Children Writing Books

Stella wants to be a writer / personal trainer when she grows up. Some nights she drags out exercise equipment and encourages me to do the really complicated exercises she dreams up. Other evenings she spends working on her writing. Being a first grader, she’s smack in the middle of learning to read / write / spell, which sounds like a magical time, when words stop being symbols and they start clicking into focus. She wrote some of her first independent sentences for this book she made in honor of her cousin Andre’s first birthday. Seeing her work so hard on her word choice, and what happens next, and what she wanted to communicate to her reader made me think that writing when you’re 6 isn’t a whole lot different than writing when you’re older, only my 6 year old seems less anguished about it. In fact she radiated pure joy every time she got down a sentence. I love the sweetness of her plot and how everybody in her story is happy. I wish it was possible to write like that as an adult. Here’s the text / translation of Stella’s story. 

hi
Clap clap cat said baby andre.
The baby andre had a cat. Did the baby andre have a dog? 
Baby andre did not have a dog. Hi stella said baby andre.
Little baby andre hid with stella.
Baby andre played with stella.
Baby andre laughed with stella.
Baby Andre pretended to fly. Stella did too.
Baby Andre climbed and ran. Stella did too.
Love stella

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Capturing One’s Children in Art

sally mann family picturesSally Mann wrote a fascinating article back in April for the New York Times magazine explaining her reasoning behind photographing her children as they grew up, and how the critical and popular response to such photographs affected both her and her family. I thought she was eloquent about how, when a parent is capturing their child through art, the child they end up capturing isn’t actually their own child: they are representations of a child, a glimpse of the child in a small moment of time. As I’m working on a more personal novella right now about parenthood, this idea has comforted me and also struck me as true. The process of writing is a process, even in memoir, of transformation of the subject, of turning a child, perhaps one’s own child, into words, 

“For all the righteous concern people expressed about the welfare of my children, what most of them failed to understand was that taking those pictures was an act separate from mothering. When I stepped behind the camera and my kids stepped in front of it, I was a photographer and they were actors, and we were making a photograph together. And in a similar vein, many people mistook the photographs for reality or attributed qualities to my children (one letter-­writer called them “mean”) based on the way they looked in the pictures. The fact is that these are not my children; they are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle tension, mood, wind and shade. These are not my children at all; these are children in a photograph.”

why forests are essential to good stories

the seduction of going into the woods

virginia-forest

Stella and I are reading The Emerald City of Oz together, and I have to admit the first half hasn’t gripped me like, say, Ozma of Oz did. The gnome king is not an engaging villain; the illustrations of him are really odd; and to top it all off, the plot progression on the whole is dull. Much of the beginning follows the gnome king’s general as he visits weird evil creatures such as the whimsies, who have small heads so they wear fake big heads like masks. In alternate chapters, Dorothy and her friends tour similarly weird communities, such as Bunbury, where a lot of talking pastries reside (though I do find the idea interesting of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry finally moving to Oz–this happens at the start of Emerald, meaning Dorothy never needs to go home again to Kansas). Anyhow so I wasn’t gripped with this book until p. 180, where something very, very exciting happens: Dorothy becomes lost in the woods.

“Wandering through the woods, without knowing where you are going or what adventure you are about to meet next, is not as pleasant as one might think. The woods are always beautiful and impressive, and if you are not worried or hungry you may enjoy them immensely; but Dorothy was worried and hungry that morning, so she paid little attention to the beauties of the forest, and hurried along as fast as she could go. She tried to keep in one direction and not circle around, but she was not at all sure that the direction she had chosen would lead her to the camp.

By and by, to her great joy, she came upon a path. It ran to the right and to the left, being lost in the trees in both directions, and just before her, upon a big oak, were fastened two signs, with arms pointing both ways. One sign read:

TAKE THE OTHER ROAD TO BUNBURY

and the second sign read:

TAKE THE OTHER ROAD TO BUNNYBURY

“Well!” exclaimed Billina, eyeing the signs, “this looks as if we were getting back to civilization again.”

“I’m not sure about the civil’zation, dear,” replied the little girl; “but it looks as if we might get SOMEWHERE, and that’s a big relief, anyhow.”

“Which path shall we take?” inquired the Yellow Hen.

Dorothy stared at the signs thoughtfully.

“Bunbury sounds like something to eat,” she said. “Let’s go there.”

As a reader–and also as a writer–I love it when characters enter the woods. The woods are often transformative: things happen to you in there. There are choices to make: do you stay on the path, or do you stray from it? Do you go to the right or to the left? Do you follow the advice you were given? Do you take the path with very few footsteps or do you go the way everybody else did? In the daylight, the woods may seem friendly enough, but in the night, or in certain dark sections of the woods where very little light shines, the mood changes to one of danger, fear, expectation, and nervousness. At the basic level, there is something archetypal and very old about the boundary between what is outside the woods and what is inside them, and what will happen when you step over the threshold.

The woods, of course, are central to fairy tales, and while enjoying Philip Pullman’s strong translation of the Grimm tales, I began to make a list of the different types of forests appearing in these stories. The translations below are Pullman’s; I have multiple examples of each type but I’ll list just one. 

The forest of loneliness (from “The Goose Girl”)

Once upon a time there was a very old woman who lived with her flock of geese in a lonely place among the mountains, where her little house lay surrounded by a deep forest.

The scary forest (from “The Robber Bridgegroom”)

One day the prospective bridegroom said to her, ‘You know, my dear, we’re engaged to be married, but you’ve never paid me a visit. Why not come to my house? After all, it will soon be your own home.’ ‘I don’t know where your house is,’ the girl said. ‘It’s out in the forest,’ he told her. ‘A beautiful situation, you’ll see.’ ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be able to find my way there,’ she said. ‘No, no, you must come on Sunday. I’ve already invited some guests – they’re looking forward to meeting you. I’ll make a trail of ashes, so you can follow it through the trees.’ On Sunday the girl felt an awful foreboding; she’d rather do anything than set off through the woods to the bridegroom’s house. She filled her pockets with peas, to mark the trail in case anything happened. At the edge of the forest she found the trail of ashes, and after every step she threw a couple of peas to left and right. She walked almost the whole day till she came to a part of the forest where the trees grew so thick and high that it was dark underneath them, and there, right in the heart of the woods, she found the bridegroom’s house. It was dark and silent and seemed to be deserted; there was no one inside but a bird in a cage, and he was no comfort either, because all he could sing was: ‘Turn back! Get out! Go home! Take care! This is a murderer’s house! Beware!’”

The forest with paths (from “The Two Traveling Companions”)

After they’d been traveling for some time, they came to a great forest. There were two paths that led through it to the capital, but one of them took two days’ walking and the other took seven, and they didn’t know which was which. They sat down beneath an oak tree and talked about it. Should they carry seven days’ food, or only two?….It was as quiet as a church under the trees. There was no breeze, no murmuring brook, no birdsong, and not a single sunbeam found its way through the dense leaves.” – two traveling companions – the gallows are right outside the forest

The forest as prison (from “Rapunzel”)

When she was twelve years old, the witch took her into the depths of the forest and shut her in a tower that had no door, no stairs and no windows except one very small one in a room right at the top.

The forest as punishment (from “Hansel and Gretel”)–interesting how only children become lost in this forest

But no matter which way they went, they couldn’t find the way home. They walked all through the night and then all through the following day, and still they were lost. They were hungry, too, terribly hungry, because all they’d had to eat was a few berries that they’d found. They were so tired by this time that they lay down under a tree and fell asleep at once. And when they awoke on the third morning, and struggled to their feet, they were still lost, and with every step they seemed to be going deeper and deeper into the forest. If they didn’t find help soon, they’d die.

Forests thankfully are still being used to spectacular effect in modern literature too. Tana French via In the Woods places the woods in the center of her novel’s mystery. She creates one of the most haunting and creepiest forests I’ve encountered.

The wood is all flicker and murmur and illusion. Its silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises—rustles, flurries, nameless truncated shrieks; its emptiness teems with secret life, scurrying just beyond the corner of your eye. Careful: bees zip in and out of cracks in the leaning oak; stop to turn any stone and strange larvae will wriggle irritably, while an earnest thread of ants twines up your ankle. In the ruined tower, someone’s abandoned stronghold, nettles thick as your wrist seize between the stones, and at dawn rabbits bring their kittens out from the foundations to play on ancient graves….They are running into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear. Down the faint lost paths you would never find alone, skidding round the tumbled stone walls, they stream calls and shoelaces behind them like comet-trails. And who is it waiting on the riverbank with his hands in the willow branches, whose laughter tumbles swaying from a branch high above, whose is the face in the undergrowth in the corner of your eye, built of light and leaf-shadow, there and gone in a blink?

In Far, Far Away (Tom McNeal), one of the Grimm brothers is narrating the story, which has the lovely and dreamy feel of a realistic fairy tale. When the characters finally enter the woods toward the end of the novel however, a huge disturbing plot twist reveals itself there, and the story transforms into a nightmare.

Ginger turned to the baker. “So how far is this cabin, anyhow?” “A ways yet. It’s a beautiful spot, close to a small lake, deep in the woods.” The baker’s voice was as kindly as ever, but at the mention of deep woods, a dim note of alarm sounded within me. Wald, Forst, and most especially, im tiefen Wald—in deep forests— were the words that wrapped black tendrils around a story and foretold ghastly creatures lying in wait or children losing their way. But those were the forests of fairy tales, I told myself, not the ordinary pines of everyday life.

In Wild Life (Molly Gloss), the heart of the story takes place in an ancient Oregon forest in the early 1900’s which is in the process of being logged. Bad things have happened in this forest too, but the narrator does eventually find beauty there (though only after she lets go of some of her human-ness).

We followed the margin of the creek into the primeval forest until the trees standing about us were giants thick as the Washington Monument and surely standing well grown when Columbus crossed the Atlantic. Such trees as these were common  around Skamokawa in my childhood but long since gone to lumber, and I suppose I began to suffer a bit from a feeling of puniness and anxiety, which much be the human response to such supernatural forests. We have become too domesticated–imagining a forest should resemble a park, with a few judiciously spaced trees whose dead branches have been pruned away, flowers in weeded beds, grass neatly mown. Here, the shrubbery was meager from want of sunlight but great carcasses of windthrown timber lay about in unequal progress toward decay, with infant trees shooting up Indian file along the nurse-logs; and in damp, dark hollows yellow flower spikes of skunk cabbage were all abloom, which gaudy brilliance in the gray light served, contrariwise, to darken my mood more than raise it. There is something about those great fleshy leaves and spathes that always has struck me as repellent, loathsome; and in my low state I imagined them a tetratogenic flower garden tended by monsters. Everything was wild. Of course that is the meaning of forests, they are wild.”

Great forests also appear in Harry Potter, and The Hobbit, and The Book of Three, and Alice in Wonderland, and I can probably go on and on….

In my own writing, I realize I keep sending my characters into the woods myself: the woods seem to play an important role in maybe 60-75% of my stories. That line of trees, the border of any forest, marking the open fields of sunlight from the dim shade, makes for such a great threshold. I’ve had narrators who abandon their best friend in the forest to a pack of boys; a mom who has to drive into a forest to a cult to find out why her daughter is dead; characters who are waiting in a forest hoping something transformative will happen to them; a future world where outcasts are sent to live in the forest and you aren’t even supposed to look into the trees; a mom who drags her child into the forest to protect her from God; a man who had to drive into a forest to get to a lodge where he then re-enacts the little mermaid story (I think the forest scene in that story god cut but I liked the idea of the forest as a passage, like a tunnel); and a female vet begins to tell a story to her daughter about the woods then gradually begins to lose her hold on reality, what is the real woods vs. the story woods. Having way too much fun with this, in my short story manuscript, I use the word “woods” 62 times; “forest” 34 times; “forests” 1 time; “trees” 58 times; and “tree” 21 times.

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.”