Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Technological Hiccup

For the past three months of 2015, I've been working on having a less internet-dependent life. I have a personality which tends slightly to the addictive, so I have to review my habits periodically, to make sure that I'm not too dependent on some crutch or other for passing the time. It's easy to find mindless substitutes on the internet for writing or working on projects at home. At the beginning of the year, I decided that internet usage was becoming such a habit for me, so I began working on cutting back.

The attempt has been pretty successful: instead of watching TV shows at night, I read. I've gotten a fair amount of editing and some original writing done. I'm enjoying the change.

Something came up this week, though, and made me realize that internet access isn't totally to be despised. My laptop's adapter cord died suddenly on Monday, so I ordered a replacement from Amazon. It arrived in a couple of days, and I plugged it in...to have no result at all. Apparently there is something wrong with the connector in the computer (not too surprising, as I have dropped it a couple of times!).

So here I am, stuck without one of the common tools of a modern writer!

I used about 50% of my remaining battery life getting my files backed up, and now I have to take my computer in for repairs with fingers crossed. In the meantime, though, I have no internet access and can't even use my computer for word processing. I'm borrowing my accommodating brother's macbook just to get this blog post composed.

As of Thursday, before the new adapter cord refused to work, my plan for the upcoming Sunday was to write a blog post, work on some web content for my church, and perhaps finish the chapter of House of Mirrors which I am revising. However, without a computer, I had to rethink my plan completely. I could, of course, write everything by hand, but as I would then have to retype it all at odd hours of the day when I can borrow family members' computers, that effort seems a little redundant.

It's actually a little alarming how dependent a writer's plans can be upon technology.

When I wrote the original draft of The Art of Dying, I handwrote the entire thing (some 500 pages!) and the work was definitely worth it, since it made me slow down and really analyze my style. It also proved to me that in case of a nuclear apocalypse - for example - I'd be able to keep on writing, as long as I could find a surface to write on.

With that in mind, then, I went over my various writing projects this morning while I was getting ready for the day, trying to decide which would be the best one to undertake by hand. Back when I was in college, I took Classical Greek for four years. I was the only person at my college who took it during a couple of my semesters (surprise, surprise!) and so I pretty much got to pick whatever translation project I wanted. Semesters were about 15 weeks long, so once I volunteered of my own will to translate ten psalms a week, so that I could get through the entire Book of Psalms from the Greek Bible in a semester.

It was kind of an insane undertaking, as far as the workload went, but extremely illuminating. 

After I finished the project, I was looking through the Latin Bible - these were the sorts of things we did at my college; it was a nerdy place - and discovered that there are two versions of the psalms. There's the Greek ones, and the Hebrew ones, and there are quite a few textual differences, even though the general meaning is the same. I decided that someday I'd also translate the Latin version of the Hebrew psalms into English, and then compare them to the Greek, to give me the basis for writing an English poem inspired by each psalm.

It's been about seven years since I did my Greek translation and I always have other projects going on, so I've not gotten around to the Hebrew/Latin translation yet. However, last night I went to a concert, because Vasnefy was performing in the choir, and I heard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. They inspired me to attack my own psalm-related project. Moreover, when I translate, I always do it by hand first, before typing anything, so it would be an ideal undertaking for this time when I have very limited access to computers.

So this afternoon while I was waiting for some muffins to cook, I pulled out all my translation resources and got the first psalm done. I'm pretty excited, too, since I'm looking into a move and may not have internet until my finances get sorted out. This project will give me something to do while settling in and getting adapted to a new schedule.

In short, there are pluses and minuses to my temporary lack of computer. It helped me decide on a new direction while I'm dealing with other stuff (translation is less stressful than editing!), but also prevented me from working on some of my current projects. I'd be curious to know: has anyone else found that technology is a particular help or hindrance to their writing? Let me know in the comments, if you have a moment!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Deliberation

I have always been fascinated by personalities. I actually think it’s one of the elements which prompted me to become a novelist, since writing fiction gives one a whole new world in which to explore the possibilities of the human psyche. However, it’s not just other people who intrigue me, but also myself. ‘Knowing thyself,’ as various Greek philosophers advised, is surprisingly difficult. Just when one has pinned down an element of one’s personality, some situation brings another out of hiding.

Something, though, which seems common to a lot of people these days – or at least, all the self-help/lifestyle books I’ve read suggest this – is an urge to act on impulse. Perhaps because the advertisements and media around us suggest that rushing out and following your heart to is the path to satisfaction, there’s a constant temptation to buy things or eat foods on impulse, or even to make important life decisions based on one’s feelings of the moment.

For me this is a particular temptation, because I fall on the aggressive end of the personality spectrum.

I’ve always been the type who can review a situation quite quickly and come to an instantaneous decision – whether it be to buy something, or to take a job, or even (in my writing life) to take a novel and cut out 1/3 of its bulk. Sometimes this can be extremely helpful in getting things done and making progress in life, but at the same time, there are inherent dangers with acting so precipitously. I have on occasion been ‘burned’ because I bought something that was out of my price range and got stuck with it, or hurt someone because I analyzed the situation too hastily.

So, for the past four years or so, I’ve been working on tempering this side of my personality so that I thing about things and make decisions in a more tempered way. I had opportunity to practice just this past week, because I needed a new piece of furniture. I was using a chest which Vasnefy built for me as a college graduation gift (ah, the joys of having a carpenter’s daughter for your best friend!) and the top was getting increasingly dinged. Moreover, it was a bit too low and too deep to be just the right shape to have beside a bed. I was in constant danger of hitting my legs on it as I swung out of bed in the morning.

So I went out to look for something which matched my room and my very particular tastes.

I had a budget of about $175 (and that only if it was truly magnificently perfect, otherwise less than $150 would be better). I went to the many consignment/antique stores we have the area. The very first one I entered presented me with a beautiful cabinet, perfectly in line with my taste. Made of reclaimed wood, and stained a warm gold, it featured a plethora of little drawers and doors, all giving the feeling of something ornate and stylized from Asia. I loved it. Of course it cost an overwhelming $430.

At one time I would have said to myself, ‘You know, it’s perfect, and I have the money in savings (even though I need that to buy new tires for my car this spring…). I’ll just get it.’ However, I resisted. Even if I bartered the price down, I doubt I could have got it for less than $300, which is almost twice my budget. Instead, I logged away the fact that what I wanted was a sort of cabinet look, with several compartments, rather than the standard beside table appearance. I bid the gorgeous piece of furniture adieu and fled before impulse could win.

Of course, once you’ve seen the perfect thing, other options appear quite dull.

It can be hard to resist yielding and just going back to buy the first option after all. I went to all the remaining consignment stores, several thrift stores, and then all the regular furniture stores over the course of a week and a half. Nothing remotely interesting appeared. The one other piece that might have worked was in a ‘reclaimed’ furniture shop, where the owners had painted a wooden cabinet white and distressed it for the shabby chic look. Unfortunately, I have zero interest in pre-distressed furniture (it bothers me on a philosophical level – yes, I am a snob), so I couldn’t take it after all.

Charming!
Finally, I ended up at Fred Meyer, where I do my grocery shopping. I dropped by the furniture section, and what did I find but a little cabinet. Tall, with wicker sides and three pull drawers with wicker fronts, it had the right aesthetic to fit in my room and please my pickiness. When I inquired, they only had the floor model available, which means that I got to take it for 10% off the sale price, plus add another 10% discount for a sale going on in the store. The final cost was $110, a good $40 under my budget.

I feel proud of myself with this purchase, not just because it was a good price, but also because I saw all kinds of furniture that would have worked reasonably well, or that would have been exquisitely beautiful, but instead of settling in the first case or going wildly over-budget in the second, I waited until something that fit both criteria showed up. I resisted impulse successfully!

This was good practice for me, because I’m about to start shopping for a new place to live, and I’m also working on a special writing/editing project right now. Both endeavors require judicious consideration rather than impulse decisions, so buying the bedside table has reminded me of how to use the former instead of giving in to the latter.

I’d be very curious to know how visitors to my blog approach this same issue. Do you find that waiting and thinking help you make better decisions, or do you prefer spur of the moment actions? 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

I hope I remember...

The Fashionista and I have an ongoing conversation topic together, which she has dubbed ‘I hope I remember.’ The title comes from her half-joking desire to write a self-help book for her own future. In it she will record all the things which she has observed about her married siblings and friends, which she hopes not to do when she also is married and/or having children. Then, when she reaches that stage in her life, she will be able to reread the book and recall the lessons she learned from observation.

For example, she pointed out to me once that a few of her married friends complain because they have no time to themselves. Instead, they have children to look after and houses to keep up (most of them are stay-at-home moms), so almost all their day is committed to household chores of various kinds. We were talking about this complaint, and she observed that it certainly is true that married women are very busy, but if they are homemakers, they also have the opportunity, if they want, to whip up a cassoulet for dinner (I use cassoulet as an illustration because I thought about making it once and discovered that the whole process would take two days!).

Working/single women, like the Fashionista and I, on the other hand, do have time to ourselves since we don’t have any particular obligations from children or spouses during the hours off from work. However, due to the fact that we have no choice but to work, we don’t get to pursue certain personal interests – like cassoulet-making – because the time we have is limited. So we have the benefit of having no claims put on us in our hours off, whereas married women and mothers always have a claim laid on them but usually have the support of a second adult to allow them more leisure for hobbies, etc.

The lesson my friend wants to remember when she is in her friends’ position, then, is that everything is a matter of perspective.

I’ve recently stumbled across another matter which I want to add to the ‘I hope I remember’ list. My younger brother has been home since he is waiting for the spring construction season to start up. He and I naturally have been spending a lot of time together, and I have realized in relation to this that I have been turning into my parents.

You see, when I was around ten, my dad retired from the Navy and he took a job as a high school math teacher. Prior to this our family had often had exciting Sunday outings, since that was Dad’s reliable day off. We visited museums and zoos, spent time with family friends, went to sport events or at least all spent time at home as a family. Once we moved and the new job, started, though, suddenly things changed.

The area where we live in North Idaho is very beautiful, but not very cultural, so we no longer had good options for Sunday outings. Moreover, Dad has always been a perfectionist, so he would devote long hours to class preps and grading, since most of a teacher’s work has to be done outside the classroom. On Friday evenings, he’d be too tired from the week to work on his school matters; on Saturday he had to get household chores done; so the result was that all the preparations were left for Sunday. It became the family homework day. After church we’d all retire to our various corners of the house and work in silence for hours. It was very boring.

The sad thing, though, is that I’ve gotten in the habit of doing very little on Sundays, too!

Again this is partly because there isn’t a lot to do in this area (there’s about one museum of any interest). However, even with this excuse, there are theaters and concerts, not to mention the possibility of spending time with friends. I don’t have to do very little besides read, write a blog post and watch a movie on any given Sunday. If left to myself, I wouldn’t mind such a day, but since my brother has been relying on me to provide a little entertainment, I’ve realized that I’ve become a bit of a recluse. 

Since children often don’t quite understand their parents’ motivations, I remember feeling quite resentful in my middle and high school years, because all the fun activities I remembered from Sundays had evaporated. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t ever fall into the same pattern of quiet, work-oriented Sundays. However, lately I’ve slipped into the same pattern. Supposing that I marry and have children, they’d find themselves in the same shoes I used to wear, perhaps resenting me just as much.

I’ve always been a believer in establishing habits now rather than later.

I find that if you rely on some external circumstance to become ideal so that you can change yourself or develop a good habit, realistically that change/habit will never come to be. The time to make good habits is when you are thinking of them and actually have the motivation to pursue them. With that in mind, then, I’ve decided that I need to bestir myself more on Sundays. I’m somewhat of an introvert by nature, so I don’t particularly relish the thought of going out, but at the same time, I enjoy myself once I’m there. Moreover, I often have experiences which lead to good fodder for my writing.

Tonight my social event is a conference at my church, so that is a good start. Next week I’ll be attending a community dinner and fundraiser; the week after that Vasnefy is singing in a concert to which she gave me a free ticket. After that we’ll see what happens, but in any case, I think it’s time to stop complaining about being bored on Sundays and actually solve my own problem! Hopefully that effort will mean that I’ll remember the lesson I learned once I have children of my own. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Ideas

From various statistics I’ve seen over the past few years, and also based on the books I see coming out from bloggers and writers I follow, the most popular type of reading material right now is the memoir. I think I’ve written before that I feel a bit conflicted about memoirs, although I admit I’m not immune to the appeal of taking a peak into someone’s personal life. The memoirs I’ve enjoyed most, however, tend to be ones which are about more universal topics than the writer’s personal relationships, etc.

For example, I’m highly anticipating the release of Clare and Elena Dunkle’s companion memoirs about anorexia and its impact on family. While I’m sure they will discuss their personal lives, I know that Clare Dunkle’s book is both about a mother’s role in the recovery of a child with an eating disorder, and about the actual process of writing the two memoirs. Those topics are general enough that they have a universal appeal beyond the private story of the mother and daughter.

Perhaps because I am a novelist, I find stories (even true ones) which are limited to a single person’s experience uninspiring.

I want to read a story whose themes expand to ideas and reflections which have an impact on everyone. Whether a story is fiction or non-fiction, it must have a sweeping application, I feel, or else reading it becomes a sort of voyeurism. Perhaps on the author’s part, too, writing a story which is only a reflection of him or herself and nothing broader is an exercise in narcissism, rather than the creation of art.

The reason I’m rambling on about this is because I have a novel which I decided to write as if it is a memoir by a child about his recently deceased, alcoholic father. It was my NaNoWriMO effort from 2013, in fact, so it needs to be heavily revised and expanded. I was thinking about it recently, since I’m hoping to tackle it this summer, once I’ve finished the editing process on House of Mirrors. I’m tempted to start it completely over, using the old draft more as an outline than as the direct basis of the manuscript.

Since it is extremely brief in novel terms (55,000 words), I need to flesh it out substantially, and for the past year or so, I’ve been not really sure how to do so. Recently, though, I went to the Fashionista’s book club and a friend of mine unexpectedly was prompted to explain the plot of her book/memoir/master’s thesis. The story was supposed to be a biography of a local woman who apparently was a member of the Hitler Youth, but she backed out of the project at the last minute, leaving my friend in something of a pinch.

So she decided to write a memoir about the book she could no longer write.

She still went on her funded research trip to Germany, and she had a basic outline of the woman’s life, so she wrote about the research, the interactions with the woman (name changed, of course), and her own imaginations of what the woman’s anecdotes might have been. The book actually sounds fascinating – sort of a study of the writing process and its challenges, combined with the impact that history has on a writer’s topics. Even I, already professed to be not much of a memoir-reader, will read that book if she can get it published!

Her words about her experience worked themselves into my memory, though, and from there they gave me the germ of an idea. As it currently stands, my novel disguised as a memoir is almost completely composed of the child’s reminiscence about his father, combined with stories from the father’s friends and family. I think that the story has emotional weight already in its portrait of the father, but since I chose to write it in the form of a memoir it needs more contribution from the child.

The point of a memoir, after all, seems to be the impact of an event on the writer.

So from listening to my friend, I realized that my current manuscript already has the root it needs to be fleshed out to a better novel. The child is a novelist/screenwriter, you see. He has been deeply affected by his father’s alcoholism, which he sees as tied to his Native American heritage. So the first published work he wrote was a story about a Native American who travels the world looking for identity and only finds it on returning to his home on a reservation.

When he returns home for his father’s funeral, he discovers that his father has a dog-eared copy of this book by his bed, heavily annotated. Obviously this has an impact on him in my current manuscript, but I have realized, thanks to my friend’s anecdotes about her own memoir, that the child’s experience in writing the book is the way to give a portrait of how his childhood affected him. Since even in a fictional memoir, I don’t want the story to devolve into narcissistic self-reflection, having the plot be divided between reminiscence about the father and the son’s memory of writing a book heavily influenced by his cultural background should solve that problem. 

Anyway, in all this, I’d like to experiment with the memoir form to see how well a necessarily intensely personal story can speak to a broad audience, without resorting to any sort of voyeurism or narcissism to lure in readers. Granted, it’s not my personal story, but even in fiction I don’t want to catch interest with cheap tricks (I view pandering to curiosity about overly intimate details as a sort of trick, you see). We’ll see how my experiment works as I delve into it this summer!


Also, I’d love to know how my readers feel about memoirs. Have you ever felt uncomfortable reading them (I have, in a few cases!). Do you feel that fiction or the true experiences of a living person is more valuable to read? I feel like the knowledge that an event is ‘true’ in a historical/factual sense sometimes detracts from its value in my mind, but I know not everyone shares this reaction. Please feel free to explain why you appreciate that approach – or don’t, as the case may be!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Power of Lists

About a week and a half ago, I was supposed to go over to Vasnefy’s to help her review some pages of her dissertation. She unexpectedly got sick, though, so the visit was postponed and I suddenly found myself at loose ends. I decided to take a trip to one of the local libraries, as it was the only one in the region which professed to own Grendel (by John Gardner, whose writing exercise I used a couple of weeks ago). Well, it turned out that the book had been missing for years, so they ordered a new one for me. That, however, left me without my planned reading material, so I had to decide what new book to check out.

The reason I’m telling you this is because a few months ago, this turn of events would have left me stumped. I’m the sort of person who can go into a bookstore or a video rental place or a library and immediately have every book or movie in which I was interested disappear from my memory. I’m not sure why this happens, but it infallibly does. Perhaps it’s the multiplicity of choices suddenly presented.

Of course, it’s also not very convenient, since it means I often leave empty-handed!

Back at the beginning of January, I started a new notebook to keep in my purse. I have a list of projects I want to complete in the first half of 2015; I have some reminders about my trip to Norway in the summer. It also occurred to me, when I was first setting it up, that keeping a list of weekly tasks to check off in my calendar was working really well to help me remember them in the first place. I decided to write down a list of all the movies I’ve been wanting to see. Since I cancelled my Netflix subscription, as well, in the hopes of removing writing distractions, I no longer had a good place where I could keep track of movie interests.

Well, it occurred to me that along with a movie list, a book list would be helpful as well. I wrote down some intriguing books about which I’d read articles on line: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, the aforementioned Grendel – to name a few. I also scribbled down the name, ‘Joyce Carol Oates,’ because I’ve been intending (but forgetting!) to read something by her for years, and also because she had been mentioned favorably for her writing style in Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.

So there I was in the library, and instead of leaving empty-handed, I pulled out my list and went searching for some of the items I’d jotted down.

I ended up coming away with a novel by Oates called, The Falls. It won a prize in France, so it seemed like a fairly prestigious place to start. It’s the story of a woman widowed on her wedding day as her husband commits suicide in Niagara Falls, and the new man she meets during the week of looking for the body, whom she later marries. It follows them and their children through several decades of their lives.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through now. I’ve been impressed; I see why Gardner approved so much of her style. She writes beautifully and evocatively, and also experiments with form (for example, she’ll include random one-line snippets of first-person narrative, interspersed with the bulk of the third-person omniscient viewpoint. These lend an incredibly vivid sense of the characters’ direct experience). However, at the same time, I find the novel very cold. I wonder how Oates feels about her characters. All of mine, even the bad ones, are very close to my heart. I only get that feeling – of the characters’ being loved and lovable – from a couple of the male characters.

Perhaps Oates is writing about a character she finds interesting rather than lovable, which I can understand, or perhaps she wants to create a cold atmosphere so that the readers don’t become too attached to any one character. All of them are flawed, after all, so the reader is perhaps supposed to be able to judge them fairly.

So in short, I’m enjoying the book, learning from the style, but still it’s interesting to discover that for purposes of my own entertainment and from the point of view of my artistic craft, even a famous writer has flaws.

That sounds incredibly presumptuous, no doubt, but you know what I mean: every artist and every reader is different, and not every taste meshes, even if the artist is universally admired and the reader is completely unknown. It’s a good reminder, actually, since I sometimes wonder if my stories will be appealing to anyone. No doubt, just as Oates has found a wide and admiring audience, some readers will also have the right taste to appreciate my writings.

Anyway, I would probably never have actually remembered to read something of hers if not for a little brown notebook in my purse, with her name scribbled hastily as the fourth entry in a list of ten authors and books. I told someone recently that my brain is tied to reality by scraps of paper – and that is true when it comes to lists, which help me remember, and also when it comes to my stories which somehow express and clarify my sense of reality and existence.

Not everyone needs lists, of course, but I’m glad I’ve rediscovered their usefulness. I’d like to keep reading great writers and watching great movies, so that I can learn and be inspired, but by example and by contrast. I’m sure every writer and artist, and even people just wanting clarity in their lives, must find ways to remind themselves to read more and find new avenues of learning and entertainment. I’d love to know what good books/movies my visitors have been enjoying lately, and how they were inspired to pick up that particular story to explore.