Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sacrifice and a Habit of Art

Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.”
~Flannery O’ Connor

We’ve discussed our writing habits a few times here, but reading Flannery again, I’ve started to think less about writing habits; the times, places, and tools I use to encourage my writing, and more about the building of a Habit. It’s clear in her letters that O’ Connor shaped her life in order to pursue artistic excellence. In pursuit of excellence, she had few of my distractions, and many of her own. She never married, and her mother did a good deal of the farm work, with the help of hired hands. She had fantastic correspondants in Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Lowell, and .. It is my firm belief that quality correspondance with other artists is an amazing source of inspiration and encouragement (it’s one of the reasons I am so grateful for this discussion). I’ve been looking around at my little homestead with uncertainty recently. How do I form a habit of Art? The frustrating reality is that I form it as everyone else must, with determination - pure force of will. None of us has it easy. Flannery O’ Connor wasn’t married nor keeping her own house, but she was dying of lupus, a trial I can’t imagine. Unlike many writers, I am under no pressure to work for pay. Apart from the demands that three gardens, two pigs, eight chickens, a dog, husband, and daughter can put on me, my time is my own, and unlike corporations, my demanding ones have to sleep at some point. My first reaction when the whole house is asleep is to rest myself, but here is my opportunity. And this is where determination would come it. I have to sacrifice something to form any good habit. There are some things I refuse to sacrifice, sleep isn’t one of them. So here I am, writing on a dark Wednesday afternoon, while Petka - who has kept me up all night with her restless dreaming and sad little cries - rests heavy in her cradle. My bed looks delicious. But I have a whole pot of coffee beside me, so I’m snatching at the little time I have.

People without hope not only don't write novels, but what is more to the point, they don't read them.”

~Flannery O’ Connor

Forming a habit of art is an act of discipline, and an act of hope. I am working through my free hours in the hope that some thing I produce will have value. Not merely to me, but to someone reading it. Not that it will be loved and acclaimed, but that it will do good. It is a hope that is encouraged through correspondance, through dicipline, and through repetition. And in my experience, discipline and repetition are the most difficult. I don’t like disciplining myself. I like indulgence. It’s why I moved to the woods - to live a life of comfort and self-direction. Before I married, I wrote when I felt like writing - late at night, or all week. But a house covered with books and papers and empty coffee mugs is no way to greet a tired husband at the end of the day, and so I work at a desk after sweeping and before making tea, while Yarrow naps or tosses herbs on the floor, and again late at night, or in the early summer light. I’m surprised to find I write more now. I'm hoping that good habits are as hard to break as bad ones. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

50 31

If you achieved world domination, what are three things you would ban instantly?

Apart from the obvious and serious things: abortion, slave-labor, and other ban-able evils, I’d happily and quickly get around to disallowing:

1. The Wearing of Pleated Khakis. I’m generous though, and if you really want to wear non-pleated khakis, you can present yourself & your khakis for approval at a special Khaki Judgment Center. I think that’s more than good of me.

2. Books about Vampires that sparkle. Actually, all books about vampires that aren’t really vampires, whether because they sparkle, or go to high-school, or wander around in daylight. (sorry Jenna, but this is what dictators do :)

3. Red Hawaiian punch. My brother drinks it by the gallon, and I loathe the stuff. It’s gone.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

50 30

If your house was on fire, what three things would you save? (assume all family and pets are already safe)

I have an icon of St. Joseph, hand-written in Israel that I would save, three relics I’m counting as one item because they’re all next to each other, and after those, I’m lost. I’m assuming my favorite pots would make it through a fire alright, and I can’t really think of anything else I’d be lost without..I’d probably either grab my Perpetual Help copy or my husband’s 12-string, because it’d be a great comfort to have him singing amid the ruin.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


“The person who teaches writing is not much more than a midwife. After you help deliver the infant, it is ungracious to say, Madame, your child has two heads and will never grow up. The procedure I follow is, after it is here, to announce only if its alive or dead.”
~Flannery O Connor

This week I’m moving on from Rilke’s Book of Hours to Flannery O Connor’s letters (The Habit of Being). Readers who might be avoiding Flannery because the dark tinge to her stories should dive into her correspondance. She is the ideal letter writer. One of the first things I wanted to bring out in our discussion, is Flannery’s relationship to the criticism and to the encouragement she receives for her work. Her confidence in the face of criticism is inspiring. Would that my skin were as thick! In an early letter to a publisher, she says plainly what I hope someday to be sure enough in my work to echo:

I am not writing a conventional novel, and I think that the quality of the novel I write will derive precisely from the peculiarity or aloneness, if you will, of the experience I write from…In short, I am amenable to criticism but only within the sphere of what I am trying to do; I will not be persuaded to do otherwise.

I am at fits too amenable to criticism and not amenable at all, but it has less to do with my confidence in my work and more to do with my emotional state at the moment. I have cut good poems to pieces over an imagined bad reaction, and then spent days pieces back together the original text. I’m a neurotic and uncertain editor. Receiving criticism is difficult. It has to be strained through the sieve of what we know about the critic - his taste, understanding, education; and especially, it has to be strained through what we know about our writing. Criticism is only helpful if it is related to what has been written, criticism based only on third party reviews and impressions is - for the most part - useless.

Even respected criticism though, is of limited value to us. But it has it’s place, and within that place, it is essential to us as writers, unless we are only writing in journals for our own, personal use. Criticism gives perspective and balance to our writing. It’s easy to fall into careless habits when there is no one calling us to task for our mistakes. But the critic can’t be allowed to take over, at the end, it isn’t his story to abandon or to save, and both the writer and the critic have to accept their roles if they are to accomplish anything together.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Father's Day

I married a man who is, on the surface, very little like my father. Bonfires, guitars, and picnics in the woods will be memories of my daughter's childhood, they are not mine. But I have my own memories, and I wouldn't trade them: archery in the backyard, walkie-talkies on road-trips, late-night boardgames, and the everyday lesson of love.  A lesson Yarrow is also learning. The man who raised me and the man I married love abundantly. I have an unending supply of memories of my father stopping to help not only his family, but everyone around him: photos for tourists, encouragement for the uncertain, directions, gifts, and understanding.

I love to watch my husband with Yarrow and see one of my favorite childhood memories lived again - a daughter delighting in her father's love.

Happy father's day!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Discussion Questions..

I’m a bit at a loss this week. There are topics I’m working to bring out, but at the same time, I’m a bit too wrapped up in a few other projects to give them the attention they deserve this week. This week I’ll put my long thoughts aside and post a few quick questions that I saw recently in an old magazine instead - Welcoming as well the responses of those who follow our little discussion.
When do you do most of your writing? If I can get up in time, I write best in the early morning. Second best is the late evening, and night-time. Times when I’m not distracted by the daily chores of living.

What encourages you? My husband. Reading good work. Reading really bad work. The Liturgy. Drinking tea.

What distracts you from your work? New ideas - I’m inconsistent, and I’ve lots of trouble finishing things. My husband. Yarrow. ‘To-do’ lists. And especially Luba who needs more love than even God can give her.

What is your purpose in writing? I am always trying to create and promote a culture of beauty. I’m trying to write as an extension of my life and as an inspiration to live the best life I can.

What authors inspire your choice of theme and direction? The poet Rilke, whose images are so deeply planted in my imagination; Marquez, who manages to meld magic and realism perfectly; Tolkien, who makes myth; and Dostoyevsky, who loves humanity.

What authors inspire you stylistically? Rilke, whose style is beauty boiled down; Flannery O Connor - specifically her letters, because they are clear and honest; Kathleen Norris, because her tone is welcoming and open; and Oscar Wilde, who seems to write purely for his own enjoyment.

**I would add Tolstoy to both of the “inspiration” questions, but it feels arrogant, so I’ll just let him inspire me in private.

What is one thing you wish you could accomplish as a writer? I would like to write letters that are good, I would like to write letters consistently and attractively. I know it isn’t really a “writer’s goal” but I think that even if I published nothing, I would like to have a rich correspondence.

Real discussion will return next week!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Fifty 29

Do you believe in God? Why or why not?

I do. I can’t not. I tried for a while in high-school, just as I tried to get addicted to coffee or to cigarettes at times, when I though it’d be more dramatic.  I'm Catholic and I love my church, it's so full. Not believing in God would be, for me, like not believing in my husband, or in my daughter; it isn’t something I can do, for which I’m eternally grateful.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What else is there to do when it’s raining but make pretty pictures out of life?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Fantasy & Folklore: A Sense of Symbolism

“You slowly peeled me out of time;
I swayingly stepped into it
and yielded after subtle fights:
but now your darkling presence grieves
your gentle victory.

You conquered me and know me not.”

One of the greatest aids belief gives the writer is an ability to understand the symbols and images he uses. Belief, a relationship with the symbols, is something allows us to see them as living, changing, growing things; images with deep roots; and that understanding is the place from which to pull the nuance of meaning, without either over-extending the symbol or misrepresenting it entirely. Jenna’s Monday post emphasized it perfectly, “I believe in mysteries—”. Mystery is a challenge to us, especially as we populate our stories with characters from folklore and legend. We’re a jaded lot, and while we may love the old tales, too often we look at them with eyes unused to mystery. We need to retrain our eyes. Mr. Pond joined us again with a surprise, one of his tales woke up and walked the earth - thrilling, but is it unexpected? “There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of”.
Often, it seems, the writer will see as a symbol, a creature he loves or hates, like dragons for Michael O’Brien, and cling to one aspect of the symbolism, forgetting the rest in his enthusiasm. There is no relationship to the symbol, and the deeper meanings are lost. O’Brien is so full of the sens of the dragon as Satan image (dangerous, cunning, wicked) that he pushes out conflicting images of the dragon as counselor (powerful, wise, dangerous). It’s where the two intersect that the true symbolism is found. Dragons represent power, power outside of morality, and power of the mind as well as the physical power. Dragons are dangerous, but they don’t have to be a symbol of evil. Relationship to the image, how the author chooses to emphasize and down-play aspect of the symbol, is the key.

I am thinking especially of the symbolism of plants right now, Jenna mentioned them in last weeks discussion, and I am realizing more and more as I begin to reply, that symbols are shifting things, requiring an intimate friendship. I began by writing about birches - trees I love, trees I walk among daily for inspiration and friendship. In the spring, I bring in birch twigs to set on the altar, because my Saints love them. Birches bring so many good things: babies, healing, sweet dreams, and good spirits. But they’re also ghost trees, in birch groves, the souls of unshriven girls dance for the death of those who join them, late at night, under the waning moon. Birches link us to the dead, good and evil, they lean toward the good - all things have a leaning. But the tales speak mostly of the dancing girls, of terror and madness. Without a relationship we often miss an important aspect. Mr. Pond is right when he reminds us that “belief in fairies is certainly not [a] comforting thing.” As writers, we need to remember this, our fairies are not angels, and our angels are not merely fat cherubs.

"What will you do, God, when I'm dead?..
without me, you end up losing making sense...

I fret about you, God."

 Symbols are powerful, and now, living in a world that to often fails to appreciate them, we who write with them, need to write with love and understanding. Need to absorb their darkness and their light in order to make sense of them. In order to share them with the world.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tea & Company

One of my favorite times in the day is the hour I devote to tea in the early afternoon. I’m never certain to take it, but most of the time there is a lovely hour while Yarrow is sleeping to sit at my table with a cup of something hot and a good book. My favorite book for this time is my own notebook, full of thoughts and dreams and memories. If I can find a good pen, I add to it in this time, and if not, I page backward, remembering. Another recent favorite was Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this way Comes; but now, in the midst of a June monsoon, I’m burying myself in cozy, far off places. I’ve run through Sherlock Holmes, Hemingway, and Lewis’ Narnia. I’ve delved into the minor prophets, and walked Abraham’s long road to Moriah again with Kierkegaard. I’ve read my spring journals over and over again, not only in my tea time, but in the loud nights instead of fretting over my drowning garden.

On clear days, I like to take my tea outside. I have dreams of a garden table, a writer’s nook in the yard, with lavender, wild roses, mugwort, around for inspiration. For now though, I’m content on my rock, watching the chickens scratch around. The point is to find balance. To rest my soul in the quiet world around me, to mingle with good company and revive a bit with a nice Cinnamon-orange oolong.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Fifty days..Day 28

Are you a “denim” or a “khaki” person?

Denim. I loathe khakis. I never wear them, and I don’t like it when men wear them either. Actually, I don’t really like it when anyone wears khakis. If I could dress the whole world, no one would wear them, ever. I’d be a dictator, and no one would like me, but at least I’d get my way.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Fifty Days..Day 27

Do you dream often? Are they mainly good dreams, or nightmares?

I dream practically every night, a few times a night. Generally, I can remember my dreams for at least the first half of the morning, and if I try to write them down the memory will last longer. I don’t generally have nightmares, I haven’t since high-school. But sometimes a dream will leave a bad impression. It isn’t a nightmare, but it isn’t comfortable - like dreaming of a death, or dreaming of our ghosts. Those dreams seem to live a little longer in my mind, and I'm less likely to take long walks alone when I had them.

Practical Beauty

This is mine.

It works, and it’s too lovely for words..