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.

 

First Lines First

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I don’t remember the first line of every book I’ve ever read. In fact, when I’m wearing my “reader” hat, I’m usually so eager to get into the story that I fly through those first words with shameful speed.

But, as a “writer” I’ve analyzed first lines to the nth degree. I’ve read articles and books and discussed those first lines with other writers many many times…

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?”

That famous first line from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web always comes up in any discussion of perfect first lines.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

This first line from Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book makes me shiver every time.

How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was the least of her worries.

This longer first line from Colin Meloy’s Wildwood is one of my recently-discovered favorites.

My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.

Masterful. Thank you, Ms. DiCamillo.

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.

The perfect first line of my beloved Secret Garden.

But, as important as that first line is, it is the story that follows that really matters. The first line could be amazing, but if the story it introduces is a shovel of poop, it is a shovel of poop. If the characters are watery and the plot pointless and the dialogue trite and the prose moralizing and the setting ridiculous, then no amazing first line under the sun will make it a success.

I recently read a self-published book with an amazing first line, but the rest of the book was a disaster. I won’t mention the author or the title. But it was not a quality effort (that’s polite code for a shovel of poop).

“Bean has to pee.”

That’s the first line of my new novel, Liar’s Song. I don’t mean to brag, but I think it does everything a first line should. First, it creates a half dozen or more questions in the reader’s mind: Who is speaking the line? How do they know that Bean has to pee? Who is Bean? Why can’t he speak for himself? And why is he named “Bean”? Why can’t Bean just go use the bathroom?

Second, it initiates an immediate emotional or physical response. In this case, a snicker (“Hehe, “pee”!), grimace (“Gross, “pee”!), or perhaps a realization that the reader himself has to pee.

And finally—and most importantly—the questions and the response come together in the reader’s mind, mix together in some mysterious way weaving a spell that fulfill the writer’s greatest wish…

It causes the reader to READ ON!

And hopefully, I will deliver a plot and setting and dialogue and characters that are worthy of my first line and are NOT a shovel of poop.

A Writer’s Thank You Note

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I was inspired by my friends at TeachingAuthors.com to write this post.

I recently came across a piece of my own journal writing from about ten years ago. I had been reading Joseph Campbell at the time and was in a kind of existentialist reverie when I penned the entry. It is a bit wordy and pretentious, and yet, as I write this seasonally-appropriate post, there is a truth in the journal entry that seems a good starting point.  Here it is:

“When I write, the stories and songs and lives and dreams and emotions of the many souls who have traveled through my life coalesce in my mind in a cacophony of energy. I see and hear and feel them as I am empowered to put pen to paper and, through the great mystery of human creativity, find that the journey through the secret labyrinth of my own thoughts and the filter of my own snowflake soul miraculously conceive something uniquely mine.”

Wow.

And whose stories and songs and lives and dreams and emotions have inspired me the most? Who, or what, has earned my writer’s admiration? Well friends, fact is, I value the mythic insight of Joseph Campbell as much as the solid, loving truisms spoken by my own beloved Granny Bertrim. I recall the grand fantasy works of Tolkien, the novels of L.M. Montgomery, and the music of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom with as much pleasure as the tall tales of my Poppy, the childhood imaginings of my children, and 60’s folk music on the record player. Disney’s short and satisfying animated offerings are as large in my mind as the black-and-white cryptic majesty of “Citizen Kane”.

And there are other, darker, harder memories that are a part of my writing mind, too, folks. Not everything is sunny kitchens and fairy tales. There were poorly-written best sellers I wish I’d never read, hate-mongering popular music I should have turned off, and tedious legalistic business communiques I was forced to plow through. With fresh mental pain do I remember the “C-” and scathing critique I received from my least favorite college professor, the cutting remarks of the horribly mean boss I had during a very difficult time in my life, and the forced cheerfulness of the dinner conversations during long weeks of putting butter noodles and cream of wheat on the dinner table in order to make college tuition payments. News stories of war and suffering often brought tears to my eyes, passing remarks of those around me frequently wounded like a knife, and unexpected change often brought uncertainty and instability just when I was least able to cope.

And today, with all of these thoughts and memories and emotions inside of me, coloring the lens of my mind’s eye…

I let the words pour out.

And it is all me…the pain, the joy, the darkness, and the light.

And so, I thank you.  All of you.

Might as Well Face it I’m Addicted to Blogs

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A couple of months ago, I purged myself of most of the way, way, WAY too many blogs I’d been  following. The number of posts I received were overwhelming and I felt my own precious writing time being sucked away as I tried to do justice to the writing of others.

In the end, I kept my subscriptions to just three: 

http://eyespeeledalways.blogspot.com/  : Writer Karin Diamond’s powerful and inspirational chronicle of her amazing life as she battles Hodgkin Lymphoma. I found Karin’s blog after my own cancer diagnosis.  Her words touched my heart and continue to help me immensely.

http://www.teachingauthors.com/  : A creative, smart, and helpful blog by six children’s book authors who are also teachers.  So many times their “Writing Workouts” have made me pick up my pen and have FUN writing.

http://www.darcypattison.com/  : Fiction Notes by author Darcy Pattison is a comprehensive resource for any writer.  Whenever I am in the midst of revising, Fiction Notes seem to provide just the right information.

Three blogs is good, right?  I can handle three.  Three has symmetry.  And I won’t be overwhelmed by posts.  I will stick to three, I decided.

And then, last month…someone commented on my blog…and I visited theirs…

http://tryingtowriteit.com/author/tryingtowriteit/

And I thought…OMG, my inner writer self started a blog and didn’t tell me about it!  Subscribe, subscribe, subscribe!  Since then I have faithfully read every post by this amazing writer.  Her struggles seem to precisely mirror my own.  I love, love, love this blog!  Honestly.

But then, today, my paragon blogger re-posted an entry from another blog:

http://abusivelybaboozan.wordpress.com/

It was funny, inspiring…and…oh no!  Now I’ve subscribed to her blog!

But there is no symmetry in 5! And I can already feel my writing time being sucked into a black blog hole!  But, I can’t give any of these blogs up…I’m in control…right?

Whoa, you like to think that you’re immune to the stuff, oh yeah

It’s closer to the truth to say you can’t get enough

You know you’re gonna have to face it,

you’re addicted to blogs.

Adapted from ROBERT PALMER’s ADDICTED TO LOVE LYRICS