Tending the Creative Attic: Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”

The first book I fell in love with was written long before the word feminism was in common use. Louisa May Alcott was the daughter of high-minded parents and her novel, Little Women, was highly autobiographical. Her abolitionist, transcendentalist father—whose fictional counterpart is away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War—was on the right side of history. But his idealism wasn’t paying the bills, and Alcott spent a good deal of her young adulthood working the crummy sorts of jobs (seamstress, domestic help) available to girls. Critics will tell you that Little Women is about sacrificing appearance for principles and about Christian ethics; yet it is also a protofeminist book about desire for a life outside the duty of family. I suppose if I had waited until I was older, a more seriously feminist-focused book would have better shaped me. Had I been born later, that feminism would have begun with the inclusivity of the third wave. But I was twelve, it was 1971, and I needed immediate guidance.

Less than a year before, my family had moved to one of the most conservative enclaves in the country, Orange County, California. It was a likely landing pad for my conventional parents. People in our little city were mostly white and affluent. In short, it was the kind of place where a hundred-year-old book could seem entirely fresh to a tween girl, more progressive than anything in her real life.

In the old (and I realize now, more diverse) neighborhood, my mother had had good friends. Their kids were all growing up, and with everyone in school all day, the moms got together to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. There was nothing like this in the new neighborhood. Moms generally didn’t work, but they weren’t at home either. There wasn’t a welcome wagon or invitations to coffee. My mom spent the school hours with our much-loved little dog. When I came home from school one day, she was hysterical, pacing the street and calling “Spooky! Spooky!” telling me between sobs that he would never find his way home in an unfamiliar area. But he did make it back that evening. It was then that I realized that he was her only daily connection to the living while the rest of us were out meeting new friends.

Perhaps it was this aloneness that drove my mother to get her first job after nearly twenty years of marriage, even though she didn’t possess a driver’s license and had to bum rides from my older sisters. She became a secretary at what was then Chapman College, in the office that oversaw the World Campus Afloat, which offered students a seminar at sea, an opportunity to travel to various parts of the world while taking classes on a ship. As a private college, Chapman’s pay rate for the clerical staff was notoriously lousy, and I think many women who hadn’t worked outside the home for years were hired because those with up-to-date resumes could find better offers. But the campus was only ten minutes from home—a boon to someone who daily hitched a ride. More importantly, it got my mom out of the house and into a viable community.

Though bright, my mother–the daughter of strict Irish Catholicism mixed with alcoholism–had grown up outside of Pittsburgh in government-subsidized housing. She never had the opportunity to attend college, and she now enjoyed the milieu, the mix of students, educators, and not-quite hippy intellectuals, whose free thinking amused her without threatening her own established order. Her boss was a language professor, and she was fascinated by the way that, when she’d find him writing at his desk and ask him a question, he would answer in Spanish or French before he caught himself. “He thinks in other languages,” she told me.

And yet, that my mother got her first job shortly after we moved to the OC seeded in me the idea that we couldn’t really afford to live in our community, that we were imposters and didn’t belong. The affluence of school peers added evidence to this hypothesis.

Though my mother had found community, this was not her feminist moment nor a lesson for me about the expansion of women’s options.  Rightly so, she railed against her overarching circumstances—her job was added to her duties while none of them were taken away. She was often furious; she screamed easily, with frequency. These days, she would call me a liar for saying so, but I learned my longshoreman’s language from my parents in my teen years. Because of my mother’s rage against the dual expectations of her, I learned a few survival skills, like how to do my own laundry.

Oddly, it was doing my laundry and keeping track of my own clothes that led me to find Little Women.

Southern California is known to be warm; nevertheless, it rains in the winter—or at least it did in the 1970s—and is certainly cold enough for sweaters and jeans, for waterproof jackets. On my own, I’ve never been very good at selecting clothes. To this day, my nieces think I should not be allowed to shop by myself because the result is always disastrous. But as a tween, I not only had no flair for fashion, I had no cognizance of the weather. Like my mother, I was always sprinting out of the house in the morning minutes after I should have left. I hurried to school every day and heated by the jog, didn’t immediately notice that I wasn’t dressed appropriately with my thin cotton and butterfly sleeves. But by the time that the nutrition break between second and third periods came, it was clear that it was too cold for me to stand outside and gossip with my friends. I took shelter in the only building open for purposeless students, the library, which was more like a big classroom full of books. Admitting how often I needed to do this brings my intelligence into question. Suffice it to say, it was more than once.

Since I was in the library with nothing to do, I would have a look at the books. I can’t remember why Little Women came to my attention. Perhaps it was on display. I think about the only YA novel out at that time was Catcher in the Rye. Even the YA-landscape-altering The Chocolate Wars was a few years from publication. No matter. In that community, if such a book had been on display, the library clerk probably would have been fired.

I want to say I loved Little Women from page one. It was, after all, a book I secreted and read into the night. But I didn’t love all the little women. Proper Meg and superficial Amy? No. I did feel sorry for Beth, but only because she died. It was Jo, and only Jo, that I loved.

As the novel opens, it seems that Jo wants to be a man, but it becomes clear that she just wants the opportunities that a man has. She’s often told to tone down her inner tomboy, and she agrees to try. The self-sacrificing and overtly sentimentalized Christian ethic that is immediately on display probably put off many modern teens. But I continued reading because, whatever Jo agrees to, impinging on her creative spirit is always off limits. She is allowed to read alone, undisturbed, in the attic, and no one thinks she’s weird. Even her cranky Aunt March, for whom she works as a companion, has a library full of good books which are at Jo’s disposal. In fact all the best houses in the novel are full of books, and Jo manages to get access. Better yet, her family actually supports her creative writing, even agreeing to act in her dramas. I wanted to be Jo partly because she is so creative and self-reliant, but also because her family is her first appreciative audience.

So here was a girl only a few years older than I who is allowed to read widely (which is another way of saying she is allowed to think for herself), who is given the opportunity and the encouragement to create, and whose family has nothing but reasonable discourse. No one in the March family is screaming or railing against their constraints. A tween’s dream family.

While tragedy arrives with the death of Beth, a common criticism of the novel is that its Pollyanna-infused worldview makes for a lack of conflict. All the characters continually review their behavior, reach for higher ground, and are capable of forgiveness. But for my twelve-year-old self, the most poignant conflict scene I had ever read comes when the youngest sister, Amy, is mad at Jo and burns all of her writing. The destruction of her creative output seemed an effort to destroy Jo’s essence, her authority over herself. That Jo ignores Amy the following day, leaving her to break through the thin pond ice while attempting to skate, struck me as karmic justice.

I have been such a slow learner all my life. It would be wonderful to say that I’d had a seventh-grade epiphany as I contrasted the March family with my own, the confines and the much-envied liberties of Jo’s life against the strictures of mine. In fact, it would have been great to have had any epiphany at some point. But I never have. I spent years doing cringeworthy things against my own best interest. Staying off and on—as he would have me—with a psychologically abusive boyfriend; judging badly men and their motives, seeing those twenty years my senior as father figures, incapable of conceiving that they thought of me as an appropriate sexual partner. And, perhaps ironically, certainly most importantly, landing in the same mistaken ‘liberation’ that had so angered my mother, of working around the clock with no time for self-determination. Books have taught me much, but only slowly, cumulatively. I picture them stacked with spines out and imagine them finally containing the swirling whirlwind of my imagination, which forms a new text.

And it’s that forming of a new text that circles back to Jo and her desire to write. Through Little Women, I understood that though high ideals didn’t pay the bills, there was no worthy life without them. I understood that beauty could be put off and on like a hat, even sold when necessary, as Jo managed to secure twenty-five dollars during a family financial crisis by selling her hair to a wigmaker. I understood that a man could be handsome, adoring, even wealthy and still be a bad personality match. The most significant thing I learned was something I couldn’t have verbalized then. If women are to live in equality to men, then the autonomy from which social and political rights derive begins when women are afforded the time and space to imaginatively create. This is the single feminist ideal I’ve returned to through all my many missteps. I was in college before I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and an adult before I sampled more contemporary fare. Until then, Little Women sustained me.

Navigating the Darkness

It’s fun to buy books at the book fest. (Well, it’s fun to buy books anywhere, anytime.) I always get some from my favorite authors, but I also like to support authors who are new to me. Anthony Breznican and Jeff Garvin are those new finds this year.

I can’t help putting in one last word for the Ontario Teen Book Fest. It’s full of great positive energy for readers and writers, and that’s one reason I’ve always enjoyed it, have reserved the school van to chauffeur teens in my book club, and when I was a representative for the region in the California School Library Association, organized OTBF field trips for members. However, another reason I like it is because it embraces the darker side of life as a teen–and thus, the literature about that dark side–while reminding anyone who is immersed in the darkness that good books engage the topics they are struggling with and offer solace.

This year, both the keynote addresses and the breakout sessions tackled issues of harassment, drug abuse, suicide and more.

The first keynote speaker, Josephine Angelini, spoke about the  #timesup movement in terms of understanding that words–all words–matter. Her own experience with harassment as a young woman made her stop keeping a journal. Audience members had a chance to pause and consider the many things that girls will try in order to stop being harassed. At one point, Angelini shaved her head to stop strange men from catcalling at her on the street. As she points out, it didn’t work.

Jeff Garvin, also one of the featured speakers, presented on identity,

The IRL: Navigating the Darkness panel featured Robin Benway, Anthony Breznican, Jeff Garvin, Ellen Hopkins, and Kim Turrissi with Isabel Quintero as the moderator.

particularly on the aspects of it that individuals can’t choose. Identity is a construct that impacts the way you experience your life. Garvin discussed how his environment and his peers pushed him to construct a negative identity for himself. As a preteen, he thought of himself as a misfit with uncool clothes when other boys made fun of his brands. He was humiliated and beat up in high school. In response, he identified as a victim and decided to attend a new arts high school. However, only a year later, he decided to return to his home school. As an adult, he learned that the guy who beat him had been beaten by his own dad as a teen.

In coming to understand that everyone has a backstory, Garvin also came to understand that by judging people based on their school clubs or activities, and writing off popular or good looking peers, he’d missed opportunities to make connections.

Garvin went on to draw a line from today’s political environment, when the country is crying out for change, to the need for teens to have an alternative version of themselves. He noted research on challenging beliefs, which shows just how difficult it is for people to change their core beliefs, even in the face of facts which contradict them. In other words, people don’t change their minds about subjects that challenge their identities. He inspired the audience to be open minded and push the envelope of identity.

Ellen Hopkins, the book fest’s main keynote speaker, discussed her background as a freelance journalist, a career that gave her many opportunities for adventure including swimming with orcas and parachuting with military air squads. However, she stopped working in nonfiction and came to write YA novels when her daughter became a meth addict. Hopkins’ ex-husband was an addict, and her daughter became one during a court-ordered visitation when she was sixteen years old. Hopkins says that she discusses her private life because she wants people to know that her novels are based on facts, and that life can change more quickly than one could ever imagine. She implores teens to consider their choices very carefully.

Although the authors for the breakout session “IRL: Navigating Darkness” have written about some of life’s worst moments and tragedies, they reminded the audience that all discussion of darkness–including YA novels–must be balanced with light and with hope. The particular difficulty for teens in hanging on to hope is that they have a large responsibility load, but minimum freedoms. Family problems, depression, and anxiety can seem uncontrollable, nevermind the problems of the larger world. However, the authors reminded us that teens do have the power to make change, as we see now with students pushing against the NRA and Congress for gun control legislation.

Though it is a cliche to say that things gets better, it is also true, and that’s important to remember. Some of the panelists could think back to teachers who exemplify Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” with their ‘dark sarcasm.’ But they also remembered those adults, including teachers, who ventured in and helped pull them out of the sadness. They gave a nod to what Mr. Rogers told us long ago: Look for the helpers.

Much of what I heard at the book fest was a call for a dual activism: Fight for yourself and your identity. Then take the fight outside and help others.

That’s a hopeful message in the darkness, and that’s the message of good YA books.


Ontario Teen Book Fest This Saturday!

Each spring for several years now, I’ve gathered my book club to attend the annual Ontario Teen Book Fest. Some of the teens accompanying me are more than just fans of the featured authors; they are writers, and the book fest is their first venture into the writer’s conference milieu. There they find community with the featured presenters, other teens, and local adults who gather to celebrate the world of Young Adult literature.

Now in its seventh year, the annual book fest is produced by the Ontario City Library. It’s coming up on Saturday, March 3, from 9 AM to 5 PM at Colony High School in Ontario. If you are a reader or writer of YA fiction, don’t miss it. Ellen Hopkins, whose novels in verse are New York Times bestsellers and wildly popular with local teens, will be the featured speaker.

Josephine Angelini, Mary E. Pearson, Jessica Brody, and Jonathan Maberry are

Celebrating her new book with Isabel Quintero.

also favorites among teen readers I know. (I, too, am a big fan of Maberry’s zombie dystopia in his “Benny Imura Series.”) The Inland Empire’s own Isabel Quintero will be a panel moderator. Her “Gabi: A Girl in Pieces” won the American Library Association’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award, given to a work of young adult literature by a first-time author writing for teens. I have book talked it to many students and despite having over fifteen copies, I had to have a waiting list for checkouts in my library. In addition to being a wonderful novelist and poet, Quintero is incredibly generous with her time and talents, consistently advocating for the literary arts in the IE.

Connie Joyce, teacher librarian at Rancho Cucamonga High School, and some of her students enjoy the 2017 Author Speed Dating with author Julie Buxbaum.

Nearly twenty authors will be presenters, panelists, or discussion moderators. All will participate in the popular ‘Speed Date the Author’ event, in which attendees have the opportunity to ask questions about books, characters, and the writers’ processes. Lunch from Panera will be provided free to all attendees. Throughout the day, Once Upon a Time bookstore will sell copies of books by the book fest authors. After the sessions conclude at 3:15 PM, participants may stay for the author book signing.

Many of the sessions are centered on the craft of writing. At past book fests, panelists have discussed how the process of writing books helps the author to push past fear toward self-confidence. Jessica Brody, who will attend again this year, has reminded us that writer’s block is really just ‘perfectionist block.’

While we don’t yet know what Ellen Hopkins will say, the keynote speeches

OTBF 2017 keynote panel

have always been riveting. Jay Asher (author of “Thirteen Reasons Why”), Stephen Chbosky (author of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and John Corey Whaley (author of “Noggin”) were standouts. Last year, E. Katherine Kottaras, author of “How to be Brave,” discussed her family tragedies. When Katherine was 17, her father died; when she was 30, her mother died. When teens ask her how to find the courage to face life’s most difficult moments, she tells them that reading books, writing, and being engaged with art help one not only to work through fear, but to understand how to live with it.

Elana K. Arnold, author of “What Girls are Made Of” captivated the audience with her personal tales of the ways boys and young men tried to control her when she was beginning to date. In one, a young man living in her college dorm held a box cutter to her throat and told her that he could rape her if he wanted to. She was afraid to scream in case it was all just a big joke, and people would make fun of her later. As an adult, Arnold feels the important thing that came out of her experiences was for her to ask, “How did I become the kind of girl who felt like I wasn’t worth screaming for?”

Arnold now uses words to show how her experiences have shaped her; for her, shame, fear, and obsequious desire can be transformed through literature into pride, anger, and action.

Every year, feeling both joyous and empowered, the audience moves on to attend breakout sessions. Choices for this year’s sessions will include: I Heart You; IRL (Navigating Darkness); World on Fire; Epic Firsts (Debut Authors); On Beat; and Stranger Things (Sci-Fi/Fantasy).

Leaving the book fest, participants feel all the emotions that authors hope to convey: empathy, acceptance, hope, and connection. Gather up your favorite teens and make the Ontario Teen Book Fest your annual event.

Note: I reviewed books by many of the authors I mentioned at http://SchoolLibraryLady.com. See http://www.ontariotbf.org/ for information and updates on participating authors.

Happily, this article was posted in the California News Group today.


Bad Dates and Fiction

What does a bad date look like in a work of fiction?

I’m thinking about this because I’ve written a novel in which the protagonist is sexually abused as a small child. As a teen, she isn’t capable of voicing her discomfort in dating. Stemming from her early abuse, her inability to speak her mind has great consequences, including an unplanned pregnancy.

I’m also thinking about this because I am one of the believers that stories

Dept. of Speculation is a great example of a nuanced and conflicted relationship as well as a must-read for its powerful language. All in a very quick read–exactly the kind of literary fiction that asks you to fill in the gaps of intention and motivation.

change lives. When a story is told well enough, its reader can experience an internal change. His brain can be rewired, and he can find himself in empathy with people he hadn’t thought much about before. I want to quote this full paragraph from Scientific American that summarizes the case:

Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” [social psychologist David] Kidd says. This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.

Other studies suggest that it’s not just literary fiction that does the trick; a reader immersed in a good narrative–in a book, on a screen–gains greater social acumen and empathy.  

The Haunting of Hill House is a great classic example of genre fiction (horror) that delves into a woman’s motivations for her behavior.

Conversely, I have a hunch–and here I have no data–that we read too many fictional ‘good dates’ that are nothing more the rom-com version of sexual tension. A couple of people meet, they don’t have anything in common, they don’t like each other, and they fall in love. What happens when we read or see this too often? Will it, too, create an unseen pattern in our brains? If so, why do we keep writing it?

I think there are two reasons: we know that if there is no conflict, there is no story. And people read this stuff.

Writers need to take some responsibility for their work. If we want to see change in dating behaviors, we need to be more nuanced about what a conflict is–all sorts of things get in the way of two mutually infatuated people. People do and will read about them.

Additionally, we should all be having a discussion of the difference between that place where women feel harmed and simple bad dates so that we can, as quoted above “fill in the gaps to understand . . . intentions and motivations.”

Proof that we’re unclear on the difference between bad and ugly is found in the arguments of  cultural pontificators about the case of Aziz Ansari. Some women see the Babe.net article about his date with an anonymous 23-year-old woman as a story of sexual assault; others as revenge porn. Still others are trying to find a middle ground, seeing this as a story of how fraught and complicated dating is and how men and women still don’t get each other. (The very reasonable and thoughtful LA Times columnist Robin Abcarian summarizes the blowback in two related columns here and here.)

Unfortunately, the conversation has degenerated into the sort mud slinging and name calling that does women no good. The Babe author Katie Way called out HLN anchor Ashleigh Banfield for calling out “Grace,” the subject of the article. Unfortunately, Banfield refers to the Ansari evening over and over as a “bad date,” when it is something uglier than that. Way responds by ripping into Banfield with one of the most juvenile ad hominem attacks you’re likely to read. “Ashleigh, someone who I am certain nobody under the age of 45 has ever heard of, I hope the 500 retweets on the single news write-up made that burgundy-lipstick, bad-highlights, second-wave-feminist has-been really relevant for a little while.” (The complete email is printed in Business Insider.)

Fiction writers, including those who write for the screen, can help get the train on the rails. Rather than continuing to watch people blame one another, let’s ask, “How can we help people to stop participating in encounters that at the very least, make us psychologically uncomfortable and fill us with regret?”

I’m not thinking of a discussion of the workplace, which thankfully is finally being placed under the microscope–or at least under the magnifying glass. I’m only thinking about dating and the use of the term ‘bad date.’ Because, as a society, I don’t think we’ve gotten to the–felicitous?–point of bad dates yet. If a mere bad date were the issue, stories like “Cat Person” would never go viral.

A bad date is still a mutually respectful one. Two consenting adults go out to find out a bit more about one another, to discover whether or not they’re going to click. If they do click, that’s a good date. Often they don’t. When one realizes this, he or she says so, and they part ways. That’s a bad date. Nothing traumatic, no lingering ill will, no future counseling sessions.

For some excellent writing about emotional motivations and relationships that outsiders can’t understand, but that become clear to the reader, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is a great novel.

Let’s start the change in our imaginations, where most good things begin. Let’s more carefully craft the point of view in scenes with good, bad, and genuinely ugly dates in our fiction. Let’s stop calling any work of fiction with a female protagonist that deals with the complications of female life ‘women’s fiction.’ Thus labeled, no matter how good a job the author does in portraying female ‘intentions and motivations,’ these books will not be marketed to men, and men are not going to read them. (I’ve more fully expressed my feelings about this label in this Literary Journeys column.) Let’s change the fiction that changes mental patterns because that’s what changes behavior.  

We all know we have to change that narrative.

Note: I wrote this several days ago and decided to let it stew. Meanwhile, I saw an opinion piece in the New York Times by Jennifer Weiner about how reading romance novels can help men understand what a good date is. (She uses the term ‘bad date’ in the way that I’d like to get away from, but she makes a good case that romance novels include some solid sex ed and answer the question ‘What do women want?’) I primarily read commercial, upmarket, and literary fiction. But I have read some romance that I’ve really enjoyed. Ara Grigorian has been able to avoid the whole throbbing manhood/member thing and write about pairs of thoughtful adults who find one another and love. I reviewed his novel Game of Love here.

Stoking the Creative Fire

Dinosaurs I made from fabric I took down from my work bulletin boards.

As I discussed in my last post, I don’t think that there is any special condition we can label writer’s block; however, this year I have come to believe in ‘life block.’ Not only have I had my own dark year of the soul (as opposed to a dark night, which would be wonderfully short lived), but I’ve talked to many creative people who have stopped doing anything joyful.

“Why,” I ask my poet friend, “aren’t you writing any poetry?”

“Who cares about poetry right now?” She answers. She means that there is no room for creativity in our political reality, in our upside down world.

I can’t argue that when we don’t want to get up in the morning and face the latest tweet, we are somehow going to want to creatively celebrate our craft. More likely we are thinking, ‘I could make myself some breakfast. Or I could jump in the river.’

Fortunately for me, my environment is arid. 

For a nephew who loves construction equipment.

Ironically, it’s in times such as ours that the work of creative people can be most appreciated as it countermands the sense that there is nothing good left in the world. I’ve always felt that it’s important to be creating something, any little thing, if just to provide kindling for the passion until we have the energy to maintain a roaring fire.

So how do people fuel their creativity when it seems pointless to create?

Being a perpetually and hopelessly guilt-ridden person, I’ve often tried a work

My niece suggested that small tote bags just the size for children would be great for carrying toys around the house, so I repurposed more bulletin board material.

around when writing was just too much. I do write. But I also try all sorts of things that are less creative than writing and more utilitarian—thus, appeasing the scold in my head who says, ‘Don’t waste time on things no one will ever

Teddy bears for the nieces.

use!’ I am probably the perfect person to use as the ‘DON’T TRY THIS’ example. But since I’ve committed to the DIY MFA book club in both reading the book and answering the writing prompts, I thought it would be fun to show a few of the things I’ve done to get through extended bad patches.

At a very young age—twelve, I think—I started to needlepoint because I felt adrift. I had the sense that I came from nowhere, a person with no household heirlooms and no family stories. I was trying to create these and somehow make a connection between the past and my future. I wrote about the intensity of this feeling in a personal essay about the death of my grandmother that was published in the Longridge Review, an online journal in which adults reflect (one hopes with wisdom gained) on childhood experiences.

The bell pull, in those crazy colors that my parents loved.

So as a tween, and then as a teen, I took needlepoint classes with older women. I made many items for my parents, most of which have not survived to be heirlooms: a pillow meant to be decorative but that over the years wore out, a purse that was never used, Christmas tree ornaments, god knows what all. A lot of these items were stitched in blues and shades of avocado green because those were my parents’ favorite colors for decades. Those colors haven’t stood the test of time. I also made samplers for my sisters when they got married (the colors were more palatable).

A few years ago, my sisters and I were packing up my parents’ longtime home as they were downsizing. Hidden in a closet unused, I found a bell pull that I’d forgotten I’d made. I also found a rug I’d hooked—a tiger because at the time my dad worked at Tiger International, a shipping company. I’d thought he would hang the rug in his office—hooked rugs on the wall were quite the rage at that time—but it, too, stayed in the closet.

Since the things I had hoped to use as family heirlooms had come to nothing, I decided to take photos of them and then toss them. However, these two are still around. My oldest son wanted the bell pull and hung it in his apartment. I worked at a high school whose mascot is a tiger, so I brought the rug to work, and one of the teachers took it to hang in her classroom, happily giving it life for the first time.

One of my youthful creations that I discussed in a personal essay in “Longridge Review.”

As a teen, I made one needlepoint sampler that was just for me and matched the colors of my room—red, orange, and yellow. All the women in my class advised against those colors as they wouldn’t stand the test of time. They were right. I framed the sampler, but it didn’t last long on the wall.

About the only needlepoint pieces I have made that receive a regular public airing are five Christmas stockings—for my husband, myself, and each of my three sons.

While much of this work came to nothing, stitching is an activity that is meditative or lends itself to woolgathering because it can be done without much concentration on the work itself. It allows the mind to be open to ideas and to the invention of story; it keeps the self centered and yet allows open space. To those who have never tried it, it may seem like a strange practice for opening the imagination, but it works.

Not my sons’ pjs, but more recent Christmas creations for nieces and nephews.

Similarly, sewing and quilting can have the same effect on the imagination. I don’t know how many things I’ve sewn in my life—again, I began as a tween—but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a thousand. As a teen, I sewed all my own clothes. Since then I’ve made all sorts of crazy things when I needed to get through periods of anxiety and allow myself some creative space. When my sons were small, I would take them with me to the fabric store. There would be tables piled with remnants of all colors and patterns. They would jump into these and wrap themselves in various designs. I could be with them and in my own world at the same time.

Almost all of what I’ve sewn has been worn or used, but of course, I didn’t record the items. I do have some photos of my sons in shirts that I made for their first day of school and in matching Christmas pajamas that included booties and nightcaps, but I think they wouldn’t appreciate a public airing of those. I also have some photos (from social media) of my more recent creations.

Recently, I decided to use fabric from bulletin board displays because I thought it was a shame not to repurpose it. One set of bulletin boards became dinosaurs. Another, little girls’ dresses. (Right at the time of the solar eclipse, which is echoed in the design.)

Other than reading good books—which always spurs creativity—I think the last thing that helps me to find my way to writing is walking in natural places.

Poppies in a wilderness area near my home.

Last week, I was walking in the local botanical garden with my youngest son.

A rattlesnake on a walking path near my house. This walk/snake led me to write a short story entitled “Argyle.”

There was a display that played off the Game of Thrones popularity called ‘Grove of Thorns.’ In it were all sorts of thorny plants native to California. One display showed the loggerhead shrike, commonly called the “butcherbird.” It captures insects and spiders and then impales them on thorns so it can leisurely eat them. Tell me you can see that and not want to include it in a story.

My son commented that the desert areas with their Joshua trees reaching into the open alone appeared to be frozen characters and had, not the appearance of a prophet in the wilderness, but of the Medusa-killed character of the creepy statue people in the Dark Souls video game. Who knows—maybe that’s where the creator got the idea.

Open space for your thoughts and they will arrive.

A favorite wilderness path near my home.

Note: This is my answer to a DIY MFA book club writing prompt. The club is fun and will go a few weeks longer, If you want to try it, check the Facebook page. Next up is a prompt on your writing superpower. There’s a little quiz where you select photos of settings, character images, and books that you like best. This is to help you see what sort of writing (or personality) ‘superpower’ you have. While I find these sorts of quizzes fun, I don’t take them too seriously, so I am not going to write about my superpower, which turned out to be ‘Disruptor.’ However, if you’d like to take the quiz, try it here.

Writer’s Block, Real Life, and the Desire for Connection

I don’t believe in writer’s block because, generally speaking, there is no muse hanging out. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what writer’s block is supposed to be. I get a few ideas a day that seem like great subjects for short stories and novels. I don’t write about them because I never fill in the details. They remain just what they are—ideas.

Elizabeth Gilbert, who does believe in the muse, says that the many ideas writers get come from that living creative spirit. But if the writer is too slow to act on them, the spirit becomes restless and seeks another vessel to embody it and make it tangible. To her credit, she gives an example of this that is both excellent and incredible in her book Big Magic. (I reviewed and discussed it here.)

If writer’s block doesn’t exist, why are people—who claim that their lifelong/greatest desire is to write—so slow in acting on their ideas? Or worse, why do they never act on most or all of their ideas?

Let’s say some people are lazy because it’s true. Most people are not. I think writers who write little (or not at all) might be the do-gooders of the world. That is, duty binds them in a way that confounds others. This is particularly true of women, who have always been expected to put others first. It’s also particularly true of Catholics, at least previous to this generation, who were supposed to feel guilty whenever they did something that was self-glorifying or, well, self-anything. I’m not sure if it’s a misfortune—there are wonderful things about being female and wonderful things (so I’m told) about being Catholic. However, as I am the one and used to be the other, I can say the combination generates more anxiety and self-loathing than it does novels.

I’ve spent my life working pretty hard. There were times when I was working about fifty hours a week, was raising small children and was going to graduate school. I wrote when I could, but my sit-downs were far enough apart that I couldn’t keep any sort of through-storyline in my head. I’d forget pretty much all the details of my novel, even the minor characters’ names. Every time I wanted to pick up, I’d have to reread the entire text to remember what had happened. I’d think, ‘Wow! That’s pretty good—I forgot I did that.’ Time elapsed and notes were lost, computers crashed and software systems, as well as methods of backing up information, changed. (Remember those 5” floppy disks?) I lost a complete novel, tens of stories, dozens of poems, two children’s books. At the time, this felt like the universe was over and over again giving me the sign that I was meant for nothing beyond what I was already working at. I have since stopped believing in these sorts of signs, just as I stopped believing in writer’s block. Having moved past the heartbreak of loss, the experience has simply become part of the necessary 10,000 hours of practice required to become good at what I do. (My thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the 10,000 hour rule are here.)

While the novel, stories, and poems were lost, the craft is retained. Like most people who work long and hard, I haven’t found myself to be an outlier in any sort of Beatles sense (surprise, surprise), but I do find that having a passion for the discipline of writing is rewarding. (Which is not to say that going on to have that writing published isn’t more rewarding. I’ve been around too long to start lying to myself now.)

Since guilt is such a destructive force, writers who are hard at work on many things other than writing might remind themselves of the value of what they are doing. If you’re raising kids, you want to be present. If you are getting paid to work, you owe someone a job well done. Are you really a terrible person because your novel is unfinished? Maybe the way to think of it is that you feel lousy, but not because you aren’t good enough or working hard enough (“I’m waking at 5 AM, but couldn’t I get up at 3 AM to write for a few hours?”).

You feel lousy because you want to write as a way to connect with a larger community of thinkers, of people who sense the environment in ways similar to your own. You want to explain yourself to people who feel very different from you, and you want to understand those people as well. This, of course, is not only why you write, but why you read a shit ton of books—the other thing you have been making time for in a world that prefers the pace of tweets and posts.

While I attended a summer session in Cambridge, England—one of these things that anyone who can wrangle up the money is welcome to—I read E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. I was already a teacher and went along with some dozen or so high school students. I don’t know how I missed Howards End as an undergrad, but I was so excited to finally read it that I went to a bookshop (Cambridge was a bibliophile’s dream in that regard—bookshops and knowledgeable booksellers at every turn), and bought a second copy to mail to my best friend. I wanted to talk about it as soon as I got home.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

I had a similar feeling when I was a young teacher and my school got a new textbook for the junior year American Literature class. There was another famous piece I had somehow missed—this time from that most American poet, Walt Whitman.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider”

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

So, yes, for many years, I was an English teacher and then a teacher librarian. My job was to help teens become better readers and writers. That’s not a bad way to live a life. I never had to be unethical or immoral, and I valued what I was doing. I should have been able to turn off the inner critic, but I couldn’t. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who never has met the challenge to run faster and jump higher. I’m guessing most writers feel this way.

Something that I think about a lot now—but have no idea how to begin—is to start and edit a literary magazine that accepts work from people who are 45 years or more old and are emerging writers. I see many lists of young people to ‘watch out for.’ What of people with a good deal of life experience who have been quietly, slowly honing their craft while they were duty bound to children, to parents unable to care for themselves, all while they were working to put food on the table and volunteering in their communities because someone had to do it? They must have stories to tell, stories they’ve been working on in the rare quiet moments. They’ll tell them from a different perspective than they would have in their twenties.

My worry about such a journal is that a shit ton of ‘chicken soup’ type submissions would pour in. Because most short work we see anthologized about anyone middle aged and beyond is about getting to the settled place, where the protagonist is working or has already worked things out and come to a Hallmark-channel place of happy new beginnings. So, if I were to ask for the writing of the literary cocooners, the latent talents, I would have to make clear that sentimentality is not allowed. It’s time to spin the silk.

Note: This is my answer to a DIY MFA book club writing prompt. The club is fun and will go a few weeks longer, If you want to try it, check the Facebook page. Next up is a prompt on the tools we’ve used to feed creativity. I can share some of the weird and wacky ways I have kept the creative fire kindled over the years. (The photo is a hint.) Because let’s face it, even when a writer isn’t writing, everything she does, experiences, sees and feels is filtered through the author prism. She asks herself: how does that experience fit into the next story? And then everything becomes writing.

Lud-in-the-Mist: Page One

Lud-in-the-Mist is wonderful. Today, would an agent read past page one? 

Last month, a book I’d never heard of found its way into my consciousness twice in one week. I’m not one to assign supernatural sources to serendipitous events (after reading that book, I’m wondering if I should . . . ), but with two mentions coming so close together, I figured it was worth looking into. My son is a serious fantasy fiction reader and told me that he had just read Lud-in-the-Mist. He found it extraordinary. I don’t often read fantasy fiction, but his praise was high, and he’s a harsh critic of fantasy authors whose world-building is inconsistent, whose characters are not as fully developed as any serious literary fiction. So I thought I might add Lud-in-the-Mist to the end of my 100-book-long ‘to read’ list.

A few days later, I happened upon a discussion of fantasy and literary fiction (and the intersection of the two) between Neil Gaiman and Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. In it, Gaiman mentioned that Lud-in-the-Mist was an unjustly ignored novel, one of the best of the twentieth century. I forwarded a link to my son and said maybe I would go ahead and read the book. As this was just prior to Christmas, he bought me a ‘print on demand’ copy.

You can look on Goodreads to see how much people love this novel, so a positive review isn’t entirely my purpose here. However, as someone who reads little fantasy, I found it so good that I sat in my yoga pants and t-shirt all day and read until I’d finished. It has a traditional sense of the hero’s journey. The mayor of the town of Lud-in-the-Mist, Nathaniel Chanticleer (love that cocky name!) is conventional. He’s an enforcer of rules and laws, one of which is that no fairy fruit from the Fairyland beyond the Debatable Hills is to be eaten.

Fairies are often associated with the dead or the ‘Silent People’ and are feared. Their fruit was outlawed after the merchant middle class managed to overthrown the aristocracy and rid the town of both the pain and pleasures of that elite group. The fruit appears to have caused the extremes of behavior exhibited by the aristocrats. Thus the fairy fruit has an obvious analog in illicit drugs. I read that Hope Mirrlees, author of Lud-in-the-Mist, was influenced by the work of Christina Rossetti. You’ll have some fun with that as you read if you remember Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” from your college English literature course.

Although the wellness generated by the new law is a delusion (according to Nathaniel’s lawyer father), at least, unlike fairy fruit, it is available to all and treats people equally. It offers a contented orderliness.

Mayhem sneaks into the mayor’s household when a wiley servant gives Ranulph, son of Nathaniel, a taste of fairy fruit. The boy begins to act strangely and the effort to correct the situation leads to a hero’s quest for Nathaniel, who until this moment had never understood how much he loved the boy.

I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll just say that villains are interesting and multi-dimensional; the longtime friendships humorous and enduring; all characters grow in understanding; the adventure is surreal and creepy; the hero’s quest and return are as magical as you could hope for; the fairy fruit itself is a powerful metaphor and argument for the dark side of creativity and the necessity of letting it in.

So here we have this very good book. My question, as a writer, is: would it be published today?

First, there is the title, Lud-in-the-Mist. Fantasy books need the names of towns to feel fantastical and this one fits the bill. However, I think, as a title, it would turn people away—at least those who hadn’t read Gaiman’s praise. Yet, this is a good introduction to the novel. ‘Lud’ is sometimes used when authors want to signal past usage for ‘Lord.’ The lords and their fairy fruit have been banished, but the mayor and other jurists are certainly the new lords in the sense of having power in the community through law. Contrarily, ‘-lud-’ as a root word from Latin means play, joke or jest, even mock. (Lots of words contain this meaning—allude, collude, delude, elude, illusion, interlude, ludicrous, prelude.) Playfulness is not what the town is known for, but something that needs to be recovered if it is to survive.

Strike two against Lud is the length of the introductory chapters which give the reader  a good deal of setting and backstory. We learn about the “capricious’ and “selfish” Duke Aubrey, “a hunchback with a face of angelic beauty, who seemed to be possessed by a laughing demon of destructiveness.” He’s interesting, but generations have passed since he disappeared, by many accounts, to Fairyland. Would an unknown contemporary writer be allowed to start there?

Many early pages are spent on the setting, a sort of idyll at the confluence of two rivers, the Dawl (large and commercially valuable) and the Dapple (small and rumored to have its origin in Fairyland).

I was recently at a writers’ conference and attended a session where three agents on a panel listened as the first page of each of many attendees’ novels were read aloud. (The authors of these first pages were anonymous, but surely they were attending the session.) The agents were to pretend that they were reading the page as part of a query for representation. They were to raise their hands at the point where they would stop reading. If two of the three raised their hands, that query was a reject. Of about sixteen first pages that were read aloud, only one wasn’t rejected. The reasons for rejection were sometimes obvious—the writing was no good. But all of the pages that described natural settings or landscapes were rejected out of hand simply because two of the three agents said they hated that as a beginning. Some of these were lovely. If they had made it to a book in that form, I would have kept reading. So, too, did I love the descriptive passages at the beginning of Lud. They drew me into the world of the novel, and while it was an earthly town with some familiar elements, it was also distinct in its beauty.

Mirrlees’s descriptions of landscapes are all vivid. Because her town and countryside are so richly evoked early on, when she moves into the dark otherworld of Fairyland and the Silent People, the contrast is eerie and the reader is chilled. It exactly hits the mark that Joseph Campbell describes as the business of mythology and fairytale—the dark configurations enter the unreal, fantastical space that represents the psychological fear inherent in facing the great challenges and passages of life.

I would be sorry not to be able to read new works of fiction that set this slow pace through which we best enter an unknown world.

Note: As I mentioned, I read (and write) mostly realistic fiction, so I’m not well-versed in fantasy. But I do enjoy Neil Gaiman (who doesn’t?) and found a few of his books great for book talking to teens in the library. On my School Library Lady blog, I reviewed both The Ocean at the End of the Lane and The Graveyard Book; I see parallels to Lud-in-the-Mist in both.


How I Became a Writer

All things come to me slowly. I wish it weren’t so. I love stories of epiphany, of lightning bolt inspiration. But my consciousness river is turbulent with questions of creativity, of ethics, of purpose. What is heavy enough to withstand the agitation and upheaval–what isn’t thrown loose–remains on the riverbed, tumbling until it is finally (and I hope finely) polished.

The idea that I am a writer has rolled through my life for many years. In all that time, I have jotted ideas on napkins and index cards, fleshed them out in journals, written drafts of stories and novels, and eventually begin sending work out that felt ready for publication. I’ve been thrilled to have stories, essays and book reviews published because the end game of writing is communication with the reader, the beginning of a dialogue. I write because I want to live in the world of ideas.

So without being able to pinpoint an epic moment of clarity, I can only say that I knew I wanted to be a writer because I first knew I wanted to be a reader. I have mentioned in essays my wonderful third grade teacher, Miss Shuck, who took me for a reader before I knew I was interested. Seeing that I had a knack for words, she didn’t torture me with the Dick and Janes of the day, but handed me a high school English anthology and let me have at it. Back then these texts were a bit more moralistic than they are now; nevertheless, the stories were compelling, and I found myself reflected in them in a way that made me begin to think of myself as part and parcel of the community. I remember a particular story about an overweight girl who was to participate in a bicycle race. She was trying to eat right and practicing the route. She worked hard. And yet on the day of the race, she ended up taking a shortcut–unseen–and winning. While everyone was celebrating, she admitted to her teacher that she had cheated. Her honors would be stripped. This felt to me the bravest of behaviors because that girl was going to catch hell. I was a bit overweight myself, and I liked to think that I had the same honor in me.

Connecting with someone else’s story while reading is the first step for anyone who becomes a writer. Its natural sequel is the sense that the reader, too, has a story to tell. She then goes about the difficult task of working to tell it right.

Reading just about anything, no matter how unconnected to my own stories, is always inspiration for writing. At a writers’ conference this fall, I was surprised to hear author Lisa See report that she doesn’t read while she is writing. She’s afraid that the style and tone of the book might influence her own work, taking it out of her voice. I can’t imagine how this happens. In preparation to write, I will often listen to poetry as I walk or hike. (Yeats has a way of pulling ideas and images from the depths of consciousness as do old epics such as Beowulf and Gilgamesh). I’m no poet, but what a wonderful place to begin in listening. How lucky I am to have a multitude of voices, calling me to join with them in conversation.

Note: Today the DIY MFA Book Club begins. This blog post is in answer to the first writing prompt: “How did you become a writer?” It looks like a fun group. The prompts and discussion will be based on Gabriela Pereira’s book DIY MFA. Wanna join? Check for the Facebook Group ‘Word Nerds Unite.’

Inlandia Teen Issue: Time to submit!

Happy New Year! 


I just want to remind teens that the submission deadline for Inlandia: A Literary Journey is coming up on February 15. The new year is a great time to commit to getting your favorite pieces of creative writing and artwork together for submission. Check the submission guidelines and FAQs here. (If you’ve never used the submission manager ‘Submittable,’ you will create an account. It’s easy to do and it’s free.)

Quick lesson on how to submit to the journal.

I love the energy of the teens who are working toward submitting their creative work.  I had a great time with Mr. Luna’s journalism class, talking about Inlandia and its mission, the teen issue and recent good books! It was a great way to end the 2017 calendar year and the first semester of the school year.

Keep writing! Keep creating! Submit!

On-the-fly book talk using School Library Lady blog! (Isabel Quintero and Zeke Pena’s ‘Photographic’ is up on the computer.)