The Real Writing Life

In response to Mr. Pond, Huckleberries and Haggis

At last I’ve returned from my latest “happily hobbitish adventure” (à la Mr. Pond). Road tripping, despite the perils of traveling at seventy-five miles per hour in a machine, is tolerably safe and unchallenging.

Writing my novel, however, is “plumbing the depths of the human soul” (ibid)—this human soul, at least. I have a fair share of natural determination and perseverance, but Full Revision Number Three is challenging it. I adore my characters, but at times I’m exhausted merely by the thought of getting into their heads and hearts. After months of daily immersions in their story, I’ve felt more than ready to spend some time relaxing in my own.

Mr. Pond and I have spent our last couple of blogalectic posts talking about how our writing matters, how we matter:
What we do—what each of us does—matters, because we each see different things and tell different travelers’ tales. Our writing matters—simply and utterly—because we matter.

This is harder to accept than it might seem at first. We’re not often comfortable with being ourselves, having our own struggles and doubts and questions, rejecting the hurt and evil we find in ourselves and reaching relentlessly towards the healing, the good. I’ll be the first to admit that not everyone has stopped to think about writing this way, not everyone writes like this.

But anyone can.
Whether owing to my current creative dryness or to natural perversity, when I began to think about responding, my immediate ideas centered around the antidote to the heady rush of realizing that our writing matters. That is: this work will school us in humility, like it or not. Outright humiliation is even a possibility. Sometimes, the whole thing just doesn’t seem to matter that much.

Which leaves me, now and again, feeling like the hours I put into this every day are a waste of time. Maybe I ought to stop. I could stop writing that book—or this blog, if I took the fancy.

Like most determined writers, though, I don't feel I could stop without becoming someone else entirely. And one of the reasons for that is that I write to think through things. Journaling, blogging, commenting on blogs, telling stories, and songwriting all provide opportunities for wrestling with what I believe, what I could or should believe, what I think I know and may or may not be right about, and for learning how to express ideas with kindness and truth.

But oh, I wish I could do it perfectly.

In the internet age, every stray word feels like it’s preserved for posterity, ready to condemn its author at a moment’s notice from here to eternity. Once it’s down, anyone can critique or argue with it, and I already have a number of things on the world wide web that I would love to edit or remove. Authors who have a book published come up against even wilder realities, such as: The book may not sell, leaving the publisher with a lot of dead copies and a permanent lack of appreciation for the author. Or: People may very publicly express their hatred of the book. Or both. (Most published authors, if not all, get at least one of the two in some degree.)

As Rachelle Gardner put it:
It's important to remember that anyone in the "public eye"—and if you have any online presence, that means you—is a target for criticism. People can and will say anything they want. They will misinterpret what you've written, they will assign motives, and they'll even make judgments about you as a human being (not just as a writer, or in my case, an agent).
I've experienced this firsthand, and in all honesty, it sucks. I hate it. You probably don't call it one of your greatest joys either. So does our writing really matter enough to keep trying?

Getting published is practically an Olympic sport nowadays. I’m not the first nor the only person to make that comparison, though I’ve long been repeating it to enthusiastic and encouraging friends and family as they ask how soon they can buy my book in bookstores. Can our words and stories do enough good, provide return enough to be worth this immense risky investment of time and emotion? Will your book or mine matter even if both critical and public response is harsh or indifferent?

Perhaps such questions are too intimate even for a small-time blogger who is two years to never from seeing her books on the great shelves of Barnes and Noble. After all, for answer we can only tell ourselves to give it a shot. I can't speak for you, but I feel arrogant for even dreaming that I might have a chance in such extreme competition.

Perhaps “Just give it a try” is not answer enough for someone who wants to survive the process and remain human. Maybe we need something more like “Make an honest effort. Keep polishing, keep a healthy respect for the opinions of others, keep hold of your vision for the work, search for truth and kindness in your words, hang onto a sense of humor and a life outside writing, and remember that success is ultimately beyond the control of any one person. Also, you'll need all the courage and humility you can muster, so work on those.”

That’s kind of long and awkward, hardly a memorable aphorism. But there has never been a simple formula for success in writing (and if that fact doesn’t keep us well grounded, I don’t know what will.) It is true, anyway, for all of us.


The Mop is Mightier than the Flyswatter and other stories

Advance notice: I will not be blogging next week. Lou and I have a road trip planned through Montana, Yellowstone, and Colorado, in which we plan to visit my best friend and Lou's college buddies. This is our summer vacation, and I'm taking it off the internet--no blog, no email, no Facebook, nothing. Don't get me wrong: I love the internet. But I also like vacations.

Apart from visiting friends, I plan to spend time with Lou, read, and work on my book. That's pretty much it. But I'll take the camera and try to have some pictures to post later on.

I'll be back late Monday Sept. 1st, and hope to have the next installment of the blogalectic with Mr. Pond posted that day (did you know he cooks and apparently enjoys haggis? and since I had to look haggis up on Wikipedia, did you further know that there's a sport called haggis hurling, which does not in any way involve vomit?) Please forgive me, though, if the post doesn't happen until Tuesday. I'll do my best.

* * *

The kitchen floor is damp from a mopping, all the chairs are in my living room, the refrigerator holds several pounds of hamburger for the book club party tonight, Lou's computer is accepting some of my CDs into his iTunes with great reluctance, and my to-do list is slowly getting checked off. Things got delayed temporarily for a frightful battle with a hornet in which the mop was involved. The mop and I won.

* * *

Writerly link of the week: How to Write a Query Letter. I have written numerous versions, preparing to query in the fall... provided I can finish this revision... and thus far, am dissatisfied with the lot. I might be overthinking it.

Also, since I'm still floundering in long unchanging frustration with the first three chapters of my book, here's a visual for revision that gave me a little encouragement to keep going. I keep looking at it partly because it's a cool Ninja picture.

* * *

Funny line of the week: Wow. I clicked through my Google Reader in such a stupor after returning from camping that I can't remember who said what. But a quick visit to my Twitter feed got me a laugh:

@alexcarpenter: I am on hold and the music is "Nanana, heyheyhey, Goodbye!" I don't think they ACTUALLY value my call, or want me to stay on the line.

The random wrockers I follow are an endless source of entertainment. :)

* * *

Lou is home from work, so I'm going to go spend some time with him, work on dinner, finish organizing the house for the book club party, get the Stuff Christians Like audiobook into Lou's iTunes so we can listen while driving, and write up a shopping list for the road trip. Also, I could really stand to clean out my purse.

May your week be pleasant and relaxing!


Huckleberry Week

The Great Annual St. Hilaire Family Huckleberry Picking Experience happened this week, and I am currently so tired that my most energetic act of the day has been jumping up at the discovery of a spider crawling up the couch next to me. Since I have a mountain of laundry to do, a book club party and a road trip to plan and shop for, and a few pounds of huckleberries to wash and freeze, I'm going to need more motivation than that.

I loved the huckleberry picking party, though. We had perfect weather, comparatively few bees/wasps/hornets, and not a single mosquito that I noticed. This was my first year going at the same time as the majority of the family, too, which made it especially fun. Here are some pictures.

The campground, as people began arriving:

Our little home away from home:

Looking up (my favorite thing to do when camping; I tried to take pictures of the stars, too, but apparently our camera doesn't do night shots):

Me plotting my novel for NaNoWriMo; or, as Uncle Claude called it, doing my homework:

 Picking huckleberries:

...and feeding them to my godson:

In the morning of the berry-picking day, I busied myself in a good patch of bushes, picking away and daydreaming about my novel characters. It didn't take me long to fill my little berry bucket, and then I went looking for Lou.

Unfortunately, I'm the sort of person who doesn't dare get out of sight of the trail, because I can get lost anywhere. And I couldn't find Lou. I went as far as I dared in every direction, asked everyone I saw if they'd seen him. Nobody had. I told myself he hadn't gotten lost--unlike me, he can actually be expected to go someplace and find his way back--but the woods are big, and just because I've never seen a bear or cougar up there doesn't mean there aren't any.

After what felt like an hour of searching, someone thought they saw him. It wasn't him, it was his brother, but I ran after Andy and asked if he'd seen Lou, and he pointed further up the ravines. So I had a mini-Gryffindor moment, decided I'd be all right if I followed the ravine, and bolted off into the woods.

Out of sight of everyone, I began to feel eerily alone, so I stopped and looked around. I couldn't see or hear anyone, so I shouted for Lou. Everything was silent for a moment. Then--"Yeah?" He stood up and waved, from across the ravine and further down. And I started running again, scrambled across the first rocky pass I could find, threw my arms around him, and burst into tears. And we were totally fine; no wild animals attacked, and though I was completely lost at that point, he knew exactly where we were.

I stuck with him after that. Which means, since he liked that spot way off by ourselves, that I didn't get any pictures of the group picking. Oh well. Here he is:

and picking down in the ravine again:

Once I found him, I decided it was a beautiful place to stop:

After finishing the day's picking, a group of us went down into a little cave, where the temperature dropped from about ninety to about sixty:

...besides being cool, it was mostly just dark:

Back at camp, we got a sunset so lovely that I had to take a photo:

...and at that point, I proved that I'm not much of a photographer by basically forgetting about the camera. Other adventures included packing five adults, two coolers, and all necessary camping gear into a station wagon for twelve hours, making s'mores out of enormous marshmallows, praying the rosary around the campfire, making a birthday video for Uncle Joey, and guessing at the proper technique for cooking hobo dinners on a campfire. (Maybe that should be my next Tuesday recipe. Hmm.)

At this moment I'm grateful to be home and showered, not to mention within reach of Internet access, but I'm so glad to have gone. Hey, all you cousins who didn't come: I missed you.


Currently Reading: River Secrets

"Who knows?" said Enna. "Who can read the mind of Captain Stoneface? But it's bound to be more of an adventure with you along and twice as much fun as potato mush fights."

"Sounds like sticky business--"

"Tira or the food fights?"

"And if my luck holds up, I won't be getting out of this without another scar. You either, Finn."

"If you think you've never seen me angry," said Isi, "just watch what happens if any of you goes and gets yourself hurt. If things turn ugly, just get out of there and come home."

Razo sniffed. "What exactly do you think might happen?"

"Death, war, possibly some maiming," said Enna.

Author: Shannon Hale

Synopsis: Razo can't figure out why he has been chosen as part of a diplomatic mission to Tira, erstwhile enemy country of his homeland, Bayern. Before the tour of duty is over, however, he will have to discover not only the secrets of those who still want war against Bayern, but himself.

Notes: I've never read the original Bayern book, The Goose Girl (based on the old fairy tale), but the second, Enna Burning, was interesting and enjoyable. River Secrets, the third book in the Bayern series, was a delight to read--quirky and hilarious, with a likeable hero who can't stay out of trouble even as he tries to help solve it.

Among my favorite aspects of the tale were Razo's personal development, the ways he relates with Enna, Dasha, and his captain, and the continuing mythology of the elemental languages. The languages are superpowers with strengths, limitations and consequences, and I find them fascinating.

Shannon Hale first roped me in with Princess Academy, one of those flipped-through-it-in-a-department-store-and-couldn't-stop-thinking-about-it finds, and I'm now trying to read everything she's written. There's usually some depth to her stories, combined with a humor and light that can be hard to find elsewhere.


Tasty Tuesday: Huckleberry Muffins

Tasty Tuesday
As this post hits the web I'm out picking huckleberries, so I can't link this over at City Wife, Country Life like usual. If I'm really lucky, the hostess of that blog will be out picking huckleberries too (that means she probably won't have a post, but it also would mean that I get to hang out with her.)

For those of you already here, that probably doesn't matter much. What does matter is the recipe, and I'm linking huckleberry muffins because I've been trying to find a good recipe for them and this one worked (except that I somehow missed the timer going off, and blackened the tops. Also, I'd put the pie recipe up, since huckleberry pie is one of the big reasons for this trip, but it comes from a cookbook and is therefore probably under copyright. I'll look into that another day.)

The recipe for Huckleberry Muffins resides at Cooks.com. Enjoy! I liked that it was butter-based instead of shortening-based, and these rose a lot better than those made from the cookbook recipe I'd been trying to perfect for months.

If you don't have huckleberries, blueberries usually work too.


Things Grownups Read

Mr. Pond needed a week off from the blogalectic, and I am probably setting up camp in the mountains as this post goes up, so in lieu of the usual Monday business: Here's an excellent little piece on adult and young adult literature by my friend and fellow Blogengamot member Deborah Chan (otherwise known as Arabella Figg).

She even quotes me. :) And if I haven't already done so by the time you read this, I will be reserving some of her recommended books at the library very shortly, oh yes.

...and on that thought, I did go ahead and order both sequels to The Hunger Games. If I may try my hand at predicting the future, my early September holds a couple of long days in which every spare moment gets devoted to reading as fast I can. This will likely be followed by at least one night of very little sleep, and hours of getting completely derailed from writing my own novel while I try to think through Collins'. Wish me luck. I haven't been this nervous since I decided to read Dracula. :)


It was Just a Freaking Love Potion and other stories

Lou: "Not much happens. There are really only three acts."
Me: "Well, it's opera, so: they meet, they fall in love, they die?"
Lou: "Pretty much."

Apologies for not posting yesterday! Lou and I left at 4 PM to see Tristan und Isolde in Seattle and we got back after 1 AM; I didn't get a post up before leaving, and when we came home I was tired enough to go to bed with makeup on and everything.

All those hours of Wagner sounded a little overwhelming going in, especially as listening to the music on its own beforehand didn't do much for me. With the story and the visuals, though, I found it breathtakingly beautiful. Even though I never did figure out which was the famed Tristan chord. And even though the romance was partly killed by the fact that most of the passion arose from a love potion that was supposed to be a death potion. Oh, the drama.

I liked Marke. Good guys don't get enough credit in this world. Besides, he had a superb voice.

* * *

Lou and I are leaving Monday morning to go huckleberry picking for three days. If I can get it together, I'll try to have posts scheduled for those three days... I'll try. But if I post on Monday and don't reply to your comment till Wednesday, it doesn't mean I don't like you. :)

As for huckleberry picking, I'm not quite the camping fiend I used to be in my rock-climbing raft-guiding days. Two years ago we fought more mosquitoes than I've ever seen in my entire life, all together in one place; last year it was hornets. I didn't know the world, let alone Western Washington, had that many hornets. This year--I understand and accept the usual outdoor difficulties, but PLEASE, GOD, LESS BUGS.

* * *

Back on the subject of opera: Can I someday sing like this? Please?

* * *

Another good show: The Perseid meteor shower. When we got home last night, I stopped outside to look at the stars, and one of the brightest meteors I've ever seen shot right through Cygnus and beyond. So beautiful! Despite the late night yesterday, I'm more than a little tempted to take a blanket out in the back yard tonight.

* * *

Writer's link of the week: Nathan Bransford's "Do You Suffer from One of These Writing Maladies?" Many, many props to Mr. Bransford for working the Old Spice Guy into his post. I keep reading this and laughing aloud.

* * *

Time-sucker of the week: Catalog Living.

* * *

Funny line of the week, from EW's Keith Staskiewicz: "Twilight is significantly affecting how Americans name their babies, with a marked increase in Cullens and Bellas. All I can say is thank goodness this didn’t happen with Dr. Seuss, or we’d all be named things like Phooswacker and Bortle."

* * *

Also: I love Microsoft Word 2010, at least compared to the 2007 and 2003 versions. But everybody did not hate Clippy. I liked the MS Word Assistant.

Speaking of Word, I think I'm going to try one more time to scrap/redo the first chapters of my book, and if that doesn't work, then it's time to accept it as is and move forward. First, however, I have to clean the house. Happy weekend, everybody!


Currently Reading: The Hunger Games

"I could be deadflat-out deadin an hour."

Author: Suzanne Collins

Synopsis: Like everyone in the twelve districts of Panem, Katniss Everdeen dreads the annual event where one boy and one girl from every district will be chosen to participate in The Hunger Games, a televised competition in which the players fight each other to the death. But when her sister Prim—the only person she really loves—is called forward, Katniss volunteers to go in her stead. Once in the arena, Katniss faces sadistic young killers, the rigging of the Gamemakers, a girl who reminds her of her sister, the boy whose gift of bread once gave her the will to save her family from starvation—and the fact that her greatest enemy may be the governing powers who enforce the Games in the first place.

Notes: Not every work of fiction is meant as entertainment. (Who'd read Steinbeck if it were otherwise?) Suzanne Collins got the idea for this book while flipping channels, coming across both reality television and war coverage. The result is not a happy entertaining little story; it had me crying before I'd made it through two chapters.

The writing is compelling. Katniss narrates in present tense, which I usually just think is a bad idea, but it read smoothly and made the situation feel very imminent. Also, though calculating and angry, she proves sympathetic; her character develops throughout the story and she is clearly unsettled and unfinished at the end of the book. Hence, two sequels, the final one due at the end of this month.

As for the concept: I don't do well with violence. I've put down a series for that before and I'm perfectly willing to do it again. But The Hunger Games has a couple of redeeming factors: first, that the violence doesn't seem gratuitous, at least not in relation to the plot. Horrific, yes, but this story tells of a government so corrupt that it takes people's children, turns them into gladiators, and makes their combat required viewing. Death is part of the deal, and the interest of the story is not in the violence itself but in the characters' struggle against their own dehumanization.

Second, the tale is a sharp critique on our voyeurism as a people: not only do we enjoy watching scandal and betrayal and vicious behavior on reality television and in celebrity magazines, but even the news networks market their stories to that lowest common denominator. It could be said that there's an irony in making a novel out of this concept at all; Collins, however, seems to have made a distinct effort to avoid that. The best moments in the book involve the opening of Katniss' eyes to her own need to work actively against evil, no moment more so than when she sings a dying fellow competitor to sleep and heaps the body with flowers. For more, I highly recommend Travis Prinzi's reviews Panem's Politics and Power and Imagination.

The ending really upset me, though. After eleven hours of persevering through the horror (that's the last time I read anything like this by audiobook; I could have shortened the excruciation by more than half if I'd gotten a hard copy), all I could feel was that my favorite character, whom I really loved, was in a fair way to wind up dead or unhappy or both. I ranted to Lou for half an hour, much to his surprise, after which I went to bed and thought about the book all night. Then I got up and read Travis' posts and thought some more, and finally decided that there might be hope and worth enough in the story to justify reading the rest of the series.

We'll see. If I do read the last two books, there'll be posts here and/or at The Hog's Head.


Two Years

Under normal circumstances I'd be posting a Tasty Tuesday recipe, but today is Lou's & my anniversary.

Usual posting recommences tomorrow. See you then.


Feeding the Lake

In response to Mr. Pond, Creativity

Nathan Bransford: "In other book news, Google has apparently determined that there are a measly 129,864,880 books in the world. Don't worry, we still need more!!"

Jean Rhys: "All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake."

One trouble that comes to any artist regularly is the question of whether it matters.

I upgraded to Microsoft Word 2010 the other day, and now it tells me how much time I've spent editing a document. My "sixth draft" (technically part of the third full revision, but there's a new document for every major set of changes I make) has over 270 hours in it. I'm on Chapter 2. That's not counting the time I put in last November, when I wrote the first 55,000-word draft. That's not counting the months involved in the first full revision, or the ten days I spent every spare moment revising a hundred pages after the alpha read. That's not counting whatever I've got in the fifth draft document, which goes all the way to Chapter 4. Now, if it counts the amount of time the document has been open—which I suspect—the number goes down somewhat, but still that is a lot of time.

Does it matter?

What if every agent turns it down and I can't get it published?

What if no one but my alpha, beta, and up-and-coming gamma readers ever see it?

Mr. Pond, in his last installment in our ongoing blogalectic, talks about the concept of a kinship circle:

"A new artist enters into the kinship circle of art. She does not imperiously bring her own portfolio to shout down the other voices in the circle. Nor does she slavishly mimic those already in the circle when she arrives.

She enters, instead, into a welcoming family who give and receive freely and lovingly with each other. Her responsibility is neither to dominate nor submit, but to give what she has, accept what is given to her, and make it her own. The kinship circle is a creative, open space where we speak in harmony and dissonance, silence and noise, each voice distinct but joined to every other."

Last year I sang in a women's chorus that performed Gregorian chant and polyphony. Our director knew all twelve of us by voice, and would regularly move us around to balance the sound. He would mix up the sopranos and altos, put the strongly pitch-correct next to the stronger voices, and make sure that those who still wavered on the melody were near those who had everything memorized. He told us almost every practice and in many an email, "Come to every practice. Don't miss a concert. Every voice is needed, and when just one is missing, it changes." He was right. Even when we were singing in unison, things felt off when someone had to miss.

The body of literature changes, too, with the addition and subtraction of pieces. Who is to say but that throughout the ages, our individual voices matter—less as individuals, perhaps, than as part of a unified whole?

Mr. Pond ended his post with an encouragement to foster "true creativity, both derivative (we’ve read fairy tales before) and original (but we’ve never read this one, or not quite like this). Take hold, as the Teacher says, of the one thing without letting go of the other. Look backward and forward. Take the tropes and make them your own. There had been Wise Ones and mentors before. There had never been Dumbledore."

Those words actually moved me to tears. There had never been Dumbledore. What would literature have been like if Albus had never existed, showing manners to Death Eaters, laughing at his own ingenuity and shedding tears for his weaknesses and failures, powerful and forgiving, broken and repentant and loving? Dumbledore is one of my favorite heroes. I can't imagine the world of stories without him.

Someone had to create him, and sure, Rowling is an exceptionally successful case. But she isn't the only one who matters, either. The hard-to-find book that I read to pieces in high school--that matters. You, with your blog or your story or your how-to book or your long-thought-through comment or greeting card or letter—whatever it was that reason/passion/faith/desperation/hope/understanding/love drove you to write—that matters. If it helped you, if it encouraged or assisted someone else—success can be great or small, admittedly, but it is still success.

Mr. Pond matters, with his blog and his fairy tales and novels. I matter, with my A.D. and her loved ones and this blog and The Hog's Head and random lyrics and the other things I write. You matter, with your words. We're a family of writers, and just because some of our relatives are so great as to leave the rest of us a little starstruck, doesn't make the rest of us valueless.

If only my Greek-letter readers ever bother with my book, then I've succeeded for every one of them that looked me in the face and said "I loved that character" or "Your story surprised me" or "I kept thinking about it for days."

There have been Tolkien and Lewis and Dostoyevsky and Austen and... et cetera. There has never been you. This family won't be the same without you.


Pacific Northwest Greatness and other stories

The last full month of summer has arrived, and NaNoWriMo is coming up again. For some time now, I've had alternating feelings on whether or not to sign up this year. And... I think I will. If I can finish revisions by the actual end of summer, September 21, then I can set myself up to write again in November.

Revisions are a real struggle for me right now, though. I am stuck in Chapter 2, which according to my instincts is the least interesting in the book—but it's also foundational to the rest of the story. I won't submit the book until that chapter is up to par with the rest. Unfortunately, I won't let myself move forward with the rest of revisions either, so I'm really quite stuck. Bah.

* * *

Wait... The Lonely Forest got signed by Chris Walla from Death Cab for Cutie? I did not know this, but I know them—or John, anyway, who'd actually wave at me if I ran into him in the grocery. (Wow, that sounded oddly fangirlish. Thought I was too sedate for that.) Anyway, they have a free download at the link, a fun song about preferring the Pacific Northwest to LA or Nashville. My favorite piece of theirs is the old She Smiles, which I can't find on YouTube, but here's a perfectly good video of the band:

* * *

Well put:

Thanks to Travis Prinzi for passing that along.

* * *

Stargazer's report: Bellingham has had haze this past week, night and day (and one thunderstorm.) I've been able to smile at Arcturus and Vega, both of which are decidedly brighter than the average, but that's about it.

* * *

Writerly link of the week: I don't have one off the top of my head, but there have certainly been enough posts and articles about e-books to inspire this. I laughed, oh yes. Hat tip to Nathan Bransford for the link.

* * *

Funny line of the week: I'm still laughing at Jon Acuff for referring to "Cornelius, the white dove who brings me official Christian blogging rules."

* * *

Time to go water my plants, finish cleaning my house, make pizza, write Monday's post and a couple of things for The Hog's Head, and find a way to rewrite Chapter 2. It's going to be a busy afternoon. Happy weekend, everybody!


At The Hog's Head: Harry, Horror and The Hunger Games

Today's post belongs to The Hog's Head. I just finished reading Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, and while I will probably write a full Currently Reading post about it shortly here, it suggested some thoughts for the pub.

Feel free to check it out!


Currently Reading: The Divine Comedy

As a geometer struggles all he can
to measure out the circle by the square,
but all his cogitation cannot gain

The principle he lacks: so did I stare
at this strange sight, to make the image fit
the aureole, and see it enter there

Author: Dante Alighieri
Translator: Anthony Esolen

Synopsis, like anyone needs it: Dante gets a tour of the afterlife, courtesy of the poet Virgil and Dante's immortalized beloved, Beatrice.

Actually... drum roll, please...

I'm not currently reading the Divine Comedy. After three years of journeying from the depths of hell to the stars and the Empyrean, I finished it last week—in church—with sunlight streaming through the big stained-glass window showing Mary rising to heaven, with flowers and the censer on the altar stairs, and with the Eucharist on the altar.

Of all the perfect images!

I'm glad to have read the whole poem, and in order. It wasn't always easy. The Inferno took a lot of work to get through; hell is, and always has been, a troubling concept for me. It was cold and frightening and... well, it set the mood Dante wanted it to set, I suppose. Creepy, dark and horrifying.

But I loved Purgatorio, the different rings and the disappearances of the markings on Dante's forehead, and the peace of the ascending souls. The final cantos, where Dante passes through the rivers and is greeted by Beatrice, are especially beautiful.

The Paradiso was beyond splendid. Except for a few cantos where I got bored of Cacciaguida's rambling and would have liked to move to the next level, everything held light and glory and wonder. I particularly loved Anthony Esolen's translation for the increased rhythm and rhyme throughout the entire poem (the final canto is completely in terza rima, I think). Also, his work included excellent notes to help make sense of the themes and confusing parts.

There's something about the last several lines of the last canto of Paradise that brings tears to my eyes, over and over again, even when I think of them in random moments. Perhaps it is the depth of imagery, the beautiful impossibility of explaining God; perhaps it comes from the fact that I had read them before and had kept them close to my heart while writing my novel. Probably both. Either way, the work of reading a sometimes difficult and obscure classic was well rewarded.


Recipes and Anne Rice

The hostess of Tasty Tuesday is on vacation, so... I don't have a recipe this week. But if you want recipes, my friend Auntie-C has been running a Savory Sundays theme. Hers look great. :)

So I went looking for something else to post about, and this week the blogosphere is all about opinions on Anne Rice's (second) renunciation of Christianity. Since I just reviewed her memoir, Called out of Darkness, part of me feels obligated to talk about it too—but I don't know what to say. Anne Rice came back to her Catholic faith committed to the principles of the sexual revolution, and she never let go of them, so it's honestly just not a surprise that she left again. Happens all the time; it was startling news, but not all that shocking.

My experience of Christianity (and of sexual revolutionaries) obviously differs greatly from hers. Apart from a prayer for Ms. Rice, because I don't think you get Christ without the Church (people who try to separate Christ from Church usually just make Jesus in their own image), I haven't much to offer.

As a matter of fact, I haven't much to say at all. We had pork baked in cinnamon applesauce and garlic salt for dinner, with ranch mashed potatoes on the side; Lou gave me a Leinenkugel's beer with lemon and put on Frank Sinatra, and now I feel very mellow. I think I'll spend the evening writing my book and/or listening to The Hunger Games and working on web design.


Original, Derivative, and Communal

In response to Mr. Pond, Once Upon a What

The rule "Write what you know" came under discussion last week, and Mr. Pond did just that: a short tale about a writer trying to write, which had me laughing out loud.

We agreed, of course, that the old adage refers to emotional and spiritual knowledge, not necessarily to literal fact. (For those of us who write fantasy, this is most definitely a good thing.) Then Mr. Pond took the concept a step further:
"If we write, as Jenna suggests, ‘in search of meaning,’ then ultimately I believe we search not just to know but to be known. What we know, then, is the move from being unknown to being known. The restless, longing reach from I to Thou, and the realization that the Thou has reached down already."
To know and be known, to love and to belong--these are some of the most basic human desires, common to anyone with anything like normal empathy. Mr. Pond again:
"...the place of passion in the human heart looks, I think, much the same. In story, in telling a tale, we enter into knowing not just our own hearts, but the hearts of others. Not just our own era, but the eras of others. In writing a tale, we speak and we listen, entering the conversation and the singing and the tales of ages, spoken again each moment."
Then he quotes Joivre, one of the regulars from conversations at The Hog's Head:
"Everything anyone has ever written is an accumulation of what one has read... Everything that has been composed contains the language of what has been composed before it.... Sure, we all try to have our own voice, unique and special, but there is a common bond between us all, a shared history–that is passed down from one writer to the next."
...and something about that combination of thoughts reminded me of another axiomatic pet peeve of mine, which reads like this:

Be original.

It's all very well to command the creative sort to Do Something Different, but I think the Teacher was right when he said "There is nothing new under the sun." Today's great act of rebellion is tomorrow's everybody's doing it, and after all that, it was probably done every day in ancient Rome. Just how different can we get, honestly?

There are blog-posts and sites dedicated to things considered overdone in fantasy novels. "Enough of the Chosen Ones," someone usually gripes. "Ditto the poor children becoming heroes, riding on horses, going on quests, destroying Dark Lords and fighting with swords." Oh, really? That just ruled out most of the things that make a good fantasy. An underdog character, chosen for some impossible task that must be accomplished to rid the world of an over-powerful ultimate evil? Frodo, meet Harry and the Pevensies. And while some may say it should have stopped with the Tolkien/Lewis/Rowling triad of genius, if I'm judging Katniss Everdeen correctly, she's here to prove that what worked before can work again.

(Ooh, but don't spoil me on The Hunger Games. I'm halfway through the first book right now--late, as usual, to the blockbuster party.)

A story that works by trope is forever in danger of being called derivative. Someone, somewhere once called Rowling derivative, if I remember rightly. I hope they were smart enough not to do it again, but perhaps the word is somewhat (and more kindly) applicable if we consider that Rowling drew from the same deck the rest of us are playing with.

Writing is a communal pursuit. The traditions and tropes, ideas and archetypes of literature are shared associations. They allow us to know ourselves, our peers, ancestors and descendants, and be known by those who hear or read our stories. They carry meaning. And the communal aspect of storytelling involves the reader as well as the writer: two people, each bringing their own perspective to a common experience. Traditions open communication, making things easier for both parties.

There is such a thing as being too original--getting so unique that you cannot be understood (at least, not without elite knowledge.) This is much of my problem with certain types of art, music and literature. Chaos, formlessness, filth and despair may have a sophisticated rationale for their creation and display, but ultimately they just look like chaos, formlessness, filth and despair. Does that really help anyone? Is it better to educate people into a depressive so-called realism, disconnected from each other and from meaning, or into hope?

There is room enough in the arts' traditions for creativity, for continuous innovation. "A new take on an old idea," some publishing professionals will suggest. Now there's a recommendation I can go for.