Writing-and-reading is a reciprocal relationship. Of course this is true, if I sometimes forget it, as I write. Bestselling American author and comedian David Sedaris makes it plain:
Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.
And don’t we love those books the most? The ones that invite us to bring our “stuff” to the narrative? To bring our anxieties and passions, our joys and fears? How else to truly connect with story, if we don’t add ourselves to the mix?
I recently finished Tove Jansson’s (autobiographical) novel, Fair Play. (Yes, my Jansson fascination continues.) Those who have read any Jansson will not be surprised that it is a quiet story–a story of two women, partners in life and art–that feels incredibly brave at the same time it is a meditation.
Written in short chapters accumulating in just 100 pages, the reader watches the artists–one woman is a writer, one a visual artist–go about their daily lives of work and play, as the two remain open always to creative possibilities. Yes, there are arguments and bickering; they don’t always agree on their art or their life’s comings and goings. But the space they give each other to be the artists–and humans–they need to be, is more touching (and romantic, really) than any standard-fare romance could be for me.
The space to create is at the heart of this engaging read–and I’m going to hold onto that feeling as I write. Readers aren’t a byproduct of writing; they’re partners in it. They are a vital part of the creation.
Which is why community–no matter your art–is so important. Thank you for being here!
What are you reading? What are you writing this week?
Did you read any of Jansson’s famous Moomin books for children, when you were a child? Have you seen the trailer for the first full-length film based on Jansson’s life?
Interested in author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my handy-dandy categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark
Warning: I am full-on author-crushing right now. The author: Tove Jansson (1914-2001), Finland’s most famous writer-illustrator, who introduced the world to the Moomins–a family of peace-loving trolls brought to life in illustrated children’s books–and also wrote some really fantastic literature for adults.
In light of the first feature film about Jansson releasing next month, I’ve recently devoted much of my reading time to her novel, The Summer Book, and her short stories. All capture Finland from the inside–in a way no travelogue ever could. Thank goodness for translations (and Thomas Teal, in particular, who translated much of Jansson’s work into English). Since I don’t read Swedish–Jansson was born into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority–or Finnish. I’ve got enough on my plate trying to capture moments in Finland’s history in my novel-in-progress, set in part in this Nordic place–at once beautiful and dangerous, light and dark, like the best photograph, painting, or story. I’m looking for and finding much inspiration in Jansson’s work.
Remember daydreaming? That old creativity-inducing distraction? I do–if just barely.
Now, even our distractions are automated and customized and curated by an algorithm that seems to know what we should be daydreaming about before we can even get to it. What’s more, the rabbit holes we find ourselves distractedly falling down end not in a constructively weird place–but all too often in a place that might be weird but probably will cost us money. So, a destination that leaves us both distracted and poorer. Happy 2020! From a fun piece by Kathryn Schulz from 2015 in The New Yorker. She saw it coming:
How did “rabbit hole,” which started its figurative life as a conduit to a fantastical land [in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland], evolve into a metaphor for extreme distraction? One obvious culprit is the Internet, which has altered to an indescribable degree the ways that we distract ourselves.
Thank you for Internet-ing right here, this Monday morning, when there are so many rabbit holes clambering for us, desiring to drive us to distraction–to forget our intentions, our destinations, our worth, even ourselves.
Can I tell you I’ve been distracted?
While others have been setting down their 2020 resolutions, and even committing them to blog post (and, as such, according to the court of blog, making them treaties never to be broken!), I’ve been distracted. While others have been new-decade-to-do-ing and vision-boarding, I’ve been distracted.
Two weeks of 2020 in the crapper already, and I’ve made a word cloud. (See above.) Well, not me, but a website. OK, I plopped in the words–from my novel-in-progress–and out came a word cloud. I did pick the shape and the color scheme: blue.
Here’s another thing: I found a website, literature-map, that will show me (in an attractive visual-thesaurus web sort of way) which authors are most like my faves. A new-to-me fave:
Which reminds me of The Princess Bride. What a movie. Inconceivable! Who was that actor? He’s still alive, right?
You see what I mean? This exercise in rabbit-holing isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with distractions, or daydreams, but that I might be better served by being a little more intentional. You know: dreaming with intention, design, volition, even, dare I say, a goal.
So, I’m goal-setting-lite, meaning with enough wiggle room for constructive rabbit holes and even breaks. (Like, “intention” comes from the Latin intentus, meaning “a stretching out,” also “a leaning toward, a strain.” I mean, that sounds like exercise, which is never supposed to be easy, right?)
I’m reading with intention–right now Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan quartet of novels by the highly-acclaimed Italian author–to inform my historical novel about an Italian family in WWII America. And I’m back over at Goodreads, where I’m going to try to keep better track of what I’ve read–outside of Rust Belt authors.
I’ve also been taking some lovely reading detours–having read over the last month a children’s book, a literary thriller, and a sci-fi screenplay–for friends and fellow bloggers who are highly-acclaimed in my eyes. And reading thinker-blogposts, like this one “On Breaks and Connections.” And next up on the ol’ TBR is a book of poetry–because poetry is the best kind of distraction.
Writing? OK, I didn’t use my Christmas break to gain great headway on my novel-in-progress (outside of the groovy word cloud)–what with Christmas and Christmas carols, cookies, and more cookies. However, I did get another chapter down. And then, in response to a call from a journal I admire, I wrote a thing–a creative nonfiction piece about Ordinary Time and ordinary time and making the everyday a holiday worth singing about and feasting over; and finding the blissfully mundane in a holiday. It’s a working rabbit hole, anyway. And the novel draft will be out of my brain and on paper, come June (wish me luck).
And editing. I wore that hat a lot over at Parhelion Literary Magazine, last year. My 2019 saw me shepherd three book reviews, five essays, and an author interview into the world, plus I conducted two interviews, and penned a piece on finding “twin skin” and solace in the essays of Randon Billings Noble. I adore this PLM gig and hope you’ll check me out over there, too. More good stuff to come in 2020.
Of course, it’s publishing that’s considered to be the big win, the brass ring, the dream destination for us writer-types. The agent querying continues, but I did have a couple short stories published last year in journals I love. And, lest I forget that this writing thing is about the path, and not the destination, I read this post for a different kind of “Resolution,” today.
Goals. I’ll get on it. I will. Right now, you’re here and I’m here, which means we’re in the very same rabbit hole (#bloggoals), if for only a few minutes–and that’s a win these days. As was being nominated for the Bloggers Recognition Award by one of my favorite blogging friends, Silvia, from Italian Goodness, who, when I told her I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to hop on the nomination train, said these wise words: “Life is busy. Family comes first. Never stop dreaming, but prioritizing is the secret of happiness.” Truer words, folks… Thank you, Silvia! (And go make one her Italian recipes and make yourself so happy.)
Here’s to more connecting and dream-making in 2020–by a little luck and a pinch of intention.
Have you recovered from the Christmas cookie coma? New Year’s resolution-failure guilt getting to you, or is that just me?
Care to social media rabbit-hole together? You can find me at FB, on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark, and at Goodreads, where it appears as if I’m just getting the hang of this whole literary thing.
When I was on bed-rest, hugely pregnant with my twin boys, I did what I do in any anxiety-producing situation, especially one that would have me lying on my side for three months: I read. In addition to the care-and-feeding-of-babies books, I read about the raising of boys into men, the emotional aspects and the pitfalls to avoid.
In my reading, I found prevalent boy-myths to steer clear of (in life, not in writing–myths are fun there, but more on that in a bit). Two common ones: boy as animal (he simply can’t be good); and boy as prince (he can do no wrong, no matter how he tries).
Once I delivered my boys into the world, I became uber-focused not on their boyhood but on their infant hood–a precarious time made more precarious by sleep deprivation (mine, not theirs). “Your job is to keep them alive,” the pediatrician said. (If that sounds dire or needlessly heartless, I’ve since learned this is something pediatricians regularly say to moms of twins.) For me, nursing day and night, there was no time or energy for thinking ahead to boyhood–or mythologizing or otherwise romanticizing it in any way.
Amid the mental and physical haze of exhaustion, I did fall prey to infant-mom advertising: you know, the stuff of soft lighting illuminating mother placidly cradling baby in her arms–that’s one baby, not two. And so much gazing–lovingly–into each other’s bright eyes. Kenny G might have been playing his muzak as soundtrack to the ad–trying its best to sell me bottles, bjorns, fancy diapers, or other stuff I wasn’t buying.
What I was buying, however, (and internalizing like the marketing writer I am by day) was that romantic image presented. I was buying that hook, line, and sinker. Yet, I remember a turn of phrase that left me feeling heartless and creeped out all at once: fall in love with your baby boy.
Of course, myths abound in culture and literature through the ages that feature a mother falling in love with her son: not Pampers-love, but romantic–even erotic–love.
Yet, for this reader, it sometimes feels like directionless reading. Oh, I have my reading piles: one to inform this blog, one to inform my completed historical MS; one to inform my new MS; one for pure pleasure, which typically dwarfs the others out of neglect.
And, so, to experience a moment of reading kismet, when one book I love references another book I love, is a thing of beauty: a book-love triangle, if you will. This particular book-love triangle also happens to connect my blog reading with my pleasure reading, making me feel on this cold and dreary “spring” day a little more whole.
Enough lead-up, here it is: In Anthony Doerr’s memoir, Four Seasons In Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, he quotes a line from Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead:
There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.
There are as many reasons Doerr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has long lived in Idaho, would quote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Robinson, who was born in and has set stories in Idaho. Doerr and Robinson share more than external landscape; they share a sensibility, an exploration of the internal landscape of the spirit, spirits accustomed to the miracle of the everyday.
Any parent of twin infants will tell you (if they’re being honest), one baby at a time would have been sufficient. Because I am a twin parent, myself, Doerr’s memoir was recommended to me, though it didn’t make the tough moments in the memoir easier to read from having gone through similar ones myself. Still, it always seemed, the fog of nursing, holding, walking, changing and bathing sleepless little people would eventually lift, if for only a fleeting moment.
In one such moment of sleep deprived twin-parent frustration, the fog lifts for Doerr by a baby’s “first,” one of those little everyday miracles in the life of a parent: the first finger-squeeze, first smile, first crawl. In this instance, one of Doerr’s boys says “Ciao” to a Roman man passing in the stairwell. His first “Ciao.”
One of “a thousand thousand” reasons… And we could spend time here talking about the meaning behind “sufficiency” and behind “thousand” for Doerr, who quotes Robinson, America’s most famous living religious author–who, no doubt, uses “thousand” as the Bible does, to signify a multitude, a vast abundance. You can read my thoughts on Robinson’s Gilead, which I read for the first time only recently, here. You can read my initial thoughts on Doerr’s memoir, which I tandem read with The Gondola Maker–for a centuries-spanning “trip” to Italy–here.
But here is where I stop, today, to return to reading, for the multitude of little miracles that happen when we make connections across the piles of tomes of words that are waiting for us.
Have you experienced a book-love triangle you’d like to share? A baby’s “first”? A fog lifted? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Yep, that’s my writing advice for this luckiest of days during NaNoWriMo (at a point when my word count is stalled at 8,237).
Last night, I finished the novella (remember those; they’re having a renaissance, I hope) titled Camp Olvido. I could have been writing or plotting (ha, that’s a joke), but I needed to recharge. So I read.
Written by Lawrence Coates, Camp Olvido is set in a Depression-era migrant workers’ camp in California and will remind you of Steinbeck’s work, but this 2015 book is its own rare and wonderful gem. Read it for the compelling history, story, images and language that will leave you awed. It’s that good.
So, I wrote the author to tell him. OK, maybe it’s two pieces of writing advice today: No. 1: read. No. 2: respond to what sings true and clear for you on the page.
Happy reading and writing. Happy NaNo!
How’s it going, if it’s going? No NaNo for you this year? What are you reading and loving right now?
Feeling social? Let’s connect on FB and Twitter. Like a post of mine; I hope you’ll share with your friends–both social and otherwise!
I have to say, I felt a little bit vindicated when reading author Lauren Groff‘s latest interview with Poets & Writers magazine (her short story collection, Florida, was released earlier this year) in which she asserts: “Florida is the biggest joke of all the states. It is the punchline to every other state’s joke.”
That statement, itself, feels like a joke to this Cleveland, Ohio native. A quick recap for the Buckeye State-uninitiated: OH is flyover country; Cleveland is the “Mistake on the Lake”; the home team Cleveland Browns’ last season went 0 and 16. (Yep, it’s a rebuilding year–again.)
We’re at the midpoint of the middle month of the summer, in my view. (We warm up early here in Maryland). And I’m feeling like I’ve only just begun to check off items on my summer to-do list. My boys filled out a summer bucket list on the last day of school. (Thanks for setting me up to fail, teach!) I have yet to pen my own. Top of the list would be “visit the Lake Erie shores and islands with fam.” (Yes, there are islands in Lake Erie–something for everyone, unless you’re allergic to ferries.)
That’s where we’re headed, my boys and me, to visit with family. Picture us in the scene above. So, I’ll be taking a brief hiatus from the blog, but not from reading and writing. That never happens.
On the work front, I made a deadline last week, handing in a 4,000-word feature story (I think I rocked it; I hope the editor agrees!). There will be edits. Oh, there always will be edits.
A creative item of note: I found out earlier this week that I will be a presenter at the Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival, and I’m so excited! In addition to doing a creative reading of a flash fiction piece of mine, I will sit on the Writers’ Publishing Panel–to talk about the ol’ blog. (Maybe see a few of you there!)
Thanks to my followers and friends here who encouraged me to submit a proposal. Your support means so much!
On my upcoming vacation, I hope to catch up on all I’ve missed recently on my WordPress Reader and to finish the books I’ve started: on audio (for my WWII list) Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone, a friend, former fellow MFA classmate, and all-around major literary talent); and in book form (for my Rust Belt list): The Weight of Heaven by novelist and memoirist Thrity Umrigar, who lives and teaches in Cleveland. (I’m interested to see if any Rust Belt sensibilities rub off on her characters.)
Mostly though, I am hoping for boat rides and swims at the pool and backyard fish fries and back deck-sitting with family until the mosquitoes drive us inside. Bucket list done and done.
My powers of observation are not so keen that I’m going to brave the very crowded depths of reviews of A Gentleman in Moscow. (Want to read my reviews, I’ve got a whole category, above.)
Let’s just agree that Amor Towles’s second novel is a modern masterpiece, shall we? If you are one of the four people on the planet who haven’t read or at least heard about this story of Count Alexander Rostov, here’s a brief intro (from the jacket copy):
When, in 1922, the thirty-year-old Count is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin…the [erudite and witty] Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry to a much larger world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships…
Basically, drama, relationships, and meaningful meditations ensue. Just read this novel about the Russian soul–its art, history, toil, treasures, and catastrophes. (And be sure to watch the best novel trailer I’ve ever seen at Towles’s website, above.)
Just as this former kid ballet dancer (me) can’t watch a ballet without my feet twitching, my calves contracting, my back straightening, and my head lilting this way and that with those on stage, I can’t read a book without wondering how?
But here’s not the place for a deep-dive into craft. I simply want to note a few miracles of invention in A Gentleman… and provide a word of caution to the dutifully outlining and character backstory-charting new(er) writers out there.
An image of note: the Count’s twice-tolling clock is much more than a clock that tells time by tolling only at noon and at midnight. It provides a mechanism to discuss industriousness, for Towles to tell us of the Count’s father, who had the clock made because a man (of a certain class, time, and place) should be too busy with work to heed the chimes between waking and noon. And by noon, having had an industrious morning, a man should then leave his work to commune with others. Should he hear the midnight chime, he is too late to bed. And the replete uses for this image are only beginning…
Description of note: readers come to a book like this expecting description befitting its learned main character. Towles delivers, but fear not, he doesn’t (like in real Russian novels) let his pacing lag in many-paged sections of description. No, his descriptions are just as clippy and cutting as his dialogue.
Take the goose chase section (trust me), a funny and farcical bit that brings together in a hotel hallway a melange of worldly guests: two French journalists, a Swiss diplomat, three Uzbek fur traders, a representative of the Roman Catholic Church, a Russian opera tenor with his family of five, and an American general. (All that’s missing is a partridge you know where, but then we do have geese!) Each becomes a character–and a caricature in the Count’s eyes–in the briefest of scenes, thanks to Towles’s powers of description. The ambassador from the Vatican advised; the Swiss diplomat heard the Russian and the Italian out, mouth shut; the tenor, “who spoke only a few words of Italian, informed the prelate (fortissimo) that he was not a man to be toyed with.” The American general, from “The Great State of Texas” took charge and threw the geese out the window.
A sleight of hand (and humor) of note: recently I read a wonderfully-informative and instructive piece on Brevity‘s nonfiction blog, “The Sound of a Memoir,” about shying away from using song lyrics in our writing (whether fiction or nonfiction). Practically-speaking, citing song lyrics (titles are OK) can be an expensive endeavor–if a writer manages to get permission to use them. Creatively-speaking, there are better ways to note a song in a story–to provide a bit of soundtrack to a piece, to get the reader’s foot tapping and put him or her in mind of a certain time when that song said so much! (If you now, as I do, have Elton John’s “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” in your head, you’re welcome.)
Back to Towles’s mastery: In A Gentleman… the author artfully explores the passing of time and trends, in one part commenting on jazz music. In not one but a few places the author has the Count muse about the popular jazz tune that speaks of a distinct absence of bananas, a lack of bananas, for want of bananas… You get the idea. Anyone who hasn’t lived his entire life in a cave knows the song is Louis Prima’s “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” (hear the song here) but by not citing even the title, the reference becomes more than a song but a clever running joke.
All that’s to gush, yes, and also to provide a word of caution to the new(er) writers out there looking for the keys–not only to plot but to imagery and motifs, the characterization and quirks–that make a piece of writing beautiful. How to make these little miracles happen on the page? If I knew, I would be doing it, right now. But I think one of the keys to being a great writer is being a great reader. Another is to trust your mind to make the miracles as you go. Call it a state of flow or the (ahem) muse catching you by the hand, whatever, but writing is more about writing than planning. (OK, you caught me; I’m a panster.)
Yes, you can plan for plot. Outline all you like. Get a sense of your characters before diving in. But can you plan for the clever bits, the brilliant tropes and descriptors and “bananas” that make a piece sing, I’m not so sure.
What do you think? What miracles of invention have you encountered thus far in your summer reads? I’d love to hear from you!
*I grabbed the American and UK cover (which I prefer) images from Goodreads.
Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, and personalities, and have them relate to other characters living with him.
Amen, Mel. (Ahem, with the addition of “her skin,” “her ability,” and “with her,” thank you very much.)
Ever have one of those weeks (or months) when you feel like you’re juggling too many balls–but also too many names, identities, and personalities? And not only on the page.
I am a creative writer (“dang it,” she pounds fist on desk), but I am also a writer and editor for modest pay universities and etc. It is this latter personality that lately has taken precedence over the former (because the fruits of this personality can buy actual fruit, or veggies, or ice cream from the truck that smartly parks itself at our neighborhood pool.)
Fear not, one of two looming work deadlines met, I am seeing the light. (Sometime, I’m going to see how many myriad scads of mixed metaphors I can cram into a single post!) Back to my creative endeavors I WILL BE (soon-ish).
In the meantime, I enjoy my work that allows me to pick the brains of academics young and seasoned and learn things I’d never come to on my own, like the powers of biofilms, the miracles of flexible solar cells, what rotorcraft even is. Really, I remind myself, it’s all creative, right? Who knows, maybe this work will create burgeoning new identities in my fiction.
I talked in my last post about list-making, reining in those cows. (Another metaphor gone awry.) I’m trying to be better about writing it all down, so I see what I must do, and what I AM DOING. (Sleeping past 8am, now that the kids are out of school, for one. Big, big win!)
Creative right now:
Reading: A Gentleman in Moscow (read me gush about it on my FB page.); next up, Warlight
Listening to: Above Us Only Sky, audio novel by my uber-talented author friend from my MFA program days, Michele Young-Stone
Submitting: yesterday, a travel-ish short story of mine set in India to the literary travel mag, Nowhere; agent query submissions coming soon (see next line)
Editing: that last 40 pages of my historical novel manuscript–woo to the hoo!
How’s your creative list looking? What are you reading, writing, loving right now? Let me know here or at FB.