I’m on a deadline for a book review and I’m also on a deadline for holiday want-to’s.
Yesterday I sat down and wrote out a first draft of the review. My first drafts are rambling things where I try to include all the themes I want to cover as well as the basics of the plot, as well as my judgment about how successful the book has been in relaying it story.
So this first draft was a loosely structured bunch of ideas and hundreds of words too long for my word count, but it was okay for now. I saved it. Then I got out the needle felting foam and fiber, my gourd inspiration and got to it. Needle felting consists of jabbing a barbed needle over and over into the wool until it takes on the shape of what you want. Maybe you can see the connection here. Just finished first draft. Phrases and themes are floating around in my head; questions are rising to the top like feeding fish. Do I use “sardonic” or “wry” to describe the narrative voice, or just “precocious.” Is “engaging” too ubiquitous? —The sorts of thoughts that need to mull and stretch as I jab a pointed needle into felt.
The motion, smallishly aggressive, is just enough to let off the steam created by so much critical thinking—it fills the same purpose as nervously jiggling your knee, except that you get a cute little felted thing at the end. So I finished the green gourd—it didn’t take that long, maybe one-half hour, and then I put it down and went on to the second draft.
In the second draft, I’ll start stringing sentences together, picking the exactly proper verb and adverb and paring down my word count. Probably there will be another gourd break (they are to be Thanksgiving gifts after all, so that is a deadline too) then a third draft. Heck I might get the whole dang cornucopia done by the time I submit the review. Now that’s multitasking.
It’s November. I’m getting that urge. Must make something with yarn. Must make something with yarn now.
So I dug out a pattern I bought a year ago for felted slippers. I’ve decided that felted projects are best for me. No need to pay close attention to gauge (ugh) or correct mistakes (ditto) since it all gets squished in the wash. I pulled out some nice deep red, cochineal-dyed wool from my stash.
And then it began.
How it always begins.
My adventures in knitting.
First off, I didn’t have the right size needles. So I talked hubby into making a quick trip to Webs (big yarn store with a lovely lounge area for husbands) when we were on the way to a bike race. Got right size needles and a few other sizes. Just in case.
Sat down the next AM with coffee, yarn, pattern, needles. Scootched comfy chair near wood stove. Felt wonderful. Read pattern. Heart sank. Had forgotten about knitting patterns’ delight in incomprehensible acronyms.
“kfb 2 st. yo to end.” WTF?
Told self not to freak out just yet. Start at beginning.
“cast on 36 st.” Knew that one, at least. Wound bright red yard around fingers in half-remembered long-tail cast on. Moved needle amongst them as if playing cats cradle. Realized that I had forgotten how to accomplish long-tail cast on. Put everything down. Got knitting reference book. Followed pictograms. Successfully cast on 36 stitches. Counted them twice. Yay.
Looked at next instruction. “k to end of row.” Breathed sigh of relief. Knew how to knit to end of row. Ha! Must be getting better at this. Next row. “Cast on 2 more st.” Huh? Need two yarn ends to cast on. How do I cast on now? Checked pre-instructions. Oh. “Carry two yarn ends throughout.” Had ignored since it didn’t make sense.
Becoming battle of wills. Pattern will not defeat me. Cleverly “cast” on 2 more st by doing the slip knot thing.
K-ed to end of row. La, la, la.
Stopped. Looked at bright red beginning of felted slippers. Looked at pattern photo of slipper. Slipper on pattern is round. Slipper on needles is flat. Scanned pattern to see where joining is indicated. Pattern mum on subject. Scrunched eyebrows together. Went to get other knitting reference book. Did I need two sets of circular needles to make slipper round?
Stupid, diabolical old-lady-knitting-pattern-writers. No doubt sniggering at thought of young-ish thing trying to read obscure pattern that leaves out essential information.
The Muse tells me it’s time to break for summer, and like the Wife (heads up, husbands) the Muse is always right. To that end, I will be on vacation from my blog until the beginning of September, when, I hope, you will join me again.
To tie up a loose end before I vacate: The Sweater has been completed. The Twenty Year Sweater Here is a photo.
I know. I never said I was a good knitter, did I? Check out the oddly puffy sleeves. When I put The Sweater on, I’ve got a weird Shakespeare-in-winter thing going on.
This morning I am going to go outside and paint a watercolor. Even though I have a boatload of books to review and three writing projects awaiting various revisions, I am still going to shove them aside and do a watercolor. It won’t advance my career or make me money, but. . .
I am the product of two very different people. My mother has, as my dad likes to say, two speeds: slow and stop. But I think he might be envious, since he’s fast and faster. I tend to be more like my dad, until I remember that I’m also part my mom. Once I asked her how she avoided over-doing. She told me that she does three “things”—“things” being chores—per day, and once they are done, she’s off the hook and free to do what she wants. (I believe one of the “things” is making the bed, so you see she’s not unduly stressing herself.)
When I find myself in a muddle of work, I remember her words. Painting a watercolor this morning is going to be more satisfying than disciplining myself through a revision and what’s more, I suspect it will free up other creative areas in my brain, making me more effective when I get back to writing.
If you’re more on the driven side like me, maybe today you can try to do one thing you truly enjoy, for no other reason than that you truly enjoy it–see how it goes.
Until September, then. Have a lovely summer.
I got a friendly, helpful note back from an agent this week. While she declined to take me on, she did tell me she found my story line intriguing, however it started off too slow.
Zing! I knew she was right. I moved the manuscript into Scrivener and started re-arranging scenes in Corkboard. Moving the scenes around allowed interesting gaps to develop—gaps that sparkled. As I was rearranging, part of my brain delighted in this freedom and part of it was aghast. “You can’t do that!” it said, “no one will look at it if you do that.” Well, let’s be honest, no one is really looking at it yet anyway, as far as I know. And besides, at 56 years old, at least two thirds of my life is over, so what is there to be afraid of? I’ve already experienced rejection and lived through it. I’ve already taken chances and succeeded or failed—and lived through it.
Fiction writing is a fairly new skill for me and I’m learning the craft daily. Even when I think I’ve written something lovely and amazing that really ought to win the National Book Award, or even better, a MacArthur grant, I remember how it was when I first started making baskets. I loved them too—those first ones—every crooked, sad, little lump of them. Then I got more polished and more polished still. And when I looked back at the first ones, I liked their gallantry, but let’s face it, they weren’t salable.
I think the same thing will happen with my writing. I am persistent. My stories will get more and more polished and one day my turn will come and I’ll get what I think I most want right now—a published book.
Even as I think this, though, I remind myself of something that I intuit is true: that the thrill of publication will never equal the satisfaction of the days I have now—of trying, failing, discovering and polishing—in a word, living.
I attended all three days of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) last weekend. Exhausting. I’m not used to being around hundreds of people for thirteen hours a day. I attended a few stellar workshops—Nancy Werlin’s cutting and revising presentation stands out—and a few mediocre ones. There were quite a lot of presentations on the “getting-your-book-published” side of things and a friend of mine noted that this conference is always an uneasy mixture of craft and marketing. Because of course, books need readers and from the publisher point of view the more the better.
But what makes a book sell? No one really knows, oddly enough, hence the headlong rush to copy the style of the latest best seller. But I think there is a thread that that runs through all extraordinary books and that thread is authenticity. The author has something to say and says it: truthfully, honestly, and often, painfully.
Authenticity sells because authenticity connects and the one thing that connects us all is our human condition. If a story is written authentically, readers connect to it. They sense its inherent honesty and by transmission, its inherent value to their lives.
America’s timeless stories—The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind—burn with the author’s passion. John Steinbeck and Harper Lee wrote from their hearts, not from the publishing pulse. They wrote because they had something to say and they said it. Authenticity, in both these books, rings like lead crystal tapped.
When we write authentically, we write from the very base of human longing and it is that longing which not only connects us all, but to which we long to be connected.
photos by Dorothea Lange
I’ve been knitting a sweater for the last twenty years. It’s true, I am a really slow knitter but I’m not that slow. Well, I am. I have quite a few “one socks” without the other—I knit one, it takes me forever, I never get around to knitting the other one. But this sweater is something that I am going to finish—I have one sleeve to go. I am determined.
This sweater has a story (you would hope, right?) It begins with a dream to own a farm, which I did make true in my twenties and thirties. The farm had chickens and horses, but it needed a few sheep. So one spring morning, I drove my VW Rabbit diesel to another farm that raised sheep for hand spinning and bought two lambs—one white, one black. I stuck them in the backseat with some hay. Then I drove the two hours back to my farm, the lambs looking out the window, having never been in a car before. When I got home I put them in the pasture I had prepared. It was a lovely space bordered by a stone wall.
Then next morning Dolly and Miranda (that’s what I named them) were gone. They had climbed over the wall and disappeared. I searched the woods, I met a neighbor who had a flock of sheep and said he would keep an eye out for them; I gave up hope by the end of the day. They were coyote food. I went to bed depressed. The next morning I got up at the dim early light of pre-dawn and went to let the chickens out. And who should appear, emerging from the woods across the road? Dolly and Miranda.
“We’re back,” they seemed to say. “Nothing much out there.”
When Dolly was a year old, I sheared her and it was from this first fleece—a rich dark brown—that I spun the wool to make the sweater. Dolly didn’t like being sheared—as a matter of fact for a sheep, Dolly had some strong opinions. But we both persevered, in our stubborn ways. I got the fleece, and she got kicks in.
I want to justify taking so much time to knit a sweater and this is how I’m going to do it: I’m going to believe that this sweater is more than a bunch of loops in dark brown. It’s about dreaming a dream and staying stubborn in the belief that living your life the way it matters to you counts–whether you’re a human or a really stubborn sheep.
I exhibited my baskets and weaving at my first high-end craft show in 1996. Participation was by invitation only and I was excited to be picked, to be in the rarified atmosphere of craftspeople whose work I had often admired from a distance. I thought of all the stimulating conversations we artists would have while waiting for sales. We would talk about what inspires us; we would discuss techniques. We would bond as artists participating in a sort of salon, the kind that Isabella Stewart Gardner used to hold.
But it was all so very, very different. Everyone was kind and helpful to a fault, but the conversations, rather than being about craft and the deeply held life philosophies that had brought us to our individual art forms, were about something else. Money. Only about money. What kind of a booth would attract the most sales; how to crank out as many products as possible with the least amount of effort; what promoters and shows to avoid because of lack of sales. I was deeply disillusioned. I wasn’t making baskets and weaving cloth because that was the only thing I knew how to do, I was doing it for the challenge and the expression of creativity. For me, it wasn’t about the money. Which always sounds so noble, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t any more (or less) noble than the motivation I did have, which was recognition, or to put it into less syllables, fame.
My father once told me—he had read it somewhere—that everyone has a primary life motivation that is one of three things: fame or power or money. My first thought was: that’s so tawdry—our strivings can be distilled down to that? But over the years, I’ve come to realize that that is not a bad thing.
We all want to think our lives have mattered. Fame is validation. Money is validation. Power is validation. Being motivated by one (or more) of these three is longing to achieve external validation—the seal of approval that our lives have mattered.
I just attended an event that celebrates children’s book authors and illustrators in a gallery that sells original illustrations from children’s picture books. And to my way of thinking it beautifully illustrated (ha) the truth of money and fame and power. The gallery, by bringing together artists and patrons, hoped to sell some of the original illustrations (money). The artists, by appearing and meeting their fans hoped to amplify their brand (fame) (which leads to selling more books–money) An award that was given out at the event underscored it as a influential voice in the children’s book world (power). Everyone’s needs were being filled; everyone’s motives being addressed.
Where’s the art in all this, you ask?
The art is back in the studio, in the solitude of creating, in the hard work of delving the depths day after solitary day.
A little money, fame and power is a just reward, I think, for such honest labor.
I visited Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire this week. I’ve been to three or so Shaker museums but this one had a distinctly different feel to it. It felt less like a museum and more like a village that was once thriving and is now gone—like a ghost town. Walking through the buildings, two things struck me. One, I no longer had the longing I had previously always felt in a Shaker village—the sort of longing that made me wish I could have lived there in its heyday. And two, I thought about the Shaker credo: “Hands to work, hearts to God” in a different way.
Looking at the rooms furnished with Shaker tables, chairs, baskets and those famous built in cupboards—revered designs that have spawned industries and collections—I finally really understood that it wasn’t—for the Shakers—about the stuff or the efficiency or the order; it was about their faith. Of course I knew that their spirituality was the underpinning of their communities, since I had read it over and over, back when I studied all things Shaker; but at Canterbury, with it’s unglamorous (and I mean that as a compliment) aspect something came to roost that hadn’t been there before. I saw the process behind the object and the belief behind the process.
This is what I understood: While the Shakers lived physically apart from the world in their self-sustaining communities, they didn’t deny the outside world; they interacted with it when it served their purposes–they knew they were a part of the bigger world and so a part of the larger whole. Apart and a part: both separate and part of the whole. The archetypal truth of being.
I am a basket maker and weaver loosely trained in “Shaker” basket making and weaving and this background helped me understand that craft is a manifestation of this belief in and acceptance of apart and a part. The final product may be apart from you; but in the doing of it you have become a part of the larger whole. The doing and the time spent are the worship and the offering, the connection to the whole. That’s why, for the Shakers, whatever they did had to be as perfect as possible, because each moment of time was a moment given to God—whatever you believe God to be.
A moment given to God—love that.
The soft mewing of a wood duck as she calls to her chicks distracts me, and does that tiny cacophony I hear in the blueberry bush mean that the kingbird chicks have hatched? And the bullfrog! Can’t be more than ten feet away as he booms out his message. I am writing outside on a beautiful June morning but that may not be the best idea if I want to get this done.
However, I wanted to talk about expectations.
I have a lot of unfinished projects: A quilt that’s just pieces of squares, a half-finished chenille scarf on the loom, a partially completed crewel work design, a sketch for another piece of embroidery and pounds of wool roving that would like to be spun.
So when I read in one of my writing books that the biggest mistake beginning novelists make is to not finish their projects, at first I thought: ”Uh-oh, better remember that.” The odd thing is though, that I think of myself as a person who makes up her mind to do something and does it. That doesn’t seem to gel with all the unfinished craft projects.
When I sat down to think about it, I realized that the craft projects were all begun for specific reasons. I started making the quilt squares when I moved to this new house as an intuitive way to help me piece my life into a new pattern. I put the scarf on the loom between semesters in anticipation of needing something repetitive to do as I teased out the words for grad school papers. I embroidered to infuse some color into dark winter days.
These projects were all started to fill a need, and now I realize that they are incomplete because those needs have been met: I have a new life in a colorful pattern, turns out I didn’t need the loom project to jump-start my writing brain, and with the end of winter the colorful spring began. So although the projects are unfinished in one sense, they are finished in another sense–the sense that my expectations around them have been met.
If a project is no longer fulfilling, ask yourself why. Maybe it’s because you’ve already completed it. It’s not the actual physical finishing that makes something complete, it’s the fulfillment of the expectation.
This past Memorial Day weekend, Richie and I visited the Acorn Inn in the Blue Ridge Mountains. While Richie rode his bicycle with friends each day, I loaded Buddy and easel into the car, heading out to paint.
Driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Shenandoah National Forest’s Skyline Drive, I marveled at the clear gradations of blue in the mountains. The Blue Ridge Mountains are old—three hundred million years old—and they once looked like those young upstarts, the Rockies (only one hundred million years old) before time wore them down to their roots. They fold into one another like a mussed up bedspread and for me they are just as cozy. I’m usually a more wide-open sky kind of person, but these mountains seem to hold one protectively, in an embrace.
On my drive, I visited Humpback Rocks mountain farm, a living history site of a typical mountain farm of the 19th (and probably 20th) century. Nestled into the hollow were the one-room chinked log cabin, the log shed and springhouse, the hopper for lye, the pig pen; each building without decoration or extraneous frill, only the spare necessity. I wondered why it all seemed so right. Instead of looking like poverty of the most meagerly sort; it looked instead whole and undivided.
Then I realized that the spare farm fed the body while the natural beauty of the mountain and the crafts its resources inspired, fed the soul.
I own a book titled “Mountain Homespun” by Frances Louisa Goodrich published in 1931. Goodrich had journeyed into the mountains to find its weavers and spinners. She visited with these people at their mountain farms, much like, I am guessing, the one at Humpback rocks, and wrote down their words. Here’s Aunt Liza, ‘upwards in sixty’ talking about the farm in the mountains where she has lived for over forty years: “…it puts feeling on to a body to see the moonshine falling on yon mountain…I don’t know, either, but what I like it here full as well along about daylight, when I’m up soon of a morning and the sky ferninst is all the color of them roses yonder. Here lately there’s been the prettiest kind of a big star, seems like it sorter hates to go out of sight a sun-up.”
Yes, it was a hard living, and a living in poverty by our standards of economic development, but it was also, I think, a rich living by the bigger standard of satisfaction.
“I’m a rarin’ to draw it in and see how the spots come out. Shucks, ain’t it grand, the things they is to do and to find out about.” Granny Jude on receiving a new pattern to weave, from “Mountain Homespun.”