Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Touch of Transparency; or What a Blog is For

I've been regaling, or boring you for the past three years with this blog. I wonder what you can surmise about me and my work from its contents.
What I've also been wondering of late is why I have this neurotic compulsion to be secretive about my writing. I've even been quite secretive about this blog in the past. For the first year I never told anyone I knew that I was a blogger.
Perhaps what is pushing me toward greater transparency is my realization that I really want to launch my writing career and that my blog might be a helpful tool in this regard. I should talk about my writing, share excerpts from it, get feedback. I can get rather phobic about people reading my unedited work (or even my edited work) and it needs to stop. This year I took a major step by letting my professor read my extremely rough manuscript and I found it to be a rewarding growth experience.
She didn't rip me to shreds. She realized that the piece was in its early stages. Instead she gave me enthusiastic feedback and support. I realize this is the internet and that there are plenty of people who have nothing more fulfilling to do with their time than criticize and wound, but the people who have opinions that actually matter aren't here to do that.
So here I am, about to do my last semester at college. I've just set down my mystery manuscript after a round of major revisions. I'm realizing that it is a hard book to boil down to a query letter. I'm trying to give myself some distance from the project, hoping it will be easier for me to be objective about if it's not so fresh in mind.
Instead of stagnating though, I'm starting work on a new project. I suppose that the secret to my eventual success is, quite simply, that I'm always working on something. I'm writing a poem or a short story. I'm outlining a sequel or drafting a new novel. It's all the honing of a craft. Working on characterization in a short story can help me realize why the motivation feels forced in my novel. Playing with language and description in a poem lets me practice developing a sense of atmosphere.
In the midst of all my course work I wrote four chapters of a new novel this week. It's going to be an Oxford story. And maybe I don't have the right to attempt to follow in the footsteps of Evelyn Waugh or Dorothy Sayers, or Philip Larkin, but Oxford lends itself to stories. I couldn't help but start forming ideas while I was there, and recent conversations with friends I met there has assured me that this is a story I need to write.
I'm trying to write the kind of book I love to read.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Poetry: Billy Collins, "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes"

While reading the new Writer's Chornicle, I came across a reference to this poem. I thought it was lovely, so I decided to share it with you all. It certainly evokes a more sensual view of Dickinson. It also playfully describes the searching feeling readers and scholars have when sorting through the many layers in her work, but also the layers of information about her as a person.

"Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes"

First, her tippet made of tulle,

easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.
And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer's dividing water,
and slip inside.

You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

The complexity of women's undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything -
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is
it was terribly quiet in Amherst
that Sabbath afternoon,
nothing but a carriage passing the house,
a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cold Weather: Cold Blooded Murder

Something about the fall makes me want to read more mysteries. And write more mysteries. It's true that any time is a good time for a detective novel (I'm currently making my way through Redbreast by Jo Nesbø). And nearly any story I write has a body show up somewhere. Still. The cold, the colors changing, the flora, it's suggestive somehow.
I wonder if we don't still sense the slightly more desperate circumstances that cold weather brings. That somehow it is harder to survive, more dangerous in the coming winter. We can sympathize with the danger faced by the protagonists more readily.
There's also something to be said about cold weather being reading weather. Winter is defined by thick books and steaming tea cups.
The ancient Celts were no strangers to long cold winters. The tradition of story telling was incredibly rich in the culture. They say the Celtic bards dedicated themselves to their craft and could tell a different story every winter night. If you've read or heard any Celtic myths or lore, you'll know they were not strangers to betrayals, battles, and blood. So, perhaps not so very different from what we spend the winter amusing ourselves with today.
Do you find that you also read seasonally? Or perhaps escape into a sultry summer story in the depths of winter?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Downton Abbey Series 3-- A reveiw

Everyone's favorite Sunday night guilty pleasure just finished its third season in the UK. It hasn't officially aired in the US yet, so I'll be marking spoilers.
Audiences certainly had plenty to look forward to. We had the promise of a smack down between Lady Violet and Cora's American mother, played by veteran actress Shirley McLaine. We had the teaser that there would be two wedding and that Sybil and Branson would be returning to bring the first grandchild to Downton Abbey.
The question is: did it deliver? In many ways it did not.
The first and second seasons had very different atmospheres which to some degree was appropriate, it showed the way the world was drastically changing. To compensate (sometimes over-compensate) for the gritty war element, sometimes the stories became a bit over romanticized on the home front. Still, it was so well woven that audiences were riveted and engaged on the whole.
This season seems to struggle with finding its footing. In a post-war world everything can't go back as it was. For the first few episodes, there isn't much of a driving plot. We have the news that Downton is in some financial trouble. We have the wedding of Mary and Matthew, we also have Edith reaching for her own love story. Downstairs, there is a new footman and Mrs. Hughes fears she may be seriously ill. There is an awkward love polygon between some of the younger servants as well. None of this really seems to coalesce at first. We randomly shift between these disconnected plots.
I had expected the interaction between Shirley McLaine and Maggie Smith to really take center stage in these first few episodes, but it didn't. It fell a bit flat. McLaine's character felt like set dressing more than a necessary character. Even Maggie Smith's dowager countess felt underwritten this season. Her famous quips and subtle manipulation were in short supply.
Another character that felt like a prop for most of the series was Sybil. She was one of my favorite characters in the first two season, but when she returns pregnant from Ireland, her only job seems to be bringing back Branson so he can clash with the family.
Finally in the last few episodes we seem to be moving toward something resembling a through-line to the story. They make many character damaging missteps along the way though. Downton Abbey is still of higher quality than many shows on television, but this season it loses some of its luster, and indeed, breaks some hearts.

I felt that Edith's marriage plot was especially badly handled. I defended the program last series when some said it was turning to a soap opera or melodrama. The war setting made it somewhat acceptable to have larger and sometimes unbelievable stories. It didn't feel too inappropriate. Having Edith jilted at the alter and experience such a grand scale of humiliation felt cheap.
Another unbelievable element of the story telling was Matthew's inheritance. It was neatly and conveniently tied in a bow and placed in his lap just when Downton needs cash. And of course, being a deus ex machina as it is, it comes with a letter absolving Matthew of all guilt about Lavinia.
The most serious misstep in my opinion, however, was how they killed off Sybil. As I said before, she drifts along in this series without a plot. Fiery, opinionated Sybil does nothing much but have a baby. And that kills her. For a light Sunday night drama, her death was unnecessarily graphic and horrific. Even when showing death in wartime, the series has never showed that level of horror. It seemed like a cheap attempt to make the series grittier at the expense of its viewers.
Sybil becomes a plot device to bring Branson to Downton and facilitate some sort of alliance between him, Matthew, and Lord Grantham. I think the alliance worked well in the last few episodes, but it was a cheap way to do it and unfair to the character. A character who has been so strong and known her own mind was left helpless with men talking over her, deciding her fate.
I thought this season was very weak compared to the previous two.