Archive for April, 2010

Today at lunch, one of my best writing buddies and I were talking about joy. Specifically, how to get more of it into lives that have become so busy, budgets that have become so tight, and families that have grown and changed and sometimes separated.

We talked about the little pleasures from the past, the moments when we’ve felt most at ease with our worlds and with ourselves. We mentioned floating on a raft in the Gulf of Mexico. Long walks with something corny on the iPod. Cooking up something wicked in the kitchen (this was my friend, not me…lol). Making silly things we aren’t even very good at, like Christmas ornaments, posters, ceramics, macrame.

And then I mentioned poetry.

She’s polite, but her eyes got wide. Poetry? I’m sorry. I know it sounds impossible. Isn’t poetry something you slave over in school? But I can’t help it. I’m a geek that way. My parents were both writers, and they both created beautiful poetry. They shared their favorite poems with my sister and me even before we could read. They quoted the greats when they wanted to give advice. “Ah, love, let us be true to one another…” “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter…”

And we got hooked. I still find wisdom, beauty and consolation in the poems I love. They give me much the same feeling I get from a really good romance. Here’s what Percy Shelley said about poetry: “It strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty…”

Isn’t that what we want from a book? Don’t we want a writer who can help us see our worlds through fresh eyes? Don’t we want to awake anew to the beauty that is a part of everything, but we’ve begun to take it for granted? Don’t we want to remember what that first rush of falling love feels like…that first coming together in wondrous intimacy?

Of course, I also want to make silly things and play with paints, like a preschooler. The picture at the beginning of this post is my beloved collection of hand-painted mugs–hand-painted by me, a woman who has absolutely zero artistic talent, at one of those do-it-yourself pottery places. I’ve made five so far, the first back in 2004. Each one has one of my favorite quotes on it. So far, I’ve got

“Margaret, are you grieving?” from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poignant “Spring and Fall”
“I’ll come to thee by moonlight,” from Alfred Noyes’ tragic ballad, “The Highwayman”
“I am half sick of shadows,” from Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott”
“Yet we will make him run,” from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”
“The seven stars go squawking, like geese about the sky,” from Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”

They look like a pre-schooler’s work, and yet I cherish every one. I remember the fun I had making them, with my friends, my sister, my daughter… And I remember each poem, and the joy it has brought me through the years. In fact, I think it’s time to make another, because every set of coffee mugs should have at least six, don’t you think?

Any suggestions for the next quote? Anyone out there a poetry geek, too? If you don’t have any poetry to share, I’d still love to hear where in this hectic world you still can find nuggets of joy. I just heard from my friend while I was writing this post, and she reports that she’s out in the pool, floating on a raft and refusing to let anything get her down. That makes me happy. Or, as Shakespeare would say, “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, all losses are restored, and sorrows end.”

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A no-brainer

This morning, I saw this article about a study that seems to show that playing “brain games” doesn’t really boost your IQ.

What? Someone is going to blow my cover? Someone is going to peel away the safe excuse I’ve always used for playing games on my computer when I should be writing?

Now that’s seriously bad news. I love slipping away from a character who is being difficult, or a scene that just won’t unfold the way I’d planned, and spending a few minutes playing Free Cell or Ice Breakers or Hearts. I try not to stay too long. I have all kinds of goofy little rules. If I lose twice in a row, I go back to the book. If I win three times in a row, I go back to the book. If I don’t win at least two times in a row, I go back to the book.

Okay, so deep inside I’ve always known it was a little nuts–and a lot self-indulgent.   I never have any conscious writing breakthroughs while I’m playing the games.  In fact, I don’t even consciously think about the book at all. I’m totally focused on making sure I don’t end up with the Queen of Spades in Hearts! But sometimes, after a short game break, I return to the uncooperative character with a new idea, and I’m able to fight through a roadblock.

Of course, other times, I come back just as frustrated…or don’t come back at all, having been caught in the rays of the fun until I ran out of writing time.  On those days, it’s been nice to be able to tell myself I’d still done some good by stretching my brain, at least.

And now along come these guys, who want to rip that crutch out from under me!

What about you?  Does this study change your mind? Do you think your computer games are good for you–or a waste of writing time and energy?

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I heard a fascinating program on the radio the other day, an interview with a book critic who had invited readers to tell her about books they’d always tried to read but couldn’t finish. She got responses of everything from Wolf Hall (a current bestseller) to Ulysses (I could have predicted that one!).

I know we all have a book like that. It’s a classic, one of the novels everyone loves…except us. A story we are told we ought to like, because it’s wonderful, and it is….but not to us. Books that sound just up our alley, but turn out to be dead ends. Books we admire but don’t enjoy. Books we feel too guilty to give away, but somehow, on our shelves, only gather dust.

For me, it’s Atlas Shrugged. It’s not because it’s politically controversial. I like controversy, and I’d read it whether I agreed with it or not, just to see what it’s all about. Except I can’t. I don’t know why. I just can’t.

On the other hand, what about the books you thought you’d hate but turned out to love? Books that seemed too hard, too long, too turgid, too dull? But suddenly…you’re hooked! For me, that book was the first Dorothy Dunnett Lymond Chronicle book, Game of Kings. It’s long, it’s hard…it intimidated the heck out of me. My friends raved. Still, I hesitated, year after year. But finally I found my way into it. And I fell in love. My inner landscape is forever changed, because of this magnificent series and, of course, the man himself, Francis Crawford of Lymond.

How about you? What classic did you never master, never learn to love as everyone said you should? (Please just classics! Let’s don’t undermine anyone who’s still alive, trying to hang on to the confidence to write.) What book did you think you would hate–but ended up loving?

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Once, on a hot summer afternoon a couple of years ago, His Highness found me in the back yard, weeding out an old flower bed I’d ignored for ages. “What on earth made you decide to—” Then he stopped. “Oh. You’re starting a new book.”

We’ve been married a long time, so he knows. It’s always like that. The anxiety, the nerves, the sheer mind-breaking work involved in creating a new story are so awful that I’ll do anything, anything rather than sit at my desk. I reorganize my closet, create a card catalog for my books, paint my office, polish the silver. Bed out forgotten gardens. It’s all easier than trying to spin the straw of my chaotic thoughts into the gold of a finished book.

I’m working on a new story now, which of course means I’ve been working on the yard. This weekend was especially grueling, as we raked up the last of four million oak leaves and discovered more weeds than grass underneath.

As I reached down, perspiring and muttering, to uproot the nearest interloper, a sprinkling of deep green leaves and lavender blossoms, I flashed back to my childhood.

My best friend and I played outside for hours, and we made houses in the garden for our toys. We hunted for those small stray flowers in the grass, yellow or purple, or (my very favorite) one with a little navy blue center surrounded by white lace. When we found them, we always built our houses there, where obviously the fairies had sprinkled diamond and sapphire and topaz in the night.

Later, when my own daughter was a little girl, we came across clover sprouting in the back yard. I told her they were fairy houses. She squatted in front of them for long minutes of silent awe, her starfish hands on her knees, studying them. She believed in the invisible fairies, without any evidence except the glossy emerald beauty of the tiny stem and rounded roof.

Where did that sense of wonder go? That easy joy, the awareness that beauty was everywhere, and magic rained in the night? When had these jeweled surprises become problems? When had I become so obsessed with the responsibility of “maintaining the lawn” that I forgot to smile at the little lavender fairy’s house, half-hidden under the leaves?

And suddenly I understood why I dreaded starting that book. I’d lost the wide-eyed joy, the sense of play. Why should I be afraid of beginning a new story? It is the most magical time of all, when nothing is set in stone, when everything is possible. When spontaneity, whimsy, and imagination are the ingredients that, brewed with joy, can create a fascinating new world.

I didn’t pull the little purple weed. My eyes opening, I spotted a yellow one, too, over by the wall. I got my camera and took pictures of them, ignoring the look His Highness gave me across his rake, while he obviously tried to recall the symptoms of sunstroke.

And then I came in and started to work…no…started to play on my book.

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