SCBWINY16 (The Pee Critique)

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20160307_100346 (2)So, this post was begun directly after the SCBWINY 2016 conference that I was privileged to attend February 11-14. It’s impossible NOT to get writing ideas when you are at this caliber of conference. At least a hundred possible blog posts popped into my head during the magical hours of creative energy that I experienced. I met dozens of writers and illustrators, all bright with the light of excitement that is generated when the lovers of children’s literature come together. A slew of dynamic and highly successful people presented, including editors and agents and authors and illustrators—Rainbow Rowell, Gary Schmidt, and Rita-Williams Garcia, just to name a few.

Unfortunately, I came down with a horrific chest cold after returning from the conference. For almost a week I huddled under a blanket and sipped hot lemon-honey water, all of the energy infused into my writer’s soul by the conference leaking out into pity puddles surrounding the old reclining chair I commandeered during my illness.

When I finally began to recover, I went back over the notes I had taken during the conference to try and rekindle some of the magic. So many writing and creative truths. So many spot on words of wisdom. And yet one section of my notes brought me up short and caused a pouty writer’s frown to appear on my face.

The Pee Critique.

It happened on the very first day—In order to help myself along in the process of transitioning to full-time writer, I’d registered for the Writer’s Roundtable Intensive. The registration site described the Roundtable like this:

The Writers’ Roundtable Intensive is intended for committed writers with submission–ready material. All intensive attendees have the opportunity to have the first 500 words of a manuscript reviewed during round table critiques lead by an editor or agent during a morning and an afternoon small- group critique session. 

We were instructed to bring eighteen copies of the first 500 words of the project—nine to share in a roundtable in the morning and nine in the afternoon. Each writer would be given 15 minutes to read their work and then receive input from the editor or agent. A couple of writer friends had participated in the roundtable in the past and suggested that I bring a few different projects in order to target my offering toward the expert I was assigned.

In the morning I was lucky enough to be at a table with an executive editor at one of the major publishing houses. My offering was a favorite project of mine—Spy Cat!, a James Bond-spoofing chapter book about a dog with grandiose dreams of being an international cat spy (I know, crazy idea, right?).

Trying not to read too quickly (or let my voice shake) I shared Spy Cat! with my morning table.

Finish…hold your breath…and…?

Ms. Executive Editor: I really like this! It’s so much fun! You’ve really nailed the chapter book style.

Okay, now I can breathe…..!

She went on to give a couple of suggestions that I immediately saw would improve the story and then continued to compliment me on my voice and style.

A couple of the other writers at the table made comments, as well.

Wow. I was floating for the rest of the morning. I had to force myself not to smile constantly. I saw a book contract in my inbox by June. When I met my daughter for lunch later and gushed out the whole story, she shared my excitement.

This conference was going to be AMAZING!

Then, on to the afternoon session. A young, very accomplished literary agent was the expert at my table in the afternoon. In a short panel given that morning, the agent had stated that she was looking for YA, so I passed over Spy Cat! and my quirky social-networking picture book FarmPals, and instead, decided to read Liar’s Song, my most recently-completed middle grade novel.

Still flying high from the praise I received in the morning, I sat down at my new table with nine copies of Liar’s Song, ready to go.

Two writers read before me. The first offering was a kind of therapeutic picture book, very interesting. Then, the writer who read just before me also read from her middle grade novel. It was set in the late 1960s. Like my Liar’s Song, her story revolved around a serious issue that pushed the boundaries of acceptable middle grade subject matter. I found her writing clean and full of rich images, but the voice seemed a little “old-fashioned” for the contemporary reader.

When she finished reading, we all turned toward the expert.

The agent’s critique was pointed in the extreme and, I was horrified to realize, much of the criticism Ms. Agent was providing also applied to my own offering (which I hadn’t even read yet!)!!

Ms. Agent: Why is this novel set in the 60s? (Mine was set in the 70s) Unless it is very important to the story, it should be contemporary.

Author Aloud/Me in My Head: Well, there’s an important part about the Vietnam War…a critical character dies in the war.

Ms. Agent: There are conflicts going on today. Why does it have to be Vietnam?

Author Aloud/Me in My Head: No…but the 1960s (70s) are a time period I feel comfortable writing about. And I don’t want to bother with cell phones and computers.

Ms. Agent: I get submissions all the time that are “historical” just because the writer is too lazy to write in the present. It is so much easier for me to find a home for a contemporary novel. You should really think about whether or not your project is really, truly historical.

The agent went on to compliment the beauty of the writing and some of the points that intrigued her, but encouraged the author to think about a contemporary setting and voice.

And then it was my turn.

I read my 500 words, thankful at least that my humor and voice would shine through and hopefully counterbalance the issues with my “lazy” fake-historical middle grade fiction!!

The novel begins in the middle of the night. The main character’s mother is running away from her life—taking her two children and leaving without telling anyone where they are going. They have been driving for hours when the main character, an almost twelve-year-old girl, tells her mother that her little brother needs to use the bathroom. The mother pulls the car over and takes the boy into the grass to pee. While the car is stopped, the girl worries about when, and if, they will ever go back home. She dreams of being a famous singer and is set to perform with her father in a few weeks. She is afraid she will miss that chance to make her big break.

Upon finishing my 500 words, I thought it best to immediately acknowledge that I recognized many of the same issues in my writing as those the agent had previously pointed out. If she could just progress on to any additional comments, I said, I would appreciate it. (In this way I thought to spare myself the pain of more pointed words.)

Silly, silly Leanne writer-lady.

Ms. Agent: Why do you spend the first four paragraphs talking about her brother peeing? It really put me off. I don’t know anyone—any characters—well enough yet to know if this is meant to be funny or not.

Me: Cricket, cricket.

Other Roundtable Author: Yes, I thought the same. It was kind of gross—I mean, who wants to read about peeing?

Me (In my head): You traitor, fellow writer…just wait until you read YOUR 500 words!!!

Ms. Agent: And, you used dialogue in the first line—that’s always hard to pull off.

Everyone Else at the Table: Nodding like sheep!!

Me (In my head): Brown-nosers!

Ms. Agent: You should use those first few paragraphs very wisely. Let us get to know the protagonist—by the way, how old is she?

Me: Eleven—almost twelve.

Ms. Agent: Her voice reads like an eight-year-old. Is this supposed to be a novel? It reads more like a chapter book.

Me (In my head): Waaaagghhhh….. (Charlie Brown-style)

Ms. Agent: I did like that she wants to be a country music singer in Canada. I didn’t even know that was a thing. And your voice is fun—and funny. Later, after the peeing part. If you could just get rid of the peeing….

Me: I really had no idea that would put everyone off. I’ll definitely take a look at it.

And so, I was barely present for the rest of the readings. I looked and nodded, but in my head I was going over all that had been said. I really loved this novel and, since it was evident that the peeing was a bad way to begin, I’d just have to rethink that opening scene.

And…the entire remaining 40K words of my not a novel, fake historical, not a middle grade protagonist masterpiece.

But, like I said, the conference was amazing. I learned so much and left so energized. One of the best sessions I attended was Cheryl Klein’s breakout on revision. Since I knew I had quite a bit of work to do, her session gave me some solid practical methods for moving forward. After listening to her present, I went to the conference bookstore and picked up her book Second Sight. Reading it that evening, and then, again on the train back home, I came to the section “The Art of Detection” and read about line-editing and the process of testing every sentence against the question “What purpose does this serve?” Take a look at this excerpt from the section discussing Cheryl and Arthur Levine’s editing of a first draft of the beginning of Lisa Yee’s So Totally Emily Ebers:

“Arthur commented on the “pee your pants” paragraph. That’s because peeing your pants is intrinsically a little gross, right? And on the very first page of the book, we readers don’t know Emily well enough to go there with her, so it put Arthur off (me too <Cheryl>, I admit).”

And on the next page….

…note the changes Lisa made here. She cut the “pee your pants” paragraph…

Wow. The great universal editor Serendipity strikes again.

Thank you, Ms. Agent. Thank you, Cheryl Klein.

Thank you, SCBWINY16.

On to revisioning and re-visioning.

 

Haunted by Inspiration

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There is a twilight girl who has been visiting me lately. She makes her appearance in those moments between waking and dreaming, or when the rhythms of life allow the mind to wander. She is but a child—eight or nine years of age—with hair of a strange white gold that is, somehow, also red. She wears an odd, old-fashioned dress of a drab and nondescript color that hangs on

her thin body. In semi-consciousness I see her walking along on a dirt path or sitting upon a broken rock wall with her chin resting on her pulled-up knees. I see her always from behind, at first. Either I am walking through the woods and come upon the path and the girl unexpectedly, or I am wandering amid a messy Victorian-ish garden and I catch sight of her through a cascade of vines. As I approach, she turns and looks at me through the corner of her green-gold eye, then she fades into nothing.

And even though I try to fight it—try to stay with the halfdream—sleep arrives…or slips away from me.

I know this girl’s name and I know her story. I know it because I am her creator. She came to life in a novel that I began months ago while taking a two-hour train ride along the Hudson River. The story began without planning, without warning, as inexorable as an avalanche. A magic combination of synapses fired in my brain, triggered by the images I saw outside the train window—a massive old house half-hidden on a rocky outcropping on the river, a strange stone fountain covered in dead vines, a ruined castle, and a wooden rowboat half buried in sand and—bam! My writer’s brain went into overdrive.

Bannerman Castle, Pollepel Island

Bannerman Castle, Pollepel Island

I wrote all the way into the city and all the way back home. The intricate weaving of mystery and history and horror frantically vomiting itself onto the blank pages of my notebook.

And then, once I returned to my routine, I found little time for writing. The next few days passed quickly, then the next few weeks, and then…well, here we are.

The girl and I.

She doesn’t bother me while I’m working, kind little haunting-thing that she is. She usually peeks in the window while I’m folding the laundry. Or sits in the corner chair in the kitchen while I make dinner, kicking her feet and silently waiting.

Okay, okay…I’ll make time, I promise.

But I don’t.

Last night I woke groggily after having fallen asleep on the family room couch and stumbled upstairs to bed. As I quickly drifted off, her ice-red hair flashed in the mirror hanging on the closet door. I tried to focus my eyes and mind and force her to materialize, but sleep won out.

And just before I opened my eyes this morning, I found myself on the wooded path. As I approached, I saw that she was not alone—the dead young man who also sits at the center of the novel was with her.

They both ignored me. I stood beside them and they seemed not to see me. I opened my mouth to speak and no words came out. It was a horrible feeling—as if I no longer belonged with them, no longer existed.

Then today I found myself in the middle of a rainy afternoon, all caught up on the laundry and the latest episode of my current favorite creepy drama (curse you cable TV). Cleaning out my purse, I happened to open my writer’s notebook to the page where I began the original story.

As I read the words—my words—the girl, Trill, came back to vivid life, I read and was consumed by the power of my own storytelling until…

…it cut off mid-sentence.

That’s all I’d written? I was sure I’d gotten farther. Of course, I knew what should happen, what I intended to happen, but when I let the next scenes play out in my writer’s mind I found that the plot was now altered. My girl wasn’t who I thought she’d been at all.

Her lips curled into a sly smile. She looked at me out of the corner of her gold-green eye.

Clever, clever little story ghost. Haunt me any time.

In Memoriam: A Promise to my Lost Idea

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Yesterday, Saturday, in the middle of completing a complicated and extensive electronic travel expense report for my “day job,” I got an IDEA. A blessed writing idea. Something that I saw online, on my phone, or thought of as I waited for receipt images to upload, or heard outside my window caused that elusive lightbulb to flare into life.

I perked up immediately, sat taller in my chair, felt my heartrate increase, always so ecstatic to know that my creativity hadn’t died a tragic and permanent death in the struggle between being true to my writing soul and making financial ends meet.

“I’ll just finish the report and get writing,” I thought happily.

Wrong-o.

I did finish the report. Then I took my dogs outside. Then vacuumed. Then caught up on a BBC show I was fascinated with. Then threw in some laundry. Then showered and went out to dinner. Then came home and finished the book I began during my recent work travel before falling blissfully to sleep.

It wasn’t until this morning that I remembered the writing IDEA. More precisely, I remembered that I’d HAD an idea.

No! (That’s a slow-motion “Nooooooooo!” with the IDEA slipping from my grasp, tumbling over the cliff into the oblivion of Mt. Doom’s lava furnace.)

gollum

Frantically I tried to back track—what, precisely had I been doing when I got the IDEA? I went back and read the emails I’d referred to. I visited Google maps. I pulled out my receipts. I looked at the photos on my phone (since I’d had to take pictures of paper receipts for upload). I sat in my desk chair and looked around my office at the papers and books surrounding the space. I listened to the unknown, insistently-singing bird outside my window. I scrolled back and reviewed an entire day of Facebook posts by family and friends. Was it that Grammar Girl post on the timeline?? No, unfortunately not. That post, about the origin of the phrase “the bee’s knees” had piqued my interest (I am an amateur etymologist/linguist), but it wasn’t the source of the IDEA.

What else had I done? I’d looked through the paper mail that had arrived while I was traveling—thumbing through the latest Anthropologie catalog—loving the designs and disgusted at the prices, as usual.

No, nothing there.

And I’d returned emails, connecting with 4 new people on LinkedIn and looking at a few “pins” that Pinterest friends had sent to me.

Nothing.

I’d gotten the “Skye Boat Song” (with Stevenson’s poem/lyrics) stuck in my head while folding laundry. I ran over the song slowly. “Sing me a song of a lad <thought> that is gone…” Nope. Nothing.

After sixty minutes—a full hour of anxious searching—I began to resign myself to the truth.

The IDEA was lost.

I imagined it floating over my head, like a person near death—having left his/her body—hovers over the living. It wanted to return, I knew. But I couldn’t save it. Because I couldn’t see it. Couldn’t identify it. Couldn’t reach it. Couldn’t pull it back.

Looking back, I, of course, know that I should have stopped what I was doing. I should have halted in the middle of preparing that very important expense report and made a note of the IDEA. I usually do just that, but, for some stupid reason yesterday, I didn’t think I would forget.

I’d lost ideas before in much the same way. I’d had “eureka moments” that slipped away into nothingness—fell victim to my busy life and cluttered mind. And after those losses, I’d researched the best practices in capturing ideas and vowed to always carry a notebook, always write down dreams immediately upon waking, and always record an idea the moment that it occurred.

And I’d kept those vows each time…for a time, at least.

It’s human nature, I suppose. We constantly lapse in our resolutions. We wake up with a headache or stomach upset after one too many glasses of wine, one too many cupcakes, or one too many forkfuls of spaghetti the night before and vow to moderate in the future, only to eventually indulge and regret once more. Or we plan to exercise, organize, or make time to write/create or educate ourselves and the first little bump interrupts our good intentions—bad weather so we can’t walk, a phone call from a friend so we can’t clean our desk, a sniffle or sneeze so we can’t attend a lecture or class, our favorite pen runs out of ink…

Thankfully, it’s also human nature to begin again. We learn from the past, but we move toward the future.

I do regret losing you, IDEA. I will endeavor to remember the loss of you each time the lightbulb of creativity gifts me with the impulse of a new IDEA. I swear to you that, when that moment happens, I will turn away from commonplace duties and give my full attention to the writing magic. I will heed the call of the muse over the call of the mundane.

Promise. Cross my heart. Unless, you know, I forget….

http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/the-bees-knees

http://lifehacker.com/5924377/how-do-you-capture-your-eureka-moments

Ghosts of Scrooges Past

To help keep me from turning into “Scrooge” or, as my family would say “Figgy Morgoth, the Christmas dragon”–I’m re-posting last year’s holiday offering. Enjoy! (FYI–Figgy is derived from figgy pudding, Morgoth was the principal agent of evil in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion–hence, Figgy Morgoth, the Christmas dragon who rears her/his ugly head whenever the holiday preparations/celebration don’t go as planned. It’s just such an appropriate term–feel free to re-use, but please, credit its Pankuch origins. Ha!) All the best, Leanne.

Leanne Pankuch

I’ve read Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” at least twenty times and I’ve seen nearly every film and television version of the story, from the first silent movie depictions to Disney’s most recent CGI-animated monstrosity. I enjoy the 1938 film with Gene Lockhart as the perfect Bob Cratchit, but my favorite classic version is the 1958 film “Scrooge” with Alistair Sim. It is a masterful portrayal of the tale. Every year I hate Sim’s selfish and sarcastic Scrooge at the beginning of the story, yet am somehow drawn to him and his cynical loneliness. I then laugh when he dances around and frightens Mrs. Dilbur after his conversion, and, finally, cry when he sincerely apologizes to his nephew Fred and Fred’s fiancee.

But the version most enjoyed my entire family is “The Muppet Christmas Carol” with Michael Caine as Scrooge, Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Fozzie Bear as Old “Fozziewig” and…

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My Physical Book Addiction— A Rambling Confession of Guilt (Not!)

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I like to tell stories about how I read voraciously as a child. Even when I put down my current book to eat breakfast or lunch, I would find myself searching out the words on the cereal box or the mayonnaise jar. I read everywhere. All the time. I couldn’t stop. It was a torture to me that I was subject to motion sickness during the long car trips my family made between Illinois and Canada and I was forced to read signs and mile markers and license plates and bumper stickers instead of books.

I’m grown up now (at least in years) and my addiction has grown to monumental proportions. It isn’t just reading that marks my “illness” now, but the thousands of physical books that I own. You see, I’m not just one of those crazed readers who consumes the NY Times Bestseller list in as few bites as possible or who belongs to some snooty book club who dissects literary one-hit wonders to the point of college literature class torture. I do, indeed, read, and I sometimes I even read e-books– (gasp!). But the book that earns a permanent spot on my shelf must have one exceptional quality that most new books lack.

I must want to re-read it.

Not immediately. Not for a special purpose. Not necessarily for research or inspiration—but simply because the writing drew me in. It took me to someplace new. The words made me feel and care and escape. Perhaps the writing wasn’t perfect, but there was something…some intangible magic that was called to life as I read, like a Pagemaster-y Inkheart-ish enchantment. I am forever searching for the story that has the capacity to ensorcell me again and again and again.

What books are on my shelf? So many, my friends, so, so many. Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Orwell, Lois Lowry, Christian Jacq, Garth Nix, Victoria Holt, Neil Gaiman, Suzanne Collins, Madeline L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Philippa Gregory, DuMaurier, Irving, Bronte, Stoker, George R.R. Martin (damn him!), Thackeray…the list goes on and on and on…new authors, old authors, young authors, dead authors.

And, as I’ve grown older, I’ve found that it isn’t just fictional stories that can transport my spirit, but poetry, nonfiction, history, and even just fantastic illustrations. I own an extensive collection of Elizabethan history books including antique first edition biographies of Elizabeth I. And I’ve become a collector of fairy tale books of all kinds—particularly old volumes with illustrations from the so-called “Golden Age”—Arthur Rackham, Caldecott, Greenaway, and Dulac are among my favorites (I recently acquired a copy of the Hungarian “Csoda Album” illustrated by LEFLER AND URBAN…so amazingly beautiful, sigh…).

Lefler and Urban, 1911

From The Csoda Album, illus. Lefler and Urban, 1911

I’ve also become enamored with Edward Gorey’s offbeat art and stories. And studies of world mythologies (Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces) and Victorian cemeteries and asylums have all earned a place in my personal library, as well as books on the art and craft of writing and the history of language.

I have over 2000 books on the shelves around me as I sit at my desk writing. All of these books mean something to me. I can pull any book off the shelf and know that it is a worthy companion. The physicality of the book is part of its relationship to me. It’s a little like the difference between hugging someone in person and sending them a little “*hugs*” message in an email. I don’t read or collect books in the way that some individuals “friend” others over social media. I’m not just gathering the largest pile possible or reading to keep up with pop culture. I have read the words, pondered and processed and daydreamed about the content, closed and opened the cover, reveling in the weight and thickness/thinness of the pages, and followed the trail of thought to the author’s last word or the artist’s brush to the final colorful stroke of expression.

I recently packed up my library and moved to a new house in a new state hundreds of miles away. Books are heavy, friends, very heavy. And packing and then unpacking and reorganizing my cherished collection in a new, smaller space has been challenging. After I mentioned this to someone in my extended family she asked why I just don’t buy electronic copies of my books.

I tried to explain but she shook her head, obviously not understanding. I think she felt sorry for poor book-addicted me–as so many other, practically-minded people do.

And we feel sorry for them, don’t we?

Avoid Muse Envy: Woo your Creative Soul!

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Valentine’s Day is a wonderful event for lovers. Roses, cards, candy, and starry-eyed glances are the order of the day. But what if you’re a solo act? Or you and your romantic partner are in the midst of a nasty spat? The entire day feels like a waste, doesn’t it? It seems like everyone in the world is “in love”…except you.

There are some writers who always seem to be in tune with their inner muse. They appear to enjoy a veritable fountain of ideas and frequently share daily social media updates detailing the number of poems they’ve composed or how many thousands of words they’ve added to their novel. While speaking at writing conferences they bemoan having to choose between two amazingly inspired plot ideas and speak of shoeboxes filled with future projects. I can only think of one word to describe these individuals….

ANNOYING!

At least, that’s how I feel when my own Muse is nowhere to be found. She’s off somewhere for a “Muses’ Night Out”—partying it up with some F. Scott Fitzgerald or Kate DiCamillo full-time author in a published book-filled office in some idyllic, remote New England farmhouse!  Grrr… Meanwhile, I sit cold and idea-less in my uncomfortable chair, hands hovering over the laptop keyboard like a frozen concert pianist.

Why can’t I think of anything? I scheduled this one hour block of time at the end of a long day at the office in order to nurture my creative writing self—why is my Muse AWOL?

I’ve recently struggled mightily with Muse Envy. Mulling over my lack of spontaneous creativity has wasted more precious writing time than I care to admit. Luckily, I recently came across a short-but-wonderful older post on the site “The Write Practice” that helped me work through my difficulties:

Most writers either over discipline their muse or ignore her (or him). The key to solving your discipline problem is to realize you don’t have a discipline problem. You have a relational problem.” (Joe Bunting)

The post goes on to detail seven ways in which writers mistreat their muses. I quickly realized that I was guilty of committing every single one of the seven offences. (You can read the entire post here: http://thewritepractice.com/7-reasons-your-muse-isnt-talking-to-you/

I felt guilty. I thought of all the small ways that I had alienated my Muse. If only she would come back to me! I’d never take her for granted again!

The next day, while riding home on the train, heavy snowflakes began to fall. We pulled into the first station stop and I noticed a woman in a red coat trudging through the snow. She had an enormous blue stuffed animal strapped to her back. Its long arms and legs bounced with each step she took.

???? Where is she going???And why…?

Hello, my Muse! Let me pull out my notebook…there! Now, what was that you were saying?

Ghosts of Scrooges Past

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I’ve read Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” at least twenty times and I’ve seen nearly every film and television version of the story, from the first silent movie depictions to Disney’s most recent CGI-animated monstrosity. I enjoy the 1938 film with Gene Lockhart as the perfect Bob Cratchit, but my favorite classic version is the 1958 film “Scrooge” with Alistair Sim. It is a masterful portrayal of the tale. Every year I hate Sim’s selfish and sarcastic Scrooge at the beginning of the story, yet am somehow drawn to him and his cynical loneliness. I then laugh when he dances around and frightens Mrs. Dilbur after his conversion, and, finally, cry when he sincerely apologizes to his nephew Fred and Fred’s fiancee.

But the version most enjoyed my entire family is “The Muppet Christmas Carol” with Michael Caine as Scrooge, Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Fozzie Bear as Old “Fozziewig” and Gonzo as the narrator–Charles Dickens himself. You might be surprised to find out that, lyrics and musical numbers aside, much of the dialog and narration in the Muppet version is drawn word for word from the original published text.

Watching the Muppet “Carol” I heard, for the first time, the line that Scrooge speaks to Marley’s ghost, “..there’s more of gravy than of grave about you…” Many of the other film and television productions cut that line (and others) attempting to enhance the seriousness of the story. Consequently, some of us have forgotten (or perhaps never even knew) that Dickens wasn’t just an insightful and brilliant writer, he was funny. I believe that the reason the Muppet “Carol” is so successful in telling the true tale is that it portrays both the silliness and the seriousness–just as Dickens himself did. Watching the Muppet “Carol” we feel the hopeful joy of the Season and lament the sickness of greed and the tragedy of poverty. We see the dirt of old London and feel the cheer of a “Merry Christmas” between friends. The Muppets make us laugh and cry. Dickens himself would have been pleased.

“A Christmas Carol” has always fascinated me because it is the story of a character transformed–his cold, unhappy world suddenly filled with warmth and love. As a writer, I am in the business of telling the stories of characters who change and grow into better, happier, or at least, wiser, beings. And, since I want my writing to ring true, like Dickens’s, like life, I won’t forget that there are tears and laughter. Thank you, Muppets. Merry Christmas.

If Jane Austen and Charles Dickens had a baby…Middlemarch!

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I’ve got a confession to make. It isn’t an easy one for an avid reader and writer with a degree in English from a fine liberal arts college. I’ve always prided myself on my broadness of view and quality of thought–but here goes

I hated Middlemarch the first time I read it.

There, I’ve said it. Now I can move on–thank goodness.

The first time I read Middlemarch, I was very young. Still all aglow from reading the complete Jane Austen, I had dabbled in Dickens without much enjoyment (excepting A Christmas Carol) when a wise professor recommended Middlemarch.

I dove in…and immediately fell in love with the high-minded Dorothea Brooke. She was a kindred spirit! I, too, felt myself “a cygnet among ducklings”–don’t we all, at some point in our lives? I read the beginnings of Dorothea’s story with a kind of rushed rapture. She was so passionate and thoughtful–a girl/woman breaking the bonds and conventions of her time–wait!

Why is George Eliot writing about all of these other people? Writing a lot about them, too. Smells like Dickens! I want Dorothea…turn the pages…okay, okay, I’ll read about Lydgate…and Rosamund…and Mary and Fred…but what’s all this about politics? Yuck! And pages and pages about boring peripherals: theology, drunks, farmers, clergymen!

I hurried my way to the end of the book, judiciously skipping some long-winded poo-poo, and prepared to be satisfied by Dorothea’s ultimate decision concerning Will Lladislaw. Instead, I found myself extremely disgruntled by the final passages detailing her future life. In fact, the happiness in the story seemed to have been the prize of the characters I had found most uninteresting!

For some time after my initial reading, I found myself agreeing with others who professed a dislike of the book, sagely nodding my head, offering high-sounding comments about the didactic tone, etc. So haughty and über-intelligent, wasn’t I?

Then, recently, I watched the BBC dramatization of Middlemarch. When the portrayal of Dorothea in that mini-series seemed to not quite match up with what I remembered from the novel, I recalled how differently I now felt about Dickens and how much more I now knew about the Victorian Era and its literature. Had I misjudged Eliot, as well? Semi-reluctantly I pulled up a free online copy of Middlemarch and began to read–carefully.

I still found it wildly complex and exceedingly long, but now the peripheral characters and stories seemed tantalizingly layered and important. I could see the irony and the sweet-and-sour poignancy of the myriad episodes that had once seemed banal, but now seemed to combine unusual psychological depth and realism. I found Lydgate to be (almost) as important to the story as Miss Brooke. And Dorothea herself? Not so perfect in my minds-eye, but somehow an infinitely more interesting character. Eliot’s work seemed a fusion of Austen’s sassy and/or ridiculous women and men and Dickens’s scope of vision (and word count!) elevated into a more truthful, less Disney-fied, and thought-provoking medium.

I could go on and on, you know. I could begin channeling George Eliot…

Just kidding! Here’s the “sum up”:

Middlemarch: an extremely long but worthwhile Victorian literary mash-up/masterpiece. Don’t be a hater!

Signs and Portents

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It often happens that I become discouraged with the progress of my writing career. There are so many interruptions and distractions. After all, my writing hat is only one of many that I must wear–I am also a mother, a wife, a friend, an employee, a supervisor, a musician. Work deadlines, dinner menus, doctor’s appointments, bill due dates, sick pets, yard maintenance…they all do their best to interrupt my writing goals.

But, as the real world tugs me this way and that, sometimes succeeding keeping me from putting words on the page for days on end, there are always signs to keep me on my true path–my writer’s path.

Sometimes it is something as simple as a yellow finch singing outside my kitchen window as I mundanely wash the dishes. Proudly cocking his little golden head and hopping from branch to branch. What are the words of his song?

Or, shuffling papers to search for a receipt at tax time, an old photo slides to the floor. My Granny. The sweetest soul who ever graced this planet, smiles out from a faded Polaroid. How I loved her laugh and her stories. How unconditionally she loved me!

Other times a shooting star will streak across the night sky as I stand outside shivering while my dogs sniff around in the dark. Make a wish! Then my eyes connect the star-dots of Orion and I think of ancient times.

Once, after cleaning the bathrooms (my most unfavorite chore) I saw a bald eagle fly past my bathroom window. I ran through the house in just a towel, following it from window to window, desperate to keep watching it until the last possible second. My heart thumping. Massive majestic bird. What is he doing here? Where is he going?

Often when I’m singing, I forget where I am and who might be listening, and I am the song–the perfect words, the notes following one after the other like a bridge to something amazing. There’s magic in song. Magic in words. Magic in story.

Forced to attend a tedious business lunch, I meet someone new and they tell a tale about their life–an amazing revelation of uniqueness where I had expected monotony. For the rest of the day I look at the other ordinary people around me and I wonder about their stories.

The façade of an old building on a one-way street in the city. Gargoyles and supernatural beings, frozen in stone, beautiful ugliness, stare down over modern life. What would they say if they could speak? What if they came to life and walked among us?

And my fingers begin to itch. I need pen and paper, a keyboard, a digital voice recorder. I need to write, to create, to pour it all out like an offering. And I do! Scribbling like mad on the train on the way home–laughing silently as I feel the curious looks of my fellow passengers. “What is she writing about?” they wonder.

Everything! I am writing about you and me and everyone! Laughter and tears and war and wonder! The beauty of the ordinary and the secrets of the soul’s imagination.

The next morning, I’m tired. I have a headache from staying up too late or being woken an hour before the alarm by two geese yelling at each other on the lake behind my house.

No writing today. I can’t even think!

Driving to the train, I turn down a road I’ve been down every work day for the last five years.

And I catch my breath….

The road is lined on both sides with blooming pear trees back-lit by the red-pink rising sun. White wedding-dressed branches welcoming and waving me on as I drive slowly and drink in the loveliness of the picture.

And I know I’m a writer today and tomorrow and every day until the end of my time on this planet.

Amen. So be it.