Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sex, Violence, and Hokey Pokey at the National Gallery

As a writer of YA, and particularly YA that has dark themes, I tend to keep an eye on debates about "quality content." I quirk a curious brow at those who deride stories that are "too violent" or boast too much "sexual content." Much of this criticism is lobbed by "Christian" groups, like the one in West Bend, WI who has sued for the right to burn "inappropriate" books shelved at their public library.

I'm both astounded and frustrated by news of hate-filled censorship, so when I was wandering the halls of the National Gallery today I got to thinking about human culture, sex, and violence. I find it interesting that some folks who label themselves as "Christian" are so distant from the history of their own beliefs. The holy texts and tales attached to Judeo-Christian literature couldn't be more full of sex and violence. Please bear in mind as I write this passage that I have a very deep respect for and fascination with religion (this comment isn't tongue and cheek, my father is a Presbyterian minister). I teach the history of religion in early modern culture and I draw much of my material for writing from questions that I have about the blurred lines between the spiritual and the material that cropped up in Western societies from 1500-1800.

I wonder why so many people seem afraid to take a hard look at human sexuality and the role of violence in our cultures, and are especially vehement that children should know nothing of such subjects. All it takes is a short walk through art galleries to see how integral both are to human history.

Here are just a few examples that I saw hanging on the walls this afternoon:

Susannah at Her Bath, Fracisco Hayez. Oh Susannah. What's an Old Testament girl to do when she all she wants is to scrub up and the Elders come in and tell her if she doesn't sleep with them the meanies will accuse her of adultery. Being of the no-nonsense type, Susannah refuses anyway and manages to prove her innocence; thus, she isn't stoned to death (phew!)

Judith in the Tent of Holofernes, Johann Liss. Just call her Buffy the Tyrant Slayer. Judith knew business when it came to getting her people out from under the thumb of Holofernes. She seduced this bad boy and then chopped of his head. You go girl!

Samson and Delilah, Peter Paul Rubens. Uh, if a picture is worth a thousand words need I say more?

Saint Sebastian, Gerrit van Honthorst. I've chosen Sebastian as the emblem for all the martyr works that fill museum collections. Believe me this image is tame when it comes to forms of martyrdom that are out there depicted in all their graphic horror. I'd also like to mention that this painting is only one of six Sebastian portraits that are hanging at the National Gallery (and the National Gallery doesn't have a monopoly on paintings of Saint Sebastian).
I'm not going to put up any pictures of the mortification of Christ, but I'd wager that those paintings out number all others in most art museums around the world.

So - sex, violence, discord, betrayal, tumult: all part of the human condition and something that needs to be part of literature and education not hidden from sight. That's my soapbox for today.

Now onto the hilarity. It seems that my trip is going to be marked by bizarre incidents with children (see it is related to above post).

During my perusal of the galleries today I encountered a National Gallery docent surrounded by a group of young children (ages 4-7 or so) and their parents. The docent was enthusiastically leading the children (and a few of the parents) in a boisterous round of the Hokey Pokey. Yes, I'm serious. When I saw them they had just gotten to the "you put your whole self in" verse.

I'm not certain what this tour was docketed as. Maybe, show your kids museums can be fun? Or, hey parents look at nice paintings while our employee distracts your children!?

Whatever the case may be it was one of the strangest museums scenes I've ever come across.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

I Heart the British Library, but the Evil Kid at Kew Not So Much

British Library = Literary Heaven

Having been advised by a colleague that reading rooms fill up quickly, I made the short walk from my residence to the library arriving promptly at 9:25 (library opens at 9:30). Much to my surprise I encountered an already buzzing queue of tweed-clad folks outside the door.

Academics line up to enter the British Library like Tweens waiting for Hannah Montana: The Movie.

I think it's one of the best things I've ever seen.

While not so enticing from the outside, the interior of the library is astounding. Spacious, lightfilled and full of readings rooms, which are equally full of researchers, it is the perfect place to read and write.

The highlight of my day was purusing the library's "treasured collections." I think I was the most excited to view the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland. Though Jane Austen's writing desk, an Illuminated Christine de Pizan manuscript, and Da Vinci's notebooks were humbling as well. Oh, and they have the Magna Carta.

In the afternoon I took the tube out to Kew so I could register at the National Archives. With that task complete I headed over to Kew Gardens. The Royal Botanic Gardens are beyond impressive, acres and acres of grounds filled with wonderful trees and flora. I spent some time communing with a 300 year old chestnut tree and particularly loved the way the glasshouses have spiral staircases that enable viewing of the tops of giants ferns and succulents as well as walking alongside them. They also have a tree-top walkway that provides views of the entire garden and all the way to London.

It was all just perfect and lovely (it is still unbelievably sunny here) until I ran into the little mean boy. I was walking across a lawn, just having passed three mums pushing strollers when I heard a horrible screech. Making a beeline towards me was a little boy (I'd guess he was about 3 or 4) red faced and crying, behind him was another little boy of the same age with wide gleaming eyes, a wicked grin, and...a stick.

Mum one: Ben, what's the matter? Ben?
Me (thinks): Uh, that other kid is hitting your kid with a stick.
Mum two: A.C. what are you doing with that stick?
Me (thinks): Obviously hitting other kids with his stick. No one brandishes a stick like that unless they are delighting in acts of violence. Note: I say this from lots of observation and storytelling, not personal penchant for stick violence.

In the next moment, A.C. catches up to fleeing child, cackles, and (of course) hits him with stick.

Mum Two (in shock that sounds a little not-too-shocked for comfort): A.C. no! Put down that stick.

I walk on, grasping at a slim idea that A.C. might be adequately chastised and hope not to see Mums and children for rest of time at garden.

Alas, when I took a break to have afternoon tea replete with scone and clotted cream (if you have never had scone and clotted cream, you are missing out). Three mums with 3 boys and strollers take places at next table.

A.C. immediately begins to terrorize pigeons on the cafe terrace.

Mum two (in a lame voice): A.C. no, A.C. no.

Eventually she gets up and brings A.C. back to table.

Two minutes later he is terrorizing pigeons again.
Mum two (again lamely): A.C. no, A.C. no.

She doesn't get up.

Me (thinks): Are you sure his name isn't Damien?
When I leave the cafe and am halfway to the next glasshouse I can still hear A.C. shrieking like a pterodactyl.

So for the record if in 30 years an evil genius named A.C. is holding the world hostage with a giant electro-ray (his proverbial biggest stick of all), you were warned here first.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

London: Without the Fog

I have arrived and am now trying to adjust to typing on the British keyboard in the internet centre of my residence, a keyboard that has just enough keys out of place (including two extra character keys to the right of (;) which makes me type # every time I want to hit Enter. Ahh, acculturation.

The weather is astoundingly good. I spent the afternoon wandering through Covent Garden and actually took my lunch outside a French brasserie where the sun blazed down, making it almost too hot. Something that usually only happens on the sardine-packed Underground.

I've enjoyed bustling along reaquainting myself with the city. I have not gotten lost yet. Yay.

One of my favorite things about this British Isle is how beautifully its inhabitants make use of space. On a sun-washed afternoon like today's, every miniscule green space was filled with friends, families, and couples lounging idly in the grass or sharing a picnic. Even my university flat, which is cheap and cheerful minus the cheerful, has its own private garden.

England and its northern neighbor Scotland have a dearth of space. The two countries have been fighting over this little island for a long, long time. And the Scots know full well that though the highlands are sublime, they are the most hospitable to sheep and not metropolitan centers.

I think the multiude of green nooks, hidden flower beds, and luscious parks that thread through Britain's cities offer perpetual resistance to the press of population of this former empire.

Speaking of evil empires, when I tried to Google something on this computer (it's the hall's computer and not my beloved Mac) it refused to let me go to Google and forced my searches onto Microsofts new "Bing" search engine. Even when I typed in and started the search again, the computer overrode my action and sent me back to Big Brother Bing, with no way to escape.

That was when I got scared.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Over the Pond

In a few short hours I'll be winging my way across the Atlantic (on a jet plane, alas I have yet to sprout wings). The next two weeks will see me pouring over very, very, very old books and manuscripts in the British Library.
I love London, and I've been fortunate to have spent a lot of time in this city. But the doldrums of grad school kept me away for half a decade and I'm eagerly awaiting my reunion with the sights and sounds of London town.

I'm staying in Bloomsbury and hope to pull on the lingering spirits of the Bloomsbury group for inspiration as I write and wander the streets.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Second Summer

I usually post on the major days of the Wheel of the Year, but given that the Solstice fell on Father's Day this year I was busy taking my dad out to lunch and then making the long drive back to Minneapolis.

So my Solstice thoughts arrive a day late.

There was no way to miss summer's arrival. Stepping out of the door this morning was akin to slipping into a warm bath. Steamy, languid summer air has arrived, that heavy air you could drown in. Not having spent time in the south I don't know if the stereotype of life moving slowly there is true, but on days like this one I can imagine everything slow down as a matter of necessity. The thick, wet air forces you to wade from one activity into another. Speed becomes impossible. Even deadly.

I don't enjoy extreme heat, but I respect its insistence and in light of the Solstice, it feels appropriate.

The other harbinger of summer received my delighted yip at the market.

Heirloom tomatoes. I love earth-fresh tomatoes, and particularly heirlooms. I love their bizarre, asymmetrical shapes and their sharp, leafy scent. And their deliciousness is marked by how briefly they are available.

At the end of Neil Gaiman's latest blog post, he declares that out of season strawberries should be illegal. Now I'm already a loyal Gaiman subject, but he couldn't be more justified in this opinion.

Those of us in the northern climes face a barren winter of vegetables and fruit. Strawberries in winter are a mockery of the real thing. The closest I can come to describing their taste is "nothing with an edge of tart." I'll confess that I still break down and buy them when I'm mired in January or February - the dream of a real strawberry and luscious summer proves too hard to resist. But always, always it's a horrible disappointment that makes winter that much more painful.

When I was a little girl I would crawl through the grass on hot summer days, face low to the ground seeking the wild strawberry plants that would vine out on the lawn. These tiny treasures, no larger than a thimble, are still the sweetest red berries I've tasted.

Welcome summer, I've been waiting. Here's an anthem for you.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

From Whence We Came

It takes four hours to drive from Minneapolis to Ashland. When I'm alone I use this time to write. Of course I'm not literally writing (other drivers can stop screaming now), but I come up with many plot twists, key dialogue, and new scenes while listening to what my mother dubbed my "muse music" as the miles roll by.

When I'm not alone, I'm either listening to public radio and discussing current events or, in the case of the last trip home, playing games from childhood. Namely MASH. That's game the where you use a cryptic formula to scry your future, not unlike this.

Since my friend Casey and I had already gotten to adulthood we came up with a new twist on this slumber-party favorite, we created a chart that pulled together a movie using categories like "Who would play you?" "Who is the villain?" "Who directs?" "Who wrote the soundtrack?"

In my film I was played by Lauren Ambrose who had to fight Dracula with a slingshot while serenaded by the music of Tangerine Dream. So that's how it went, and it was loads of fun.

Being in my hometown always gets my mind churning over my life as a child and after revisiting the world of MASH, I started to wonder if the games we play as children don't predict our paths as adults.

My friends and I spent hours upon hours in the woods near my house. We invented innumerable worlds and characters and played out scenes in fantastic places from dusk till dawn.
Is the creative life one we start from the very beginning? Is it reflected in our childhood pursuits?

How did you play as a child?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Waiting and Weddings

What is the best way to spend one's time while waiting for the call that could change your life?

(Drums nails on table). I do not have the answer.

Fortunately, I have help in the form of prior obligations. Namely this weekend I'm back in my hometown on bridesmaid duty.

I'm not much for ceremony. I tend to walk different roads in life, avoiding graduations, skipping class reunions, etc. But this wedding is one I've looked forward to since my friend announced her engagement.

When I was a little girl there were two friends who I always thought were a "lock" when it came to weddings I'd be a part of. The first one happened a year ago in September (hi Katie! *hugs*), the second is tomorrow.

That these two wedding have taken place, and that I will have paraded down the aisle bearing my posies for each of these long-time friends marks a major transition in my life. Being 30 doesn't necessarily make me feel like an adult, that my two childhood best friends have both gotten married does.

Moving into the "real" world of adult choices and problems has taught me that very little in life is predictable and that our circumstances, feelings, and selves are always shifting, changing, reforming, and hopefully growing.

In this case it feels uniquely innocent and lovely that our slumber party chats at age nine about flowers and dresses and falling love have indeed come full circle.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

From Toxic to Bliss?

There have been some interesting posts recently that discuss expectations, jealousy, and ideas about navigating the emotional rollercoaster that is the writing world.

Here's my two cents:

The ups and down of writing, revising, attempting to get an agent, get published, get reviewed, and the list goes on, inevitably produces the full range of human emotions from euphoria to rage to despondence. More often than not, this mental yuck will be directed at those of whom we're jealous or who we blame for our current dire-seeming circumstance.

Rather than hiding from these volatile feelings or pretending that we don't experience them, I think it's best to find productive ways to move through the toxic mire of envy and self-doubt to the Elysian fields of hope and confidence. To achieve this end requires conscientious, thoughtful traversing through one's own psyche.

When it comes to human relations I still don't think you can get much better than the golden rule: Do unto others as you'd have done unto you.

There's a reason this saying has been enshrined at the United Nations.

But even with the best of intentions, it's important to acknowledge and experience the emotions that come with the darker sides of writing life, namely rejection. So how can we rage without doing permanent damage?

I think I found the answer in the All-American Rejects song "Gives You Hell."

With this wickedly catchy song and what is perhaps the funniest video I've ever watched, the message is clear:
Yes you'll get angry, yes you'll be frustrated, yes you'll feel crazy, but at the end of the day it's all about walking a mile in the other person's shoes, knowing we're all in this together and that we're all human.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Notes from an Historian

I had the pleasure of hearing a plenary address from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich last evening. In the history world Ulrich is known for her work on early American women, and in particular her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Midwife's Tale.

Most people don't know that she's the person who coined the phrase: "Well behaved women rarely make history."

For all the accolades she's received Ulrich is an incredibly humble and gracious woman. In her remarks she had two points to offer that I thought were particularly salient to aspiring authors.

One: "You're not in this alone."

The writing world is a collaborative one. What would we do without families cheering us on, beta readers giving hard, but fair critiques, fellow bloggers sharing their experiences and aspirations, agents championing our work? Writing is often a solitary activity, but at the end of the day we're part of a community that we couldn't survive without.

Two: "You can't be rejected when you know you belong."

This point derives from the fact that Ulrich's prize-winning book examined the life of Martha Ballard, an eighteenth-century midwife whose existence had been dismissed as "unimportant" by historians for decades. Laurel Ulrich brought Ballard's harrowing experiences into the world at a time when women's history had barely drawn its first breath and still had many years to fight for the legitimacy of its existence.

Writers face rejection constantly. The mantra of authors, agents, editors, and writing gurus remains the same - keep writing. We write because we have to. We write because we know we belong. It will happen, keep writing, keeping dreaming.

And finally, in honor of Utah (where I'm at a conference for the weekend), I give you one of my favorite teen dance vids from bygone days when I had big hair and I wish you all "Something Good."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Into the Wild

It's official - my manuscript scampered off into the forest of editors TODAY in search of a happy, profitable home. (Commence nervous twitching now).

Charlie Olsen and Richard Pine of Inkwell are the agents who've put their stamp on the novel (thank you, thank you, thank you!); the agency has been amazing and I'm grateful for all the enthusiasm they have for my writing.

Wish me luck, folks, updates will appear on this blog. I'm not known for my patience, so waiting will be hard, but I do believe that dreams and wishes can come true. Waiting for the brightest of our hopes to take flight is well worth it.

Worm Hunt

My last evening spent in Ashland, Wisconsin involved a time-honored ritual for fishermen of old.

I went crawler-huntin' with my dad.

After a soaking rain these ground-dwelling creatures will emerge from the sodden earth and it's in these brief moments that fishermen can catch them.

Now night crawlers are not your typical, skinny earthworms. They are big and unbelievably fast. And for anyone who is thinking "oh catching nightcrawlers for bait is so cruel!" just keep in mind that nightcrawlers are an invasive species in North America. I'll hunt these big boys, but I'm also the girl who "rescues" earthworms that are stranded on the sidewalk at dawn. I hate the thought that they'll cook on the pavement and so I'll transfer them back to the dirt if it's not too late.

My dad and I crept across the lawn, flashlight in one hand, ice cream pail in the other. Any sudden movement or light shined a second too long on the worms and they dart back into their holes. Yes, dart. Again I can't say enough about how ridiculously swift nightcrawlers are. I learned quickly that if a worm caught my eye one second and I looked away, or hesitated, it would instantly disappear with no evidence that it had ever been above ground.

It took about five worms for me to get my catching technique down, whereas my dad had a bucketful within a few minutes. He's been fishing a long time, while I've been living in the city.

When I asked my dad about how I could surprise the worms, he made a comment that lodged in my brain.

Me: They're so fast, how can you catch so many?

Dad: Don't shine the light directly on them, keep it a little to the side. And they come up here to mate, so sometimes you'll get two at once. They're all wrapped up in each other and they don't notice anything else.

Me (*chuckles*): Love blinds and destroys.

I found it strange that nightcrawler habits could offer such a striking metaphor for human life. Maybe we're not that different from worms after all. Has any one of us not become so caught up in love or our own lives that we fail to take notice of the world around us - no matter how important what's happening outside our own experience might be?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Daydreams and Ferry Trips

I'm blogging from the homestead, Ashland, Wisconsin - small town settled on the South Shore of Lake Superior.

I'm here because my bathroom is currently being demolished. A leak had developed beneath the floorboards and had it gone any further, I might have ended up like this:

Fortunately, that crisis was averted, but I'm temporarily homeless but for the grace of my wonderful parents.

I dragged a fabulous colleague into the Northwoods with me and she's been an amazing companions. In the midst of academic hell this past year we found soul sistership; she dreams of creating films the way I dream of writing novels. Needless to say, we became fast friends.

Yesterday we boarded the ferry to Madeline Island and gazed out over the velvet blue expanse of Lake Superior. It was cold and spitting rain, but we still beamed and frolicked on the island.

We also plotted. And found a promise...a promise to ourselves and each other: To have that elusive site, the artist's retreat.

Someday we'll find an island or coastal hideaway in which to be our best creative selves. That making such a place a refuge amidst the obligations of life will be a priority and will help us realize our dreams.
Turning the eyes and mind heavenward to stretch toward dreams is both comforting and essential to the survival of an artist's soul. It helps to think of the ways we might best cultivate that side of ourselves, which the world so often smothers beneath harried tasks and mundane obligations.

What are your dreams of the future? What place or event would make your creativity take flight?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Can't Help Myself...

Apologies to any Twilight haters out there, but...

I can't wait! Plus, it's nice to know that if someday my books could make the leap to movies at least they can do nice things with instant shape-shifting. I was also very happy to see that Summit sought out First Nations' actors to play the role of the Quileutes in New Moon. The deployment of "Indian" characters without the acknowledgment or realization that Native American peoples are very much a part of our contemporary world happens all too often in book, film, and real life. If you're interested in this topic two great works are Celluloid Indians and "Indian Wars: The Movie" in Indians in Unexpected Places.

Happy weekend!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

In Memoriam

David Eddings passed away this week. This author had a profound influence on my own ideas about fantasy and writing.

It was a strange coincidence that I'd just been reading about Eddings' accomplishments in my husband's alumni magazine from Reed College (Eddings graduated in 1954 so needless to say they didn't cross paths on campus). The author recently donated a large sum of money for scholarships at the school and the article mentioned that he was suffering from a severe terminal illness. It was only a few days later that I learned of his passing.

My copies of the Belgariad and Malloreon have been read so many times that the books' spines are in various states of disintegration. Eddings created amazing, believable worlds and characters who were impossible not to love.

When I finished the Mallorean the first time my heart broke because it was like saying goodbye to a collection of intimate friends.

The final words of the text are these: "And so, my children, the time has come to close the book. There will be other days and other stories, but this tale is finished."

As in writing, so in life.

Thank you, David Eddings, for making this world brighter with your wonderful writing. Here are the flowers of my neighborhood in honor of your work.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Surrender, or What I'm Learning From Yoga

Happy First of June! The leaves shine like emerald mirrors and irises stretch feathered petals towards the sun. Ahhhhhh, summer has arrived.

I know I've posted a lot lately about my new Bikram Yoga practice, but I can't help it. Aware as I am that yoga is meant to maximize a mind/body connection, I'm still amazed at how much I take away from each class beyond a strenuous workout.

One of the yoga poses (asanas) is shavasana (corpse pose). The point of this pose is complete relaxation and meditation. It's normally what ends a yoga class.

When leading us through this final pose, my teacher said: "It took me a long time to get shavasana. It's about surrender, and I just didn't understand. Then I realized that trying to understand surrender was the problem. You just have to let go."

Writing requires near absolute surrender. So much of what happens in the craft lies beyond our control.

In a recent conversation with my agent, we discussed the fact that my book could very well be sold as adult or YA; thus, he's doing a big submission to both YA and adult editors.

In many ways this is great news. I do believe my book has broad appeal, it's what could be categorized as "crossover" and my beta readers, both teen and adult, all loved it.

In other ways this news makes me want to go into a fit of nail biting (as so much of this process does). The worry remains that my book could fall into the cracks between YA and adult genres and be dismissed by all editors as not clear enough for its intended audience.

So what's my recourse? Only surrender.

The book will find its way and its readers. All I can do is continue to write, and I remember how much I love the process of creating novels. The rest is out of my hands.

On another note, the New York Times totally stole my last blog post.