Two Years of Scribbling in the Garret

May Alcott's original illustration of Jo scribbling away at her writing,  from the two-volume publication of LIttle Women.

May Alcott’s original illustration of Jo scribbling away at her writing, from the two-volume publication of LIttle Women.

I realized this blog has been in existence for two years today almost by accident. If a date’s not written on my planner—and is not, say, my husband or child’s birthday—I tend to forget it. And a blog anniversary (I can’t really use the word “blogiversary” with a straight face, even when I’m typing) isn’t the kind of thing you really mark on your calendar. So, the first anniversary went entirely forgotten.

But, it is, in fact, two years to the day since this little experiment in blogging began, and to honor the occasion, I’d like—once again—to have a little celebration of Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, and Jo March. Only this time, I’ve got lovely pictures.

The very gorgeous cover of an 1880 edition of Little Women (both volumes together at last!).

The very gorgeous cover of an 1880 edition of Little Women (both volumes together at last!).

Harvard’s Houghton Library is a veritable treasure trove of intriguing literary stuff. In this case, it’s illustrations from the original two-volume publication of Little Women, illustrated by her sister May Alcott. I wondered what May must have been thinking as she illustrated these two volumes and found the fictionalized version of herself—the artist sister—therein. Was she hurt by Louisa’s portrayal of Amy? Offended that her sister made herself the heroine of the story? Grateful that in the end this same writer-sister fixed her up with Laurie (because who wouldn’t be, really)?

Oh, Laurie, couldn't you see you belonged with me and not Amy?

Oh, Laurie, couldn’t you see you belonged with me and not Amy?

Or was she able to celebrate her sister’s literary achievement just as we still celebrate it today? In my spare time (ha!), I’m going to do some research and try to find out. But for now, enjoy the illustrations, and thanks for being a part of what’s now an ongoing blog experiment!

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On New Year’s Resolutions and Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift, rocking some dazzling (and enviable) self-confidence in the Blank Space video.

Let’s get two things out of the way up front: 1.) I haven’t made a New Year’s resolution in years; and 2.) I am a big Taylor Swift fan. I’ve liked her music from the get-go and like it even more now that my kiddo is a huge fan. And her latest album, 1989, did not disappoint.

So what does this have to do with resolutions? Well, I’m not really a big proponent of them. I know they help some people to start the year off fresh, but in my experience they’re easily made and easily broken. Maybe this means I’m the weak-minded type who’d be easy prey for Jedi mind tricks. Or maybe it just means I’m realistic about my own flaws.

I’d love to drop a few pounds, run my first marathon, write every day for hours on end, and be more organized on the household front. Will I really do all of these things? I’m going to go with no. Though I always aim for good health, I haven’t been able to run in months (a frustrating health development) and I can’t possibly write every single day—I work and have a kid. As for household organization, I think I can safely admit that I err on the side of what (I hope) is friendly chaos.

So what would a resolution in honor of 2015 really get me? Other than a sense of frustration with myself—something I already excel at having—when I don’t live up to the resolution, not much, I’m afraid.

Which brings me back to Taylor Swift (no, I didn’t forget about her). The new album contains some glorious statements of self-acceptance and empowerment, from the letter to her fans about change and learning from your mistakes to the songs contained therein. And I love it as such, from start to finish.

I’ve danced gleefully to “Shake it Off” with my kiddo up and down the aisles of a grocery store, not caring a whit if neighbors, or even complete strangers, think I’m crazy. I’ve watched the video for “Blank Space” more times than I can count, talking along the way with my kiddo about how Taylor Swift’s not serious when she sings things like “Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” She’s doing something remarkable, in fact: reclaiming her reputation and her sense of self.

It’s a gift to be able to accept yourself, grow as a result of your mistakes, and laugh a little as you’re doing it. And it’s important to realize, at least for me, that every day—not just New Year’s Day—is one in which you can be true to yourself. You can work for and toward something you love, whether it’s your friends, your family, your work, or a passion that you pursue despite your work. You can look forward, as Anne of Green Gables always did, to tomorrow being fresh with no mistakes in it. And then you can make mistakes and it will be okay.

So, on this first day of 2015, I wish you all the ability to accept and love yourself for who you are, to laugh at the small annoyances thrown your way, and realize that even if “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate,” you can choose to not let them get you down. It’s not an easy choice—haters come in all shapes and forms, external and internal—but it’s one we can all strive to make.

Because it’s time to shake off the old year, and celebrate the new one. And if you need a little inspiration, you can always watch this. Pretty. Awesome.

When it Comes to Revising, Which Way Should I Go?

Lately, I’ve been channeling Dorothy Gale in the unfortunate area of general confusion about how to proceed with my writing. (If only I’d started channeling Judy Garland in the area of singing. If only.)

I’m at the point where I have first, even second, drafts of more than one novel manuscript. They all need work. Like a lot of work. And revising is never a hardship for me—I’m an editor, after all. I like editing. and trying to find solutions to story problems. So what’s the hang up?

For a long spell this fall, there was a sizable hang up indeed—that of deciding upon what to spend my sadly few writing hours. Do I keep pushing forward with the historical fantasy story that was my thesis in Lesley’s MFA program? Do I dive whole-hog into one of two contemporary YA stories instead? It’s nice, of course, to be in the position where I have multiple drafts of multiple stories.

But which way do I go?

The siren song of first one, then another, would call me. And I’d answer each call. Briefly. Always very briefly. It look a while to figure out that there’s a way I could use this to my advantage. Which is what I hope I’m now doing. So I have two stories that I’m revising—one much more complex than the other. I give time to both and then take breaks from both—it’s turned into a giant switch-up.

There’s clearly going to have to come a time when, like Odysseus, I lash myself to the mast and force myself to listen to the siren song of one of these stories—and do my best to sail right past it and stay on course with the other.

But for now, I’m doing what makes most sense—and keeps me sane and writing. Even if, alas, not singing like Judy Garland.

 

Have a Magical Day!

Sure, Cinderella's castle isn't really covered in glowing icicles. But it sure does look pretty.

Sure, Cinderella’s castle isn’t really covered in glowing icicles. But it sure does look pretty.

Disney World is one of those places that you either love or hate. I definitely fall into the love category. Having just returned from a trip there—with hours upon hours spent on rides, watching shows, meeting characters (Chip and Dale rock), and generally having a wonderful time with my extended family, I have some insight into the Disney experience. I also gained some unexpected insight—and perspective—on my own writing. Specifically:

Sometimes it’s good to turn the laptop off and leave it at home. Rid yourself of any possibility of writing or revising and let your brain just rest. I am not good at this. As a slightly compulsive person who’s also a working mother, finding time to write isn’t always easy. So I force myself to work after work and on weekends. I make myself sit at the computer and put words onto the page. This can be a good thing. It can also be damaging when it leads to no rest and no playtime. A gal needs a break every now and then.

There’s no such thing as “real” magic. I know this as a sophisticated adult-type person who’s view of the world is firmly grounded in reality. But magic is so much fun, even if it isn’t real. The magic at Disney World is so seamlessly created that it almost feels real at times. And even when it doesn’t—even when you know the snow on Main Street USA isn’t the real thing because chance snow squalls don’t happen in Orlando—it’s still pretty darn awesome. The careful orchestration doesn’t lessen the greatness. Instead, it adds to my marveling at it. Someone (or more likely a large team of someones) crafted every last moment of the Disney World experience. It’s world-building of the highest order. Magic isn’t real—it’s created. Writers create magic in the same way, and it’s nice to be reminded of that now and again.

Embracing one’s lack of cynicism is a good and healthy thing. I am not a cynical person. I hope never to be one. Sitting on a Disney shuttle bus surrounded by happily chatting families from all around the country—whose kids are sporting Elsa dresses and whose dads are wearing mouse ears—it’s like a breath of fresh air wafted through. And on a crowded shuttle bus, that’s saying something.

The world needs more fireworks. And song and dance routines just for the sake of having song and dance routines. And dance parties in which people wearing large, furry character costumes bust a move with you. And folks who without a shred of irony wish you a magical day. Because who doesn’t want to have a magical day?

So, I thank my lucky stars that there is such a place as Walt Disney World and people who have job titles like imagineer and kindly folks who are happy to chat with you about how awesome their vacations are—and how much they hope yours is as well.

Now I’m back to work and life and even some writing and revising. But if you wish me a magical day, I’ll be happy to wish one right back at you.

An Autumn Nor’easter

 

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A magic carpet of wet leaves to walk on.

If this storm had come in December instead of October, we’d be buried in snow right now. Thankfully, it’s not even close to winter yet (at least in my mind) and we’ve just gotten a welcome dose of rain. Not so far from here, trees are down, taking cars and electricity lines with them, and streets are beginning to flood. In my neighborhood—a sheltered little corner of town—the damage consists at this point of some water in the basement, small tree limbs on the ground, and drowned earthworms (R.I.P, little fellas).

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The rain’s come down fast and furious, and the storm drains are already past capacity.

So, my kiddo and I walked to school today as we always do, thumbing our noses at this briefly weakened segment of the storm and belting out “Singing in the Rain” (sorry, neighbors) as we skipped our way through deep puddles and flooded storm drains. I’ve always liked the rain, and I’m pleased to say that it appears to be an inherited trait.

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Our Halloween decorations took a hit, and some little branches are down. There are candles at the ready, though, in case the power goes out, and worse fates than working by candlelight..

But now I’m hunkered down at my desk, hoping to do a little writing as the wind whirls around my little yellow house and the guinea pig snoozes, blissfully unaware of that her squirrel and rabbit cousins are outside braving the elements. The kettle’s doing its business in the kitchen with a mug of hot tea just moments away—and like Gene Kelly, right now I have a smile on my face.

Children’s Book Wardrobe Envy

This article on Jezebel detailing the many movie and television outfits that the author of the piece wished that she had hanging in her own closet got me laughing—and thinking about what characters from the world of children’s books have wardrobes I’d personally yearn for. It turns out, depressingly, that there are a good number of picture book characters who dress much better than I do.

Pretty much everything in Olivia’s closet is a thing of beauty but this, her signature look, is still her best. That splashy red! The sailor collar! Those stripey tights! The whole ensemble says, “I am playful, but underestimate me at your peril.” And who wouldn’t want a dress that said all that without you having to say a word?

Like me as a child, Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline has to wear a uniform at school. Uniforms are meant, of course, to level the playing field–where everyone looks the same and can be treated like equals. Of course, as anyone who’s been forced to wear a uniform knows, there are many ways to make even an ensemble worn by the masses your own. This can be achieved through accessories, or simply the right attitude. Take that yellow hat and coat, a red neckerchief, and a whole lot of sass, and you have Madeline. Sure the tiger at zoo was intimidated. Wouldn’t you be?

While his cousin Peter went for a more classic look (though he was a tad too apt to wreck it when he’d assembled one), Benjamin Bunny had a jauntier style while it lasted. He knew how to rock a pair of clogs…and a tam-o-shanter, too. And in the words of ZZ Top, “Every girl crazy bout a sharp dressed man.” Or, in this case, bunny.

Kevin Henkes’ Lilly was a master of disguise, but also master at turning out a smart look. With her kickin’ red cowgirl boots, purple plastic purse, snazzy dotted dress, tail bow, cape, and hello, a CROWN, she is the undisputed queen of her world. I wish I had this dress and one tenth of her confidence when she wears it.

Does anyone exude hipster cool like Wilma does in the Where’s Waldo books? She’s never given the center stage treatment she deserves, but we all know that Wilma rocks the stripes and cap in a way that Waldo only dreams that he could. She wears practical shoes. She’s rocking the stripes in every wrong way. And like the honey badger, Wilma doesn”t care. Plus, she could single-handedly bring back the mullet. Not that this would be a good thing. I’m just saying Wilma could do it.

The Little Prince may not have figured out how to have a healthy relationship with the flora on his small planet, but he knew how to put an outfit together. From this bow-tied outfit, to his jaunty scarf, to starry shoulder epaulets the narrators draws on him in his final portrait, his outfits are indeed fit for a royalty.

What I’ve Learned from Writing “Dancing with the Stars” Fanfiction

ABC created the show, now I’m creating the fanfiction.

It had never occurred to me to write fanfiction until my kiddo requested (or what might more accurately be described as begged and pleaded with) me to do so. I’m now past the halfway point of my “journey” in DWTS fanfiction—embarking on chapter seven, “the most memorable year of your life” week—and it’s been an eye-opening experience in some ways. Because as crazy as it sounds (and I do acknowledge that it does sound a little crazy), I’ve learned a lot about writing from this exercise.

Writing for your audience: I often read interviews with authors who say things like, “I just write the story I need to write. I don’t think about the audience, age range, etc.” And okay, sure. That’s good as far as it goes, but sometimes it doesn’t go too far. When you’re writing for young kids, you have to meet them where they’re at to a certain point, and be aware of what they’re emotionally and developmentally ready for. The kinds of issues you might be facing with family and friends when you’re in the first grade can be vastly different from those you face in the fourth, even though the actual ages involved aren’t that far apart from each other. So it’s been good for me to have to write not just for a specific audience, but for an audience of one—whose tastes and experiences I know very well indeed and whose interest it’s been a joy to engage.

World building: Writing this kind of fanfiction is its own special brand of fantasy—it’s far outside the realm of what would be possible in my kiddo’s world and in its own way, has some of the elements you’d expect to find in  young fantasy: being chosen for a quest, being able to do something you never thought you possibly could. It also has a specific world within which I have to operate as I’m writing or else the story won’t make sense or even work on a very basic level.

Skipping the romance: I am a romantic (with both a capital and lower case R) at heart, and I tend to write stories that have at least some kind of romance involved. It’s been interesting to write something that can’t have anything romantic involved—the main characters and dancing partners, after all, are an elementary school-aged girl and a grown man (Val—it’ll always be Val for my kiddo). So, there’s a friendship and a trust between the two main characters but that’s all. It might sound so obvious that it should have occurred to me before this, but writing a story without a romantic element is pretty much the same as writing one that has that element. It’s about the relationships, no matter what form they come in.

Even without these lessons learned (lessons which I certainly didn’t anticipate), I’ve been gladly taking up my laptop to write this rather bonkers little chapter book for my biggest fan and best reader. She loves it, I love creating it for her—it’s a win-win. Now I just have to get it all written. The new season of DWTS starts soon, and I’ve got a fictional Mirror Ball Trophy to hand out before it does!

Movie Love: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

An official movie poster for what’s a fairly astounding film.

Let’s just get one thing out of the way: I am a big Richard Linklater fan. I still think Dazed and Confused is Matthew McConnaghey’s best work. I came of age with Céline and Jess in what’s now called the “Before” trilogy. So I went into Boyhood with a predisposition to be pleased with it.

Pleased doesn’t quite cover it, though. Without giving anything away, it’s fair to state the obvious—the movie covers the life of one family, in particular as one boy experiences it—over the course of twelve years. And just as the aforementioned trilogy captures single, seminal days and nights in the lives of Céline and Jess separated by years of living in between, this one captures a series of moments over a large swatch of time, year by year. Some of these are life-changing, some of them aren’t necessarily so. But they all become seminal because they are the small moments that make up a life. Not a life that’s being lived in some overtly extraordinary way—one that’s extraordinary simply because it’s a life.

If you were a passerby observing the characters from Boyhood you would think their existences were totally ordinary. Sad sometimes, sure. But mostly pretty average. Peel back the surface and it’s anything but, though. Filmed over the course of twelve actual years, Boyhood does the seemingly impossible (and in my opinion rare and beautiful): it gives the viewer the gift of sight into someone else’s world. That it’s a fictional world doesn’t matter in the least.

Some of the best storytellers and some of their best stories—from George Elliot’s Middlemarch to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and many in between—do on the page what Richard Linklater tries to do on the screen. They peel back that surface and expose the epic struggles, the tragedies, the joys, the hard work, and the play that is day-to-day life of a single human being (or in the case of Middlemarch, of many). Because every life has these stories, and if you look deeply enough—closely enough—you can catch a glimpse of the wonder and struggle that exists just underneath the veneer that most of the world sees. It’s a gift to read such a story, and it’s a gift to see one on the screen.

Boyhood is likely not for everyone. It’s nearly three hours long, and if you’re looking for something plot or action-driven, then you are very much barking up the wrong tree. It’s also utterly lacking in cynicism. But it’s intriguing and it’s ambitious and it’s beautiful—and for me, personally, it’s yet another reason to love Richard Linklater and wonder at his ability to show moviegoers an inside look at what George Elliot described as the many who “live faithfully their hidden lives.” And for that reason alone, I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

Reptilians, Fantasy, and a Little Bit of X-Files

Fox Mulder, pondering aliens. (Or, really, just an excuse to post a dreamy picture of a young David Duchovny on my blog).

Did you know that approximately 4% of the U.S. population believes that the government (nay, possibly even the world) is being slowly taken over by Reptilians? I admit that I did not—and that my recent discovery was accompanied by one part dismay and one part (4%?) pure joy.

I am no Fox Mulder—I have no urge to believe this or any other weird theory, conspiracy or otherwise. But I’ve always been fascinated by people who do believe it. Once, many years ago, a friend and I went to a talk by a UFO-ologist at the Orient Heights Branch Library in East Boston. The idea of this talk being given at this location was, frankly, too much to pass up. Plus, I’d recently discovered my own love fantasy and sci-fi. This was a win-win situation.

It was also a completely surreal experience. Here I was, back in land of my youth—where, as far as I knew, no one had been harboring longing thoughts about that the aliens were coming. (Though maybe 4% of them secretly were?)

The gentleman who spoke that day described himself as a skeptic and a debunker, but he was clearly more than that. To debunk the false reports of UFOs and aliens, you have to believe that real ones exist. And most of the people not only believed it, but a number of them had experiences with UFOs and aliens that they shared. It was like being at a support group for folks overcoming alien encounters of one variety or another—a safe space in which to talk about what they’d seen or what had happened to them.

Today, of course, you don’t need to huddle in the basement of a tiny branch library in East Boston to find like-minded people—you have only to type the right words into Google and a community exists for you, right there on your computer screen.

This is a strange and truly wonderful world.

A world in which 4% of Americans believe in Reptilians.

While I do not share this belief (or that of ghosts, fairies, demons, Nessie…the list goes on), I do love stories about them. I love the idea that something strange exists just beyond what we can see and experience, even if the reality of it falls short personally. I even greatly appreciate that for many people this isn’t just an idea but a belief that’s real and part of the fabric of life. For me, though, it’s expressed through story—through what I write and what I read and what I watch.

So where does the line get drawn between the fantasy writer, the skeptical UFO-ologist, the person who doesn’t rule out the possibility that ghosts linger among us, and the person who fervently believes that Queen Elizabeth enters her room in Buckingham Palace each night and peels away her human skin? This is not a question I can even attempt to answer. But I do feel like people crave this connection to something beyond them (in whatever form that takes) and always will.

The truth is out there—all kinds of truths, really—and thankfully fiction helps me discover it.

Well, Hello There

A lot feels like it’s happened since I last posted here—perhaps because it has. Yet another inane national conversation about the general merits of reading YA has come and (thankfully mostly) gone. The school year ended for the rest of my small family. The Supreme Court has made some questionable decisions (don’t get me started). Three fingers on my left hand decided to up and stop doing useful things like feeling what I touch and bending. And with the help of medication and physical therapy, they’re very slowly starting to work again.

Then there was my last ever residency, at the end of which I graduated—at long last—from Lesley’s MFA program.

Really, that’s a lot in a few short weeks. Immediately after graduation, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss. I won’t be at the next residency in January, and neither will the many friends who graduated alongside me and who’ve returned to their homes in other, far-flung places. But once that time of grieving for what’s past was over, I mostly feel—with the exception of my fingers, which are still kind of numb—kind of…exhausted.

Not in a bad way, though. More in a taking stock way. I’m reading through the story that made up my thesis (as well as most of my time at Lesley) and slowly rebuilding the opening chapters. Because I know things now that I didn’t before about the story, and the beginning just doesn’t work anymore. And it’s good to be in place where I can realize that—and begin to see the forest for the trees (and maybe vice versa, too).

So, onward. To new revisions, new stories, new books to read, and new experiences. Maybe even a blog post or two every now and again. I’m crazy like that.