Archive for January, 2010

Heroic Women

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Or, A strong fictional woman is hard to find

Tech Thursday

An interesting query this morning that comes via a Facebook friend. We’re charged with finding a photo of a fictional character we believe best represents our character. Naturally, she had already my choice, which was Scarlett O’Hara.

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I racked my brain, then, thinking of fictional characters that I identified with. Jane Eyre? Yes, a strong woman but … waiting for Mr. Right. The second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca? Yes, but … mousy and without self-direction.

I scraped my mind and came up with the narrator of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and thought, That’s just way too obscure for a superficial Facebook gesture.

Anna Karenina, suicide. Madame Bovary, suicide. Lara in Dr. Zhivago, a woman defined by Yuri Zhivago.

I thought about using Dr. Zhivago himself, since that’s the fictional character I most identify with, but refused to subvert the need for it to at least be female!

So I’m left with the Lady of the Lake … just mysterious enough to be fun, and significant enough in her own right. A giver of power.

In the end, the fictional character I most associate with is the one in my mind: Delia LaGrace, the narrator of the novel I’m working on.

Now that would be an obscure reference.

Till-ing Time

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Figuratively Speaking

Today, a long-overdue look at an Old English word written in many ways and having many meanings.

Yet it’s a simple word of four letters, sometimes three.

Till allows us to dig in the ground, since it means to prepare and cultivate land for planting crops. My grandparents would till their land each spring to raise food crops for the summer.

This form of “till” comes from the Old English “tilian,” which means to strive for, or obtain by effort, from German, zielen.

Till also reflects our interest in money — a word I learned working in restaurants (along with “chit,”referring to money owed and in the restaurant business, the money totals for each wait staff. It comes from the Hindi word for note).

The till is the cash drawer in a store, bank or restaurant. We know the expression to have one’s fingers in the till — meaning to steal from the place where one works.

This form of till comes from Middle English in a general sense of a drawer for valuables.

Interestingly, till also refers to boulder clay or unstratified sediments, from a Scots word for shale.

Last, I’d like to mention till as a short form of until, which is often shortened to ’till or written as ’till.

I never know how to write this shortened form. I always vacillate between ’til and ’till, feeling that ’til is just to short. The dictionary says till is a short, informal variation of until, and that until usually appears in writing.

Until is a composite of till, which came from the Old English til, related to Norse til. Until came about when we tacked on und, meaning “as far as” from the Old Norse.

By the way, this sense of until — “up to (the point in time or event mentioned)” comes from the combination of und, as far as + till, cultivating the land for crops.

Back to till and til, ’till and ’til — a look at the AP Stylebook cleared things up. Till, but never ’til.

Too bad I waited until today to figure that one out.

Anne Frank’s protector dies

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Miep Gies preserved the famous diary of that horrible time

The news this morning opened with a reflection on a great legacy of humanity, and the lady who saved it from destruction.

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Dick Coersen / EPA File

Miep Gies has died at 100 years old, after a brief illness, in Amsterdam. She was an office secretary, a modest occupation, but she was a giant in heart and bravery. Along with her husband, Jan, a resistance fighter during Nazi occupation, she shielded the Frank family, bringing Anne reading materials and keeping the family fed and safe. (Read the Associated Press article here.)

After the war, she safely delivered Anne’s diary to her father. In the years since its publication as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” it has become beloved around the world for its message of hope and tolerance.

News reports say she did not consider herself a hero; on the contrary, she said her actions should be considered normal, that we should look after each other as an ordinary action.

When Otto Frank returned to their house after the Liberation, he learned of his daughter’s death in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen of typhus (it’s in the north of Germany).

As a personal note, I have never read the Diary of Anne Frank. I was never required to in school and have not done so on my own. It is too unbearable for me, I admit. I can’t accept that humanity allowed the Holocaust or that today, we continue to allow such destruction of human lives and souls as in Sudan.

Perhaps it is wrong of me to avoid the hardship of reading her diary, but she is in my heart just the same, a hopeful teenager who can’t understand war, violence and hatred, looking forward to a better day.

Not So Simple

Monday, January 4th, 2010

It’s a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains.
— From the movie Bull Durham

A friend asked about writing and editing, wondering if writers like Kerouac, who has a reputation for spontaneous narrative, struggled.

I don’t think any writer, anywhere, doesn’t struggle. Now, the question becomes, does the writer enjoy the struggle? For some writers, I suspect, it doesn’t seem like a struggle, this act of creating. It is akin to cooking, which some folks just adore. I do not.

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Blossoming Almond Tree, 1890, Saint-Remy by Vincent Van Gogh

Process is how we do things. Otherwise, really, we are like babies wailing or children playing. It has a place, and it feels good at the moment, but it’s not creation.

Looking then at a writer like Kerouac, whose “On the Road,” legend has it, was written in three weeks on a single scroll of paper. It’s true. That novel came whole cloth from Kerouac’s mind. Yet prior to that, for years he wrote character and episode sketches. In his mind, he rehearsed the writing, again and again.

Going even further back, it’s important to remember that Kerouac’s mind was prodigious; he was known as “Memory Babe” because of his ability to remember things. He ran an entire major league baseball season in his mind with stats for every team and player. So for him to have a novel roosting up there isn’t hard to imagine.

Charles Bukoski comes to mind, too, as a somewhat spontaneous writer. Yet if you look at his total body of work — several novels, 13 short story collections, and more than two dozen short story collections including “Love is a Dog from Hell,” it’s clear he worked at it. Although his gravestone reads, “Don’t try,” his advice in a poem to those who asked how to write.

It always comes down to Scott Fitzgerald, who said, “Writing is rewriting.” (Or was that E.B. White?)

I also found this quote by Vladimir Nabokov, “I have rewritten–often several times–every word I have ever written. My pencils outlast their erasers.”

When I read Vincent Van Gogh’s “Letters to Theo,” what struck me most about the painter was his hard work, sketching, studying, doing and redoing. Yet regarding his canvases, we see light, energy, life — not overworked or too studied, the confident hand of someone for whom painting is breathing.

Looking at the year ahead, it means hours and days writing and rewriting. If I do my job, that is. That’s because the struggle is the meaning.

Novel House-Work

Friday, January 1st, 2010

New Year’s Day 2010

Looking out on the gray morning, the titmice, cardinals, juncos and sparrows breakfasting in the yard, the year ahead, too, appears before me, now empty but for a few birds of thought. The steps and turns, the hopeful dreams.

With new obligations of work and City Council, I wonder how I’ll make progress on the novel. A friend in theater shared with me her own story of how, when she was in college, and had a leading role in a play, she’d make dean’s list, too. With all the demands, she excelled at balancing; with no room for slouching, she focused with greater intent.

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Hugh Laurie as the good doctor House

Her story made an impression on me. It reminded me that no matter our obligations, we can make good use of our time, use it in meaningful ways. And still have time to loaf around watching House, M.D.

It’s a matter of centering on what’s important. Not losing time procrastinating. Working with direction, and if possible, delight in creating.

Thinking through the novel as I often do, I’m imagining a quicker pace, more intensity, and a regular schedule of writing.

Mostly I’m thinking about the whole coalescing in my mind, all the parts together, with meaningful episodes taking shape from the large currents of plot.