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Archive for January, 2013

In the Mood – Not

Back to the NaBloPoMo prompts, at least for the time being:  “How do you find the energy to write when you’re not in the mood?”

Only a professional writer could ask this question.  For the rest of us, the dilettantes, this is a non-starter.  If you’re not in the mood to write, you don’t write.  Simple.

But “not being in the mood to write” is actually a symptom of something else going on.  I think it depends on what you’re trying to write.  When writer’s block crops up in my fiction writing, I have found that it’s usually because I’m trying to force my characters to do something they don’t want to do.  I’ve written about this before, how your characters become real people with real lives, and you are just their chronicler; you get a Brilliant Idea that you think would fit their lives perfectly, but somehow, they don’t think so, and they simply stop “talking.”  At that point, you have to give them space to recover their trust in you, so that you can go on as their chronicler; and that’s how fiction gets written, at least around here.  I could never write a mystery, where you have to know what the end is before you begin.

Non-fiction is a different animal altogether.  When I was in college, I would develop all these Plans for Staying on Top of My Assignments:  Come up with a topic in Week 1; write the preliminary outline in Week 2; assemble the information in Week 3, etc.  Yes, I’m one of those Organized Types.  Franklin Planners were created for people like me.

There was just one problem:  None of it worked.  By the time the paper was due, my original outline bore no resemblance to the finished product.  Over time, I came to realize that I was wasting my time drafting outlines, because I would then go about my research with the outline in mind, rather than integrating what I was learning into the research process.  That was when I came up with my Take-No-Prisoners approach:  Hold off on the research until two weeks before the paper was due.  By that time, there was usually a topic that was screaming for development, and I could do the research to greatest effect, wasting no time at all.  With two days to go, I’d sit down and write the paper.  And it always got an A.

There was one other tool that I used to great effect in writing research papers, and I got it from my husband, one of those much-maligned Government Workers; he got it from one of his supervisors, a Navy Captain. Believe it or not, you start your paper with the phrase, “The purpose of this paper is to…” and state the purpose of your paper.  Then you throw away that opening phrase.  BANG!  You’ve grabbed your reader’s attention, and you have an easy reference point for staying in focus.

The only time it almost didn’t work was when I wanted to prove that it was possible to read body language when you couldn’t actually see the person; in that case, I wrote, as usual, “The purpose of this paper is to prove that you don’t have to see a person to understand his emotional state,” and in that case, in order to throw away that opening phrase, I had to turn the topic into a question:  “Is it possible to understand a person’s emotional state without actually seeing him?”  The professor said it was one of the best opening sentences she had ever read.  (I was referring to internet communication, by the way; all caps and misspellings are a great way to tap into a person’s heightened emotional state.)

So when I lack the energy to write, I listen to my inner muse.  She’s trying to tell me something important.

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Home Sweet Home

“Describe your dream house” – yet another Plinky prompt, but I can tie this one in to the NaBloPoMo theme of energy, because my dream house would use a minimum.

Mind you, I’m fussy about aesthetics, too.  Very fussy.  If I were to use wind power, for example, I wouldn’t have one of those windmills that looks like the drones out of Star Wars.  I’d build a windmill like the ones you see in Dutch landscapes.  Much classier.  What I’m primarily interested in, though, is geothermal energy, best described as “everything old is new again.”  You can use it not only to heat your house, but also to power it; in other words, you can go off the grid.  Supplement your geothermal plant with a root cellar as an alternative form of refrigeration, and you’re all set for power and water.

With the basics of energy sources out of the way, it’s time to talk about design.  The appeal of a “hobbit hole” is strong, and many years ago, I knew a woman whose retirement cottage was built into the side of a hill.  I can think of a lot of advantages to such a design – mostly geothermal – but there are two major drawbacks for me.  One is, where would you wipe off your feet?  You need a mudroom where you can change out of your outdoor gear into something that will keep the house clean.  And the other, of course, is that the space in a hillside is limited.  I don’t necessarily need a big house – I don’t live in one now – but I need more space than four hundred square feet.

So my ideal house is probably going to be along the lines of a log cabin, something that looks as if it grew out of the trees surrounding it.  Of course there are trees surrounding my ideal home.  Not too many – you have to think about mold – but the clear-cutting I see that heralds new construction always breaks my heart.  What do you do for shade in the summertime?  You have to have a few trees.  My house has a front porch for sitting out in the evening, and a back porch where I can hang my laundry, rain or shine.  We once lived in a house that had just such a “utility porch,” and I couldn’t get over how well my clothes dried in even the wettest weather.

The utility porch out back would lead into the mudroom, and the mudroom would actually be quite large, because it would house not just the footgear, but also a coat closet, cubbies for hates and gloves, a washing machine, a potting table for the resident gardener (my husband), and a utility closet with space for all his gardening gear and all my cleaning supplies.  That leads into the kitchen, a big ol’ farmhouse eat-in kitchen.  Like Russians, I firmly believe that the best and most authentic social life takes place in the kitchen.  Living rooms, if not used for the life of the family, are for pretentious old fuffs.

Which brings us to the living room.  Where I grew up, we didn’t have Family Rooms and Living Rooms.  An earlier generation had Parlors and Dining Rooms, and the “family room” was the kitchen; I’d still want any entertaining we did to take place in the kitchen, but I need a place for stuff that earlier generations didn’t deem necessary, like my husband’s and my music and literary libraries (substantial enough to constitute a branch of the local public library).  I’d want built-in shelves lining the walls of my living-room-cum-library, not just because they look classy, but also because you can use books as insulation.  The boob tube would hide discreetly behind a tambour, but a boob tube there must be; how else could I watch NCIS and Foyle’s War?

Nowadays, a two-bathroom house seems to be a must.  Whenever my mother-in-law would get on my nerves too greatly, I would silence her by telling tales of growing up in a house of seven people and one bathroom; only child that she was, such a concept was too horrible for her to dwell on, and rendered her speechless for at least fifteen minutes.  Not having at least two bathrooms was inconceivable to her, and I guess it is to most people nowadays, so okay, we can have two bathrooms in my dream house.  But I insist that one of them have a walk-in shower, all tile-lined for ease of cleaning, with a built-in seat.  The other, of course, has a bathtub, preferably porcelain, which holds the heat better than fiberglass.

Then there are the bedrooms.  There have to be at least four, preferably five:  One for my husband and one for myself (in our present arrangement, he can hear me tossing and turning at the opposite end of the house, with both bedroom doors closed.  I swear I am not exaggerating); one for a guest bedroom; one for an office; and one for…a chapel.  I know that the rustic German and Russian houses that I find so attractive used to have a “holy corner” where the family’s icons lived, but to get away with that, everybody in the house has to be on the same page.  My husband, who is not Orthodox, is okay with having icons in his living room, but not with my praying before them; so I’d like to have a room where I could pray in peace.

I’d have a lot of storage built into my husband’s bedroom.  The guy is a packrat.  There are piles of paper everywhere.  Sometimes I tell him that if I die before he does, the house is going to look like  the Collyer Brothers’.  I’m trying to make light of a situation that actually does scare me; sometimes, when clearing the kitchen table of months of debris, I’ll find empty envelopes from greeting cards.  Who saves empty envelopes?!

And my own bedroom would have to have a separate sitting area.  Actually, now I come to think of it, that could do double duty as a chapel, but what I really wanted it for was my cross stitch:  my frame and supplies, and storage for future projects built in.  Ideally, that needlework cubby would face the street, so I could watch what was going on outside; I have found that in the summer, I really enjoy stitching on my current (screened-in) front porch because I get to see everything that’s going on in the neighborhood, and it’s good to keep tabs on people’s comings and goings, especially when you see suspicious characters in the house across the street.

Gardens – well, that’s my husband’s thing.  My idea of a garden is the same as my stepfather’s:  He’d take plastic flowers and stick ’em in the dirt out in front of his house.  People out for a walk would slow down and stare, trying to figure out what variety of flower he had “growing” there.  I should add, in his defense, that he was a dedicated and prolific vegetable grower, like my own husband, but he didn’t have much use for flowers.  And although I personally love flowers, what I don’t love is plunging my trowel into the dirt and seeing Creepy Crawly Things everywhere.  Ewwww!

Lifestyles of the Rich and Brainless it’s not.  But for me – it’s my ideal home.

 

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“How many languages can you speak? Do you wish that number were higher?”

This is another Plinky prompt, from way back in October.  I hang onto these things if they look interesting, and then, if I don’t care for the NaBloPoMo prompt, I have a few spares to choose from.  Today’s NaBloPoMo prompt was something about “talk about a time when you ran out of energy and were exhausted,” and that requires too much thinking – there were so many of them.

Languages.  First of all, define “speak.”  Fluently, conversationally, basic, “kitchen [fill in the blank]”?  “Kitchen” speech refers to the kind of thing you would use around the house, by the way, but not necessarily at work, or in a formal situation.  A perfect example of “kitchen speech” is the story I heard from a girl whose mother was Russian and her father Russian-American.  The father had learned Russian first from his grandmother and then from his wife, so “household Russian” was all he knew – and “household Russian” uses a lot of diminutives.  You would never say you were taking the bus, for example, you would say you were taking the “bussy” to work, or that you had seen a cute little kitty-cat on the way to work.  Well, whatever this guy said at work one day – probably something about making some itty-bitty copies – he got some strange looks from his colleagues, until one of them took pity on him and said, “We don’t talk that way here.”

So you might surmise from this anecdote that I actually speak Russian.  Put it this way:  If I can summon up the vocabulary, I can express myself grammatically, and if I listen in on the conversation of Russians, I might understand one word in a hundred.  But hey, I understand that word.

And come to think of it, that’s pretty much how I learned German, which I do speak fluently, to such an extent that one day, I was having a conversation with a member of the German Consulate staff in Boston, who asked me where I was from.  When I told him, “New York,” I thought his eyes would fall out of his head.  Apparently, he had been listening for regional clues in my speech, and not being able to pick up where exactly I was from in Germany, decided to ask.  Sorry, this is not a regional accent you ever heard im Vaterland.

Anyway, when I lived in Germany I had a neighbor who wanted to be able to practice her English, so we got to be friendly.  The only problem was, she soon cottoned to the idea that I knew a few words in German – I was taking college-level courses at night – and that took care of the English lessons; it was simply easier for her to express herself in her own language.  And I understood maybe one word in a hundred.  Until the day, maybe about a year after I’d landed at Rhein/Main Airport, when I was sitting in a German laundromat, waiting for my laundry to get done (the base laundromat being on the fritz yet again), and, bored out of my mind, picked up a German ladies’ magazine.  And I understood enough of it that when I got out of the laundromat, I stopped at a grocery store on the way home and bought my first foreign-language publication.  Once I could understand about half of what I was reading, the other half came easily.  And of course, being able to converse daily in that language was a great help, as well as the fact that we only listened to German radio (we liked the music better than Armed Forces Network).

So if I could do the same thing with Russian, I guess I’d get fairly fluent in time.  However, there really aren’t enough people to speak it with; I get to see my church family maybe twice a month, and they all want to improve their English (and who can blame them?).  As for reading…well…I can, if I take the time to sound out the letters.  But I don’t usually have the time to put into reading that alphabet.  Yes, I know, if I really wanted to, I’d make the time.  I guess I’m just comfortable with the idea that if I wanted to, I could, which is dangerous for actually learning anything.

This post is already long enough that I can only give a passing nod to my first foreign language, which was French.  I could speak that fairly fluently, when I was fresh out of high school, and if France had had the sense to stay in NATO, and we had been posted there, I would have been a  huge hit with the French:  As Henry Higgins put it in My Fair Lady, “The French don’t care what you do, actually, as long as you pronounce it properly.”  And thanks to my musician’s ear, I can get foreign words out with near native fluency, in any language.  I may not actually understand them, but I sound as if I do.

So…what’s the Girl Thing?  Think about it.  Don’t women have a reputation for talking people’s heads off?  Of course we do, and it’s not undeserved:  This post is already at about nine hundred words.  Now:  Imagine being able to do that in four languages.  Yeeeeaaaahhhhh.  /beatific smile/

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If you could be given the option to never sleep and also never be tired, would you take it if it meant you’d also never dream again?”

First, I must apologize for skipping yesterday.  I would love to be able to write that it was Russian Christmas and I was off celebrating, but the truth is, I was down with flu.  Apparently it’s true that this flu season is so bad, you can still get flu even if you’ve had the shot.  (It was still Russian Christmas.)

Now, to our muttons.  It’s tempting to say “Yes” to the prompt.  I mean, 24 hours in which to get it all done!  Imagine what you could do with the eight extra hours!  Not to mention that the idea of never dreaming again has enormous appeal, considering that the only dreams I ever have are nightmares.  My last nice dream was over 20 years ago.

But all things considered…no, I don’t think I would take it.  For one thing, I really doubt that I would be any more productive in 24 hours than I already am in 16; I waste enough time as it is.  (Facebook, anyone??)  And where would the pleasure of a really rainy night be, if I couldn’t spend it lying in bed, listening to the whisper of rain all around me until I fell asleep?  Not to mention the delicious feel of snuggling down under a quilt and finding just the right spot to burrow in…

Okay, I’m a sleep hedonist, I admit it.  But the truth is that we have been designed to need rest.  I’m married to someone who seriously thinks that rest is sinful – because it’s non-productive – so he pushes and pushes himself until evening, when he collapses into his easy chair and passes out.  Then, two hours later, he wakes up and goes to bed.  The sad part is, for all his “productivity,” it’s all there waiting for him the next day.  That’s the nature of work.  It is never done.  Just think of laundry.

And maybe that’s the difference between us.  Because I do the laundry, I’ve come to realize that work really is never done, and that in order to have any kind of life, you have to drag yourself away from it, you have to take your rest.  There has to be a time in your day when you put your feet up and read, or work a puzzle, or focus on doing something creative – restorative – regenerative.  Otherwise, what’s the point in calling yourself a human being?  You’re nothing more than a machine.

And nothing gets the point across more immediately than the need to sleep.

Which, now that’s 4:30 a.m. and I’ve been up for an hour, I’m going back to.  Sleep tight!

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Another prompt from Plinky:  “Tell us about the role that faith plays in your life — or doesn’t.”  Which can easily be combined with yet another:  “What is your favorite holiday? Why is it your favorite?”

This latter prompt was sent out just before Christmas, with the obvious inference that most people would write about Christmas:  the presents, the family time, the caring and sharing, the music, the tree, take your pick.  Don’t misunderstand.  I love Christmas, too; the classical music written for Christmas is incomparable, and there are arrangements of traditional carols that make them suitable for playing on classical stations.

But Christmas is when I most miss living in Europe, where it is a much more family-oriented celebration, and it’s when I miss the Polish traditions I was brought up with:  My husband not only is not Polish, but not remotely Slavic, and Slavic customs of any kind are alien to him.  Not to mention the consumer-driven – and I do mean driven – hysteria that grips the entire USA, best illustrated by Straight No Chaser’s “Christmas Can-Can” (pardon the ad at the beginning of the video – I don’t know how to edit it out).

So Christmas, much as I love it, will never be my favorite holiday.  Most people who read this blog will, I am sure, understand why I  say that that affection is reserved for…well…”Easter.”

I put “Easter” in quotes because what most people understand by the word is not what Easter is actually about.  Say “Easter,” and most people will relate it to the Resurrection of Christ, in one form or another, either traditionally religious or, as my son recently informed me (in tones of shock, I am grateful to say), “zombie Jesus.”  This whole zombie thing was out of hand even before that particular take on it.

But Easter is actually a pagan holiday,  the celebration of the feast of the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ioestre, the goddess of spring and fertility.  When I read that, I finally understood the point of that ridiculous Easter Bunny:  What’s more fertile than a rabbit?!  We did the Easter Bunny when I was growing up, but even before I understood the association, I found it pointless, so the Easter Bunny never visited my own children.  By which they missed out on a lot of candy, sure, but at least they never ruined their teeth, and they got to celebrate, in all its glory:

Russian Easter.

Or Pascha, as it’s referred to religiously.  After seven weeks of a rigorously-limited diet, accompanied by a daunting schedule of services during the seven weeks – the last of which is Holy Week, with services every evening, each lasting several hours – the whole thing is topped off by a celebration that begins somewhere around 11:00 p.m., and lasts until somewhere around 4:00 in the morning.  There’s really no adequate way to describe Russian Easter.  Following the lengthy recitation of Old-Testament prophecies related to the coming of the Messiah, the priest and the entire congregation sweep outside the church and circle it three times, symbolically searching for the body of Christ.  Finally the priest will pound on the closed doors of the church.  Since everybody is outside, of course there’s no answer, and so he turns to the congregation, all standing there with lit candles, and calls out:  “He is not here!  He is risen, as He said!”  Then he opens the doors of the church, everyone streams in, and the celebration begins with a joyous peal of bells, rung in accordance with rubrics that are hundreds of years old.

Every light in the place is turned on – this, in addition to the dozens and dozens of candles and oil lamps that are lit and will remain lit for the entire service.  The choir bursts into the Paschal Canon, a lengthy liturgical poem written in celebration of the Feast.  The priest walks around and around, censing the entire church and congregation with incense – and I have never seen a priest who didn’t look the picture of pure joy at this point.  Every verse of the Canon ends with the refrain, “Christ is risen from the dead!” and the paschal hymn is sung innumerable times:  “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life.”  You have to hear it.  It’s like a great roar of defiance at death, and although at this point most of us are dropping from exhaustion – you actually do revive when singing this hymn.

After the service, the priest will bless food that people have brought from home – specially prepared food, kielbasa and butter and horseradish and eggs, all dyed a deep red – and everyone sits down in the parish hall to feast.  Yes, at four in the morning.  This is a time to celebrate!  Christ is risen from the dead!

People have commented, off and on, about how interesting my writing is – at this point, my writing feels wooden.  There is simply no good way to describe this Feast of Feasts, the joy, the energy, the sheer life force.  Orthodox churches are filled to overflowing, literally, for this Feast.  You have to see it, you have to be there.

And yes – to answer the first prompt at the very beginning of this post, I do believe it.  It is the center of my life.  “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” the Apostle Paul writes to the Jews (Hebrews 10:31), and although in this passage the context is one of fear and judgment, there is another meaning to the word “terrible”:  awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping astonishment, the kind that makes you look around to make sure that the encounter isn’t meant for someone else because, you know, what would God want with me?!

When that happens, faith is no longer necessary.  You know.

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“‘Start as close to the end as possible,’ suggested writer Kurt Vonnegut.”

Today’s prompt is brought to you by Plinky, only it was December 15’s prompt, and I hung onto it in my inbox because I thought what a great end-of-year post it would make.  Unfortunately, the end of 2012 saw us up to our necks (figuratively) in snow, so I’m only now getting to it.  Hence, the title of this post.

The rest of the Plinky prompt was to “write something that does that without spoiling the ending.”  See, this is why this kind of prompt doesn’t work for me as a writer:  I never know the ending of my books.  If I were a mystery writer, I would need to know the ending so that I could litter my writing with clues for the reader, and if I were writing non-fiction I would have to keep the point of my text in mind as I wrote.  But I am neither; I write about fictional relationships, and people’s growth within those relationships.  And even when people’s lives appear to have an ending, they don’t (or else, why bother calling yourself a Christian?), so how can a book about relationships really have an ending?  One episode can end, but the people live on and on.

One of the characters in my favorite television show, NCIS, is an author as well as a federal agent, and one of the episodes dealt with a book he was writing:  Someone was getting hold of his copy and committing murders on the basis of his book.  Towards the end, his boss tells him that he needs to find the killer and let him know how the book ends.  “I don’t know how the book ends!” exclaims the writer, and that pretty much describes my style of writing.

What I find is that people live inside my head – a whole family of them, plus peripheral characters.  Periodically, they have a story to tell, and I’m the lucky duck who gets to tell it.  Every once in so often, I’ll think of something that happened to me, or an anecdote I’ve heard, and think, “That’d be a really neat thing to have happen to So-and-so.”  But So-and-so doesn’t think so, and that’s when I get writer’s block.  Then I have to go back to the point where the writing was going smoothly, clear everything else out of my head, and let the character do the talking.  I can edit, once the character “powers down” for the session; but there’s actually very little creativity involved.

Not knowing the ending is how one of my characters who started as a stereotypical “dirty bird” became the guy who saved the day, while someone I had intended to be a true gentleman turned out to be the worst sort of cad.  Meanwhile, the hero of the story is just trying to keep his head above water throughout the book!  This is how I stay engaged in my own tales; if I don’t know where it’s going, neither will the reader, and if that’s what keeps me writing, then – theoretically – that’s what will keep my reader reading.

One more writing-related anecdote (which I freely admit I may have told before, but it describes the writing life so perfectly):  A writer wrote of accompanying his wife to church one Sunday, and afterwards, the pastor said to him, “You need to get out and meet more people.”  “At that particular point in time,” wrote the author, “I was intimately involved in the lives of no fewer than eight people, all of whom lived inside my head, and meeting more people was the last thing I needed.”

I can relate.

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Aptly Named

At what time of day do you feel the most energetic and productive?

Oh, dear.  People are going to hate me for this.  My only excuse is, I was born at 6:30 in the morning, and have never gotten over the impression that 6:30 – or 5:30, or sometimes even 4:30 – is the right and proper time to get things done.

Which is to say, no matter how groggy I am when I get out of bed, by the time I have completed all the necessaria of daybreak, I am up and at ’em and rarin’ to go!  Just ask my poor, long-suffering husband.  He is by no means a night owl, but when he gets up, he stumbles out to the kitchen, puts on the kettle, and makes coffee basically on auto-pilot.  If I have wakened before him, and am full of whatever I found in my inbox or on Facebook, I will leap up to tell him and be met with “Shhhh” before I have uttered a word, by which I understand that he is not yet ready to face the day.

This can have its problems, however.  Back when we were a Normal couple – that is, before he was retired, when he had a place where he had to be by 8:00 a.m. – back then, he would be out the door by 6:30 or 7:00.  I would have been awake since 5:00 or so, and, fully breakfasted, would be ready to get into my own workday, putting on laundry and completing the basic housework chores before I set foot out the door.  Now that he is retired, I can’t get anything done before 9:00 a.m. – and by that time, my level of productive energy has already begun to decline.  By 11:00 a.m., it will be gone completely, and I will be good for nothing but needlework, reading, or fooling around on the computer.

I have schooled myself, over the years, to put some effort into producing a pretty darn good evening meal; but I am secretly greatly in sympathy with the way things are done in Europe (big surprise), where they eat their main meal in the middle of the day.  If I had my druthers, I’d get the meal prep done in the morning, eat around noon, and have the dishes out of my hair by 2:00 the latest.

So I have come to accept that I am wired differently from pretty much all of America.  As a young woman, before I was married, I was the world’s worst date – I’d be ready to go home by 10:00 p.m., and heaven help you if you found me still awake at 11:00.  Then I met a guy whose last name was Lark.  There actually are other reasons I married him.  But if I had thought about it, I would have seen the handwriting on the wall the moment I heard his name.

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