in a while. I love doing those things, but they end up being chatter. It’s like my brain’s on caffeine and can’t settle into the fictional world. Which presents a bit of a problem. How do I balance the needs of writing with the needs of promotion? If I can’t write when I’m hip-deep in the internet, and vice versa, that’s a problem in both worlds. Well, I’ll just have to keep working at it and figuring it out.

But right now I’m at that sweet spot. The world is there and I’m thinking about it all the time and the writing’s coming easy and my characters are alive. Oh, I’m in love I’m in love I’m in love! It’s the best present I could hope for.

Questions of the Day:  How's the writing coming?

December 23, 2010

All I Want for Christmas ...

Lately I've been fretting about my kids' futures.  As a mother, my first instinct is to want to protect them, to give them a life unruffled.  But what kind of life is that? 

Maybe what I should wish for them is a life (without violence) in which they have the courage and resources to pursue their highest dreams.

What do you wish for your kids?

December 22, 2010

Art: For Yourself or for an Audience?

My blogging strategy this week has evolved into showing you interesting things on the web to try to keep from taking up all my writing time with blogging.  Though I'm sorely tempted to wax poetic!

So, here's something really interesting:  the latest fiction podcast from the New Yorker:  Cynthia Ozick is reading “In the Reign of Harad IV” by Steven Millhauser.  What's fascinating is the discussion at the end with fiction editor Deborah Treisman. Do we create art for ourselves?  Or do we create art for an audience?  Is our responsibility more to the former?  Or to the latter? 

This is one of those topics I could go on and on about.  And I will ~ at another time.  I'll just say that I think the answer is both.  I don't think you can deny that the impulse to create art stems from a need to be heard, yet you also cannot deny that art is selfish and stems from the need to create.

December 21, 2010

"Writing History"

A fascinating paper on the types of writing and the relationship between writing history and "truth" written by the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein.  I was reading through my research for the novel yesterday and came across it.  I love how he interpolates from the report of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to talk about history and truth. 

There's one line that describes so well what I'm trying to do in my fiction:

[Sach's third experiential truth] was an effort to look at one's subjective experience objectively, "in a truly unprejudiced way."

I love this because it encapsulates my attempts to capture what I've felt (because, really, what else can I know) and try to extrapolate to what others have felt.  Fiction writing is an attempt to take make one's subjectivity ~ the only thing we have, in the end ~ and make it objective.

December 20, 2010

Writing Vacation

I'm home writing these next two weeks.  Trying to get a novel rewritten.  Wish me luck! 

I'll be posting here, but only in relation to how much I'm avoiding the fiction. :-)

December 17, 2010

To Whom Are You Related?

When I work on fiction set in the past, I invariably get more interested in my own family history. (You might’ve noticed.) So the novel I’m revising now I started more than ten years ago, and at that time I did a whole bunch of family history research, and I was a member of Do you know this site? If you’re doing family history research, it is Mecca.

So I re-upped my membership yesterday and poked around a bit. In the ten years since I’ve been on it, it’s come a long long way! What is particulary amazing is the one world tree, where everyone tries to connect to everyone else. They also are working with DNA.

Well, I was poking around yesterday and entered my dad’s name. Someone (whom I don’t know) has entered him into the one world tree. One of the really cool features of one world tree is you can see the famous people to whom you are related.

So, who am I related to? Can you believe it?
  • Georgia O’Keefe (my father’s 6th cousin once removed)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (5th cousin 3x removed)
  • Truman Capote (7th cousins 2x removed)
  • Agatha Christie (5th cousin 6x removed)
  • Isaac Newton (3rd cousin 10x removed)
  • Julia Child (8th cousin)
  • T.S. Eliot (8th cousin 1x removed)
  • Ray Bradbury (8th cousin 1x removed)
  • Jane Austen (6th cousin 7x removed)
  • Bob Hope (8th cousin 4x removed)
  • George Orwell (10th cousin 1x removed)
  • Elizabeth Browning (9th cousin 4x removed)
  • Audrey Hepburn (11th cousin 2x removed)

Isn’t that hilarious? Of course, this just confirms that everyone is related to everyone, but still. I find it fascinating. What I’m most proud of, of course, is being related to the writers: Capote, Austen, Eliot, Orwell, Emerson, Browning, Christi, Bradbury. And to be honest, Capote and Austen would be whom I’m most proud of. And Audrey Hepburn ~ I love Audrey Hepburn.

You know what would’ve been the absolute best? If I’d’ve been related both Hemingway and Woolf!

Questions of the Day: Whom would you like to be related to?

December 16, 2010

Best-of vs. Collected

It’s great to read people’s collected short stories. Not their best-of collections, but the collected stories, so that you get them all.

When you read best-of collections, you get the very best. They’re the cream of the crop, top of the heap, and from some of the best writers. So they’re really really good. This is really intimidating. It’s good to read to try to figure out how they’re doing it, but it’s daunting to think you might even approach those stories.

But with collected stories, you get their body of work. You get their best stories, but you also get the stories that were published early in their career and maybe aren’t as good. I find this very heartening ~ to know these monuments of craft and art made mistakes too.

I recently discovered Frank O’Connor, whom I love, and I’m reading his collected stories. “Guest of the Nation” (on which the movie The Crying Game was partly based) and “My Oedipus Complex” and “A Man of the World” are just so good. It’s nice to read his earlier ones, too, in the collected stories so that you get his early attempts, and you can tell that voice and how people really tell stories are what he’s really interested in.

Not that I don’t love best-of collections as well!

Questions of the Day: Do you read best-of or collected version of people’s work?

December 15, 2010

Family Histories

I read this morning that they’re doing a new season of Who Do You Think You Are?, the show that traces the family histories of celebrities. I absolutely adored the first season. Come to find out, it originated in Britain from the BBC.

My first thought is that that means there are six full seasons of it out there for me to watch. Waahoooo! I’m absolutely thrilled. I’ve watched one episode of the BBC version so far, the Jeremy Irons episode (on YouTube ~ I'd've gladly purchased the full episodes to stream). Wow. So so good.

I’ve done a lot of research on my own family history. I’m sort of the family historian. I’ve always been interested in history ~ in another life, I would’ve been a historian, I think I’ve mentioned. Something about my love of books and the way history sits heavy upon us, in the American West in particular but I think probably everywhere, whether you’re aware of it or not. What prompted me more than anything to research our history was that we were trying to have kids. Then we had infertility problems, and it made me very sad that I’d done all this research into family lines and my husband and mine would stop with us. Really bothered me. But, things turned out, and we have four-year-old twins.

Such wonderful stories in our history. A horse thief who married while in prison in Iowa and made his way west, first with a store in Kansas City and then supplying ties for the railroad until he settled in northern Wyoming and that’s where my family’s ranch is. A soldier from Indiana in the Civil War ~ there’s a great document where he wills all his worldly goods ~ a set of dresser drawers, a cow, maybe a pan, and other stuff, as I remember ~ to his father-in-law when he re-ups for a second or third time. A woman who was supposed to have had five husbands and had danced at the original Tom Thumb’s wedding. A six-foot-six man who was a crack shot with a rifle who won a cow in a shooting contest who moved from Virginia to Indiana. The captain of a ship, possibly a pirate, off the coast of Virginia. Mayflower ancestors.

But the love of history stays with me, even as I’m not actively doing family history research. In my writing, I have one foot in contemporary fiction and one foot in historical fiction. I’m always trying to figure out why people do what they do, no matter when they lived. Real people are so much more interesting and various than the sanitized versions, and family stories most often turn out to have a grain of truth. My mom passed our family history down to me, and she told me many family stories that some doubted, but it turns out that most of them are true and verifiable.

Questions of the Day: Have you ever researched your family? How has it changed you or your writing?

December 14, 2010


I’m struggling to balance things lately. I’ve got to harden my heart against all the sirens calling for my time! Get this odyssey back on track.

But because I feel guilty about not dressing for company (hi, guys!), here’s a great craft essay from Glimmer Train by the wonderful Josh Weil about the use of time in stories. And, by the way, Josh has a great story in this month’s One Story. You might want to check it out!

December 13, 2010

Love Those Norges

Just a quick note today to say that I am now in love with Per Pettersen! I read Out Stealing Horses. It’s got the wonderful quiet of novels like Gilead and the understatement of many western writers (Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane), yet a great and moving plot. I’ve started his To Siberia and have also been investigating other Scandinavian authors. Any suggestions? I’ve read Smila’s Sense of Snow and loved it. Also Pippi Longstocking, of course. Haven’t had much luck with Dragon Tattoo series though - not my genre. I also watched the movie of Smila’s Sense of Snow last night - how heartwrenching and haunting yet a thriller! I love how Smila is not a typical woman character - she is demon-driven and not soft at all.

An additional note: I think I need to scale back my virtual time a bit and focus on writing. I’m taking the last two weeks of the year off to write, so, while I’ll be posting, I’m going to try to not do long long posts.

Questions of the Day: Suggestions for Scandinavian authors to read?

December 10, 2010

The Near Future Tense

So I did it. I wrote a draft of my own obit. A very interesting exercise. It suffers from the same problem of trying to write a pitch paragraph or a synopsis: how do you reduce so much complexity into four paragraphs? Luckily, the form makes it really easy. You just follow the examples and plug in the bits. Which leaves out A LOT.

And you try to make it interesting too. The form doesn’t really help. You don’t want slapstick. In fact, the form demands that you be reverential. Suffice it to say, you can’t be very interesting in an obit. You can only gesture and hint.

This gave me the idea of writing an obit of myself that is nothing more ~ or less ~ than a character sketch. Using concrete actions and objects to convey personality. The example of thought of was the characterization of Jesse James by Ron Hansen in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (which I have here). I haven’t done this yet, but I’m going to at some point. It sounds like fun!

Another thing that would be fun would be to write the obit like Michael Kimball writes people’s lives on a postcard. If you haven’t seen this, you should! It’s great.  I’ve actually kind of done this in my bio on my site, though.

One of the things that writing the obit brought home is how average I am. To be perfectly honest, this is both a relief and a bit troubling. A relief because I think of myself as rather odd. A bit troubling because I, like everyone else, like to think of myself as special and accomplished, but I really haven’t done many of the things that are considered accomplishments that you put in an obit.

Writing an obit of yourself makes you assess your life. This is something I don’t do very often. It brings something home that I’ve always known but take for granted most of the time: my interior life is almost always in the near future tense. In other words, I am most often consumed with thinking about the here and now or what I need to accomplish in the next week or feeling guilty about what is on my to-do list that I’ve put off for too long (which is usually reading someone else’s work).

I don’t often assess the past and think about where I’ve been ~ and I suppose that hinders me learning from those experiences. I do, though, when I’m feeling bad, try to figure out emotionally why and what about me and my family and my past has got me here. So in that sense I assess the past.

When I think about the future, it’s most often to try to figure out concrete steps to accomplish a larger goal. I don’t daydream in the Walter Mitty sense of trying to escape my life (nope, I use books for that).

So this makes me think that my assessment of myself is more often based on what I’m trying to accomplish rather than on what I have accomplished. I do the same with other people, and that’s why teaching is hard for me ~ I tend to want to grade on potential, and I always see the potential.

It also makes me think about everyone else’s obits and how my standards of measure (how nice the person was, how they treated family, whether they thought deeply about things, whether they worked hard, and so on) don’t show up in an obit either. My standard of measure would be much more closely aligned to what they would look like as a character in a novel.

Questions of the Day: So, am I being morbid? :-) How do you assess your life?

PS This has implications on how I write fiction. Hmmm.  Something to think about further.

December 9, 2010

Writing Lives

I wrote my first obituary today. Surprisingly. You’d think I’d have written one before this. It was for the husband of a coworker friend. I did not know him personally but was happy to be able to help.

Obituaries are actually pretty easy to write (for a professional writer). They are a very specific genre with a pretty specific format, and there is a lot of help available on the internet. The family was able to download a questionnaire and then fill it out for me and I wrote it from there. I had most everything I needed from that, and the few questions I had I highlighted. It’s actually not that different from writing other newspaper articles. You gather info, you write it short and sweet.

I have helped a lot of people with resumes, though. It’s interesting to contrast the two. Not surprisingly, it’s actually much harder to write a resume. It’s a very high stakes and exacting genre. It’s like poetry in that every word counts for so much. Your research has to be much more indepth, and general out-of-the-box brainstorming with a friend prompting you helps a lot. You want to balance specific detailed evidence with broad sweeping generalization. It’s longer than an obit, and you have to pack in so much more.

But it’s interesting how they’re both the story of a life. They both try to show the subject in absolutely the best light. It helps if you have someone help you write both, because whether it’s you or a loved one, it’s hard to gain enough distance to do the job properly at the deadline when it’s needed.

In fact, after writing this one, I’m thinking of writing my own. Just for fun. Maybe two ~ one conventional and one off-the-wall creative.

Quite a contrast ~ conventional obits vs. trying to get at the “truth” of a life. Not that there is just one truth. Maybe, rather, getting at the lived reality of life. Fiction, I believe, tries to get at the lived truths of life, so ironically and paradoxically I think it approaches lived experience more closely than “factual” newspaper reporting.

Life is messy. You can’t possibly encompass a life in 300 words. But that’s not what obits are for. They’re there to convey facts and to fix people in our memories. They’re a snapshot of a monument.

Questions of the Day: Have you ever written your obit just for fun? How’d it go?

December 8, 2010

Voices from the Past: Tennyson

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was a poet who lived from 1809 to 1892.  He wrote, most famously, "The Charge of the Light Brigade."  He also wrote the lovely and sad In Memoriam A.H.H. to his friend and then my favorite, "The Lady of Shalott," which is so romantic but sad. 

Like many Victorians, he was obsessed with death.  At first read, he may seem a bit impenetrable, but when you connect his life to his writing ~ and if you can get past the language ~ he's trying to memorialize, to make a person's life epic, to make it have meaning. (It's been a while since I've actually dug into his work.)

Here's a little about him, from Wikipedia:

Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson, FRS (6 August 1809 – 6 October 1892) was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom during much of Queen Victoria's reign and remains one of the most popular poets in the English language.

Tennyson excelled at penning short lyrics, "In the valley of Cauteretz", "Break, Break, Break", "The Charge of the Light Brigade", "Tears, Idle Tears" and "Crossing the Bar". Much of his verse was based on classical mythological themes, such as Ulysses, although In Memoriam A.H.H. was written to commemorate his best friend Arthur Hallam, a fellow poet and fellow student at Trinity College, Cambridge, who was engaged to Tennyson's sister, but died from a cerebral hemorrhage before they were married. Tennyson also wrote some notable blank verse including Idylls of the King, Ulysses, and Tithonus. During his career, Tennyson attempted drama, but his plays enjoyed little success.

Tennyson wrote a number of phrases that have become commonplaces of the English language, including: "Nature, red in tooth and claw", "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all", "Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die", "My strength is as the strength of ten, / Because my heart is pure", "Knowledge comes, but Wisdom lingers", and "The old order changeth, yielding place to new". He is the second most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations after Shakespeare.


Tennyson used a wide range of subject matter, ranging from medieval legends to classical myths and from domestic situations to observations of nature, as source material for his poetry. The influence of John Keats and other Romantic poets published before and during his childhood is evident from the richness of his imagery and descriptive writing. He also handled rhythm masterfully. The insistent beat of Break, Break, Break emphasizes the relentless sadness of the subject matter. Tennyson's use of the musical qualities of words to emphasize his rhythms and meanings is sensitive. The language of "I come from haunts of coot and hern" lilts and ripples like the brook in the poem and the last two lines of "Come down O maid from yonder mountain height" illustrate his telling combination of onomatopoeia, alliteration and assonance:

The moan of doves in immemorial elms
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Tennyson was a craftsman who polished and revised his manuscripts extensively. Few poets have used such a variety of styles with such an exact understanding of metre; like many Victorian poets, he experimented in adapting the quantitative metres of Greek and Latin poetry to English. He reflects the Victorian period of his maturity in his feeling for order and his tendency towards moralizing and self-indulgent melancholy. He also reflects a concern common among Victorian writers in being troubled by the conflict between religious faith and expanding scientific knowledge. Like many writers who write a great deal over a long time, he can be pompous or banal, but his personality rings throughout all his works—work that reflects a grand and special variability in its quality. Tennyson possessed the strongest poetic power; he put great length into many works, most famous of which are Maud and Idylls of the King, the latter one of literature's treatments of the legend of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table.

Why do I bring him up today?  Well, first, because I've been thinking about the Victorians.  But also because, amazingly, there is a recording of the actual Tennyson reading "The Charge of the Light Brigade."  (To learn more about what the poem is about, go here.)  He was born two centuries ago! 

So, your treat for the day.  Go here and enjoy.

Questions of the Day: Are you drawn to a certain period in the past?

December 7, 2010

The Life of Objects

As I blow-dried my hair this morning, I began thinking about my blow dryer. I recently got a new one. It’s pretty slick ~ though it’s plastic, it’s silver and a deep purple, and it’s got this new thing, an ionizer? Not sure what that does. It may be one of those imaginary things that makes consumers feel better.

I bought a new hair dryer because my old one finally died. It was the first blow dryer I ever bought ~ in my teens ~ so that would’ve made it 25 years old. It had that charm of the first computers, in that it looked so new and exciting at the time (sleek and white, but sort of a bulbous at the same time) but now its design feels antiquated.

(It occurs to me that this new one is the last hair dryer I may ever own, and that it might outlive me.)

It was a faithful hair dryer. It always worked, and I could set it to blow cool air, something you can’t do with cheepo traveling ones or ones in hotel rooms. It didn’t have enough protection along the back, though, so every once in a while, if I wasn’t paying attention, it would yank out a hair, but it seemed sort of friendly that way. And when it quit, it made a loud noise, and that was that, life over.

It’s tempting to take that as a metaphor for life and expound on that, but instead I wanted to talk about the lives of things and eventually work my way around to fiction craft.

Objects have lives of their own, don’t they? They may not be mobile, but they get scars and show the wear and tear of life. They are born and die. One of my professors, Susan Frye, studies the Renaissance and specifically material culture, which is the stuff we leave behind, the artifacts of how we live. The reason she studies it is because many women of that time did not write. They may have been able to read but not write, or they may have not even read. So, in order to study them and their subjectivities, you need to look to other things, and one thing you can look at is the textiles they made ~ the embroidery, the clothes, the decorative hangings. One thing she talked about, too, was that a glove shows the imprint of a hand, which shows both the life of the wearer and the life of the glove.

Which is very interesting. There is a tension in our lives between our perceptions of the world and the actual physicality/life of the world. We go through our days taking whole swaths of the world for granted ~ it couldn’t be any other way, or we would get paralyzed, wouldn’t we? We could spend all day considering the orange juice we had for breakfast and perceiving it and being fascinated by it. Very zen. But we need to stereotype things so we can get on with life. We need quick judgments and to be able to take things for granted so we can get through our days. But there is a tension there, isn’t there. The world and each object in it have secret lives.

This makes me think of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Have you read it? The first half is a very lovely but conventional story, that of a large English family and the death of the mother, but the second half is this wonderful unspooling of the life of the summer house in which the family spent the first half, up until what’s left of the family comes back to finally make that trip in a boat to the lighthouse. When I first read it, I thought the second half should be cut, as I’m somewhat a conventionalist, but then I reconsidered. It’s absolutely fascinating, how VW shows the passing of time through the life of that house.

It makes me think that objects in stories need to be doing at least three things: 1) being authentic by being actual perceived things ~ not being general, having specific detail, and seeming to belong to that setting (this is whole idea that setting is a character unto itself), 2) being a reflection of the point of view character’s state of mind and perceptions, and 3) being reflective of the overall theme of the story. That’s a lot for the writer to handle, but in the best work, it rings throughout the story like a bell.

Specific examples that come to mind: I recently re-listened to the New Yorker podcasts of Joshua Ferris’s “The Dinner Party” (read by Monica Ali) and Frank O’Connor’s “The Man of the World” (read by Julian Barnes). OMG. The details of objects and actions are so fabulous. They are just right for the setting, the character’s perceptions, and what the story is about.

One great example in both is the use of light. In Ferris’s story, when the protagonist goes to the party that he and his wife were not invited to, he sees the flames of the fire that encompasses his vision ~ like he’s in hell ~ and then when he goes back home and into the bedroom where his wife is desperate, she flicks on the light just when he is looking at it ~ he literally sees the light, but it blinds him. And each of these lights has a particular character, as well as reflecting the overall theme. In O’Connor’s, a boy and a friend watch a neighbor couple as they get ready for bed, and just as the protagonist has a deep insight about religion the light in the neighbors’ window goes dark, and the character is literally cast into darkness.

I don’t think I’ve explicated this very well (I could write a whole paper one each), but you get the idea. Objects, things, setting, is such a very important part of craft.

Questions of the Day: How explicit is your use of objects? Is it something that just happens, or are you able to plan it? Which way is best? Or does it come about in revision?

December 6, 2010

“Tired of Trying, Sick of Crying, I May Be Smiling, But Inside …”

I’ve been keeping my blog posts upbeat lately, but that isn’t how I’ve always been feeling. Today, I was thinking of more upbeat topics and then I thought, you know what, I’ll just talk a little bit about it, as I’m sure it’s something all writers feel ~ hopefully not too frequently.

I’ve had a perfect storm of events lately. Upheaval in my personal and writing life. Friction from family, uncertainly in my writing world, health issues (not serious). I don’t want to talk about the specifics, but it’s all come together to leave me in a mild depression and struggling to be creative. Plus, it feels like I can’t do anything right, and wherever I turn things blow up in my face.

You know how it feels? You set aside time and struggle and struggle to get things on the page. You don’t have time but the alternately feel guilty and then feel like, why bother? Who’s going to care? It’s like your mood is a lead weight around your neck, and you’re always trying to pull it up by sheer force of will, which takes so much it’s all you can do to keep it together. When someone adds just one more thing to your already massive list of things to do, you feel like throwing in the towel.

In fact, I’m not usually a napper, but I slept for five hours on Saturday. My battery needs a recharge.

I have been moving forward on creative projects, but very very slowly.

But there’s hope. There always is. Working for a university, I get the last week of the year off plus a couple of days, and then I’m taking the rest of that week off. So two weeks off. I’m going to hammer it and get a bunch done. In the immortal words of Little Orphan Annie, the sun will come out tomorrow.

Questions of the Day: How do you cope?

December 3, 2010

"Danny O'Dare, the Dancin' Bear"

A quick and lovely Shel Silverstein poem today. Have a great weekend!

Danny O'Dare, the Dancin' Bear

Danny O'Dare, the dancin' bear,
Ran away from the County Fair,
Ran right up to my back stair
And thought he'd do some dancin' there.
He started jumpin' and skippin' and kickin',
He did a dance called the Funky Chicken,
He did the Polka, he did the Twist,
He bent himself into a pretzel like this.
He did the Dog and the Jitterbug,
He did the Jerk and the Bunny Hug.
He did the Waltz and the Boogaloo,
He did the Hokey-Pokey too.
He did the Bop and the Mashed Potata,
He did the Split and the See Ya Later.
And now he's down upon one knee,
Bowin' oh so charmingly,
And winkin' and smilin'--it's easy to see
Danny O'Dare wants to dance with me.

December 2, 2010

“I Can See From Both Sides Now”

Just an observation today.

I see both sides of everything. Well, all sides ~ there’s never just two. When I was younger, it made me feel bad, like I was wishy washy. But now I don’t apologize for it, and I’m proud of it. This empathy helps me in everyday life and in my writing. I’m always trying to figure out motives and why someone would do something that, on the surface, is horrible or against their own self-interests.

It makes it more difficult to draw lines in the sand, but maybe there needs to be less lines in the sand.

Questions of the Day: Do you tend to think in blacks and whites or in shades of gray?

December 1, 2010

The Victorian Genre of Death Stories

Did you know that nineteenth century people were obsessed with death?  It makes sense.  The mortality rate was very high, and people would short the living in order to save money to properly bury their children ~ because it was pretty likely that at least some of their children would die.  There was a whole industry built around the fetishization of death.  Now, of course, it's all underground and we act like it doesn't even happen. But, then, there was a genre of story where the death of a person would be told in great detail.  They appeared in newspapers and people would write them in letters to loved ones. Here's an example: the death of Ulysses S. Grant in 1885 in the New York Times (from here).  This is only half of it. It goes on about the lead up to the death, 14 pages total of single spaced text.
News of Ulysses Grant's Death

[From page 1 of the New York Times, July 24, 1885]
















New-York. -- Because the people of that city befriended me in my need.

U.S. Grant.


Mount McGregor, July 23. -- Surrounded by all of his family and with no sign of pain, Gen. Grant passed from life at six minutes after eight o'clock this morning. The end came with so little immediate notice as to be in the nature of a surprise. All night had the family been on watch, part of the time in the parlor, where he lay, rarely venturing further away from him than the porch on which the parlor opens. There seemed no hope that death could be held off through the night. It was expected at 9 o'clock, again at about midnight, and again neat 4 o'clock. There was serious failure at 9 o'clock and at midnight, but not at 4 o'clock, and as day came, bringing but slight change, the hope was that he might last until midday.

The General did not speak even in a whisper after 3 o'clock this morning. Before that it had been little more than an aspiration at any time of the night, and then only answers to inquiries. But when the respiration grew rapid and weak all his powers that depended upon it failed him. His normal respiration is under 20. It was quick during the evening, 44 at midnight, 50 at 3 o'clock, and 60 at 5 o'clock. Then it became quite faint.

He coughed somewhat after midnight, and was able with the doctor's aid to dislodge the mucus and throw it off, but from about 3 o'clock he could neither dislodge it or expectorate, and it began to clog his throat and settle back into his lungs.

It was about 4 o'clock when the rattle in the throat began. For an hour or longer, Dr. Shrady, in the hope of easing, rather than of sustaining the General, as he was past that, have been giving hypodermics of brandy with great frequency, and applying hot cloths and mustard to various parts of the body, especially the hands and feet, which were growing very cold.

It was soon evident that the General was too far gone to be aided by stimulants.

Then came the waiting for death. The family had all been near the General through the night. It was not kept from them that he was beyond saving. They moved quietly about the sick room and out on the porch.

The General lay on the bed, his face leaden, yet with some warmth left in its hue. His eyes were closed. Power to open them had been restored to him, and it was occasionally invoked when some member of the family, or the doctor, or one of the attendants spoke to him. Then he would open his eyes. He could make no other recognition, but that of the eyes was clear. His lungs and pulse were failing, but there was yet no cloud on the brain.

At about 4 o'clock Dr. Douglas, who had been resting a little at the cottage, joined Dr. Shrady at the sick bed. Dr. Sands, considering himself of no use in the case, had gone quietly to bed at the hotel early in the evening, and was not disturbed.

Dr. Douglas walked to the hill top after he had looked at the General. "He is conscious," the Doctor said; "that is, he has not lost his power of recognition. He Breathed; his heart lives; his lungs live; his brain lives; and that is about all."

At 5 o'clock, when Dr. Newman left the cottage for a few moments, came word of rapid sinking, of the death rattle, of cold extremities, and of the discoloration of the finger nails. All was failing except the brain, which would be the last to die, the Pastor said.

"For an hour past," he went on, "Mrs. Grant has been sitting with the General. When she speaks to him he opens his eyes. She says little and bears up wonderfully. As he is going, there is a change apparent in everything except his head. The broad forehead is as fine and commanding as ever. The head has not been seen to advantage in his sick chair, but now that he is recumbent it stands boldly out in the wreck of body. It has reminded me over and over again to-night of the death mask of Peter the Great."

While Mrs. Grant sat by the General the other members of the family kept either in the other parts of the room or on the porch, almost within whispering call. They did not care to risk annoyance to him by grouping about him before it became necessary.

The rays of the morning sun fell across the cottage porch upon a family waiting only for death.

The members of the family had gone to their rooms about 7 o'clock on the advice of Dr. Shrady that they seek rest. The General lay perfectly still. He was yet conscious but not alert. There had been frequent visits. When attendants touched his hands, stroked his forehead, or moistened his lips he did not heed them. At times he would open his eyes; the vision was clear, but there was no sign that he more than barely recognized the surroundings. Such had been his condition since 3 o'clock. The family took the doctor's advice and withdrew. The doctor said he would inform them instantly of any change. Dr. Douglas and Dr. Shrady remained at the bedside. They saw that the General was sinking, that he could not last long, yet the limit of his endurance could not be fixed at 7:30 o'clock. They went out on the porch and Dr. Sands, who had spent the night at the hotel, joined them. The Rev. Dr. Newman was there. Dr. Sands stepped to the bedside. The General's breath came in quick gasps. He had no color. The hands lay white, limp, and cold on the sheet that covered him. His wasted, feeble body could not bear heavier covering. The throat was exposed. It fluttered with every effort to breathe. There was no more motion of the chest. Dr. Sands returned to the porch, shaking his head. He agreed with his associates that the end could not be far off. None of them would say how soon it might come. Dr. Newman inquired if he ought to go to breakfast; he had staid through the weary watch of two nights. Dr. Shrady advised him to wait. The Pastor asked the nurse, Henry, who thought a decline unlikely within an hour. It was then 7:40. Mrs. Sartoris entered the sick room, and as she stood at the bedside the General opened his eyes. She bent over him, and, slipping her hand under his, asked if he recognized her. She thought she felt a slight pressure from the cold fingers. That decided Dr. Newman and Mr. Dawson, the stenographer, to go to breakfast.

They had not been gone more than five minutes when the nurse, Henry, stepped to the parlor door and beckoned to the doctors. A change had come. Dr. Shrady sent for the family. The bed stood in the middle of the room. Dr. Douglas drew a chair to the head near the General. Mrs. Grant came in and sat on the opposite side. She clasped gently one of the white hands in her own. When the Colonel came in Dr. Douglas gave up his chair to him. The Colonel began to stroke his father's forehead, as was his habit when attending him. Only the Colonel and Mrs. Grant sat. Mrs. Sartoris stood at her mother's shoulder, Dr. Shrady a little behind. Jesse Grant leaned against the low headboard fanning the General. Ulysses junior stood at the foot. Dr. Douglas was behind the Colonel. The wives of the three sons were grouped near the foot. Harrison was in the doorway, and the nurse, Henry, near a remote corner. Between them, at a window, stood Dr. Sands. The General's little grandchildren, U.S. Grant, Jr., and Nellie, were sleeping the sleep of childhood in the nursery room above stairs.

All eyes were intent on the General. His breathing had become soft, though quick. A shade of pallor crept slowly but perceptibly over his features. His bared throat quivered with the quickened breath. The outer air, gently moving, swayed the curtains at an east window. Into the crevice crept a white ray from the sun. It reached across the room like a rod and lighted a picture of Lincoln over the deathbed. The sun did not touch the companion picture, which was of the General. A group of watchers in a shaded room, with only this quivering shaft of pure light, the gaze of all turned on the pillowed occupant of the bed, all knowing that the end had come, and thankful, knowing it, that no sign of pain attended it -- this was the simple setting of the scene.

The General made no motion. Only the fluttering throat, white as his sick robe, showed that life remained. The face was one of peace. There was no trace of present suffering. The moments passed in silence. Mrs. Grant still held the General's hand. The Colonel still stroked his brow.

The light on the portrait of Lincoln was slowly sinking. Presently the General opened his eyes and glanced about him, looking into the faces of all. The glance lingered as it met the tender gaze of his companion. A startled, wavering motion at the throat, a few quiet gasps, a sigh, and the appearance of dropping into a gentle sleep followed. The eyes of affection were still upon him. He lay without a motion. At that instant the window curtain swayed back in place, shutting out the sunbeam.

"At last," said Dr. Shrady, in a whisper.

"It is all over," sighed Dr. Douglas.

Mrs. Grant could not believe it until the Colonel, realizing the truth, kneeled at the bedside clasping his father's hand. Then she buried her face in her handkerchief. There was not a sound in the room, no sobbing, no unrestrained show of grief. The example set by him who had gone so quietly kept grief in check at that moment. The doctors withdrew. Dr. Newman, who had entered in response to a summons just at the instant of the passing away, looked into the calm face, now beyond suffering, and bowed his head. There was a brief silence. Then Dr. Newman led Mrs. Grant to a lounge, and the others of the family sought their rooms.

The General was not fully conscious for several hours before he died. There never seemed an utter lack of consciousness, but the hold upon his mind was slight indeed at times all through the night. He began to sink at about 7 o'clock last night, when the doctors forecast the end as almost certain to come during the night. He had been dying, however, for 36 hours before that, when decline followed the fatigue of his ride to the Eastern Lookout. Nothing came from the General before death which could be called his dying words. He took no conscious leave of his family. There had been prayers at midnight, when it was supposed he was going. Mrs. Grant then pressed his hand and asked if he knew her. He replied with a look of reassurance. He was near collapse at the time, and Col. Grant, thinking him possible in distress, asked him if he suffered. He whispered a feeble "no." That question was asked several times with the same result. Once, about 3 o'clock, he seemed in need of something. The nurse bent over him and heard him say "water." He did not speak after that.

At different times through the night up to that hour he made himself understood by some sort of response to questions bearing on his comfort. His last voluntary and irresponsive act of speech which embodied the idea that governed him in all his sufferings, and which will on that account stand probably as his last utterance, dates back to yesterday afternoon, when, noticing the grief that the family could not restrain, he said, whispering in little above a breath, yet quite distinctly:

"I don't want anybody to feel distressed on my account."

He was then past rallying to an effort to hide his weakness, but did not forget his solicitude to spare others pain.

Dr. Shrady was in charge at the cottage all of last night. Dr. Douglas was worn out and needed rest, which he took at the cottage, so as to be at call at a critical moment. Dr. Sands, assuming that he could be of no use, went early to bed at the hotel, and rose of his own accord in the morning, just in time to see the General die.

It was a folding bed, that had been put into the cottage for use by the attending doctor, to which the General was moved early last evening. He wanted to change from the sitting posture, of which he was thoroughly tired. A reclining position was thought dangerous for him of late months, because it brought on a stuffy throat and choking. That was not to be feared last night; the muscles of the throat had relaxed. No spasmodic power was left; the pulse had not been less than 100 for 36 hours before death, or the respiration less than 30. Both ran up steadily to the end, the pulse touching 120, 140, 160 in quick succession, and then mounting so fast that it could not be counted. It was flighty most of the night. Respiration reached 44 at midnight. It was 60- by 4 o'clock, with a quickening tendency to the end. It ceased to move the diaphragm about midnight. It touched the lungs only slightly at daybreak. Air went little below the throat toward the last. The arms and feet became cold early in the evening. Hot appliances were made to them and to various parts of the body, and were frequently renewed. This was not done in the expectation of reviving him nor was brandy injected for that purpose. Both the injections and the appliances were made for his comfort -- to ease him. They would have served also as a help to a rally if one had temporarily set in. But that was not anticipated. The treatment sought only to comfort him. It was applied whenever pulse or heart of lungs threatened distress -- sometimes every few minutes and again at intervals of an hour or longer.

The General, knowing his disease, foreseeing the result, and apprehending death sooner than did the doctors, had only one wish in regard to it. He wanted to die painlessly. The brandy, the hot appliances, and anodynes made the end what he wanted it to be. Otherwise the feverish coursing of the pulse, the panting, shallow breath, and the sense of dissolution which he might have felt extending upward to the brain may have made the end anything but a peaceful sinking into sleep. These symptoms and the treatment for them make a basis for doubt if the General could have been at any time during the night in clear mind. His posture in bed was most of the time on the right side. The head was bolstered. Toward the end he was turned on his back, dying in that position.

The end was characteristic, the doctors say, of the disease as diagnosed by them. It was a case of clear exhaustion, the emaciation having left him, it is said, weighing less than 100 pounds. This morning, when the first shock was over, the doctors recalled to the family the question raised in regard to the diagnosis, and asked the privilege of an autopsy. The family would not hear of it. They were satisfied, they said, with the diagnosis. The matter was dropped at once.

Dr. Douglas said there was nothing peculiar about the death except the resisting force of remarkable vitality. It was nine months yesterday since Dr. Douglas took charge of the General. The General had not been dead two minutes when the wires were sending it over the country. It was known in New-York before some of the guests heard of it at the hotel, where it spread very quickly. Undertaker Holmes was on his way from Saratoga almost as soon as the family had withdrawn to their rooms from the bedside. A special train which had waited for him all night was at once dispatched for him. A message was sent to Stephen Merritt, at New-York, to come on at once to take charge of the funeral services.

Sculptor Gohardt was informed that he might take the death mask. The General's body still lay on the bed clad in the white flannel gown and the light apparel that he had last worn. The face seemed to have filled out somewhat, looking more as in familiar portraits of him.

It was yet early in the morning when dispatches of condolence and offers of help began to come in on the family. One was from the Managers of the Soldiers' Home at Washington, offering for the place of interment a site in the grounds at the Home, carefully selected and on an eminence overlooking the city. That dispatch suggested the urgency of fixing upon plans for the coming few days and for interment.

Col. Grant said that recently the General had written a note embodying his wishes in regard to the subject of removal from here. He was then anticipating death during this month. It would be too bad, he wrote, to send the family back to the city in the hot weather on account of his death. He proposed, therefore, that his body be embalmed and kept on this hill until the weather should become cool enough to let them go back to the city in comfort, and allow an official burial if one should be desired. The General's supposition in writing this note was that he would be buried in New-York. He had designated, one week after his arrival here, three places from which choice of burial place might be made. His note is given elsewhere regarding this matter. Washington was not one of the places named. He did not know that the family had been in correspondence with Gen. Sheridan, in April, about a burial place in Washington, or that Gen. Sheridan had selected a site on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home. The arrangement was then considered settled. Family preference naturally leaned that way when arrangements had gone so far. Only the Colonel and one or two others knew, until to-day, that the General had given expression to a preference. It was urged this morning the General might have preferred Washington above any other place, but that he had omitted to mention it because of modesty. The disposition of the family, however, when it was explained to-day what he had done, was to follow his wishes.

Plans in this direction were facilitated this afternoon, when a telegram came from Mayor Grace making an official tender of a burial site in any park in New-York City. Col. Grant, in reply, asked that a messenger be sent here to confer on the subject. A messenger will also come from the President to urge Washington. Several telegrams arrived later, one from Thomas L. James, expressive of the universal opinion that the interment should be in New-York. John A. Logan advises Washington. Such is the drift the matter is taking to-night.

There has been talk also on the less important but more urgent subject of what should be done immediately. Joseph W. Drexel came up this morning from Saratoga and begged the family to consider themselves at liberty to use the cottage as they hose and for as long a time as might suit them. W.J. Arkell placed his cottage at the disposal of the family. It is the only cottage here except Mr. Drexel's. These offers helped a decision rapidly. It was thought that arrangements for burial could be definitely made in 10 days; that the body might be taken to the Arkell cottage and left there under guard for that time; that then it might be removed to the place selected for burial, after which the family might return to the Drexel cottage to stay into the Fall. This discussion, in which Col. Grant represented the family, was, of course, merely tentative. A suggestion by Paymaster Gilbert A. Robertson, of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, fitted well into these plans. It proposed to Gen. Hancock, through Gen. Charles A. Carleton, Recorder of the Loyal Legion, that a Lieutenant and 13 men be sent here to guard the body until its removal. A Brooklyn Grant Army Post, which Gen. Grant last visited and which is to bear his name, sent a request to be allowed to act as guard of honor from this place to the place of burial.

The family are bearing the trial well. Few persons have been allowed to visit the cottage. It has been the intention to keep away those whose business was not of the first importance. There have been no willful intruders. The ladies have kept up stairs. They were excessively wearied by the long strain. As the end could not be averted, and as the General could be kept alive only in suffering, the family sorrow seeks comfort in the reflection that death has brought him the only possible relief. It is hard to find consolation with grief yet fresh, but the thought that it has happened for the best has so far averted such violent scenes as had been dreaded. Mrs. Grant is especially brave in her affliction. All have been deeply touched by the many expressions of sympathy from every quarter. Col. Grant has undertaken general direction of affairs. He has had all he could do to-day, and is likely to be employed to his full capacity for work until every arrangement can be completed. The conferences with Mayor Grace's secretary and the President's messenger to-morrow will no doubt go far toward settling the question to which all others are subservient. Dr. Sands went home to-day. Dr. Shrady wanted to try again to persuade the family to consent to an autopsy. They positively declined again, repeating that they were perfectly satisfied with the treatment and diagnosis. The undertakers have been embalming the body to-day. It will be finished to-morrow.
Questions of the Day:  Do you think it's healthier to obsess with death like this or to ignore it completely?