A Virginia Center for Creative Arts / VCCA Residency

 VCCA landscape

Despite the blog post I wrote about how my first writing residency was one of the best things that ever happened to me as a writer and a parent, I was a wreck when getting ready for my second residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA). In part because we had just gotten back from a two week family vacation in the rockies, the house was in chaos, the suitcases not yet unpacked. In part because my jet-legged kids were starting school (and poor Stella, my youngest daughter, was throwing up the morning I was supposed to leave). In part because this was the first time, in about a dozen years, that I was getting on a plane by myself. Virginia seemed very, very far away. My husband heroically picked me up the floor (literally). He made me pack, and he made me get in the taxi to the airport, so eventually I did make it to VCCA, but entry was rough: tears, wanting to go home, a low motivation to write, you name it. I gave myself two days of easy tasks (like read a story! Transcribe some notes!). Then I threw out all the other goals I was thinking of accomplishing during my residency and gave myself just one: to complete a second draft of my novella. 

I was impressed how the artists at VCCA really seemed to love the place. One poet I talked told me he had been to Macdowell three times many years ago then decided he would just keep coming to VCCA. He was able to be just as productive at VCCA but the vibe was perhaps more welcoming and casual. Artists keep coming back: one of the VCCA staff said the balance is usually 1/2 returning artists, 1/2 new artists. There are writers and visual artists but also composers at VCCA, meaning I got to hear some beautiful piano music trickling in through the windows while I wrote. 

VCCA is quite different from Saltonstall, where I had my first residency. It’s larger (with 25 fellows, while Saltonstall had 5). People are arriving and departing pretty much daily, while at Saltonstall, everyone starts on the same day as a group. Your studio at VCCA is a 5 minute walk (a beautiful one!) from the residence hall, while Saltonstall offers work/live spaces for writers. All meals provided at VCCA, while you prepare some of your meals at Saltonstall. I’ve read that your first residency is like your first love–you never really get over it, and it’s true, Saltonstall has become this magical, mythic Eden in my mind. Still, once I calmed down at VCCA and settled in, I was able to get some good work done, and I hope to go back at some point over the next few years.

Looking back through my notes on my time at VCCA, it feels like I’m nit-picking when I say things like there is a highway (or at least a highway-like road) at the bottom of the VCCA driveway, which altered the atmosphere of the place a little for me. I mean, how can I complain about having two weeks to write and read while someone else cooks and does the dishes for all my meals, and my husband is watching the kids? But because I really enjoyed reading other people’s blog posts about VCCA before I came, I thought I’d put down my own thoughts, nit-picking and all.

Map VCCAARRIVAL: a bit mysterious for a first-timer. Luckily I used the cab company VCCA recommends. Charles Tabb drove me to the residence hall, showed me where to pick up my keys, helped me lug my bags up the stairs, showed me the room I was in, and helped me figure out what direction I should walk to go see my studio. I did find everything eventually. There is quite a bit of colorful paperwork to complete. It helped to wander around with the photocopied map, and usually a wandering artist would notice and ask, “Are you new? Are you looking for something?” I definitely needed help finding the bathrooms at the studios as well as the kitchens (in the residence hall, the kitchen is behind the door marked “laundry room”). My first evening there, I spent some time meandering down all the paths on the grounds, and after 24 hours I could confidently say I had figured the place out. 

montage-fellows-residence-vcca

LODGING: the rooms remind me of my single dorm room in college, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s totally functional and cosy. In my room, there was a bed, a rocking chair, a tiny balcony you share with someone else on which you can just fit the rocking chair (though no room to rock), bookshelves, a sink, and a closet. I do wish there was a chair and a desk to sit at. I wrote in my room in the morning and evenings and my back was killing me due to various creative positions (kneeling by the bed! Lying on my stomach! Sitting cross legged!). You share a bathroom with a bathroom mate which was totally fine. Sound really travels in the residence hall but people were shockingly quiet for the most part, though I do wear ear plugs when sleeping. I did not have WiFi in my residence hall room, which was a pain, but it worked fine at the studio (though I would have rather had it the other way around).  

VCCA grounds landscapeATMOSPHERE: quiet and focused. On my arrival day, I wondered first where is everyone and secondly, why is no one making any noise whatsoever. But everyone was hard at work in their studios. The fellows came from all over: Europe, the South, South America, a few New Yorkers, though not as many from the west coast. All the artists were friendly, though I missed the close bond I made with my group at Saltonstall. Meeting 4 people over 2 weeks is easier than getting to know 24 people in the same amount of time. Many of the artists here had impressive bios (i.e. multiple books!) but there were also others like me working toward their first books, so it seemed a nice balance. The dining room staff flicks the lights at 7:45 p.m. which means everybody has to leave. Many people went back to work then, or some gathered in the lounge–I usually went back to work or read. On a few nights there were readings or presentations by other fellows. The two readings I went to were lovely and followed by a casual Q&A. There are lots of rules at VCCA, or at least signs listing lots of rules, which stressed me out at first, but then you get used to them. The surrounding landscape is beautiful – rural cows, rolling hills, mountains off in the distance, though it didn’t feel as isolated or sheltering as Saltonstall because of that darn highway on the north side of the campus. Across the highway is Sweet Briar College, a beautiful campus, especially the western part near the horse stables. To the southeast of VCCA, there are some really amazing winding roads, great for bike riding, long runs, or long walks. In the back of the fellows residence, there is a nice gazebo where I sat and wrote a few times (you get WiFi!) but I wished there were more benches or chairs to write outside among all the art sculptures. There’s even an in-ground pool (as well as a pool at Sweet Briar that fellows can use). VCCA has bikes you can borrow, though I didn’t quite figure out how to get a hold of one. Some people told me they weren’t in the best shape anyway and bringing your own bike is ideal. There’s a 1.5 mile walking trail that begins near the VCCA pool, but the official start to the path seems to have gotten blown over during a recent storm. I finally found the path at the end of my stay. The Virginia woods are rich with spiderwebs so bring a stick to brush them aside. It was a nice walk, though brief, and I think the country roads and Sweet Briar make for prettier wanderings. 

Writing studio at VCCASTUDIO: Well, I had the rather unique experience of having the freestanding writer’s hut (pictured above), while the other writers had more standard rooms in the sprawling studio barn complex. When I first saw my spot on the map, I’ll admit I was kind of terrified. Would I be writing in a garden shed? And seeing the rickety brown house didn’t make me feel much better. And seeing the inside of the little brown house didn’t make me feel much better either. The house and me never fully clicked (though I met another writer who had the little house a few years back and loved it– she loved the privacy and the fact no one could see in because the windows were so high). Though quiet, I think I just need more windows when writing, and honestly I missed having the buzz of other artists nearby (in the afternoons I could not keep myself awake in that place!).There are a lot of stinkbugs near the artist studios, and they managed to get in under the loose window screens daily (VCCA did spray for them while I was there). I ended up getting a bit claustrophobic in that space and found myself lingering in my room to write. Or I’d hike over to Sweet Briar Campus in the afternoon with my laptop and notes and do some editing down by the lakes. 

WORK ROUTINE: it took me several days to get into a rhythm. One of the other fellows mentioned your first time at VCCA, you’re trying to figure the place out. The next time you come, you can settle in much easier and get a lot more work done. I was confused, at first, about how to structure my day between my bedroom, my writing studio, breakfast (near my bedroom), lunch (near my studio), dinner (near by bedroom), and any walks or runs I wanted to take. Here’s what I ended up doing.

5:30-6ish – wake up.

6 / 6:30 – go for a walk or run, time depending on how comfortable I was with the dark (newsflash: there are no streetlights on rural roads in Virginia)

7:30-ish – grab breakfast and bring back to my room. Eat, shower, etc.

8:30ish – head over to my writing studio.

11:30ish – grab lunch at the studio kitchen, return to writing studio

3:30ish – head out for a walk at Sweet Briar College to do some reading / editing outside

6:30ish – dinner

7:30ish – do some more work or read (though I did not even touch my ambitious reading list. All I wanted to do for some reason was read YA genre books or speculative novels for fun. My novella was frying my brain I guess)

9:30/10ish – bed

I slept terribly at VCCA: was I worried about falling off a single bed? I have no idea. So I’d sprinkle one or two naps during the day. All the writing studios have beds in them, which is pretty great. 

SEPARATION FROM KIDS: I ignored my previous advice and tried talking to the kids on the second day. The conversation was a lot of “What? What? What? I have to go to the bathroom!” So my husband and I decided maybe texting each other photos and videos would be better. The best discovery this time around was sending bedtime videos to each other. The kids would each send me one while they snuggled with their dad – they looked happy, sleepy, and full of love. I would send one back where I made their stuffed animals that came with me do wacky things. I also sent them videos throughout the day: me walking to my studio, me running in the dark., etc. Re-entry was easier this time as my husband and I made a pact that we could not tell the other person life is easier while they are away. 

FOOD: VCCA provides all meals and takes care of your breakfast and dinner dishes. Pretty much all you need to do is wash your lunch dishes, unless you have food allergies like me (see below). Most of the people loved the food, or liked it enough. I prefer how Saltonstall worked: a chef cooks you dinner M-F, while you make your own breakfast, lunch, and weekend dinners from a magically stocked kitchen. If I’m writing hard-core, I like being able to determine when I’m going to eat breakfast and lunch on my own (5 a.m. breakfast! Or 2 p.m. lunch!). Being on a schedule at VCCA was a bit distracting to my writing, though I got used to it. 

  • Breakfast: served buffet style at the residence hall dining room, a pretty retro feeling place. There was always boxed granola, instant oatmeal, eggs, melon (though there was only so much morning fruit, and when it ran out, it was gone), plain yogurt, toast, etc. They don’t want you taking the breakfast dishes out of the dining room, but I happened to bring my own leak-proof travel bowl and travel coffee mug, so I was able to eat either in my room or at my studio.  
  • Lunches: leftovers from dinner served buffet style in the studio barn, and also cheese, hummus or egg salad, bread, peanut butter, carrot sticks, lettuce for a salad, and sometimes soup. It seemed best to grab to lunch at 11:30 before the vegetables ran out (I brought lunch back to my writing studio and let it sit there until I was hungry). If you want to socialize, you can eat in the kitchen or outside at some picnic tables.
  • Dinner: buffet style at the residence hall again, with a strict end time when the dining room is closed. A salad always, two vegetables, a grain / starch, and a protein (vegetarian options if you can eat tofu or wheat). Figuring out where to sit the first few nights brought back flashbacks of middle school lunchrooms, but all the artists were kind and sociable at dinner. People seemed to linger less at VCCA over dinner conversation than at Saltonstall, where conversations could go on for several hours. Part of this is at VCCA you may be sitting beside a new person every evening, so I had a harder time getting to know people well.

VCCA foodFOOD ALLERGIES: VCCA makes it very clear that can’t accommodate special diets but, honestly (stupidly?) I thought….they can’t be serious. I also assumed my body would be able to eat some wheat and soy and be okay. You’re given a card on your arrival day where they ask for medically diagnosed food allergies, and I wrote wheat and soy and handed it in. The chef came out nervously after reading it and told me that their vegetarian protein always has wheat and soy. “I eat eggs,” I told her. “Beans, cheese. Quinoa?” Then the chef pointed to the wheat pasta at dinner and at a stack of tofu. “You can eat pasta if it doesn’t have wheat in it,” she said. “But this has wheat it in.” Then she went back into the kitchen. So at dinner that night, I tried some tofu. At lunch the next day, I ate some bread. That afternoon, I got sick. So I took a ride on one of the afternoon van runs, purchasing a lot of rice, corn tortillas, rice cakes, and cheese at the local Food Lion. I And that evening, the official dinner was….rice! And the following evening they served corn tortillas and beans! And the following evening was quinoa! It was like my gluten-free dream. One night even had gluten free pasta. I don’t know if the chef took pity on me, or maybe they do serve a variety of whole grains, but it ended up being okay. I had to supplement with my own food for maybe 3 dinners and half the lunches. For breakfast, I was able to grab some eggs, and at lunch eat cheese or peanut butter. Another artist with wheat allergies shipped a lot of her own food to VCCA ahead of time. It seems like VCCA has the potential to accommodate food allergies; I wish they were able to do it officially.  

PACKING: one thing I forgot from Saltonstall is that I liked wearing the same thing every single day. (Well, at Saltonstall it was my silk pajamas until right before lunch). I probably could have brought about 1/10 the amount of clothes had I remembered this. An umbrella was a good idea. Head lamp / bike light if you plan on doing walks or runs in the early morning. A travel mug is important. 

WALKS AND RUNS IN THE AREA: I had way too much fun researching some good routes on google maps and mapmyrun. One of my favorites: take 661 east to 624 east then south. That road is wonderful, encompassing everything you think a rural Virginia road should. If you can make it to 604, take that northeast, and you can cut through a new development (north) not long after (London Lane?). The loop is about 7.5 miles but one of the best runs I’ve ever done. Alternatively, you can take 661 west, to 663 north, to Stable Lane: a great run and a little shorter. Sweet Briar campus is also ridiculously pretty and about 1.8 to 2 miles away: they have a lot of hiking trails in the woods that I would have explored more had I a bike or car, though a walk or run to their lake on the north side of campus (maybe 4.5 miles round trip) is a good one. I did find the Sweet Briar trails a little hard to follow: I’m an experienced hiker but ended up getting lost one time and had to bushwhack through some pretty nasty thorns / spiderwebs. I guess I’m used the signposted trails of the Northeast! One thing I learned is that being in rural Virginia means no street lights, which means the roads are really really dark at 6 a.m., when I usually went out for a run / walk. I have a reflector vest but wished I brought my bike light or head lamp. That being said, there is something mythic, magical and wonderful about starting a walk in complete darkness and watching the sun rise. It’s an experience you can’t get in a city and one of the highlights of my residency. The pictures below are from Sweet Briar.

Sweet Briar college

OTHER THINGS OF NOTE: there are errand runs Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, though you have to sign up for them ahead of time, and the spots (there are 4 of them) do fill up. The van hits the drug store and the grocery store.

BONUS: you don’t have to submit a new application for three years. So it sounds like, once you get in, you can return pretty easily if scheduling allows. 

Stories out in Nature, Interfictions, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southern Review, and Massachusetts Review

Whew!

Here are a few places where my stories have appeared this fall. Some of these stories (“Touch,” “Settlement,” and “Devotion”) I wrote several years ago but resurrected in late 2013 / early 2014 when I needed a break from the mind-bending work of creating a story from scratch. When creating a story from scratch, often I’m miserable. It’s exhausting. I don’t want to talk to people. I ask myself, why am I doing this again? My first drafts suck. My ability to form coherent speech is all used up. (And I hang out with my kids all afternoon so this is a problem). Revising old work, in contrast, is fun. The words are there,  all you need to do is rearrange them (or, in my case, take them out!). And I get to realize, oh yeah, I actually have learned something in the past decade as a writer. 

fall-round-up-2014

Touch” at Interfictions. This is a companion story to “The Pleasure Exercises” published in Confrontation earlier this year.  (some background on these stories) ((one of io9’s best stories of the week)

Away” in Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science. I wrote this during my first time away from my kids during an artist residency at Saltonstall. You don’t have to dig very deep to figure out how I was feeling (hint: very, very guilty) at the time. Anguished backstory aside, this was one of the most fun stories for me to write ever. I loved the challenge of the specific word count that Nature’s Futures column has (between 850-950 words) and I loved the fact that this piece did not take me months to write. In fact, I wrote it in two evenings at Saltonstall (and to write in the evenings! Lovely). I’m kind of obsessed with Mars One which is what sparked this idea–you know, the all expense paid trip to Mars where they can’t bring you back  (did any parents apply?) (I missed the deadline) (Not that I actually would have applied) (I don’t think)

“Not Like What You Said” in Alaska Quarterly Review (background on story) (nice review in the Alaska Dispatch News) (nice review in Ploughshare’s The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week)

“Devotion” at the Southern Review.  This was the first story I wrote after I came back to writing after I took some time off when I had my first kid. It’s the story that kicked my writing into high gear, I think: imagining what if God told you, a mother, that you had to kill your child in order to save the world, but you refused? Before kids, I wrote about–what, a guy and a girl who either liked each other or didn’t. Boring. Motherhood did not do great things for the amount of time I have to write, or my focus, but it did help deepen my subject matter. (listen to me reading this story)

“Settlement” at the Massachusetts Review.

A review of Ozma of Oz at HTMLGIANT

Why did Middlemarch have to end?

finishing a long novel is really sad

As a reader, to reach the end of any book you have lived alongside for months can be somewhat unbearable. Where do those characters, those people, go? Why can they not stay with you? Though I suppose one must get on with one’s life and read other books, or do such things as laundry. I usually cry at the end of long novels, sometimes because the ending is sad and, worst case scenario, the characters are dead, or sometimes it’s because the book itself is ending and the process of reading it is over. 

In continuing my love fest for Middlemarch, I wanted to write briefly about the ending, which is one of my favorite endings out of any book. First off, it’s sad, of course, it has to be, the point when, in the final chapter, you realize you will need to say goodbye to the town and, more tragically, the characters you’ve grown to love (oh Lydgate). I was listening to the last hour of the book during a long run and I realized afterwards that one should not listen to books that will make you sad while running (hard to breathe there!).

The ending is a compassionate one at least, Eliot allowing you to say goodbye gently as she gradually increases the distance between the reader and Dorothea, the character who she ends the book upon, mentioning first Sir James opinion of Dorthea’s marriage to Ladislaw, then the town’s opinion, then stepping further back to an even grander view of Dorthea’s life. I love how the voice stretches here to become somewhat epic and oracle-like (“For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it”) then circles back to include St. Theresa of Avila, who opens the book. I also love how the narrator’s voice continues to expand even further to include the reader. “But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas…” And “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been…” There is irony to me in the final sentence, the talk of “hidden lives” and “unvisited tombs,” as Dorothea’s own life, through the act of the novel, has become extraordinary to us readers, and who wouldn’t lay a wreath of flowers at her grave if given the opportunity.

Below are the last three paragraphs of the ending. Pay attention to the second sentence of the second paragraph, as Eliot revised this extensively over the span of several years.

“Sir James never ceased to regard Dorothea’s second marriage as a mistake; and indeed this remained the tradition concerning it in Middlemarch, where she was spoken of to a younger generation as a fine girl who married a sickly clergyman, old enough to be her father, and in little more than a year after his death gave up her estate to marry his cousin– young enough to have been his son, with no property, and not well-born. Those who had not seen anything of Dorothea usually observed that she could not have been ‘a nice woman,’ else she would not have married either the one or the other.

Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone* will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

A useful footnote in my edition of Middmemarch mentioned that sentence in the second to last paragraph had undergone intensive revisions to get to its current and final state (“They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion.”). To me, Eliot’s edits demonstrate how powerful the removal of entire sentences can be during the revision process.  

From the original manuscript:  

“struggling with imperfect conditions. Among the many criticisms which were passed on her first marriage, nobody remarked that it could not have happened if she had not been born into a society which smiled on propositions of marriage from a sickly man to a girl less than half his own age, and, in general, encouraged the view that to renounce an advantage to oneself which might be got from the folly or ignorance of others is a sign of mental weakness. While this tone of opinion is part of the social medium in which young creatures begin to breathe there will be collisions such as those in Dorothea’s life, where great feelings . . . ’ 

From the first edition: 

“struggling under prosaic conditions. Among the many remarks passed on her mistakes, it was never said in the neighbourhood of Middlemarch that such mistakes could not have happened if the society into which she was born had not smiled on propositions of marriage from a sickly man to a girl less than half his own age—– on modes of education which make a woman’s knowledge another name for motley ignorance–— on rules of conduct which are in flat contradiction with its own loudly-asserted beliefs. While this is the social air in which morals begin to breathe, there will be collisions such as those in Dorothea’s life, where great feelings . . . “

Falling in Love with Middlemarch

(do it!)

middlemarchReading Middlemarch had been on to do list for, oh, about 15 years. I’m not sure what finally possessed me to take the plunge – I think I had binged a bit too much on a few YA novels which, while lovely in their own right, left me longing for something epic and, well, adult. And it had been spring at the time, and spring, with all the bright green buds and the new green of the rolling hills, seemed the right moment for beginning this “study of provincial life” (which is 35 hours and 40 minutes long if you’re planning on listening to it as I did!).

I should admit upfront that Middlemarch is the kind of book that I just can’t find any fault. It’s a book that you can fall into and lose yourself in and, when lost in that way, I, for one, don’t wish to pull myself out enough to consider what could have been done differently. It seems to me to capture what it accomplished to do, a perfect vision of the author’s intention. I’ll put it up there with others of my favorites, (Year of the Flood, Someone, Ocean at the End of the Lane, to name some recents), in which the reading for me was pure pleasure. Though I’ll admit Middlemarch took me several months to complete. The plot wasn’t a gripping one, and I don’t mean to say that as criticism, but simply that it was the type of book that was okay to place by one’s bedside for several weeks if one wanted to indulge in a YA romance fantasy (i.e. Eleanor & Park, a kind of anti-Middlemarch). But now that I’m finally done with the book, I am already yearning to read it again (perhaps every other year will do), as I think the book will richen on future readings and I’ll be able to pay better attention to the language. 

What I did find gripping, if not the plot, was studying the various couples of the novel and wondering who would find happiness and who would not. Having been involved in the letterpress wedding invitation business for 10 years in a former life, my day to day work was filled for a long time with bride and groom nuptial fantasies: that a wedding made beautiful enough meant that couple’s love would last forever. Who doesn’t hope that when starting out? That their marriage will stay as beautiful as it was in the beginning. So while it was pleasurable watching a couple like Dr. Lydgate and Rosamond fall in love (“He touched her ear and a little bit of neck under it with his lips, and they sat quite still for many minutes which flowed by them like a small gurgling brook with the kisses of the sun upon it” – oh my!), it was also pleasurable (in a different way) wondering where they would be in a few years and if their initial marriage fantasy would last. 

 I was glad that Mary and Fred finally found their happiness, and Dorothea and Will finally found theirs, and I loved the relationship of the adult Garths, the gentle give and take of a marriage decades old that that has begun to include one’s joint hopes for their adult children.  

Though what I connected most with was  the characters whose lives were steeped in disappointment. That’s only natural, I suppose, as I prepare to enter middle age myself (where does middle age start these days?) and can see the options of my life narrowing. Perhaps that’s why I read Middlemarch as novel about middle age (though middle age does seem, in the 1800’s, to begin in one’s mid 20’s.) It’s about the time of transition, when one moves from living in one’s fantasies about one’s future to actually inhabiting that future, which, it turns out, is not a place for fantasy.  

 In Rebecca Mead’s lovely New Yorker essay on Middlemarch (thoughts which she has elaborated on in her book My Life with Middlemarch), Mead speaks of Eliot’s “sympathetic imagination,” mentioning the person Eliot related most to was not Dorothea– the enthusiastic intellectual moralist without an outlet–but Mr. Casaubon, an old, unhappy, bitter and controlling man who must face the realization that one’s life work will not add up to anything great, and that even love will be a disappointment. Eliot’s compassion to even her most ridiculous and spiteful characters is what amazed me most about the book: It is funny book, and Mr. Casaubon at times is funny, he is unintentionally funny, but then Eliot counters that, treating Casaubon with such sympathy while chiding  the reader to do the same. There are many wonderful examples of this throughout the book but I’ll limit myself to one.

 “ONE morning some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea– but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect. In spite of the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James, Mr Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us. He had done nothing exceptional in marrying– nothing but what society sanctions, and considers an occasion for wreaths and bouquets. It had occurred to him that he must not any longer defer his intention of matrimony, and he had reflected that in taking a wife, a man of good position should expect and carefully choose a blooming young lady– the younger the better, because more educable and submissive– of a rank equal to his own, of religious principles, virtuous disposition, and good understanding….For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self– never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted. Becoming a dean or even a bishop would make little difference, I fear, to Mr Casaubon’s uneasiness. Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.”

It’s so easy to make our character into farces, but Eliot refuses to do so, and Casaubon’s life becomes a narrow tragedy of unhappiness through no one’s fault really, and I, as a reader, was moved by his disappointments. 

But really it was Dr. Lydgate who I fell in love with, yet another disappointed man who thought he would do something great with his life, but instead he got married, and became a parent, and grew disillusioned what little he was able to accomplish. What parent can’t relate to that? Who knows if Lydgate would have done greater things had he not married. Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

I could go on and on about everything I love about the book but that would probably be detrimental to the book I’m actually supposed to be writing now. I’ll save my gushing about the ending of MIddlemarch for a later post soon. 

 

What can be learned about writing from two translations of Pinocchio?

Stella of late has become enamored with all the Disney versions of the fairy tales. This is rather painful for me, so for her 5th birthday, I wanted to get her a copy of “real” Pinocchio but an illustrated version. I have such fond memories of reading Jasper the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi when he Stella’s age. Sure, the book is dark and more than a little creepy (Pinocchio smashes the cricket of conscience, for instance, early on, and at one point the little wooden boy is hung from a tree by a noose), but I also remember it being wildly beautiful, surreal, complex, and fun. Honestly I can’t find which translation of the book Jasper and I read–it was just a random one from the library, and I guess we had good luck.

pinocchio-Sara Fanelli

For Stella’s birthday, I made a very bad decision and went with the Candlewick Illustrated Classics. Not only are the collages by Sara Fanelli rather odd, at least to a 5-year-old’s eyes, but the translation by Emma Rose is less than ideal (also a sans serif for a font choice for a 19th story? Save me!). Stella was fidgety while I was reading it to her, as was I, and I wondered if I had imagined the goodness of this book. She asked to stop reading a few chapters in.

Fulvio-Testa-pinocchioBut I wasn’t ready to give up on Pinocchio quite yet. So I ordered another version, this one illustrated by the Italian artist Fulvio Testa and translated by poet Geoffrey Brock (who has also done translations of Umberto Eco’s work). What a difference a good translation makes (and good illustrations too!).

Honestly I still don’t know if this will be Stella’s favorite book – she’s kind of fallen in love with the more innocent Pinocchio from Disney, and she hated that the “real” Pinocchio killed the cricket, even if by accident. I think there may be too much cruelness in the book for her right now.

But I’m enjoying the Brock translation. It’s fascinating how subtle word choice can ruin, or elevate, a story, and I’m hoping it will teach my something about sentence revision.

Here are a few comparisons–the first version is the Rose translation, the second the much stronger Brock translation.

  • “He was delighted” versus “He cheered right up.”
  • The flattening that happens when cliches are used: “And then, quick as a flash, he picked up his ax to strip the bark and whittle the wood down” versus “Wasting no time, he picked up his sharp hatchet to start removing the log’s bark and trimming it down…”
  • Or having Mr. Cherry swearing that he heard a voice — “He could have sworn he’d heard a voice–a thin little voice–exclaim ‘Please don’t hit hard.’” versus having him actually hear a voice (“because a heard a little high-pitched voice pleading, ‘Don’t hit me too hard!’”).
  • Or “You can imagine how amazed Mr. Cherry was” — so flat!–versus the subtly different “Just imagine dear old Master Cherry’s reaction!”
  • Or “No, that’s ridiculous.” versus “I can’t believe that.” Much more effective to have the I present in the sentence and that word “believe” is full of a power that “ridiculous” lacks.
  • Or “He picked up the ax again and gave the piece of wood a good whack.” versus “And picking the hatchet back up, he dealt the piece of wood a heavy blow” (I think it’s the useless adjective “good” that bothers me there).
  • Or “‘Ouch!’ yelped the same little voice. ‘That hurt!” versus “‘Ouch! You hurt me!’ cried the same little voice, bitterly.” What richness that adverb “bitterly” adds.
  • Or see how grammar helps the flow of the sentence. The first uses short choppy sentences that feel awkward and seem to accentuate the cliched, over the top description. “This time Mr. Cherry was left speechless. His eyes bulged out of their sockets. His mouth gaped open. His tongue hung down his chin. He looked like one of those stone faces you may have seen on water fountains.” But look what a colon can do: “This time Master Cherry was struck dumb: his eyes bugged out of his head in fright, his mouth gaped, his tongue dangled down to his chin, like those grotesque faces carved on fountains. “ 

 

Writing residencies for parents

If you’re a writer and mother (or father), should you abandon your young children and escape for a few weeks to a residency?

kids visiting mom at her writing residenciesI decided to write this post because, heading off to my first writing residency at Saltonstall in Ithaca, NY a few months ago in May, I was terrified. I was leaving my kids for the first time ever, having never spent even a night away from them. I felt guilty and wondered what had I gotten my family and myself into. It helped to read some first hand accounts of other writing residencies online but I couldn’t really find anything written by a parent of relatively young children (mine are 4 and 7 years old). So hopefully the below will help some fellow parent writers out as they consider applying, or attending, their first writer’s retreat. In brief, despite the nervousness, anxiety, and guilty, my first writer’s residency was one of the best milestones in my writing life so far. My family survived and so did I.

 

Why should writers who are parents go on writing residencies?

To have uninterrupted time to focus on one’s writing.

To meet other artists and have sustained adult conversations about art.

To remember what it’s like to be a writer first (versus being a parent first).

To take the next step in one’s writing career.

In my case at least, being a mother is a constant buzzing distraction, one that bangs its fists against my writing room door begging for attention. I always think that being a mom makes me a better writer, but being a writer makes me a worse mom. A lot of times in the day, I’ll be honest, I want to be writing (or reading). My weekday schedule means I wake up ridiculously early to walk and then make breakfast for the family, and get the kids up, and get my husband up, and coordinate making lunches, and make sure the kids are stable enough for the day. I’m lucky enough to have time to write in the morning, but that time ends when the alarm on my phone goes off, which means I have exactly 11 minutes to get to school to pick them up. It’s a jarring transition. Fragments of my stories are always hovering around me, fighting for my attention. I haven’t been able to write on the weekends for about 7 years.

I wanted a break from that.

Also I wanted to meet other artists.

And it seemed the right time that I should be doing something in my writing life other than publishing short stories.

 

How old should your kids be before you go on a residency?

Mine were 4-½ and 7 years old when I went. I don’t think I could have left them any sooner. Even at 4 ½ years, Stella’s conception of time is fuzzy, and she would ask heartbreaking questions like, “Will you be home for my birthday?” (which was 3 months away). But it’s probably different for every family. I just felt like I couldn’t wait any longer. (That said, it’s true, when Saltonstall called to offer me the residency, part of me wanted to say: actually I’m not ready for this).

 

What writing residencies did you consider?

I figure I could escape for 2 weeks maximum. My ideal criteria was that residents would be fed, so I wouldn’t have to worry about cooking, which occupies way too much time in my ordinary life, and ideally I wouldn’t have to pay to go. If this is your first residency, I’d recommend trying to find one closer to home too. It was a great comfort to me that I might be only an hour away in case…my kids needed me. Or I wimped out.

I ended up applying to

  • Yaddo (Saratoga Springs, NY): provides all meals, my long shot. I heard Jeffrey Eugenides wrote some of Middlesex while here. I love that book.
  • Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts (Ithaca, NY): cooked meals M-F, stocked fridge for other meals, small stipend provided. For New York state residents only and just over an hour from where I live.
  • The Virginia Center for the Arts (Amherst, VA): Provides all meals. Cost is subsidized but requests a daily contribution (though no one is turned away for inability to pay)

The long-list, all of which allow 2 week long residencies, included

  • Macdowell (Peterborough, NH):  my dream, along with Yaddo.
  • Hambridge ($200 a week): Rabun Gap, Georgia. Sounds lovely. You have your own live/work cabin in the woods. Meals cooked for you Tuesday – Friday dinner.
  • Ragdale ($35 a day, Lake Forest, Illinois): close to my parents, so the kids could attend Camp Grandma and Grandpa, a plus. Dinner cooked for you M-F. 18 day minimum.
  • Anderson Center (Red Wing, Minnesota): Dinner cooked for you M-F. You are required to do a community project, which isn’t really my thing.  Food provided for you to cook other meals yourself.
  • Hedgebrook (Whidbey Island, Washington): Ursula LeGuin and Molly Gloss went here. Women only, ridiculously competitive, great vision. Another dream.
  • UCross (Wyoming). Provide lunch and dinner M-F. Food provided for you to cook other meals yourself.

Are there such things as family-friendly residencies for writers?  

A story about a spider

by Stella, 4-3/4 years old

stella telling a story

Stella is the storyteller in our family. She loves to reside in what her more literal brother calls “Stella’s imagination world.” This is one of the stories she told me recently.

“Once upon a time there was a spider and he said oh I could go and sting somebody, so he went and stung a poor girl that hurt herself and she cried, more blood dripping out, so much so she had to go the hospital. It’s a little sad sorry. It’s a little sad.”

“Was she okay?”  I asked.

“No she had to go to the hospital.”

“Was she hurt badly?”

“It was something that hurt her badly, blood was dripping all over her. It was a big spider. She stepped on it. That’s why he stinged her. And he flies. He flies.”

“It’s a flying spider?”

“Uh huh. Can you do it? One of the spiders, he’s a little different than one of the spiders. I’m still hungry.”

“What happened to the little girl after she got to the hospital?”

“They said oh you’re dripping out of your eyes. And then they wiped it off my eyes but then it came down again. It was already on her finger so they put a nice tall bandaid on her finger. The end. It’s just a short story.”

New story in Confrontation

Confrontation Magazine Spring 2014My story “The Pleasure Exercises” appears in the just released Spring 2014 issue of Confrontation. This is the companion story to another piece that will be appearing in Interfictions later this fall, both stories taking place in the same futuristic dystopia/utopia, where traditional relationships have been exchanged for government-regulated sex due to very low birth rates. To prepare for their adult lives, children now live at boarding schools where their learning focuses on these pleasure exercises. I’m always impressed when literary journals / magazines publish speculative-bordering-on-genre stories, so thank you, Confrontation.

I started writing these two stories many years ago when my friend Sarah told me about the Mosuo culture, a matrilineal society that has no traditional marriage. Instead (and I am summarizing this poorly — perhaps it’s best you read the Wiki entry), a woman invites a particular man over to visit her “flower room” but only at night, then the man goes away during the day, and the relationship lasts as briefly or as long as she would like. Sarah said this sounded like a utopia, though to me, it just sounded unpleasant, and I was interested in trying to write about living in someone’s utopia where you don’t totally belong. Which is what these two stories of mine are about.

This issue of Confrontation includes some lovely abstract art by Doug Argue (including a photograph of this piece which I love–it reminds me of the random beauty of the universe.)

 

Comparing drafts of Little House on the Prairie

Little House on the Prairie first draftI know there’s been some debate about the authorship of the Little House on the Prairie books and how involved Laura’s daughter Rose was in the revision / editing / writing process. Honestly I don’t need Laura to have written the series solo: I will always find them to be amazing books, in particular the beloved third book in the series. In the back of my 65th anniversary edition of Little House on the Prairie, there’s a rather light-weight essay by William Anderson, but what I found most interesting was a photograph of the first page of Laura’s hand-written draft of the book. Not to be too cruel to Laura’s writing impulse — and we all know that we aren’t supposed to judge our early drafts, right? — but this early draft is pretty bad: flat, cliched, and stylistically bland, and obsessed with the hair and eye color of her characters. While the published opening, in comparison, sparkles–the voice so much more authoritative and confident that you have to read on (in the published version, even the paragraph breaks seem expertly done — the dramatic one sentence second paragraph makes you sit up and pay attention). If Rose’s involvement allowed Laura’s original language and story to be transformed in such a way…well, I’m really glad Rose was involved.

Here are the two versions.   

Searching for aliens and/or God

and a new story up on Necessary Fiction

The aliens I’ve been writing about for the last several years make an appearance on Necessary Fiction this week. These are the same beings that appeared in Interzone 2012 in my story “Wonder,” and they’ll be making another appearance in another story soon in Arc from New Scientist. I’ve been writing about these Blues, as I call them, for long enough that I’ve honestly forgotten how or why I came to them. Perhaps they came down to me. What I do remember is thinking to myself, back in early 2011, I will write a YA novel, I will write a YA novel, I will write a YA novel, and then, years later, looking up for the computer and realizing I have neither a novel nor anything YA, but instead this epic of interconnected adult stories, some speculative, some not, that will in the end span several hundred years and circle around themes of belief and faith. I’m maybe 60% done.  

I’ve been obsessively reading about faith for about 15 years now, ever since I fell in love with medieval saints and desert fathers while studying history at Carleton College for my undergrad degree. Aliens entered somewhat later, but I’ve been reading about them too for a time, and one of the books I’ve enjoyed the most is The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Inteligence by astrobiologist Paul Davies, a book which manages, among other things, to tie faith & aliens convincingly together in a few pages near the end.