Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Theater, your children, Susan Cooper, and other objects of my mental wanderings ;)

Have any of you ever read Susan Cooper's Dreams and Wishes? It is a wonderful collection of her articles and speeches, on everything from writing to what makes books great—and lots of things in between. I recently finished one of the in-between articles, titled "Take Them to the Theater". A-mazing. I feel compelled to write about it and expand upon it, but really you ought to find it for yourself....

Ms Cooper discusses the importance, and many benefits, of taking your children to see plays, ballets, even opera—in other words, to get them away from the passive act of being entertained by television and into a magical world which lives and breathes and happens before their eyes.

I think Susan and I would have got on swimmingly, to borrow an English term she might like. She would be one of the rare souls who doesn't think I'm crazy for taking my toddlers to see Shakespeare. And she would know, beforehand, that anyone who saw these toddlers AFTER they'd sat through A Midsummer Night's Dream would suddenly be forced to admit that the idea wasn't crazy at all. Granted, I am blessed to live in a part of the country where the arts are made very accessible and relatively inexpensive. In the summer, multiple highly-acclaimed troupes perform Shakespeare and other great works throughout the state in beautifully constructed outdoor theaters—for free or for a donation. So I don't have to work as hard as other parents to take my kids to a play—and that's why in her first three years of life, my oldest daughter has been to 6 plays—mostly Shakespeare, but some Wilder and other greats as well. Guess what her favorite was? Shakespeare, of course. At two, she sat mesmerized through A Midsummer Night's Dream. Her “older” cousins (6 and 5 at the time) sat whispering commentary into her ear so she could follow who was in love with whom, who was under Puck's enchantment, etc. At three, she cried when Twelfth Night ended and we had to go home, because she wanted to go play dress-up with Viola (she thought the whole dressing up as a boy thing was great fun).

Do you think your child can't handle it? Please reconsider; this is a girl who can't sit still for half a PBS kids' show. As Susan Cooper pointed out, theater will actually help children learn how to behave; for one thing, everyone is behaving around them—for another, good theater deserves as well as demands respect. And viewing it is not a passive act, even if you are sitting still. You are watching life happen, before your eyes. It's not an image on a screen—it's real.

And there are very few substitutes for that kind of wonder. Don't deny it to your children—or yourselves!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A recent scene from my life...

The interior of a car. Afternoon. LUCY, a three-and-a-half year old girl, sits in her carseat with her new fairy doll on her lap—inside a clean pickle jar. FAITH and MARK, her parents and a pair of children's writers, listen from the front seats. Because, yes, it is their daughter...but everything's copy in a writer's life. :)

LUCY: (to jar) Now you'll never get out of there!
(in a falsetto, making the jar wiggle) Oh, yes, I will!
(normal voice) No, you won't—you're trapped!
(falsetto) Yes, I will! I will! I will!

FAITH: Did you capture your Rosetta doll, Lucy?

LUCY: No. She asked me to put her in the jar. I'm a good human. I'm just keeping her safe. She likes it in there.

FAITH: Ah-hah.

MARK: (in a quiet aside) If she ever becomes a writer of slightly dark and twisted fantasy, remind me not to be surprised.


Monday, January 17, 2011

A Little Advice on Investing...of a different sort

Every day, thousands of people take a gamble on the Stock Market. Presumably they do their research as best as they are able, or put their trust in those who have. Every day, thousands of people make millions of dollars. And thousands of people lose millions, too. You can act on your knowledge, you can play it safe and gain or lose little or take risks and gain or lose plenty—but there's no guarantee. I'm sure it must be exciting, that kind of venturing into the unknown.

But I prefer a different kind of investing, and I encourage you other artists to take the plunge along with me. Namely, it is investing in yourselves. No great gain is possible without taking risks—and deciding to invest time to write, paint, etc. is quite a risk. You'll lose sleep. You'll lose that favorite TV show. Deciding to invest emotion in a creation is a risk. You'll lose more sleep. You'll get frustrated when it's not going well and euphoric when it is, often to be thrown down to depression again when somebody doesn't like it. A lot of people won't believe in you and a lot of the time you won't believe in yourself.

However...despite all these risks and potential drawbacks—shouldn't we be more confident in our own gifts than in guesses about stocks? We know ourselves. We know our strengths and our weaknesses—or at least we are learning them. You may have to invest a lot of time and emotion (and possibly money) into the venture, but it will become more than a venture: an adventure. And you will gain knowledge and experience and virtue. You will learn and grow and develop and so will your art. This won't happen if you sit back and ignore that little voice, that calling, or if you drown it out with television shows and constant clanging of pots and pans. (Nothing against pots and pans of course, but they need to learn their place sometimes...)

Like the best investments, this is one that may take years to reach complete fulfillment. But when it does, you won't be the only successful party. The world will benefit from your perseverance—I will benefit from it and my children will benefit from it. So please keep up the good work. Listen to the voice of your calling and ignore the hundreds of voices that tell you to give up. Trust. And do not be afraid.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Virtue or Vice?

When I think of books I read as a child that made my brain turn philosophical somersaults, the first that comes to mind is Madeleine L'Engle's marvelous A Wrinkle in Time. The tesseract theory was super cool; the universal battle between good and evil, dark and light, was masterfully and imaginatively portrayed....but the thing that really made me think and think for weeks, months, years after I finished the book was Meg's own personal battle, discovering that there was a thin line between vices she hated about herself and virtues which could save her world.
A refresher, for those of you who haven't read it in a while: Meg hates her stubbornness. It annoys her family, it annoys her. She wishes she could get rid of it entirely—but suddenly caught up in a world where evil conquers weak minds, she realizes that it is that same trait, only twisted slightly into the virtue of persistence, which saves her and her family.
This is a type of character exploration that I rarely read, yet surely we all experience it in our own lives. When I was younger, I hated my quick temper. It got me in trouble...a lot. But as I've matured I've learned that the other side to a quick temper is a passionate nature. And while I still work at, shall we say, tempering my temper, I've come to have an acceptance of my personality and a thankfulness for it.

I recently read another book which opened doors in my brain I never knew were there; not fiction, but a non-fiction work I began for my own edification: Father Romano Guardini's Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God. While I haven't forgotten to think how the lessons apply to my own life, I was stunned to realize how helpful a book like that could be in developing characters for stories. It forces you to think of people (even fictional people, in my case) as complex beings with a variety of psychological needs and facets, with subtleties and intricacies. Madeleine L'Engle had already awakened me to a virtue being the other face of a vice...but Father Guardini made me explore this idea further: at the same time, a vice is the other side of a virtue—the extreme of a virtue, even. For example, loyalty is a virtue. Natural loyalty (that is, you were born that way and didn't really have to work at developing it) can be a blessing. Your friends and family will know they can depend upon you. You may make a natural, upright leader.
However...if this virtue becomes extreme, you will demand ultra-loyalty from everyone. You will see betrayal everywhere and turn bitter and possessive.
Natural orderliness is good—but can turn into obsessiveness and lack of tolerance.
Natural bravery is good—but can lead to foolhardiness and devaluing of life.
Natural ambition and drive to succeed is good—but I think anyone who's read Harry Potter or the history of the Second World War could tell you where twisted ambition can end up.
It makes you think—perhaps instead of figuring out what a villain's vices are, we should be thinking about what his or her natural virtues are.
No one, villain or hero, is a complete human without being rounded out with good and bad aspects of personality. It's really hard as an author to just “make these things up”--but when you think about the way everything is connected, it becomes much easier to paint a true picture.

Anyway....enough rambling. My sincere thanks to Ms L'Engle and to Father Guardini for challenging my way of thinking and making me appreciate and understand life—and fiction—even more.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Weather or Not

This is a picture my dad just emailed me...I hope he doesn't mind my borrowing it!
At the moment I write this (which is probably several hours before it will be posted), I'm sitting bundled up next to my window, watching the snow pile up in the woods. I suspect soon enough some sensational newscasters will be calling this Connecticut's blizzard of the decade; between last weekend's and today's storms, the mounds are so high around the house that when I step in them I'm buried well over my hips. But I'm not foolish enough to be out in it. I have a crocheted blanket in bright rainbow colors wrapped around my shoulders (more for the brightness than the warmth as our heat is functioning just perfectly); I have a pile of inspiring writing books to my left and a baby napping peacefully to my right; because the roads are so treacherous, Mark brought some light carving work home and is filling the house with the gentle scraping sounds of a chisel on a maple violin back.

Can you tell I love snowy days?

I like the way everyone uses the word “muted” to describe the world under a coating of snow; it really does feel as if the noise and clamor and craziness of life has been silenced and slowed. The day seems to have stretched itself out and I'm finding time for writing, for playing and reading with the girls, for cuddling with my family under blankets, and for simply enjoying every moment.

I hope your days were equally lovely—snow or no!

In the hope of being not just happy, but useful, I'll leave you with some of the inspiration I've found in the aforementioned stack of (wonderful, highly-recommended) writing books:

“It's horribly elusive, this same kind of sensation one has from certain books, poems, and works of art. Only the symptoms are easy to describe. The hair prickles on the back of the neck, and there is a hollowness in the throat and at the pit of the stomach—a great excitement that is a mixture of astonishment and delight. It's a little like catching sight unexpectedly of someone with whom you are very much in love. And the delight when it swamps you is full of echoes, carrying you away, as de la Mare said, 'as if into another world.'”
--Susan Cooper, on experiencing truly great art, from her talk “Nahum Tarune's Book,” in the collection Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children

“The poet Carolyn Kizer said to me recently, 'Poets are interested mostly in death and commas,' and I agreed. Now I add: Prose writers are interested mostly in life and commas.”
Ursula K. LeGuin, in Steering the Craft

“You and I have seen miracles—let us never cease to celebrate them.”
--Joyce Kilmer in a letter to his wife Aline, on the importance of letting faith shine through in all their writing, From Joyce's Kilmer's Poems, Essays and Letters: Volume Two

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Rose by any other name...

"I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I've never been able to believe it. I don't believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage."
-Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables

Anne Shirley, as is usually the case, was quite right. Called skunk cabbage...or gutter weed, perhaps...I hardly think the noble rose would have risen (forgive the grammar pun) to its status as the preferred flower of lovers, mothers, and friends throughout the world.

I daresay that this applies to characters as well. Could we have loved Miss Anne-with-an-E Shirley quite so well if her name was Helga Humperdink? Of course we all put due attention into naming our primary characters. Probably most of you have a Baby Names Book—or at least a webpage saved to your favorites—just for the purpose of finding the perfect thing to call your protagonist.

But do you put that much effort into your secondary, or even tertiary, characters?

I know I haven't. I recently had a critique partner laughingly point out that quite by accident we had given two sets of out secondaries the same French names (without having read the others' stories yet). I had to admit that, on my part, almost no thought had gone into the names; I'd chosen the first French names with unique endings (so that all my characters wouldn't sound too similar) that my imagination had struck upon. Now there were a few other names of which I was exceedingly proud: the bright-natured boy named Blaise, for example, or the prayerful nun named Madeleine—a little more obscure, perhaps, but carefully chosen as it is derived from Mary Magdalene, the woman of the new testament remembered for choosing a life of contemplation. Compared to that, my Jacques and Henri made me feel rather sheepish.

Mr. Bumble
The “greats” would never have allowed such thoughtlessness to creep into their stories. Was ever there a Dickens' name which didn't instantly give you a clue as to the person you were about to encounter? Think of Oliver Twist's Mr. Bumble or Mrs. Sowerberry...or A Tale of Two Cities' Madame Defarge... Or take J. M. Barrie's names for the lost boys in Peter Pan: Slightly. Much. Even Wendy was a name Barry created—but what else could that spirited heroine have been called? And in a discussion on perfect names, we couldn't neglect J. K. Rowling, whose cast of characters was so large that Jim Dale, when he recorded the audiobooks, twice won himself a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the most character voices for a single book: 136 for Order of the Phoenix and 142 for Deathly Hallows! Can you imagine writing half that many into a story? Yet no one will ever confuse Mundungus Fletcher for Xenophilius Lovegood, or forget which small role either of them played. These are tertiary characters! They never change, they hardly surprise us. But Rowling didn't allow herself—couldn't allow herself—to use the first names she happened upon. We would have got her hundreds of characters muddled up and lost interest in the story.

I've been to several author events where the question is asked, “How do you name your characters?” The authors, depending on their moods and temperaments, have varied in their answers. Suzanne Collins gave an enthusiastic explanation, Rick Riordan shrugged his shoulders—but Gail Carson Levine gave the best answer: she laughed and said, “That's like asking someone how they name their children.”

Because of course it's different for everyone. A Mr. Bumble would seem rather out of place in Because of Winn-Dixie, and likewise the wonderfully named India Opal Bologna would stick out like a sore thumb at Hogwarts. You have to choose names that mean something to you—even if no one else ever catches on. But they'll seem right—if they really are chosen, not stumbled upon.

I'd love to hear your take on this... What are your favorite character names? Which of your own character names are you most proud of?