Saturday, September 27, 2014

10 Random Thoughts to Celebrate Tolkien Week

In honor of Tolkien Week, I bring to you some random thoughts on/relating to/mildly inspired by one of my favorite authors and men!

1. My nephew is a hobbit. He's about three feet high (granted, he's also three years old), his birthday is September 22 (just like Bilbo and Frodo), and he's quite comfortable walking barefoot in the woods. The clincher, though, is that he has a hobbit's stomach. Second breakfasts, elevensies, luncheon, tea... he's a fan of them all, down to the midnight snack.

2. My first email address, acquired with no little excitement at age 13, was (except with a real server and all). After about two hours of trying every name of my favorite characters and being told they were taken, my mom suggested I channel that obvious obsession into my own, obvious address. The problem was, the movies hadn't been made yet. So none of my friends could actually SPELL Tolkien. Probably some uneducated kid who put the "e" before the "i" got all my mail.

3. Tolkien had a daughter-in-law named Faith. Cool coincidence, huh?

4. Despite proclaiming my fan-status in my email address, I didn't finish reading the LOTR until after the first movie came out. This is because my sweet brother convinced me that Pippin died and I decided I just couldn't go on reading, let alone living, after that.

5. My only nickname besides "Faithy" is "Lady of Rohan." I was so dubbed by this really cute guy I had a crush on as a teenager. I nicknamed him "Steward of Gondor." We were really nerdy that way. I can even hunt up a few Tolkien-related poems we wrote for each other. This, by the Steward himself, was possibly my favorite:

We likes tasty fishes, my precious, we do.
We munch on their boneses, we gnaw and we chew.
We beats on their headses 'till they all be deadses.
Gollum! Fish skins taste just like glue.

With wooing skills of that calibre, of course I had to marry him. How many guys out there write you poetry anymore?

6. On Fairy Stories is one of the most important books on writing that I've ever read. (You can--and must--find it in the collection Tree and Leaf.)

7. I know how to write Futhork--the dwarvish (actually Viking) runes you see in The Hobbit and elsewhere. Many a love letter was penned in that rather unromantic script.

8. I also know a bit of Elvish, and once wrote a poem in it. Alas, I typed it out only to have my computer crash the next day. But it was way too much work to recreate. You'll just have to take my word for it that it was amazing.

9. I'm sure you know that Tolkien was a devout Catholic and influential in his dear friend C. S. Lewis's conversion to Christianity. But he was also a defender of Judaism. A random favorite bit of his writing is a letter he wrote to his German publishers when they asked if he was Aryan. He told them off with all the polite wrath of an English gentleman and etymologist, in a few succinct paragraphs including the line: "But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people." You can read more about the letter here.

10. According to some writing-procrastination tools, the Tolkien character I am most like is Thorin Oakenshield. According to others, I am Gandalf. One pinned me as Galadriel. I must have an old, old soul.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Are you in the mood for an art show?

Mater Gratiae, by Mark Langdale Hough. Oil on canvas.

Welcome to the viewing of the not-so-secret project
that my husband Mark has been working on for the past several months.
This painting, Mater Gratiae, is on display at the Salmagundi Club in New York
as part of the Hudson Valley Art Association's annual juried exhibition.
If you live near New York City, you can go see it in person!
(My apologies for the image quality; it's a little blurry because we need a tripod.
Also, getting the lighting right so it looks as it does in person is muy dificil.)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What We’re Reading Wednesday (Except it’s Thursday, because it’s been that kind of a week)

This WWRW comes to you straight from a home in the delightful trenches of the first weeks of homeschooling. If you’re looking for recommendations of fascinating adult non-fiction, look elsewhere...

First up, a book I read for myself: the lovely debut NEST, by Esther Ehrlich. I received an e-galley of this one through netgalley, making it the first book I’ve read entirely on the used Kindle my mom gave me. I’m not really a fan of Kindle-reading, but I did enjoy a lot about the book.
NEST tells the story of Naomi (Chirp), a spirited and spritely young girl who--in short--has to deal with much more than any child should have to deal with. Her mother is diagnosed with a life-altering illness...and it just gets harder from there on out. The juxtaposition of Chirp’s hopefulness and courage against the challenges of her life was incredible. The portrayal of her friendship with a neighborhood boy with problems of his own was insightful and lovely. The writing style was downright impressive. (As a writer, many notes were taken.)
I won’t hesitate to recommend this story to adults or young adults; it’s especially perfect for those of you who love Katherine Paterson. But I would recommend reading it before giving it to an actual middle grade child. It was a little traumatic for me to read as an adult, so I’d use caution when giving it to a sensitive child.

As a family, we’re reading THE SECRET GARDEN, by Frances Hodgson Burnett--in my opinion, one of the best 10 books ever written for children. And I’d put it pretty high on the list. If you’re a writer, analyze the brilliance of Hodgson’s storytelling. She breaks all the rules with so much skill that it’s about a million times better than any rule-following story. I’m also practicing my read-aloud skills on this one, as I attempt to “do all the voices.” If you’ve read The Secret Garden lately, or love it as much as I do, you’ll recall that it’s set in Yorkshire (home of my patron Margaret Clitherow as well as the famed vet James I love it and all). They have a very unique accent in Yorkshire. I cannot render this accent with any level of believability. I pretty much sound like a New Englander who got stuck in Ireland and is trying to talk with her mouth full.

52 DAYS BY CAMEL is being read aloud for Earth Studies, as we learn about deserts. I am totally enraptured by Lawrie Raskin’s description of life in the Sahara, and so are the girls.

To balance things out, here’s a fiction picture book we found and loved: LOUISE, THE ADVENTURES OF A CHICKEN. Of course, we’ve recently become obsessed with chickens (we had our first eggs these past couple weeks!), so we may be biased. Also, we love Kate DiCamillo. But this was so much fun. You have to read it.

Check out what some other great folks are reading this week, here:

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Was, was, was (some very brief advice about description)

Week four of the workshop I led at my local library focused on description; I actually don't have any notes for you, as we simply had a vigorous discussion on what made descriptions great, read a few excellent passages of description and analyzed them.

One thing we discussed was how a good description
brings a scene to life by including good sensory details
and use of unique, active language: the verbal version
of what Caravaggio did in this painting...
Oh, and we and almost tore our hair out doing the following exercise:

Write a descriptive passage without using the word "was."

Yep. That's it. Try it and report back. It's a great way to exercise your writing muscles.

As we discussed afterward, though removing many (perhaps most) of the wases (hmm...weird word to pluralize) will absolutely strengthen your descriptions, removing them all may weaken it. Sometime the best way to say something is the quickest, simplest way, one that won't draw attention. That's where "was" comes in.

(And knowing when you've got it right? That's where critique partners come in.)

Friday, August 15, 2014

How to be a Writer-Mama; Things I Wish I'd Known Way Back When

 I started writing my first novel when I was newly pregnant with Baby #1. So my entire writing life has been defined, as it were, by being a writer-mama. I like to think I manage the balance pretty well (some days better than others, of course). Some of you, who may not have had the luxury of starting a family at 20, have had glorious months and years of developing a writing routine sans-baby--and the new arrival can make for a tricky transition. Here are some tips to get you started on that brave, new world.

1. So you've got one baby. Have another. Seriously, seriously, seriously. I can't stress how much easier it is to have two kids than just one. If you're up for the adventure, four is also much easier than three--and I can't wait to find out how easy six will be. :)

2. Find mothers to support you in your mothering journey--but don't forget your writing support system. If you write for kids, you're really lucky, because it probably means the members of your writing group like kids. We brought our babies to our local SCBWI meetings for a few years; at first we thought it would be tough to keep them busy. Ha. It was actually like walking into a room full of thirty babysitters. Not only were they extremely tolerant of baby noises, they'd even go so far as to take turns crawling around on the floor or offering a purse for a toddler to rummage through. (Interesting fact: writers carry cool things around in their purses. )

3. Make a space of your own. Even if it's just a corner of a hall or a specific cozy chair, it really helps to have a place where you can be alone.

Having a chair actually made for adults is a plus, but not a must.
4. (For the record, these may not be numbered in exact order of importance.) Eat. It's easy to forget feeding yourself when you've got a peeping little birdy-mouth to worry about, but I've discovered through grim experience that the brain actually needs food to work properly. Go figure.

5. Sleep. See above for reasoning. Take naps with your baby.

6. Only read excellent books to your children. Here's the thing: the words you read aloud become more ingrained in your mind than the ones you read silently. (I'm pretty sure this is scientific fact, but I'm just going on experience.) Analyze all the bad literature you want on your own, but try to stick to writing you admire when you're reading aloud. This may or may not mean chucking half the books you received as baby shower gifts into the trash...but it'll be worth it. You don't even want to know how long it took me to get Count with Dora out of my head. Also, your kids will grow up with cool vocabularies, and you can turn heads at the grocery store when they tell the cashier, "How do you do? It's such a lovely day. Your hair looks splendid. Your necklace is so elegant. Perhaps I'll see you again the next time we're here. I'm eager to go home and have lunch," and the like.

7. Just keep writing. Don't put it aside until mothering is over. Besides the fact that that day will be a long time in coming, it is so important for your children to see you writing--developing your talents, pursuing your dreams, sticking to it even at its hardest moments. Because that's what you want them to do, right?

8. Multi-task. I type while I'm nursing--I pretty much never type with two hands anymore. My four-year-old recently told me, "Mama, when I grow up, I want to be just like you. I want to write stories and nurse babies." :)

The Young Mother, by Charles West Cope

9. Don't multi-task. I know, I know. I'm contradicting myself. But even though it's so cliché it's growing mold, "this time passes so quickly" is true. You may have more babies, but you can never get this child's babyhood back, and you're going to miss it. Don't fritter it away. Enjoy staring at your baby's toes. Or smelling the milky scent of her skin. Don't just use it as an excuse--but remember that the book can usually wait.

10. Remember what [either C.S. Lewis or John Trainer, depending on whose Pinterest graphic you believe] said: "Children are not a distraction from more important work. They are the most important work." Be a writer-mama because you want to give your children the gift of your words and stories, the example of seeing you as a creative person. Don't be a writer "despite" them.