Thursday, October 10, 2013

Patterns Unfolding

Let's talk about tomatoes ripening in a windowsill!
Now that it’s Fall again, it seems like a good time to talk about food.  Actually, I always think it’s a good time to talk about food, but I know not everyone shares my passion, so I reign myself in.  Today, though, it’s time to let myself go, because I noticed something. 

I was talking to a friend recently and had a discovery about myself.  I’ve been delving into the (wonderful and overwhelming) world of computer software, in an attempt to help streamline my work process in my new job.  My friend remarked that it was surprising I’d never gotten into tech-y stuff like that before, and I realized that I’m the type who has to be jolted into being interested in something.  I don’t absorb interest through instruction; I don’t gradually slide into a habit or a hobby.

Instead, I am only marginally aware of one topic or another until something shifts, and suddenly I discover that it’s a new focal point of my life (granted my life, like an ellipse, has many foci, not just one, but that’s beside the point).  This happened to me with food, when I was a sophomore in college.  I’d just been on a college trip to Greece, which was the best culinary experience of my life, and then I came home and our whole family went on a Mediterranean-style diet. 

From then on, I’ve never looked back. 

Because my mom was learning a new cooking style, I took the chance to step into the kitchen and learn right along with her.  Then I returned to college and started cooking elaborate meals for myself and Vasnefy.  Then I returned to my home town and started working, which meant a bit less free time for cooking – but that only honed my eagerness to squeeze it in when I could. 

Plum jam is now a passion of mine!
The next stage started about a year ago, when I began watching documentaries and reading books about the modern agricultural industry.  I’d tended to poo-poo the organic, green, sustainable movement. But on the one hand friends of mine were learning about sustainable living in school and on the other I was being bombarded with scary information about modern food.  I suddenly realized the organic movement was important.  I began doing a little gardening and a little preserving.  This summer has seen me shop for fully half to three-quarters of my food in my garden or at the farmers’ market.  Now I’m spending the fall putting up all kinds of fruits, pickles of various vegetables, and pumpkins for pie and bread. 

It’s been interesting to discover that my interests follow a snow-balling pattern. 

Of course, as soon as I discover an element of my personality which I’d not thought of before, I immediately apply that discovery to everything I can, to see if it holds true (I studied 8 semesters of philosophy in college, so I am perhaps overly inclined to analysis!).  The part of myself which seems most essential to me is the writer, so I began thinking about that. 

When I was 11, at the end of 6th grade, I told my Mom that I wanted to be a concert pianist, when I grew up.  Then when I was 12, I told her again that I thought I’d like to be a translator.  All along, while practicing piano and translating Latin and French, I kept reading voraciously.  Words and communication where what I loved.  I wanted my favorite authors to go on talking to me forever.  I wanted to communicate with others by music and language. 

This was all part of a pattern, I’ve realized: my interests were slowly clarifying based on my true passion. 

It wasn’t until 9th grade when the mother of my pen-pal turned out to be a YA Fantasy Author and sent me her manuscript for feedback that I could actually formulate what I truly was becoming.  I thought: Why not me too?  I loved stories and I’d been telling myself little tales to put myself to sleep or entertain myself in bored moments for years.  Surely I could write some of them down. 

Patterns lead to growth and fruit!
I started writing a (very Tolkien-derivative) fantasy story that year, and I’ve been writing something or other ever since.  Granted I’ve changed my focus during that time from fantasy to science fiction to literary fiction.  My writing style has also almost completely transformed.  That’s all part of the pattern though.  For me it slowly gathers force and power.  I think I’ll look back on my writing in another ten years and realize that it has gone on to become something new yet again. 


I enjoy watching this process of change and development.  For me, that’s what it means to be human, since it’s the particular way my humanity manifests.  I think everyone has different patterns, though.  I’d love to know how any visitors to my blog would trace their development as artists throughout their lives.  

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Old Habits

When I was a little girl, I always thought it was so funny that my father had a neat stack of reading material on the dresser just outside the master bath.  As a careless eight-year-old, I could curl up in a chair whenever I wanted and devour books at my leisure.  It seemed quite unnecessary to take something to read into the bathroom. 

Then I got into high school at the comparatively intense institution where I received my education.  Suddenly I had far less time to myself.  It was then that I first sympathized with my Dad.  Ever since those days, I’ve practiced his technique of taking a book with me when I’ll be in the bath for a while.  I read while brushing my teeth and cleaning my contacts; I shower; then I read again while applying lotion, while dressing and styling my hair.  Since I’m a fast reader, I get through a good 30-40 pages every shower.

I’ve even learned to spread this pleasant multi-tasking to other areas.

My current reading list!
My various occupations have always been very reading-centered.  The problem, though, is that when one is assigned reading for classes or work, time for pleasure reading is eaten up.  If you want to try a new novel or read some light non-fiction, you have to squeeze it in during odd moments of the day.  When I was in college, for example, I read the (600 page!) entirety of The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie while cooking all my meals for a week.  While things simmered on the stove, I’d lean against the refrigerator opposite and read. 

I will note here, though, that making gumbo and trying to read Heart of Darkness does not work.  Who knows why, but I only read about one page of the latter while making the former, even though it was a long slow process and should have given me plenty of time to forge through such a short book. 

Anyway, anecdotes aside, normally I don’t feel that multi-tasking is that effective, since the two undertakings can each distract from the other. When it comes to reading, however, I give everyone my blessing to multi-task.  (You were all waiting for it, I’m sure.)  Reading is one of those intensely enriching, relaxing, restorative things which nonetheless is almost always lowest on our priorities list.  We need any excuse to fit it into our days that we can find.

Unfortunately, while I was teaching, I read almost nothing new – maybe two books a year at most.

My habits of finding spare moments to read while completing some other low-intensity task had almost faded into nothing.  Even late in the evening when all my daily tasks were done, I’d just collapse into bed and watch a TV show rather than pull out a book.  I incurred everlasting shame by racking up library fees – I who had always returned books a few days after checking them out! 

Lately I mentioned in a blog post how pleasant it has been to discover that my new job offers the chance to do a little writing work at lunchtime – thus fulfilling a hope of mine from my pre-employment days.  In fact I’ve been returning to more than one of my old hopes and interests.  Reading is my first hobby (if reading can be a hobby!) and libraries have been my favorite haunts from the moment I learned to read, maybe before.  I’ve missed it.  It has been wonderful to return to it with my old enthusiasm.

So many books, waiting to be read...
What’s more enjoyable, after all, than plunging into a new story, a new style, and soaking it in? 

Life often twists and turns in surprising ways and takes us away from the things we loved when we were young.  In some ways, though, your childish self was your purest self – not the best you could be, of course, but the clearest picture of your natural tendencies and passions.  Growing up and then progressing through the various stages of adulthood can distract you from the things which you once loved easily and simply.  Exacerbating this situation, perhaps we tend to look back on our childhood and think, ‘Oh well, I couldn’t possibly be that interested in what I did then.  I’m so different now!’ 

My current experience, though, is that I’m not so different from my 12-year-old self, after all.  In fact, I feel enormously refreshed and rejuvenated to discover that I haven’t moved beyond a passion for reading.  It was just lying dormant while I dealt with a constantly busy schedule.  Now that I’ve awoken again, I feel more joyful, more like myself. 


Perhaps we can feel this way more often by recalling the things we loved as children and indulging in them upon occasion.  To recall our childhood loves surely will have the effect of keeping our minds young and open to inspiration, much as they were when we were small.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Cutting and Patching

A few months ago I read a book called Lessons from Madame Chic.  It made quite an impression and since then I’ve mentioned it several times on the blog.  One of the things it prompted me to do was to reconsider my wardrobe and work on editing it to be more reflective of my current style.  I’ve been slowly working on this project since then, with pretty satisfactory results. 

At the same time, though, I’ve also read books and blogs discussing the problem with wastefulness in modern, first-world countries – perhaps especially in America.  We amass possessions and gleefully throw away first the bags and wrappings which the possessions came in, then replacement parts, finally the possessions themselves.  The old skills of mending and fixing and patching are no longer really appreciated because we have such abundance.  Instead we have become good at digging more and more land-fills. 

So, instead of simply throwing away my old clothes, I’ve been analyzing them to see if I can salvage them in some way.  My first example is a green corduroy skirt from my ‘gypsy-chic’ days.  It is really quite lovely, with a big kick pleat in the front and patch pockets and gold buttons.  On the other hand, it’s quite a wide A-line, with a high, fitted waistline.  Currently, in my new ‘jazzy-smart’ phase, I’m favoring a more relaxed cut at the waist and a straighter line to the skirt. 

Gold and green are too good to waste!

 I decided it was time to call on my editing powers and use them not just for writing.

I’m going to take the waistband off the skirt, detach the side seams and then alter it to fit my new look.  I’ll have what amounts to a brand new skirt for free, and I’ll also not waste anything in the process.  It makes for a gratifying result. 

Thinking about this plan of mine, though, I realized that editing this skirt isn’t too far from the editing I’m doing currently on House of Mirrors, and even closer to what I did with The Art of Dying.  Since I was happy with the basic materials, I just had to cut new lines and enhance different elements in order to convey my vision better.  The operation requires its own sort of imagination, quite different from straight up creation, but it leads to more perfect results in the end. 

What author or artist or creator isn’t looking for more perfect results, after all?

Sometimes, though, no matter how thrifty you want to be, or how much work you put into the original piece, you have to start over from scratch.  I have another skirt, in fact.  It’s a long white linen skirt which I bought for a special occasion in college.  It has been a favorite article in my closet since then, but there is a lot of dirt out there waiting to sabotage white linen.  After  several years, the skirt is faintly yellowed, and then, to top it off, I just discovered a rip at the bottom of the zipper and also another along another seam, where I must have caught it on something. 

The skirt has a perfect cut for my figure, though.  In the interest of salvaging as much as I can, I’m going to take the entire garment apart this winter and use it as a pattern for a copy.  No sense wasting something I may never be able to find again, after all.  I feel the same about another story of mine, Fridays Child.  The novel is a mess, but I can’t just throw it out of the window.  At the same time, it can’t be fixed by cutting and patching and tweaking. 

An essential flaw necessitates a new approach.
There are some artistic endeavors which require a complete overhaul before they’ll be worthwhile. 

Much as I’m going to use the substance of my present skirt to create a new one, I’m going to take the pattern of Fridays Child and reconstruct the novel from scratch inside that pattern.  I never thought I’d be one of those authors who rewrites stories completely from top to bottom – but it appears that I’m gearing up to be just that!  Funny how one changes to fit the needs of one’s interests. 

I had been dreading the prospect, actually (just because I decide something must be done doesn’t always mean I want to do it!), but lately I’ve had a change of heart.  See, Fridays Child features one of my favorite characters: a half-Asian rock-musician named Lisa.  Her dual heritage gives her an almost insatiable appetite for all music.  I think one of the reasons my novel is a mess is because I didn’t bring that element in her enough to the front to provide me a unifying theme and image. 


Lately, though, I’ve been listening to a wider variety of musicians myself, plus I rediscovered the band Nightwish which features a female lead singer, just as Lisa is a female lead-singer for her band.  Listening to the beautiful woman’s voice while writing and reading in the evenings, I’ve been slowly learning again who Lisa is.  I’m not sure exactly when I’ll be able to attack the rewriting process, but I think I’m now ready for it when it comes.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Agent Query

Greetings!  I'm approaching my blog post a little differently this time.  I took two weeks off so that I could deal with rush season at work, as well as think about querying agents.  I've been procrastinating on that task, so I needed to cut out the excuses that were keeping me from overhauling my letter.

The result is that I now have something I'm pretty happy with.  However, as with all things that one writes, it's hard to be unbiased.  I thought I could submit the letter to my blog post and see what any readers think.  Feel free to be as critical as you like.  I want it to be a very good letter.

If anyone does feel like giving critique, I'd be delighted if you'd look at style and structure.  I want the story summary to be quite gripping.  The content of it can't be changed, though (the story is what it is, after all!), so I'd love for you to look not at what it says, but how it's said.

Thank you in advance for any feedback which kind internet visitors may wish to give!

***

Dear Agent Name,

On a 1996 April evening in Fort Worth, Texas, young sculptor Charles Eliot was blindsided by a drunk driver.  He awoke from his injuries into darkness: he had lost his eyes.  The crippling loss recalled the many catastrophes endured by his family during the twentieth century, awakening a perfect despair over his fate.  His life seemed finished; his only option was death.

Challenged by those closest to him, however, he was driven toward a new mastery of sculpture and of himself.  Tragedy, vulnerability, suffering – these elements became the basis of a rich artistry.  The loss which first crushed him led to a life he never imagined.  Every interaction with his subjects contributed to a vision of the world which needed no eyes. 

In 143,000 words, The Art of Dying tells a story of humanity, mortality, and their painful but definitive coexistence.  Since [your website] mentioned literary fiction as an interest of yours, I hope you will find my novel intriguing.

Under my pen name, Chiara Solari, I post poetry and prose at solaric.deviantART.com.  I blog at chiarasbalancingact.blogspot.com with weekly posts, and have gained 4,500 views in a year.  I have also submitted short fiction and poems to several competitions and journals. I won first place in the 2007 Writers Competition at the Coeur d’Alene Public Library; as of March 2013, five of my poems have been published in The Lost Country: a Literary Journal of the Exiles.  Besides The Art of Dying, I have completed another novel which I am currently editing.

As stated in your guidelines, I am including [insert guideline here], along with an SASE for your convenience.  [The complete manuscript is available upon request.] Thank you for your time in considering The Art of Dying.


Cordially, etc.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Everything Under the Sun

Last week my brother and I went to the county fair after work one evening.  For us the fair has a strangely nostalgic feeling.  Both of us were in 4-H for two years when we were little.  I was eleven and skinny, with braids and glasses; he was nine and pudgy, with buck-teeth and red hair. 

This is Sally, whom I loved exceedingly.
We raised two pigs named Sally and Sue during the summer and then showed them over the course of three days, before auctioning them off on the morning of the fourth.  Both of us got two blue ribbons, one for good quality pig, and one for good quality showmanship.  Both of us opened our first bank account afterwards, thinking with childlike innocence that $240 was a huge amount of money.

While we were showing the pigs, we slept at the fair in a tent.  That may seem extreme, but we had to be up at 6 AM to claim a shower stall – not for ourselves, but for our pigs, who needed to be bathed, shaved, dried and oiled.  We also had to treat their cuts with flaming red iodine, since pig-showing is not so much a show as a controlled chaos, interspersed with desperate intervention as fights break out between sows trying to establish dominance.  With the same innocence which miscalculated the worth of money, we little children went into the ring, weighing about 100 pounds in our clothes, and supposed that we were perfectly safe as we wandered after our stubborn, ferocious, 250 pound pigs.   Perhaps that’s why we deserved our blue ribbons for showmanship. 

As you can imagine, with such memories, it’s no wonder the fair is a nostalgic place.

We hadn’t been able to go in a few years, but we seized the chance this year.  It was very enjoyable, but I felt about 25 years older than I actually am, since I found myself saying things like, ‘The animal barns were a lot cleaner when we were in 4-H,’ or ‘Didn’t the exhibits use to be a lot more splendid?’  But in spite of complaining like a little old lady, there were many lovely things to see, and delicious things to eat (what’s the point of a fair if you can’t eat improbably delectable, unhealthy food?). 

I want to ride that camel...
At one point, we were passing casually through the displays of heavy machinery, and we noticed signs for a petting zoo in the distance.  Even well past childhood, I have an inordinate fondness for such things, so I dragged my long-suffering brother with me to investigate.  I was glad we went.  The zoo itself was mediocre, but someone else nearby had brought camels!  I never expected to see camels at the North Idaho Fair.  There was even a Bactrian one; I’ve seen dromedaries in zoos, but the Bactrian was a wonderful new experience. 

That’s the real point of going to these huge community events and establishments, I think – experience. 

I watched a tiny child of six or so, with a shining blonde head.  She sat on the very tall camel’s back, waving with nervous pride at her parents as they snapped their cameras at her.  The camel was completely blasé about the entire affair, but no doubt the little girl will always remember that she once sat on a his back at the fair.  Perhaps that will be as dear to her as my own memory of proudly showing my pig, a big number pinned on my chest to help the judges identify me. 

Later in the evening, another family strolled past while my brother and I were enjoying some kettle corn.  The two children – a boy and girl – pulled at their parents’ arms and pointed at the marvelous, mysterious animals in the stalls ahead.  ‘What’s that one, Mom?’ they cried.  Of course, the creatures were nothing more than donkeys, but I suddenly shared the delight of a child who can still be stunned by the wonder of a donkey. 

It must be delightful to be a parent, too, and rediscover with your child that donkeys are amazing after all.  

I love their patient faces!
The theme of our fair this year was ‘Everything Under the Sun’ (hence the title of my post).  The claim was perhaps a bit presumptuous, but to the eyes of a child, who knows.  Perhaps each barn seems a new world where they can discover yet another race of miraculous beings.  I remember how grand and monumental the draft horses seemed when I was twelve.  One of the reasons I still appreciate those same horses is because of that recollection.  I see the world through layers and layers of experience, and each one adds a new color and depth to my enjoyment. 

It’s easy to think, ‘Oh, it’s childish to do such-and-such’ (visit the fair, or the zoo, or a park, etc.), but each new visit embroiders more splendid patterns upon old experience.  Memory is one of the best elements of our humanity.  We might as well embrace how it enhances even the simplest, most ordinary experiences.  I think we’ll discover that enhancement can inspire a myriad emotions and ideas – the seeds of our inspirations.  

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Every Little Bit

While I was training for my new job, the Fashionista (my trainer) and I discussed finances and the challenge of budgeting.  She mentioned a book she was reading about the very subject, called Living the Savvy Life.  I then mentioned how the beginning of a new job would mean an overhaul of my own budget.  She told me I should write a blog about it, when I did.  This is the requested post. 

Even Spinoza knows how to balance!
Actually, I take that back.  It’s not quite.  See, in between that training day and now, I also read Living the Savvy Life, and I was surprised and interested to discover that the author’s point is not the necessity of scrimping on every penny.  Instead, she advocates a balanced life.  Your budget is based on an analysis of the things that are important to you, versus those that are not.  By being ‘savvy’ in the latter, you can afford to indulge in the former, but also have savings and pay down debt. 

As you might guess, I was excited because balance is something I strive for in my life. 

So today, instead of talking about budgeting per se, I thought I might look at the idea that has been occupying my mind lately, and how it applies even to finances.  If you’ve read my recent posts, you may have noticed I’ve been talking about how important the little things are – little moments of happiness, little contributions to artistic projects, etc.  It turns out the same idea is a good guide for money, too. 

For example, last Sunday I was expecting to eat dinner with my parents.  I didn’t have anything specific laid out for an evening meal because of that, but then plans changed and the dinner was cancelled.  I had to find something to eat for myself.  Often when this happens, I end up going out for fast food or take out.  In such cases, I can easily lay out $8-$15, since you always end up paying an unexpectedly large amount for the convenience of a take-home meal.  

Then I thought, ‘What would the savvy person do – the person who appreciates the important of little things?’

Fancy, cheap eggs are the best!
The answer was: stay in and see what I can find in the refrigerator.  Might as well get the most out of the food I’ve already paid for, after all!  So then my creativity had to kick into gear.  I’ve always been a big believer in the reflectivity of the creative act.  If you put thought and imagination into making something in one part of your life, your mind will be awake and lively to make something in another part as well. 

Now, I’ve always appreciated an occasional ‘breakfast for dinner’ meal.  In the refrigerator I found a few slices of unused bacon, a few eggs, some leftover cheddar cheese, onion and kale from the farmers’ market.  The kale was just on the edge of turning wilty.  The cheddar cheese was too small of a piece to use for much of anything.  The onion was a quarter left from a Mexican meal.  So I made an omelet, and nothing went to waste.  Moreover, with bacon, cheese, kale and onion as the filling, it was both healthy and delicious.

To celebrate my thrifty accomplishment, I ate my dinner with a delicious screwdriver to wash it down. 

As I was savoring the omelet, I reflected on the fact that if I’d gotten a cheeseburger and fries from Burger King, or Chinese takeout, I’d have probably regretted my choice by the end of the meal.  A noticeable dent would have been put in my budget (currently rather tight as I transition between jobs), and I probably wouldn’t have felt very good, thanks to all the deepfrying. 

Instead, I felt refreshed and revitalized - just full enough – and happy that I’d not wasted
money and that I’d flexed my cooking muscles (something I always enjoy!).  In fact, the omelet was about the best one I’d ever made because I let the pan get hot enough to cook the eggs through without browning the outside. 

Hodgepodges are creative and beautiful!
Often it’s easy to think, ‘Oh, that will be too time-consuming to make dinner for myself, plus what does $10 or so really matter?’  In the end though, putting together something – even just cleverly reassembling leftovers – only need take 15 or 20 minutes, and you can rest easy with the money still in your pocket.  The same principles end up applying to everything.  When a seam splits in a shirt, you can spend $25 for a new one, or you can whip it back together in a few minutes with a needle and thread. 

 I think it’s not hard to feel rather dissatisfied with life.  We wish its quality could be better, and often we imagine that a bigger salary would magically solve everything.  My opinion, though – reinforced by my recent omelet – is that a more encompassing creativity is a better solution.  Instead of seeing every change of plans or failure in some belonging as a downturn which obliges us to spend money to fix, look at it as a challenge.  Let’s ask ourselves, ‘What can we do here and now to fix this, engaging our minds and hands, not throwing money at it?’


The answer will often prove to be something enjoyable in itself – something that wakes us up and gives us greater satisfaction with our lives. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Happy Discovery

When I was in college and dreaming about the ideal job which I’d have when I finished (it tended to involve a quaint bookshop and a stylishly nerdy version of me), the one thing I always imagined was that I’d be able to write during my lunch breaks.  The scenario was that I’d go outside and sit on a bench, eating something suitably sophisticated – not a sandwich.  I’d pull out my notebook (electronic or otherwise) and jot down a page or so in 30 minutes. 

Good things get built in small pieces!
My progress might not be fast, but it would be incredibly steady.

That was the dream at least.  It was a good dream, even if a bit varnished with pretentiousness.  It never came true, though.  I taught and taught, and every lunch I’d have to do school preps.  At best, I’d get out for a walk, but sitting and writing after doing basically the same all day for my classes didn’t hold much appeal. 

It’s funny: as you get older and little teenage or childhood dreams fade away into reality, there’s a tendency to suppose that nothing your younger self imagined will come true.  We smile as fondly at our past selves as we do when a friendly six year old tells us he wants to be a pirate when he grows up.  There’s no rule, however, that all of those little wishes and aspirations have to be abandoned.  Some of them are perfectly legitimate.

I’ve been happy to discover lately that my ambition to write during my lunch breaks is, in fact, legitimate. 

It’s been deeply satisfying to feel that maybe I’ve actually found a version of the place I imagined for myself in college.  Overall I am finding my new job truly enjoyable.  There’s a surprising amount of problem-solving to do, and that offers mental stimulation and satisfaction.  For example, if a woman calls and explains sadly that her pet destroyed several of the books from a recent order, I can only feel happy if I can send her away with a solution, rather than heartlessly charging her for replacement copies. 

That sort of employment has been offering me plenty of interest, and then to top it all off, I realized my 45 minutes for lunch every day gave me a chance to tackle other important things, as well.  No matter how slowly I eat, after all, there’s no way I can make a light lunch last three quarter of an hour.  Not infrequently, I have a whole 30 minutes which at first was just going to waste. 

It may look small, but it has layers and layers!
Then a lightbulb went on in my head, and I realized I could use those spare moments for writing. 

I brought a flash drive to work the next day.  I’m still working on the editing I wanted to complete before starting a brand new story, but in a month I’ve edited three chapters, largely at work.  That’s not incredibly fast progress, but it’s better than nothing.  Not every day works out for an editing session, but when I do have a chance, I can do between a half and three-quarters of a page. 

The benefit of this, too, is that I’ve been too busy for quite a while now to work in the evenings.  I’ve been taking advantage of having some friends in town, since they’ll be leaving again when summer ends, plus July is a month of holidays and parties, thanks to the generally beautiful weather.  Normally when I go out to several social engagements a week, I end up feeling frazzled and harassed, since I can’t write.  Now, though, despite an occasional twinge of regret that things aren’t progressing faster, I’m able to keep my cool.

By just a little creative work of my own each lunch, I reclaim the whole day for myself, somehow. 

Granted, not every form of creativity is equally portable.  It would be hard to take paints and a canvas to work, for example.  You could, however, take a sketch book.  An amateur seamstress could bring some handsewing.  A poet can bring a notebook; a musician an mp3 player to offer inspiration for his performance or composition.  There are quite a few ways to incorporate some small creative act into the daily routine. 


A snail's pace is better than no pace at all!
I’ve always felt that one of the signs of being a writer was happiness with small progress and the ability to seek out opportunities for it.  There’s a tendency to suppose that if we don’t advance by leaps and bounds, we’ll never get anywhere and so perhaps we’d better not try at all.  The famous tortoise in the fable is a better model for our endeavors, though.  He wasn’t impatient with himself, though the hare ran by at top speed.  By continuing with his small, slow steps, in the end he won it all.  

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Moments Like Jewels

In my college days, I spent a fair amount of time studying Aristotelian ethics.  His system can also be termed ‘eudaimonism’ (cool word, I know), which derives from the Greek word ‘eudaimonia’ – happiness, or literally ‘being-well-in-spirit.’  Basically, he thought that every human being is naturally directed toward happiness.  That is the state in which he or she wishes to exist forever. 

The catch – there’s always a catch with ethics – is that in order to exist in happiness, human beings have to be good.  The goodness Aristotle means isn’t just an inborn state of being valuable and lovable, which depends solely on our humanity.  Everybody has that, but not everybody is happy, right?  Goodness, then, is a state of moral perfection in which a human being no longer has to struggle to behave always in the best way.  Instead, it is the habit of his or her life – the only thing possible. 

If that is the state required for total happiness, it’s no wonder we all feel sad sometimes. 

Nature offers free happiness!
Achieving the ideal of human behavior is very difficult, as we all know.  Often we’re impatient; occasionally we slip back into bad habits, even though we’ve worked years to overcome them; frequently we care more about our own comfort than the needs of someone else.  After such small or big failures, we feel disappointed with ourselves, and even angry at others for causing the situation which made us slip up.  Happiness remains elusive.

And yet, we feel moments of it.  For example, the other night I was driving in the evening.  The sun was setting in a halo of fuchsia and orange; the air was soft and warm; birds were twittering and flickering through the sky.  For a moment, I felt utterly serene and at ease.  This was in spite of the fact that I was heading to another night of house-sitting, which meant dealing with a very hyper dog and probably getting as little sleep as on the previous four nights.  Something about the peace of the evening, and the security of having a job to go in that calm atmosphere – a destiny and a purpose – soothed every worry and all my tiredness.  I felt happy, in short.

Of course, being a writer, then I started to think about the reason for moments of happiness.

The practical reason is pretty obvious, I’d say.  We human beings are pretty susceptible to discouragement.  We all know, somewhere deep down, that goodness will help us become happy, so we work on improving ourselves.  It’s a long and uphill battle, though, so some give up altogether, some get distracted, some take one step forward for every two (or ten) steps back. 

The thing that counteracts distraction, discouragement and slow progress, though, is the promise that something better is waiting.  A moment of pure happiness, when everything in ourselves is in harmony with everything outside ourselves – what better thing could we have to balance more negative reactions?  Such a moment, brief or long as it may be, reminds us that there is hope for us to reach that state more permanently. 

It also gives us a hint about how to do so.

Beethoven: my favorite composer!
Harmony is the key – or balance, you might say.  Of course, as the name of my blog reveals, I think about balance a fair amount.  In striving for goodness, we’re striving for equilibrium in our thoughts, our emotions, our relations with others, our jobs, our families, etc. etc.  There are so many elements which go into human life that harmonizing them all becomes a symphonic experience.  We’re all Beethovens of sorts: deaf people trying to translate the imagined music of perfection into reality. 

The lesson to learn, I think, is how beautiful the gifted moments of happiness are.  Like a perfect chord, they can inspire us to create an entire work – the artistry of our lives.  Sometimes they can also inspire other, more concrete artworks, too.  Who hasn’t been uplifted enough by a transcendent instant to turn to drawing, painting, poetry, essay, fiction, music, dance or some other equally beautiful creation?  We are raised up and transfigured briefly, so that the flash of glory may unveil for us the path we should follow in our lives.  

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Day of Firsts

When I was a pre-teen and teenager, as ungrateful as this sounds, I grumbled a lot about my boring parents. 

The chief cause of my complaint was that ‘we never did anything.’  I remember sitting in the vegetable garden as an 8th grader, weeding in company with my 12th grader brother.  Both of us murmured about the searing sun (and I can assure you that in August in the semi-arid prairie where we live, the sun is definitely searing) and muttered that this was the third or fourth day in a row we’d been commissioned to weed the truly unnecessary number of gardens our parents insisted on cultivating.  That, at least, is how we felt about it at the time. 

Lakes, Rivers and Mountains, oh my!
Looking back, of course I realize how spoiled we sounded, but at the same time our family never had any particular genius for finding means of entertainment other than work.  My mom seems really and truly to enjoy the tasks she takes on – especially anything that leaves her house and gardens clean.  If my dad came in one morning and said, ‘My dearest love, today we are going to do nothing but weed together,’ Mom would probably think it was romantic.  Teenagers see nothing romantic about such projects, though. 

My brothers and I wanted to explore the beautiful lakes and rivers and mountains and prairies which adorn the north of Idaho where we live.

Sadly, though, we never did.  More than a decade has passed since those grumbling days of weeding and I’ve not seen much more of my state than I had as a 12 year old.  Luckily, though, I have friends with better exposure. One in particular is the outdoors type and comes from a family to whom camping, hunting, hiking, biking, etc., are important.  Ever since I met him, in fact, he’s been a bit horrified that I had done so little exploring in the area.  This past 4th of July, he decided to remedy this fact. 

Comparatively early in the morning for us night-owls, we rallied our forces (with the help of plenty of coffee, needless to say) and headed up north to the Cabinet Mountains.  One of the deepest lakes in the States is Lake Pend Oreille, and its northern end noses into two impressive mountain ranges, one of these being the Cabinets.  They are relatively wild areas, with bears, moose, bighorn sheep and many other animals.  We ourselves saw two bear prints and a moose cow who crashed away from us into the brush early in the hike. 

It’s amazing to think of such pure land preserved just an hour from a sizable city.

Sego Lily: a Study in Three
We climbed some 2500 feet in elevation in our climb, and sat on top of a mountain in the meadow grass, with lupin and sego lilies blowing about us in the stiff wind.  Far off in the blue distance, the rest of the Cabinets marched away into Montana.  The highest, most jagged peaks of the range were visible from the height we reached.  With shining striations of white glacier on their highest flanks, they stood both beautiful and forbidding. 

There’s something so challenging and yet so entrancing about mountains.  At the same time you feel dwarfed and made secure.  Mountains are our Atlases, holding the sky off our heads.  Somehow their high, pure heads remind us that some things abide forever.  It’s not very surprising then, that so many people feel the appeal of hiking and mountain-climbing. We want to be part of that eternity, to feel that something of us will abide forever. 

I’ve often thought that human reactions to natural phenomena reveal the deepest parts of our nature. 

Both on a literal and on a metaphorical level, nature speaks to us.  Since I’ve begun reading blogs more, I’ve become acquainted with the ‘small stone’ method of writing, which seeks to encapsulate a moving experience in a few words.  So many of the small stones I’ve read address the writer’s interaction with nature.  Japanese haiku have a similar effect.  Nature inspires our creativity.

This rushing brook shares my enthusiasm!
At the same time, it reminds us of our desires and our accomplishments.  A forest seethes with mystery and we fear it and wish to explore it in much the same way as we fear and explore our own minds.  Mountains mirror the challenges we set ourselves.  Sometimes they seem insurmountable, but have we not even scaled Everest?  Flowers have the delicacy and ephemeral nature of our emotions, and yet the same beauty of intensity.   I could go on, but it’s easy to find the mirror of nature, since it surrounds us every day. 

On my first major hike, I was reminded of this mirror very vividly.  The mountain crags, the unfamiliar but lovely vegetation, the mountain creeks tumbling over stones – all these spoke to me.  They reminded me how glad I am to be alive, and to be a writer who remembers these vistas and lets them ferment into the fullness of story. 

Sometimes, perhaps oftener than we think, we all need to look back at nature to rediscover our reflection and our inspiration.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

New Work

Since I’ve just finished my teaching career (for now, at least), I had to find a new job.  One of my best friends, the Fashionista, knew this and about two months ago, she called me up and asked if I were interested in working at her office. 

I actually worked there a few years ago as a sort of jack-of-all trades, since I did everything from curriculum redesign to book binding, with filing, mailing, stocking, etc., in between.  The business is a home school program and therefore deals in an enormous amount of paperwork, covering book orders and providing tutoring services.  It’s a pretty impressive institution, especially considering what a small operation it is.  However, due to an increasing work load at the school where I taught, I decided to leave the business. 

It’s funny that sometimes when a job is needed, an old option pops up under a new disguise. 

One of the older employees at the business unexpectedly became a CPA and went off to new adventures, leaving the office rather burdened with the extra work.  This was when the Fashionista called me.  I hesitated for a little while when she gave me the news and the job offer.  You see, I’d already worked there and I was imagining a totally new experience employment-wise.  

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the pleasant atmosphere at the office during my original 14 months there.  The offer was certainly tempting.  I began to think it over, and realized that this opportunity was offering me something I really needed:  spare time.  Anyone who has ever taught or worked in a school can confirm with me that time for pursuing non-scholastic interests (anything from exercise to higher education to writing) is somewhat compromised.  I’ve managed to do a lot of writing during my four years of teaching, but not much editing and very little self-promotion to agents and publishers. 

One of the chief reasons I decided to leave teaching behind was to give me the time to get published. 

That perhaps sounds a bit presumptuous, but it’s true anyway.  Whether or not I actually get published, I have to have time to work on query letters and editing and the other preliminary things involved in the process.  As I thought about other potential jobs – in retail, at a bank, as a librarian – I realized that there was no way to tell how busy I’d be.  Would I be giving up teaching simply to plunge into a new, equally time-consuming job? 

That was what allowed me to make the decision to go back to the homeschooling office.  From personal experience, I know that the day’s work there may sometimes be involved and tiring, but in any case, when the day ends, the work ends.  Then I can go home with enough time and energy to really make strides on writing. 

I find that when making decisions, making just one thing a priority allows everything to fall into place. 

What is the most important thing? I asked myself.  The answer was clear:  writing and shaping up my writing career.  Once that idea was clear in my mind, I realized that new job experiences can always be had, but time to work on writing is more elusive.  If I see a chance for the latter, I have to seize it – which is what I’ve tried to do, in taking my new job. 

Of course, the fact that I’ll get to work side by side with the Fashionista (and other people whom I already know and appreciate) was a definite added attraction!  The other element which eased my decision was the fact that I’m going to have a specific job-description at the office this time.  I’ve been training for it, and it’s the one thing I never did in my previous days there, so I get the comfort of a familiar place with the excitement of a new endeavor.  Pretty ideal, really!

I start full time this coming Tuesday, and in order to start off on a good foot, I’m also going to start editing House of Mirrors that evening.  I’ve also already updated my query letter for The Art of Dying (since it’s fully edited, at long last), so I think that everything is shaping up for a productive summer.  I’m looking forward to it, and I wish my readers similar good fortune!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Storytelling

This spring, I’ve been managing to keep up with some reading, thanks to my kindle.  Also during this time, a few movies came out which were based on interesting books.   Naturally I said to myself, ‘Since I want to see these movies, why don’t I read the books first and compare the two?”

I have to say that approaching entertainment in such a way is a very interesting exercise. 

See, it’s easy when watching a movie to zone out and watch it uncritically and unintelligently.  Often I choose to watch something when I’m tired, after all, and I’m sure I’m not alone in such a choice.  However, as a writer (or even just a lively-minded human being), it can be detrimental to fall out of the habit of absorbing entertainment with an attentive spirit.  Every story can offer ideas – or even just examples of what one should not do – so each book, movie, tv show, play, etc., should be observed attentively, in order to find the value. 

Well, it turns out that if you want to jumpstart your mind before watching something, so as to avoid the couch-potato temptation (something I yield to more easily than I should!), you should read the book it’s based on.  Obviously not everything is based on a book, but I do find that the best movies and shows are.  Just because one is an excellent director, after all, doesn’t mean one is also an excellent writer; that would be an unfair abundance of talent!  Often, therefore, the artists in the entertainment industry need to start with the seed of someone else’s idea, in order to produce their best work. 

Luckily, some very good movies have come out lately, based on novels. 

The first such which I watched was Life of Pi, actually, but since I read the book after the movie, it was a different experience than what I’m referring to.  My idea is to stimulate the mind before the film is seen.  I had two chances to do so in the past few months. 

The stormiest clouds have the brightest linings!
First of all, since The Silver Linings Playbook was such a success at the Oscars, I decided that I wanted to watch it, but at the time it hadn’t been released to home-video yet.  So I sprang for the novel to tide me over.  Frankly, I was very impressed.  The elements of the story were surprising – mental illness, exercise, dance, football, family dysfunction – but combined into a thought-provoking and harmonious whole.  I was especially impressed by the child-like simplicity of the main character and the relationship built on silent companionship which develops between him and a potential romance.  Since both were recovering from truly life-altering experiences, it only made sense that their relationship should be unconventional. 

Then the movie come out on video and I eagerly rented it.  When I finished watching it, my first thought was, ‘If I hadn’t read the book first, I’d have liked this movie a lot better.’  The unusual elements I listed above were present, but the balance between them was shifted into something more clichéd.  Two parts especially disappointed me: the novel emphasized what a strong, loving person the protagonist’s mother is, but since the movie cast Robert De Niro as his father, the emphasis was suddenly on him and the mother was overlooked.  The other disappointment was that the lead couple bantered loudly like any couple in a romantic comedy these days (apparently one cannot fall in love without a lot affectionate arguing).  Their relationship went from intriguing to expected.  On the other hand, the acting was very impressive overall, leading to a movie that was charming, but more typical than I hoped for. 

My second foray into reading and movies came with The Great Gatsby.

As improbable as it may seem, I did not read the novel in high school (I may be the only person in the USA who did not).  When I learned that  Baz Lurhman – a director I appreciate – was filming the book, I sprang on the chance to read it.  It is a beautiful and terribly sad novel, embodying so many American dreams and yet showing the danger they have of falling short of redemption.  

Fast cars are so American!
I read a work of literary criticism once, which pointed out that many American heroes are defined by their cars (or other means of swift transportation), by which they run away from loss and evil.  I thought it was fascinating that Gatsby’s car proved a trap for him, though.  He thought he could escape from everything, taking Daisy with him, but in fact human beings are bound to each other and cannot live in perfect freedom without consequences. 

I’m happy to say that Mr. Lurhman’s interpretation of the novel was much more impressive than David Russel’s interpretation of The Silver Linings Playbook.  Granted, there were some flaws – but they were more forgivable because the spirit of The Great Gatsby was preserved intact.  There’s a difference between disagreeing with how a director presents an element of a novel and feeling that he has simply told a completely different story!  I feel a little sorry for Matthew Quick; apparently, since his novel was not old enough and not enough read in high school curricula, no one felt that they had to stay very close to what he had written. 

Anyway, on the subject of The Great Gatsby, the casting was perfect and the music (much criticized though it was) conveyed so vividly the sense of wild novelty which infused the 20’s.  If there had been nothing but jazz, the story would have seemed distant – a period piece.  As it was, by using hip-hop, R&B and pop for the soundtrack, the story was brought alive and the watcher plunged into it as if part of the action.  I felt as though I was Nick Carraway, the narrator, whirled away into a vibrant, decadent world which I didn’t know whether to love or to condemn. 

So in short, by reading the novels and watching the movies in quick succession, I felt like my appreciation of the two stories was greatly enhanced, and that I appreciated the artistry of the films much more.  If you want a stimulating, literary experience, I can definitely recommend my method.  I think you’ll find yourself much more attuned to the story and much more inclined to consider the construction and presentation of plot and characters.  If you’re a storyteller of any kind, such an exercise would be not only enjoyable, but also useful.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Door Closes

Take time to walk the path!
I’ve taken another week off from the blog, because I’ve reached a turning point.  I felt the need to stop and actually notice the turn happening, instead of letting it rush by in a flurry of activity. 

You see, for the last five years, I’ve been a teacher.  During the final year of my bachelor’s degree, I taught at the small high school attached to my college.  Then I came home and was almost immediately offered a job at the girls’ school where I was educated.  Out of a sense of paying back what I’d been given, I decided to take the job.  

I really love teaching.  There is something incredibly rewarding about opening young minds to the endless possibilities of knowledge.  However, two things had been slowly wearing down my enthusiasm over the past four years.  

First of all, due to the way the school is set up, the teachers are allowed to choose what subject they wish to teach, more or less, but the administration chooses what level.  Thus, if they need help in 5th grade English, and you’re an English teacher, you work in 5th grade.  If they also need help in 12th grade English, you work there too.  In many ways this system is very positive, since the teachers  end up well-rounded and experienced. 

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that most teachers are cut out for handling certain age levels and not others.  My strength is with high school students.  I sympathize with their growing pains and I find their budding personalities extremely interesting.  Middle schoolers are not quite so charming.  Individually a 12 or 13 year old girl may be delightful, but get her and 20 of her peers together and suddenly the delight transforms to a headache - at least for me. 

I’ve slowly been assigned more and more classes in middle school , until half my work load came from that level.  I can tell you the headache was definitely present.  I liked the girls, but found it so frustrating to deal with their continual distraction.  I don’t blame them for it (I remember being 13, too, and thinking Latin grammar was a waste of time), but the attitude still made me want to scream. 

I was so tense because of it all that by my spring vacation this year, I was continually testy and emotional.  I didn’t really realize the cause, though.  I’ve gotten so used to teaching, that it seemed inevitable to go on.  A friend of mine brought me to my senses though.  I was ranting to him – yet again – when suddenly, speaking with the voice of reason, he said, “Have you thought about not going back next year?” 

Illumination!
It was as though a light suddenly turned on in my head.

Sometimes another person needs to step into a situation in order to provide the catalyst that can resolve it.  That is exactly what this friend of mine did.  I knew as soon as he asked the question that I had my solution.  I would take a break from teaching, recover my equilibrium, do something new and, by losing hours of grading and preparation, gain time to advance further on my writing.  I’ve found a new job since then, and I’m excited to start it in July, after a few weeks of recuperation from the school year. 

That’s not to say that the end of my present career as a teacher isn’t sad.  I have mixed feelings, as always happens when a good thing comes to a close.  It was sad to say goodbye to all my students – even the middle school girls, who like me at the same time as they drive me crazy.  I think in some way I’ll always be a teacher (my new job is at a homeschooling corporation!), but now I need to pursue teaching through other paths. 

That brings me to the other part of working at a school which I find frustrating.  Besides the problem with age levels, I also prefer a holistic style of teaching.  Of course I think that children should learn grammar, mathematics, languages and other technical subjects.  At the same time, however, I think that the best kind of education is gained when conversation between teachers and students wanders wherever it wants to go and leads to discoveries and connections which could not otherwise have been made. 

An appealing door to walk through!
As school wraps up each year, I end up having such discussions in English class.  We’ve finished the curriculum and so for a few days we talk about everything important, from writing style to autism to quantum mechanics.  The girls have fun; I have fun:  it’s the best of all possible classes. 

Since this is my preference as a teacher, for now at least I’m going to pursue that style of education.  I’m going to work as a tutor this summer, on top of my new job, and I know I’ll enjoy the freedom for discussion which comes from one-on-one interactions with students. 


Even though one important part of my life is coming to end, therefore, I feel pretty positive about the next that’s starting.  I'm closing a door behind me and walking down the hall to find another door.  I’ll be in the same house when I open it, but hopefully in a room which suits me better.

Monday, June 3, 2013

To Market, to Market

This winter I passed a fair amount of time watching a whole list of documentaries on the food industry in America.  Then, because I prefer to learn from reading rather than from watching, I bought another list of books on the same topic and read them all.  I must say that I enjoyed the experience thoroughly.  While I now feel immensely skeptical of industrialized food, I also feel illuminated about the more natural, healthy and sustainable options. 

The latest of these enlightening books was one called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  The author and her family took on the project of eating (almost) exclusively locally for a year.  The tales she had to tell of the experience were delightful.  I can highly recommend the memoir for anyone interested in becoming a locavore

It's easy to see the possibilities here!
Another thing the book did for me was open my eyes to the possibilities of farmers’ markets.

The summer after my family moved to North Idaho we decided to visit one of the local markets.  I was just 10, so I poked around the booths until I found a random painted seagull which I bought for $5 (I’ve always had a weakness for knickknacks).  After that I was ready to go.  Instead I had to stand around for a half hour while my Mom and Dad listened with engrossment (and to a child's mind, inexplicable engrossment!) while a women explained how she spun wool into yarn. 

Now, of course, I myself would find such a lesson fascinating, but for years after that first and only experience, I thought of farmers’ markets as boring places where one could buy little crafty things of various kinds, but not much else.  As you might imagine, this didn’t make me want to leap up on Saturday mornings and dash down to see what farmers were marketing.  However, my passion for food and my recent reading inspired me. 

I thought it was time to try something new, in the hopes of expanding my horizons.

On May 11, this year, the nearest market opened; it’s just five miles away.  I arrived about 10, an hour or so after it had opened.  What was my surprise when I discovered that…it's perfectly marvelous!  I bought a cinnamon roll and cup of coffee on that first visit and wandered around, scoping out the opportunities.  I talked to a goat-cheese maker, a chicken farmer, a baker, a coffee roaster.  I took notes on prices and selections.  I studied many tempting offerings.  I listened to the amateur country-singers on the center stage.  I concluded the grand experience by buying a loaf of asiago-garlic bread to celebrate. 

The beauty of vegetables always surprises me!
Of course, that early in such a Northern state, there was very little produce, but all the farms were selling beautiful tomato and pepper and squash and eggplant starts.  I knew that my parents were looking for some, so I decided to make a date with them to return and explore together.  We’ve been back twice, in fact, and now it shows signs of becoming a family tradition.  Each time I return there is a more plentiful and gorgeous selection of food: spinach followed by lettuces, kale, chard, arugula, radishes, and now baby carrots and hot house tomatoes.  (I say nothing of the tempting breads and cheeses and meats.)

It’s marvelous to trace the development of the season through the market offerings.

One of the defining elements of being a locavore, as I learned from reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and have now confirmed with my own experience, is learning to cook what’s available.  I’ve not given up shopping at grocery stores because I’m just experimenting currently, but I’m going to attempt to buy the bulk of my vegetables at the market this summer.  As I don’t necessarily have any recipes for kale or chard, I’ve had to scour my cookbooks and think of new ways to serve vegetables in side dishes.

What's more inspiring than a gorgeous market tomato?
It’s actually great fun, since I love trying new recipes.  Moreover, it reminds me of the resourcefulness which a writer ought to have.  And not just writers, really – resourcefulness, or the ability to adapt to what circumstances offer you, is a valuable quality for anyone.  Authors, in particular, though, have to be able to take what comes their way, inspiration-wise, and make something marvelous with it, much like the seasonal cook. 

Actually, I suspect the simple act of shopping at the farmers’ market will produce food for writing, as well as food for the table.  It’s a lovely experience: walking in the filtered sunlight under the tall pines, making the circuit of red-painted wooden booths, slipping between other shoppers, chatting with the universally friendly merchants, sipping coffee and breathing the deep cleanliness of the morning air.  How could I not be inspired?

I have a semi-disastrous novel draft which I have to rewrite in the next few years.  The main character is a musician.  I have a sneaking suspicions she may show up, playing at the farmers’ market, once her story gets sorted out into something more manageable. 


Can you blame me for my enthusiasm, when I know that I can get up once a week and head out for an exhilarating experience?  It’s a lovely feeling to return with a mind alive and a recipe to prepare.  I hope many others will take advantage of the summer to discover with me what lovely things the fresh markets of the season can be.