Thursday, August 7, 2014

Tell it, John Gardner

Gardner on the storyteller's intelligence, from On Becoming a Novelist.

Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller's is partly natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility: wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections); obstinacy and a tendency toward churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious life purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing); a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, and chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes); remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or visual memory (a usual feature of early adolescence and mental retardation); a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion; patience like a cat's; a criminal streak of cunning; psychological instability; recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence; and finally, an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good. Not all writers have exactly these same virtues, of course. Occasionally one finds one who is not abnormally improvident.

Yes, I went there

Can you tell I've hit the middle of the novel I'm writing?

My favorite tidbit so far: Raymond Carver on his Creative Writing 101 teacher, John Gardner:

For the seven or eight of us who were in his class, he ordered heavy black binders and told us we should keep our written work in these. He kept his own work in such binders, he said, and of course that settled it for us. We carried our stories in our binders and felt we were special, exclusive, singled out from others. And so we were.

Also, from the same place (Carver's introduction to Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist):

Gardner had a crewcut, dressed like a minister or an FBI man, and went to church on Sundays. But he was unconventional in other ways. He started breaking the rules on the first day of class; he was a chain smoker and he smoked continuously in classroom, using a metal wastebasket for an ashtray. In those days [1958] , nobody smoked in a classroom. When another faculty member who used the same room reported on him, Gardner merely remarked to us on the man's pettiness and narrow-mindedness, opened windows, and went on smoking. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

One year ago today I began my journey to Svalbard as part of The Arctic Circle expeditionary residency program. I remain deeply humbled by, in awe of, and inspired by my experience there onboard a ship full of artists. If you'd like to read what I wrote right after I returned click here and/or here.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

On Vagueness and Precision

"It is precisely because of our ignorance that we see across the river [to the castle] with such precision. We know the precise carvings on the capital of each stone pillar and the precise history of each soul: they are transparent to our understanding. On our side of the river, even the most familiar lanes bear surprises around well-known bends; we see only a certain distance into the hearts of our wives and friends, before darkness and uncertainty begin. Perhaps, after all, this is the lure of legend: not the dreamy twilight of the luxuriating fancy, in love with all that is misty and half-glimpsed, but the sharp clarity forbidden by our elusive lives."

— Steven Millhauser
from The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon 

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Enchanted World: To Vincent Price and Back Again

Recently, I read a large number of online lists of favorite books. In general I found these lists inspiring. Sometimes, they frustrated me, i.e. will I ever read W.G. Sebald? Will I ever be in the in-group? I considered posting a list of my own but I didn't quite get around to it, and like most other online flurries, the lists soon disappeared. But something stuck in the back of my mind, and eventually I realized what it was.

The truth is, if I heeded the hilarious instruction of one pass-it-on type posting to "not think too much before responding," my favorite books were obvious. But in this age of cultivated online personae, how could I broadcast to the world that my all-time favorite books were published by Time Life, and I read them when I was 12?

Well, Vincent Price's 1985 TV commercial for the books helps with that a bit.

I received the first one from my parents: Fairies and Elves. Soon to follow were Legends of Valor, Wizards and Witches, Ghosts, Magical Beasts, and Water Spirits. I don't know who Time Life's editors and consultants were for the Enchanted World series, but the stories and artwork they picked are classic, gorgeous, and not at all rated PG. Ghosts is terrifying, and that made it the best one of all. I fell in love with the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of nymphs and the lady of Shalott, Japanese fairy-tale illustrations, and provocative drawings of all manner of shapeshifters, hollow-mountain dwellers, undersea horsemen, selkies, warlocks, tricksters, ethereal fairies and elemental priestesses. The stories are told as if around a campfire. In them, there is a strong sense that magic lives in the world, even if it is declining. These stories of the fantastic, eerie, mysterious, and magical seeped into me in the best possible way. Deep, and entwined with my budding ideas about the creative process and making imaginative meaning of the world.

I adored these books for years, and then, during the second half of adolescence, I drifted away from my fantasy roots. I was embarrassed that as a kid I'd read mostly Arthurian legends and trilogies of novels in which the heroines  maintained telepathic links with their soul-mate spirit animals. Pretty soon I was an English major reading the 20th century literary canon (oh that horde of Johns!). That's all fine, and Rabbit, Run is still one of my favorite books, but I had left the enchanted world behind. Then I was writing my first novel, set in Washington State's Skagit Valley. Then 9/11 happened, then I was in graduate school. Then I found the love of my life. Then I was writing Among the Wonderful. Then I was navigating the publishing world and trying to market the book. Then my child was born.

Last August at my parents' house, I saw those enchanted, albeit dusty, spines for the first time in a decade and a half, even though they'd been sitting in plain sight all those years. While my daughter slept, I opened up the books and again fell in love - this time with a gasp of unexpected love for my former self . I recognized the art on every page and realized that myth and folkways are threaded together with my reason for writing fiction in the first place, my connection with wild nature and my deepest aspiration as the mother of a wee one.

In an urban world that I often find confusing and troubling, there is a crucial nourishment and comfort for me in mythic stories and artwork, from the Inuit to the Scottish Highlanders. Partially for me, and partially for my daughter, I reclaimed the Enchanted World. Then, I poked around online, since I'd never heard anyone else mention the series in all those years. To my delight, I discovered there are 21 books in the series, and I have only ever read  7. New titles (well, new to me) included Night Creatures, Spells and Bindings, Seekers and Saviors, Giants and Ogres (shoot! I should have had that one while I researched Among the Wonderful), and Fall of Camelot. Even right now, at the moment I am writing this, I am giddy; I can't wait to dive into those other enchanted worlds. How did I not know there were more?

It turns out that my good fortune didn't end there. During that same haphazard online research session, somehow I landed on writer, artist, and editor Terri Windling's blog, Myth and Moor. The post I read that day was Swan Maidens and Crane Wives, which exquisitely explores not only the power, lightness-with-knowing, and archetypal force of the swan, but also the complexities and difficulties of domestic life when part of your spirit is wild. As a new mother and a novelist, I could relate. Utilizing literary, artistic and musical (yes, the Decembrists' Crane Wife is there too) sources, Terri Windling draws from the same well as the Enchanted World series to conjure a provocative portrait of these avian women, and she relates it all to the world as it is, right now. Terri Windling's thoughtful, magical blog helped me then, and helps me now to anchor firmly in the world of myth and the fantastic that I've always loved, while also linking that world securely to the here-and-now of creative process.

One day, on Myth and Moor, I discovered that Terri Windling was packing up Endicott
West, the writers retreat she cofounded with Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman in the Sonoran desert near Tucson, Arizona. Through Terri's blog posts, I commiserated with Terri, and then Ellen too, as this powerful retreat for mythic artists folded up shop. But when they announced an online auction of books from the Endicott West library, I felt the enchanted world rush in. In recent months, I'd been challenged and enlivened by elements of the fantastic creeping into my novel-in-progress. I'd been wanting to read mythic novels and stories for inspiration and lessons on craft. Here was my chance! In a blur I bid on and then won two boxes of "mystery fiction" to be chosen by Terri. The auction proceeds were to help pay for shipping costs for Terri to bring part of the library back to Devon, England, where she lives.

After I found the boxes on my doorstep, I left them unopened for many hours, just so I could savor my exquisite excitement. But of course I couldn't wait for long. And so it is that one enchanted world leads to another and another, and it just may be that magic is not declining after all. In me it grows.

My Muse the Mummer

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

elemental symphonies

Llisten to the patterns of tree rings and birds on a wire  - translated to music.

From Artist Bartholomäus Traubeck has custom-built a record player that is able to "play" cross-sectional slices of tree trunks. The result is his artpiece "Years," an audio recording of tree rings being read by a computer and turned into music, much like a record player's needle reads the grooves on an LP. The custom record player takes in data using a PlayStation Eye Camera and a stepper motor attached to its control arm, and relays the data to a computer. A program called Ableton Live then uses it to generate an eerie piano track.

And here's what Jarbas Agnelli says about his musical work, Birds on the Wire:
"Reading a newspaper, I saw a picture of birds on the electric wires. I cut out the photo and decided to make a song, using the exact location of the birds as notes (no Photoshop edit). I knew it wasn't the most original idea in the universe. I was just curious to hear what melody the birds were creating."

Birds on the Wires from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.

Monday, March 3, 2014

AWP 2014 (a miniscule sampler)

My head is still spinning from the inspirational and overwhelming writerly tsunami that is the Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference. Here are a handful of writers whose work I particularly enjoyed either during panel discussions or random encounters at the book fair or around the city.

Summer Wood. She had a lot of lovely things to offer during her Structuring the Novel panel. I look forward to reading Raising Wrecker.

 Anca Szilagyi and Fairy Tale Review. During the New Fairy Tales from the North panel, Anca read an excerpt from her short story, "More Like Home Than Home." This story features a girl trapping a raven in a very large jar of custard. I loved it, and now look forward to reading FTR's new Emerald issue.
Rikki Ducornet. The Dickmare. 'nuff said.

Sara Loewen read a subtle and deeply moving excerpt from her book of essays, Gaining Daylight: Life on Two Islands. Loewen was born and raised in Alaska, and lives on Kodiak island, where she teaches and fishes. From the book's synopsis:"Her personal essays integrate natural and island history with her experiences of fishing and family life, as well as the challenges of living at the northern edge of the Pacific."

David Huddle. I attended a panel called "The Middle Matters," about the middles of short stories. Huddle got up and blasted us with a spectacular presentation on Eudora Welty's story, "Powerhouse." Provocative, passionate, and stately, Huddle reminded me that Welty's work is not only still relevant, but still edgy, and well worth revisiting.

Gretel Ehrlich. Even though she had a cold.

Barry Lopez. I read Arctic Dreams as a sixth grader and have never shaken it. He spoke with Gretel Ehrlich at AWP. I will post a link to their talk as soon as it's live online.

Colin Dickey (most recently in The Believer). I had the good fortune to meet Colin in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Author of Cranioklepty and Afterlives of the Saints, he's a frequent contributor to Lapham's Quarterly, among other publications. He's also the director of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in NYC.

Cari Luna.I am really looking forward to reading her book, which chronicles the lives of five squatters in the mid-nineties in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Sharma Shields was utterly charming during the Uncanny West panel discussion. Her book concerns a creature who may or may not be a sasquatch. Since she was born and raised in Spokane, Sharma's work would be better characterized as unkanny. Anyone? Bueller?

It was a joy to see Debra Magpie Earling again. I've reread her novel, Perma Red, several times since it came out in 2002.