The Wandering Scholars

I’m reading a book written in the 20s at the moment, a kind of literary criticism and history about the Goliards. The writer — Helen Waddell — writes like a waterfall, says little (that I can use), and what she DOES often says in Latin. The writing carries you along like a raft on a river at high flow, and when you get to the end of the page, you don’t know what you read. It’s a kind of verbal feast but wow. Not helping me. Here’s a random example…

O admirabile Venus idolum

and still more significant in promise, the alba of the Vatican MS. of St. Martial of Limoges. The alba is more precious for its Provencal burden than for other merit: it still holds to Predentius, and the cry might be to waken faithful souls rather than sleeping lovers, the enemy in ambush the Enemy of souls rather than the jealous guardian. But in its own exquisit phrase,

“Dawn is near: she leans across the dark sea.”

Interestingly, she’s EXPLAINING poetry that makes more sense than she does. I’m through three of the chapters and so far the book says, Chapter One, “The Goliards (and the entire church!) was influenced by secular Latin poetry more than they like to acknowledge.” Chapter Two, “There was a transitional moment when the Church tried shaking off the sensual (if not libidinous) secular influence, but they really couldn’t do it. They got some lovely lines, though.” And Chapter Three, “A group rebelled against the church rather quietly and wrote poetry intending to mimic Church verses. Mostly this was in Latin, but after a while, they began writing in their own languages. There are some quite nice things in Middle High German.”

The most comprehensible thing to me in the first chapter were two lines of Dante in Italian. This was after a small flash flood of Latin that had left me dumbfounded, so Dante was a relief. I actually thought, “Hey, I can read that!” As the book progresses into territory I know (the Irish monks and scholars, Columbanus and Gall) I feel a lot better, but wonder why no one ever made me read Virgil? What have I missed?

The thing is, she LOVES this stuff, just plain LOVES it. She gushes like a, oh, I already said that.

She, herself, is an interesting woman, and I wish I could have known her. She was born in China; her parents missionaries. So far she has compared some lines of some poems to some lines of some poems by the Chinese poet, Pai Chuyi. I know his story and his work, so for me that was a log to hold onto in this torrent of words. She must have had incredible linguistic abilities, too.

In a way, she seems to be the Jackson Pollack of thought, but I know it was a different world in 1927 when she wrote this book. People read differently and many had a classical education. And my needs as a writer? Facts. But I know facts are scanty for life in the 10 – 13th centuries, it’s just that I have this THING of showing how NOT dark the “Dark” Ages were. Maybe they’re dark because the people and their lives are buried under time’s detritus and we (too easily?) accepted a random Italian painter’s definition of the Renaissance? (My opinion…)

The book is good exercise for my lazy brain. I keep imagining these young disenchanted clerics and their “amoral” lives, the moment they stopped writing their irreverent verses in Latin and started writing in (that bastard!) Italian and (that barbaric language) German. I imagine them going, “Fuck this!” (which I wanted to write in Latin but Google Translate is NOT helpful giving me — as Latin synonyms a range of NON-synonyms such as “Fortuna”).

But maybe it wasn’t like that…

 

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/09/12/wednesday-rdp-feast/

Bliss

Chilly mornings out here in the real west. This big cup of hot coffee is (sometimes) the best part of a whole day. It’s always a major enhancement. I’m sad when it’s gone, and I have to give the cup to Dusty T. Dog (who is salivating at my feet waiting for it). All he gets is whatever has stuck to the sides of the cup, but he likes it. I think it’s a bonding thing.

During my long blogging hiatus I finished my book and sent it to my editor, Beth Bruno. She’s a writer’s editor not an editor like Maxwell Perkins or something. She helps me find typos and inelegancies of writing and that sort of thing. She’s awesome. Very helpful, thorough, and kind. I like working with her very much.

Long long ago (like 20 years) when I first sent manuscripts of Martin of Gfenn to agents, I got a rejection that was a folded a 8 1/2 x 11 sheet off paper that said in big black letters written with a Magic Marker, “Get an editor!” Big black letters and all, I didn’t know what he meant. I mean, was I NOT an English teacher? A WRITING teacher? Seriously?

But he was right. I should have been alert to hubris, but like many heroes (ha ha) had not yet encountered my fatal flaw face-to-face.

Meanwhile I’ve done my tasks. I have compiled a little spreadsheet that is a list of possible agents for The Price. I’ve written a pretty good query letter. I have done my chapter summaries, my synopsis and an introduction to the book.

I know that self-publishing is an option, but (as with all my books except My Everest) I want to give it a chance out in the big world.

~~~

In case you want to know what my coffee is, it’s made in Colorado. You can order it online. I bought a 5 pound bag a couple of months ago. I’ve tried their “sampler” and ALL of it was delicious. You can actually tell the different roasts and origins apart. Because of the way it’s roasted, it’s relatively low acid, too. That’s all for my sales pitch. 😉

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https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/09/07/friday-rdp-coffee/

 

Inspiration

My high school art teacher was mostly (where I was concerned) nasty and inept, but once in a while he said something worth hearing. One of these things was “Don’t depend on inspiration. Art is 98% work and 2% inspiration.”

I now know he probably didn’t invent that saying, but he’s right, though for myself, I’d give inspiration a few more percentage points. I find there are two moments of inspiration; there’s a moment when you get an inspiring idea and there might be a moment in the midst of working out the idea that you are inspired again, inspired within the work you’re doing. This happens to me all the time. I think a lot of writers/artists can be inspired BY their work. I hope so, anyway, because it’s the best.

For nearly two years (I think?) I’ve been writing what I’ve called “The Schneebelis Come to America.” It’s been pure drudgery most of the time. The protagonist I found unlikeable. I didn’t want to write a female heroine for many reasons but mostly because, right now, a female heroine almost MUST be a certain type of female. Since the Schneebelis (and their adventures) are based on my own family and its history, and I would have stayed in Switzerland, and would like to be there now, I kept getting a little angry them for emigrating. And, the damned thing was (is) a love story. I didn’t want to write a love story.

But I had to write it. I felt not only compelled but IMPELLED (impaled?). It was the strangest inspiration I’ve experienced. Once in a while, I’d get to it and the story would go somewhere and then it would just kind of die in a pool of my resentment over any one of those problems.

And then…

Before my hip surgery, I contacted a woman — Beth Bruno —  whom I’d hired to edit Savior and The Brothers PathI wanted someone to read it and tell me what they thought was missing. I think in my heart of hearts I KNEW what was missing, but I just didn’t want to write the damned thing any more and was hoping for absolution OR “Gawd, woman, this is awful. Put it away FOREVER.”

What I got was:

I must say, this is a touching story about family with its focus on marriage and how two people in love can still find it impossible to move ahead because their life goals are so different. Love doesn’t conquer all after all. They explore difficult issues of love, loyalty, compromise and taking risks at various choice points in their lives.
The reason I think it deserves a longer ending that allows the story to develop further is that I don’t think enough happens after the family reaches America to give the reader some sense of whether the trip was worth it or not. The fact that their passage wound up being on a death ship only makes letting the survivors cope for a few weeks that much more important. Otherwise, the loss of Verena and Elisabethli is for naught and teaches Hans Kaspar nothing at all. The part about the ending that I do like is seeing Conrad come into his own and go forth into the future with a sense of purpose and readiness to create a family that honors Verena’s memory.
Again, I found myself caring deeply about these people because what they are going through is so real — not only from the standpoint of your wonderful writing but also from the historical truths they portray.

 

OH well. We then had a phone conversation. After that, I was inspired.

So I went at it. Most important, I went at it with a not completely clear brain (it takes a while for anesthesia to fully leave an older person’s system) and not caring at all about the outcome. I really had nothing else to do. My main jobs have been regaining my physical ability and integrating a new dog into the “pack.”

As I worked, the work started to inspire me and the time I had spent writing blog posts went into the story.

Inspiration is a drug. It’s very intoxicating and no one who’s in the throes of it thinks clearly or has an objective mind. Inspiration just feels SO GOOD. One of these days I felt the whole day had been a dream — it had been a day of successful writing, fifteen minutes on the Elliptical trainer at physical therapy, two dog walks (with three dogs, there are those days) — not a special day, but when it ended I really felt I’d dreamed the whole thing. It seemed to have had no hours or minutes in it.

Yesterday I finished it and I was in love with the ending. That’s the thing about inspiration; it feels a lot like infatuation. You wonder, “Will it last?”

I wrote my editor and said, “I did it. I have an ending, but I’m not telling.” I wasn’t sure. I wanted to sleep on it. When I got up today and read it, I was LESS in love than I was yesterday, but I was happy with it.

I thought about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet which is a very wise piece of advice for anyone? Writers? Young people? and I read it first in a bookstore in Denver in Larimer Square in the early 1970s. I thought it wrote it for ME it was that apt — it’s (I now know) that apt for a lot of people. It’s a collection of letters he wrote to a young poet (duh). He warns against “Living and writing in heat.” Inspiration is “heat” — and a wise person will give the products of that ecstasy time to cool

The thing about writing — and unless I’m doing it I don’t think about it — is it is a solitary thing. When I first moved here and was finishing The Brothers Path and I didn’t know anyone, it was easy. Now I know a few people and I like them, but in the midst of inspiration, I don’t have anything in common with anyone. I’m living in a world peopled by beings that are from my imagination (and some dogs). It’s hard to have a conversation when there’s already a bunch of them going on in your head — some with yourself (“Is this where the story really goes next or am I forcing it?”) some between the people in your imagination…

So I’ve spent the last 3 months pretty much alone and, if not alone, somewhat alienated.

Rilke also writes against literary criticism (amen), saying, “Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them,” after which he describes what it means to be an artist:

Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!

I’m happy I didn’t force this and that I didn’t give up. I’m happy for the clear eyes of my editor who saw the love story as it is — a love that just wasn’t going to make the people involved happy. I know a lot about that kind of love, which is why I resisted “happily ever after.” The project still needs a lot of work and there are things — research related — that I want to do before it will be finished, but I’m very happy that, finally, the story engaged me and even happier that it engaged my editor in the first place. She saw what I hoped I had written.

***

The photo is of the Hans Herr house in Lancaster PA. He was an early Swiss immigrant — Mennonite — to Pennsylvania from Zürich.

You’re Just a TV Show

“Don’t assume anything. Assuming makes an…”

“Don’t, please, don’t give me that incredibly tired and hackneyed spelling cliché OK? Anyway, I don’t agree. An assumption is just a theory. As long as we KNOW we’re not dealing with facts but something we simply believe might be true, we’re OK.”

“Whatever. You always make a mountain…”

“Stop it.”

“Do you want some more coffee?”

“No thanks. Gotta’ run. Big day at work.”

“Oh right. Your presentation is today.”

“Yeah.”

“No wonder you’re so testy.”

“Argh. See you later.”

Ted closed the front door behind him, got behind the wheel of the big-finned Chevy and drove to the train station. As he pulled into his parking space, he looked up and saw the train was arriving. “Dammit,” he muttered. “I might not make it.” He took the keys out of the ignition, buried them in the deep front pocket of his Brooks Brothers Suit and, taking his briefcase, ran for the train, reaching the platform just as the conductor yelled, “All aboard!”

He settled into a seat by the window and watched the fields and suburbs vanish into low-rent urban sprawl, small industry and automobile graveyards. “You’re just a TV drama,” said a voice apparently coming from the window. “Everything you think is real is just in the mind of a bunch of TV writers.”

“What?”

The images in the window flashed ever faster as the train got nearer the city.

“Watch when you get off the train,” said the voice. “See what happens.”

Ted shook his head, “I must have been dozing,” he thought. “Wow.”

The brakes of the train squealed, and the wheels grated against the tracks. Ted stood up to get his hat and briefcase from the rack above the seat, but there was nothing there. He looked around, wondering how he could have left them in the car. “I was late,” he thought. “I wish Esther didn’t even open her stupid mouth sometimes. I bet they’re in the car.”

When he turned around he was stunned. What was going on? People were — there were so many women most of them in trousers? Young people staring into dark rectangles apparently stuck to their palms. Why? What? “Excuse me,” he said, inadvertently bumping into an immensely fat teenager with plugs in his ears.

He carefully stepped down from the train car onto the platform. Huge panels with vivid advertising surrounded him. “How in hell?” he asked himself. Reaching the station, he headed inside, hoping to grab a taxi and get to the office and away from the weirdness, but even Grand Central Station was different, brighter, lighter, the smokey dinge he knew so well seemed to have been blasted away by one of Proctor and Gambles’ new bleach products. He fumbled in his jacket for a smoke and his lighter. Putting the cigarette in his mouth he shook open the engraved Ronson lighter Esther had given him for his birthday.

“No smoking, sir,” said a station attendant.

“What?”

“That’s right sir, no smoking.”

Ted put the cigarette into the attendant’s hand and headed toward the revolving doors. As he pushed the door away from him he noticed an elegantly dressed old man,  a cigarette butt hanging from his tired lips. As they passed, their eyes connected in an electric glance of recognition. The old man tipped his hat to Ted and nodded. A shiver ran down Ted’s spine. Ted shook his head. “What is going on this morning?”

Outside the station, Ted hailed a Checker Cab at the same moment as a slender woman in a leopard skin pillbox hat, pencil skirt and stiletto heels. “Would you share?” she asked, holding her long cigarette holder away from her red lips

“With pleasure. Where are you going?”

“Madison Avenue.”

***

In my recovery world I needed a compelling TV series to get me through the evenings. Someone suggested Mad Men. I’d started watching it some time ago but didn’t like the stereotypes and the tendency to make people from that era look stupid. I still don’t like those aspects, but I understand the stereotypes were a gate to allow entry for people who were not there. I would’ve been Don Draper’s daughter, more or less.

Watching it has been strange — but it’s a way to kill those hours before bed when the swelling has been worst. It’s also made me think about writing historical fiction. I keep imagining my characters showing up at my door saying, “OK, look, you got some stuff right, but seriously?” I think this especially with cigarettes — which the makers of Mad Men seem fascinated by. Yeah, back in the day, most adults smoked a lot, but I don’t think they would have focused their cameras on the ash trays. It was just how things were, something constantly in the background (not the foreground) of existence.

What was NOT in the background of their existence are Don Draper’s words, “We have everything, right?” In that I heard all the long dinner table diatribes of my childhood about growing up in the Depression and how lucky us kids were to have had everything.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/assumption/

Marble Notebook

“France was filled with emptiness.” OK, that’s bad writing, but noticing it this morning in my Facebook feed made me happy. “Wow,” I thought. “I’m noticing bad writing again. Things are improving.”

The article from which it came isn’t bad writing, and I get the dramatic effect the author was going for in his faux paradox. The article tells about Paul Landowski’s Les Fantômesa very different WW I memorial.

My editor has gotten back to me with her opinion about The Schneebelis Go to America (working title). She sees pretty much what I saw, that the novel needs to be longer and give the reader a more satisfying conclusion. What that will be I still don’t know. There are a couple of possibilities that I’ve already thought of, and there might be more. She has more feedback to give me and godnose my brain isn’t as clear as it could be, so

I write for myself, mainly, but I still want my work to be the best it can be and an aspect of quality is the ability to hold a reader’s interest. Beyond that there’s Aristotle.

What?

A long, long time ago in a faraway land known as Colorado Springs, in a distant era known as the late 60s, in a (for then) fancy pants suburban high school, a feisty little teacher taught her AP English class Aristotle’s Poetics.

41naj9Dt5BL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_

In this little book, Aristotle has described what makes an effective tragedy. It wasn’t written as a prescription; it was written as a description, but it’s pretty hard NOT to turn it into advice since those ancient Greek trajedies still have the power to inspire “pity and fear,” leading to a dramatic climax which, in its turn, must give the audience a chance to resolve the emotional jolt in catharsis. The Schneebelis Go to America doesn’t offer any chance at all for resolution. The audience would leave the theater bewildered. I’m not Samuel Beckett, so I can’t live easily with that.

The featured photo is of my new Stone Notebook. The pages are made of calcium carbonate made from Carrara marble dust. The paper is washable. Greenstory is a small Dutch company started by two Dutch high school students

Slight hip surgery update: Excruciating muscle/spasm/leg cramps last night that terrified both Lois and me. Research, research, research, common side effect of the entire process. OH WELL

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/slight/

About Writing…

Lots of people — maybe everyone who is or fancies themselves a writer — has ideas about what it means to write, what it means to be a writer. I am a writer and, of course, I have ideas. I have been a writer since I was 2 or 3 years old. I couldn’t read, but I could write and I did write. I “wrote” and handed the scribbled paper to my dad to read to me. At that point, I knew writing had to be read, but it didn’t seem to me that reading had anything to do with the act of writing. I was completely sure I was writing good stories.

Truman Capote described himself writing as a child, too, but when he started, he was able to read. He said, “I began writing really sort of seriously when I was about eleven. I say seriously in the sense that like other kids go home and practice the violin or the piano or whatever, I used to go home from school every day and I would write for about three hours. I was obsessed by it.” I was about the same age when I took over my dad’s typewriter and began writing poetry.

Those early poems are not crap, nor are they “cringeworthy” (not my word).  They are previsions of my adult life, compass needles pointing to things I would always love. In my first typed poem, I wrote about being out all night in a forest (I lived near a forest at the time) during a storm. Some lines of this first poem sing. Twelve year old Martha wrote, “Beauty gives wings to my feet,” “Thunder roars from the mountain,” “all stars shine in their own territory.” The poem begins and ends with the same lines — a really nice way to say, “Nature is cyclical.”

One of my high school teachers said to me, “If you want to write poetry, you need to learn to write a sonnet.” What that means is not that only sonnets are poetry, but that they are difficult and you learn a lot about language, imagery, rhythm and sound from making your meaning come through in those 14 lines. Once you’ve written a few, you get it. It’s the part of writing that is often regarded as “hard work” — discipline, revision, economy. Again, not my words.

When someone teaches writing (as I did for more than 35 years), they usually teach about the characteristics of a genre. They’ve read a bunch of stuff and they know the qualities that are expected to be there and they teach them. But no one gets up in the morning and says, “Damn, what a great day to write description!” All those things serve something else, the expression of ideas, visions, whatever that is inside a person that is the reason behind the writing. They’re tools for writing, they are not writing itself.

Real writing comes from having something to say and understanding to whom you need to say it. Sometimes you need to say it to yourself; sometimes you need to tell others something. Sometimes it’s urgent; sometimes it’s not. When I started writing this blog on WP I was disgusted by the Daily Prompt, but I undertook it. Why? Because I’ve learned that one of my enemies as a person and as a writer is thinking I know when I don’t leading to the fallacy of “automatic rejection.” I’d never attempted a “daily prompt.” It’s proven to be a harmless, and sometimes constructive, focus for short essays and stories that carry no consequences. A (wonderful) side-benefit has been the evolution of a community of readers. It’s all very nice.

All the terms for writing and writerliness such as “voice,” “structure,” “pacing,” “narrative arc,” etc. it’s all (to me) a bunch of blathering nonsense, but they are useful to many people for talking about writing in the way they want to talk about it. That’s all fine, but to me the job of a writer is first and foremost to write. Then I try to read the work dispassionately enough to know whether I have served the task to the best of my ability, because once something has been written it is no longer the possession of the writer. It belongs to a larger world.

My most profound experience with this was with my first novel, Martin of GfennI wrote it, loved every moment of that process, it ended up 500+ manuscript pages of what I thought (because of the way I’d FELT writing it) profound, sterling, flawless prose. Five years later, I looked at it again and it was a leviathon of repetition and over-writing –naturally so since I had only had — at most — an hour at a time to work on it. I didn’t know what to do, but the answer came from the protagonist himself. In the story he does  a painting that is so bad he doesn’t know what to do. His teacher tells him he has two choices. He can paint over it but always know what’s behind it, or start over and do it right. “Art cannot abide laziness,” he says to the young Martin.

I didn’t know how to do what I needed to do and, to help me, a great writer (Capote, again) appeared in my dreams as if to say, “Look at my work.” I did. I read everything Capote wrote, including what he had to say about writing. I applied it to my book. It ended up half as long and no word in that book is out of place, extra, or empty.

We learn as we go. When we start a project we bring the self we are at that moment along with our skills and understanding. BUT…the work itself is going to teach us and change us. There’s no recipe. It’s a journey into an unknown world, or, more accurately, a world that never existed before. Sometimes we’re stuck. That’s part of it.

I think Theodore Roethke’s poem, “The Waking,” is a great explication of what it means to write. In writing we do “learn by going where” we have to go.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

Magic

I have always hated magic tricks. It always seemed silly — verging on evil — to practice and practice and practice something for the purpose of fooling other people. Even when I was a kid I had strong feelings about it. Some magic tricks were funny, like when my dad pretended to take off the top knuckle/tip of his thumb. I could tell he was joking around, but when someone would say, “Nothing up my sleeve,” even before I knew how to say “fuck this” I was saying it inside.

But there was an exception, a really miraculous beautiful amazing fantastic out-of-this-world, unexpected moment of REAL magic.

It was a gloomy early January day in San Diego, late 1990s, during the time I still lived in the hood. I had tons of work to do to get ready for the semester that was about to start. I was flat ass broke as well. It was before I started teaching at San Diego State, so finances were always very grim a couple months of the year with NO income. By afternoon, I wanted OUT, but I didn’t have time to go to Mission Trails. I decided to take Bonnie, a beautiful golden Akita mix I was dog-sitting for a colleague who was spending a year in Korea, to a spot called Chollas Lake, one of the small reservoirs designed in the 30s to provide water to a city no one imagined would grow as it did.

The place itself is nice in a simple way. It’s a .8 mile loop around a small lake. It was frequented by lots of people, families and couples, joggers, people on dates and a GREAT flock of geese. There were picnic areas and a pier for fishing and launching small boats. There was a small playground. It isn’t in a fancy part of San Diego so it’s not a fancy place, no La Jolla or Del Mar, just a simple park, with a trail shaded by eucalyptus trees a couple miles from my house.

I was grumpy when I got behind the wheel. What was the point? Every day I did the best I could but it was always the same, struggling to make ends meet, teaching seven classes, grading thousands of papers every semester, never getting tenure. I was a failure but it was too late in life to change. The guy I was enamored of viewed me as a friend — maybe even a sister! — and had his sights set on someone 20 years younger who thought he was a relic. My brother was messed up and godnose where. NOTHING got better EVER. I turned the key and pulled out of the driveway. I was tired to death of the same-old, same-old. The sky spit rain. Bonnie calmly lay in the back of the Escort station wagon, glad to be going somewhere with me alone.

About halfway there, driving through the next neighborhood, a planned community from the 50s, winding streets and secret routes, I saw a kid holding a sign he’d painted in red on cardboard. Beside him was a table with a bunch of stuff neatly laid out on it. The sign said;

Free Magic Show.

I knew his whole story, then. He’d gotten a magic kit for Christmas, and he’d been practicing. His family and friends were sick of watching him, and he thought he was ready to (literally) take it to the streets. I was charmed — and taught. I realized that the moment we’re born that’s what we get.

And I wasn’t grumpy any more. Bonnie and I had a wonderful walk and said “Hi!” to lots of people, watched the geese, walked five miles, and saw a hawk.

In 2011, when I realized I was going to have to self-publish Martin of Gfenn, I looked at the “simple” instructions on Lulu (the platform I used), and I realized I’d better do a practice book. I assembled some essays from the blogs I was writing at the time on Blogger and made a book of essays. It was fun but a little scary — I don’t know why, maybe in the way all new things are scary.

My dear friend, George Reading, was still alive, and he offered to read the book and write a review. He loved my writing so I figured a review written by a person who loved my writing and understood me was a good beginning. As I read George’s email with this little paragraph in it, I saw how the people in our lives might be the best magic in the free magic show.

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I think of all the stories from my life that I relate here or in something like My Everest as adventures from the Free Magic Show. In the little box where Createspace asks, Publisher? I type “Free Magic Show Publications.”

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/sleeve/

 

Writer’s Block

Over this past year I’ve thought a lot about being a writer — more than I’ve written (f you don’t count this blog). I had always mocked people who whined about writers block, but I was stuck in it. I mocked myself, too, because, you know, there’s no one holding a gun at my head saying, “Write or die!” I took my own advice and backed off from the whole thing. I wrote some good short stories in the interval and occasionally worked on The Schneebelis Go to America so I didn’t lose touch with it. I put together My Everest, a labor of love that taught me a lot about myself as a writer (and as a person). Sometimes I’ve been frustrated, but mostly I figured, “If it happens (continuing the novel I was mired in) it happens. No one really cares, anyway.”

There’s liberty there. I wasn’t aware during this whole time that my mind was coming to an understanding of what it means to me to write, self-publish and, in my limited way, promote books.

Sometime last fall I was notified that Martin of Gfenn had been short-listed for the Chanticleer Reviews Chaucer Award — that’s an award for historical novels set in a time period before the 1750’s. That’s thousands of years, BTW. I was happy and confused. Did I have to DO something? Because godnose I didn’t want to DO anything. I didn’t even remember sending the book (or the entry fee). While there had been an honor bestowed up on me, there was also a problem. I am not walking really well. I didn’t want to go through the airplane (and financial!) nightmare of getting out of the San Luis Valley to a small corner of the Pacific Northwest. The conference where the awards were being bestowed was at a place I’d love to visit, but only when I’m able to sightsee, hike, go on boats, etc.

And, I didn’t think I’d win. I mostly forgot about it. Time passed, the conference occured, and I didn’t win the prize. I was mildly disappointed. I think my friends were more disappointed for me. In my time thinking about what it means to me to write, I’d already discovered what the prize is for me as a writer, beyond the work itself, (ah-HA!) It’s readers who love my work. I could sure use $1000 prize money (it would pay to board the dogs while I’m rehabbing from hip surgery) but otherwise? I don’t need a another prize. I have the book, the experience writing the book, the thrill of opening fan letters from Switzerland (where the book is set!), the reviews in Swiss newspapers, the heart-felt reactions of my friends to the novel, the expressions on their faces when they talk to me about it (wow ❤ ). What, in the currency of this ephemeral world could be more? There really isn’t anything.

Meanwhile, the situation with my arthritic hip progressed through a cortisone shot, a brief fling with mobility, physical therapy, the failure of the cortisone shot, scheduling surgery, etc. ad nauseum. And my manuscript began calling to me. I printed it, read it and thought, “Some of this is beautiful.” I used Grammarly to help me with the invisible typos and made that level of revision as well as some changes to make it consistent, then I contacted the woman who’s been my great and helpful editor in the past for help “seeing.”

Through all this (and there’s more but…) I saw that writing, for me, is like flying as it’s described in one the Hitchhiker’s Guide books; you throw yourself at the ground and miss. And now? I’m thinking all the time about the Goliards and Michele, the Italian painter who was Martin of Gfenn’s teacher. My Schneebelis need work, but I don’t know what work, and in a few weeks my editor will get the book and help me out. And I’m getting a new hip. I don’t know, it’s all pretty good from where I’m sitting. ❤

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/bestow/

The Wonderfulness of Ignorance and the Limitations of School

I was a teacher. I even — as a student — mostly liked school. BUT I had a dad who was maybe a little unusual. In second grade when I decided to become an archeologist, my dad handed me the book, Rivers in the DesertIn second grade, I couldn’t read it, but I could KIND of read it and I thought it was GREAT that I was lying on my stomach kind of reading a grown up book about archeology in a place very far away. The Negev Desert — what the book is about — showed up again later in my life when I was ten and saw David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Of course THAT led to my first love, T. E. Lawrence, and reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom. ❤ Good times.

I didn’t know what foundation all that was building until grad school, which I hated. By then I had learned that I am a self-directed learner and the greatest thing I got as a kid is curiosity and the willingness to do research. The best thing I got in grad school was a refinement of the research skills I’d learned all through school.

School is bullshit except for the things it teaches you how to do. You might learn some interesting stuff, too, you might get a foundation in the mainstream basics of everything (I did and it was great!) but, as I used to try to explain to my university students, anything you WANT to learn you’re on your own. Godwilling you have good tools.

One of the things that happened to me as a student in university — undergrad — was the discovery of an interest in what people in the past were ACTUALLY doing on a more individual level. You can’t get much of that in a history class.

Human life is a tapestry; even looking at my OWN life I see that. Maybe this will make sense. Today I spent alone, in pain from physical therapy yesterday, I was tired, but I walked the dogs which was nice, I fussed on my front flower beds and talked to the mailman and planted my second Scarlet Emperor Bean in a pot. I had contact with friends via computer and I missed a phone call. BUT — an example of just one design — in Colorado Springs, at the hospital where I will have surgery, they’re busy trying to get me organized for that. In the background, a nurse is planning a phone call because I don’t want to drive 3 hours for the pre-surgery class and 3 hours back and board the dogs. MY part of the tapestry (that they weren’t aware of) is where I live. THEIR part is to get me ready. WE have to come together and work that out. I will answer the phone at 10 am and we’ll weave our parts together for a little interval.

That’s how I think about the past or the lives of characters in my novels. I am interested in what ordinary individual (probably fictional) people were doing in an ordinary day. That isn’t taught in school. Martin of Gfenn is full of details of life in Zürich in the 13th century. To write it, I had to become a medievalist. I wasn’t before. I’d “specialized” in 19th century American literature, but that’s minor. It was the way I learned to do research. And how did I get interested in something like that, anyway? I was following an Irish monk (St. Gall) whom I’d just learned about and my friend’s mom said he should take me to see the little medieval church in the village of Gfenn. It was nearby, so why not? Well, turned out the pamphlet explained (in German which I could barely decode) that it had been part of a leper community in the 13th century.

I knew nothing about the 13th century, leprosy or Swiss history at that moment but my curiosity was piqued and I had been struck by the paintings on the walls inside the little church.

In my new role as a medievalist (Swiss medievalist to add absurdity to absurdity) I was frustrated because I couldn’t answer questions. It was only when I found — and hung out with — a Swiss Medievalist Historian who was interested in the same period in the same place, that I understood, “We don’t know.” We were “in” the 13th century, and the further back you look through time’s reverse telescope, the less certain knowledge there is.

To make it worse (better? more interesting?)  history like all other aspects of scholarship these days, is making giant strides thanks to technology. What was believed to be true about lepers in the high middle ages at the time I began writing the novel (1998) had been disproven by paleohistorians by the time the novel was pretty much finished (2005). In MY case, because I prefer primary sources — the words, paintings and artifacts of people living at the time — it wasn’t much of a problem for me. Nothing in the primary sources said ANYTHING remotely resembling the common view of the medieval leper as it was perceived in 1998 (marginalized, shunned, and persecuted). Nothing.

The most important thing is never what we KNOW but what we don’t know and how curious we are to learn more. I do a lot of research because I write historical fiction and I care a LOT about capturing the moments of people in my stories. I don’t write historical romances or didactic, polemic fiction to push an agenda. I have no agenda and romance is (to me) just pretty boring.

I don’t know why I write historical fiction. No idea at all. But when I get into a “new” world I love it. It’s like a great glowing labyrinth I can just wander in and glean what I need for the “world” that will (hopefully) live between the covers of a book. All the schooling I’ve brought with me to my novels is how to read, write, and do research. The facile superficial present-centric stuff that passed for history in my education doesn’t begin to help me — but every once in a while some little bit of it gleams, “Hey! Look at me! I’m useful!”

The biggest moment of THAT was when I was living in China in the early 80s and WISHED I’d paid attention to that paragraph in my sophomore world history class on the Boxer Rebellion. BUT the humiliating recognition of how my juvenile hubris betrayed me later in life was a lesson in itself.

As a teacher, I believed the best thing I could offer my students was something worth pursuing — they were already trained to pursue a grade, but an idea? Or a fact? Or a better answer? That was (for a lot of them) something new. But that was the best thing I got out of my time as a student — the desire to learn and the drive to pursue what I wanted to know. As for why I’m a writer, I have no idea other than I like it.

The upshot is that I know a lot of weird stuff no one needs to know and that isn’t useful to anyone but me. The way I see it, everyone else knows weird stuff that’s useful to them and useless to me (until I find I need it, then I will seek you out whether you’re dead or alive). That’s the essence of the great tapestry of human knowledge and experience. Ignorance — which is so often derided — can be — is! — the launching pad for curiosity.

Writing and Sorrow

A long, long time ago I wrote an essay about writers suffering depression. First of all, I think depression is something all by itself distinct from writing (or painting). Then, I think that artists who experience depression have often discovered that — for them — the ladder out of the hole is creative work. It’s been discovered that creative work raises the “feeling good” hormones in the brain. To read about it, go here. Creative work is actually kind of a drug. 🙂 I’ve thought this for a long time.

I’ve been stymied on my novel in progress for months. I’ve been bored by it, uninterested in the characters who people it, not interested in the journey on which they’re traveling. I’ve blogged about that, too, at various times, knowing that sooner or later I’d either finish it or forget about it.

In the back of my mind, of course, was the sweet admonition of my Aunt Dickie, “Please continue writing the story of my mother’s family.” I wanted to, but didn’t want to. She died the week of Thanksgiving last year. I was in the middle of trying to get back to the story when she passed away.

Most of the fruitful moments writing my novels have been times of intense duress. Martin of Gfenn finally became a long novel during the days when my brother’s life was going seriously sideways, and I was at the point where I needed to make a decision about whether I’d continue to support him or not. The Brothers Path happened during the darkest times of the financial crash which caused me to have a financial crash combined with health and professional problems, not to mention the death of my favorite aunt, Aunt Martha.

And, suddenly, a few days ago, all I wanted to do was work on The Schneebelis Go to America (working title). It’s been a ridiculously productive four or five days. The novel is finished, I’m editing like a bitch (thanks Grammarly) — I don’t know. But it hit me last night. Ten days ago I had to put Mindy to sleep. Five days ago my remaining aunt went into hospice care.

Sorrow is NOT depression. I’ve suffered depression, and there is a distinct difference. A person can be happy and depressed at the same time. A person cannot grieve happily. BUT now I see a connection between hard times in my real life and the drive to create.

My recent progress on my novel has made me think about the essay I wrote long ago. In my essay I wrote that some artists write or paint their way out of darkness. I’m sure Hemingway did this. I’m sure van Gogh was not in mental agony during the moments in which he was painting. The teacher I wrote it for didn’t agree. She held the view that writing and painting lead people to depression. I’ve since learned that’s a pretty common view.

Years ago I read Kay Redfield-Jamison’s book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. She’s not an artist; she is a psychiatrist. Her knowledge of depression and bipolar disorder is both academic and personal. She, herself, has struggled with bipolar disorder all her life. I read this book when I was sliding into my own depressive crisis some 25 years ago. It was very illuminating to me, though I no longer agree completely with her premise that writers (in particular) are special and endowed with apocalyptically complex brains. It helped me understand my own brain and it helped me understand my brother.

When my depression began to lift (thanks, PROZAC!) I began painting like crazy. Nothing serious. I painted tables that were puns. A picnic table with a picnic painted on the top — potato salad, burgers, and ants. A tea table with a tea party. A pool table with people swimming. You get the idea. It was pure fun, pure pleasure and very uplifting. I started to see that I had in my own hands and mind the way out. So far, I have not returned to those dark places for more than a moment. I know what it feels like, I can distinguish it from real emotional highs and lows, and I’ve learned to hold on. I’ve learned that authentic emotional lows can be triggers.

So, sadness at missing Mindy T. Dog and my sorrow over the imminent loss of my Aunt Jo led me back to my novel. It’s way better than I thought it was, and I’m so grateful it was there when I needed it. ❤

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/rush/