"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The First Snowfall

Last night we had the first snowfall of the year here in Iowa. According to my Minnesota friends, getting more than a dusting of snow during the first snowfall is pretty rare. But there you have it. Last night is snowed for several hours, and this morning I woke up to one of my favorite sights, a sparkling, pristine blanket of white against a bright blue sky.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am not a winter person. My favorite season is unabashedly summer. This year, though, the coming of snow has filled me with unexpected joy. Today, on the cold, slippery walk to my favorite coffee shop, I marveled at the way the sinking sun (it was only 3:30, and it already had that golden tint of late evening) makes the white snow glow with a warm brilliance. But there was one moment that absolutely took my breath away.

The snow around the base of a tree was completely covered in bright yellow leaves. It was as if the tree had been startled by the coming of winter, tossed its branches up in defeat, and dropped all of its leaves at once. There was a sense of abandon, a shock of color, a gift to the landscape. I was struck by both the randomness and the beauty of it all.

It only took a moment to appreciate it. I stopped. I marveled. I took a few pictures. And then I continued my trudge to the coffee shop. (It was cold). But I have a feeling that the image will stay with my for a long time. Not just because I have pictures of it. That helps, of course, but those photos will slip into the backlog of my photo feed just as easily as the pictures I took of last year's snowfall. There's something metaphorical about it, all of that color against the blank snow, and I haven't quite figured out what it is yet. You could say that I'm just looking for meaning where there is none, but you could say that about anything. I believe that there are pockets of wonder everywhere, and they are different for different people. I might find reverence in a startled tree; someone else might find it on a bustling city street.

I suppose I could impose some sort of meaning onto it. Maybe it struck me because it makes me think of the change I so desperately crave. Maybe it signifies rebirth or death, redemption even. Maybe we are too quick to assign meaning to things. Our reaction to beauty, nature, art, tragedy, doesn't need any modifiers. We don't have to tease out the reason behind feeling something. We just have to feel it.

I wrote this with the intention of understanding my reaction to this moment- why I find it funny and sad all at the same time. Why, when I think about it, I get that ache in my chest that happens whenever I see something beautiful. But then again, beauty doesn't need an explanation, and feelings don't need modifiers. The best we can do is cling to those moments, pull them out again when we need to be reminded that there are still some things we can't explain, and to find some strange comfort in the chaos.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Five Books I Want to Read Before 2016

It's November, which conjures up images of chilly, rainy afternoons spent huddled under blankets with a good book and hot beverage of your choice. The reality, in my case anyway, involves being hunched over a computer trying to draft a research paper, but a girl can dream, right? I've read a total of ten books this year (not my best, but I've been busy!), so I thought I would try to round that out to 15 by the end of 2015. Here are the books I want to check off my list by the end of the year:

1. How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Currently in the middle of this and really enjoying it. Ali Smith is an author that has been recommended over and over again by some of my favorite book reviewers on Youtube (click here and here), and I finally picked up one of her books. Her style is very unique and fluid, so much so that I found myself wanting to read her prose out loud. The book itself is split into two sections: one is narrated by a teenager trying to cope with the loss of her mother, and centers around a trip they took to Italy before she died, while the other follows a 15th century Renaissance painter. Which section comes first depends on which copy of the book you have, because it was printed in two editions and the story can be experienced in either direction. Really cool stuff!

2. Fly Trap by Frances Hardinge

This is the sequel to what is bound to be one of my favorite books of 2015, Fly By Night. Set in a fascinating world where books have been banned and all printed material has to be approved by a guild called the Stationers, Fly By Night follows a young girl who takes to the open road with a con man named Eponymous Clent and a rabble-rousing goose. Sounds great, right? It is. Frances Hardinge is one of the few authors I've discovered who made me immediately want to go look up everything she's ever written. Luckily, she has quite a few titles to her name, and they all look amazing. I haven't even read the synopsis of Fly Trap; any excuse to be back in the world of Fly By Night is enough for me.

3. The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman

I finished The Golden Compass, the first book in the His Dark Materials series in January of this year, so it seems fitting that I would end 2015 with the second book in the series. While it took me FOREVER to get into The Golden Compass, the second half of the book blew me away, and after months of pestering by my friend Maddie, I'm committed to finishing this series. I'll probably be reading this (and hopefully the third book, too, if I can get around to it) in December, when Jen Campbell is hosting a read-a-long of the entire trilogy. The richly drawn, steam-punk/fantasy setting of these books make it the absolute PERFECT series to read around Christmastime.

4. The Stones of Florence by Mary McCarthy

This is a non-fiction book that explores the spirit and history of the beautiful city of Florence. It has great reviews on Goodreads, and I have a very special reason for being interested in Florence, which (if you didn't already know) I'll be officially revealing on The Blank Page in a couple of weeks!

5. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Perfect for gloomy November nights when the wind is howling around the corners of my nine-story dormitory, Burial Rites tells the story of the last person to be executed in Iceland. Agnes Magnusdottir is convicted of the murder of her former master and sent to an isolated family farm to await execution. I started reading this book late last year but never got around to finishing it before I had to return it to the library. It's not the most pleasant read: the landscape (like the story itself) is sparse, desolate, and grim, but I'm going to trust the many Goodreads reviewers who say it's worth it in the end. I tend to lean towards historical fiction which takes a somewhat romantic look at what life was really like in whatever period it's set, and this book is definitely a break from that romanticism. I'll let you know what I think!

Bonus Material!
This list was SO hard narrow down to just five books, so here's a few others I'm particularly excited about but may not get to before Jan 1st:
So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures by Maureen Corrigan
The Sweetness at the Bottom the Pie by Alan Bradley
Girl Waits with Gun by Mary Stewart
Uprooted by Niomi Novik

Hope you enjoyed, and I'd love to know what books you want to finish before 2016!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My Writing: An Evolution

I've never really been one to dwell on the past. I find it easy to conceptualize the new year ahead of me, but hard to remember what exactly happened in the past year. Because of this I tend not to read my old writing, unless I'm digging for an unfinished story that I can turn into something new. Lately I've been inspired by Crystal Moody of The Year of Creative Habits. Crystal is really good at talking about her process, and teasing out the seemingly inscrutable path of her own creativity.

I've been feeling more confident about my writing lately, and for the first time in a while I feel like I'm seeing real progress. My sentences, while still a bit long and flowery, are finally getting some variety thrown into the mix. While I'm still unsure about plot and pacing in a lot of ways, actually finishing stories has really helped me understand the nuts and bolts of creating a story. It's kind of a strange feeling, seeing yourself improve without knowing exactly how it happened.

Understanding my own progress is exactly what I'm going to try and do today. Hopefully my own triumphs and struggles can be of interest/usefulness to anyone else who, like me, isn't sure how they ended up where they are.

the early years
I've been writing for basically as long as I can remember. It probably began in ernest in the third grade, when a representative from Writers in the Schools came to our classroom every week and gave us writing prompts. That year I wrote a poem about the lamp on my bedside table (yes, really). I don't have the original on my computer, but I still remember the line that sparked the poem: "When it is day, my little yellow lamp is as peaceful as a pearl white swan floating on a clear blue lake." I was a big fan of similes. And adjectives.
It might seem like overkill to start at the beginning like this, but I'm trying to figure out how my writing has evolved, so I might as well give myself a point of reference.

high school
I'm counting middle school as "the early years" because what good writing really comes out of middle school, anyway? One of the oldest documents on my computer is a poem I wrote during freshman year of high school. It exists, somewhere, on the website of a independent publisher I can't remember the name of because I placed in one of their contests. Here's an excerpt:

The News
I watched the news last night
the blue light from our TV
making pockets of shadows
dance across the walls.
The anchorwoman, skin pulled tight
over wide cheekbones, hair plastered
into submissive curls
tells us a story, with the words
"Deadly Tornado" quivering over her
shoulder in front of a fake New York skyline.

It ends with the lines:

I get tired of listening to them.
I click the remote, the screen goes black,
and finally my world is silent.

Like most of my early writing, it has some interesting word choice and details, but otherwise the strokes are too broad, and I end on a classically teenager-y note, just wanting "silence."

Around this time I was also toying with a new story about a girl who lives next to a strange (aka magical) subdivision that no one is allowed in. I give you the opening lines of "Into Suburbia":

Emma sat cross-legged on the blue lawn chair in front of her house, her legs bent uncomfortably between the rough plastic arm rests. This was how she and Marcus spent most of their summers, underneath the minimal shade of the scrawny tree in Emma’s front yard, lulled into a half-sleep by boredom and heat. They sat like this for another half hour before Marcus sat up abruptly from his spot in the grass next to the lawn chair and extended a pale white arm.
“Here comes another one,” he whispered. They watched in silence as the beat up Chevrolet rolled down their street. It was going slow, as if the driver was searching for an address, and as it passed they saw it was driven by an middle aged woman, her hair done up in old fashioned curlers as if she were going to a Halloween party dressed as a grandmother. The two watched in silence as the car rolled towards the end of the street and stopped. The thing blocking its path was not a tree or a culdisac, but a huge wrought iron gate separating Emma’s neighborhood from some sort of gated community. She’d lived on this street her entire life and she’d never seen anyone pass through those gates. The woman in Chevrolet didn’t bother to get out of her car to inspect the gates, like some people did. Instead, she backed up and used the nearest driveway to turn around. Marcus and Emma exchanged glances.
“I don’t know what you expect, Emma,” Marcus said, standing up and stretching. “Every summer we spend hours out here in the heat, watching cars, and not one of them has ever gone through that gate.” Emma smiled. This was Marcus’s usual argument.

This is the first idea I had that was even remotely large enough to be a novel, and I actually made it through 16,000 words of it during Camp Nanowrimo one year. I have yet to re-read those 16,000 words...

My proudest achievement in high school is probably the following story. I wrote the first draft in a single sitting, something which rarely happens to this day. Here are the opening lines:

The call of a train whistle echoes through the night. The sound is mournful, alone. It seeps into the hollow place in my heart and stays there for a long time, vibrating. This is when it’s the hardest. I’m surrounded by darkness in the room with the blue walls and the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. John put them there for me, saying they would help me stay calm if I woke up in the middle of the night. But he forgot that stars fade, and right now they’re so dim I can barely make them out. I close my eyes, listening to his gentle breathing next to me. How can he sleep so peacefully? I wake at the slightest rustle of the curtains, the pat of the neighbor’s cat as he walks along the edge of the roof, the sound of a train in the night. 

Woah! Look at that! Sentence variety! This is also probably the first time I strung three dependent clauses together without separating the last one with an "and." (See that last sentence) Somehow, this one little quirk stuck with me, and now I catch myself using it constantly, probably a little too much. 

I've written quite a lot in college. Every workshop class I've taken is different, so it's hard to know exactly where my writing stands. I think it's on the upswing though.

I've been struggling with another possible novel idea, and this time the backdrop is a Neverland-esque summer camp.

They called it the summer house. No one knew what it’s purpose was before it became the summer house, or even who had lived in it before the campers arrived. What they did know was that one June day in the summer of their thirteenth year, they awoke in hanging beds on a screen-in porch with light pressing like honey against the backs of their eyelids, and no memory of how they had gotten there. 

There I go with those long sentences again... 

My poetry's gotten better since high school, but upon reading the two poems side by side, I realize that I'm not getting loose enough with my language. My poems still read a bit too much like prose, and I'd like to experiment more. Here's the stanza I'm most proud of:

Last night I dreamt of flying
over distant hills. They were blue,
perfectly pristine, and I had the strange
urge to dive downward, half
expecting the land to part like
water and envelope me.

Below is an excerpt from a recent piece of flash fiction. It could just be because it's fresh, but I saw something in this piece that made me think that maybe I've been improving, and prompted me to go back and look at my past work.

Her body is a taught string when he enters the room. They are at the house of someone she doesn’t know, someone richer than they are, and the mirror in the bathroom makes her feel small, like she’s standing in front of a waterfall. But she doesn’t have the coherency of thought to think about waterfalls now because when he looks in her direction her whole body vibrates. She wonders if the other guests notice it. They look at her strangely, and she looks back at them like a frightened deer. 

There's something about this that just feels right: right amount of sentence variety, right amount of simile and metaphor. 

the takeaway
This post is already too long for it's own good, but here are some things I learned from this exercise:

1. You can learn way more than you think you can from your old writing. I can still remember how I felt about "The News" when I finished writing it, and now I look at those last lines and cringe. Comparing it to my new poetry, though, I didn't see as much improvement as I expected. 
2. Progress is always slow, and it's almost always invisible until you go looking for it. 
3. I'm still moderately interested in some of the stories I started when I was younger. With a little work, I think some of them could be expanded. 
4. Stories, for me, always begin with language. There's usually an idea behind the language, but the ones that I end up finishing have a kind of momentum (a voice, maybe?) that drives the story forward.

At first I was scared to write this post. Putting your work, especially your old, far-from-perfect work, out there is hard. I'm trying to come at it from a place of objectivity, so that we can look at it together. This exercise isn't just for me. It's for anyone who is unsure if they're on the right path. Writing isn't as straightforward as some other disciplines. There are no benchmarks to quantify success, and even the term "good writing" is up for interpretation. Every person's path is different, but sometimes it's nice to know that we're all plodding along, reaching our own milestones, making our own tracks in the snow. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Quote of the Day: Empathy

"All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life. Where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it." - Miranda July

When I was little I loved staying at my friend's houses. I saw it as a glimpse into their every-day lives, what it was like to be a part of their family, what daily customs they took part in that were foreign to me. Now, I hardly have to think twice about that curiosity. I can't help listening to the interesting conversation in the next booth over at a restaurant, or wondering what the person sitting alone on a park bench is thinking about.

What I love about this quote is that in just two sentences Miranda July taps into so many aspects of human empathy and curiosity. It's both empathetic and reflective. It makes you want to look at the person across from you on the subway and wonder, "how are they making it through life?"

Somehow, though, she manages to make it less about our own nosy tendencies, and more about the possibilities for empathy. The tender line "Where do they put their body, hour by hour" doesn't connote eavesdropping on the subway. I find it reminiscent of the Annie Dillard quote, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." It's about looking at the minute in order to understand the big picture, the overall arc of our lives. And then there's that last piece, "how do they cope inside of it." She's not asking what you had for lunch today, who you're going to meet for dinner tonight. She's not even asking what you're thinking. She's asking about how you experience the world. She's seeking out that thin thread that leads to whatever it is that makes you who you are, all tangled up in your experiences and your thoughts and the things you believe to be true.

I think that we can seek empathy wherever we are. I think that curiosity, while it can seem shallow at first glance, creates a ripple affect where the questions we ask lead us to a more well-rounded answer. Someone once said that you can't hate something you're curious about. I love that.

Too often I find myself stopping at that first rush of curiosity. I'll feel a question coming on at an event, or when I'm listening to someone tell a story, and I'll write my questions off as silly, or not worth asking. I'm careless with my curiosity, and so I don't give myself as many opportunities for empathy. These are words that are easy to throw around so much that they lose their meaning (I'm well aware of that), but Miranda July has the right idea in breaking them down into smaller pieces. Empathy starts with asking questions and really listening to the answers. It starts with a single person in a single body in a single hour. We should all begin by marveling at the little things.