Inevitable Knots and Despair, Hopefully Followed by Epiphany*

Empress Dowager writing a "great characte...

Empress Dowager writing a “great character”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For a long while, I haven’t written anything about my writing here. I’ve been tied up in knots, some of my own making, some from not doing a good job of sorting out the helpful feedback from the not helpful kind. I keep saying I’m going to put together a praise/encouragement file for times like these, but the thing is most times when I’m tied in knots, I don’t realize what I’m doing to myself until I start coming out of it. Usually, sooner or later, I blunder into something that gets through the fog and I start to clear it out.

This time it was:

A series of conversations with Zoe Marriott on Twitter. And two of her posts: A Question of Letting Go and Take A Deep Breath…

A post by Gwenda Bond: Fast Vs. Slow (I admit, I was panicking about how I can be such a slow writer and why was I even working on this project that I had started in 2008 and put away and taken out again).

But most importantly, this post Finding Your Voice and its writing exercise, which I found via DaphneUn when she mentioned Doycet. Yes, give me logic and analysis! I’m so tired of the “you know it when you see it” mantra. (However true it might be, it’s not helpful!)

The post includes a writing prompt and exercise. If you are at all interested in doing it you should go over there now before I spoil it for you. Really. It’s one of those exercises. You only get one chance at it. Ok?

Here’s what I wrote in response to the prompt:

 New Year’s in Chile is in the summer. For a northerner—as in Northern Hemisphere—like me, it’s disorienting, but in a good way. It’s easy to walk around, from bar to bar, in the historic Bella Vista barrio, once home to artists and manual laborers and disenfranchised poets, but now increasingly bourgeois.

I had just pushed into a bar with strobing red and blue lights when there was a general scramble away from the dance floor that left me stranded. Sometimes I’m too contrary for my own good.

A guy sprawled in the middle. He was obviously dead; I was close enough to see that the knife stuck in his chest wasn’t pulsing with the beat of his heart. Never mind why or how I know about that. I did the decent thing and checked his pulse anyway and closed his eyes. By that time the lights were the white florescent kind. I don’t know if the manager—green under their bluish glare—or the dead guy—dead, ditto—looked worse.

I wrote this and thought, I do have a voice! Why am I letting myself be “corrected” out of it?! Jeez and hallelujah.

My answers to the questions after the prompt:

I never manage to follow “the rules”

Strong narrative preference

Preference for character over plot

No dialogue

Mono focus

A little bit elliptical (ok, a lot elliptical and probably too subtle). I always seem to come at things sideways: geography, poets, bourgeoisie, settings). It seems to be hardwired into my writing DNA; that’s ok, but how can I be elliptical and not lose my readers?

Character super important

Weak on conflict, or something I can’t quite put my finger on. Again, coming to the conflict sideways. Indirect conflict. Offstage conflict? (Not sure if this goes to voice or rather an aspect of writing I need to work on)

I LOVE long sentences. But I also love sentence fragments.

Unhealthy addiction to en dashes I blame entirely on an old boss

Setting/place is a character to me

Some descriptions are specific (red and blue strobing lights) but others could use much more specificity (bar, guy, knife, manager), in general, but also depending on which are important

This was all automatic. Very little of what I wrote here was conscious choice after deciding there was no way in hell I could follow the directions on all parts of the writing prompt. (I was sitting in my still-new living room and I did not want to envision a murder there.) What the hell does it mean that everything else was automatic and coming up directly from my subconscious?

More thoughts from comparing with other writing:

Good at analogies/metaphors that are appropriate for the character

Either 1st or 3rd person, but always very tight

Something that might be missing from the project I’m working on: a kind of gallows humor. A little morbid, maybe slightly explicit (is slightly explicit an oxymoron)?

Ok, your turn. Thoughts? Did you do the writing prompt? What was your experience?

*The title comes out of one of the twitter conversations I had with Zoe Marriott. She suggested embroidering it on a pillow, which in a sense I have now done, sans embroidery and pillow.


Poetry Hit

Another poem about the sea and faith and struggle.

Dover Beach

Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888)

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Reading Zelazny in the 21st Century Part II

Reading Nine Princes in Amber at the same time that I’m reading When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins, is illuminating.

She describes the era when women were thrown out of courtrooms for wearing a pants suit (while men wore sweatpants) and the rules for women’s basketball prohibited running because it might hurt their delicate reproductive organs and the ad below (from 1955) was not as foreign to them as it is to us. (“A good wife always knows her place.”)


(Housekeeping Monthly, 13 May 1955)

Nine Princes of Amber was published in 1970. The four daughters of the king of Amber are so insignificant in the struggle for the throne that they are not even mentioned in the title, while the ninth brother, who never makes an appearance is. The sisters are “girls”, “stupid” and “all bitches”. They cry a lot. And I have to say the image of Moire’s green nipples has stayed with me since I first read the book as a young teenager (and not in a good way).

But the blinders of the time it was written in also results in such convolutions:

“There were four men seated about the fire and two sleeping off in the shadows. The girl who was bound to a stake had her head turned away from us…” (p 67)

“I saw Deirdre raise [a weirwolf] in the air and break its back across her knee with a brittle snapping sound.” (p 71)

So Deirdre, a superhuman child of Amber, can break a weirwolf with one hand but she wasn’t able to fight off at least some of the six men who captured her? Really? (Later, during the fight up the face of the mountain Kolvir, it’s made clear that the ordinary inhabitants of Amber don’t match the royal family in strength or fighting skills.)

To a modern reader it’s a ludicrous flaw in the worldbuilding. To its creator and readers of the time it was invisible.

Creative Thinking and Failure

I really liked the post Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking on Psychology Today, especially this part:

9.      There is no such thing as failure. Whenever you try to do something and do not succeed, you do not fail. You have learned something that does not work. Always ask “What have I learned about what doesn’t work?”, “Can this explain something that I didn’t set out to explain?”, and “What have I discovered that I didn’t set out to discover?” Whenever someone tells you that they have never made a  mistake, you are talking to someone who has never tried anything new.

And #10 You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are. This goes along with there is nothing original but no one else sees things as you do.

Finally, #13 (did they not notice there are 13 points in this article?):

And, finally, Creativity is paradoxical. To create, a person must have knowledge but forget the knowledge, must see unexpected connections in things but not have a mental disorder, must work hard but spend time doing nothing as information incubates, must create many ideas yet most of them are useless, must look at the same thing as everyone else, yet see something different, must desire success but embrace failure, must be persistent but not stubborn, and must listen to experts but know how to disregard them.

Poetry Hit

Maybe because the sea is so vast it can swallow all our pain, it appears in so many poems.


Alfred Tennyson, (1809–92)

English: Alfred Tennyson, British poet

English: Alfred Tennyson, British poet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

IT little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That lov’d me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vex’d the dim sea. I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known: cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honor’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life. Life pil’d on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is sav’d
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle—
Well-lov’d of me, discerning to fulfil
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls’ that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and oppos’d
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
’T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Mov’d earth and heaven, that which we are, we are:
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Reading about Reading and Re-reading

I have some fairly thinky posts percolating in the back of my head that I may have waited on too long. In the meantime, here’s a trio of posts about whether it is ever too early or too late to read a book. I think I tripped into this rabbit hole via a post by Gwenda Bond.

Claire of The Captive Reader discusses reading Sheila Kaye-Smith’s All the Books of My Life and this quote:

When at the age of fifteen I started my period of conscientious reading, I received one piece of very good advice.  A friend of my mother’s advised me not to read Thackeray until I was grown up.  ‘You wouldn’t understand him now.  You’d miss a lot.’

This was perfectly true and I only wish her advice had been applied more widely, for I spoilt a number of books and authors for myself by reading them too early…If I were ever asked to guide a young person in a similar situation I should put Dickens and Jane Austen with Thackeray on the waiting list, also the whole of George Eliot except Adam Bede and the whole of the Brontës except Jane Eyre.

Claire goes on to say:

For me, what was most important about this fumbling and indiscriminate assault on great literature was that it exposed me to great literature, to books that if I had waited until I was older I might have realised I was supposed to find intimidating.  I may not have finished them all but I started to develop my taste.

Jo Walton continues the discussion at Is There a Right Age to Read a Book?

I know exactly what I learned from reading it way too young—I learned that children grow up and are still the same person. Jane the child in Lowood is very precisely characterised and the whole horrible school thing really spoke to me on a level I could understand, and Jane growing up and having melodramatic events made me realise that I would also grow up, and that the adults around me had once been children. I can remember lying on the green hearthrug in front of the fire in our house reading Jane Eyre and looking up from it at the black-stockinged legs of my great-aunt Emma and the fat calves of my cousin Anthea and thinking that (amazingly) they had once been children and I would one day be a grown-up, although I was quite sure that I’d never prefer to sit on the sofa than lie on the rug.

No grown up, or even teenager, reading Jane Eyre would have that insight. They know it already. It’s not Brontë’s insight, though I had that insight because she managed to make Jane growing up work for me as a child reader. Books give people the tools to build the world. This world, the real world.

In the comments she mentions an earlier post where she described why she re-reads books she didn’t like. The comments are worth reading because of the broad range of responses, from the person who sees reading as a zero-sum game to poster HelenS

Being able to find something to read has always had far more to do with my own state of mind than the availability of books. It’s just like the way one goes round and round a perfectly well-stocked grocery store unable to think of anything to get for dinner.

Which is EXACTLY how I feel sometimes.

One of the few books I’ve re-read that I disliked is Jane Eyre. I must have read it at the same time I was reading Wuthering Heights, so around 10th grade. I didn’t like either of them. I’m sure I read them as romances that didn’t work for me. (Mr. Rochester? Gross! Heathcliff? What a nasty brute!) Post college, I re-read Jane Eyre so I’d understand Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I’m not quite sure if that was mission accomplished. I might have been too young for it, although I felt an affinity with all of the “whys” behind Wide Sargasso Sea: the dismissal of the crazy woman in the attic, the Creole, the slave-trafficking past of Mr. Rochester and his money (do I have that part right?)

Lately I’ve read a bunch of books that I came too late to. Not altogether too late, but how much more would I have reveled in I Capture the Castle or Pamela Dean’s Hidden Country books if I had read them in my teens? Quite a bit more, I think.

It’s also made me think about the stories I’ve read that are indeliably burnt into my brain, like The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. Does that mean I was too young or just the right age for it?

What about you?

I Was Not Told About This, Revisted

A probable ancestor of all today's pedigree Bl...

A probable ancestor of all today’s pedigree Bloodhounds, 1902 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few months ago Jenny at Jenny’s Books posted “I was not told about this“:

And then one day, years later, something reminds you of this lesson you learned from a book, and you think, Well wait. Upon reflection that is probably not a real thing, but it’s much too late for this sort of critical thinking, because whatever it is has put down deep roots in your consciousness.

She asked for people to add the things they learned from books that aren’t true in the comments. I really really wanted to add something because I’m sure I have lots of these rattling around in my head (like toes up while riding a horse as one commenter noted). But my brain fails me at times like this, reliably, predictably fails me. It just doesn’t work like that.

But today, I was reading Winterling by Sarah Prineas (read it! it’s good!) and I thought, By Jove, I think I’ve got it! Rook, one of the main characters, runs up a stream to throw the wolves chasing him off his scent (hey, Jenny’s post starts out with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Do two wolves make a thing?) and I remembered the Mythbusters‘ “Dog Myths” episode 74 (synopsis) and Foil the Bloodhound.

They tried this. It didn’t work. Characters do this all the time in books and movies. So if you’re ever being tracked by bloodhounds, running through water will only get your feet wet. Your best bet? Run all over a crowded city, get on the subway, go where there are lots of people.