Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Value of Complaining

Do you ever get into a stage where, even though you could work on a project, you start finding excuses not to, simply because life isn’t ideal? 

This happens to me periodically – one of those periods being just last week.  Every evening I came home from work and had to do class preparation or grading or housework.  Even though I really did have spare time in the late evening (I’m a night owl), I was letting myself sulk over being too busy.  I didn’t get a lick of editing done. 

The fruits of photography!
This was mostly my fault, I admit, but nonetheless I had turned into a bundle of writerly resentment at the end of the week.  A noticeable stretch of time without any creative work at all (even if it’s just critique of my past work) can make me a bit crazy.

So this weekend I got together with an artistic friend of mine.  He and I indulged in some photography and talked about life.  I complained extensively about my frustration.  In general, I feel that all my progress as a writer has slowed down to a crawl.  I tend to be the type who appreciates speed, so I have to work hard to stay patient.

He was very sympathetic as he listened, I must say.  The end result was that complaining about my lack of productivity both relieved my irritation and (more importantly) guilted me back into productivity! 

See, by the time I finished venting extensively, the foremost thought in my mind was, ‘I probably don’t deserve to complain this much about something that’s basically my fault.’  The second thought was, ‘To thank my friend for listening to me, I’d better actually follow his advice!’ 

It’s funny how talking about a problem can unexpectedly resolve it.  As a child, I’d often come out to the kitchen from my bedroom with a homework question.  ‘Mom,’ I’d say, ‘if the subordinate clause contains a relative pronoun, how can it….’  Then I’d stop, realizing the problem had worked itself out as I started phrasing it.  Mom and I would have a good laugh and I’d return to my room triumphant. 

From dark complaints emerges the light of understanding!
Complaining is not quite as simple, but it still allows you to frame your troubles clearly in your mind.  Often when we feel down about something, there’s a tendency to wander around in a grey cloud, overwhelmed and confused.  If we can get a chance to explain how we feel to someone, though, solutions can present themselves simply thanks to the new clarity brought by arranging our thoughts into words. 

That same clarity is one of the perks of being a writer, actually.  For sure our fiction or non-fiction isn’t just some glorified version of complaining, but it does offer an outlet for us to work through our experiences – some painful, some confusing, some beautiful. 

You can see why I miss it when I have to put it aside for a while. 

That’s why I’m happy to say that this week I’ve edited one page a day so far (two last night!).  It may not sound like a lot, but any progress is better than none.  It really doesn’t take very long to mark up just one page, so I feel virtuous afterwards, but also not oppressed by work.  It’s a perfect balance to strike. 

So hooray for the power of words (sometimes complaining ones) to help us work through problems.  Even if a person is not a writer, he or she can always find a friend to talk to, or perhaps jot down ideas in a journal.  The process of organizing thoughts becomes therapeutic, restorative – almost addictive.  It’s the best kind of medicine.  

Friday, January 18, 2013

Seasonal Reflections

Well, I’m happy to announce that I’ve basically settled back into my teaching routine.  Christmas break with traveling and sickness and holiday preparations really threw off my groove, but at last life has returned to normal.

However, the result is that I’ve not been thinking particularly ‘writer-ly’ thoughts all week.  When I sat down and opened my word document for the blog, I had to scratch my head a little.  So, just to warn you, I’ll probably write a rather rambling post tonight! 

The chief thing I’ve been thinking about is the weather, actually.  We have weird winters in North Idaho.  Half the time the area behaves like Seattle (wet and grey), and half the time it behaves like Montana (lots of snow, followed by freezing clear days).  I personally am fine with all phases of winter – it’s my favorite time of year – but I admit to preferring the Montana edition of the season. 

Cold and clear and blue!
Right now we’re in the midst of such a period.  We’d been amassing snow slowly, when suddenly the sky cleared and the temperature dropped into the 20’s.  Suddenly the sun was painting the days in marvelous colors – crystal blue, dust purple, petal pink, glass green. 

Best of all, though, is the effect of the river which runs near where I live. During the day, the bright sun shines on it, and then as temperatures drop in the dark, the vapor in the air turns to a glorious thick coat of fog.  By morning, the vapor has solidified into frost crystals which paint every available surface.

Phantom trees against a pastel sunset
Every tree, every weed, every grass-blade is transformed into a diamantine structure.  While the fog lingers through the cold mornings, the scene is pale and ghostly.  Then, in the afternoon, the sunshine slowly clears the air.  At sunset, all the frost-white surfaces catch the beautiful colors in the air, turning pink, orange, purple for a brief time until darkness comes and the process begins again.

This is now the third day of the gorgeous weather.  The pines behind my house are almost solid white, with only the jet black trunks peeking through for contrast.  On the delicate twigs of the elm and rowan, the ice needles are almost half an inch long.  It’s marvelously beautiful.  Pictures are included, so that you can see for yourselves!

Anyway, as I’ve been writing, I’ve realized what a good analogy this fog is.  It sneaks in, leaves its influence everywhere and then flows away again – only to return very soon in the same pattern. 

It’s just like creativity.

Transforming even the smallest things...
So often, our inspiration comes creeping in, unawares, in the night (sometimes even in our dreams!).  Only later on, we look around and realize that it’s touched everything in our lives, transforming it into a wonder.  It has different moods at different times, in different circumstances.  Sometimes it shows us one view of the world, sometimes another. 

Always, however, it is present, touching the things around us with delicate fingers and making them the material of our artistic endeavors.  Without creativity – that double vision which draws our eyes past the mundane to see the deeper beauty – we’d never get anywhere in art.  Even, I dare say, we’d not advance far in life, either. 

One of my favorite poems is Richard Wilbur’s The Beautiful Changes.  Towards the end he writes, ‘The beautiful changes in such kind ways, wishing ever to lose for a moment all that it touches back to wonder.’

I think that the fog has had that kind of beauty for me lately:  it reminds me gently that even the most normal, daily sights and objects are wonderful after all.  Human creativity is like that, too.  It’s kind and always looks for a way to show us a world that is worth turning into art.  

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Slowly Changing

Have you ever read a book which seemed interesting while you were reading it – and then as time went on after finishing it, you find yourself thinking about it more and more frequently? 

The French have a certain je ne sais quoi!
That’s been happening to me recently, ever since the Fashionista lent me Lessons from Madame Chic.  Normally I find ‘self-help’ and ‘lifestyle’ books quite fun to read, but I don’t take a lot away from them.  Madame Chic has proved quite different though.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot ever since. 

The basic premise of the book is ideas on how to incorporate the outlook of the cultured (read: classic, old-school) Frenchwoman into your life.  The author, Jennifer Scott, lived in Paris during her college days and ever since has been attempting to follow the principles she learned, as well as share them with others. 

One of her lessons is to edit one’s wardrobe severely.  Basically, she tells us, one should sort through whatever one wears, removing items which are never worn for whatever reason (unflattering fit and color, discomfort, boredom, etc.).  Once this process is done, what remains should constitute what she refers to as a ‘capsule wardrobe.’  Everything in it should make the owner feel and look amazing, plus reflect her personal style. 

Due to that last requirement, the capsule wardrobe has to be reevaluated regularly to ensure that it’s still current with your tastes and position in life.  E.g.: if you used to be a businesswoman but now are a stay-at-home mom, you may have to clear out a lot of tailored suits in favor of more practical items. 

Of course, there’s also the issue of age.  As we get older and enter new phases of our lives, often the way we want to look changes as well.  The soft, fluttery fashions of girlhood give way to the sleek look of a working-woman; that yields perhaps to the ease which a mother needs, only finally to be replaced by the classic style of a ‘woman of a certain age.’ 

Jazzy smart!
Anyway, all this explanation is leading me to make the point that I’ve been on the cusp of a style change in my wardrobe lately.  I’m transitioning from my old style – what I referred to as ‘gypsy-chic’: tailored but with a liberal sprinkling of flowing skirts and colorful scarves – to something new.  It’s an enjoyable process, even if I do have to resist the urge to clear out my whole wardrobe at one sweep and purchase everything new.  I guess at this point I might call the look I’m aiming for ‘jazzy smart’…fun, unexpected touches on top of a very classic silhouette. 

So at this point, you may be wondering why I am talking about fashion.  Well, first of all, this is the blog of me, the writer with 1000 interests.  I’m likely to talk about almost anything! 

More relevantly, however, I was thinking last night, after a shopping trip yesterday when I found a lovely new sweater and dress, that editing one’s wardrobe is not much different from editing one’s fiction.  When I started writing, I was extremely inclined to a florid, complex style.  This applied across the board, in both poetry and prose. 

In the past year, though, as I’ve been editing The Art of Dying, and writing occasional poetry, I’ve discovered that I my taste is swinging dramatically toward something clean and clear: description without extravagance, which leaves room for the reader’s mind to play. 

That makes a big difference in how I approach my stories.  For example, House of Mirrors, which I finished last summer, had a word count only half as large as The Art of Dying in its original form.  My recent poems, also, have only been around 30 lines, instead of 60-100 as poems from a couple of years ago were.  My whole aim has been to include more valuable content in fewer words.  It’s an exciting challenge. 

I've even been updating with jazzy furniture!
I think there can be a temptation to settle down as a person and become content with the status quo.  This applies across the board, with fashion choices, life choices, writing choices, or what have you.  This tendency, while perfectly understandable, is rather dangerous, I think. 

See, I find that complacency ends up slowly turning into regression.  If we take ourselves for granted, we eventually lose our identity.  The hard work we might have exerted in the past goes to waste as we let ourselves sit and get flabby.  Only by constantly reevaluating the places we’ve reached in life and then working to get to somewhere even better do we maintain our hard-won personal accomplishments. 

Editing turns out not to apply to writers, it seems!  I guess we all have to have the editor’s outlook for our whole life.  It might seem hard, but I find that it really pays off in the end.  

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

I Need a Vacation from Vacation

I was talking to a friend yesterday.  Her aunt got married this Christmas, and so her family spent the whole holiday working to prepare for the event.  Her diagnosis of how she felt in the aftermath: “I feel like I need a vacation from vacation.”

I most heartily agreed with her.

Though it's no sacrifice to eat fresh pesto and bread!
For a teacher, vacation comes as a very valuable opportunity to do all the things which usually get put in second place.  After all, continuing to eat is key, so some sacrifices have to be made for the sake of a paycheck!  Our long, regularly occurring vacations do, however, help balance those sacrifices. 

Christmas is an odd time, though.  It’s amazing how much extra work has to be crammed into the preceding weeks and days, preparing for the feast.  I enjoy it all – quite a lot actually – but it means there’s an extra factor of weariness as I slide into my vacation days.  Then this year, on top of that, I went on a five day trip.

It was actually an amazing excursion, in which I got to reconnect with family members I’d not seen in ages…but you know how trips are.  Very little besides socializing gets done; very little sleep is available, thanks to the socializing and the strange living arrangements.  The result? Even more weariness.

And then, to top it off, I got sick – a cold and a stomach virus at the same time!  The universe is a cruel place. 

The irony of it all is that today, my first day back to school, is the first day I feel mostly restored and rested.  Maybe vacation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

Just kidding, actually.  I’ve had many delightful vacations in which I’ve gleefully tackled five different projects and still returned to work content and rested.  I can’t complain too much if now I have one dud vacation where nothing gets done besides a lot of nose-blowing.  (Actually, I did complain a lot, as all my long-suffering friends can attest, but I didn’t really need to!)

Life is as chaotic as a river...
Anyway, I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who finds sometimes that vacations turn out to be a lot less fruitful than expected.  I had glorious plans, for example, of completing two whole chapters of editing.  What did I actually do?  Two pages in between naps on one of my flights. 

However, even though this caused me nearly to explode with frustration as I felt the end approaching too swiftly, I’m still going to offer the advice of patience.  If, like me, you’ve made splendid plans which fall completely into uselessness (this is the habit of plans, alas!), there is still hope. 

See, today I had no school work to bring home.  Instead I was able to organize some stuff in my storage room, clean up a bit around the house and then, after dinner, edit four pages straight!  So in just one day, after three weeks of inactivity, I was able to return to a good pace and make noticeable progress.

...but it can take us to a calm place!
Even if life seems perverse and refuses to cooperate, opportunities to complete your desires do eventually pop up somewhere.  I don’t know about you, but I find this very reassuring.  I tend to get extremely antsy when I see my plans falling apart around me, so it’s pleasant to know that even when I feel most frustrated there’s always a chance just around the corner to get back on top. 

I know it can be hard to keep one’s cool when life goes in its own direction, laughing at your attempts to corral it.  However, life’s direction often turns out to be okay if we can just learn to go with the flow.  Granted, we’ll always kick and struggle a bit – it’s the natural instinct when the current sweeps you away – but still, there’s a better chance of survival when we can keep our hopes up. 

In the end, I think those currents are often trying to take us to better places.  Keeping that in mind, I’m going to try to continue editing a few pages every night.  That way, even if my Christmas vacation wasn’t super successful, it will prompt me to make the next few weeks far more profitable for my writing life.  

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Book Review

I’m not much of one for writing or reading reviews, generally.  I just read what I want and if I don’t like it, I stop halfway through without a qualm.  Also, reviews have a really, really annoying way of giving away the plot.

However, for today’s post I’m suspending my usual preference.  As I mentioned on New Year’s, I’ve been afflicted with a cold.  It’s finally, definitively better today, but I’ve basically been curled up in bed or in an easy chair for the past four days, trying to get better. 

Of course, about the only thing to do in such a case is read.  So I finally plunged into The Hunger Games Trilogy.  I’d been meaning to read it since shortly before the first movie came out, but teaching always got in the way.  Hooray for sickness to give one lots of spare time, I guess!

Anyway, I figured I might as well jump on the bandwagon and share my thoughts about the series.  First of all, it’s grippingly written.  To be sure, I had a few moments at the beginning where I wanted to scream about poorly attached subordinate clauses.  (Yes, I’m a grammar Nazi – it’s the hazards of scrupulously editing one’s own work, while grading an average of 12 English essays every week!)  However, as the flow of the story picked up, the style became smoother and more expert.  It worked well to convey Katniss Everdeen’s personality, but didn’t distract the reader from the action. 

Theseus, looking suitably battered and heroic!
Second point: The Hunger Games was excellent.  The tribute to the Theseus legend was craftily and subtly executed, and I appreciated all the characters who were developed.  Katniss is strong and resourceful, not soft at all, and a bit emotionally clueless, which all makes sense, based on her personal background.  Rue and Peeta provide a nice balance to her personality – a sort of yang to her yin – which allows her to develop and begin to understand herself more.  Haymitch and Cinna, the other two focus characters, feel a little two-dimensional, but the knowledge of a sequel made me more lenient towards their lack. 

I also greatly appreciated the social commentary worked into the story.  What has always appealed to me about science fiction is the possibility for philosophical and political exploration – the option to take current issues and draw them out to their most extreme, yet most thought-provoking conclusion.  The Hunger Games did this for me, while at the same time remaining an exciting, never too self-conscious read. 

Catching Fire provided a satisfying, if incomplete, follow-up to the first book.  I felt that character development was well handled, since the presence of Gale as a more important character lent tension to Katniss and Peeta’s relationship.  I was also pleased in general with the broader array of people to catch my interest; the inclusion of the victors of past hunger games allowed the story to open in an interesting way.  A specific, rather than universal, villain is always helpful to a story, as well, and President Snow fulfilled this role very well. 

My complaint about Catching Fire was that death was handled less carefully than in the first book.  Katniss had many more attachments in the sequel, but seemed to care about them less.  People died quickly and she had nightmares about them, but that was about the extent of the effect on her.  My other problem was that the pacing of the end seemed very whirlwind to me.  I think authors should be extremely stingy when it comes to doling out cliffhangers.  To me it seemed a little like Ms. Collins felt the pressure to end her book and so wrapped it up in a dash, leaving our heads spinning.  Considering that the entire last book simply continued this spin, I was left feeling a bit seasick. 

As you can probably guess from the above comment, Mockingjay left me with mixed feelings.  I didn’t have any trouble with the overall lines of the plot.  It even made sense to me that Katniss should end up somewhat left behind by the political machinations.  After all, she’s only 17; even in science-fiction, comparatively average teenagers can’t take over governments.  However, too much time was spent worrying about political and military strategies.  The strength of the first two books was the spotlight on Katniss and Peeta and a few crucial others.  Hints appeared about what was happening in the adult world, but the heart of the plot was the character interactions. 

I think perhaps the author became confused about what she wanted to accomplish.  Yes, war is horrible, but the choice to show this by systematically breaking down almost every important character into a vague wreck of themselves – it definitely backfired.  Collins didn’t seem to realize that by allowing both Peeta and Katniss to disintegrate, she failed to find plot balance.  In the first book, Katniss was spurred toward development by Peeta’s presence.  In the second book, they worked through their troubles together.  In the third, the author could have made Peeta’s break-down a chance for Katniss to rise to the occasion.  There was no rising, though.  Instead, she seemed to fall apart and become far more selfish than was actually right, given the personality constructed for her in the first book. 

This was the feeling of the last, but confused!
I don’t mind dark, realistic, gritty literature.  I’m someone who finds the story of Oedipus Rex incredibly uplifting!  However, any good tragedy has to have its proper climax, crisis and resolution.  The resolution in Mockingjay was too hasty.  Instead the crisis seemed simply to draw on until it fizzled out.  I still appreciate the book for many elements, but I thought it was the weakest of the trilogy – sad, since it was also the end. 

So in short, I enjoyed the series, but have serious criticism of the shift of the plot focus as the story progressed.  However, I would recommend it to older teenagers, since I definitely feel that it has intelligent commentary to make on mass entertainment and war, plus the effect the later can have on people.  I found it interesting and thought-provoking overall, and worth even a second read.  

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Looking Back

This seems like a good image to start off the year!
Since the New Year started off by giving me a cold, I’ve decided it doesn’t deserve any good resolutions from me.

Just kidding, actually.  I don’t usually make specific resolutions, because I find that the start of a new year isn’t really motivation enough to make me keep them. The cold, however, certainly has nothing to do with it.  What I really prefer to do is think about what happened in the past year and see if I can reduplicate the good stuff.

This year I don’t have to look back very far to find some interesting events!  Right after Christmas, I flew with my whole family to Kentucky for a cousin’s wedding.  I hadn’t seen her, nor my other 6 cousins who also attended, for 18 years.  It was almost like meeting for the first time – except that all of us instantly fell into sync with one another and got along splendidly.  It’s amazing what barriers of time and distance kinship helps break down.

Besides that, I also met (truly for the first time) my new niece.  She was just born in October, so she’s at that incredibly cute 3-month-old stage, with a head-full of upstanding hair.  It refuses to lie down and makes her twice as charming as any usual baby – though I might be a bit prejudiced.  Her big sister was there too, of course, and even though I’ve seen her fairly often, this is the first time she’s been old enough to recognize and get to know me.

In short, the end of my year was full of novelty – new family and friends and experiences for the last week of 2012. 

New cities, too: I'd never been to Louisville before!
 It feels like an auspicious way to lead into 2013, actually. 

With the new year, I’ve been contemplating some new directions in my work and writing.  I think it might be time to begin transitioning out of teaching into a more professional writing career.  The thought is a bit daunting, because I don’t know yet if I can make it as a writer, or whether I’ll end up needing to look for part-time work.

In any case, though, the past few days of travel have taught me that new meetings – even ones which made me quite apprehensive beforehand – can be both delightful and enlightening.  My cousins are all very interesting, motivated people, who had plenty to share with me as we talked.  And of course during any interaction with a child we rediscover the sense of wonder which is so essential to art. 

Similarly, even though my nerves are definitely a bit jangled by the prospect of cutting back my teaching hours and plunging into new employment territories, such a move must also have the potential for delight and wonder.  Who knows what ideas I’ll learn and discover, what people I’ll meet and befriend as I move along?  The prospect is actually quite appealing. 

Looking behind helps us get ahead!
Just a couple of weeks ago, I watched the new Hobbit movie, and was pleased that the dialogue preserved the line where Gandalf says that looking ahead took him away from the dwarves, but looking behind brought him back just in the nick of time.  At the new year I feel a bit wizard-ish myself – looking ahead and behind helps me start moving in a good direction.

I think it always has to be that way, whenever we’re trying to advance in our work or hobbies or dreams.  We can’t just drive onward without taking stock of the situation.  It’s good to pause and reconsider the things that have happened to us in the past.  From them we can afterwards learn how to move forward successfully. 

So that’s what I’ve been doing on New Year’s, while cooped up with my cold.  I hope everyone else has been having a pleasant opening to their year, with thoughts as good as mine and health much better!