Thursday, July 29, 2010

One Degree is Not Enough

As I've been running away from reading fantasy lately just as fast as I can, my shelf recently held both Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman and Susan Gubar's and Sandra M. Gilbert's The Madwoman in the Attic.

For some reason, reading both of these at the same time has raised a good deal of mental static. I find that my empathy with two men involved in making the Oxford English Dictionary is reduced, perhaps because I'm having a hard time shaking the modern judgmental attitude that Madwoman feeds so well. While I suspect that both books intend to engage the reader's emotions, it bothers me that my response is primarily emotional, and that it remains a relatively rigid one.

It's not just reading a critique of privilege that in some sense undercuts the empathy that I possess for men who enjoy that privilege--I have inherited a kind of idea of Oxford as a secular heaven and reading about it and the dictionary it produced is a little like shaking coals on the head of the lapsed English major in me. Perhaps I didn't let myself fully give in to the fascination of the story? Perhaps the real story for me isn't the relationship but the dictionary itself?

There were a few suggestions in the back of Mr. Winchester's book that I think I might try to track down--something to give me an excuse to go poke around in a library for a change, rather than bookstore. As soon as I finish Madwoman, which is starting to give me a righteous headache.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pressboard and Oil Paint

Over the weekend I finished Michael Perry's Truck: A Love Story; something that I'd picked up on a lark and come back to after suffering from a surfeit of Roger Whitakker videos and, as you may recall, being high on nostalgia and rain.

The book floated congenially on this mix, being a memoir that was gentle and humorous. I was surprised to find that it seemed to fit like a puzzle piece in the evolution of reading that began with a book of my dad's when I was young: an old farm picture book with glossy auburn bulls and dark brown horses and flecked chickens all painted on a perfect day beneath a clear wash. It wasn't something that was familiar to me--I was a suburban kid--but it would have been familiar to my grandfather and my dad (and to my husband, had I known him then), but it was full of the kind of images that came out of the books that I was reading at the time. Later on, it would be superseded by biographies of Sacagawea, a series of Anne of Green Gables books, a series of Wizard of Oz books, and Little House on the Prairie. Then To Kill a Mockingbird. Books that had (no disrespect intended) a certain perspective on dust and the ways in which people moved through it. The things that cling to a life well-lived.

This book falls along that continuum. I appreciated the way in which the appreciation of others' competencies ran through the book. I've been in that place where a brother-in-law knows enough to get me out of a repair jam and I don't think I handled it with quite the humor or the appreciation that Perry did (although I'm thinking that there will be lots of cookies & pies the next time my in-laws come down) and I loved the way in which he told about his garden and his community and brought a generous grace to those around him.

And, you have to love a book that causes you to read long stretches to your husband in the evening. Peaceful snickers and woofling puppies seem the apotheosis of that pressboard and paint book, even if we're living in suburbs and the sleekest critter around is the dog.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Hint of LJ

It has been a mucky and humid summer, the kind during which you are likely to be wading through your lawn in the morning (at least in terms of water clinging to the grass gone wild) and in which the dogs tend to wait at the edge of the patio until they are bribed out into the dampness, the rain, or the mud. Perhaps there is something in the rain that continues to pile in from the coast that contains a hint of Lake Jackson; the water perhaps is filling up the gutters and soaking into the yard to carry the memories deep into the land upon which I now live.

The ties to childhood were laced tight last night as I reread Winnie the Pooh, which had come free with a reading program (iBook?) that my husband had downloaded. The book was complete with illustrations, same as the book that I'd had on my shelf. Pooh floated up to the bees as a muddy bear rain cloud and snuck tastes of honey that extended down to the sides of the honeypot. I hadn't read it in years and the sentences were thick on my tongue, tasting of an earlier iteration of English. The narrator gently prodded Christopher Robin into the tales of the Hundred Acre Wood and walked all of the animals through their lives in the 'wild.' It is the kind of tale for which the word "lovely" is intended, the kind of word that trails its silken approval over the words like a bow on a basket.

It's not just children's books that are causing me to think that something has taken root in my brain and started to prompt me to change my reading--yesterday I found myself in B&N, in the Fiction & Literature section, reaching for a book on the top shelf and thinking that I was reaching for the stars themselves. The idea of reaching into the firmament, into the foundation of my own speech and thought, was strong. There is something of a different life and perspective that certain books offer that I find myself missing, almost a chemical imbalance, that I'm seeking to set right.

Perhaps it's that in spending so much time writing the novel I've come to have the awful feeling of talking to myself in a closed room. I need to listen to other voices and I need to find my way back to the opened senses that I had the first time I encountered genre literature, the first time I read Tolkein or Anthony or Anderson or Dickson (Yo Ho Hoka!) and give my voice a rest. Or at least a break.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How Nostalgic the Days

When I was very young (second grade? First grade?), my parents brought home an album by Roger Whittaker. While skimming YouTube yesterday, I came across some of the songs from that album and received an object lesson in having grown older.

One of the songs in particular swirled a bitter bit of nostalgia through those days—I hated it at the time because I couldn’t incorporate the emotion and it was depressing. Today, the song plays without effect. The melodrama is just another restatement of a cliché that I feel that I’ve heard a thousand times and I’ve done that kind of putting off until an impossible tomorrow.

This doesn’t mean that I’m no longer nostalgic, just that I learned it early and have to look further afield for it these days. As everything seems to be sliding into the novel these days (the casserole of the imagination) this may find its way in as well. What did I have to look back on at six or seven? Did it change how I watched the days going by to know that they were shorter than they felt?

Today the music and the shades need to be brighter and more menacing, but I’m still in a sleepy haze of yesterday.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Rain and Reading

Did I say this week was going to be about organization? The weather is not cooperating with that particular idea--more rainy days better suited to reading in a bright corner than shuffling paperwork. Not to mention the dogs who are now mucky with chasing through our decidely slow-to-drain yard. I don't think they care for water, but they can't avoid the puddles and Merlin's short enough so that the grass touches his belly.

If the week is as good as reading as the weekend was, I'll have a good dent in my stacks by Friday. I finished both Home from the Shore (Gordon R. Dickson) and Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars (Leigh Brackett) over the weekend and both were good reads. I'd never read any Brackett before and it's been some time since I read anything featuring an adventuring barbarian such as Stark, but I was hooked. This book is actually a compilation to two shorter novellas (and possibly a reprint from an original separate publication?) and despite the stories' short length, they took the reader across the breadth of the landcape of a colonized Mars and in flashbacks to the Mercury of Stark's childhood. Both stories seemed to deal with the ennervations of immortality and the inevitable moral rot that sets it as people grapple with extended lifetimes as well as with the almost always fatal lure of power over others. They were most enjoyable for the time spent with Stark, however. Instead of dwelling on bloody action or sex as seems popular now, both novellas kept the focus on Stark's drive to prevail over circumstance and incorporate his dual nature of 'barbarian/beast' and 'civilized man.' Time spent with him thinking and doing, rather than wallowing or lusting.

The paperback copy of Home from the Shore reminded me a little of a YA novel (possibly because of the illustrations). I loved the descriptions of the underwater dwellings and the acknowledgment of the intelligence of the dolphins and whales and the idea of humans choosing separate evolutionary paths and then having to learn to understand those differences. I haven't yet read the sequel to this book and I'm hoping that we have it somewhere around here, since this apparently feeds right into that storyline. Because of this, it ends as you would expected a cliffhanger to end, with dangling plots that encourage you to go forth and find the next installment.

Not only were both of these books quick and good reads for a long weekend, but they helped me to see where my novel was a little threadbare, places where I hadn't taken the plot seriously or thought through the conflicts that would come from certain decisions. Lately I've found that shorter novels and short story collections are giving me more scope for reading because I'm not committed for the same length of time that huge series or standalone novels require and I can focus on and finish them in the spaces that are available to me. Hope y'all are finding good things to read as well!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Evening Thunderstorms

It only took a week of doubt about the computer to give me an excuse to let my writing schedule slip by several days. While my brain stalled in idle, two more ideas (one short, one...novel-length?) shook out and I think I'm going to have to work them in addition to trying to get at least 50K on the novel I'm avoiding. The computer issues have also made me rethink my laissez-faire attitude toward storage.

Then the rains came. The thunderstorms this evening left the dusk yellow, like the light after a hurricane, and that compounds the idea of getting my files in order. Every summer I spend a few days wondering how much of my 'essential' paperwork I could pack in the case of a hurricane (more likely in this area, post-hurricane-power-outage) evac. Usually it just amounts to an idea that I need to have better organized paperwork and a few hurricane-themed short stories (not unlike the dwarves & dragons one I'm working on now). The computer meltdown really took me by surprise, though--it' wouldn't be hard for a storm to do the same.

This means that the next several weeks are going to be about getting those hardcopy drafts filed, getting the ones that need it committed to electronic files and then saved off to DVD, and then perhaps one working copy here and everything else in storage. Since Organized Brain spends lots of time daydreaming during repetitive tasks, this could be a productive time for the novel and a good way to catch up on the writing I've been avoiding lately.

Meanwhile, the thunder's growling softly in the distance and my brain is tending to favor real dreams over text. Zzzzzzzz.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Back and Forth

With the demise of one pc, I'm back in Baron's old room, at my old pc, experiencing a bit of deja vu as Varda and Merlin reenact eternal canine dramas and the light coming from the window at my left highlights a familiar side of my face. I should miss being in the new computer room, with the new chair and the turquoise walls and the less demanding sunlight hitting the protected side of the house; however, I like the shaky old desk, the room that I don't have to share (except with the dogs) and the memory of our retriever laying across around my toes as I work.

It's difficult to fight against the idea that the tide has gone from the house, that with the one-year anniversary of me being laid off and the death of the new pc, I'm being dragged into the past and left to float in the detritus of things that have been.

This past weekend, however, I picked up The Madwoman in the Attic and I'm deep in the difficult prose parsing the idea that contained within our literary imagination are images of women wholly embodied by male writers with which female writers grapple and put forth in there own fiction. There are passages that crumble into apprehensible bits only after treading over them several times, dropping one down the rabbit hole of theory and history. Each section gives me a new way of looking at the sections of the novel and a new piece of armor against the idea that I should let the tide carry me out and forget about ever getting back to shore.

Even though I find myself washed back into the old computer room, it's not the same place that it was. It's waiting its turn to be painted and straightened and made over into something new. I'm not the angel who will attend to this, clearly (else it would have already been done), but I might use the in-between to grow the novel into new spaces.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

*Nom* *Nom* *Nom* Oh, Was that Your File?

After having been so careful to ensure that all the writing made it over to the new pc, it seems a little rich that said pc should have crashed. One hesitates even to bring up the fact that one is now waiting on both the novel draft being rescued and the resuscitation of the pc with one's spouse, who has spent many unsuccessful hours trying to diagnose the failure. I just walk past the computer room, look at the stuff spread all over the floor, and sigh. The dust in the room might as well be gunpowder.

Fortunately, backups exist for most of the stuff. I'm not even going to bemoan anything that might be lost, because I knew the risks of a single-point-of-failure file storage. I think the next several days are going to be devoted to back-up planning and arguing with the pc people about the meaning of 'defective' and the amelioration of such.

Perhaps it's a good day for coffee and short stories by hand?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Hey, That's My Story!

Recently I've been exchanging drafts and comments with an online circle of writers who are the remnants of various in-person writer's groups to which I used to belong. I'm glad there are still people with whom I can exchange drafts, since I enjoy reading drafts and I like the accountability of doing my revisions semi-publically (years of temp work has addicted me to external feedback).

One of the things that I don't like about exchanging comments is that there isn't as much possibility for discussion regarding the comments. What this means is that there is a greater possibility of misinterpretation/offense, which acts against the effectiveness of receiving comments. It usually stings to hear that there are potential challenges with your scenes, characters, and plot and everyone needs space for reaction to that; however, it's sometimes easier to take in a setting where everyone is receiving feedback and you're with friends rather than receiving paragraphs of "change this, change that" from someone whom you haven't seen in a while.

Maybe it's just that I've been a little sloppy with my comments lately, forgetting to indicate the places where I particulary enjoyed the text or becoming hooked on certain plot twists of my own that don't tell the story the actual author wants to tell. That's another thing that it's easier to do online--give opinions that veer into rewrite territory instead of indicating where you feel the narrative loses your interest or becomes too complex to follow. I think I'm being a little too stingy with acknowledging the good and too eager to jump with both feet on the stuff I don't prefer. I've been hijacking the plot and trying to steer it on a different course.

That I'm trying to redirect other plots probably means that I'm not doing enough revising on my own and that I'm once again letting comments (and blog entries) substitute for revision. Drat my devious brain!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Dark Chocolate, Bad Men, and Canvas

For a change, it's raining. My back door seems to be growing something and the sunflowers are either shaggy or brown and I'm glad the reading room faces the front lawn. Actually, the chair doesn't directly face the window, so I'm curled up against one of the exterior walls and listening to the house hum.

My brain is just as soggy as the lawn, so I've been spending the morning reading one of the Frazetta books. Teeny biographical paragraphs cower beside giant color prints. I can look at the pictures and seep into the grey and brown shadows lurking in the corners just as I'm doing. When there's an odd bark or flash, I can peer through the edge of the glass.

There are rarely sights as transfixing as those in the book.

I'm trying to get through Red Planet Noir, but I need to be hiding from the sun to enjoy that kind of fiction. It's like dark chocolate on days like today, you can just handle one corner before the heaviness gets to you.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Stay On Target

Last week's break has me still skating on the crumbling edges of various projects. For some reason, the more it rains, the more tempting the TV has been. Now the that the dogs are starting to show a little nervousness around the louder thunderclaps, the couch and a pile of pre-fuzzied blankets are kinda tempting too.

Soon, I'll have the best of both worlds when my Netflix 70's cheesefest arrives. (Thanks to John Scalzi's AMC column) the three of us can play MST3K all day the next time it rains!) I'm hoping that all the movies are better than the groan of despair that my husband let out when I handed him the list (a slightly different one than that in the column--blood & guts is NOT my cup-o-tea). I don't have to take my movies seriously to enjoy them. And I have a weakness for Olivia Newton-John movies.

At some point it will stop raining, my mom will stop telling me about "tropical masses out in the Gulf," and I will switch from "vacation/evacuation" mode. Meanwhile, I'm still working on the 250-word-a-day plan and daydreaming about how much glitter, disco, and gold fabric I can stuff in the first draft.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dog Days of Literature

I was treating myself to the last few shorts in the Oxford American this morning when I came across one about the writer burying her dog. Oooof. I force marched through the entire piece, stiffling the tears or smearing them on the back of my arms.

As it turns out, I was unsuccessful in hiding the outburst from the dogs. Almost before I had a chance to defend myself, dogs were pawing my shoulders and trying to lick my cheeks and eyes. They're still young enough to have that anxious do-something response and there's not much better than a warm pile of concerned canine to chase away a chill of sorrow or winter.

I think this afternoon I'll stick with the Martian noir that I've been enjoying. The dogs love hardboiled dialogue combined with a flung squeaker toy. Gives them a chance to bark back.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Submission Weekend

Since it was a holiday and we were pretty much rained in until last night (yea!! backyard fireworks!!), this past weekend was a submission weekend. These typically start on the heels of rejection or two and come up about 3 months or so after the last batch of submissions. I open up the spreadsheet, mark off the rejections and look to see what hasn't been sent out lately, open the poem files, and scan through to see how they look.

The first part is the easy part. One or two or five will catch my eye and then I'm off to Duotrope to find them potential homes. Inevitably, there's editing done. Lines shifted, new endings added, words shifted, titles changed. Then it's off to compare and contrast what I have with what's already out there. This is the part where the self-image and the reality meet with a thump. I'll get over myself eventually and some poems will end up being submitted. Three months later, as the rejections start to trickle in, it will start over.

I'm glad I had this weekend. Since Apollocon was angstier than anticipated (aren't I too old for that?), I felt as if the boost I was hoping for didn't get me quite over the fence. It's good to take a minute and appreciate the chance to speak and be heard.

Friday, July 2, 2010

All is Fuzziness

Today is a good day for things done indoors. It's been raining off and on for the past few days as bands of rain cast off from Alex way down in Mexico skim through the yard and over the house. The dogs are bored. They are also suspiciously fluffy. Shedding in response to the stress of staying inside?

Neither dog likes to be brushed. Hugs, treats, tussles over chew toys, all of these things are considered appropriate displays of affection; however, the brush (even accompanied by treats) is something to be chewed into submission whenever it appears.

I happen to feel the same way about revision. Chewing the page into submission is often tempting, as is pretending it's not as fluffy a mess as I know it to be. Maybe if I don't take it seriously and put it back the drawer and just start over...but then another shaggy manuscript ends up sitting on my monitor, panting cheerfully and covering the plot with stray bits of nonsense.

Because I'm the master of procrastination, the dogs are the ones who get the attention this morning. Varda hooks her paws around my wrist, hooks her neck against mine, and tries to wait out the brushing. Then she tries to eat the brush. The brush is prickly--inedible unless you attack it at the handle. Where my fingers are.

We amass a stack of fur. Slick otter girl that she is, Varda gets away and inhales a handful of fur. A few minutes later, Merlin will be attempting to eat his way through the stack until he's lifted up, hind paws dangling, to be brushed like a head of fox hair on a wiggly elf.

Once they're brushed, my chastened metaphors for neat manuscripts loll against the wall and stare at me, sharing a respite from rainy day restlessness. All around us, however, the fuzziness remains.