November Hodgepodge 2013 – Keep Writing!

[Are your fingers flying feverishly on a NaNoWriMo project? Or are you you working on something else? Here are a few quotes to encourage you to keep writing!]

I don’t impose any word count or number-of-hours quota on myself, or have any rules, except one: persistence. Nothing glamorous. No epiphanies. Just revisiting and rewriting. For me, momentum is far more important than inspiration.
– Pam Muñoz Ryan

Write in any way that works for you. Write in a tuxedo or in the shower with a raincoat or in a cave deep in the woods.
– John Gardner

The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside us while we live.
– Norman Cousins

A goal is a dream with a finish line.
– Duke Ellington

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.
– Bilbo Baggins, in The Hobbit

Keep going; never stop; sit tight;
Read something luminous at night.
– Edmund Wilson

I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
– Ernest Hemingway

There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.
– Norwegian proverb

[Okay, that last item is not really about writing, but it might help you find an extra ounce of gumption in the face of literary or life’s headwinds.]

October Hodgepodge 2013

Here are a few thoughts (about creativity and the writing process) to savor:

”Inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it.”
– Madeleine L’Engle

“You climb a long ladder until you can see over the roof, or over the clouds.  You are writing a book. You watch your shod feet step on each round rung, one at a time; you do not hurry and do not rest.  Your feet feel the steep ladder’s balance; long muscles in your thighs check its sway.  You climb steadily, doing your job in the dark.
When you reach the end, there is nothing more to climb.  The sun hits you. The bright wideness surprises you; you had forgotten there was an end.  You look back at the ladder’s two feet on the distant grass astonished.”
Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life

No matter how hard you work on your writing, there will always be other writers who are better, faster, deeper, more popular, richer. And that’s fine.”
– Jane Yolen, in an interview in the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
– Albert Einstein

“There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun.”
– Pablo Picasso

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.”
– J.M. Barrie, in The Little White Bird, “Peter Pan” chapter

“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.”
John Burroughs, naturalist (1837–1921)

November Hodgepodge – Being a Writer

Don’t, please, get precious about your working methods. . . . The more you humor your inadequacies by compensating with phony environment, the tougher your work will become. You have to be in a mood. I grant that. But if you haven’t the understanding of yourself to be in any mood when you wish – then don’t fool around with the mood business. Be an automobile salesman. I would like you to be able to write as well as you can with pen, pencil, and typewriter, in tree houses, boiler factories, and on subway trains. I insist you must be able to write as well as you can with a stomach-ache, a crying baby, a paving drill going – and on a typewriter that has a non-functioning “e” and an inoperable backspace. If you want and need to. Then – for your regular surroundings – any moderately quiet, well-ventilated room with an ordinary typewriter table and chair will be paradisiacal.
– Philip Wylie (1902–1971), co-author of When Worlds Collide (1932)

I can’t decide for you whether or not you have got to write, but if anything in the world, war, or pestilence, or famine, or private hunger, or anything, can stop you from writing, then don’t write . . . because if anything can even begin to keep you from writing you aren’t a writer and you’ll be in a hell of a mess until you find out. If you are a writer, you’ll still be in a hell of a mess, but you’ll have better reasons.
– William Saroyan (1908–1981), author of The Time of Your Life, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, which he declined to accept.

I believe there are writers who enjoy writing. For my part, I loathe and abhor it. I enjoy immensely sitting in an easy chair before the fire, closing my eyes and rapturously envisaging the sweep, the drive, the sounds, and the fury of the masterpiece – they are all masterpieces at that stage – which I am going to produce. But writing – ah! That is a different pair of shoes! . . . No sooner am I seated at my desk than I want to get up again, to wander about the room, look at the view, eat apples, suck toffee . . . .
– A.J. Cronin (1896–1981), author of The Stars Look Down

I confess, right at the start, to the doubts  – and sometimes outright dreads  – that go with me as I climb the stairs to my study in the morning, coffee mug in hand: I have to admit to the habitual apprehension mixed with a sort of reverence, as I light the incense . . . and wonder: what is going to happen today? Will anything happen? Will the angel come today?
– Gail Godwin (1937–), American novelist

I have no idea whether what I write will be of the remotest interest to anyone else. Some mornings when I read what I wrote the previous day I think it’s fairly entertaining; other times I think it’s pure rubbish. The main thing is not to take any notice, not to be elated or upset, just keep going.
– Maeve Binchy (1940–2012), Irish novelist

[Quotes from Wylie, Saroyan, Cronin, and Binchy appeared in issues of The Writer magazine, in Feb. 1938, Sept. 1938, Dec. 1938 – it was a good year –and Feb. 2000 respectively, and all reappeared in The Writer’s Handbook 2002; quote from Godwin is from “Rituals and Readiness: Getting Ready To Write,” a wonderful article in The Writing Life (1995), a collection of essays by National Book Award winners.]

 

October Hodgepodge for Writers

“I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten – happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.”
– Brenda Ueland, American writer (1891–1985)

“I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me.”
– Ray Bradbury, American speculative-fiction author (1920–2012)

“The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”
– Madeleine L’Engle, American speculative-fiction author & essayist (1918–2007)

“Brevity is the sister of talent.”
– Anton Chekhov, Russian short-story author & playwright (1860–1904)

“The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.”
– Robert Frost, American poet (1874–1963)

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
– Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), British author & mathematician (1832–1898), in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

More Kindle, Schmindle – Further Thoughts on Books, Stories, and Pages

I’m still not convinced that eBooks are as successful literary devices as print books are, or even that they have as great potential. (They have other potential – speed and info abundance and portability – but they fall short, I believe, in pure storytelling impact.)

Compare how differently each stimulates the use of brain, especially the creative imaginations of the readers. In children’s books, an example is the book by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, winner of a 2008 Caldecott Medal.

(It led, of course, to the movie Hugo, which then built its own imaginative story-rich world appropriate to that movie medium.)

For those interested in books and literature, it’s worth reading this speech by the author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret book, with insight into the power of the book and the printed page.

In his speech, Selznick considered the secret of the magic of a book:

And the secret was in the page turns.

Think about the wild rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are. The pictures grow until they take over the entire book and there is no more room for words. Only the reader turning the page can move the story forward. We are put in charge at the exact moment Max himself takes charge. We become Max, all because of the page turns.

Ultimately, it’s about the power of the story, not the medium. But many of the best authors (and publishers) are still working with the printed page, and it’s not because they don’t know better.

It’s like the testimony at the 2012 Oscar Award ceremony a few nights ago, as a host of silver-screen actors commented on the impact that going to the movies had on them. It was a story of a rich experience, often a communal one, and one where the size of the screen, with its ability to draw one into its depths, and the immense commitment of the actors and directors to the quality of that experience, rang loud and clear. They may not have said it out loud, but they were arguing against grand movies turned into small-sized shrunken videos seen on a tiny iPad or Kindle, or against the amateur immediacy of YouTube – at least when quality is concerned.

Brian Selznick also references, in his speech, a “brilliant little essay,” titled “A Page is a Door,” by one of his own book-making heroes, Remy Charlip:

A book is a series of pages held together at one edge, and these pages can be moved on their hinges like a swinging door. . . . Of course if a door has something completely different behind it, it is much more exciting. The element of delight and surprise is helped by the physical power we feel in our own hands when we move that page or door to reveal a change in everything that has gone before, in time, place, or character. A thrilling picture book not only makes beautiful single images or sequential images, but also allows us to become aware of a book’s unique physical structure, by bringing our attention, once again, to that momentous moment: the turning of the page.

Yes, Charlip and Selznick are talking here about picture books. But I’d argue that a similar phenomenon takes places, with a more subtle nature, in chapter books. For some reason, we understand and enjoy the finiteness of the page, the feel of the paper, the curiosity of what lies on the other side.

Consider another series of books of recent success: the Harry Potter series. For some reason, millions of fans wanted to buy and read hardcover books. Yes, this was in part because it was the only format the books were first released in. But there was also a sense of community. Kids and adults stood in lines, got their books, and sat and read them, joining in a real-life worldwide community of readers focused on a very tangible thing: a new novel by J.K. Rowling. Was there a prestige of being the first to have and hold those pages?

Would those books ever have succeeded had they been conceived, released, and existed only as eBooks? I suspect that the physical existence of all those printed books and all those readers of all those printed books . . . and the ongoing presence of the books on shelves in home and bookstores and libraries . . . has something to do with their success.

And . . . if they were only released as eBooks, would the author and publisher have even bothered? (See my argument for the effect an eBook-dominated approach would have on authors – especially authors of longer works – in my original Kindle, Schmindle post on this Writer’s Handbook blog.)

If nothing else, I’m encouraging people not to jump on the eBooks bandwagon because of a misperception that it’s somehow “the future of books.” Let’s look more closely at the medium and what’s being done with it.

Will eBooks ever capture the same excitement of getting a real copy of [your favorite book here] and curling up in a comfortable chair to open the cover and begin to turn the pages?

Until eBooks can deliver that kind of magic, I still have a preference for the printed book.

Writing-World.com Review of How To Write Your Best Story

Here’s a link to a recent review by Moira Allen, editor of Writing-World.com, of How To Write Your Best Story.

Here’s a bit of it:

What [Martin] succeeds in doing, admirably, is not only describing some of the elements of good storytelling, but describing them in such a way as to model good storytelling in the very act of explaining it. In short, this book is wonderfully readable. I have stacks of books on my shelf, waiting to be read – but when I picked up this one I wanted to keep going until I finished it.

You might want to sign-up for Writing-World.com’s excellent free biweekly e-newsletter. It features a useful article or two, plus listings of worthwhile contests and magazine markets looking for submissions.

Moira Allen, Writing-World.com’s editor, has published hundreds of articles, many for The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and other writing publications, along with seven books, including How to Write for Magazines; Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer; The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals; and her most recent book, Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.

Memoirs – Fact, Fiction, or “Truthiness”?

Some might disparage the memoir as unverifiable history – perhaps inflated or poorly remembered facts from the past. Memory may indeed be seen by historians or journalists as somewhat inferior, flawed, imperfect history.

But as a folklorist and a book editor (currently editing several memoirs), I want to encourage you to consider what memoirs do well . . . and why they are so popular and powerful.

The memoir is a literary form that blends documentary first-person history, mixed to some degree with (consciously or not) selective memory and value-rich storytelling.

Yes, memoirs are, in part, documentary history, albeit from one person’s perspective. Events are seen and interpreted through one person’s point of view. Therefore, they can bring a valuable, boots-on-the-ground perspective to history. And when it comes to history, we’d like the facts to be accurate. While sometimes facts in memoirs are misremembered, just as often they document and record things that are simply missing from official records. (Most documents are typically created and kept by the high and mighty, less often than by the grunt in the trenches, the man or woman on the street, etc.)

But it’s as important, I believe, to recognize that memoirs are also a type of personal story.

Indeed, that is probably their main role: to bring insight into the invisible realm of the memoir author’s values. A memoir raises on a pedestal what an individual felt was most important to remember and honor and share through his or her stories. While this may not create a documentary, impartial account . . . it is all the more interesting and valuable because of that.

After all, stories are how we chose to organize information so that it makes some sort of meaning . . . even if that meaning is invented or revised or selected to tell a particular story. The process of selection – what we choose to remember, and how – reveals so much about what we value. Therefore, memoirs are very successful in communicating values – out in the open or intangibly through the web of stories.

A folklorist sees memories as “true”: true memories. They are indeed what people remember, and choose to relate. I was often asked in my documentary projects if I knew the stories I was told were true. I always answered yes: they are true stories. No more, no less.

In many ways, the full range of culture (community, family, or personal) is almost impossible to understand without these organized clues. They suggest what’s going on invisibly, beneath the surface . . . the things people almost never record or acknowledge, sometimes even to themselves . . . except when pressed to explore and speak or write about those things after the fact, in things like memoirs.

And as a folklorist, I’ll also note that what we perceive as “factual” is often quite biased, as I’ve discovered in working on documentary projects. While the written or photographic evidence may be “accurate” in one sense, it is often quite slanted. Just as often, it turns out that the official record is fabricated or selected to create its own “truthiness” (Thanks to Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report for that word).

So memoirs, yes, should be evaluated for factual reliability . . . just as a corporate memo or a historical society overflowing with documents of rich people should be.

So here’s to memoirs.

Their richness can help us form a more accurate, balanced picture, including more of what otherwise may have been overlooked or swept under the rug . . . not always because it was sensational but often because was considered too ordinary, and thus in danger of being lost to history. Without memoirs, we would have a skewed record of what people really cared did and thought and cared about.

And the points at which a memoir may depart from fact are, in my view, not necessarily errors. They might be insights.

Kindle, Schmindle – Hey, I Love Real Books

No, I don’t hate the idea of a Kindle, or a Nook, or a Sony Reader, or any other e-book readers out there.

And I’m not a card-carrying Luddite. (That’s a trick question: Luddites wouldn’t carry a printed card, would they?) In fact, I’ll probably publish a title or two in 2010 in e-book editions (alongside hard-copy editions in print).

But . . . there are a few things about the hoopla surrounding e-book readers that underwhelm me, as a practical Midwesterner.

First and foremost, it’s hype to extol this format as “the future of the book.” And to lament the possible demise of the printed book. This kind of hype is always tossed about, fueled by media’s interest in provocative headlines, plus industry’s desire to sell the latest gizmo as fast as they can. And it’s echoed by early adopters, of course, who want the rest of us to jump on the bandwagon (otherwise, they wouldn’t be early adopters, just folks wearing the emperor’s new clothes). And we all want technology to come down in price, so volume helps. And so on.

Yes, the Kindle/Reader, etc. does offer advantages in certain circumstances. One example is a person traveling . . . who wants to take a bunch of reading material. A Kindle is lighter than a stack of books. It has other clear benefits. Speed of delivery to your device when a book order is placed. Ability to search and find a given phrase. Ability to increase the size of the type.

Okay, but let’s look at a few serious negatives, beyond the hype.

1. Cost of the Kindle, Nook, Reader, etc. unit.
This is absurdly often swept under the rug when talking about the wonders of new technology. But what does it really cost to purchase, maintain, learn to use, and occasionally upgrade or fix or replace an outmoded device? I can buy a lot of books for a couple hundred bucks.

2. Longevity of the Books
Let’s face it, paper is a superior technology in proven longevity. Physical books will stick around; they’ll be readable in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. . . . Is that true of e-books? Can you transfer them from device, from person to person? Do you believe they’ll be readable in 5 years or more? E-books might be best for titles you want to read and toss fairly soon. Physical books, perhaps, are better suited for books you want to keep.

3. Reliability Day to Day
Your e-book reader functions today. Will it tomorrow? Battery problems? Other issues? What if Amazon decides to remotely erase your e-copy of a book, as they did with their edition of Orwell’s 1984. (Was it just a freaky coincidence that it was that book, of all books?). Again, physical books score high in reliability.

4. Ability to Share the Book
Want to lend a book to a friend? Or give one as a gift? The physical book is better suited as a thoughtful gift, for a number of reasons, such as knowing the recipient will be able to read it! For e-books? . . . probably best to give a gift card, that most vanilla of gifts.

5. The Reader Experience
I love books, and so come with a bias. But think about how you read. If just to acquire information, then the device hardly matters. And the most efficient device should win. But if you’re like me . . . you enjoy the experience of reading a physical book . . . not because of habit but because you’re sophisticated enough to realize the experience is well designed . . . by generations of book designers, typographers, printers, and yes, by writers and illustrators.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I relate to the nature of a real printed book. I actually enjoy turning a physical page; it reinforces the sense of forward motion through a book, from beginning to end. When I get to the last pages of a great book, I experience a remarkable feeling of closure, sometimes bittersweet, as I come to the last page and leave the world of that book.

And I read books in brief chunks. I set them down, by my bedside or downstairs on the coffee-table. These real books, lying there with their evocative covers, are my reminders of what I’m reading. I don’t climb into bed and think, hey, I want to read Beautiful Creatures (what I’m currently in the midst of). I get into bed and see it, there on the nightstand. That’s my prompt. Otherwise, let’s see . . . would I fire up the Kindle, and look for a file? (After a day of working at a computer . . . no way!)

This isn’t like the audiophile who appreciates vinyl records as something nostalgic and tangible. Rather, there’s a strong correlation . . . logical and reinforcing . . . between the design of a book and the physical act of picking up a book and reading it, page by page.

6. Motivation for Writers

Those folks eagerly promoting new technologies haven’t always thought about the impact on writers.

Take a minute to think how the digital file has changed the recording industry . . . the concept of the longer album has given way to the random-shuffle of single cuts. And musicians have switched to giving their music away for less and instead making money on live shows on tours.

So let’s say you’re, oh . . . Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Are you going to write Huck Finn and get it published? Or just stick with your short comedic pieces like “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”? Which will do better in an e-world, or in performance on tour? Fun stories or great literature?

What does it all add up to?
In summary: physical books have an economic model that (mostly) functions, to sell books with real ownership, longevity, and a nice reader experience.

E-books and e-reading devices . . . economically, technologically, and professionally . . . are more experimental than you might think. And let’s face it, the purveyors of these devices care more about their bottom lines and less about the future of decent literature of any length and substance and quality, produced by the most skilled writers. Of course, they have a lot to gain by making you think that e-books are the coolest thing. And to buy physical books is a bit old-fashioned.

Just think about what really works. And what it really costs.

I tell my friends I’m a futurist. I believe that the future will feature paper books, on your shelves, in your hands, as great gifts, as graceful reader experiences with artful covers . . . and amazingly, they will work! You can read them! You can share them!

Kindle, schmindle.

(By the way, I’m more excited by the book-at-a-time printing device. It’s a small machine that prints a physical book on the spot while you wait. Now that’s cool! It solves a real problem of distribution . . . eliminating costs of shipping and stocking inventory, and shelf wear, and returns . . . for hard-copy books. Hey, that’s better for everyone concerned in the business and art of book literature.)

Yes, Kindles and Nooks and Readers fill a certain niche for info you want to get quickly, cheaply, and that you may not want to keep for too long.

That’s not really why I’m in the world of books.

December Hodgepodge (On Creativity)

“When I was young, I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures.  So I did ten times more work.”
– George Bernard Shaw

“The most successful people are those who are good at Plan B.”
—James Yorke, mathematician

“The best sentence? The shortest.”
– Anatole France, French poet and novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

“Details make stories human, and the more human a story can be, the better.”
–V. S. Pritchett, writer of short stories

“I love words but I don’t like strange ones. You don’t understand them and they don’t understand you. Old words is like old friends, you know ‘em the minute you see ‘em.”
– Will Rogers

“What lies behind us and what lies before us
are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes

“Always take hold of things by the smooth handle.”
– Thomas Jefferson

Instructions for living a life:
Pay Attention.
Be Astonished.
Tell about it.

– Mary Oliver, from her poem “Sometimes,” in Red Bird

In the Treehouse of Imagination

When I was a kid, maybe 3rd grade, we lived for a brief while on the outskirts of Evansville, Indiana. I remember two scary things about that home.

One was a deserted house I had to walk past to get to the corner where the school bus stopped. It was the kind of empty place you’d imagine a witch might live in. The house wasn’t run down, just a little disheveled. The grass was seldom well-cut, nor was it overgrown. It was just an oddly quiet place. And I remember the eternity it took to walk past that house, not daring to slow down or look directly at a window, hoping this wasn’t the moment the witch would decide she was hungry and found her cupboard empty of cornflakes and there was that slender young third grader walking by . . .

The other thing that wasn’t scary at first was the treehouse high in a giant tree in our own front yard, near the road. It looked like a wonderful place to spend happy hours. I didn’t explore it in the first few days after we’d moved in; there were plenty of other things to do to unpack and reassemble my room furnishings.

I should mention that we moved a lot. By the time I was fourteen, I’d lived in fourteen houses. I really don’t remember a lot about them. I didn’t grow up with strong home-based memories, like most people I know did. Instead, we lived in a world of potential. What was next? Where would we be next year? My dad was a social worker, and moving up the employment ladder meant being willing to move to another city to take a better job. And once you got used to moving, it became really easy. You knew the drill. And had pared down unwanted stuff a few moves ago. I never knew of that concept called spring cleaning. We just cleaned when we moved.

Of course, I was always the new kid in school. I got good at making new friends. I learned that each place was different. The kids, the surroundings, how kids talked, who the teachers were. I thrived on the excitement of newness, of exploring new places.

The treehouse. A week or so after moving in, I decided to explore it, on a nice Saturday afternoon. After lunch, I walked up to the tree and looked up. A series of short boards nailed into the massive trunk led up to a square hole in the floor of a little house in the air.

Up I went, hand over hand, checking each board to make sure it was firmly in place. Solid all the way. I pulled myself into the small room.

The tree-house was well-built, a little room with a floor, roof, and side parapet. I had a 270 degree view. I spent a while looking out, up and down the road, across the mostly open fields on the other side of the road. After a while, I laid down, happy in my little cocoon, and daydreamed for a while, imagining the wonders of a life in my house in the sky. What adventures!

Then, time to go down. I looked down through the hole in the floor.

It was a long way down. The tree trunk shrank as it reached down, the laddered boards getting smaller and smaller in the distance, until they ran out near the ground. The blades grass looked miniature.

I had never experienced the sense of height. And solitary height, alone, with no one to scramble down first and challenge me to follow.

I hadn’t realized until then that I had a fear of heights. The worst cases for me involve man-made structures. I feel a bit better on a mountain cliff than a high apartment balcony, for instance. But even the cliff is unsettling, deep in my stomach and in my legs.

At its heart, it’s a fear born of imagination. I can imagine falling. I can imagine the construction falling apart, the cliff crumbling. Up in the treehouse, I could imagine my hands slipping if I lowered myself out the opening, if I missed finding the first board, if one board collapsed from my weight or faulty installation. I wasn’t a heavy kid, and the boards had been firm on the way up. But, what if . . . ?

It was my first exposure to several scary concepts. First, it’s easier to climb up something. Your hands are more skilled than your feet, and your head is right there with your hands, seeing what you’re grabbing. Going down was more blind faith. Which it turns out I have very little of.

Another realization was that elevation looks greater looking down. When you are standing looking up, your head is already some feet above the ground; the floor of the treehouse didn’t look that far away. But looking down from the treehouse, I saw every inch to the ground.

Thinking it through, trying to overcome instinctive fears, only increased my doubt. Intellectually (my brain reasoned) . . . just because the ladder boards had held to that day, and on my way up . . . didn’t guarantee they would hold up one more time. What if this was the end of their functionality?

There was no test, except to try them one more time. Putting my life at stake.

Now, as I think back, I wonder if this also reflects some part of what it means to be a writer? It is the writer’s dilemma. Curiosity gets you going. And you start each time with great optimism, thinking of the wonders of being high in that exalted air, of having the unfettered view from a place in the sky. You grab the easy ladder boards right in front of your face, and climb.

Up there, your happy imagination takes over, and leads you to all those places you’d never thought you would have encountered, your imagination excited, breathing the fresh rarefied atmosphere.

Then, the doubts begin to creep in. What are you doing? Why are you alone? There you are, up on a cliff of exploration, and suddenly, you wonder why you subjected yourself to this exposure, when you could have stayed with feet on the ground like all those other happy mortals passing on the distant road, so tiny, so safe.

In the treehouse, I decided to wait it out. Not a great solution, but safe for the time being. The afternoon passed. At suppertime, my mother called from the house. And a few minutes later, called again. Then came out into the yard, looking around, puzzled.

She eventually realized I was in the treehouse. I remember I asked her to help watch my feet, and she did as I finally went on my belly and lowered my feet out the hatch, and, after moment of panic, found their shaky grip on the top ladder board. It was easier after that, and I soon found myself back in the house, eating dinner and pretending I’d been fine and had enjoyed my hours in the air.

As a writer, I still find myself in that situation. Imagination gets me into interesting places, and it can also make the process unsettling, as I explore all the dark unknown corners of that imaginary situation. Exposed, I know I need to finish what I’ve started, but find myself afraid of some sort of failure, quivering inside with some feared lack of understanding of the mechanics of what I’ve tackled, daunted by the possibilities of an unruly bunch of words that end up holding me hostage for longer than they should, in a treehouse of imagination, in a box of invented story, not sure how to get down, or if I ever will.

Height and vision have its price. Those treehouses we climb to, again and again, are not safe places. But it’s where the stories grow more freely, where ground and gravity are temporarily forgotten.

Fantasy Literature and the Writer’s Itch

“I write to relive the itch in my head.”

So said American fantasy author N.D. Wilson, author of Dandelion Fire and 100 Cupboards, a wonderful emerging trilogy (set in Kansas) for young readers (and up!) who enjoy Harry Potter and the great works of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien.

I have to admit, that “itch in the head” thing comes closest to describing why I write.

I just wanted to mention that my newest book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, is in print. For more, visit my Fantasy Literature website, or the book’s blog, Creeping Past Dragons, to celebrate fantasy storytelling in all its diverse forms, exploring why it delights and enchants readers of all ages.

The book, by the way, is a substantially revised edition of book I did in 2002, called The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature, focused on advice for writers. The 2002 edition sold well (about 5,000 copies), but the company later dropped that line of books, and the rights to the title reverted to me. I felt (there’s that itch!) the material had broad applicability beyond writers, and revised it to focus on points about the types of fantasy and building blocks of the genre interesting to a general reader . . . while still offering many bits of advice, ideas, and creative paths for writers.

A lot of the book addresses core issues of storytelling, and imagination, and the role of sense of place, theme, and such in good stories, as practiced by some of the finest storytellers ever – from Tolkien and Lewis to the pantheon of other greats: George MacDonald and Lord Dunsany to James Thurber and John Steinbeck to modern literary wizards like Ursula Le Guin, Jonathan Carroll, and others.

So if you want to scratch that itch in your head with the magical wand of fantasy, check out that book, website, blog.

As always, let me know any feedback or comments. I’m happy to try to address them here or in my Creeping Past Dragons blog.

July Hodgepodge – Creative Names and Cars

I’ve been driving cars around the block. Lots of them. I’m car shopping, looking to replace a venerable Suburu wagon that almost made it to 200,000 miles, but sadly stopped short of that celestial goal in a cloud of smoke a couple of weeks ago.

Accordingly (hey, that’s a Honda pun!) I’ve been studying the names of cars. For some, I can only scratch my head. The Dodge Avenger? What exactly are they avenging . . . and how do they plan to go about it? Should I be worried?

Or the Nissan Armada. Hey, didn’t the most famous armada, the Spanish Armada, end up being blown to bits by the English or running aground on the Irish coast, in one of the greatest disasters of all time? (And can a single vehicle be a whole armada? Isn’t that a little vainglorious? Does the SUV come with an admiral’s jacket with epaulets and a funny hat?)

Great car names? It’s the story of Marianne Moore (1887–1972),  a celebrated American poet. (One of her great lines was to describe poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”) In a 1925 essay, William Carlos Williams wrote about Moore’s ability to capture the vastness of the particular: “So that in looking at some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great events.”

In 1955, Moore was invited informally to submit ideas for names for Ford’s “E-car” (which stood for “experimental” car) project. Her poetic list included:

  • “Resilient Bullet”
  • “Mongoose Civique”
  • “Varsity Stroke”
  • “Pastelogram”
  • “Intelligent Whale”

And the exquisite offering:

  • “Utopian Turtletop.”

Ford, however, in its wisdom, went with the name Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, and slapped it on the car that would up up as perhaps the greatest marketing failure in American history.

Was it the lame name? Ford had also hired an ad firm to come up with a name. However, the ad agency’s report offered an astounding 18,000 possibilities. Wow, now that’s a consultant’s report! When pressed . . . they managed to trim the list to just 6,000 names.

The executives got an eventual 10 names to choose from, none of which they liked, so in a whim, someone offered the name of Henry Ford’s son. In that high-level committee setting, it must have seemed brilliant . . . or impossible to vote against.

Myself, I’d love to drive a Utopian Turtletop.

To paraphrase William Carlos Williams, what I’d like in a car is simply: “So that in driving some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great events.”

Such as a good speedy merge from an uphill ramp onto the freeway?