Wednesday, March 13, 2019

February 2019 Reads

A post about the books I read in the last month.

January 2019 Reads

A long time ago I was going to go to graduate school for environmental studies with a focus on literature and writing, but life got in the way, the way it does, and that never happened. I did eventually get a graduate degree in writing, but I've still always wished I had more knowledge and background in nature and environmental writing. So a while ago, I found online a series of lectures on the history of environmental literature and got to work. It's taken me about 2 1/2 years to work my way through all of the lectures and readings, last month finishing up with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Unfortunately, the last two lectures seem to be missing from the internet, so I'll never know what's happened in enviromental literature since 1962, but it was a good place to end since I spent a lot of time this past summer reading a biography of Carson and some of her other works. It's been about 20+ years since I last read Silent Spring, and if you haven't read it in a while (or ever) I recommend picking it up again. It's still such a powerful book and still so relevant to the careless way we humans handle dangerous technologies and written in a way that is the perfect blend of scientific authority and lyrical phrasing.

I heard about the next book on my list, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, when the author, Ruth Franklin, was interviewed on the #AmWriting podcast. I've been a Shirley Jackson fan since high school, when I read my mom's dusty paperback copy of The Haunting of Hill House and some of her creepier stories ("The Lottery," of course, and "Louisa, Please Come Home"). I discovered her books about life with kids, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, when my kids were little, and I was obsessed with finding and reading every published short story of hers when I was working on my MFA. I can't believe I missed this biography when it came out in 2017 (okay, maybe I can believe it, since I don't read the New York Review of Books or anything). But I'm so glad I did find it now. So, so good. I loved reading about the evolution of Jackson as a writer, her rocky relationship with her husband, her experience parenting four kids, her sad end. I'm obsessed all over again.

So of course I had to check out The Lottery and reread the stories all over again, in context (I seriously don't know why I don't own my own copy of this book). I try, as I did while working on my MFA, to figure out how she does it, how she creates the twists and turns of plot, the breath-taking endings, the unforgettably strange characters (oh, James Harris) and scenarios. And I can't do it.

I also read one of the last Elizabeth Peters books I picked up during my used-bookstore-trawling last summer: Trojan Gold, a Vicky Bliss adventure/suspense/mystery. Vicky is one of Peters's more entertaining and endearing characters, so these are always a fun read.

If I were to add Ann Zwinger to this list, it would be my pantheon of writers—Rachel Carson, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels, Ann Zwinger—which makes for an intersting range that I myself don't entirely understand: fiction and nonfiction; nature, the environment, history, archaeology, witchcraft; humor, horror, suspense, caper. All geniuses and writers I bow down to.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Knitting as Metaphor for Writing

A surprising number of writers are knitters (as attested by Ann Hood's two anthologies on the subject, Knitting Yarns and Knitting Pearls). Maybe it's because writing is so open-ended it's nice to have a pattern to follow. Or perhaps writers are "busy hands" types, who need to feel productive, even while watching TV. Or it could just be that knitting is a guilt-free form of procrastination because, hey, you're still being creative, right?

I think it's a little of all of these things, but also that knitting is a metaphor for writing. There's the burst of creativity in the planning (and the possibilities) at the beginning, the necessity of making choices that narrow those possibilities to one yarn, one pattern, one character, one plot. Then comes the long stretch of often-tedious stitch-by-stitch, word-by-word work before you come out with a hat or an essay or a story or a sweater or a novel. Then there's the weaving in of the ends, the blocking and shaping, the finishing.

Last winter, I finished this cahsmere hat that had taken me a year to knit because it was lace-weight yarn on size 2 needles, with about a thousand stitches per round. The hat came out too big, even after I ripped out the brim and redid it four times, and it grew even bigger after I wore it around the house for a while. I tried threading a ribbon through the lacy bits, but it looked silly and I was unlikely to ever wear it. But I didn't want to waste that whole year of work and that skein of soft soft yarn. I knew I had to mathematically figure out how many stitches I should end up with and how many decrease rounds I needed to get there, and then rip it out and reknit the brim one last time.

That seemed like a real pain in the neck, so the hat sat in a bag for more than a year, and during that year I didn't knit anything else except for a handful of preemie hats to donate to the hospital. I bought some yummy yarn at the Fiber Frolic last June, and I had a couple of other big knitting projects in mind, but I couldn't get started on anything as long as that cashmere hat lingered in its bag and on my mind. Finally last month, after a trip to the yarn store from which I came home with a bagful of goodies and big plans, I pulled out the hat, did a little measuring and counting and dividing, and ripped out the brim and reknit it one last time. All told, it took only a few hours, and the hat, in the end, finally fits. Right away, I cast on a new project, as if a great blockage had been cleared from the knitting pipeline.

What does this have to do with writing? I've had a similar problem in that department—a lot of ideas and plans swimming around, but an inability to approach them with anything more than a sort of aimless groping. After I finished my hat, I realized I need to finish The Book, which has been hanging out in a kind of limbo, of being done and revised and out on submission to agents, but also needing (I knew deep inside) further revision and a perhaps a different approach to publication.

As soon as I had this realization, I got up early the next morning—and every morning since—and got to work on my revision plan. My goal is to finish by the end of March, at the rate of 10 pages per day, and, as with the hat, my process is to pull out unnecessary stitches and tighten the whole thing up. I hope that, by the end of spring, The Book will move on to a new stage in its life and a great blockage will have been cleared from the writng pipeline, leaving me free to get started on the next book.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Boys' Room Refresh ~ Purple!

After M moved to his own bedroom last November, and after he finally finished clearing all of his junk out of it much, much later, we started prepping what was now E and Z's room for a slight remodel (this room has undergone a number reorganizations as the needs of three boys have evolved and changed: bunk beds, overhaul part I and part II, loft bed). But after 16 years and three boys, the room needed a lot more than reorganization this time around; it needed a total facelift.

Not even a construction zone can take E away from his Minecraft.
The first order of business was to fill about 18 trillion pushpin holes on the walls and ceiling (yes, ceiling) with joint compound, and paint said ceiling with two coats of white to cover a film of dirty finger and footprints (the downside of bunk beds). Then we got started with the walls.

At first Z wanted purple and E wanted hot pink. Hot pink doesn't exactly work with my color scheme, and I figure at least one compensation for having all boy children is that I've never had to live with a pink room in my house. Then E switched to purple and Z decided he wanted red. Or black. So we went with purple. (When I told a friend whose kids were little in the 90s, she said, "You mean like Barney?"  Since he'd gone extinct by the time my kids were preschool age, hadn't even thought of Barney, but now I gotta admit, yeah, it's pretty close to the color of Barney.)

The whole process took several weeks, requiring, as it did, for C and I to both have the time and the enthusiasm at the same time on the weekends, so E and Z have been living with their room dismantled for a while. Sunday afternoon, after the paint dried, I washed the floors and all the woodwork, cleaned the construction (and preconstruction) dust off all the furniture, made up the beds with new sheets and clean bedding, and put the furniture into place. Then at midnight my internal Mom alarm went off—Z had come down with a sudden stomach virus and didn't have time to get down from his loft bed. He had the foresight to keep his bedding clean by leaning over the rail, sea-sick-syle, and I spent the middle of the night rewashing the floor and all of the furniture and the woodwork and the newly painted wall (fortunately, the room was not its usual state of chaos, and E's basket of clean laundry was just outside the splash radius, and all of the dresser drawers were closed). I've reconsidered my brief thought of getting a rug for between the beds.

We still need to get desks and window treatments, clean out the closet, which is stuffed with outgrown toys and books and all of the things that had taken up space in the room before we started on the walls, and decorate (though I'm in no hurry to hang anything on the wall anytime soon).
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