Tag Archives: writing

I’m out of words, I’m just going to draw things #1

14 Nov Concert to support the Metropolitan Orchestra of New Jersey, November 13, picture drawn by Alexandra Hanson-Harding.
Concert to support the Metropolitan Orchestra of New Jersey, November 13, picture drawn by Alexandra Hanson-Harding.

Concert to support the Metropolitan Orchestra of New Jersey, November 13, picture drawn by Alexandra Hanson-Harding.

 

It has been almost a week since the election of Donald J. Trump. My reaction changes day by day. Currently, I have reached the nonverbal stage. One way in which I, personally, am very fortunate, is that I am well adapted for hopeless situations. That is one of the gifts of having been relentlessly for five years when I was growing up.

The bullying started when I was eight years old and my family moved to the suburb of Wilbraham, Massachusetts. The school officials thought that anyone from the “big city” of Springfield had to have an inferior education. So even though I had been in the gifted program in Springfield (my mother tells me), they put me in the equivalent of the special education class in Wilbraham. The teacher was cruel and abusive. She gave me an F right away because we didn’t learn cursive until 3rd grade in Springfield and they learned it in second grade in Wilbraham. She screamed regularly. Kids on the playground told me I was “retarded.” The next year I was tested and put back into the gifted class but by then it was too late. I was a very small, sensitive, and dreamy girl, the type who spent hours imagining how fairies eat, but zero hours imagining why people wanted to be mean.

Hmm.  Not long ago, a woman I know knew a writer who was writing a book about people who were bullied. She asked if the writer could contact me, and the writer did. I thought for a long time if I would answer. It seemed very rude not to, but somehow, whenever I thought of saying anything about what happened during those five years, I felt the strangest feeling, as if I were clutching my stomach and as if my hands were flying up to my face at the same time, and thought, No. No. No. I never actually answered her.

But as bad as bullying was, I did get one benefit. Resourcefulness. To distract myself, I learned. I read. I learned new facts and with them created new stories in my mind as it floated above my unpleasant reality. I also loved drawing.  It became a habit and a pattern to escape into reading and drawing, to learning and to observing, when I had the least power.
When I was weak, these habits were an incredible solace. And at times when I was more powerful, it turned out that those things were quite useful as well. It was a silver lining to the unnecessary  pain to which I was subjected.

Gosh, I don’t know what brought that to mind this week of all weeks.

At any rate, this week–until just now, apparently–I feel as if words have just failed me. It’s a good week to return to habits I developed in a time when I felt helpless. So here’s something I drew yesterday. We went to a concert at the Milburn Public Library to support the Metropolitan Orchestra of New Jersey. It was a beautiful concert of Mozart and Brahms, and another solace for a sad and beautiful day. We saw the big lovely moon when we drove home. And I was with my beloved husband. This election is bad. But music is good. Love is good. The moon is good. And art is always good.

 

 

 

 

135JournalsTime Travel: September 13, 1981, Sunday

13 Sep

An excerpt from Volume 51 of the journals of young Alexandra Hanson, 35 years ago today:

The building I work in doesn’t have a 13th floor. Maybe I should try walking up some of the flights for exercise. Hah! I would have to walk up 12 flights of stairs to get up to the second bank of elevators .That’s a little too much exercise for a girl, I’m afraid.

It was a nice day today—going out to the street fair, shopping with Laura and John Flansburgh, and watching him question a woman about why she uses Pampers and not a diaper service.  I got money out of the bank and cleaned up the apt. a little while Brian was out in South Orange, NJ, looking at the place where he’s going to live. He’s very happy about the place; it’s convenient, it’s beautiful, it’s $150 a month, it’s with a woman who’s middle-aged who always has guests over and he likes that kind of thing—guests and friends and visitors . Only, he has some sad thoughts about it, about moving away. He’s glad to get out of this dilapidated apartment building and leave the mice. I saw one today when I opened the cupboard door, leaping over some plates and staying very still in the hole behind the cabinet, only its little tail sticking out. I yelled “BOO” at it and it still wouldn’t move. I wish it would do a better job of hiding if it has to be there. I felt less able to take care of it without Brian hanging around oohing and aahing with admiration at my competence in mouse disposal. Anyway; he not all that happy about moving away from me. He’s very nice. This weekend was happy in a lot of ways. I spend it mostly with Brian and we spent a lot of satisfying time together in a way we haven’t in months. I know he’s finally relaxed about teaching and a place to live. I know he appreciated my weird sense of humor and rambling monologues this weekend.

Before I write anything else I want to say that I hope I write less slavishly in the future. I’m hoping I can break through to deeper, truer writing than I can now. I am afraid of myself. Afraid of writing even the most trivial things.

 

 

 

Three Different Years, Same Date: Entries From My 135 Journals

16 Mar
Mrs. 135 Journals with her demon spawn Jacob circa 2011. Photo by demon spawn's paternal unit, Mr. Hanson-Harding.

Mrs. 135 Journals with her demon spawn and cabbage skeptic Jacob circa 2011. Photo by demon spawn’s paternal unit, Mr. Hanson-Harding.

One of the benefits of keeping a journal since forever is seeing how life changes and how it stays the same. Here are entries from three different March 16ths, chosen completely at random. One thing that has remained the same—boys, both brothers and sons (and friends and boyfriends and husbands, or, shall we just say, husband!)—have been a constant source of amusement in my life. And I’m glad it doesn’t smell like a dead mouse under my bed anymore!

Sunday, March 16, 1975 I don’t get along with anyone except the parents and Craig and the Dog. Which is a majority, but just barely. I do get along with the other three sometimes. But not often.

Guess what? I get to BABYSIT. I have to cook: Ugh. Robbie shrieked to Mom and Dad, “Don’t go. DOOOOOOOOOONNN’T GO!” But they went.

March 16 1994, Wednesday

Now I’m on my way back home after visiting the baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and Dr. Mark Ehrlich the plastic surgeon. I got a shot of cortisone in the scar I got under my nose from falling on that ice patch. It really hurt.

“That looks as if it hurt more than I thought it would,” Dr. Erlich said sympathetically. I like him. After I saw Jakie and went to the doctor, I went shopping. I actually did a lot of walking today, too. I walked from Port Authority up to the hospital (59th and 9th) to the doctor’s office 61st and fifth, then wandered up to 68th and back to Port Authority. It still smells like a dead mouse under my bed.

March 16, 2011 The other day Jake said, Why do I have to study? Why can’t I just do the studying montage?”

Also, last night he said, disgustedly, “What is it with you two and cabbage? It’s the food of PEASANTS”

He was shocked for a moment to learn that once upon a time, so was lobster, but then he said, “Well, that makes sense. It’s just a CRUSTACEAN.”

Writing Prompt: Can you remember what you were doing and whom you were with on any past March 16?

We Are Almost Out of Year!

31 Dec
Journal entry, December 30, 2014

My poor husband must submit to being the subject of truly terrible drawings of his unbelievably handsome countenance. Here is part of my penultimate journal entry of 2014.

So this is the sorry state of the latest journal of Ms. 135journals or so. Paint splatters from a painting on the other side of the paper. Not a very handsome likeness of Mr. 135journals. Conversation about drywall and counter mounted compost bins. An experiment with using gel medium as a transfer technique for a picture of a woodpecker that wasn’t entirely successful. But–despite the house construction, the health problems, the dented fender, the mess in my art room, I feel very lucky to have this year. I am so glad to have had time to learn about art, to read books, to talk to friends, to share a life with this beautiful creature whom I have loved since we were teens. I am proud of my wise children, and of the family I grew up with, and the one I married into. And of my family of friends.I I have had some grim times this year, but there hasn’t been a single day where I haven’t had a chance to learn something interesting and new in our great world of wonders. Even on the worst days, there is (are?) Kim Kardashian’s butt problems to amuse me. I haven’t lived up to all my hopes for myself. I haven’t been as good a friend as I wanted to be. I did not do enough to ease my friends’ sufferings, and I hope I do better next year.  I did not drop XX number of pounds. I didn’t finish writing my novel. But oh how lucky I am to have had this difficult, beautiful, year. It was a like my messy journal, full of experiments, boring little everyday details, splashes of color, wrinkles, and nostalgia. It surprises me, as I wrote (illegibly) in the entry above, that we are “almost out of year!” I hope that you readers–and thank you so much for reading this very scattered and eclectic blog!–found some good in this year, and that next year will unlock a new treasure chest of wonders for you as well.

Writing Prompt: What surprised you this past year?

135 Journals Book Review: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

30 Dec
Vista overlooking the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts from the New York State border at sunset

Vista overlooking the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts from the New York State border at sunset (via Wikimedia Commons).

What makes a book work? Plot twists? Action? Unsolved mysteries? Yes. . . but sometimes a book has a strange power that goes far beyond a heart-pounding plot. In The Red Garden, much of what made it irresistible has to do not so much with a dramatic subject but with the author’s masterful voice. This beautiful book is about the life of a western Massachusetts town called Blackwell, from its beginnings in the 1690s until modern times. It is told in a series of interlocking stories that are about characters in various generations from that founding time forward. In each story, there are connections to be made to previous generations, giving the reader a feeling of the cyclical nature of life.

I enjoyed hunting for the connections, and for the ways that history touched on the characters who were the subjects of the stories. But to me, that was not the best part of the book. What really worked for me is the masterful skill of Alice Hoffman’s writing. The writing was deceptively simple. It made the reader forget the complexity of creating multiple sets of characters and their connections to each other. It made the reader forget that although these stories were all set in the same place, each protagonist quickly became individual and alive, not just props in a larger plotline. The book has a touch of magic realism–for example, in the curious nature of one of the founder’s relationship with a bear–but because of Hoffman’s beautiful storytelling voice, those moments of mystery seem as real and possible as any others. To me, the book was entire in itself, enjoyable on its own considerable merits. Yet it also reminded me that it is possible to craft a book about something as simple as a little town in a forgotten part of the world and convey the idea that no town and no person is ordinary—that we are all full of mysteries and contradictions and possibilities.

Writing Prompt: Is there an author whose voice you particular love? Who is it and what do you love about his or her voice?

Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing, even if it’s for five minutes

17 Dec
Beanitos bus stop ad, photo by Alexandra Hanson-Harding

The writing process needs lots of fiber to keep things moving (from NYC bus kiosk, photographed with loving care and a sophisticated sense of humor by Alexandra H).

Hello friends,

I am writing from Starbucks, where I am taking my last chance to get a fancy drink for free after signing up for one of them there Starbucks cards the kids love so much these days. I don’t know why they want me to have a chai latte for free but it is giving me the opportunity to do what I sometimes do with my friends—write a five minute email. It’s not that I have too little to say, it’s that I have too much. So whatever comes out in that five minute is at least a down payment, if a rambling one, on the friendship. I have incredible friends and I feel the joy of them in my mind.

So what’s this got to do with you, the reader? I have a feeling that one of the things that makes it really hard for most people to develop a writing habit is that they don’t write enough actual words, so the cost of each word is way too high. To me, writing is like plumbing—you have to have a certain amount of flowing clean water wasted and going down the drain to keep the pipes moving and not to get, um, unsightly clogs. Or, maybe it’s like eating. You’ve got to have enough fiber—i.e.; stuff that doesn’t provide nutrition in itself but functions as Nature’s Broom. Just keep it moving. In other words, although of course different people have different writing processes, but for most professional or at least frequent writers I know, their writing flows because they just do a heck of a lot of it, and a lot of it is to crap. Of course, sooner or later, serious writers need to learn to edit. But very often they need a safe place to write. (As I sit here, a young woman is writing long Christmas cards. She shakes her wrist, she’s written so many. I look at her, a pretty 20-something black woman in a green woolen cap, I am filled with admiration. I feel like saying to her, “Your friends are lucky to have you.” Heck, maybe I will say you.
I started a new journal today. Again. I started one last week, and I lost it. The reason I started one last week was because I left the LAST one, almost completed, on the bus. It may be hard to believe, but the proprieter of 135 journals.wordpress.com cannot lay her hands on every journal that she has ever written. I have left a few on the bus or god knows where else. You may wonder, isn’t that horrifying that somebody could know so many personal things about you? Yeah, it’s kind of a bummer, honestly, but I have to slap myself. I wrote to keep a record, but I also wrote to express my feelings, to find relief, to try to add up different parts of my life and make sense of them. I also drew, painted, doodled, thought of ideas that have no doubt been strengthened by the eye-hand connection. Maybe someone will find it and be amused. Maybe they will be disgusted. Maybe they’ll be inspired. Maybe it will be swept up and tossed out—the most likely scenario. It was a very small book only 4” by 6” with a black cover. It probably didn’t look like anything special from the outside. But it was practice for me.

Part of me hates that I have to start again. But I whisper to myself that Time’s Arrow moves only forward. What will happen if I don’t write start writing in a new journal book today because I mourn the loss of the last (2) journals? I’ll lose the good and bad of today. How I went Christmas shopping in the quaint little shops of Montclair. How I went to my memoir writing group and got to hear some of the hilarious family misadventures of my fellow group meetings. Best of all, how my son Jacob stayed up all night so he could cook my husband a chorizo and mozzarella omelet for breakfast and so he could make a test batch of latkes for me before I left for said memoir writing group. Okay, the staying up all night thing may not have been a direct result of wanting to make breakfast latkes. But I love his creative spirit, the hunger in his hands to create exquisite food. Of course, not everything has been perfect. I lost $30 of Christmas presents I just bought. I forgot to bring the present I made for the person who is leaving the group. My dawgs are barking from tromping around town. It’s getting dark and my art room is still in chaos. But I was excited and happy about being able to shop, and about thinking (probably too ambitiously) about all the things I want to make people I love for Christmas. No time like December 17 to get started, right?

Just a few little moments from December 17, 2014, the only December 17, 2014 I will ever have. Complete with doodles of trees, feathers, flowers, stars, leaves, and zigzags. Because writing is a long unfurling over time.

And now, half an hour of writing is passed. Time’s arrow is moving forward. Something is here that wasn’t here half an hour ago. Good? Not good? It doesn’t matter—it is all part of my great river of words that seek to move.

Writing prompt: What has happened to you this one precious day? Can you write something—anything—for five minutes? Or more if the spirit strikes?

135 Journals Interview: Meet Kid/YA Author Timothy J. Bradley!

4 Nov
Timothy J. Bradley

Timothy J. Bradley uses illustrating as a way to get a feeling for the books he writes.

Recently, I reviewed a quirky and entertaining book called Infestation. (check out: https://135journals.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/135-journals-ya-and-kid-book-club-infestation-by-timothy-j-bradley/) This book made me realize just how much I didn’t know about huge mutant ants–a shameful knowledge gap, I know! Writing the review gave me the opportunity to communicate with Infestation’s author, and he kindly agreed to answer some questions about how he writes (and illustrates) and what inspires him. Read the interview below to learn more.

Infestation cover

Infestation (cover design by someone else) is about Andy, a boy who is sent to a very strange reform school with an outsized insect problem.

  1. It seems in the book as if each of the main characters has a weakness that turns into a strength. For example, the main character’s roommate’s love of blowing things up comes in handy. Is that true of all the characters? Will it show up in future books?

Yes, I tried to give each of the characters some kind of talent or interest that ended up being a benefit to the group of boys in some way. I think that people in real life are like that—we all have hobbies or interests, and it’s fun when we get a chance to put that part of our personalities to good use. In Pyro’s case, it’s probably the only time in his life that blowing things up could serve a constructive purpose! I definitely would want those character attributes showing up in future installments, and more as we find out more about them all. Right at this point in time, INFESTATION is a stand-alone adventure, although I certainly left the door open to possible future books (I’ve thought a lot about what would happen in those, and they’d be a blast to write and draw). INFESTATION has been nominated for the 2014-2015 Massachusetts Children’s Book Award (I’m pretty sure it’s the only book with giant, mutant ants), which might spark some interest with a publisher.

  1. How did you get the idea for Infestation?

I was a big fan of monster movies when I was a kid, especially the “giant bug” films, which were made in the 1950s and 60s. When I started writing fiction, I thought it might be fun to write a story that was an updated version of one of those 1950s “creature features”. One thing I knew I had to do is to come up with a logical method for actually making a bug really huge—in real life, bugs can’t grow beyond a certain size because their muscles wouldn’t be able to move their limbs. Muscles attached to an exoskeleton aren’t as effective as muscles attached to an internal skeleton (like we have). Once I thought of a plausible way to accomplish that, the rest of the story just fell into place.

  1. How long does it take you to write a book, and how do you do it? Do you have a special place where you work or a special schedule?

Typically, what I’ve done is to let things percolate in my brain for a while before I actually sit down to start writing. I also spend a couple of weeks nailing down the plot and significant story events, sketching up lots of thumbnails of things from the story. Once I actually start writing, it might take 2-3 months to generate a first draft. Then I send it out to an editor, and usually do several rounds of rewriting and revising.

I have a studio at home that I use to write and draw, but I can be creative anywhere—it’s something I had to master when I worked as a freelance artist. I don’t have a set schedule—I’ve always been pretty disciplined about taking advantage of little bits of time here and there to write. I usually spend a lot of time during the day thinking about the part of the story I’m working on so that when I am able to sit down and write, I know pretty much what I want to accomplish.

Soldier Class ant illustration by Tim Bradley.

Soldier Class ant illustration by Tim Bradley.

  1. You said you liked horror movies from the 50s. Can you tell us more about that and what they were like? What interested you about them?

My favorites were the ones that at least attempted to have a thin layer of science attached to them, along with the explosions and destruction. I also really disliked if the “monster” was obviously just a guy in a rubber suit (like “The Thing From Another World”). I really liked any kind of dinosaurian-type monster (like the original “Godzilla” movie), or stop-motion animation creatures. But my all-time favorite monster movie is “THEM!”, which was about giant ants in the New Mexico desert, mutations from the original atom-bomb tests. The creatures in the movie were life-sized “robotic” ants that looked pretty good—remember that this is waaaaay before computer graphics had been invented. Not only were the creatures great, but the story was well-written and very compelling. So when I decided to do an updated version of a monster movie, I put in plenty of nods to that movie (the setting is one of them).

  1. Did you study bugs in high school or college? Were they a special interest for you? Are the facts about bugs in this fictional story accurate? If so, why did you think it was important to be factual in a fictional story? If they are accurate, what kind of research did you do? And was doing research fun or was it torture?

I’ve always been fascinated by bugs—they’re so different from us, yet, if you go far enough back in time, there is an ancestral creature that gave rise to both arthropods and us. I have always found that mind-blowing. Although I never studied insects in any formal way, I did do a lot of reading on my own, and I watched the bugs that lived out in my back yard when I was a kid.

The insect information in INFESTATION is accurate—I’ve always enjoyed stories where the adventure aspect is balanced with a helping of actual science information, sort of what Michael Crichton was so good at. I had written a nonfiction book called PALEO BUGS: Survival of the Creepiest, which contained information about prehistoric insects. The research I did for that book involved traveling to the London Natural History Museum, and having a paleontologist walk me through their amazing fossil insect collection. All that information helped when I was writing INFESTATION. I also read a bunch of book from my local library, and did some research on the internet. I actually find researching a book a tremendous amount of fun—I end up learning so much about a topic as I go.

Illustration of a running mutant ant by Tim Bradley.

Illustration of a running mutant ant by Tim Bradley.

  1. Did you also like to read when you were a kid? What are some of the books that influenced you most? What about as an adult?

I was a voracious reader when I was a kid, and I discovered many of my favorite authors at the little library in my town. The books that influenced me most were Rendezvous With Rama and 2001: a space odyssey, both by Arthur C. Clarke, The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury’s collections of short stories. I still love to read as an adult—my favorite authors now would be Connie Willis and Robert Charles Wilson, as well as Michael Crichton.

  1. Do you have another job outside of writing, or is that your full-time job? How did you break into publishing? I know it’s a tough field!

I do actually have a full-time job—I am the in-house illustrator for Teacher Created Materials, an educational publisher in Huntington Beach, California. I write at night and on weekends, for the most part. Getting a book published is a challenge, for sure, but I think what I have in my favor is that I’m pretty disciplined about getting things done, I’m not afraid of putting my work out there (my years spent as a freelance artist made me used to doing that), and I’m pretty tenacious. I don’t give up on something easily, which is good, because it can take a long time to break in. I’ve been pretty fortunate so far, and it’s been a tremendous amount of fun. Breaking in was just a matter of continually knocking on doors—sending out queries, following up, all the nuts-and-bolts that have to be done in order to get a publisher to read your work.

  1. If you were to offer kids advice about how to become a writer, what would you say? What helped you?

I would say to go for it, but realize that writing, (or art, or music, or any creative endeavor) is a lifelong journey. It’s more important to enjoy the work itself (and it is a tremendous amount of work), and not worry about making it big as an author. It’s a very competitive field. Patience and perseverance are essential qualities for a writer. Also, I think it helps to read a lot, and try to figure out why a particular author’s work appeals to you.

  1. What are some other things that fascinate you?

Anything with a high weirdness factor. Zombie ants, parallel dimensions, black holes, prehistoric animals, other planets, future spacecraft, robots…yikes, there’s a lot of stuff. It’s all great source material for the type of stories I liked as a kid, and that I write now.

10. Why do you like writing for kids?

I think I enjoy writing for kids for 2 reasons. I think there’s a part of my brain that has never matured past the age of 8, and “8 year-old Tim” still gets excited about some crazy science story in the news. The second reason is that I remember vividly how awesome it was to discover a book that really reached me. I still enjoy finding a great book as an adult, but the sense of having these huge ideas that I had never thought about leap off the pages of a good sci fi novel was a very powerful force when I was younger.

I have the third book in my “Sci Hi” series, called TIME JUMP, coming out in November [ed. note: It just came out on November 1], and I have started working on a new middle-grade, illustrated, sci fi novel called EXPEDITION, which mixes my interest in natural history with my fascination with robots. I am very excited about it—I think it’s going to be a fun read (and I can’t wait to work on the illustrations!).

Covers that Tim designed for some upcoming books

Covers that Tim designed for some upcoming books.

(Oh,  I also forgot to ask where you live, at least in a general sense, and if you have kids, and if so, if they like reading your books). Are you familiar with the Southwestern setting because you have spent time there, for instance?)

I grew up on the East Coast, north of Boston, but I currently live in Southern California (I love the sunshine and palm trees!). I have a wife and a college-age son who is interested in a lot of the things I am, which is really fun). I use both my wife (who also writes for children) and my son as “sounding boards” for my ideas. My wife is great at spotting where I need to add description or character development, and my son has a nicely warped sense of humor, which can lead to some interesting points of view. I couldn’t have accomplished the work I’ve done so far without them.

Writing Prompt: Did you get any ideas from Tim to spur your creativity? What inspires YOU?

135 Journals Book Club: Still Life With Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen

21 May

Image

I guess George Flegel was also teed off that he was left with all the dishes in his 1635 “Still Life with Stag Beetle” (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Still Life with Breadcrumbs is a novel that is written with such tightness, and works so well that at the end of it, I had to open it up and start over to see if it was as good as I thought it was. And it was. I don’t necessarily think it is a classic that will live forever—but I do think it is a novel that asked questions and answered them, that created appealing characters whose rightness or wrongness for each other was instantly clear, and that it created a world that made sense and which left the reader completely satisfied. It also contained a lot of unpretentiously stated wisdom that was resonant with the characters and the lessons they had learned through their lives. At the heart of this book is an inevitable-but-how? romance between Rebecca Winters, a 60-year-old divorced photographer from NYC who had fallen on hard times and moved to a dumpy cabin in upstate New York in order to be able to rent out her own lovely New York apartment so she could save money to pay for her mother’s nursing home bills and various other expenses, and Jim Bates, a 44-year-old roofer who is so much more than a roofer. Rebecca and Jim meet at the beginning of this book, when she is confronted with one of those problems you don’t find on the Upper West Side—raccoons in the attic. Jim Bates, who is known for his ability to find things. He is pleasant and interesting in a low-key manner. Oh yeah, ladies. We know this guy. He fixes everything, he’s caring, he notices how good you look in your sloppiest clothes, but none of your annoying habits ( “Oh, I see you like putting PEANUT BUTTER in the REFRIGERATOR,” for instance), and who is handy with a snowplow just when you were getting cabin fever. Anyway, Jim eventually he offers her a part-time gig sitting with him in trees while he identifies particular tagged animals and she takes pictures of them. They get to know each other through thermoses of of sweet coffee (brought by him, of course) and long hours of chitchat—though they actually reveal little about the secret family responsibilities and worries that wear them down.

Meanwhile, she, who fits the classic novelistic trope of “Woman comes to town” starts exploring her new world. She takes hikes and finds strange little crosses, some decorated with trophies of photographs, and takes pictures of them. She gets to know the garrulous but loyal Sarah, owner of a local shop called “Tea for Two” that serves English food such as mouthwatering scones and Toad in a Hole, and soon, Rebecca is a regular, through Sarah’s no-good husband Kevin is a bit off-putting.

In addition to sitting in trees, reading the Classics and taking pictures, she reflects back on her own life,, about her former marriage to a selfish but glamorous English, Peter Symington. It was after a dinner party where he rudely went to bed without helping, AS USUAL, that she snapped a photo she called “Still Life with Breadcrumbs” of the mess. It was the first photo that made her famous but it would not be the last. She became wealthy and famous from her photos, (which would thoroughly irritate Peter, Despite living with the evil Brit (I’ve seen movies—aren’t they all?). But now, the cash flow is a cash drip and New York is no fun. So now she was trying to make do and sacrifice. It is always interesting to hear how people struggle with money, and it is also interesting to see how they cope with a new environment. And, it is intriguing to read about any artist’s “process.” For someone like Rebecca, al lot of her art comes from looking and looking until she captures the right moment. What that moment means remains mysterious—she is not a woman for putting things into words. She just has a feeling. And that is much like Jim. At a meeting of a fancy Women’s League where she is invited to speak, she is asked. “Could you tell us the secret to your success?”

“The secret is that there is no secret,” she replied. “That’s true of almost everything, in my opinion. Everything is accidental.”

When I read those lines, I almost laughed. For a character like Rebecca, whose calling is to look, that is true. But for the novelist who creates her world, NOTHING is accidental. There is a saying about playwriting that if there is a gun in the first scene, then the gun needs to go off by the end of the play. The very first SENTENCE of Still Life with Breadcrumbs, is “A few minutes after two in the morning, Rebecca Winter woke to the sound of a gunshot.”

In fact, one of the most interesting features of this book is just how different objects, thematic ideas, etc., come together by the end of the book. Just for the fun of it, I will share a few themes to look for: crosses, ladders, white flag, dog, houses, England, guns, money, ways of seeing, Mary Cassatt, thingsthat happen by accident.

There are many other appealing features of the book. Minor characters are drawn with efficiency, charm, and consistency. Rebecca’s evil ex-husband who taught about the erotic world of the medieval era is known as “Professor Porn.” Rebecca’s parents always had a fear of space heaters (emphasizing their urban side). Rebecca’s appealing son Ben is characterized by his dialog—“Don’t go all Lady Chatterly on me, Mom,” he says after learning of Jim. The chapter headings are succinct, colloquial, and delightful. For example: “How she Wound Up There—the Inspirational Version.” “Get a Job” “This is How These Things Happen—Part 1” (and 2).

I have always loved Anna Quindlen’s writing, ever since she wrote essays about life and parenthood for the New York Times. Back then, I lived in Hoboken, NJ, and so did she. I always dreamed I would run into her but never did. I wanted to thank her for her writing, if we had somehow met at Lisa’s Deli or Fiori’s Mozzarella shop where a wooden sign read, “The Taste of a Good Mozzarella is Remembered Long after The Price is Forgotten” (so true). But I can thank her now, for a thoroughly enjoyable book that was a treat from start to finish.

Many of the chapter headings in Still Life with Breadcrumbs could be used as writing prompts. Try using one of the three above–“How she Wound Up There—the Inspirational Version.” “Get a Job” “This is How These Things Happen—Part 1” (and 2) and write your own story.

25 Things for Which I’m Grateful Today, May 8, 2014

8 May

 

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Cobalt Blue! Gold! Beautiful! Dome of the Chain in front of the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. (in public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Some experts say that gratitude keeps you healthy/successful/happy/wise/and even non-genocidal. We all know that, right? Oh, okay, I’ll use some quotations, in lieu of proving point properly:

“God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say thank you?” –William Arthur Ward.

“The unthankful heart discovers no mercies; but the thankful heart will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings.” ―Henry Ward Beecher

“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh

There. Satisfied? So, I’m going to give gratitude a spin today. I’m going to try to feel the small and large pleasantness of my individual life, lived in the very place and moment where I am. If you have a few minutes, or a piece of paper and a pen to start a list that you can return to, maybe you can make a list of a few things you feel grateful for today, too. After all, it’s the only May 8, 2014, we will ever have, right?

Today I am grateful for:

  1. The sound of birds outside my window.
  2. The soft freshness of the air.
  3. How my husband, Brian, put my new Triple A card in my wallet for me.
  4. How much my son Moses made me laugh at dinner last night.
  5. How hard my son Jacob is working up in Maine, and how bravely he is learning to take care of myself.
  6. How we will get to take a vacation in Maine this summer.
  7. How I will get to start filling out paperwork so that we can renovate our kitchen.
  8. That I have my own room, now that Jacob is in Maine, for dreaming, making art, and writing in.
  9. That I am reading four books at the same time and they’re all good.
  10. That I don’t have any lost library books at the moment.
  11. I finished my daily quota of writing for my novel (600 words).
  12. I have almost finished my quota of walking for the week, so anything extra will be bonus.
  13. I talked to my sister yesterday and she was funny.
  14. I met a woman who was the former librarian for the National Enquirer the other day, and when I asked her what it was like, she said, “It was like working in a Victorian whorehouse,” which made me laugh. And then when I told my husband, he said, “What’s a Victorian whorehouse like?” and I laughed more. Plus, I was glad he didn’t know what a Victorian whorehouse is like.
  15. Oatmeal with hot milk, banana, and sugar.
  16. Chai tea with milk and sugar.
  17. Walking with my friend Heba and learning that there is a word in Arabic that sounds exactly like the Hebrew word Tzedakah (charity) and means something very similar.
  18. Feeling sad for my friend Kathy Wilmore, whose mother died, but also glad, because Kathy was such a good daughter to her and so unselfish and honorable. I feel proud of having Kathy for a friend.
  19. The weekly summit at the Chit Chat diner with Julie.
  20. The feeling that it is important to feel peaceful and that, as my mother says, “You don’t have to prove anything.”
  21. The new things I am learning about the brain from the MOOC I am taking on Coursera. Such as how some neurons pass through the meninges from the Central Nervous System to the Peripheral Nervous System.
  22. Cobalt blue. Such an amazing color.
  23. Fantasizing about ways I want to decorate my Room of My Own.
  24. The fact that I actually got up the nerve to go to a Meetup from Meetup.org on making Art Cards and had two hours of fun creating with a group of other women this week.
  25. That I went to an essay writing group my friend Toby recommended and I had the nerve to read an essay I had just written, and got some good suggestions.

Writing Prompt: I dare you to squeeze out 25 things you’re grateful for today.

135Journals Book Club: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

2 May

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A circus in the 1890s (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

 

Erin Morgenstern conjures up a magical world within magical worlds in this inventive but accessible treat of a book. Set, mostly, in the 1880s-1890s, it is about Celia, a girl from New York, and Marco, a boy from London, and the terrible deal that is made by their guardians—that the two will have to use magic to compete with each other until one wins. What this means is a mystery. But this book is full of mysteries. Celia will perform as a brilliant illusionist in a very different kind of circus than the garish spectacles one usually sees. It is designed all in shades of black, white, and gray. It has a magical clock. It appears and disappears with great suddenness. And it is only open at night. Fans of this circus, called reveurs, start to follow it around, and dress in shades of black, white and gray with something red, so they can recognize each other. This strange landscape is richly detailed, and the reader can feel as if she or he herself is walking around eating one of the chocolate mice with licorice tails and feeling about the look and feel of this strange landscape

One of the things I noticed is that there are many story lines, and many characters, and yet, though the book shifted rapidly from one character’s experience to another, I didn’t feel lost. Every individual was quite distinctive. One reason for that is probably that they each had roles to fulfill—from Isobel, the fortune teller, who was in love with Marco, to the young twins Poppet (who got glimpses of the future) and Widget (who got glimpses of the past) , to Celia’s semi-disembodied and highly critical father, who used to slit her fingers to train her to use her mental powers to heal the cuts. For a long time, Celia does not know who her opponent is, but they collaborate on one mysterious tent, taking turns on trying to outdo each other with strange effects, such as a room where patrons walk through snow or a labyrinth that goes in all directions. But as the competition becomes more intense, so do the stakes. The path to discovering why they are on this path and what they should do about it is as labyrinthine as their tent.

One thing I did notice in this book is that the author made no attempt to make the characters sound as if they were living in the 1890s. Their speech and manners were completely modern. Their names are not reflective of the era, either—Tara and Lanie, for instance. I found it slightly annoying that a German character was named Friedrick, when the German name is almost always spelled Friedrich. I was surprised that no editor or copyeditor fixed that. However, that is a very small complaint.

 

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Night Circus—normally I hate circuses, with their crowds and spectacles. But the author used her own magic to conjure up a world that was compellingly interesting, and I too felt the power of her ability to be an illusionist in her own right, transporting me to a world that existed only in our shared imaginations.

And, oh, fellow writers, here’s a few interesting facts about the author: She’s also an artist. And she’s been doing National Novel Writing Month since 2003. According to Publisher’s Weekly, (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/47866-first-fiction-2011-erin-morgenstern-high-wire-act.htm) lthe author said, “I never really planned what I was going to write beforehand and in 2005, when I got extremely bored with my novel-in-progress, I sent all my characters to the circus. For the two subsequent Novembers, I wrote pages upon pages about the circus, and then spent a few years turning it into something book-shaped. It is perhaps both a blessing and a curse that fictional worlds spring into my mind nearly fully formed and it takes quite a while to sift through everything to find the story.” She also has an entertaining website/blog: http://erinmorgenstern.com/

 

Writing Prompt: What is a book that transported you to another world?