Blog Post, Fun, writing

A Novel Journal

Every so often, I stumble across something that gets me so excited I simply must share it with the world. Or at least you all, who comprise my little world! One example of this is probably The Folio Society editions that I share every so often here on the blog.

But something new caught my eye recently while I was wandering around my local Barnes & Noble book store, as I do a few times every week. It’s a series of writing journals called “A Novel Journal,” released by Canterbury Classics.

Here’s how the publisher describes them: “Whether fueling the next great literary masterpiece, or simply adding a sense of tribute to daily journaling, these literary keepsakes bring an element of fun and culture to any writing project. Fashioned with colorful endpapers, color edges, and matching elastic bands to keep covers closed and pages intact, Novel Journals are ideal for gifting and collecting.”

So, here’s the thing. If you are a writer and a reader who, like me, often feels torn between his “loyalty” to one or the other (AM I WRITER? AM I A READER!?), these journals are literally the best of both worlds. Why? Well, not only are they beautiful, and not only do they have an excellent “finger feel,” and not only do they represent the greatest books of all time, with a well-selected quote from said books right there on the cover, but the lines of the journal are actually made up of the entire text of its representative novel, in tiny print! 

Obviously, I couldn’t resist. I was going to get one or two, but ended up leaving the store with five of them. I definitely added a whole bunch more to my wish list, and I plan to pick up at least two more very soon. (It was also fortunate for my wallet that Barnes & Noble had these on clearance!)

The other fabulous element to these journals is the artwork/design on the inside covers, as well as the front-page that explains the selected book and leaves a place for the journal owner to put their name and information. Here’s a look at the insides of the ones I purchased, and in case the image is too small to read, the text inside the font page says, for example, “This journal belongs to ____ and is shared with Edgar Allan Poe.” How delightful is that!?

Ultimately, as I said, I ended up with five (pictured below). But I hope to go back for PETER PAN and WALT WHITMAN this weekend because they were beautiful and I’ve been thinking about them all week!

Thoreau’s WALDEN and Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND

 

 

 

 

Wilde’s PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and Doyle’s ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES

 

 

 

 

EDGAR ALLAN POE’S COLLECTED STORIES

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Weekly Writing Reflection, writing

A Change of Perspective

For the last few years, I have been working toward a shift in focus on this blog and in my life in general. I’ve wanted to spend more time writing, but from 2014-2016, I was working on my dissertation and that provided almost more writing than I could handle! Needless to say, I didn’t do a whole lot of work on other projects, save for a scribble or two here and there, to jot down ideas or get started. Lately, though, I have been putting much more structured focus on writing and trying to get into a writer’s mentality. This has meant that my reading output (or input?) has dropped, leaving me with less to say and do here on the blog. My reading hasn’t stopped altogether—that would be insane—but the types of reading I’m choosing has changed, and the pace at which I’m reading has slowed. This is also partly due to my profession as a college English educator who is constantly grading essays. You do 50-100 of those a week and, well, you don’t want to read much afterward!So, I’ve been trying to decide what to do with the blog in order to keep up a regular presence and also make it “make sense” with my shift in reader/writer focus. I debated with the idea of shutting it down altogether, but this blog has been with me for nearly a decade. I love it and it doesn’t feel right, at the moment, to close up shop. It might continue to evolve into something else as I spend more and more time writing, but isn’t that okay, too? At this time, I’ve decided to keep posting short reviews of books when I want (I’ve got a couple more on deck, in fact: Stephen King’s The Outsider and Bella Forrest’s The Breaker), but I will also include some WIP and general writing progress updates, perhaps once per week. I’m completing a miniature self-guided “MFA” program for writers, and one of the suggestions made in the program is ACCOUNTABILITY. This means setting a writing goal and then holding yourself accountable for what you did or did not do.I had always heard that you should never talk about your writing, you should just write, so I was a little surprised to hear about this strategy; but, like anything else, I do think it makes sense that you are much more likely to do the work if you’re not doing it entirely in secret, where there are no expectations or repercussions for laziness, slacking, and skipping. This also means my mentality and online presence have shifted/are shifting from primarily reader-centered to writer-centered. As such, as some may have already noticed, my Twitter account changed (as of today) from @RoofBeamReader to @RoofBeamWriter. I was going to change the blog name and URL, too, but I realized that would cause all sorts of problems with information that is already linked out there, and that’s simply not worth it right now. I might eventually migrate to a writer’s website/blog, but I’m comfortable staying here for now.There are a number of other suggestions from the program that I plan to follow, and I want to outline them briefly, here, as a baseline for myself (and if there are any other writers out there who read this and want to connect, great!) and to help me set up some kind of template that I can use for weekly WIP updates. The general content areas are: Write with Focus; Read with Purpose; Build Your Community.

Write with Focus

As far as I can tell, there are three very important elements to writing with focus.The first is to write. All the time. Every day, and in whatever fashion. It might mean journaling, it might mean writing craft exercises (like responding to prompts), and it might mean working on a specific WIP project, whether outlining, character mapping, or actual manuscript work. I’ve made some progress on this daily writing component, including jotting down a lot of notes for my upcoming WIP (still in invention stage, but I’m getting there), journaling regularly, and working on craft elements with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. Soon, I will also start work on the actual WIP, which I will need to schedule into my days, and that brings me to the next part.The second is to control your environment and set the mood for success. This is something I teach my writing students; they must pay attention to their environments, what works and what doesn’t, and make conscious decisions about where and when they are doing their work, and what else needs to happen in that atmosphere (music or other background noise? Lighting? Snacks? Etc.). The MFA guide suggests trying to set an environment and work with it for a while, and then slowly make one adjustment at a time until everything feels “right.” It may last forever, it may need to be adjusted again at some point but controlling the environment so that your mind knows that when it is “x” time and “y” environment is set, that means it is writing time. I have made almost no progress with this component! For weeks, I’ve been setting my alarm to get up early so that I can spend two hours of my morning writing, before any of the other pressures/responsibilities of the day start to move in. And for weeks, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night and turning the alarm off. I’m not sure if morning writing is for me (in fact, I’m positive that I write best at night), but given the nature of my daily life, I feel like I have to find a way to make this work because, otherwise, my own writing just won’t happen. I’ll get caught up in everything else that I need to do, including my profession. I do at least have some ideas in mind about what my writing situation will look like. I have a private room. I have a desk set up with my row of writing-related texts facing front and center. I have my notes and ideas books nearby, and a candle to light to trigger the “mood.” I think I’m most of the way there. What’s keeping me from starting? At first, I figured it was laziness or the fact that I have severe insomnia. Since I get very little sleep, it’s extremely difficult to get up earlier than absolutely necessary; but there’s the kicker: I have to recognize that getting up to write is necessary, just like every other necessary part of my day. I have not made that turn yet.The third component to writing with focus is understanding the process. Even as a professional writer and writing instructor, I fall prey to the idea that if I can’t get it “right” right away, then I must be doing something wrong. I KNOW this is utter nonsense. I spend hours every week reassuring my own students that they are not failures for trying and that, in fact, the only failure is in not doing anything at all. So, to write with focus, I need to remind myself that a first draft is just that – a dump. A place to get everything out. Then the fixes come in, and I can and should take those fixes one at a time, focusing on one particular element and then another and then another, rather than doing a line-edit approach to the entire thing. This MFA program is giving me clear ideas of how to strategize the revision process so that it makes sense and so that, ultimately, I revise the most critical elements first, leaving each subsequent phase a little less demanding. These are some tips I would not have realized had I not begun this focused study.

Read with Purpose

The next suggestion from this MFA program is to “read with purpose,” and again there are a few components to this instruction.

Read Your Genre

The first element is to “Read Your Genre.” This is another instruction I found contradictory at first. Essentially, what they mean is that you should read a lot of the genre you plan to write in, be it young adult fiction, science fiction, personal essay, memoir, etc. I had always been under the impression, though, that you wanted to avoid reading your own genre while writing in it because you might be subconsciously influenced by your reading, which could lead to borrowing or copying. I’m still concerned with that, quite frankly, so I think I’ve come up with a way to read within the genre but avoid the possibility for influence. First, most of my pleasure reading during the actual writing of a WIP will be from outside the WIP’s genre. At the moment, for example, I’m working in contemporary fiction of a particular theme, so I’m reading mostly non-fiction (history, philosophy). This keeps my reader-personality satisfied and my brain actively engaged, but limits the potential for me to be influenced by other stories, characters, etc. I might still end up working in some elements of my reading into the WIP, but it would be in a completely different way, such as incorporating a type of philosophical statement or lesson which I would still need to build into the story world or into the character’s development. I’m finding this kind of an interesting, even fun, activity. The other way I’m going about this is to read within the genre when I am outside of the WIP-writing phase. So, during pre-writing or when I’ve put away the first draft and am letting it sit, or when I am working on revisions and edits. Once my own complete work is out, there’s not much chance that I’ll go back and rework entire scenes or characters simply because I’m reading something awesome in another book. This will keep me engaged with my genre (what works? What doesn’t? What’s cliché? What’s novel?) while in the process of writing inside that genre. A final suggestion the MFA program makes, and which I plan to also adopt, is to read in the genre but of other forms. So, for example, if I’m writing a contemporary novel, I can spend my reading time on short stories. This would still let me read for plot, character, story arc, etc., but in much smaller chunks. In this way, I would also be able to see the full development of a story in a single sitting and take it apart for how and why it is working, or not. In many ways, this is beneficial over novel-reading, which takes much longer and cannot be seen in “snapshot” form.

Read the Craft

Another component of reading with focus is to read other writers on the craft. There are a few reasons for this, some of which include the following: continuously engaging in intellectual conversation with other writers through my reading/responses; getting ideas about what has and has not worked for other writers, and trying it all out; learning how to deal with setbacks, apparent failures, distractions, challenges, etc. by seeing what other writers have to say on these subjects; and treating myself as one among these writers who I admire, getting to know them not just as writers but as people who also had/have lives that needed to be lived, responsibilities that had to be kept, etc. This is one part of the process that I have already begun, and it is probably my favorite part (no surprise as a reader who likes to write, I love reading what other writers have to say about writing?). At the moment, for example, I’m reading the MFA craft book as well as Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. I give myself an hour every night with one or the other of these books, including journaling my reactions to them and incorporating notes for my own WIP based on what I’ve read in the craft texts. I have a number of these “on deck,” of various types (from The Emotional Craft of Fiction to Book in a Month to Light the Dark), as I think it is important to look at writing from a variety of angles, whether that be pacing, character, memoir, creativity, inspiration, language, or whatever else.

Read Like a Writer

The final element suggested for how to read with purpose is to read like a writer. The MFA guide shares some helpful tips on how to engage with texts, including writing book reviews (yes!), doing short critical analyses of small portions of the texts, responding to entire genres after reading many texts within them, or responding to a favorite author’s corpus after reading much of it. All of these strategies are interesting and helpful in different ways, and I plan to try them at varying points. Some, like responding to a genre or to an author’s corpus, will be much longer projects taking quite a bit of time, but they certainly seem like valuable pursuits to me. I write book reviews regularly, of course, so that will remain a staple. And I spent 9 years of college and graduate school writing critical analysis papers on literature, so while I’m not exactly “eager” to return to the student role, I do understand and respect the benefits of doing this and, who knows, I may come up with some interesting essays that can move beyond my own little journal.

Build Your Community

The third and final element of “living like a writer” is to build a community that will fulfill the needs of Critique, Accountability, Support, and Advice or Apprenticeship. I don’t really know where to begin with this part, yet. I’m not sure if I would work best with an online community of writers or a local, in-person group. I don’t know who to ask or how to work with them. I’m essentially nowhere with this component, unfortunately, but I know that as I get further into my work, I’m going to need this. So, if you’re a writer reading this right now and you, too, are looking for a writing community, perhaps we can become that for each other. Taking all of this into consideration, the next step is to come up with a way to hold myself accountable and to track (and applaud or reassess) my accomplishments from week-to-week. I have a “Goal Sheet” which is provided by the DIY MFA book, and that I think will serve my purposes pretty well. Ultimately, I hope to write 6 days a week (is that too much? Too little? I have no idea.) Each day will carry a goal of 2-hours writing and/or 4-pages (is this too much? Too little? I have no idea!). The way I plan to respond to each writing session is as follows:

  • Date:
  • Input Variable:
  • Words:
  • Time:
  • How It Felt:

Most of those should be pretty self-explanatory, but a note on “Input Variable.” This is something I mentioned above, regarding “controlling your environment.” This is something that might change after a few weeks’ of trying it. For example, writing at home versus writing somewhere public. Writing in the morning versus writing at night. Writing with music versus without, etc. It is important to set the environment intentionally and then, every so often, make a change if the current environment is not working (but make just one change at a time, and try it for at least 2-3 weeks before changing again).My plan now is to post once per week with the above WIP Goal Sheet. At the moment, I’m thinking of referring to it as simply “Writing Reflection.” I might also keep a spreadsheet of this information on my computer for easy access and filtering/sorting. The public accountability aspect is apparently important, though, so as I set goals and make progress, accounting for that process, for the misses, for the lulls and the over-achieving days, will be part of the “Weekly Writing Reflection.”

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Blog Post, Personal, writing

Martin Luther King’s Last Vision

Today is my birthday, and I spent the early part of the morning reflecting briefly on my life: friendships, accomplishments, goals, marriage, and family. But I’ve also been thinking a lot this morning about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was fifty years ago today–April 3rd, 1968–that he delivered his final sermon at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee.

The opportunity must have seemed both ideal and disconcerting to King, who had spent so many years tirelessly marching forward in the struggle for racial equality in the United States, only to see so little progress. At this point in his life and career, the attention of major news outlets had turned away from his leadership, which must have seemed stalled, in favor of reporting on the more dramatic activities of the black power movement, which was also doing good work and heavy lifting, but in a more obvious way (and as we know, the media loves spectacle).

So, King had turned his attentions to issues of poverty and to supporting the poor and working classes in America. For this reason, I think being invited down to Memphis to speak to the Sanitation Workers in support of their strike for fairer wages and work conditions, must have been promising. But King had another relationship with the city of Memphis, and he surely knew it would not—or could not—be another Selma. Still, he went and, apparently without notes, delivered one of his most powerful, memorable, and moving sermons. The one that would be his last.

A storm raging outside, thunder and lightning crashing in the background, and rain pummeling the tin roof, set a kind of wild and natural rhythm. King stepped up to the podium and addressed a sea of people who had been calling his name: “The nation is sick,” he said. “Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around.” I can only imagine the feeling in the room right then. Here came a group of workers looking for support and leadership and encouragement from one of the world’s greatest inspirational orators, and this is how he begins?

But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.

But King seemed to know that all of these American problems were related. The struggle for racial equality and worker’s rights. The struggle against poverty and the struggle for peace. Vietnam continued on, and more and more young people died for reasons that were muddy at best. The rich and powerful got richer and more powerful on the backs of laborers and with the help of investments in the military industrial complex. And segregation and its legacy were still pressing issues. Still, King looked at all of this and remarked that he was happy to live in this time, because “we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn’t force them to do it.” He believed that the time was now, that it was “no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” He was throwing down the gauntlet.

Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity.

I look at the world around us today, at the rise in racist and homophobic and anti-Semitic, and transphobic hate crimes, and I wonder, did Dr. King think we would have come together by now? Solved this by now? And why haven’t we? And where is our Dr. King these days? I think about how Dr. King, in that last sermon, chastised the press for only dealing with surface issues and consider what that means today, in this new age of for-profit news driven by monopolies like the Sinclair group which orders its 200 affiliates around the country to read a script about “false news” on the very news stations so many people watch, and trust, because it is their local station.

I look at the world around us today, at our declining status in the international community; at our collective disdain for facts and education; at the anti-intellectualism that folks like Stephen Hawking have been warning us about; and at the bridges, real and figurative, we have been building around our own little bubbles to insulate us, with the help of social media algorithms that keep us locked into our tunnel vision, and I wonder when, or if, we will ever be able to come together and see and think and feel as a people again.

Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be.

It seems to take more and more effort to be positive today. But even in his last and perhaps most painful speech, Dr. King looked up and forward:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

The very next day, Dr. King was assassinated outside his hotel room in Memphis. There couldn’t be a more startling juxtaposition of hope and despair. Who could continue to march forward when the very voice of faith had been extinguished?

Except, it hasn’t been. We still remember that voice and look to that voice today. And when I ask myself, where is our Dr. King, I have to admit that I’ve been blind. I’ve been taken in by Twitter-storms and negative media reinforcement and “fake news”, and I have overlooked the people.

I look now and see the men and women marching for women’s rights.

I look now and see the teachers marching for their students’ rights.

I look now and see the students marching for their lives.

I look now and see that “in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage” (Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath).

So, on my birthday this year, I have just one wish. Perhaps we can all be a little bit more like Dr. King. Despite our fears and doubts and despairs, perhaps we can look to that Promised Land. Perhaps we can open our eyes and our hearts and our minds and our ears; we can listen to each other and look to each other again, not through these arbitrary lenses shaped by ideological forces outside ourselves, but with our own vision. And perhaps we can accept and applaud and champion the voice of Dr. King that still resonates through our youth, the new leaders of our day.

I see and I hear 11-year-old Naomi Wadler, who stood in front of a crowd of 800,000 people to say, “I am here to acknowledge the African American girls whose stories do not make the front pages of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.”

I see and I hear 18-year-old David Hogg when he says, “The cold grasp of corruption shackles the District of Columbia. The winter is over. Change is here. The sun shines on a new day, and the day is ours.” And I believe him.

I see and I hear Edna Chavez when she cries, “It was a day like any other day. Sunset going down on South Central. You hear pops, thinking they’re fireworks. They weren’t pops. You see the melanin on your brother’s skin go gray. Ricardo was his name. Can you all say it with me?” And I say it: Ricardo.

I see and I hear Emma Gonzalez’s silence, and I respect it.

We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point . . . [w]e’ve got to see it through.

There is a future. That future is always to be determined. My wish this year is that our future will be shaped by the rejection of fear, the embracing of love, and a new determination to succeed together in this great human experiment.

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Blog Post, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, writing

Writing On Writing

2016 was what I had planned to be, or hoped would be, my “year of writing.” One year to welcome many future years. I think I shouldn’t have included that second verb, hoped, after my original one, planned. This is part of the self-doubt that all “on writing” books seem to mention at some point or another, and most of them repeatedly.

downloadSpeaking of “on writing” texts, I’m currently reading Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, which is wonderful so far (about 40% into it). And I’ve read three others in the last year. Each has been very different. The first was Stephen King’s On Writing which read more like a memoir highlighting much of the writing aspects of his life. This is perhaps appropriate when considering the rest of the book’s title, A Memoir of the Craft. I found this approach worked well, though. King spoke a lot about writing as it fits into real life, especially early writing in the “younger” life. He got his start much sooner than I, yet I hope I can still consider myself “young enough.” That might be wishful thinking.

48202The second read was Willa Cather’s On Writing, which was something else entirely. The second part of her title is Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. As that full title suggests, Cather’s is a collection of essays rather than a single narrative, as King’s is. Much of the essays are Cather discussing others’ works, though some are her reflections on how or why she wrote particular pieces of her own. Some few, like “On the Art of Fiction,” tackle the idea of “on writing” more directly. I enjoyed this one because it gave insight into how writers respond to other writers; what they look for, where they find strengths, what they consider weaknesses, who and what they admire, and why. It’s valuable information, especially coming from someone as supremely competent, knowledgable, and interesting as Willa Cather.

51JP9AJJVVL._AC_UL320_SR216,320_The third title is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. This one was a perfect middle road between King and Cather. It is a collection of essays, written over a number of years, like Cather’s, but it is much more personal and reflective, and written with a “new writer” audience in mind, like King’s. What I loved about Bradbury’s collection is that it is filled with so much joy, so much passion and support.

What I found interesting, if not surprising, is that despite their differences, each of these (and, now that I think of it, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, too, but it’s been a while since I’ve read that, so I’ll leave it out of discussion for now) shared some few important elements in common. What’s even more serendipitous is that the three things that stuck out to me the most are the very things I’ve struggled with for so long.

I. Be Honest & Trust Your Imagination

This first theme came up frequently, and in various ways, in all three books. I responded to it in two critical ways. In the first case, trust your imagination deals with those moments when you don’t feel like what you have to say is interesting, important, creative, fresh, valid, or whatever. It’s that common self-doubt all writers probably have at some point, and which forces them into writer’s block or exhaustion. I think this is especially important not just in getting started with the process, but in dealing with the many rejections that are certain to reach your inbox. King, Cather, and Bradbury all place importance on honesty, first; if you are telling a story that is true to you, and means something to you, stop thinking about it and let your imagination go…it will get somewhere, and you can deal with it when it’s done. Trust Your Imagination applies to another situation, though, which is within the story world itself. I once gave up on a novel, one that, in retrospect, I think has been my best idea and which continues to call to me every day (it’s the one I plan to return to on Monday, when I begin again). Part of why I gave up is because I felt like I had to know everything – every detail about the location, every detail about history of the region, the country. Every detail about the main character’s particular hobby, which I dove into researching and started making notes about. To some extent, yes, I need to know these things – but just enough of them. I never have to give the reader every single piece of history; if they wanted that, they’d go read a history book, right? This is something King, Cather, and Bradbury wrote about frequently over the course of their books. I’m not writing a manual, I’m writing a piece of fiction. There are some things that must be right (if my book takes place during the time of JFK’s assassination, okay, I’d better get the date right), but otherwise, I need to remind myself that most of the creation and interpretation and information gathering actually takes place in the reader’s mind. It’s that “show don’t tell” mantra all over again. And, wow, it’s such a relief. I feel like an apartment building has been lifted off me and I have begun to breathe and see again for the first time in a long time.

II. Be Honest & Forget About Money or Fame

This seems like it should be another no-brainer. If you love to write and you feel like you have something to say, or maybe might even be a little bit good at writing, then you should just find joy in writing. But who doesn’t think about their audience? I think about it constantly, and it intimidates me; it holds me back. I worry, mostly, about what my friends and family will think about my stories; will I reveal too much about myself in the telling? Do I really want to let them into the deepest, sometimes darkest, realms of my imagination and psyche? Then, I think about the general audiences, critics and consumers. Will anyone in the world be interested in what I write about? Will an agent take a chance? Will a publisher? It seems silly to think about all this before the writing has gotten very far, or even begun at all. Of course, it is silly to think about it then, or at all. But that doesn’t keep it from happening, and I doubt I’m the only one who experiences this. It’s probably my biggest hold up, and this is where King, Cather, and Bradbury all say: STOP IT. Write, just write. Love it. As with the theme above, be honest about it and why you’re doing it, but damn it, don’t do it for the money because that will probably never, ever come. Am I okay with that? Probably much more so now than I ever was before. Is it all entirely out of my head – fear of rejection, desire for fame? No, and maybe it won’t ever be entirely gone, at least not until I’ve found my stride and have begun to write every day, to be confident in it, and to really feel like I can, I must, go on with it. That’s going to be the persistent thought now. Instead of thinking about all these other people and their reactions, I’m going to try to simply be excited about my ideas and where in the world they’re going to take me.

III. Trust Yourself & WRITE!

Write, write, write. Boy, you’d think I was reading books on writing or something. King and Bradbury were especially surprising in their treatment of this topic. For some reason, I remember hearing, for most of my life, that writers should be prepared to write whenever the muse hits, to be prepared with pen and paper wherever they go, but that they should never “force” the writing. King and Bradbury, two of the most commercially successful writers of all-time, say this is hokum! Both of them write in highly regimented ways, working for a certain number of days every week (both of them say 6 days per week, holidays and birthdays included), and for a certain length of time (or word count, in their cases). Cather, too, expressed the necessity of writing all the time. King, Cather, and Bradbury, but especially Bradbury, reinforced the idea that writing, like anything, is a skill (and an art) that can only get better with practice and honesty to one’s self and ideas. This is something I tell my students all the time: you can’t become a better writer if you don’t read and write a lot. The more you do those things, the better you’ll be able to see the strengths and weaknesses, the necessary moves and adjustments to make in your own work. So, there’s a bit of “practice what you preach” for the old English professor! I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, and in many ways I do and have written every day, but the missing piece of the puzzle was also found in King’s, Cather’s, and Bradbury’s examinations: write in the genre you want to be most successful in. My writing has been primarily academic and scholarly, for coursework and such, or blogging, for the general love of talking about literature. In my mind, though, when I think of myself as a writer, that is not the kind of writing I’m thinking about.

While reflecting on these three books and thinking about all of the great advice therein, I began to work on my plan for the coming semester. I originally wanted to schedule out my days and workload for the entire term, September through December, but I decided to begin with the month of August, for two reasons: the first reason is practical; I’m scheduled to teach four courses this semester, beginning on August 22nd, but I only know for sure that two of those courses is going to run; so, if the other two courses do not run, then I’ll be adjusting my entire schedule — why do five months of planning to change it all in two weeks? The other reason is because I need to know that what I propose for August is actually feasible and can be maintained for the entire semester. If it is, I’ll expand – – not a big deal.

What is the plan? Well, I have designated times for working on my dissertation, for teaching, for exercise, for writing articles, and for grading/planning each of my classes week-to-week, as well as for required, reoccurring meetings that come as a result of an existence in academia. There are two benefits to this plan, I think. The first benefit of being so strict with myself is that I can see what needs to be done when, and I can hold myself accountable to everything I need to do without letting it pile up. Old habits of last year left me scrambling at the end of every single week to do much too much work; hence, I didn’t do nearly enough of what I should have. The other benefit is that it doesn’t only show me my “work” time; it also shows me all the time that is my own, to do whatever. There’s not a lot of free time, but there definitely is some every day, and that calms me. Again, last year, I felt like I was always busy, but that’s mostly because I was being stupidly irresponsible with my time.

I might not get my book written this year, because I’m writing a dissertation; but I will get that dissertation written, and I will work on my book, too, and I’ll still be able to do other things.

King, Cather, and Bradbury. Delightful kicks-in-the-pants. Woolf, keep me honest! 

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Blog Post, J.K. Rowling, Reader-Response, writing

J.K. Rowling Can Say What She Wants

indexBy now, many readers and book bloggers are likely aware of a controversial statement that was made recently by J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, in an interview with a British entertainment magazine, Wonderland.  In the interview (conducted, amusingly enough, by Emma Watson, the young and talented actress who plays Hermione in the film adaptations of Harry Potter) , Rowling allegedly indicates that two of the main characters, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, probably should not have ended up together after all, even though theirs was the primary romance in the series.

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really,” says Rowling. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”

I have been asked numerous times over the last few days for my reaction.  The difficulty, for me, is in deciding which “cap” to put on in my response.  Are you asking me as a fan of the series?  Or are you interested in my interpretation of this as a scholar of literary theory?  Are you curious about how I think about this as a critic and a reader?  Or are you wondering about how I react to this as a writer who considers Rowling a master craftsperson?  There are so many ways to respond to this particular type of revelation, and while these categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I can certainly find possible “pros” and “cons” from each perspective.  I will do my best, though, to shape one coherent general response.

index2This statement has unleashed reactions similar to those which arose after Rowling indicated that another of her major characters, the Hogwarts Headmaster and Wizard-extraordinaire, Albus Dumbledore was gay.  Fans then, and now, split along lines of outrage at Rowling apparently “changing” the stories, on the one hand, and excitement over the  added depth (or possible reaffirmation of some fans’ original interpretations or desires about the characters), on the other hand. These kinds of reactions have much more to do with reader-response than with the quality or integrity of the text itself.  Reader-response theory tells us that each reader is going to react uniquely to a book (and to each reading of that book) based on the personal experiences, opinions, background, etc. that she brings to the text at the time of reading.  So, does this mean that people who (re)read the books after learning about Dumbledore or about Rowling’s shaping of Ron & Hermione’s relationship might read the books in a new way?  Possibly.  Do these things harm the text, or change it?  Not in the slightest – they just complicate the reading (for some).

In that first revelation, Rowling was accused by many of being a “coward” for not introducing Dumbledore’s homosexuality into the stories themselves, instead choosing to “drop it” on us in an interview after the fact.  My reaction was quite different; in fact, I had already read Dumbledore as a gay man, especially in the penultimate and final books (The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows) where we learn much more about Dumbledore’s past.  But even excluding the clues which Rowling clearly dropped in the novels (and yes, they are clearly there, but it is not surprising or “wrong” if some readers overlooked these) there are two other problems I have with this negative reaction:

First, why does a character’s explicit heterosexuality or homosexuality need to be spelled out at all?  Most readers do not expect all elements of a plot or of a story’s characters, to be explicitly given to us – part of the fun in reading is in discovering these things.  Perhaps Rowling anticipated that more of her audience would have picked up on the nuances than actually did or perhaps she was asked a simple question (“did Dumbledore ever fall in love?”) and she gave a simple answer (“Yes, with a man named Grindelwald”).

Second, fans of the fantasy genre, in particular, should be accustomed to the fact that fantasy writers, particular those of complex, intricate, time-spanning series’ such as this one, often know much, much more about their characters and stories than they are ever able to incorporate into the series themselves; sometimes the additional information comes out in addenda – reissued editions, companion pieces, etc. Just look at all of the supplementary Tolkien works that take place in the lands of Middle Earth which have been released post-publication of the Lord of the Rings series!

Ultimately, I think it is Rowling’s right and privilege, as the author, both to reveal as much or as little as she wants about her characters and also to change her mind as she sees fit.  She is not changing the story, after all, just our understanding of how she came to imagine it and to craft it.  To add insult to injury, for some, is the fact that Emma Watson, our Hermione-incarnate, seems to agree with Rowling:

“I think there are fans out there who know that too and who wonder whether Ron would have really been able to make her happy,” says Watson.

Emma_Watson_as_Hermione_Granger_(GoF-promo-05)So, the story writer and the woman who played the character for ten years and who knows her (Hermione) with an intimacy second only to Rowling herself, both agree that the relationship at the heart of the series might not be such a fairy tale.  And?  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once killed-off his famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, only to later change his mind about that.  Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein when she was very young, later looked back on the book with embarrassment and a completely different political perspective.  Writers have regrets, they rethink things, and they talk about it.  So what?  The outrage and hubbub are, in my opinion, just a tad overblown and largely unnecessary.  Sure, the series is the most popular of its kind in perhaps ever, so of course anything slightly controversial regarding it will become a topic of intense, heated, and sometimes hilarious social debate.  But, hey, at least Rowling didn’t follow her first instinct, which was to kill Ron.  Authorial intent is interesting in so far as it generates discussion and gets readers asking new questions, but, ironically, the reality is in the fiction – that world has already been created for us and must be taken as presented.

Let’s just enjoy the brilliance of the stories and the world that J.K. Rowling created.  We can and will react to the books in our own way, so why not let people – yes, even the author- say what they feel needs to be said about them.  In the end, all that matters is the experience you have with the books.  There is no right or wrong about that.

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Book Review, British Literature, Essay, Favorites, Gender Studies, Literature, Modern March, Modernism, Non-Fiction, Virginia Woolf, writing

Thoughts: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

340793A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Wolf
Final Verdict: Perfection
YTD: 22

I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own two days ago, and I have been thinking about it ever since. I imagine that I will be thinking about it for quite some time. It, like the last two Woolf books I read, was not what I expected it to be. Yes, I knew the book developed from lectures she gave on “Women and Fiction” to students at Newnham and Girton in 1928. Yes, I knew that Shakespeare’s infamous sister originated from these lectures, and I knew that Woolf’s renowned declaration that a woman must have “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4) was the primary theme for the lectures and papers which eventually became this book. So, why was I caught off-guard by this book? What did she give me that I wasn’t expecting? Was there something missing – something I expected to see but didn’t?

I was caught off-guard, first, by the lecture style. I have been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, lately. Essays and lectures about writing, theory, and criticism, as well as histories of sexuality and gender, in literature and other mediums. Most of these, aside, perhaps, from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, are relatively straightforward nonfiction. But Woolf tells a story with her lectures – in fact, she creates a fictive world and fictive experiences to relay the message she intends to deliver to these young women. Typically, I look for a writer’s genius in their fiction, because, first of all, I’m a reader of fiction and because, secondly, I believe it is more difficult to get one’s point across in a creative way than it is to deliver it face-forward in an essay or lecture, where one can simply state what they mean, give examples, and move on. Fiction is harder – it is more subtle, delicate, and complex. You have to develop it in order to deliver it effectively. Nonfiction, while still taking great effort to make it “worthwhile,” and readable does not necessarily require story, too. But Woolf gives us the story anyway, and she gives us history, and she gives us visions of the future. It is, to put it plainly, simply stunning.

A Room of One’s Own is about the inequalities of sex, certainly. When she talks of needing £500 and a private room, with a lock, she is being quite literal. But she’s also going beyond that – she’s not just talking about women and she’s not just talking about the creative process. She’s talking about brilliance and genius and what it really takes to get there. This is a book as much about class and economics as it is about sexual politics. The great writers throughout most of history have been men because men have been privileged with wealth of their own, property of their own, space of their own. They had access to education and travel, to training and experience. Jane Austen, her ultimate exception to this rule, was brilliant despite this lack and, even so, her works, brilliant as they are, have their limitations, because Austen’s own experiences were limited. Woolf is a feminist, whether or not she would admit it, and that comes across at times in these lectures, but what is really interesting is that she is not speaking to women in general –she’s not really concerned with that population; she is speaking to women of genius.

Where does all this leave me? It is nearly 100 years later and the one theme at the heart of Woolf’s theory still seems to hold true: one needs time, space, and money in order to reach greatness. One must be granted the ability to spend time with one’s self, to give him or herself completely to their craft, to not be distracted by anything else, if he or she is to succeed. Of course, this makes sense and it is something I have thought about for more than a decade. If only I had time, I would say to myself, I could get this book written, that project completed. Or, if only I had the money, I would think, I could travel to Europe, investigate what I need to, experience what I must, and learn what I should, in order to write what I feel. So, knowing this, and reading it in blunt delivery from one of the greatest literary minds to grace history, what do I do with myself? Time? Money? I work 45-50 hours per week. I’m pursuing my Ph.D. full-time, which adds 6 hours of class time each week plus who knows how many hours of research, homework, and assigned reading, not to mention the additional 6 hours spent commuting to and from campus. Sleep factors in there, sometimes.

Woolf, you see, has made me seriously doubt the way I’m going about my life. She says one needs free time and privacy from distraction – but aside from winning the lottery, how does one support a (brilliant) writing life? She says one needs an education – but how far is it necessary to go, and how do you focus on your own work when completing the “required” education? These are the questions she raises and leaves unanswered for me. I don’t consider myself to be a genius, so it’s probably true that Woolf doesn’t intend her lectures for me; still, I do consider myself to be a writer and one who is very concerned with the requirements of time, space, and security. So, it’s a hard book for me. It’s a hard book, I think, for any writer who finds himself in a hard place. But it’s a life-changing book and it has left me with more thoughts than I know what to do with, more doubts than I can afford to deal with, and more desire than I can bear to let go of.

Notable Quotes:

“It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten” (10).

“And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse” (11).

“One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man” (32).

“Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband” (44).

“Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman” (49).

“When people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments” (68).

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” (76).

“It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly” (104).

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters” (106).

A Room of One’s Own is Book 2 completed for the Modern March event.

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