Week Off

Masha gave us the week off the blogalectic; she had a busy Wednesday and needed the break. For me, this is as good a week as any for that; better than most, actually, as my blogalectic-writing days have been spent planting the vegetable garden, making lasagna, and judging essays for a local school's writing competition.

This blog returns tomorrow with Top Ten Tuesday; the blogalectic, should all go well, returns Wednesday with Masha. In the meantime, here are a couple of things that may interest you:

1) Apparently the oft-prescribed drug prednisone can make you crazy, literally. Katherine Coble speaks from tragedy for the sake of making others aware.

2) Bloggers The Ironic Catholic and Jennifer Doloski are hosting an immense giveaway fundraiser for the sake of a family's expedited adoption of a child with HIV and Hepatitis C. Apparently the child's hope of life is fairly good in America, in a loving home, but her combined condition will likely be deadly (perhaps quickly) in an orphanage in her home country. The adoption is through Reece's Rainbow, which looks like a stupendously awesome charity matching special-needs (mostly Down's) orphans to families and raising funds to help cover the innately high costs of international adoption.

3) John C. Wright talks about the relationship of Christianity to science and science fiction in Science, Romance, and the Scientific Romance of Christendom. It's got the standard Wright-blog length and handful of editing mistakes, but makes some very good points about the nonsense we tend to believe about the Middle Ages. Admittedly, it also has a strongly-stated helping of my own disdain for modern art; be ye fairly warned. :)

Back tomorrow...


Failing Silence and other stories

If you missed it Monday, I'm on partial vocal rest. And as it turns out, not talking is not easy. Everyone tells me I'm a quiet person, but even I like a good conversation with friends or family. Also, I tend to ramble when I get nervous or tired. Which is most of the time. Not talking to Lou feels like mourning, so I hardly hold back with him, and I'm also the sort of person who talks to herself. A lot. And to the cat, and the plants, and miscreant drivers, and inanimate objects, and anything else I can pretend has chosen to listen.

Incongruously, this week I talked myself hoarse discussing vocal problems with a friend who has also experienced them. I learned a lot from her, though.

* * *

All my basil and chive starts have died. This makes me terribly sad.

On the other hand, our back yard looks like this right now (click if you want the big version):

Blooming from left to right:
neighbors' pink cherry, our pie cherry, tulips, apple tree,
something yellow belonging to neighbors, dogwood tree
Also, my row of baby lettuce is just as a row of baby lettuce should be:

There are adorable little kale plants coming up behind,
but they're hard to see in the picture.
We'll say much less about the spinach, which has had a lousy germination rate. But the currants are all, like, "We loooooooooooove it here":

So are the dandelions, of course, but...
And the peonies and the bluebell hyacinth things and the old rose are equally thrilled:

Shot my shadow right into this one. Oops.
And making me very happy: The strawberries are finally blooming.

Shadowed this one, too. I suck at photography.
But I am determined to grow basil and chives, if I have to hang them from the ceiling near a south window in my house. I. Am. Determined.

* * *

Maia: "You're not sitting properly. Could you level out a bit?"

Me: "Maia, if you're going to be on my lap, you have to LIE DOWN. You're blocking the computer screen."

Maia: "I just don't see how I'm going to get comfortable."

Me: "Ow! We'll talk about comfortable when you're not standing on sensitive internal organs."


Me: "You sleep on the stereo with your head hanging off, and you're not happy with my lap?"

Maia, turning in circles: "If it were a sunny day, I'd go sleep on the stereo, but it's cold and you're warm. Move your elbow so I can curl up in it."

Me: "Dadgum it, cat, SIT DOWN NOW and stop messing with my arms. I'm trying to type."

Maia: "Ooh, I've got it. I'll sleep across both your arms. Cool beans. This is perfect."

Me, wondering whether a cat sleeping across both elbows will make me more likely to develop full-blown carpal tunnel syndrome: "I guess I can work with this..."

* * *

Writers' link of the week: Interesting post from Sarah LaPolla on the fact that writing what you know will be entirely uninteresting to most people unless you have a good storyline behind it.

* * *

Music of the week: In all the world of music, this is just about my favorite kind of voice to listen to.

* * *

Random amusement of the week: Places cats are apparently as comfortable sleeping as the average lap. And more, a few of which are repeats. And then, to put a little perspective on the cat-picture phenomenon, this. (H/T my father-in-law, who emailed me a bunch of these awhile back.)

* * *

The house is clean, the tomato plants are out in the semi-sunshine, a load of manure has been dug into the vegetable garden, and I've practiced the piano (albeit very badly.) And I have a blog post together. Somehow I've gotten all this done without yet having coffee.


I'm going to correct that little oversight right now. Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Tuesdays at the Castle

Tuesdays at the CastleWhenever Castle Glower became bored, it would grow a new room or two. It usually happened on Tuesdays, when King Glower was hearing petitions, so it was the duty of the guards at the front gates to tell petitioners the only two rules the Castle seemed to follow.

Rule One: The throne room was always to the east. No matter where you were in the Castle, if you kept heading east you would find the throne room eventually. The only trick to this was figuring out which way east was, especially if you found yourself in a windowless corridor. Or the dungeon.

This was the reason that most guests stuck with Rule Two: If you turned left three times and climbed through the next window, you’d end up in the kitchens, and one of the staff could lead you to the throne room or wherever you needed to go.

Author: Jessica Day George

Synopsis: When Princess Celie’s parents disappear on a journey, Celie and her brother Rolf and her sister Lilah turn to their magical Castle—which likes to change up its own layout—for aid from the wiles of evil Prince Khelsh, who visits from a neighboring country. Khelsh is determined to rule Castle Glower and the whole land of Sleyne, and he threatens Crown Prince Rolf’s life. Celie's only hope of thwarting Khelsh and saving her family is in her friendship with the Castle, which loves her as much as she loves it.

Notes: Middle-grade fiction doesn’t get much sweeter or more innocent than this tale of a sentient building and the child it dearly loves. Little Celie is eleven, bright—she’s making an atlas of the ever-changing Castle—and brave, which she proves again and again throughout the story.

As the heroine of a fantasy tale for very young readers just beginning on full-length books, Celie is surrounded by entertaining, larger-than-life characters: heroic and lovable young Rolf, awkwardly hilarious Lulath of Grath, flirtatious Pogue Parry, and sharp but motherly Lilah. They stand together against the unmitigatedly awful Prince Khelsh, regarding whom it must be said that it takes some imagination to understand why the Castle doesn’t just pitch him out a window onto his traitorous bum.

The Castle, of course, is a character in its own right, with a tendency to change things up on dull days, as well as to play favorites very obviously. Fortunately, it allies its every plinth and parapet with the good-hearted, and its favorite person in the world is the youngest princess. Without a word of dialogue, it certainly ranks as one of the most interesting characters in the book.

The relationship between Celie and her Castle is especially delightful. While it doesn’t spoil her, it watches over her like a large, mischievous, benevolent dog might. In return, she loves it and knows it by heart.

The tale stays engaging, though it occasionally stretches believability a little far; not things the young target audience will likely notice, however. Ms. Day George throws a bit of symbolism in, stuff that’s comparatively obvious if you know what you’re looking for, but probably a very good introduction for children who will someday remember the griffin and Celie’s self-sacrifice and recognize the meaning.

The ending respects the youth of its readers. I kept expecting a couple of young men to turn into suitors for one or the other of the girls, but those threads were left open to the future and the imagination, as well as to not being noticed at all. When the book closes, it’s with a tender, safe little flourish that is not only exactly right for the story, but beautiful.

Recommendation: Read it for a happy-go-lucky jaunt through childhood images of magic and wonder.


Top Ten Tuesday: Further Favorite Fictional Characters

Today's Top Ten topic is a replay of one of the first The Broke and The Bookish ever ran. Unfortunately, I used it just a couple of months ago on a freebie week.

The good news, however, is that I have ever so many more than ten favorite characters.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

Here, then, are ten more whom I dearly love. Wait—maybe more than ten, as I'm only allowing myself to pick one per story. If I don't limit myself that way, certain populous sagas have unfair advantages.

1. Wanderer and Ian from Meyer's The Host. Both of them are exceptionally pure of heart, able to grow beyond their own failings (Ian's concessions to physical violence, Wanderer's consent to her people's murder of human souls).

2. Egwene al'Vere and Nynaeve al'Meara from Jordan's The Wheel of Time series. It's difficult to say which of these Two Rivers women I admire more; they're opposites in temperature (Egwene cool, Nynaeve warm) but near equals in strength and love.

3. Amy March from Alcott's Little Women. And Beth. And Jo. And Marmee. And Meg. I don't know why I love Amy so much, as I myself am sort of a Meg with splashes of Jo and a great wish to be more like Beth. It might just be that Amy's story is more interesting on certain levels. I love the way she grows from cold and bratty child to graceful and loving woman.

4. Jean Valjean from Hugo's Les Miserables. Once shown grace, again and again he chose to do what was right rather than what was easy.

5. Elizabeth and Jane Bennet from Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Two respectably, lovably human characters in a brilliantly-told story. I have a strong sympathy for both of them.

6. Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The movies influence me here; Sam is wonderful in the book, but Sean Astin's portrayal of him might be the best and most beautiful thing about the adaptations. In the book, Frodo appealed to me more strongly. I can never resist a pure-hearted sufferer.

7. Cor and Aravis from Lewis' The Horse and His Boy. I love both of them equally: the ragged, bickering little peasant boy with the heart of a prince, and the domineering little Tarkheena with the soul of a lady.

8. Dobby from Rowling's Harry Potter books, especially the last. He's mostly comical and pathetic in Chamber of Secrets, but I adored him in Goblet of Fire, and cried over him in Deathly Hallows.

9. Sofya Semyonovna in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The harlot with the heart of gold is an old trope, but Sonya is the very image of faith, hope and charity trapped in sin. She's one of the most redemptive figures I've ever come across in fiction.

10. Beatrice from Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing. And Benedick. Born "to speak all mirth and no matter" under "a star [that] danced", she's hilarious and lovable and the perfect foil for loudmouthed, also-hilarious bachelor Benedick.

I could, of course, keep going. Perhaps the question will come around again someday.

You're welcome to cheer for your favorite fictional characters in the comments!


The Impositions of Art

A print of this hung over my piano in childhood,
and now it's on the wall above our synth.
"Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still."
~Henry David Thoreau

Shamed as I am to admit it, I'm cutting corners on today's blogalectic post, partly to hand the question-asking reins back to Masha, and partly because I've got too much else on my mind.

Art is a demanding master. This week, it has given me an undisclosed but very small number of days to arrange Schubert's Ave Maria for two voices, a capella, but also to be prepared to sing it with accompaniment or to do the Bach/Gounod version instead (or to simply say sorry, I can't depend on my voice for that F sharp right now).

In related news, Art would like to know what exactly I hope to accomplish by playing the piano and how much time I can justify devoting to that when I have so many writing goals. Meanwhile, it claims—hypocritically—that piano practice must occur every single day for at least one hour, and it would prefer three.

Along the writing line, Art has ordered me to finish reworking my first novel, preferably by last Friday. "After all," it says, "you have two novels in edits, and two more you know you'll feel guilty over if you haven't mostly drafted them by the end of this year."

Art has also required a not-wholly-unexpected but still difficult sacrifice: a month of vocal rest, officially starting after that Ave Maria is out of the way, though all unnecessary speaking and singing stops now.

And we won't even get started on what Art wants of me regarding yard and garden work.

None of this has much to do with the blogalectic. Regarding that, Masha gave very straightforward answers to my questions from last week, and Mr. Pond went to the opposite extreme by invoking Thoreau. I don't particularly disagree with either, though I'm not convinced the questions are entirely answerable on the deepest levels. Who can say with full confidence that they always chose wisely in prioritizing art's demands over society's, or vice versa?

There's nothing like Art for making me feel that life is too short—the days too abbreviated to both accomplish goals and satisfy the surrounding human needs, even your own. Why, for instance, must a quarter to a third of the day belong to sleep? There are so many other things I could do with those hours.

Here it's noon, and I'm still blogging. I'm off. I'll look forward to Masha's post this week, and return to the blogalectic next Monday.


Creative Discombobulation and other stories

It's been a quiet week, and I have spent it in a state of discombobulation. The sort of thing where you pick up task A, and something about it reminds you of task B, so you start on that, but then task C waves at you from the corner of the room, and next thing you know you're on F but A still isn't done.

It's a creative state—I have to give it that. All of a sudden there are marsh creatures in my first novel. I never thought of putting them in there before.

* * *

The garden has had a more difficult week than I have. Only three of my spinach plants ever came up. The cherry tree went from perfectly healthy to one of the branches dying part way back, and I can't tell why:

Two of the basil starts keeled over yesterday (now all of them are sitting on the back deck, getting the sunlight they're starved for), and I discovered aphids on one of my rooting currant bushes. I loathe aphids, and am currently trying to drown them.

This makes me think of Uncle Andrew from The Magician's Nephew.
I really hope it works.
On the bright side, we have tulips.

And apple blossoms!

Also, I have rescued the poor choked peony from the lawn, although the lawn is not about to give up that easily.

If plucking all the grass by hand can be called "easy".
The rest of the peonies are a foot high, not four inches, but I have hope that this long-suffering one will survive. And that I will find a way to kill the grass without killing the peony. Optimism forever!

* * *

Maia, regally pleased to have her people home in the evenings again, has had a cuddly week. When Lou works at his computer, she curls up on his lap or on the table at his elbow. When I'm playing the keyboard, she'll hop into my lap, settle comfortably, and sink in her claws to keep herself from sliding off. It's really quite adorable, although sudden needle-claws in the leg are not at all helpful to piano technique.

* * *

Writers' link of the week: Here's an old series of Brian Jacques videos, which are a lot of fun. He's talking to children, but the enthusiasm is inspiring.

* * *

Music of the week: When I was growing up in Montana, every young girl who had ever taken a piano lesson knew two pieces: Beethoven's 'Für Elise' and 'Jessica's Theme (Breaking in the Colt)' from The Man from Snowy River. I haven't played the latter often since the late 90's, and lost the sheet music long before that, but this week I made an attempt on the piece and, to my amazement, I remembered it.

Although, listening to this young girl play it, I suspect I never counted it off properly, and that the several dozen times I saw that movie did not serve to correct my freeform timing.

* * *

Random amusement of the week: Tall Girl Problems. I read every last one, and cried laughing at some of them. At 5'11", I've experienced a significant number of them. Here are a couple of teasers:

I swear all tables are made by short people. Desks, too.

Not even kidding.

PSA: I grew so fast that I have lousy coordination.
I could accidentally kill you playing either.
* * *

It's a sunny afternoon after several days of heavy rain, the house is clean, and I've had my coffee. Now I'm off for lunch and piano practice and—since I'm fully awake for the first time this week—some writing time, in which I make sure I didn't introduce any major issues into my novel with the marsh creatures.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Righteous

The Righteous“Fernie,” he said, knowing he should keep quiet, but unable to resist. “Are you happy here?”

“Every life has its joys and sorrows.”

“Stop talking like that for a moment, please.”

“Why, because I sound too much like you? Always dancing around issues? You’re a man with an opinion about everything who doesn’t know what he believes about anything.”

Author: Michael Wallace

Synopsis: When a wife of one of the elders of a fundamentalist Mormon polygamy cult is murdered, the prophet calls down another elder’s favored adult son to investigate the matter. Young Jacob Christianson obeys, bringing along his analytical nature, his skepticism, and his teenage sister Eliza. Their father wants to see the murder solved quickly, but he also wants both of them married by the end of the week.

Between trying to identify the killers, staying with two of the prime suspects, and attempting to avoid marriage to the scum at the bottom of the polygamist barrel, Jacob and Eliza must travel both to the stronghold of sin—Vegas—and to the Holy of Holies at the center of their church’s temple, all the while working to understand what they believe.

Notes: Everyone loves a good polygamist story. Insider tales of cult life, particularly where taboo sexual practices are involved, have an undeniable gift for raising human curiosity. But what separates Wallace’s thriller novel (the first in a series) from your average 60 Minutes story is that from the outset, Wallace generously gives his characters the presumption of personal honesty.

This was incredibly refreshing. No matter what the reader thinks of religious people, or of Mormons, or of tiny heretical offshoots of the Mormon church (and it should here be noted that the book differentiates clearly between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which has not practiced polygamy in over a century, and the schismatic sect in the story), the characters get fair portrayal. They reason through their beliefs, ask fair questions and seek answers, and in some cases believe firmly and even beautifully. I’ve read a lot of fictional treatments of real religions, and rarely met one more well or kindly done.

The faith and its practices were obviously well researched, though I couldn’t say how much artistic license was taken. The author’s biography includes the phrase “raised in a small religious community in Utah,” but that could mean a lot of things. All I know is that while I’m hardly an expert, he never contradicted my limited knowledge of Mormonism or its offshoots.

The second interesting matter regarding this book is that it’s published by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint, possibly—though I’m not certain—after a run of self-publishing. Of the self-published work I’ve read or tried to read, this was by far the best. A good editor would have caught a very few grammatical issues and streamlined one or two parts of the story, but on the whole, the book was both readable and enjoyable. As far as maintaining character and worldbuilding from first line to finis, it beat a lot of traditionally published novels I’ve read.

Jacob and Eliza were both interesting, unfailingly sympathetic despite their commitment to ideals that the average American finds difficult to understand. Other personalities won some sympathy as well, and even most of the generally antagonistic characters, such as their father and brother, had likable sides.

For myself, I usually avoid thrillers because I don't like getting the creeps. The book does contain at least two psychopaths, along with some mildly graphic violence, but for its genre it wasn’t overly frightening. Readers may also wish to note that there is a near rape and some fairly openly described sexual consciousness.

It’s a quick read, and intriguing enough that this reader, at least, is not without interest in its sequels.

Recommendation: Read it for an easy, relaxing mystery and a generous glimpse into a lifestyle most of us modern Westerners can’t quite imagine.


Top Ten Tuesday: Tips for Happy Book(ish) Blogging

The other day I remembered another totally deceiving book that I definitely should've thought to include in last week's post. Possibly I should not admit this (I was young!), but when I heard about "a great American novel" titled Catcher in the Rye, I thought the story would revolve around baseball. Discovering that it was actually about a runaway teenager who did nothing but wander and curse humanity was a real disappointment. :P

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

Technically, this week's topic is "Top Ten Tips for New Book Bloggers." Also technically, I'm not a book blogger; reviews aren't a high enough percentage of my content. I write a personal blog focused on books and writing. Therefore, these tips are for keeping a personal blog going without personally going crazy.

1. Figure out what tips work for you, and ignore the rest. These will be different for everyone, so take all the rest of my suggestions with that disclaimer in mind.

2. Decide how much a large following matters to you. That pursuit is not for every blogger. If you want it, there are lots of resources on the internet. For example, if I wanted to go there with this blog, I know I'd drop some of the personal content, aim for reviews twice a week, host a lot of giveaways, switch to WordPress for the SEO controls, and go back to Twitter. I'd also get more involved in blog carnivals. I'd also never get any writing done, so I stick to the quieter blogging that I enjoy.

3. Figure out a posting schedule that works for you, and keep to it. It's better to have fewer posting commitments, even if you sometimes go over, than to have more than you can keep up with.

4. Use regular features such as memes, weekly or monthly themed posts, etc. These will save your sanity by taking much of the pressure off coming up with content.

5. Make the blog user-friendly and attractive. Don't make your design too flashy, and don't overwhelm it with widgets and gadgets that make it slow to load; err on the side of simplicity. Do choose appealing colors and a look you find pleasing.

6. Proofread. Spell-check. Do what you must to avoid the general appearance of grammatical slovenliness. Occasional mistakes are not a serious problem, but error-littered posts are just plain hard to read.

7. Interact with other bloggers. Comment. Reply to their posts with posts on your own blog. Making friends is the fun part.

8. Do not feed the trolls. Either have a comment policy that allows you to moderate, or give generic and defusing responses to heated comments, or don't respond to them at all. Unless you really like the battles, of course.

9. Be yourself, but be the happy version of yourself.
9a. Unless your blog is focused on a difficult part of your life, avoid dwelling on those. If you mention something rough you're going through, approach it philosophically. Write your "getting real" post(s) if you need to, and then move on—this will help you move on in life, too.
9b. Unless your blog is focused on politics, I strongly recommend leaving them off. And never, never assume everyone agrees with you on anything. I've unfollowed some of the most interesting and amusing bloggers I've ever come across because they're (sometimes even unwittingly) derisive and belittling toward the generality of their opposition.
9c. Sarcasm, foul language and adult humor will attract some readers and repel others. Consider carefully whether you want that persona. Realize, too, that even people who will read Cracked.com on occasion may still avoid a random blogger who mocks and swears and talks dirty.

10. Persevere. It took me a long time and a fair amount of struggling to find a good rhythm for this blog, but now it goes along pretty smoothly. Difficult days happen, but overall I honestly have a blast with it—and with all of you.

Best of luck, fellow bloggers!


Solitaire: The Artist and Quality Time with Himself


"The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.”
~Ernest Hemingway

"Most artists, it seems are somewhat introverted - and solitude is necessary in order to create, but our lives are not lived out in a vacuum, and the experiences of living are also essential to art. How do we strike a balance? How do we defend our solitude without becoming too much the recluse?" 

Three years ago—to the week—this writer began a career as a stay-at-home wife with no children, which means that I spend the majority of my days by myself at home. Perhaps by expectation I should be starved for social life, as well as bored, but I'm also known for standing by myself in the corner at choir practice and not talking during book club and resenting any buildup of evening engagements. And no, I am basically never bored.

Writers, not to mention artists in general, have a strong reputation for such eccentricities. I'm hardly the first to posit that without behavior described by bemused and occasionally resentful extroverts as "anti-social", much of the art and literature and music of the world would not exist.

(Speaking of writers, Mr. Pond did not post this week, which means it's just Masha and me again. But I like talking to Masha, so that works, even though we miss our fellow blogalectician.)

I'd like to respond to Masha's questions primarily with a question—or rather, two: What is this balance we are supposed to achieve? And when does someone become "too much the recluse?"

Is balance something defined by personal situation, or by outside law, or both? What does it look like? How will we know when we've managed it? Was the seclusion of Emily Dickinson more wrong than that of the Desert Fathers? Society, by default, is run on the extroverted principle, and its little social rules are not made with either the introvert or the artist in mind. Should we take its dictums on what is and is not acceptable keep-to-oneself-ishness as moral law?

As the answers to these questions condemn or justify my daily existence, I've done some writing on the subject already, notably in response to some online commentary and in a previous blogalectic. Others have canvassed the subject as well, and if I weren't writing last-minute today, I might pull up a few quotes. For now, I'll make do with the brief and fascinating statement Masha pulled from the poet Rilke this week:
"I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other."
The Church protected the solitude of the Desert Fathers. Emily Dickinson's family protected hers. My husband and I attempt to protect each other's, and there are not many aspects of our life together that I consider more important for either of us.

Whatever the balance we artistic and introverted types work toward in our own lives, whatever our level of reclusion, this much is true: we have to band together and defend each other's hours of time alone. And defend our own, as well. Even if we never create great art.


Neglected Arts and other stories

Writers, this first section is for you.

Bellingham's newspaper ran a story this week on a local teenager who just published a novel. I read the article, all psyched up to be graciously envious, until the publisher's name was mentioned.

A little searching verified my suspicions. They're what Writer Beware calls a back-end vanity press, requiring authors to buy bulk copies of their own books. The unlikely name of the company is enough to send up a red flag, but a cursory read of the site is more than enough to warn off anyone who knows anything about the business of writing or publishing.

Sixteen-year-olds generally don't. I wouldn't have at that age. (Though I could spell, and would have wondered why the people writing the website couldn't.)

Likewise, I’ve known of a probably more serious instance this year involving one of the scam artists on Writer Beware's Two Thumbs Down list. In that case, I was at least able to warn the author, though unfortunately not successfully, I don’t think. The pursuit of publication is difficult and discouraging, and scammers live on that discouragement.

There are (at least) two industry recommended sites for checking a publisher’s reputation. The primary one is SFWA’s Writer Beware. The second is the admittedly poorly-designed but very thorough Preditors & Editors. Use them. Shy away from any agent or publisher who can’t face their questions or comes up as Not Recommended. Be leery of anyone who solicits your manuscript without you first submitting it to them; the real folks don't have the time. Never, never contract with an agent or publisher who will charge you anything but a percentage of sales for the publication of your book.

Tell your friends.

* * *

Along with re-reading my old novel to make sure the new first chapters jive with the rest of the story, I've returned to a neglected art practice this week: the piano.

Writerly focus has kept me away from the instrument for a while—like, a couple of years. But whenever I drift away from practice, someone comes along and plays something that convinces me to go back.

This time, it was mostly a violinist. All through Holy Week I listened to her, wished I hadn't quit the instrument at fifteen, and wondered how much it would cost to fix my violin as the bridge popped off when I attempted to play it a few years ago. If I lose my voice entirely, the violin is the one instrument I could play that might make a fair substitute.

But I've also, for months, been admiring and envying our pianist's ability to sightread. I always wanted that skill, and when the college freshman they hired to play organ during Holy Week—who looked so much like one of my novel characters that it was all I could do not to stare outright—sat down at the piano and read off a bunch of our music, it upped the envy factor significantly.

The final straw, however, was Lou. The radio played a Mozart sonatina that he used to play, and when the piece ended, he shut off the radio and went to our electronic keyboard. And I listened.

"Leave the keyboard on," I said when he finished. And the rest is history. Well, except for how badly I suck at playing Für Elise now. That's the present. But then, you know, there's nothing like practice.

* * *

All right. I'm going to take an absurdly long blog-post and make it longer, with pictures.

First, I dreamed the other night that Maia dodged past me and got into the laundry room, where my seedlings are. I'm afraid this means I've become obsessed with keeping her out of there. But look at these little guys! Wouldn't you want to protect them, too?

Also, our real estate agent gave us daffodil bulbs last fall, and the results are shockingly gorgeous:

And finally, here's the Great Destroyer of Plants herself, enjoying housecleaning day. Maia loves housecleaning day, though laundry day is her favorite. (Sorry, no pictures of that. There's no good way to photograph a cat burrowing into an unfolded pile of clean underwear. There's just "Get out of there, you dolt!" amid laughter.)

Cats don't get red-eye, generally; they get creepy Hollywood demon white-eye.
* * *

Writers' other link of the week, also good for random amusement: Colin Nissan, over at McSweeney's, offers the Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do. Advisory: not very clean. But funny.

* * *

Music of the week: Here's something else I suck at playing—Kuhlau's Sonatina Op. 20, No. 1. This kid puts me to great shame. For now.

* * *

Right, this post is way beyond long enough. Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Ella Enchanted

Ella Enchanted“I know all about you,” Char announced after we’d taken a few more steps.

“You do? How could you?”

“Your cook and our cook meet at the market. She talks about you.” He looked sideways at me. “Do you know much about me?”

“No.” Mandy had never said anything. “What do you know?”

“I know you can imitate people just as Lady Eleanor could. Once you imitated your manservant to his face, and he wasn’t sure whether he was the servant or you were. You make up your own fairy tales and you drop things and trip over things. I know you once broke a whole set of dishes.”

“I slipped on ice!”

“Ice chips you spilled before you slipped on them.” He laughed. It wasn’t a ridiculing laugh; it was a happy laugh at a good joke.

Author: Gail Carson Levine

Synopsis: Ella of Frell was given a fairy gift at birth, which turned out to be a curse: she will always obey any command given her. Unfortunately for Ella, this means that if her stepsister Hattie tells her to give up a friend, she has to do it. If an ogre tells her to hop into a pot and cook herself, she must obey. Since Hattie is inclined to make Ella’s life miserable, and ogres are inclined to eat humans, Ella lives always at the edge of great danger—especially when Hattie discovers the nature of the curse.

Meanwhile, good-hearted Prince Charmont finds playful Ella more than appealing. As Ella learns to love him, she must face the biggest danger her curse has brought her yet: the possibility of being exploited to destroy both prince and kingdom.

Notes: For those who—like me—saw the movie before reading the book (yeah, I know), be prepared to find an astonishingly different story. Like most adaptations, however, the movie lacks the depth and interest of the book, though I enjoyed both.

Quirky, lovable worldbuilding sets the stage. In the kingdom of Kyrria, ogres and giants and gnomes and centaurs are commonplace, and they speak in hilarious gibberish likely to baffle elementary school teachers who attempt to read the book aloud. The fun of the world, along with Ella’s and Char’s senses of humor, prevents the book from becoming too heavy. Ella’s predicament rivals the justice of Delores Umbridge for the award of Most Frustrating Fictional Situation, so the laughs are much needed.

Levine follows the popular modern Cinderella story in some ways and changes it entirely in others, but the important characters are all there: silly and grasping stepmother Olga, vicious stepsister Hattie and stupid stepsister Olive, two bossy fairies sharing the role generally played by the godmother, and of course cinder girl and prince.

The primary twist—the obedience curse—makes the cinder-girl’s story a tale of growing into individual freedom and sacrificial strength. Ella has the pluck to accept her plight as something she must live with for the time, while always searching for her escape. Her playful spirit and her knack for the goofy linguistics carry the story, making her positively irresistible as a heroine. It’s not at all hard to understand why Char is so taken with her.

And while Ella is the star of the show, Char isn’t just a stock romantic hero, to be desired merely because he’s royalty. Despite his awkward name, Char proves himself more than a little lovable. Ella must work against a curse to do the right thing; Char works to do the right thing out of the desperation of his own nature. Ella falls into romance; Char falls over himself to romance his girl. He comes alive in the pure-hearted, self-deprecating playfulness he shares with Ella, and there were moments when the pair of them reminded me pleasantly of Elizabeth Bennet bantering with Mr. Darcy. Now, is there a higher compliment for middle-reader fiction? I ask you.

The concept of the magic book that aids the protagonist by spying shamelessly on her friends is an intriguing one, and probably an entire series could be written with that as the central plot point. In this book, it simply serves as a way of conveying information to the reader. Shameless as the spying was, of course, I can’t say I’m entirely sorry for having had a look into Char’s and Areida’s journals.

The ending contains one sentence—six words, really—that stung a little. It suggested, at least to this sometimes-cynical reader, that the author felt it necessary to force her Cinderella story(!) into the narrative that it’s a Very Bad Thing for little girls to want to be princesses. I could think of no other reason for the inclusion of those six words. While I understand not overindulging certain tendencies, there's also such a thing as overreaction. They'll take princess dreams away from our daughters when they stop our sons from making guns with their fingers.

Otherwise, the ending makes sense within the story and is quite thoroughly delightful. It even suggests that a re-read might be nice, and that owning one's own copy might be ideal.

Recommendation: Read it for some good laughs and a happy Cinderella story.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books That were Totally Deceiving

This is a great topic. Every reader has had the experience of coming to a book with certain expectations and finding something very different indeed.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

Culprits for raising unhelpful expectations may include misleading covers, back-jacket summaries that were clearly written by marketers who hadn't read the books, reviews or recommendations by people with tastes unlike your own, and popular misunderstanding. Among other things.

I'm not sure I can make ten off the top of my head, but here's a try.

1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling.
What I expected: Heavy influence from various forms of modern paganism.
What I found: Jesus. And a whole new set of insights into literature and symbolism.

2. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer.
What I expected: Romance so smarmy that even I, with my high tolerance for cheesiness, could only laugh.
What I found: One of the more compelling images to come out of YA fiction, ever, with a lot to say about conscience and faith.

3. A Creed for the Third Millenium by Colleen McCullough.
What I expected: Tell me this is not a light romance novel cover. (With a sci-fi title, admittedly.)

What I found: A bizarre, futuristic and tragic replay of the Gospel narrative.

4. Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy.
What I expected: Gloom, despair, and agony on me. Deep dark depression, excessive misery.*
What I found: Lewis' Mere Christianity in novel form.

5. Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.
What I expected: A cheesy story about a kid with a dog named after a supermarket.
What I found: An intensely beautiful and empathetic portrayal of friendship in deep Southern poverty.

6. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.
What I expected: A tale about approaching death.
What I found: Scenes from the life of an archbishop. (Good, though.)

7. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin.
What I expected: Harry Potter, but underwater and with more mermaids. (I have no idea how I got this.)
What I found: How Harry Potter might have read if it had been imagined and written by an Old Testament scribe with Taoist leanings.

What about you? What books have proven, on the inside, to be unlike what you expected?

* Yes, I'm quoting Hee Haw. My Southern mama used to sing those two lines whenever my sisters and I started complaining too much.


Nor I Beheld Aught: The Artist and Suffering... and Joy

"Fear not suffering - the sadness
Give it back to the weight of the Earth
the mountains are heavy, heavy the oceans.
Ah, but the breezes, ah, but the spaces - "
~Rainer Maria Rilke

I would like to explore the necessity of suffering to the artist. Some suffering is inescapable in life, but what do you say - is it on equal footing with joy, or does it create better and richer than the happy times? Are the romantics right to write in despair?

The romantics shall do as they choose, but I've never been particularly drawn to the brooding-artist image above any other. In my favorite idea of myself—and I'm narcissist enough to have many—I'm actually a little happy-go-lucky; humming and talking to myself, laughing randomly at things that pop into my mind, head often tilted back toward the sky, hands always ready to reach out to the nearest flowers.

I won't bore you by listing the ranges of angst that keep me from being entirely the charmed soul I'd like to be. Suffice it to say that the brooding side of me exists, and affects every day of my life—but I fight it with everything I have, including this usually-cheery blog.

My experiences aside, suffering is a common theme among artists. Probably because the stronger forms of suffering, like those of beauty, are felt too deeply for words and must be expressed through transcendental powers like art, literature, and music. Masha expresses this well when she says:
...I do think that there is a tendency for the artist to feel deeply, and feeling deeply, to suffer in and for the world. That suffering, mingled with the joys of life, with the daily things, is boiled down in the soul of the artists until all his works well forth from these rich, fully infused memories, what Rilke described as "blood remembering".
Or, as Chaim Potok put it:
"For all the pain you suffered, my mama. For all the torment of your past and future years, my mama. For all the anguish this picture of pain will cause you. For the unspeakable mystery that brings good fathers and sons into the world and lets a mother watch them tear at each other’s throats. For the Master of the Universe, whose suffering world I do not comprehend. For dreams of horror, for nights of waiting, for memories of death, for the love I have for you, for all the things I remember, and for all the things I should remember but have forgotten, for all these I created this painting—an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment."—from My Name is Asher Lev*
(Mr. Pond, if you're wondering, did not post Friday, perhaps due to Easter-related busyness.)

Masha's question for the week intrigues me. Does the artist create better out of suffering, or are joy and sorrow equals in their benefit to the artist?

I would claim that the best joys, like the stronger forms of suffering and beauty, can often not be described without art. Depression has been good for my writing, but so has getting married. So has becoming Catholic, an experience in which sorrow and love have mingled beyond my ability to talk about. Anything that requires transcendental expression is material for the artist; not just the pain, but the haunting delights and yearnings of living. Tolkien has put it better than I could:
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, [is] the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy tale). . . In its fairy-tale—or otherworldly—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.—from On Fairy Stories**
Or, from Frederick Buechner:
"...yet the tears that come to our eyes at the joy of the fairy tale are nevertheless essentially joyous tears because what we have caught a glimpse of, however fleeting, is joy itself, the triumph, if not of goodness, at least of hope. And I do not think it is entirely fanciful to say that it is not only in fairy tales that we have glimpsed it." from Telling the Truth***
It's Holy Saturday as I write. Lou has Bach's St. Matthew Passion playing, and tonight is the Easter Vigil in which there are joys I can most definitely not explain in bare words. But tied up in these Holy Week celebrations is the hope of paradise, of the "sudden joyous turn", and perhaps that is why I choose to write fairy tales—because while suffering has had its effect on my artistry, so have the glimpses of joy. I won't promise a happy ending to every story I tell, but I do write toward the hope of paradise.

* Quoted from Goodreads, as I don't have a copy of Asher Lev handy. The wording is at least close to the original.

** Quoted from Eucatastrophe: Hope Beyond the Walls of the World on Pages Unbound

*** Quoted from my friend Jana. Three cheers for the Internet!


These Three Days and other stories

It's my most favoritest time of the year.

The Easter Triduum—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil—is a bit exhausting (especially for anyone involved in the liturgies) and entails three very long church services three nights running. And it is so stunningly, beautifully worth it.

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Lou has today off work, so this post will be short. But it's sunny, there's lettuce coming up in the garden, I've got my rewrite of the first three chapters of my novel drafted and out to a few trusty readers who will tell me if it's dreadful, and despite my having been a little under the weather, it's been a good week.

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Writers' link of the week: Over at The Big Thrill, Lee Child and "The Long Game": Lessons on Success From One of America's Favorite Authors. Good stuff.

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Music of the week: From Holy Thursday, the Pange Lingua. This is one of my favorite chant pieces.

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Random amusement of the week: Mr. Pond sent this link recently, and I have no idea what (theoretically) English subtitles are doing on The Lord of the Rings films, but they are pretty dang hilarious. Advisory: some language (no one knows what language, but some of the bad words are in English).

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Have a blessed Good Friday, a happy Easter, and a great weekend!


Currently Reading: Echoes

Echoes“I do worry a bit, I don’t want to be abnormal.” Clare was solemn.

“Well, I hope you’re not big-headed enough to think that you’re something special. That would be a sin of Pride you know.”

“I suppose so.”

“You can know it, not suppose it. It’s there in black and white in the catechism. The two great sins against Hope are Pride and Despair. You mustn’t get drawn towards either of them.”

“Were you ever tempted a bit to either of them?” Clare was an odd mixture. She could be quite familiar and probing sometimes as if she were the equal of the teacher sitting opposite her, yet she could also be totally respectful, and up at the convent she never gave a glimmer of the intimacy they shared in the O’Hara cottage.

“If I was, I suppose it was a bit more towards Despair,” Angela said. “Sometimes I used to think I’d never make it and what was it all for anyway. But I did and here I am, and I’m teaching the second great genius to come out of Castlebay, so will you open your books and not have us here all night talking about sins against Hope and friendships long gone.”

Author: Maeve Binchy

Synopsis: In the seaside resort town of Castlebay, two very different children grew up to love each other: David Power, privileged only son of the town’s only doctor, and Clare O’Brien, brilliant but poor younger daughter of the town’s huckster. Both of them want out of the quiet little place where both of them feel stifled, and it is in Dublin where they begin to fall in love. But passion and city freedom lead them to choices that endanger Clare’s only shot at education and set them at odds with both families.

When fate takes them back to Castlebay, destructive forces begin to work against them, and it is Clare—left defenseless—who has too much to lose.

Notes: For the first three-quarters of this story, I loved it. For most of the last quarter, I had my arm drawn back, ready to send the book flying against the far wall. Binchy held off anything resembling resolution for the main characters to the last two or three pages, and all I can say about that without spoiling it entirely is that though it was nowhere near a rainbows and unicorns ending, I didn’t throw the book across the room after all.

Binchy, despite her stylistic licentiousness regarding commas and her tendency to pose questions without using a question mark (one of my pet peeves), is a fantastic storyteller. Her people live and think and feel with the beautiful and awful, hilarious and poignant inconsistencies of reality. The situations she describes are relatively everyday—at least, the everyday of small-town Irish Catholic life circa 1960—but they hold the reader’s attention nonetheless.

The history, odd as it feels to use that term for something as recent as the Fifties and Sixties, was interesting. Set in the last years before Vatican II unleashed its mixed bag of major changes upon the Catholic Church, Echoes snaps a picture of the time within the place: firm country traditionalism, unexamined and unfair as it often is, and yet both beautiful and correct in its way; young people caught up in education and city anonymity, trying their strength against the boundaries of morality and stigma and scandal.

The one fault I found with this book was that in a couple of respects, it was Circle of Friends, second verse. In both novels, the boys did what they did for the same halfwitted reasons and justified themselves with the same witless excuses. I'd have appreciated it if one of them had at least pretended to understand that he was in the wrong. But in this case, it was worse; it seemed an unnecessary, even irresponsible inclusion—a method not of developing the primary characters, but of bringing the Gerry Doyle plot thread to its climax. It's not unimaginable that I've missed the point, however.

All that aside, I had little trouble understanding and loving most of the characters. Angela O’Hara might have been my favorite; brilliant and beautiful and single, desperate to do the right thing while avoiding scandal. She was absolutely sympathetic. Clare suffered so much that I could not do less than love her, though at one point—maybe two or three—she could have used a stiff talking-to, not that it would have worked. Mary Catherine and Valerie and Josie are humanly lovable friends with very believable weaknesses and strengths.

There were a handful of characters who were unsympathetic or difficult at some level, and in every case the author controlled this fabulously. Molly Power and Gerry Doyle and Sean O’Hara are too ordinary to seem like villains, but they come off all the more villainous because of their ordinariness. Shuya makes herself both problem and solution. Chrissie is a mess and a mystery.

I don’t know how I feel about David. I may never decide that. I don’t see him as loathsome as, say, Kristin Lavransdatter’s Erlend, but he’s not Taylor Caldwell’s Luke either.

Dick Dillon, however—there’s a man and a hero for you. Father Flynn, likewise.

Perhaps I should say one more thing about the ending. As noted before, it’s not rainbows and unicorns. It’s not entirely satisfactory, and everybody doesn’t get their perfect understanding of just how bad they were and how they ought to go on. It is, however, a step toward redemption. And I appreciated that.

Recommendation: Read it for small-town sensibilities, for history and humanity. For the quiet battle of fallible, resilent courage and faith against terrible sin and suffering.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books to Read in a Day

This topic could go a lot of different ways. Daisy over at The Broke and the Bookish interpreted it to mean books that demanded finishing the same day they were begun. Others have listed books they themselves read in a single day. I'm going to be different.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

You have a single day to lay in the hammock and read. All you want is something that'll take you from page one through happy ending by sunset. Not something so long that if you take your time and enjoy it, you risk not finishing, but something relaxing and pleasant and dependable. Here are a variety of suggestions:

1) Any of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. They're short enough that you might manage a couple of them, actually. If it were my hammock and my sunny day, I'd probably pick The Horse and His Boy.

2) Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Lay back and laugh.

3) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. It's surprisingly short, so don't hurry through the humor—take time to pay attention to the many hilarious weirdnesses. You'll sympathize with the dolphins.

4) Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Most of Austen's works are fairly long and not meant to be read in a single sitting; this one is a quick read, though, light and spoofy and sweet.

5) The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Especially likely to be powerful if your hammock is near some good flower-beds.

6) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle—or, if you’ve read that, A Wind in the Door or A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Actually, I'd expect most of L'Engle's novels to be good single-day relaxing reads, though they're not all as reliably simple and cheerful as her famous Time books.

7) If You Love Me by Patricia St. John (also published as Nothing Else Matters, but I like the title my edition uses). This one is a bit rougher than most of the other stories on this list, but it's a short, powerful tale of love and forgiveness amid war, and it has a beautiful ending.

8) The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. Mystical and quiet and lovely, this is a great read for a single day.

9) A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks. Not that Sparks books are happy-endingish, mind. But if you like your endings cry-worthy in a good way, this is the summer-day read for you.

10) The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. A little longer than some of the others but still possible to finish easily, it's an adventurous and (in the old sense) romantic delight of a book.

What books would you choose to read in a single day?


Sweep Mud in the Street: The Artist and His Un-Artistic Life

"Go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything."
~Desert Fathers

"I would like to probe a bit into the act of writing as it relates to daily life.  Is there a value in mundane life for the work of the artist? How can the writer in the romantic ideal combine the demands of daily life: family, bills, housework, and physical labor with the dramatic aloneness of the writing life?"

"He whispered something to the clockwork bird, words that coursed through his blood as he spoke, that throbbed on his breath like fire."
~Mr. Pond

If any of you know of an artist who manages to escape the mundane life and everyday labor entirely, let me know. I figure I lose myself in the romantic ideal of creative work as often as anyone, yet I am responsible to a husband and house and garden and church and family—all of which require me to get my head out of the clouds now and again.

Masha claims that regular non-writing work is important to the writer:
I am very much convinced that daily chores are a grounding, inspiring, and essential aspect of my own creative process.... Ora et Labora, the blessings of balance. It is what the Romantics lack, balance, aching muscles, roots, and the soothing resistance of bread dough. Not everyone is suited to physical labor, but the presence of mundane tasks is an essential to creative wholeness.
Or, one might say, as in Ecclesiastes: "Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh." (ESV)

Mr. Pond decided he'd said all he could say about artistic solitude and community and all that what-not in a story called Ragabone, which I highly encourage everyone to read. It's a beautiful tale, and speaks greatly to the idea of the isolated artist living his true calling surrounded by community.

Every artist must work out the balance between his creative work and the rest of his life. Very few of us earn our bread and housekeeping by art alone, so the tension is constant. Art expands to fill all available space, my artist mother often says. That's true mentally as well as physically, so art, in its attempt to claim the artist's time and energy, battles day job and family and social demands and hunting for food and managing the mess of living.

Perhaps no two artists handle it the same way. Masha says that her "best writing came during a time I spent working long hours at a dairy farm" with long hours of physical work. Contra that, my own outdoorsy years were those in which I wrote less than at any other time in my life; these past three years have been my most productive as a writer, and I've barely moved off the couch and out from under the laptop. Not that that's healthy, mind. But it's hard to convince myself to move about when the words are coming.

That said, a regular dose of manual labor is good for the writer. I am grateful for my garden, which gives my mind and eyes a break and the rest of my body some honest-to-goodness work. Devotion helps, too. It nearly always requires me to fight the flow of artistic thought in order to concentrate on reverence, but it offers both discipline and inspiration. Likewise, family and friends keep the artist—this one, at least—human and grounded.

There's also Louisa May Alcott's point that we're better off sweeping mud in the street than wasting time creating poor or damaging art. I'm not speaking of the failures that are naturally part of practice and work, nor of the simple mistake, but of dishonest art: art that by intention is morally or technically sloppy. A moral agenda may be a bad thing for art, but so is an attempt to excite humanity's weakness for mere gratification in defiance of conscience. Alcott's Professor Bhaer is right overall (regardless of whether he's correct about whisky or sensation stories): there is a demand for many things which are unwholesome, and the temptation to supply such things is always present. By common wisdom, honest, mundane ora et labora are the natural antidotes to that disease.

I believe Masha and Mr. Pond are both more right than may appear. The artist must have time alone, time devoted solely to art; yet he must spend some time involved in reality and among others, where hard work strengthens the body and clears the mind, and common sense and principle return in the presence of common conversation and everyday human need.

The stabilizing powers are not mundanity's only gift to the artist, however. Whatever his life beyond art happens to be—the people he knows and loves and struggles with, the daily labors in which he partakes, his beliefs and rituals, his everyday and earth-shattering moments—that life gives him the content for his work. Not necessarily subject matter, but experience, the experience that is necessary for the creation of good art.