Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tortoise Wins the Race


When I was about 12, I entered a stage in life where I had no patience.  On the one hand, I was intensely curious, so I couldn’t stand waiting to have my desire for knowledge satisfied.  On the other, I was pretty good at getting things done, so I wasn’t about to put up with delays or roadblocks.

This is the image of my impatience!
I think for about four years, between 7th and 11th grade, the curious side of my impatience drove me to ruin my own Christmas surprise.  I would try and hold out, but then about a week or so before Christmas, I’d give in, sneak into my parents’ room and rifle through the pile of gifts in the closet until I found out what I was getting. 

Of course, the fact that my Mom is terrible at hiding presents didn’t help.  The door to the closet was frequently open, and anyone walking buy could easily guess the identity of the random stack of things.  The year my brothers and I stopped believing in Santa Claus was the one when Mom put all the gifts from him under the guestroom bed, where they were perfectly visible from the end of the hall. 

Anyway, parental foibles aside, it was certainly true that my patience was non-existent.  I was in charge of the yearbook committee when I was a senior in high school, and rather than wait for the illustrators to give me their work, I did almost all the doodles and lettering myself, because I was too impatient to deal with my classmates’ lethargy.  I even left some hurt feelings, since at least a few of the girls were ready to do the work and excited about seeing it in the yearbook. 

Here's my new, slightly tenuous patience!
Looking back now, years later, I feel quite amazed at myself.  I’m still not 100% patient, by any stretch of the imagination, but a combination of maturity, writing, teaching, family and friends have slowly taught me the need to wait on myself and on others and to accept the fact that I can’t know everything at once. 

I only regret that I wasn’t more aware of the importance of such things as an adolescent. I feel like I could have had a much more fruitful high school career, if I hadn’t always been pushing to reach some goal the fastest way possible.  I’m glad now that I know that some goals are best reached slowly.

Being an author is one such goal. 

There are two kinds of thinkers, in my opinion – the fast and the slow.  Both kinds have advantages, and both have disadvantages.  I’m the former kind.  My mind leaps swiftly through things and arrives at the end with a bang.  However, most lasting accomplishments require careful thought and slow, repetitive, even monotonous work.  In this way, the slow thinkers have the upper-hand.  Their temptation may be to get tired and go away to do more enjoyable things, but if they have the will to stick with their project, it will almost always turn out magnificent at the end.  I, in contrast, may end up with something rather slap-dash, if I’m not careful.

I don’t want to be a slap-dash writer, though.  No one who pursues some dream or passion wants to be known by friends and (hopefully) audience for always rushing the final product.  In honor of the dream, we all want our final result to be magnificent. 

Currently in my writing life, I’m contemplating postponing the start of a new novel indefinitely.  Originally, I had thought that Christmas would see the beginning of it, but my editing project are going rather slowly.  I am beginning to think that I’d rather complete all the drafts and revisions and edits of two of my novels, instead of piling on an entirely new work which will but exacerbate my multiplication of editing projects

This thought makes me a bit anxious.  I far, far prefer to be writing the fun, new first draft of something than to be slogging yet again through old material.  I don’t want to damage my passion for writing solely out of practical considerations.  However, I think that is just my impatient side speaking.  I can write poetry and short stories, which don’t require the huge time commitment of a novel, and that will be plenty of fuel for my creativity. 

Donkey is patient; dog is patient (if hot); even the truck is patient!
 Meanwhile, if I slowly chip away at my editing, in a year or so I could feel blissfully free of the mental pressure it puts on me.  Moreover, then I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that one or two of my novels are in their best state – works that make me proud, not just doubtful.  It will require quite an exercise of patience on my part, but the end results will be excellent.

So I’m curious.  If you’ve read this post, please take a moment to tell me how you’ve dealt with impatience.  Have you ever taken a seemingly drastic decision to delay, and then had it pay off in excellent results?  I’d love to hear your stories, to help inspire me to stick to my new resolution of patience.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Simple Life


When puzzled, I squint like a small owl!
Thanksgiving Day has come and gone, once again.  As is usual for me since I grew old enough to think about such things, the weekend leaves me puzzled.

I like to shop as much as the next person – it can even be relaxing! – but does anyone else feel that there’s a disconnect between the humble gratitude and quiet family-oriented celebration of Thanksgiving and the wild consumerism indulged the next day?  Black Friday scares me, in other words.

I have never gone shopping on the day.  Partly this is simply a practical choice: I’d rather have a pleasant, relaxing vacation day than scramble madly through large stores, fighting for products.  On the other hand my refusal to shop has also lately become a silent protest against the atmosphere of the day.  For weeks beforehand stores bombard you with advertisements for their Black Friday deals; ‘door-busters’ (whatever those may be) are promised solely to lure the shopper inside the doors at some ungodly hour of the morning.  All this desperation on both merchant’s and buyer’s part seems off-putting to me.

The fruit of my 50% savings!
Now, I realize that I may sound pretty snobby by writing this.  It’s not that I object to people shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, though.  There really are appealing bargains, both online and in stores, and considering how expensive everything has become in the recession, it seems only sensible to take advantage of these deals.  Since the sales quite often continue to Saturday, I myself went out yesterday to buy fabric for craft-gifts.  I was quite pleased to save almost 50% of the original cost. 

However, what I do object to is the attitude which is promoted.  Just recently The Fashionista lent me the lovely, balanced life-style guide, Lessons from Madame Chic.  One of the later chapters in the book was entitled, ‘Rejecting New Materialism.’  In this chapter, the authoress argues that the modern, and perhaps even American, mentality is not to treasure and take delight in the beautiful thing which we already own, or to exercise creativity in repurposing old possessions, but simply to buy more and still more.  Such an attitude is unhealthy and has to be counteracted.

Something which I appreciate about being an artist is that the need to notice details and think about how everything works not only has good results for my art (well-rounded characters and integrated plots, hopefully), but also for my world-view.  Instead of charging through life, aiming for a goal and forgetting the non-essential small things, I’m forced to slow down, open my eyes and look around.  When I do that, I remember that the small things are incredibly important. 

Even a snail shell can be a treasured possession!
When I walk into my room, for example, I see so many charming things: knick-knacks which friends have brought me; a wall of books; shells I collected as a child; curtains and cushions which I bought or made to coordinate together.  My room has held many of these objects since my childhood, and few of them are less than two years old.  Yet I never find them boring or long to replace them. 

I know that many people go out on Black Friday to shop for Christmas gifts, so my observations about my treasured possessions may seem disconnected.  However, it always seems to me that the sales affect electronics, gadgets, clothes and multimedia.  While all these things can be useful, it’s also true that these products are continually updated; companies put a lot of pressure on customers to have always the latest and best version. The result is an uncomfortable feeling of everyone scrambling for the latest and best, whether for themselves or others. 

No one slows down, stays at home, and feels grateful for the beautiful things which they already have.  No one really seems to stop and think, ‘What gift would make the people I love truly happy (not just more up-to-date)?’

So I guess I’m saying all this to suggest that we should not hesitate to call on our creative side during the holidays.  The temptation is to turn the days of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s into a justification for extravagant shopping and indulgence, leading to a guilty feeling in January when we literally and metaphorically stop and tighten our belts.  However, everyone has a creative side and we can each call upon it to promote a more balanced holiday season.

Creativity is detail-oriented and naturally perceptive; focus that power on the small joys, on the people dear to you.  No one will appreciate a gift, no matter how brilliantly wrested from a million other shoppers’ hands on Black Friday, if it is not accompanied by true affection.  That's why I took this past holiday to spend time with my family and friends.  It reminded me how perfect the simple joys are.    

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Slowly Progressing


As expected on the day before Thanksgiving, I’m up to my elbows in food (not literally of course).  My Mom and I are collaborating on our dinner this year, so I’m providing the baked goods, and she’s providing the cooked goods.  Dad’s grilling the turkey, so all are playing their part.

Of course, being in charge of the baking means that I’m making pumpkin pies. Where would Thanksgiving be without those, after all? 

In the interest of doing things naturally and from scratch, I resisted the urge to buy canned pumpkin this year.  Instead, when the pie pumpkins went on sale at the grocery store, back in October, I bought two.  I’ve been storing them ever since, all in anticipation of my baking. 

The real first step is a big squashy flower!
Of course starting with a whole pumpkin means taking rather more time than usual to make the pies, so my preparations began on Monday.  I cut my two chosen victims in half, scooped out the seeds and put them in the oven to roast for two hours.  Then I scraped out the soft and deliciously flavorful flesh, ran it through the food processor and behold: my chief ingredient was prepared.

A day later, I came home from a ridiculously long meeting at school and relaxed by making the dough.  I’ve never been a fan of the more or less tasteless pastry which tends to be used for pies, so I turned to my French cookbook to make a paté sucré, or sugar dough, which is lightly sweetened and very, very buttery.  Buttery and French are practically synonyms, after all.

Yet another day has passed and here I am, now with the pies in the oven.  Before that, though, I had to let the dough come to room temperature, mix all the ingredients together, prepare the pie pans, heat the oven, roll out the dough and finally pop everything in to bake.  It has all been very enjoyable, but the process was slow and methodical – I had to plan it so that I could fit it into my work schedule. 

Neither pie nor Paris was built in a day!
Anyway, all this led me to start thinking while I was stirring together pumpkin and milk and eggs and spices.  Every endeavor is composed of steps.  You can’t rush them or leave them out or skimp on them just to save time.  If you do, the end result is almost guaranteed to be unsatisfactory. 

For me, as a writer, this is something very important to remember.  Back when I was young and innocent and had just finished my first novel (actually this was only 4.5 years ago, so I exaggerate), I was pretty confident that my product was perfect.  No editing would be needed, of course!  I plunged right into my second novel, without a second thought.

Well, looking back, I realize I left out some steps.  I now have no idea how long that novel will languish, waiting for me to have time to return to it and perhaps entirely rewrite it.  Luckily on my second novel, The Art of Dying, I was a bit more sensible, and realized that I had to do some editing.  My naiveté lingered though, because I thought I’d be able to edit effectively while charging ahead with yet another novel.  

Because it's methodical, it turns out so lovely!
Now I’m in sort of a mess – not a bad mess, because I have the first draft of three novels and the (hopefully) final draft of a fourth under my belt, which is a good feeling.  However, your guess is as good as mine for when I might get to the other three. 

What have I learned though? 

Basically, at long last, I realize I really need to take the time to finish each novel completely before beginning on the next.  I write fast and the result is that if I don’t make myself stop to edit thoroughly, I slowly drown in hundreds of thousands of words.  Therefore, from pumpkin pies I have learned the necessity of taking steps in order.

Just kidding.  Of course I didn’t learn it from the pies, but the methodical nature of baking only serves to emphasize that in other areas I need to follow the method too.  It’s easy for us all to be impatient and to focus only on the parts of our lives that we enjoy.  On the other hand, if we take care of everything in order, then when we do get to the enjoyment, it feels earned, satisfactory – the proper result of our work. 

So, while I don’t advise excising all spontaneity, when you’re working on a project – do yourself a favor and follow the necessary steps.  It may not be any fun at the time, but I can assure you that you’ll thank yourself at the end.  You’ll look back and see an accomplishment you can be proud of.  I’m pretty sure that then you’ll not even remember the drudgery!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Synthesis

Praxiteles' perfect realism!

Have you ever looked back over your life to trace the course which made you into the person you are?  I think reminding ourselves of that course can be really helpful – a rejuvenation when energy or inspiration is hard to find. 

Most people have something they do which they really love. This passion perhaps is born with them, but in seed form, and then based on their development in life, it changes and adapts to their personality.  Don’t you think that’s the explanation for why the geniuses of the world are all so individual?  You wouldn’t think that Michelangelo and Praxiteles could be so different, since they’re both working with marble and mythical subjects, and yet they are instantly distinguishable. 

Perhaps because I’m a writer who worries about creating realistic personalities and backgrounds for my characters, I find myself also fascinated by the development of the real people around me.  No matter how amazing a character may be, your next door neighbor is probably more amazing (though perhaps also more frustrating, alas!). So I like to talk to people and slowly discover what things in their past directed them to their present state and gave them their present passions. 

Michelangelo's superhuman intensity!
I also like to look back over my past and do the same.  Lately, since I’ve been feeling jaded about teaching, I’ve been devoting some particular thought to whether I made the right choices in my work. Of course this always leads to the question, ‘How does it affect my writing?’

Writing is my passion, after all, just like couture may be someone else’s or even fishing, or some similar hobby.  In order to gauge our quality of life, we have to judge two things, I think.  First, how well we held up our side of our relationships with others. Second, how well we balanced the passion and talent which help make us uniquely ourselves.  If relationships and our life’s dream happen to go hand-in-hand, all the better.

I think my life as a writer began when I learned how to read.  Within a year or two of that, I was telling myself stories to put myself to sleep, and writing little newspapers to give to my family.  I was also a voracious reader.  By age thirteen or fourteen, when I first decided consciously that writing was my vocation, I had also devoured countless piles of books.  I wanted to create more of the stories which I loved to read. 

Turning myself into an author also became my motivation to do well in school, since I figured every essay was a chance to practice my skills. College only added a new dimension, because the philosophy I studied in tandem with literature was grounded in Personalism – the idea that only through generously opening and offering the self to others do we fully realize ourselves.  Giving stories to the world seemed my way to accomplish this.

I don’t think I’m the only person who can look at their life and see such a pattern emerging, pushing them toward the fulfillment of their passion.  However, what intrigues me is just how different the factors are which individualize the way we each pursue it.  For some, an unfulfilling job may finally drive them to seek satisfaction somewhere else.  For others, a perceptive parent may help direct them from youth into their best path.  It’s fascinating. 

Sometimes it's good to look back at where we came from...
Anyway, the latest stage in my life is teaching, but currently it’s frustrating me.  50% of my classes are in the middle school range.  I can’t express how challenging it can be to retain peace of mind while teaching 22 thirteen-year-old girls.  So sometimes I think to myself, ‘Should I throw all this in the air and run off to become a librarian?’

Well, eventually I may decide to switch careers, but I have to finish out the school year before anything, so I might as well figure out a way to maintain equanimity. I’ve been thinking about how teaching and writing should mesh. Sometimes, after all, they cancel each other out, and I don’t get any writing done because I’m grading, or I don’t grade at all, because I said, ‘Heck with it, today I’m writing poetry.’ 

But I think underneath it all, they are compatible.  Practically speaking, teaching is a comparatively high free-time job, and so I have freedom to pursue writing.  However, on a more ideological level, teaching gives me the continual exposure to other people which I personally need.  From my interactions and experiences I create stores from which my characters take their life.  Few other jobs would give me such a treasure.  Granted, I may feel frustrated, but even then I’m growing as a person and a writer. 

So if you stop by this blog, tell me…what process was it that awoke your chief passion?  Was it subtle and slow, or a sudden revelation?  In either case, what do you find gives you a way to keep going when other elements in your life cause conflict in pursuing your dreams?  I’d be delighted to learn your methods. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Rambling

I’ve entered the crazy stage of the first trimester at my school, where all the teachers are summoned twice weekly to meetings about student performance in the upper grades.  It’s a great practice, since the principal stays on top of the academic environment that way, but it also devours my free time.  Last night I had the first of these meetings; hence the late posting on my blog!

Anyway, what with the preparations, plus the usual grading and general getting on with life, time for writing and/or editing has been scarce.  I have managed to squeeze in a couple pages of work here and there, but my real goal is to clear out so much class preparation that I’ll have a free day during the Thanksgiving weekend to seclude myself and edit for three hours or something.  That sounds quite lovely…Amazing how absence makes the heart grow fonder.  I even long for the return of editing!

So today’s blog post, rather than tackling any weighty authorial subject, will just ramble about. 

A little shy about opening up...
Life is pretty quiet up here in North Idaho.  Winter set in for a week – it dumped snow; everyone rushed for snow tires – but then Fall returned with torrential rain and today it felt quite balmy. 

We’ve had a warm fall in general, actually.  Just last week, I walked up to school in a sweater and scarf (coat not needed!) and stopped before going inside to fish out my camera.  Right beside my path up the stairs, a small, valiant colony of mushrooms had popped up, encouraged by the extended warm period and the humid air.  They looked delicate and fragile, with pale, translucent colors and soft, exposed gills. 

Things look more brilliant in adverse conditions!
It seemed a little ironic that after all their struggle to emerge, the very next day brought three inches of snow to bury them.  Things can change so fast!  It’s a little frightening.  And yet, at the same time, there was something so graceful about the new snow.  I could hardly regret the loss of the mushrooms too bitterly.  It's often that way, I think.  One thing fades away, and we’re tempted not to appreciate what replaces it.  However, if we just encourage ourselves to have fresh eyes, even the new thing can seem beautiful and startling. 

Besides having philosophical thoughts about mushrooms, I’ve also been indulging my creativity with a bit of cooking (chicken noodle soup for the cold weather!) and also with some drawing.  A young friend of mine had her 16th birthday this past weekend, and I felt it was a good excuse to exercise my rusty artistic abilities.  I pulled out pencils and a sheet of drawing paper and got to work.

I must say that there’s definitely a refreshing element in changing the creative pace occasionally.  Granted, I’m antsy about the lack of writing, but even so, it felt good to express myself through another outlet – and one which I don’t use often enough. 

So I guess my post ended up being about change, in a non-focused sort of way.  Change of seasons; change of artistic media: everything brings new revelations and opportunities, even if not the ones we were looking for.  It’s a hopeful feeling, I must say.  Let me know if anyone who wanders by to read this post shares it with me!

Animals and colors to delight a 16 year old's heart!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Thoughts on Contests

So for the past few months, a good friend has been working on an architectural project for a contest.  It gets judged on Monday, and I’m resisting the urge to chew on my fingernails.

As I’ve mentioned before, I find contests somewhat nerve-wracking.  I’ve submitted a novel to one, short stories to four, and poems to one.  Each time, I’ve spent the entire time before the judging wondering whether I should feel excited or doubtful.  The complicated thing about contests is not so much the submitting or the announcement of winners.  Instead it’s the achievement of emotional balance.

My art never had much luck in contests...
I think, actually, that there are lots of situations which have the same effect on us that contests do, so if you can discover a way to remain balanced, it will serve you in good stead during much of your life!  For example, waiting for news about a potential job is certainly analogous to a contest.  Even our relationships with family and friends sometimes make us face times when we have to wait for good news or bad, but have to remain calm anyway. 

Anyway, the reason I struggle with contests and other similar situations is that I have an overdose of confidence in my personality.  My automatic inclination is to suppose that my work must be supremely excellent and of course any sane judge will throw ribbons and prizes at it. 

I remember quite clearly the first contest I lost (I have a good memory).  I was ten, and I’d submitted a drawing of a single running horse against a couple of green hills.  One of the other would-be artists, on the other hand, had truly godly talents – she was also sixteen, which gave her quite an advantage, of course. Having little knowledge at the time of what can be done with graphite on paper, I rashly supposed she must have cheated somehow; no one could be that good! 

Of course I was wrong, and she won, and I spent an hour after the results were announced weeping while my kind father tried to explain that not everyone gets to win every time.  The problem is that besides being over-confident, I also can be quite touchy.  I don’t like to be insulted or passed over.  For the rest of my childhood, whenever I lost yet another contest, I had  to go hide in the bathroom until I had overcome the impulse to cry like a baby. 

I do still feel like this after bad news, though!
I’m proud to say that I no longer spontaneously burst into tears when someone tells me I've lost.  On other hand, I still find contests, and in general waiting for any verdict, very taxing.  I think everyone must, unless they submit to so many contests at once that they can’t even remember what they're doing.  The other thing, too, is that I feel almost as involved in my friends’ contests and such-like situations, and my emotions end up rather tattered around the edges. 

So how to approach these things? 

Well, I was thinking recently that there are two ways most people wait for fateful news.  On the one hand, they suppose everything will be perfect.  If it is, they are elated; if it isn’t, they are crushed.  On the other hand, some suppose they will never win.  Then if they do win, they are excited and surprised.  However, if they don’t win, they are still secretly crushed.  No matter how hard we try, we can’t ever quite convince ourselves we won’t win, after all. 

Victory: battered, but doing her best!
So in fact, I’m beginning to think that the optimist’s path might be the one that allows us to survive these situations.  I know that we are always told not to get our hopes up, and to be realistic – and I do agree with this advice to a certain extent.  However, I also think that forcing yourself to downplay the quality of your own work in an effort to avoid disappointment can actually backfire.  After all, if you tell yourself that you’re not worth it… isn't the danger that you’ll end up not being worth it?  That’s a sad fate for anyone. 

The other factor is that working so hard on pushing down the natural desire to win is actually incredibly exhausting.  I wonder if it might be less overwhelming in the long run to let yourself feel excited about the prospect of good news, of victory.  If it does come, well and good.  If it doesn’t, you can get out the disappointment in one burst, rather than stretching it out in anticipation.  Does that make sense?

Anyway, I’ve not myself submitted to a contest in a while, but I may in the next few months, so I figured I might as well share my thoughts.  Also, since I’m hoping my friend will sweep the competition, I’ve had the issue on my mind, wondering if I should feel confident that he’ll win, or refuse to let myself hope in case he and I both end up disappointed.  I’ve decided that no matter what happens, his work should win, because it’s awesome.  

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Across the Ages


I like to indulge in grandiose titles, but in fact, all I want to talk about today is target age-range in story-telling.  Lately, I’ve seen quite a few blog posts on the subject.  In particular, YA author Emma Pass declared in no uncertain terms that ‘writing YA is not a rehearsal!’

I quite agree with this sentiment.  Depending on the social background from which you come, the people around you can have any number of expectations for you as a writer.  For example, it’s common to regard young adult fiction as a sort of stage on the way to adult fiction.  In my own experience, on the other hand, when I’ve told fellow teachers and my students’ parents that I write, they automatically expect my intended audience to be school children. 

Your story can't disappoint the children!
What non-writers don’t understand, though, is that writing is not a matter of pragmatism. It might indeed make sense for me to write young adult fiction, since I interact daily with young adults.  Instead, I have gone the route that seems nonsensical and plunged into adult fiction. You see, a writer must write what inspiration comes to him or her.  It doesn’t matter if you expected it to come or not (and it matters even less what other people expected), but it appears anyway.  If you want to follow your dream of being a writer, you have to deal with it. 

The other thing which is often misunderstood, at least in my opinion, is the level of mastery required to write fiction for children and young adults.  After all, writers get older and older.  It takes a great deal of skill for a 30-year-old, not to mention a 60-year-old, to dip into personal experience so as to create a convincing teenage, or even pre-teen, character.  There is the danger of creating a too precocious protagonist; there is another danger of talking down to the young audience.  Pitfalls on every side!

That’s why I’ve always admired the artists who can easily slide between age ranges, telling stories to little children and teenagers and adults.  I think they are some of the most talented writers out there – which is probably why they are so rare.   

Actually, the reason why these thoughts occurred to me (besides the various blog posts, that is), was that during my vacation last week, I rewatched some of the animations of Hayao Miyazaki. I first discovered him in 2005, when he released his Howl’s Moving Castle.  I loved the novel by the late Diana Wynne Jones, so I eagerly rushed off to see the film.  What was my delight when I discovered that he had made the story his own – quite different from the original, but definitely as good.  Intrigued, I set out on an odyssey through his works.

Miyazaki's films are like these toys: childish, but museum-worthy!
It turns out that he has three or four films intended for the pre-teen age range, another three or four for teenagers, as well as three more for adults.  And yet, at the same time, an adult can watch anything that Miyazaki has done and not have his intellect insulted.  There’s always substance, beautiful imagery, not to mention fully developed plotting. 

What delights me about this fact is that if a story intended for children can still satisfy an adult, imagine what a strong, positive effect it must have on the child’s mind!  (As you might be able to tell, this is partly my teacher’s side speaking here!)

Anyway, all this is a roundabout way of getting to two points.  First of all, there’s never any grounds for criticizing someone for choosing a target audience of a certain age.  Partly that’s because it’s not entirely in the writer’s hands (the muse is unpredictable, after all!), but also because writing for that age-group undoubtedly calls for a highly developed set of authorial skills. 

Second, if a writer does decide that inspiration is prompting him or her to write for children or teenagers, this hardly qualifies as an excuse for sub-par work.  In fact, a writer's ideal should be to produce something which enthralls every reader (presuming, of course, that they can understand it, which does excuse adult fiction writers from laboring too hard to make their work accessible to children).   

I have one plan for a novel which hopefully will fall into the young adult range (the protagonists are both 16-17).  My hope is that after I’ve practiced my skills enough, I’ll have the capacity to undertake a novel which can speak directly to teenagers, but also still have the power to move their parents.  My model is Miyazaki…We’ll see how well I can follow in his footsteps!   

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reading the Classics

This was my 20-year-old self!

A couple of years ago, when I first began teaching a junior literature class at my school, I had to reread Crime and Punishment for the first time in four years.  It’s always been one of my favorite novels: I’d read it once in high school and once in college.

However, I’d never thought about it from a writer’s point of view before.  In high school I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I thought fantasy would be my genre.  I didn’t give much thought to the style of anyone other than Tolkien, Robin McKinley and Ursula Le Guin.  Then in college I was beginning to become an active writer, but I had the usual over-confidence of a 20-year-old; I supposed that my style was fantastic. 

When I reread Crime and Punishment just before teaching about it, though, I was in the middle of writing my second novel.  Style suddenly was everything to me.  And I fell in love with Dostoyevsky’s: it was so rich and descriptive – a realism of full and precise detail.   I thought to myself, ‘Eventually I’d love to write a novel with a style like this.’ 

Since then I’ve found that almost every classic novel that I read leaves me feeling that way.  I’m not saying that I don’t also love current novelists as well.  I’ve read stories by Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, Richard Russo, Mark Helprin, Toni Morrison, Jay McInerney, to name a few.  I’ve enjoyed them all, and particularly been smitten with the beauty of Allende, Rushdie and Helprin’s prose. 

Riding on giants' shoulders!
Still, there’s something special about the classics.  Maybe it’s because current writers are still alive; they ‘own’ their particular style, as you might say.  I would feel as though I had invaded someone else’s territory if I attempted to incorporate elements from, say, Allende or Helprin into my work.  Granted, I learn things from them – lushness from the former or lucidity from the latter – but I have a mental block against actively experimenting with their style.

On the other hand, the much celebrated, occasionally maligned ‘dead white guys’ whom we all end up studying at some point or another – many of whom were great novelists – have bequeathed their stylistic efforts to us, their successors.  A man wouldn’t take his living parents’ fortune to build himself a new house; at their death, however, they may freely leave him that fortune.  Then he honors them if he uses their gift for a something new and beautiful. 

Similarly, I feel that Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Cervantes, Dickens, Melville, Faulkner, Flaubert, etc., etc. (you see the type of writers I mean), left me a gift in their writing.  If they inspire me to write something beautiful, incorporating elements of their style to flavor my personal voice, then I get a chance to tell the world how worthwhile they are to read.  I’m playing my little part to keep their work alive, and their greatness is supporting me in my efforts. 

It’s a healthy relationship.

Anyway, all this leads up to the fact that I’ve finally gotten a chance to do some pleasure reading this vacation.  Usually when I’m teaching I only have time to read the books in my literature program, so I try to squeeze in something new and interesting during vacations.  I pride myself on being a literature buff of sorts, so I like my pleasure reading to be drawn from the classics.  That way I have fun and educate myself at the same time.  Three cheers for multi-tasking!

I chose For Whom the Bell Tolls this vacation.  Before this, I’d only read The Old Man and the Sea (magnificent) and Hills Like White Elephants (fascinating) out of Hemingway’s oeuvre, so I wanted to increase my exposure. 

Of course literary types are aware that Hemingway is almost universally praised for his style.  I’m pleased to say that I can now confirm this praise (I’m also pleased to announce that I don't hesitate to say preposterously condescending things!).  I have been amazed at how economical his use of words is, and yet at the same time how richly evocative and atmospheric his scene- and character-crafting are. 

Building very high! 
I decided a few years ago that I wanted my next novel to feature a greater minimalism.  You see, I think any artist needs to challenge him or herself to discover new facets of their personal talent.  So far, I’ve mostly used a highly descriptive style.  However, I’d love to become terser when necessary, while still not losing the ability to describe and evoke.  I think I’ll adopt Hemingway as my inspiration.  I won’t try to write exactly like he does, but I’ll try to learn from him: using the exact words needed, and no more, to create a scene perfectly in a reader’s mind.  Wish me luck! 

Anyway, in general any person with a passion for something creative, whether it be art or writing or architecture or carpentry or sewing or cooking or anything else, is well-served by looking to the classics in their domain.  They need do exposure to their peers, as well, in order to become familiar with the environment in which they’re working.  The classics, however, provide continual inspiration and a foundation on which we can all build very high.