writer, editor, girl wonder

Category: Writing

passionista

Not to brag, but I am really good at having my feelings hurt. In this particular case, I don’t remember what sparked it, but here’s how it has gone down in the past: I mention something I like—anything from puréed soups to the city of Montreal to a particularly lovely section of Bach’s “Wachet auf” cantata—and my conversation partner responds with a resounding “meh.”

Sticks and stones may break my bones, and words will never hurt me. Personal attacks? I can shrug off. Criticisms of my work? I can evaluate intelligently (and sometimes, I agree). But a that’s-so-boring dismissal of something I like? Then I’m all shimmering eyes and clenched jaw and sinking heart. And GChats to my friends, peppered with teenage emphatic consonant reduplication (“whyyyyyy,” “ughhhhh”) and demanding reassurance. Asking “when will I stop taking it personally when people dislike things I care about?”

Answers ranged from “awww” to “hahahah never.” Not the most positive prognosis.

If you love something, let it go, even if that thing is the organ that pumps blood through your body

If you love something, let it go, even if that thing is the organ that pumps blood through your body

I love a lot of things. Strange things, singular things, things with no competitive opposite to spur me into a zealous defense (Star Trek. No, Star Wars! Quit liking things I don’t like!). The things I love I love with such depth and yet such fragility that a chilly reaction on the part of my peers makes my chest ache. When eyes glaze in the face of the elegance and force of “O terque quaterque beati,” I deflate. When my boyfriend rolled his eyes at my favorite cover version of “Where is my Mind,”  I smacked the stupid car radio in my Volvo and cried for the rest of the long miles of Ohio.

See? Dumb things. Small things. Not things that normally engender steely differences of opinion and resultant emotional responses. Just trifles that come as treasures from my mind, My chouchous are personal and strange, and instead of building them up in the sights of those opposed, I just let myself crumble: this person is unmoved and bored; I am not. I am boring. I am wrong.

But, Phil-Collins-style, I can’t stop loving stuff. Stuff is so neat! Epic poems, graying tapestries, sweet potato fries, peculiar turns of phrase, really good cups of coffee, Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium, slang and junk and brussel sprouts with bacon. Knicknacks, kickshaws. Moments of magic in the late night and early morning. I want to pluck every charming chunk of creation and put it in my self, like a reverse horcrux, a jingling curio cabinet I carry in my heart (I carry it in my heart). So when these things bore others—or worse, merit no attention at all—it hurts.

After I asked the first question, I moved on to a second. What is it about passion that makes it so painful? And after I asked the second question, I was all, hahaha, doy. I’m the Worst Medievalist Ever! Answer: everything.

Passion—it comes from patior, pati, passus sum; I suffer. Yes, Latin! Roll your eyes all you want, but as far as unlocking long-hidden arcane power goes, etymology is the closest thing we have to runic inscription. Roots are radical*! And beyond that, this particular truth is strengthened by one of Western thought’s most insidiously fundamental ideas—no, not Jesus, but good guess. Fin’amor! Courtly love! You know, love is pain? You don’t even have to go all the way back to the twelfth century for that one; just listen to practically any pop song.

So passion is suffering, but to suffer is really just to experience (verb, trans. “Experience or be subjected to.”) Think of it this way: in Latin, the word altus can mean both “deep” and “high.” Passion’s the same: it cuts both ways. Profound all around. And if pain is part and parcel to being passionate, then suffer it unto me. I’d rather get bent out of shape when people roll their eyes at this beautiful expression of nostalgic futility (do they not GET how hard those Newfoundlanders had to struggle for their cod?!) than just smile dopily along to some Dave Matthews song. Passion, but not passivity. Ughhhh with the yayyyyyy.

*obnoxious tautology alert

à la recherche

We need to talk about the Renaissance.

Or, okay, I need to talk about the Renaissance. I’m having some confusing feelings. If you’re anything like my dear roommate, whom I will very kindly tell you dated Chaucer to “at least a hundred years ago,” you might not get why a Medieval Studies lady wouldn’t like Shakespeare, but the fact is that that the 400 years that separate my period of expertise from the Renaissance is roughly the same amount of time from the construction of the Globe to 2013. They are Different Eras.

But! I think I’ve finally shrugged off the Medievalist chip on my shoulder about anything post-Columbian and, well, it’s not so terrible. I still won’t go so far to say my thinking has been reborn (because, seriously, Renaissance? That’s just propagandistic. The term implies that all the important scholarly work fueled by Charlemagne and his contemporaries was just a looooong, dark, gestational period of the soul. To call the post-Medieval era a “rebirth” implies that Alfred the Great was NOT SO GREAT AFTER ALL, and I just cannot cotton to that).

However—as any Canterbury-bound Nun will tell you—Amor vincit omnia, and I have gone all weak-kneed and swoony for Elizabethan England. Love is strong as death, especially when a centerpiece of said love is death (Plague outbreaks! They are fascinating) There is beautiful, heavy-looking clothing, and religious unrest, and deep inquiries into what it means to be possessed of a human psyche. There are plays and poems and songs and dances. And it’s all so sexy. Seriously, I don’t think there could be another word for it (well, sensual would do in a pinch, but real talk: sexy just sounds sexier). All those John Donne poems and close-clutching gaillards and codpieces and farthingales are just bursting at the seams—mostly metaphorically—with a peculiar human ache. It’s enough to make you want to go all “PLAY A VOLTA!”

I can see you now, and you’re all like, okay, way to go, girl-who-finally-got-around-to-appreciating-a-significant-portion-of-English-history, but what does burgeoning humanism have to do with YA novels? OMG—or as Ye Old Teenz would say, God’s wounds. Everything.

The Renaissance was an adolescent age. Everything was new, possible, exciting, and strange*. For the first time, like Copernicus’s Earth-and-Sun switcheroo, people entertained the idea that man might make God, and not vice versa. And speaking of entertaining…there is the theater.

It was an art form without precedent. Greek tragedy and medieval mystery plays aside, the synthesis of the Latin-learned philosophy of the University Wits and the rustic comedy of tumbling and jigs brought forth something new, peculiar, and…still strange. O My America! Behold a wonder heere! The sentiment echoed across artistic media, but I have to suspect—and I do have to, because now I’m writing a novel about it—that when these young men got onstage and “not described, declaimed, or didactically evaluted, but rather dramatically recreated” the human thought process, the lines that they spoke were the best form of this new self-awareness. The thrilling adrenaline of being onstage for the first time echoes in every line of iambic pentameter, “the most natural verse rhythm there is, corresponding both to natural speech and to our heartbeat…” I mean, that’s it, isn’t it? That’s what art should do: magnify.

Swooning aside, and down to hard facts. I’m writing a book about young actors on the cusp. It’s the best. There are vulgar jokes (the wordplay! Ughhhh all the wonderful chances for wordplay!) and allusions to Ovid and hotblooded men in shirtsleeves. There are Lost Plays and Early English Playbooks and inns, playhouses, and guildhalls. There are morris jigs and Squeaking Cleopatras and bits with dogs. It’s really exciting and I’m really excited about it, partially for the long-lost joys of scouring articles, getting to know scholars by name, and making endless interlibrary loan requests, and partially for writing all the kissing scenes.

A thing that I learned: at the end of all Elizabethan plays, the company would come out again (or rise up from the floor, if they were dead), and dance a jig together. Since that is obviously THE BEST, I’ll leave you with this:

*Especially, ahem, these guys, AKA my bro-tagonists.

the road re-taken

Last Friday, for the first time in five years, I took the 23 bus. Ten minutes, a handful of stops, a shortcut from gym to home. Or new home, I guess.

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I’d always hoped I would get to live in Philadelphia as an adult. I’m not an Eagles fan and I can’t remember the last time I ate a cheesesteak, but my roots run pretty deep. Growing up, I had a dad whose job it was to inspire the whole Philadelphia region and remind it of its own greatness and a grandfather who’d saved Pennsylvania from nuclear holocaust (among other impressive feats of office). It rubbed off on me—not because of tribalism or sentimentality, but because I come from smart stock. They—we, I guess—know good things when we see them and don’t give them up. And this place is one hell of a good thing.

Philadelphia is a city of contrasts—colonial elegance and urban sprawl, world-class universities and a shamefully low literacy rate, endless, verdant parks and scraggly empty lots. There’s the perfect, classical order of the grid streets—numbers one way, tree names the other—and the do-what-you-want, shortest-distance diagonals of the well-worn Lenape footpaths that eventually hardened over into real roadways. And the names! Unpronounceable festivals of consonants and double sibilants. I was born by Tulpehocken, grew up following the Wissahickon to the Schuylkill, cut my teeth on Wawa hoagies, and now I’ve got a new home on East Passyunk avenue.

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PASH-yunk, not PASS-ee-unk. I’ve actually had to practice this. My landlords did a good-natured double-take when I said I was born here. My right-side-of-the-tracks prep-school upbringing scrubbed out any hints of regional accent: I put a t in “water” and “orange” (color, flavor, or fruit) has two syllables, not one. But I’m intractably proud of Philadelphia, even if I don’t sound like it.

The 23 bus starts at the former site of Borders Books and Music in Chestnut Hill, where I would go after school in 7th grade to drink (and spill) Italian sodas on magazines that my friends and I never actually paid for. It cruises through the hippie-topia of sustainable, diverse small businesses in Mt. Airy straight on to Germantown’s Revolutionary War mansions cheek-to-jowl with check cashing joints and gas stations. It stops at Coulter Street for my pre-driver’s-license self to alight and go to homeroom in the Classics office at 31 West—“And to the church in Philadelphia, write Behold, I have set before thee an open door.” But it keeps on going, through North Philadelphia, to dim parts of the city I still haven’t seen, and then, when I’m ready, it grabs me at 12th and Locust, because I’m back, somehow, in Center City. It deposits me almost two miles further south, and from there, it’s only a few blocks walking to Passyunk. PASH-yunk. My home—all my homes—have a backbone, a current, a physical conduit to match my travels through time and space. It’s cool.

I haven’t been everywhere, man, but I’ve been a few places, and what I’ve come to realize is that it’s not the journey, and it’s not the destination either. It’s the revisit, the revision. It’s There and Back Again on Tolkien’s bent road. And this city—by design and by happenstance—is just that: the prescribed, dance-step precision of William Penn’s neat corridors and the heart-following, instinct-honing, and literal trailblazing of the Native Americans’ secret A-to-B routes. Either way, you get there and look back at everything. Life isn’t a trip, it’s a whirlwind—revolving around the same things but always lifting you up.

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Welcome back, welcome home. My door’s always open.

ars longa

My mom cleaned out some bookshelves the other day—the horror. She sent me a list of potential jettisons, just in case, and THANK GOD, because in addition to Anastasia Krupnik (taking this to my grave) and and The Aeneid, Book VI (ditto, since it’s only thematically appropriate), she was going to give away The D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths.

I got this book from my fifth-grade teacher. I didn’t know it, but it contained my life’s mission.

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Upper-right-hand proof that this is ex my own personal libris

Of course, I had no idea at the time. I was just a weird girl with a bad haircut who who still liked dressing up in her queen costume instead of getting ZAPPED. (Getting ZAPPED was a short-lived trend among my more preternatural classmates that involved writing a time of day on the back of the hand and the name of a member of the opposite sex on the palm. Flip it over before your time is up and you’d have to ask them out. Out where? Nobody knew.) We were assigned to read one story one morning per week and look up and define certain words therein in a notebook. For the first time, I had a planner: different subjects blocked out, assignments (plural) to juggle. I cried a lot (in class and out. I was a stressed-out kid.) But I loved to read.

Myths are funny things. They’re kind of like words—it’s hard to think back to a time before you knew them, like they’ve always existed in your Campbell-meets-Jung mental miasma. But there was a time, specific Monday mornings of my 10th and 11th year, when I was turning the pages fresh. I didn’t know that Athena was going to pop out of Zeus’s head or that Atalanta was fast or that Aphrodite was going to wash up on shore like a plastic, dolphin-killing six-pack holder. I also, for obvious reasons, did not learn the extent of (or even the meaning of) philandering in Greek myths, though I did get to unlock other new and arcane-sounding words: aphrodisiac, athenaeum, cairn, even cereal. Fourth and fifth grade were like a secular age of reason; I was ready to learn and everything I learned stuck. The Middle Ages, the Greeks, and how to write a check (Mrs. Hineline was comprehensive). And every Monday, more stories.

The year waned, middle school loomed, and I ran out of book. No more colored-pencil D’Aulaire illustrations and no more myths. There can only be so many, after all. The book’s ending made me sad—not how the stories terminated, but that they had to stop, period.

The Trojan War happened. The last story was about Aeneas escaping. Right-side pages were getting thin. But when I turned the last one over, there they were again, all the Gods on little name-tagged clouds: Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno, Athena/Minerva.

Salvete, amici novi!

Salvete, amici novi!

I remember the feeling so clearly: it didn’t have to end. There could be more. I don’t think I’ve felt so powerful an emotion reading, before or since. It was wonderful. From then on, my destiny was written—not in the sense that it was predetermined, but that it consisted of things written down. Scripta manent.

But that was it, for then. I didn’t know. Later, there would be French, and Latin, to layer one understanding of stories on another, and then history, and then college, and then writing, and then back to my old house and my old book where I’d refind the stories I’d traced in endless iterations.

Look; they’re all still there.

Having a life mission sounds quaint, self-important, and dramatically dire by turns. But if I have one—and I think I need one—this is it. That turning-the-page feeling. It’s a kind of quod est demonstrandum—what IS to be done—which is just a present refreshment of what was, once, to be done (QED, as it were). In other words, the same thing as other people have done. The same stories they’ve told, but in other words. The form of QED is an impersonal imperative, a form that English lacks. The idea that something can be universally necessary—it’s very Latinate, I think, and very wonderful. Or I wonder about it, anyway—what it means for everyone and what it means for me. What is to be done, in the face of so much time, so many stories? Participate. I want to take things from one place to another, because that’s what stories do. Translato studii: the translation of knowledge. Tell and re-tell. One day it will be pleasing to remember even this.

Keep your books. Keep your word. Keep going.

just add water

On Sunday I bought a bag of something called “freeze-dried coconut water.” Let that logic sink in for a minute.

I haven’t actually tried it yet, but I have read the package, and it seems to be the result of taking actual, watery coconut water and sucking away the water part until all that’s left is the essence of coconuttiness. A stupid, Whole Foodsy product—the kind of thing that my dad will be really mad that I used his credit card to pay for—but surely not the first time the siren song of convenience has melted the earwax of a spendthrift. People make complicated decisions, I contain multitudes, etc., etc.

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But enough about me and my luxury food purchases. Let’s talk about characters.

I am, as of approximately Monday, a reformed reticent about character-creation exercises. I hatehatehate those character charts that demand you spit out everything from name to height and weight to favorite food and dream vacation spot. Filling those out elicits a creative joy somewhere between medical paperwork and a coloring book. It’s busywork! Unless she’s playing MASH on the school bus, no character is ever going to be called upon to recite a litany of her quirks and preferences. And if she does, you, the author, should really re-examine your strategy for crafting dialogue.

What I DID used to believe in is a mystical, unknowable mental alchemy of holistic character formation, a theory that now sounds even more ridiculous with a name like “holistic character creation.” Fortunately, my fledgling publishing career has not only taught me volumes of practical skills, but has also done some good descaling of my bright little eyes. That is to say: books—and all the multitudes they contain—are made, not begotten. Characters are devised, or built, or hewn with rough and angry chops, not granted fully-formed from on high. (I don’t think authors who talk about “discovering” their characters are wrong, per se, but I suspect it’s just their subconscious blushing and waving off admirers with an “oh my, you’re too kind.”)

This should be a relief! It was to me. Lately I feel like I’ve done enough bashing my head on a desk in frustration to make my skull crack open like an eggshell, and yet: no Athena. So now I’ve got a patchwork, slapdash, stopgap, bric-a-brac way of building my characters into real, imaginary people…with some prefab ingredients. It’s the literary equivalent of “cheater” recipes that rely heavily on canned biscuit dough and premixed taco spices, only a little more nutritious. Look:

Myers-Briggs types. Look them up—the theory is complicated and based on Jung but apparently sufficiently rigorous to get the stamp of approval from my old therapist, and I think she went to school for Understanding People. You answer some questions and get assigned a type (I am, personally, an INFP: Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Perceiving).

The method: figure out your character’s type, either by taking the test for/as them, or by looking at the profiles and guessing which one fits. Boom: instant list of virtues and flaws that work together as a sensical, cohesive whole.Work them into your external conflict and your story is just humming along, isn’t it? As it happens, the character I’ve been struggling to understand is my polar opposite: Extroverted Sensing Thinking Judging. It all makes sense! The more you know™!

The Sims. I’m sorry, shut up, whatever. We all play it, and we all know that after you go through the makeover-montage blitz of dressing up your Sims, the only interesting part of this game is what goes on in your head. You invent personalities! You get emotionally invested! You tell stories, admit it! Ain’t nothing in the rules that says a writer can’t make digital versions of their characters and watch them scurry around a virtual ant farm for a while.

Other people’s friends. Oh God, this method made me laugh so hard I’m not sure it even counts as a writing exercise. And it could happen to you!

Pick a friend of yours that didn’t go to the same high school as you and ask them to describe as many of their classmates as possible—not their friends, or anyone they knew that well, but what amounts to the secondary characters in their personal narrative. They’ll give you fun-sized mini-stories, one or two sentences that amounted to these strangers’ epithets during their formative young adulthood. What about the kid with the unfortunate nickname? What about the kid who interrogated everyone IN SONG about his missing pudding cup in 7th grade? What about the girl who let guys service her in the parking lot of Panera? What about the kid who was not only caught masturbating in class but was also—and I am not making this up—named JAMES EARL JONES?!

You’re bound to get a grab bag of high drama and utter mundanity, but that’s exactly what real high school is. And once you’ve stopped hiccuping with giggles, steal. Line up your cast of characters and dole out these ripped-from-the-yearbook quirks as you see fit.

Questionnaire. If you’re going to do an actual Q&A for your character, I think it should be the one from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

What is your name?
What is your quest?
What is your favorite color?
What’s the land-speed velocity of an unladen African swallow?

 

These four questions actually cover most of what a person is about.

What they’re called (duh)
What they’re all about
Something about their taste or personal aesthetic
How they react when thrown into situations they don’t immediately understand—someone asking them an absurd question, say.

So…these are my character-mettle-testing supplies. They might not be the most efficient or sensical or “normal” ways of understanding the fake people you’re trying to make real people care about, but It Worked For Me! Delicious, piecemeal, semi-homemade characters, or my name isn’t Sandra Lee.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some coconut water to rehydrate.

i was a teenage teenager

When I saw a video entitled “Phonetic description of annoying sounds teenagers make,” I was like YES! And then I was like, NO! And then I was like, “breathy voice long low back unrounded vowel with advanced tongue root.”

Because while I love a rigorous breakdown of adolescent speech patterns as much as the next linguistics-obsessed young adult writer, this video kind of encapsulates a writing problem I’ve been having lately: I’ve forgotten how to sound like a teenager.

MUSICBAND totally sold out after their first album, dude.

MUSICBAND totally sold out after their first album, dude.

Well, not totally. At the wizened age of 23, I’ve just just passed the pivot point of language shift from “hip young thing of today” to “old,” and so I can still trade fluently in the slang and speech patterns that define millenials or Gen-Y or whoever. I know enough not to say things like “I wrote a blog” or to put a definite article before the names of websites. The expressions are easy, but they’re not the problem. It’s the expressed.

One of the reasons I love reading (and writing) YA fiction is because teenage feelings are, to borrow an appropriate phrasing, some intense shit. Besides the inner turmoil engendered by ungodly amounts of hormones coursing through your body, you’ve got a new external experience practically every day, whether it’s driving or taking the SATs or making out with someone you really really want to (or don’t want to, for that matter). And while fiction is, by definition, fictive, that doesn’t preclude it from telling the truth, and I think YA fiction operates with a singular understanding between the reader and the writer to translate the specific details of one character’s ups and downs to the larger, universal curves of the teenage human experience.

Getting the feelings right is crucial, in other words. And when your point of origin is no longer the chemical cocktail of adolescence but a conscious recipe of one part imagination and one part memory, inspiring that same buzz of immediacy and intensity is tricky business. But besides the rusty archives of your own recollection, where can you find teenage truth?

Du-uh. The internet.

I’m not saying you need to go out and #followateen-stalk actual, individual teenagers. That would be weird. But you also shouldn’t go out and read think-piece essays about Those Kids Today, because that is looking at teenagers with all the subtlety and understanding of that song from Bye Bye Birdie. Don’t have a cow, man!

Here’s my curated list of true teenage stories. These kids aren’t always going to be neat, or dynamic, or well-edited or -rounded or -spelled, or even interesting, at times. But then again, none of us was. The stories are still valid.

Are you wincing? Are you feeling it? Are you optimistic and cynical all at the same time? Good—or as the kids would say, “voiceless velar affricate”—that’s the place you want to write from. And if I missed anything good, hook a girl up and let me know.

the art of that which is to be proclaimed

This post is about plot. But also grammar. The grammar of plots.

Stay with me!

Here is a lovely picture of Grammatica personified from the Hortus Deliciarum, a 12th century manuscript by the Abbess Herrad of Alsace, to endear the concept to you

Here is a lovely picture of Grammatica personified from the Hortus Deliciarum, a 12th century manuscript by the Abbess Herrad of Alsace, to endear the concept to you

So, I’m teaching my mother Latin. It’s an ambitious undertaking, sure, but she’s an eager student. And I’ve always believed that nothing deepens your own understanding of something like trying to explain it to someone else who has no idea what you’re talking about. Also, she gave me life, so the least I can impart in return is the best thing I’ve ever learned in that life.

Learning Latin requires swallowing a lot of abstract concepts. Like, for example, predicates. From the Latin praedico, meaning “I proclaim.” I know what a predicate is, but I cannot sum it up simply and succinctly for love or money (though my mother only pays me in the former). Regardless, here goes: In broadest terms, predication is all about relationship between the subject of a sentence and…the rest of the sentence (I’m sorry, I’m sorry; think Mad Libs-y thoughts.) And thinking about predication made me realize that it’s a beautiful way to think about the plots of stories.

Look, I get it: you do not like grammar. It is not only unsexy but also inflexible, and you need to bend things. You think sentence structure is boring and technical and you think that narrative structure, that glorious tapestry of self-expression, is the seat of the soul of writing. Rules are the opposite of creativity. Right?

To use a technical term: ish. Comprehension of grammar is not about learning to diagram sentences. It’s not about whinging when someone misuses an apostrophe. It’s about cultivating the purest, most efficient fluency of thought. So if you want to call yourself a writer, you’d damn well better get grammar. Got it?

So. A sentence is a microcosm of the narrative it builds. Understand the sentence and there is nothing more to know. Heaven may not dwell in wildflowers, William, but when a grain of sand is grammatical there is indeed a world within. It’s a beautiful specimen, and I want to slice it up on slides and peer down for a second at these predicate things.

The way a sentence’s string of words generates a gravitational pull towards sense is a perfect analogy for the way sentences eventually coalesce into a sensical, emotionally authentic story. A sentence makes grammatical sense when and only when it expresses a logical relationship between its subject and verb (plus whatever prepositional phrases or adverbs help set the scene). Once you’ve got your subject, the rest is predicate—the action! the drama! the good part! A subject tells you what is, a predicate tells you what happens.

A story’s the same way. The climax of your story will only compute well if it plays upon what was set up in the very beginning. If your plot hinges on a betrayal, the effectiveness of that betrayal is predicated on an establishment of trust in the beginning of the story. A story about redemption is predicated on an appreciation for the depth of the mistake. To be effective, the end of your story must take its singular significance and resonance from the circumstances of its beginning.

Maybe this is obvious. But I like that there’s a common back-and-forth between the place of story and the place of grammar. Bringing across, trans latio. And this is why I’m bothering to teach my mom. Translation is not about how different two languages are, like Latin and English; it’s about how similar two concepts can be, like predication and storytelling. And while I’m generally agnostic about theories of everything, I do think this: humans are nothing without stories, stories are nothing without language, and language is nothing without grammar.

Or, in other words, know grammar and know your soul. Sic transit gloria fabulae. Translate everything, because everything will translate.

various states of subjunctive unreality

Verbs, like people, have moods. You know this intuitively even if you didn’t know it had a name: the difference between I write, I might write, and to write lies in the mood.

This somewhat non-sequitur of an image relates writing to building, because Christine de Pizan GETS IT

This somewhat non-sequitur of an image relates writing to building, because Christine de Pizan GETS IT

And when you write, you exist in the indicative mood. Creative doings are untempered action, after all: you draft and you plan and you put words on paper and you revise and you proofread. And then, you submit. And everything goes subjunctive.

For those of you whose hobbies are gerunds like “bicycling” and not abstract nouns like “grammar,” a quick refresher. Wikipedia, that Official Transcription of the Collective Unconscious, says that “subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred.”

Various states of unreality. Also known as the stretch of days between when you abandon your wonky little bundle of words on a doorstep and when you hear that someone’s adopted it. Or the time it takes for your void-shouting to echo. Or the haze of wishes and hopes that clogs up your ability to make declarative sentences. You say things like this:

Someone might like this.
If only my book were less weird!
Please let other people think this is readable.
I wish/hope/pray that this doesn’t suck.
This shouldn’t be so hard.

All subjunctive. All moody.

“It might have been” may be the saddest words of tongue or pen, but trim the phrase to its present tense and you have the most flirtatious: “It might.”

The subjunctive is wonderfully seductive like that. It’s the most human aspect of the most human form of word. What separates us from the animals if not “wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred”? What else is story if not a manifestation of those things? And where else do writers like to while away time if not in “various states of unreality”?

I think there’s a reason this aspect of action words shares its name with a synonym for emotion: verbal mood is mercurial, hard to grasp and harder to explain. (Even now, you are probably still scratching your head and wondering if this will be useful for Mad-Libs. It won’t, and I’m sorry for being stupidly obtuse.) Writers, being the agent nouns that they are, gotta write. It’s the only cure for what ails us—getting back to the indicative I write I tell I create—but how are we to make the transition? Thinking of ourselves in the future-tense-indicative might seem like the just the thing to rekindle the blaze in our bellies—I will write, I will succeed—but there’s a hollow, New Year’s resolution sound to those phrases. No, the necessary, block-breaking paradigm shift is of a much more imperative mood.

Literally. Get out your exclamation marks, get rid of your moodiness, and get ready.

Sit down! Type letters! Make words! String sentences! Print pages, scribble on scraps, keep creating! Do not stop! Do not despair! Do not dwell in possibility! Do not gentle go into that good night! Make your mark! Plumb depths! Exhaust everything! Revise! Wrestle! Struggle! Go, go, go!

BrockU_CoA

SURGITE: the motto of Brock University, a school I have never heard of before now, means PUSH ON in Latin. Do it.

video portals to the past

My new novel project has some History in it. Actually, it kind of takes place in History, because there is Time Travel. (I know, what am I thinking?) And this means I’ve been doing some Research.

My Medieval Studies degree is useful for about three things, and historical fiction is debatably one of them. But I don’t know all the details by heart. I know a few things about William the Conqueror, and they are these:

1. He was from Falaise, the tiny town in Normandy where I spent three soggy weeks on an exchange in 9th grade.

2. He had a castle there.

3. He conquered England in 1066.

Needless to say, I need the help of seasoned historians. And while I love to get library books out and will actually (gladly) spend 2 hours engrossed in a fine-printed book on the history of the French language, I will also take any excuse to watch historical infotainment on YouTube. Because really, what is YouTube if not a wormhole to days of yore?

Award for Best CG Backdrop goes to this one, which forces poor Dale Dye to weatherman his hands around a greenscreen while what looks like a map of England superimposed over a loadscreen from Oblivion flickers behind him. Also great is the reenactment of William yelling “…with God’s help, I will conquer!” It’s about as great as the scene in The Last of the Mohicans when Hawkeye tells his father that he is, wait for it, the last of the Mohicans. I think that’s what we call Dramatic Irony (I think?)

 

Oh my God. Badly-dubbed English, CG animations of trees bursting out of William’s mother Herleva (here called by her much cutesier name “Arlette”), pronouncing it “dinnesty” instead of “dyenesty,” dramatic recreations on par with not-too-great courtroom drawings, AND ominous bell-tolling sounds about every five seconds.

 

The ol’ bait-and-switch! You think you’re just going to see some stuff about “the greatest amphibious invasion in history” BUT NO, it’s just a big WWII psyche-out to get your feeble mind to realize where Normandy is in France. Host Michael Wood’s got some scholarly seventies sideburns and the soundtrack’s got some Rite of Spring lite sturm and drang.

Also, this quote: “Normans are as fiercely proud of their separateness as Yorkshiremen.” Uh. I’ll take your word on that one, Mike.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Jf6TBuOwGp8

It’s the details that make this one interesting. I don’t just mean that this video somehow knows that William the Conqueror was a redhead or that the strolling narrator has that kind of Ken-Doll haircut that seems to stick out of his head more than it should. I mean about thirty seconds in when the voiceover says “seck-shoo-ull innnnnntrigue” in the Britishest way possible.

the juvenilia files: His Irish Bride, chapter 1

Note: This is a new and maybe recurring feature wherein I return to the trove of writing I churned out as teenager with the time-hardened eye of a 23-year-old. It won’t be pretty. But you might laugh.

Imagine, if you will, a sixteen-year-old girl who has:
1. A unexplainable passion for the Middle Ages
2. No actual, factual knowledge of the Middle Ages
3. Literary ambition
4. Never kissed a boy

If this sounds like a recipe for the Greatest Romance Novelist Ever, you would be wrong. But that didn’t stop me from trying.

In the November of my sixteenth year, I rolled up my unfashionable sleeves and tried to bang out a romance novel about, for reasons I cannot remember, Medieval Ireland. I did not know what I was doing on any front of this endeavor. I had Google everything from “Norman military hierarchy” to “herbal remedies for bleeding” to “how do you French kiss.”

His Irish Bride (I know) stalled at 16,000-some words, the first few you will see annotated below. I never submitted it anywhere (or even finished it), but it did end up being useful later.

But first: the story.


Chapter One
Ireland, 1203

I have no idea why I picked this year. I think I wanted it to be after the Norman invasion, but I don’t think 16-year-old me put together just how after 1066 this setting would be. Also, real talk: I could not point to Ireland on a map. Read the rest of this entry »