Just heard today that my essay, “The Back Row,” won first place in the 2016 Mormon Lit Blitz Competition! I’m feeling honored as there were so many excellent pieces this year. This was a fun opportunity to write for a specific audience and to enjoy participating in the growing arena of Mormon writers. Thanks to all who voted! See the official post here for runners up and to enjoy the other finalists’ pieces if you haven’t had the chance.
This year I entered the Mormon Lit Bliz competition, and was selected as a finalist for my essay “The Back Row.” Very excited about it! You can read my essay here. There were a lot of great entries by other Mormon authors as well. You can read through and vote for you favorites here if you get time.
This week I started reading Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. While I haven’t made enough headway to fully recommend the book, I came across something I quite liked early on when the protagonist, Serena Frome, describes her reading tastes.
My needs were simple. I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn’t mind so much if they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say ‘Marry me’ by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and anything in between—I gave them all the same rough treatment.
For the most part, I share these preferences. I have mentioned before, I think, that duty rarely factors into my reading choices. Like Serena, I care little for names or reputations. I read across genres; want genuine, relatable characters; and I wholeheartedly agree that books/movies without women/girls (of which there are far too many, in my opinion) are “lifeless deserts.” I am also admittedly if embarrassingly romantic. I like a love story, and I rarely read (or write) anything without one.
While I do read very fast and skim unnecessary descriptions, I can appreciate “themes” on occasion if they don’t overshadow plot too much. I also can set aside other preferences if the writing is particularly beautiful, or there are symbols to decode. Otherwise, her statement could just as well be mine. Can you relate to this as well? What are your reading preferences?
My quote this week comes from a book I recently started called Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede–a favorite author of mine in my younger days. This is a fun story about an impressionable young girl and her family set in a kind of magical alternate version of the American West. The quote is an exchange that happens when the local teacher meets her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Rothmer, and a portion of their fourteen children for the first time.
“Pleased to meet you,” Miss Ochiba said. She and Mama looked at each other long and hard, and then they each gave a little nod, as if they’d had a whole conversation and both had come away satisfied. “These will be your children,” Miss Ochiba went on as if there’d been no slightest pause. “They’ve been saying you have a good-sized family.”
“Any size that’s wanted is good,” Mama said, and then told her our names.”
This is a pretty simple quote, but stood out to me for a few reasons. One is–I can’t help but gush–we had our third child, a baby girl (pictured) a couple months ago! She came seven weeks early, but is doing really well, and we are very pleased with her. Because she spent a couple weeks in the hospital, I spent a certain amount of time talking about her and our family to others, and fielded a lot of questions about why her brothers are so much older than she is (six and eight). The questions were kindly meant, and sometimes I gave short answers, and other times explained that she was born after a series of losses for our family.
Either way, it has occurred to me over the years that there just isn’t one perfect mold–one exact formula for what makes a good family. Good is, as Mrs. Rothmer points out, entirely a matter of choice, and, I would add, situation.
I also like this quote, and this book in general, because it deals with the varied effects of what “they’ve been saying,” or the words and opinions, often unwanted and unsolicited, of others. The main character, Eff, spends her life dealing with and being affected by what others say and how they treat her because of what they believe it means to be a thirteenth child. Her experiences seem to negate the old adage about sticks and stones, and affirm that words can indeed hurt.
Coming from a social media world, where opinions are readily expressed and spread, I liked this reminder that no matter how many children you have, whether or not you have any, or are even married, or whether or not your family fits the “mold.” What you’ve got can still be good–and the only opinions on the subject that really matter are your own.
Only in recent years have I begun a tentative toe-dipping back into the waters of the biography after becoming mostly disillusioned with the genre during my school days. Back then, any assignment to research some figure of choice became a quest, in my mind, to find a hero–someone I could hold up as a standard, whose life philosophy I could adopt and whose picture I could hang on my wall.
Inevitably, I came up disappointed– Shakespeare was likely an adulterer with questionable authorship, Beethoven a moody, unfaithful misanthrope, and even the seemingly flawless Audrey Hepburn was sometimes troubled and possibly anorexic. I became frustrated with what I deemed the disparity between the lives and the work of my favorite artists, and in the long run, decided I’d just rather not know their life details–instead remaining happily naive of the flaws and challenges of such persons of note.
It is only lately that I have returned to the genre–with a rather altered view. Therefore, picking up Leonard Cohen’s biography the other day had little to do with any quest for a hero. In fact, I can safely say that not only am I no Cohen expert, but anyone would be hard-pressed to even call me much of a fan. I am only vaguely familiar with his songs, and know next to nothing of him and his career as a singer/songwriter/author. My interest in the man lies in the fact that he was responsible for penning, in a few lines of song lyrics, words that have not only been immensely significant to me, but have become a sort of life philosophy. These are from his song, “Anthem.”
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
These lyrics express why my philosophy toward biography has changed over years. I used to believe that the value in any life existed solely in its merits–its smooth, unblemished surfaces. However, as Cohen so accurately suggests–there is no such thing as “unblemished” in ordinary humanity: “There is” rather, “a crack in everything. And, not only are the cracks, the flaws, the mistakes inevitable, but they are necessary. They are “how the light gets in,” the light of experience, wisdom, humility, redemption, and hope.
So, perhaps it is the pain of error, the carrying of personal shortcomings, the long weary wading through the muddy paths of life that allowed these people to create art–to forget their own impossible “perfect offering” and in pressing forward in a flawed, human way, to make room for something divine.
I came across this article in The Atlantic today. On a side note, you may have noticed that I post frequently from The Atlantic. Sorry. This is one of the only periodicals I frequent on a daily basis…and they just have great stuff. Expect to see more in the future.
Anyhow. I saw the article about how story spoilers don’t really spoil stories and laughed, and for my part I mostly agree. Confession time: I am one of those people who really doesn’t have a problem reading the end of the book first. It’s not that I just can’t wait, per se, to know what happens. For me (and here’s another confession) I just feel no obligation to finish…or start for that matter…a book that isn’t worth my time.
So, occasionally, I will skim through the book to get a feel for whether or not I’m going to want to invest in this particular story. Is the character I like still around in the end, or does she die? Are things going to be wrapped up somewhat satisfactorily? Are they finally going to kiss or what? These are the questions I might like to have answered before I read something. Then, once these burning questions are out of the way, I can sit back and enjoy the story (or put it back on the shelf as the case may be).
I admit there have been times when I have been disappointed at a spoiled ending. Due to the fact that I am always a little behind the viewing curve when it comes to TV, and thanks to the wonderful world of social media, I learned of Matthew Crawley’s death in Downton Abbey long before I ever started watching season three. And while I was momentarily disappointed at the spoiler, I don’t think knowing the end made watching the season any less enjoyable.
I won’t deny that there can be something pretty great about being surprised by a twist or turn, but at the same time, I can’t help but think that if the book/film/tv program is really any good it will be worth watching regardless of whether or not the final outcome is clear.
What do you think? Does a spoiler really spoil the story?
One morning about a month ago as my Nielsen men were headed out the door for work/school, my husband called me to the door to see a “surprise” waiting there for me. What I found was this graceful creature:
While anyone might find this a pleasing sight, I should, perhaps, explain why it is of particular interest to me. I may have mentioned that I am a Gene Stratton Porter fan, and along with being a novelist Porter was also something of an amateur naturalist. Her appreciation for the natural world appears even in her fiction. In perhaps her most well-known (and my personal favorite) novel, A Girl of the Limberlost, Porter’s heroine earns her way through an education by collecting and selling natural specimens, particularly moths, from the Indiana Limberlost swamp where she lives. So, while I have had an affinity for creeping things since childhood, my acquaintance with Porter’s novels has romanticized them for me.
I spent a certain amount of time that particular morning, even after the boys had gone, studying and photographing my visitor, expecting that when I opened the door again it would be gone. I was wrong, however, for when I next left the house, I found the moth remained. The boys and I continued what became a hobby in the next few days–this constant checking to see if our moth was still in residence. It had occasionally moved a few inches, but for about five days it stayed on our porch. The day we came out to find it finally missing left us with a real, but fleeting disappointment. It didn’t take us long to forget about our visitor altogether.
Yesterday, in a moment of random thought I remembered our moth, and developed a sudden curiosity to identify it. One brief online search led me to discover that our friend was, in fact, a Luna Moth. The name alone was an exciting one to me, as it is one of the moths featured in A Girl of the Limberlost, but as I began to read the fine print my interest grew.
Apparently, Lunas are one of the largest moths in North America. They are not necessarily uncommon, but seeing one is very rare as the creatures generally only live for up to 7 days. They do not have mouths or eat, they simply emerge from the cocoon, reproduce, and die.
My seven-year-old has a recent interest in unusual animal facts. A couple of weeks ago while he was astounding us with strange and amazing tidbits of information he was finding in an animal book, he shared that may-flies, similarly, do not eat, but merely live to reproduce and die–their lifespans sometimes being as short as a few minutes. This spurred me into some thinking and raised a number of questions in my mind (and not just questions of the validity of a life with out eating–although that was definitely among them). I wondered what function could this creature possibly serve? What was the point of a life so brief, that was bound to go unmarked. What was the purpose of a creature that lived merely to create more useless creatures before passing into oblivion.
Yet, here, as if in some kind of answer was the Luna Moth on my porch. Here was this beautiful, unique, delicate creature that spent what was probably the majority of its life resting at my door. This visitor in its still, quiet way made me think, and brought me a measure of simple joy. And while I recognize the arrogance in the thought that any of God’s creatures exists merely to give me pleasure, I can say that this creature’s life, however brief, meant something to me. I don’t intend to forget it.
I took my first trip to Washington DC a couple of weeks ago with my family. We had a lovely time visiting good friends and seeing many of the “must see” sights. There is, as you most likely know, a lot to see in DC–so many interesting, notable, historical, important things and places…some of which, I admit, were honestly inspiring.
One of these, for me, was the Library of Congress. Have you been there? It is beautiful. Obviously there are many lovely, marbled classical buildings in that city–but this one takes the cake. So much, light, and color, and grandeur.
I suppose it is not surprising, all things considered, that I should favor a library (one of the worlds two largest at that), especially knowing that my own book passed through at some point (along with 20,000 others a day, but you know). But one of my favorite things about the building was reading the writing on the walls, and ceilings, of the building. Dozens of quotations from notable literary and historical figures adorn the Great Hall, and I recorded a few of my favorites which I thought I would share here–recognizing the possibility that these may seem much less weighty on your computer screen than they did painted into the frescoes–but you can take them or leave them.
BEHOLDING THE BRIGHT COUNTENANCE OF TRUTH, IN THE QUIET
AND STILL AIR OF DELIGHTFUL STUDIES.
Milton, Introduction to Church Government
IT IS THE MIND THAT MAKES THE MAN, AND OUR VIGOR
IS IN OUR IMMORTAL SOUL Ovid
THEY ARE NEVER ALONE THAT ARE ACCOMPANIED WITH NOBLE THOUGHTS
Sir Philip Sidney, Arcadi
WISDOM IS THE PRINCIPAL THING; THEREFORE GET WISDOM;
AND WITH ALL THY GETTING, GET UNDERSTANDING
Holy Bible, Proverbs 4:7
IGNORANCE IS THE CURSE OF GOD,
KNOWLEDGE THE WING WHEREWITH WE FLY TO HEAVEN
Shakespeare, Henry IV, pt. ii, Act iv., Sc. 7
IN BOOKS LIES THE SOUL OF THE WHOLE PAST TIME
Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship, “The Hero as a Man of Letters”
WORDS ARE ALSO ACTIONS AND ACTIONS ARE A KIND OF WORDS
Emerson, Essays, “The Poet”
A while ago a friend and I went to see Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet perform a contemporary collection called “American Legends.” I spent most of my childhood dancing ballet, just quitting before high school to focus on other interests. Yet, while I had seen my share of classical ballet and contemporary (modern) dance, this was the first time I had been to a contemporary ballet, and I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. The highlight of the show (and frankly, the reason we chose to attend this particular performance) was the final ballet, Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs.”
I loved it; smiled the whole time. And, once I got past the fact that the women were in heels, and the men in tuxes, it occurred to me that in spite of the obvious costume and music departures, when it came right down to it, contemporary ballet was still, essentially, ballet. The steps, the form, the structure were all there under the long skirts and spinning mirror ball.
During my dancing years I can’t remember how many times I heard someone preach, “if you can dance ballet well, you can dance anything well.” Which was true, at least for me. Once I had a basic mastery of the discipline of ballet; jazz, modern, tap, street funk (yes, I grew up in the 80-90s, and yes, I danced a mean “running man”) were a breeze. And, I can’t help but think that writing well is not dissimilar.
The argument about whether or not to teach grammar was rolling around when I was studying education, and I imagine it still rages. Some of my English classmates at Utah State used to argue that really good writers can write around the grammar and usage areas they are unfamiliar with, and while I definitely see their point, I also think that, like dancing ballet, if you can master the structure, the discipline of writing, then the rest is a breeze.
That is not to say that I have always felt this way. In fact, I was vehemently annoyed with much of the grammar instruction during my school years and received middling to poor grades on many papers before I began to give in to direction on how to structure an essay. My general disinterest in details has made me inclined to be very excited about whatever point I wanted to make, or story I wanted to tell—often at the expense of telling them well. I specifically remember sitting down with an English professor to talk about a paper and having him tell me that my ideas were fantastic…but that it might be a good idea to print out my paper and actually read through it once before handing it in. As the years have passed, however, I have seen firsthand the benefits of understanding what makes good, clean, clear writing and applying it.
Make no mistake, the idea is essential, but in order to express it, to really communicate the thought or the story, it is crucial that a writer knows, technically, how to write it with skill. After all, knowing what you want to dance is only as important as knowing how to dance it, and dance it well.
I first read Thoreau as a high school student, and while I have heard the teaching of Walden to high school students criticized (as the text is apparently un-relatable for teenagers), I found, being slightly off-center myself, that I related to his odes to nonconformity, and many have made a lasting impression.
“The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men,” he writes, “and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!” I think I often find that my mind tends to travel the same rutted paths, and that occasionally I need opportunities to step out of them.
Recently, I made a weekend trip to Salt Lake City to attend an author dinner hosted by my publisher. It was a short, pleasant trip and afforded me an opportunity to enjoy the familiar faces of family and friends, as well as to make new acquaintances. I returned to Chicago feeling refreshed, especially in my perspectives, and have spent a few days thinking about the value of a journey.
I can think of several times in my life when a change of locale—the actually physical walking in different places—has offered a release from my usual thought patterns and perceptions, and I would assert that sometimes if not always, in order to change as a person, a journey of some kind is required.
Journeys in fantasy novels are nothing new; a “noble quest,” is something of a standard, and the genre is rife with examples. In fact the greater “archetypal pattern”—as illustrated by Plato’s allegory of the cave—suggests that in order to gain a new view and see what the world really is, you have to leave your current position. The characters in Journey to the Fringe, in order to see the true nature of their land and of themselves, have to leave the kingdom behind. When they ultimately return to face what threatens Lyria, they come armed with the new knowledge and power.
So, this week as I am getting “back in the Chicago groove,” I am feeling glad of a chance to return with new eyes, and find that while I don’t believe that a “journey” necessitates a plane ticket or a perilous sea voyage, I do believe that I just might need one on occasion. For the earth, as always, “is soft and impressible by the feet of men.”