Book Review: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

images            The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is a historical novel set in 1066 “Angland.” Most history buffs recognize this year as the Norman Invasion of England by William the Conqueror, or rather, Duc Guillame of Normandy or “the bastard,” as the readers will encounter him in the pages of The Wake.

The story follows one Buccmaster of Holland, an egotistical man who repeatedly reminds us that he is a “socman with three oxgangs.” This notable achievement may seem obscure to the modern reader, but thankfully, Kingsnorth has provided a glossary and some historical notes at the back of the book. (Hint: an oxgang is a measure of land.)

Buccmaster is of the old ways, worshipping Wodan and Ing and Frigg, working his land, beating his wife, and disparaging his sons and laborers. He is the tough kind of man one would imagine encountering in 1066, a grandson of the Danes who invaded Angland themselves. But what makes Buccmaster an interesting narrator is his relationship with the disembodied voice of Weland Smith, a mythic blacksmith whose kidnapping and subsequent brutal retribution and escape gives Buccmaster courage to fight back against the French invaders. Weland Smith gives advice, insults him, and goads him into action on more than one occasion–the inner voice we all have, minus the graphic backstory.

 

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Engraving on the Franks Casket, showing Weyland the Smith at his forge, after having been hamstrung by the King.

But the triumph and originality of this novel is not the characters, rather the language itself. This books is not written in modern English, but rather a modified version of Old English, which the author calls “a shadow tongue.” This renders the book as slow reading for those of us who likely devour words at too quick of a pace. In some ways, these speedbumps frustrated me, but in the end, luxuriating in this brutal, no-win world with the Buccmaster was a delight. Due to the presence of the “shadow tongue,” there was no need of the typical tricks of historical fiction: no lengthy descriptions of ox-carts or how to make leather shoes. The simplicity of the relationships between people, hierarchies and land are laid bare. Returning to my own world with computers, cars, and trans-continental family structures seemed complicated and almost confusing in comparison.

 

Shadow Tongue

One of the reasons I found this shadow tongue to be so effective is that it shapes not only the narrative, but requires the mind to read in an accent. As an American, I have only vague notions of the various accents that live in England. To read a book written like this conjures up a very specific accent, not just in the shape of which words being used, but in the rhythm of the line.

When we had seen this man before he had been proud he had been strong in his raedels and tales. an old man yes but he had the strength what all men moste haf if they is to hold others to them.

Kingsnorth notes that he uses only letters of the alphabet that would be used at that time (for instance, there is no “k” to be found in the text), but he also eschews capitalization and punctuation.

This brings up another aspect of this unique style that echoes the dark mythic quality lurking in the book. If this was written in modern English, I doubt it would have allowed the e.e. cummings-esque use of whitespace when Buccmaster argues with the disembodied voice of Weland Smith:

now does thu see

where has thu been I has been callan

it is not for thu to call

who is thu

thu named me

but I cannot see

 

Angland before England

As the story continues, loping along as Buccmaster collects a band of mostly well-intentioned men to fight the French invaders, Buccmaster drops more hints of his past, bathed in the brine of his bravado. The plot of this story isn’t complex, nor particularly important. For no matter what Buccmaster does, this was a tragic tale before it started. We all know what happened after the Norman invasion of 1066. The ruling class spoke French, while the lower classes spoke English. The Buccmaster’s version of “Angland” and what it meant to be an Englishman was a myth in of itself, as some of his comrades point out in the novel. Buccmaster was descended from Danish invaders who settled there, pushing out the Iceni natives, who had already fought and then intermarried with the Romans centuries before that. Buccmaster has created an “Englishness” that is unique only to his village, and, because of his distaste for Christianity, unique only to those that cling to the old ways. The parallels to modern nationalism are striking.

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The Fens, a marshy land on the Eastern coast of the England, is where The Wake is set.

But in Buccmaster’s world of swords and fire, women have no place. His only love, his sister, is dead, but it isn’t until the end of the book that we find out what happened to her. His father is evil, and again, at the end of the book why Buccmaster refuses to speak of him. His wife, Odelyn, receives some lip service, but it is clear that while Buccmaster claims to love her, she is a responsibility and a dependent, not unlike his sons.

The world is against him, and in the early days of the book, before the invasion, when his farm is in need of harvesting, Buccmaster’s bravado is funny, almost endearing. We’ve all known a person or two who is puffed up on his own importance, and they are harmless. But after the invaders come, and Buccmaster becomes a leader of the resistance, his bravado and faith in the old ways come to darker and darker turns. Like the men of his camp, you wonder where he is going, if he is sane, and if you can trust anything he says.

The Wild

Buccmaster bears witness to the destruction and occupation of his home, playing out the very fear that plagues us still. This phobia is what drives the Zombie Apocalypse entertainment of the last few years, all of the post-nuclear war fiction. As a larger community, we understand how interconnected we are, and how that makes us inter-dependent. To shut off the ability to build together means we no longer get technology like cars, space shuttles, or iPhones. One person can no longer “know” how to do his or her job when so much of the work relies on technology built on the shoulders of our ancestors. Ripping away that rug is terrifying, because we don’t really know where our water comes from. Are we really that much more informed about our lives than Buccmaster, who relies on stories from nearby villages for news?

How much bravado is required to get out of bed every day, to know that you are a “great man,” able to do good in the world after your world has been burnt to the ground? We all need a trick sometimes, and Buccmaster needs someone to think he is not “weac” like a “wifman.” (Though he did seem to appreciate his wifman when none of the men could figure out how to smoke and salt pork, as that was women’s work.)

But what Buccmaster lacks in humility, he makes up for with dark eloquence:

 

the wilde will be tacan from these fenns and the wilde will be tacan from in me for in efry man there is the wind and the water and his worc until he is tacan is to cepe the wild lands from the tamers

 

Ultimately, this is a tale not far off from our current Apocalyptic fiction craze. But, in some ways this is very different from the other books in the genre, because this war did happen, unsettling not just the people of England, but later shaping the conquest of the world. Kingsnorth appends the book with a note that 70% of the land in England is still owned by less than 1%, many of them descendants of those same Norman invaders. Hundreds of years later, the monarchy/government who conquered lands across the ocean, so the sun never set on the British Empire, was also run by the descendants of those same invaders. From the perspective of the Normans, this is a success story. From Buccmaster’s, it is the ultimate tragedy, an event that wiped out his way of life.

The Wake won a number of awards, and can be found in local libraries and bookstores. I strongly recommend seeking it out.

Best Books of 2016 Compilation

Maybe 2016 was an all-out Dumpster Fire for you. Maybe it wasn’t. Either way, you probably missed some great books as the months sped by. I have compiled a resource list to help you choose your next book (a best book) before 2017 takes over and you have to keep up with those.

I have broken them into some categories to make it easier to peruse. Perhaps you like Award winners. Committees form, discuss, celebrate a winner. Man Booker Award winners are usually great books for me because they are often quirky. However, they do not allow Americans to enter, so if you want an American experience, go instead with the PEN or the National Book Award winners. Of course, if you want to give someone new a chance, the Hemingway award is only for debut novelists.

But maybe prizes are meaningless. There are deadlines and politics involved. No problem! I have also compiled a list of “Best of…” from a number of different resources. The typical news outlets that have book reviews like the New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, but also a little less literary, like Harper’s Bazaar. But, if you want to get insider knowledge, there is also Publisher’s Weekly.

imgresOf course, there are a few books that are on every list or almost every list. One is Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. If you haven’t read it,  put it on the list. In non-fiction, Evicted by Matthew Desmond. imgres-1

But read on, friends. It is the best way to understand the miles of someone else’s shoes.

Award winners:

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Not into the whole content thing?

*Best Book Covers of 2016 according to Paste Magazine

Best of 2016 lists:

 

Best of luck with your To-Read-Next Pile.

 

 

Preparation

preparation
I already have one.

To make ready beforehand. Preparation. The word has a Latin etymology, and of course, an Old French ending. Perhaps the origin of a word doesn’t matter much, but we take in words with so much invisible baggage we aren’t aware of how we judge our hodge-podge language.

Judging only by the word’s origin, we attribute the sound of it to be more florid, fancy, a bit more high-falutin’. But “preparation” isn’t a fancy thing, quite the opposite. Preparation is working in the dirt, long, late hours, years of toil.

So perhaps we should shorten preparation to “prep work,” as this has Dutch and German origins, and sounds more populist because of it. Short, hard sounds telegraph the intensity of the journey.

I wanted to write about preparation because of the Olympics.

preparation for camping
Dining room table meal-prep for seven days of backpacking

I wanted to write about preparation because I am going camping soon, and we have been doing prep work for weeks.

I wanted to write about preparation because it is how I procrastinate about my writing.

All of those things are true.

Alexander Graham Bell (think telephones) said:

Preparation is the key to success.

And I suppose he should know. Scientists are notoriously methodical, and part of method is preparation.

But scientists don’t have a lock on that sort of thing. Chefs are taught immediately to establish mise en place before beginning. The phrase is French for “everything in its place.”

preparation for cupcake coma
Olympic Rings in cupcakes.

With professional athletes and Olympians, we know that their athletic training began in their childhood. We look at Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky, and we can picture in our minds’ eye the myriad of swim meets from their childhoods. How every dinner tasted a little of chlorine.

I’d like to think that I have worked very hard to prepare myself for the life I lead today. Everything from having learned to tie a shoe when I was a child, to the two and a half years of my MFA program forcing me to practice both critiquing and to writing.

But life gives many more lessons, some harder than others. A few more turns around the sun and priorities get separated out, as if our minds were in a centrifuge, circling and circling until the sludge divides from the priorities.

I’m drawing you down this path to say one thing: a little prep goes a long way. Prepare today to prevent panic tomorrow.

preparation to read
The stack just gets bigger.

I sell myself short when I do my prep work, because it is the work that happens before work, and in my impatience, I see it as a waste of time. But reading another book on a topic before I write about it is worthwhile. I am more informed, I won’t make mistakes that I will have to go back and correct.

The submissions I made last week, even if they aren’t accepted, allowed me to practice and refine my query letters further. Not to worry, I’m still collecting my rejection letters. But I am now feeling like I can stand on each rejection letter as a stairway to an acceptance, which is due partly to the fact that I now see each “No” as a way to prepare for an eventual “Yes.”

The word “Preparation” peaked in modern usage in 1947. I think it is interesting that it did so after our biggest war was over. Because preparing for peace might be harder than preparing for war.

We get through our personal hard times because we have to–one day at a time and all of that. But to get through the good times, now that is a challenge. We have to keep ourselves from sabotage, from letting our demons tell us we are failing.preparation

No, you tell them. I’m merely preparing.

Problem

I hear the first step is to admit you have a problem. Therefore: I have a problem.

See, it wasn’t my fault. I had to go to Charleston yesterday–not my fault–and we had a bunch of time to kill, so I said, all casual-like, “How about we go to this Used Bookstore?”

And my friends were all like, “Cool.”

BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T KNOW.

We went to a coffee shop first, which was good. Who wants to be without caffeine in a bookstore? No one worth knowing, that’s who.

So we went to Blue Bicycle Books–new and used.

I peruse the shelves, putting down copy after copy of books I had been meaning to read for years. No, I reasoned. I am in the middle of reading img_3712Waveland by Frederick Barthelme, about a man caught between his ex-wife and his girlfriend a few years after Hurricane Katrina. There’s a lot of drinking and pondering over bad decision-making skills. I’m halfway through. Poor life choices made by middle-aged people doesn’t compel me much, but as always, it is well-written, and I am compulsive about finishing books.  I’ll get there.

And I had just started Broken: a love story by Lisa Jones. I only read the first few pages the other night before something else had demanded my attention, img_3713but the introduction tells me I am going to read about a paraplegic Native American man who can break even the wildest of horses, and this will somehow serve as a metaphor for the author’s journey, too.

So I shouldn’t buy any books is what I am telling myself. Nope, no books.

img_3700

 

Except this one. What a find! This is why used bookstores are amazing! Caves and Caving? Perfect! And really, it isn’t just for me! Andy will be interested!

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Chapter Four: Where DO You Go?

 

Sure, it’s from 1986, but it has locations in it, and we have been itching to do more caving since Bouncing the Well.

img_3701
I’d like to think we are Joe Cavers.

 

 

Can we talk about Bouncing the Well again? No? Oh.

Well, I’m just going to leave the link here for you again. You know. Just in case you need to fill 14 minutes of your time today.

Ok. So just one book, that’s fine.

Perfect really, except, what about Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez? I have been hearing about this book for ages AND it is a National Book Award Winner.

img_3703It says so right on the cover.

Plus, with Big Five Dive this summer, many of those woman will be later going on an Arctic expedition, so this will help to have some common knowledge, a way to ask intelligent questions and get to know people better.

THIS BOOK IS GOING TO HELP ME MAKE FRIENDS.

But whatever, two books? No big deal. Besides, they’re both non-fiction, which just means I’m interesting. 

 

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Blue Rodeo next to Damian Lewis’ face on Bringing Up the Bodies

Cruising over to the literary fiction section, I’m thrilled to see my friend and mentor’s book on the shelf, Blue Rodeo by Jo-Ann Mapson, kicking it with Hilary Mantel and Damian Lewis’ face. I take a picture to send it to her later, because I would be thrilled if that were me.

 

I mean, I would be thrilled if my book were in a bookstore across the country from where I lived, not that I was next to Damian Lewis’ face.  Er.  Well, I mean, I’m sure he’s lovely, so maybe being next to his face would be lovely also, but I’M TALKING ABOUT BOOKS, DAMMIT.
img_3707Books! Continuing down the alphabetical line–oh, no. This one is just mildly misfiled.  I revert only momentarily to my Title Wave/Eagle Eye Books days where I shelved and shelved and shelved. But then I get to something that really strikes my fancy (sorry, Damian Lewis).

Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears. I loved his book An Instance of the Fingerpost. He writes historical mystery/thrillers. Plus, I am writing historical fiction, so if I buy that book, it’s just work. A financier/arms dealer falls out of a window in Edwardian London? A reporter with gumption hired by the aristocratic and oddly beautiful widow? In the backdrop of the emerging financial markets? I have been reading up on the history of the London Stock Exchange for another Idea I have for a book. So this is both work AND research. Well. If I have to, then.

img_3704At the end of the literary fiction section, The Martian by Andy Weir catches my eye. I’ve been waiting to buy it used, but unfortunately this copy is new. I listened to a Star Talk podcast where Andy Weir talked about writing this serially on his crummy website (he said it was crummy, not me.), and then once he got finished, his readers enjoyed the story so much but hated his site, so to make reading easier, Weir made it an e-book. Self-published success. This particular edition is now published by Broadway Books. I hope Andy Weir ends his evening by clutching a wad of money, rocking back and forth and cackling. Matt Damon starred in the movie version of his e-book that had no sex in it.

img_3705
“…but I have ideas. Really bad ideas, but they’re ideas.”

And it’s about Science.

So that’s a must read, if only to support Andy Weir’s logistic brilliance on outwitting the publishing industry.

I pay for the books, we drive back home, I watch some TV with my husband, but then I have to go to bed. Sure, I’m tired or whatever, and it is a little early, but really?

 

 

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A history? Tell me more.

Stone’s Fall is whispering for me so sweetly that I cannot ignore it. I used my California Parks brochure for a bookmark. I haven’t read the brochure yet either, but I will.

 

 

Because I have a problem.

A Writer’s Restlessness

This morning I feel restless.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m tired still–

climbing to alleviate restlessness
I swear I get on the wall too, but no one takes a picture of me climbing. They must be dumbfounded by the sight.

I’ve been trying to up my climbing game and the skin on my fingers is peeling, I have blisters between my first and second knuckles, and my forefingers ache.

But my brain is restless.  So I finished reading Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel–I know I talk about her and her work a great deal, but it’s because I’m in love with how she paints her main character. How Thomas Cromwell is both opaque to the other characters and transparent to the reader. The time she writes about is convoluted and complex, with so many players and wills, and the changes in that time’s landscape we still feel today.

But after I finished reading the book–spoiler alert–Anne Boelyn dies (gasp!), I am still restless.  But at least I have figured out why.

I am restless because I want to write.  I finished large edits on Friday, handed the draft to a beta reader, and now I feel like I ought to sit on my hands (at least in regard to that book) for a few days.  So yesterday I edited a short story I wrote last week, while I procrastinating about those edits. I did some of the tedious ends of this business, looking for places to submit my work.

There are a few other (at least three) books in my brain I could start in on.  I am excited, but trepidatious.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA
They used to bungee jump off of this bridge in Alaska. We visited there a few years ago on a motorcycle trip to McCarthy.  Andy said he’d done it. I say: No.

Like stepping off a bridge with a bungee cord strapped to my feet (I would actually never do this.  Instant vomit comet, and with that whole gravity thing, I’m afraid of where that would go).

The anticipation of starting in on the book I have as a draft half-written brings me a great deal of joy, as long as I don’t start it.  All of the rest of my work, waiting to hear back from submissions, beta readers, etc, that’s okay, but the good chance of rejection ruins that writer’s high.

So I guess I have to go–I have a draft to get reacquainted with. I’ve been waiting to get to this moment for months. So that’s my pep talk.

Psst:  anyone who is reading this who is an artist: GO DO YOUR ART.  PUT DOWN THE DEVICE, BACK AWAY SLOWLY, AND GO DO YOUR ART.

The writer’s restlessness doesn’t stem from boredom, it stems from unused creativity.

You can quote that from yours truly.

Joy(us)Adventure: day 19

img_3438We saw a for-real, honest-to-goodness, Gaucho today.

Say goodbye, Gracie
Say goodbye, Gracie

This was the only comfort I had for the fact that we were leaving Torres del Paine.  I was not ready to go.  I could have done another five days and probably still not be ready to leave.

But we were on the bus, heading to the

Goodbye Gracie!
Goodbye Gracie!

border crossing, to leave Chile and enter Argentina, and we came to an abrupt stop.  Nicole hopped out and then ran back onto the bus and announced, “Okay Team!  We have a real gaucho, and he will talk to us!”

Real life Gaucho
Real life Gaucho

So we filed out of the bus, and there he was, on his horse, rocking the gaucho hat, the gaucho knife (facón) in the back of his waistband, and his two shepherd dogs, pacing at the horses hooves, never straying far.

Back at the rancho...
Back at the rancho…

We asked a few questions, took pictures.  He commented that there were a lot of women on the bus.  True fact.  He was absolutely correct.  He was one of six that worked that particular ranch that abuts the national park, which was privately owned long before there ever was a national park. He was heading back to the ranch after looking after some sick sheep.  After our questions, Nicole gifted him with a small bottle of whiskey, and we were back on track to the border crossing.

cazuela
cazuela

We had stopped by this particular store at the border crossing on our way to the park.  This time, though, we stopped for a delicious lunch called cazuela.  It was chicken and potatoes, and corn and perfect for a day after being cold to the bone.  We had another pisco sour waiting for us at the table, and by this time, we were drinking them grudgingly.

This was the only border crossing open for around 200 miles, so it is a common point for many travelers, including motorcycle adventurers.  Some of you may know that I worked for a brief time at Alaska Riders, which has since become MotoQuest, and they do a tour down to Tierra del Fuego.  I looked for one of their stickers, but I didn’t see one.  I did, however, see another familiar logo.

Middle pane, key word: Alaska.
Middle pane, key word: Alaska.

After lunch, we lined up at the Chilean border office, and got our papers examined.  We climbed back on the bus, and Nicole had warned us about the next phase being excruciating.  A two-fingered typer, slow in the worst ways, and solo at the Argentinian side.  We would be in a huge line.

The high steppe of Ultima Esperanza
The high steppe of Ultima Esperanza

Except, when we got there, totally not the case.  There were three agents, and they all seemed to have adequate typing skills.

We switched buses, because there are strict tourism laws about guides from Chile in Argentina and vice versa.  We had another afternoon full of bus travel until El Calafate, in Argentina.

We were up on the steppe again, huge cattle and sheep ranches making up most of the land along the road.

Shrine for El Gauchito Gil
Shrine for El Gauchito Gil

We stopped at another local shrine, for El Gauchito Gil, and Nicole gave him a beer, to say thanks for the easy travel day, thanks for the good weather, and please don’t jinx us.  This was another legend about a soldier.  He was a ranch hand and fell in love with a wealthy widow, or maybe had an affair with her. Anyway, trouble ensued, so he ran off to join the army.  He joins, and then, decides fighting is no good, so he deserts.  A local sheriff finds him, and decides to hang him for the crime of deserting. Gauchito Gil pleads with him, and says that if he just waits a day, he will realize that the war is over, and it won’t matter that he has deserted, because there is no army left.  The sheriff goes to hang him, and once again Gauchito Gil pleads, and says, your son is very sick.  Spare me, and I will heal him.

The sheriff is not impressed, and so he hangs him.  He returns to town, and finds that his son is very sick.  That night, it is announced that the war is over.  Gauchito Gil was right.  So the sheriff prays to him to heal his son, despite the fact that he hung him.  Gauchito Gil indeed saves the son, and the sheriff erected a shrine, and told his story.

Submarino
Submarino

We rode for hours and came to a small store in the middle of nowhere.  We stopped for a coffee, and I tried the submarino–hot milk with a candy bar.  The candy bar is shaped like a submarine, and you drop it in and let it melt, so you get a hot chocolate out of the deal.  It’s pretty good.  They had a stray kitten as well, so I had to cuddle the kitten too, while I waited my turn.

Stray kitten, a little worse for wear
Stray kitten, a little worse for wear

 

 

Back onto the bus, and we finally reach El Calafate, which hosts one of the homes of the former Argentina President, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner.

El Calafate itself seems very much like a climbing town.  It had local breweries, tons of gear shops, and killer pizza.  The main street had many artisan walkways for locals to set up and sell to tourists, and the facades along the shops were very well maintained.

One of the displays for a restaurant on the main drag. Just in case you were wondering what you were eating.
One of the displays for a restaurant on the main drag. Just in case you were wondering what you were eating.

I was itching for another walk, so while Mary Joy had dinner with most travelers back at the hotel, I struck out on my own and walked downtown.  I caught up to Linda, who was just out on a walk, so we strolled together until the main drag.  She turned around and went back to the hotel for dinner, and I kept on.  I looked in the shops, and the bookstore.  I walked the artisanal mall.  Then, I went to what I looked forward to most: local beer and pizza.

Once again I was reminded of Alaska.  Though the store fronts were much nicer than Anchorage’s, and the city itself seemed much smaller, it felt similar.  As if this were the jumping off point for Big Adventure, just like Anchorage.  I ate a delicious Roquefort and bacon pizza, washed down with a local red ale.  As I was finishing up, I spotted my comrades, Paul and Julia, getting seated for dinner.  I popped over to just say hello, but they invited me to stay, and well, another beer sounded pretty good…

We talked about books (my book), and home.  By the end of our conversation, I was so jazzed up about my work, I wanted to go home.  I had so much to get done on my book, and clear ideas of how to fix some glaring issues.

bed.
bed.

We meandered back, night now fallen, looking at the shops again. I hoped I didn’t seem anti-social, lost as I was in thinking about my work. We got back to the hotel, and the others were all in bed.  Full of two of my favorite things–pizza and beer–sleep was easy.

Exercise Creativity

There is no dearth of how-to books for creativity. A subset of that is the how-to for writing, which I admit, I have read and continue to read. No one artist’s process is the same, and for that, we should all be grateful. No one can say that staring silently into thin air for a complete hour is the wrong way, nor is dancing around the block in your underwear (though the second might get you arrested). But there is one piece of advice I see consistently: exercise creativity.

Creativity

To parse: Creativity, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary:

The use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.

One can absolutely use imagination and original ideas in non-artistic pursuits. I would argue that those two elements have been key in the technological advances of our last century. In order to find a work-around to any problem, whether mathematical or chemical, one needs to have at least a little bit of imagination. But true, we use the word “creativity” when we talk about art.

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In this case, inspiration may be the faucet, but creativity is the water.

Sometimes, creativity and inspiration are used interchangeably, but I would argue against it. Inspiration is an instigator, but Creativity solves a problem.

The real piece of advice I read again and again is the worst word: exercise.

Exercise

I know. We need to exercise for our health. We need to exercise for our brains, now too.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, talks about going on his walks. This is, of course, how he got sideswiped by a van and almost killed, but beside the point, walking was his way of getting his ideas marinating.

Rita Mae Brown, famous for her cozy mystery series starring a talking cat Mrs. Murphy, wrote in her writing advice book, Starting from Scratch, to lift weights and stay away from the alcohol-fueled ideologies of would-be Hemingways.

Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist, wrote in an essay, “The Running Novelist” for the New Yorker about his running habits. If the inspiration helps (there’s that word again), he was a thirty-three year-old smoker when he began running.

Elizabeth Gilbert, most famous for Eat,Pray, Love, writes in her book on creativity, Big Magic, about different ways to live a creative life, and while she doesn’t explicitly say exercise, she does offer an alternative to the boozy, dramatic artiste romanticization that many people envision for a writer. Keeping sober and reasonable, after all, does help to keep “a keener mind.”

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This is my point, exactly.

All artists use their brain meat to facilitate their art, but writers have to keep language at the forefront, a veritable sushi boat sailing past us, and we have to pick the correct plate.

There are many studies that link brain function and exercise, including this one, published by Harvard. I will summarize for you, if you don’t want to take a few minutes to check it out: in short, while exercise does other really nice things for your body, like burn excess calories, reduce inflammation, build muscle, it also is linked to brain activity. Elevating the heart rate, even slightly, increases blood flow to the brain (as it increases blood flow to everywhere else as well), and is linked to increased verbal learning and memory. You heard me: verbal. Language, the sushi boats writers are trying to grab.

There are other benefits, like improved mood, and better sleep habits. Those are nice. I have also read that exercise helps other areas, you know, lower areas, if there may be a problem down there.

The exercise advice is not for any hard-core strenuous workout. No need to join a rugby team. An hour of walking, three times a week is recommended. Or whatever you can fit in, as we all have busy lives.

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I might disagree–but it is a valid definition.

Adventure

Personally? I walk. I don’t walk to imitate Stephen King. I walk because a knee injury prevents me from running. The thing I love to do most, though, is having an adventure, which can be anything. A proper Adventure has a number of elements, but mostly, is a thing you find exciting, and doing a thing you might not be very good at, or something maybe you have never done before.

The video below is an involved adventure. We prepped for it for several months, we made gear for it, and we spent a good deal of time planning. But it was a great success, and it spurred both my actual heart, and my metaphorical heart. That adventure inspired me, nothing specific, but it made me grateful. I believe that beginning any new project filled with gratitude will allow one the humility needed to finish the task at hand.

I leave you to it:

Leaders of Men

I’ve been wading through thoughts of the leaders of men the last few weeks, from Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, to Marcus Aurelius and Cicero.  Today on my Facebook feed was a quote from Denis Diderot (Thanks Jake!) that fit so perfectly with Wolf Hall (which I finished my second pass through yesterday), it made me startle.

To give background, Wolf Hall is about the change in England during the reign of Henry VIII.  Hang on now, this isn’t the corset titillation of Philippa Gregory.  This is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the guy who gets things done: the Lawyer.  He isn’t an aristocrat, and he is consistently told he looks like a murderer.

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Thomas Cromwell portrait by Hans Holbein. This guy IS the wolf.

He doesn’t care about the old titles, not honor or chivalry, not divine right, not the Pope in Rome.  He understands what inspires a person: debt.  Money is the currency of the day (quite literally).

While common history gives us the juvenile chant of what Henry VIII did with his wives, the absolutely huge ethic it overlooks is that Henry turned his back on the Catholic Church. He threw off a tyranny that blanketed Europe, a move so bold that if he was wrong, would cost him his everlasting soul.  Gutsy move, Harry.

This is also the time of the first English translations of the Bible.  How shocking it must have been for people to learn there was no mention of purgatory, no tithing, the rituals they had been taught as sacrosanct.  It must have felt like a betrayal.  Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VII, one of those that got her head chopped, knew of the English translations, put them into Henry’s hand.

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The original power stance.

Because here is the other part of history that is so vital to the huge upheaval that shaped our world into what it is today: Henry was meant for the church.  He was the second son.  His older brother, Arthur, was meant for kingship.  He was the leader of men.  Henry was meant to become the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was very learned about Church doctrine, about the Bible, about what was expected of him as a clergyman.  Anne Boleyn shows up with her English translations, new ideas from Martin Luther in Germany (she’d been in France for quite some time at this point), seduces Henry’s brain meat with new ideas in his favorite subject.

Henry notices Cromwell (who had been a fixer for the former Cardinal Wolsey), and Cromwell does what no one else can do: creates an England where the Catholic church has no say.

Bear with me a little longer, because the point is: Cromwell knew that a man can only be controlled by who he allows himself to owe.  Or, as Abraham Lincoln wrote,

No man is good enough to govern another man without that others consent.

That is what Cromwell knew, as a runaway, as a scrapper, a wool merchant, a mercenary. Henry ultimately fulfilled his original destiny, to be a leader of the English clergy.  He happened to do it while still being King.

There were threats, and uprisings, and the next decades were bloody and tumultuous as the people revolted against the idea of an Anglican church.  Many wanted Catholicism back, the way things had been.  Not every monastery was fat and corrupt, but they were all disbanded anyway, money given to the desperately poor Crown.

So this morning, encountering the Denis Diderot quote:

And his hands would plait the priest’s entrails,
For want of a rope, to strangle kings.

To bring the circle wider: we turn on our TV, we look on the interwebs, and what do we see?  The primaries of our own King-less election.  I live in a country where a group of men realized what Cromwell realized.  It was a tenuous rebellion at certain times, and those men would have all been killed in the worst of ways, their wives and children outcast if not killed or imprisoned as well.  It was a risk to throw off from King George.

Now, centuries later, our leaders of men do a very different dance to ask us for the humble charge of leading us.  Perhaps that is why politics is a forbidden topic at many dinner tables in our country.  We are not throwing all of our clergy in jail. We are not burning dissenters at the stake.  We are trying to have a civil discourse, interviewing this wide panel of candidates for who would be best for the job.  But in the background, we have so many other issues we are struggling to resolve, and that colors our rancor. For 240 years, our country has sped through agriculture, industrialization, genocide, civil war.  Two and a half centuries isn’t very long, and we’ve come a long way from our beginnings, every new wave of immigration adding to the French braid of our ethics and culture.

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He led the country during unrest and paid a steep price for it.

Many may argue with this next statement, but in my opinion (mine alone): I think we are better.  I am proud of the work we do in ourselves.  We are not there yet, not by a long shot.  But we are trying.  All (almost all) of us want the world to be better.  Our crime rates our down.  Our civil liberties are up.  Do I want more change?  Yup, you betcha I do.  But none of us can snap our fingers and tomorrow all of the bigotry and misery and greed goes away.  So we work on it.  We protest when we need.  We vote (isn’t that amazing?), vote for the candidate that seems the most worthy of our following.

The question isn’t, “who should lead?” The question is a much more individual one: “Who should I follow?”

Because:

No man is good enough to govern another man without that others consent.

Thanks, Abe.  I agree.

Things Are Out of Hand: To Goal or Not to Goal

Most of what we read in the news and blogosphere in January is goal-related.  New Year’s Resolutions, the backlash of resolutions, reasons why we are stupid to either make them in the first place, or to deride the goal-setting experience.

I am a chronic goal-setter.  I like goals, because I like that smug satisfaction I get when I cross the item off my list.  For instance, I submitted a short story today. I think it is a long-shot, but it pays, and I set a goal to submit this story three times by the end of March.  I make an untidy hashmark on my calendar, as if I were a prisoner at some sort of Writer’s Alcatraz. One down.  Ha! I have not done my laundry in 15 days, and I am wearing my last pair of underpants, but I am SUCCEEDING.

Chronic achievers have systems.  Tidy minds have tidy lives.  The best mechanics have toolboxes that gleam.  Steel-plated rows of drill bits gleam and blind visitors to the workbench, despite the grease and grime that are married to working on machinery.  I could eat off of those toolboxes.  Actually, given that whole laundry situation, my kitchen isn’t much better.  Those toolboxes are probably cleaner than what I have going on in my food prep area.  Maybe give me a week’s notice if you want to come over for dinner.

For 2016, I wanted to tidy up my desk.  I have this adorable antique writing desk that is probably technically called a secretary desk.  It sounds as if I have a secretary, or maybe that I am a secretary, and neither are accurate, as it does imply a level of organization that is not happening anywhere near this particular human. But it is a beautiful desk, when you can see it.

Sadly, this beautiful, walnut antique secretary desk does not possess a bookcase.  I mean, we have other bookcases.  Many, in fact.  But, despite all of my purges, I have too many books.  I have dug out some books on writing that I want to re-read this year.  I have books I have borrowed from friends to help round out my education (a little Tacitus, anyone?).  I have recent gifts from my husband, and my parents, and a tidy stack of gift cards to bookstores that will be used with giddiness in the coming months.

Classic texts with some 2015 winners.
Old books on the printer, new books to the side.

Where’s the problem?  What could possibly be getting out of hand?

To note: I am not a hoarder.  Just like a mechanic needs multiple wrenches of various sizes in that clean, chrome-accented toolbox, I need these books.  They are stories, histories, works of art.

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A precarious tower of knowledge.

I have a few more stacks around the house, but I don’t want to embarrass myself.  Anymore than I normally do, anyway. But remember in that mechanic metaphor?  The mechanic with the clean workspace was a good mechanic.

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Books I can’t part with, but have no home on the bookshelf.

I want to be a good writer.  I need to emulate that mechanic, because my mind needs to be tidy to keep all of my work separate. My years of slow writing has only contributed to this backlog of ideas stacked in my brain.  Solution? More file space, more bookshelves (!) And I hear there’s this new popular book about a Japanese philosophy of de-cluttering…

And no, you don’t want to know what my computer’s desktop looks like.  It might be worse. It is worse.  One thing at a time.

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A variety of print media. Why be a snob?

Happy 2016!

 

 

Tentatively Titled

I have not been particularly good at updating this website in the last two months.  There are many reasons why this occurred, why this must change, and while there may be excuses, it is because all my available words have been going towards a new novel, which is tentatively titled A Lady’s Glass.  I do recognize, now that I am less than 13,000 words from the end of it, that this is maybe not a very good title.  But that will change with the rewrites.

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Write it.

For this last year’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month–which is November), I chose to write a romance novel.  I had never written one, and to be honest, am very squeamish about writing sex scenes, which is why I chose to do that very thing.  One cannot conquer a fear unless one faces it.

To be perfectly honest, while I am an avid reader of historical fiction, I do not read romance novels.  In fact, I often dismissed them out of hand. Having written this much of a romance novel now, I am humbled by the experience.  I read a Sarah MacLean’s Rules of Scoundrels series when I was about half-way through, and it helped me tremendously.  Her dialogue was witty and her characters well-formed.  I had glanced through other romance novels where the characters were little more than Ken dolls, and in Sarah’s I found men with thoughts and feelings and motivations that felt like real people. Her heroines were more than “independent” women who never displayed an independent or original thought.  And even more remarkable (!), each heroine was different from one another.  I actually liked her romance novels.  So I thought I could write a romance novel I liked, too.  And now I can wipe away my snobbishness (an ongoing process) about genre fiction.

I am the proud mama of all my work, and so at this moment, almost finished with the rough draft, I think the novel is interesting, and funny, and honestly? My sex scenes aren’t bad.  They aren’t particularly great or interesting, but again, this is our self-congratulating first draft.  We have to love the shitty first draft (SFD) in order to keep choosing to massage the work into something truly worthwhile.

I received many books for Christmas (hooray!) and two of them are specifically addressing my love of British history (because it is an island nation, and not even the largest one.  Ninth largest island in the world, and it managed to dominate world politics and world economics for quite some time.  Not to say it isn’t still very powerful, but it doesn’t have the chokehold that it did during colonial times, which is best for everyone involved.). These books are specifically meant to help me write this romance novel, and give me accurate historical information.  I know some romance novels wing it, and kinda-sorta get the time period right, but my inner historian cringes at that sort of behavior.

As I write this, I am staring at my lovely Christmas tree, and thinking how I really ought to spend the day taking down decorations and packing up the ornaments carefully in tissue paper and bubble wrap.  But I don’t want to.  And writing the end of a novel is far more gratifying than packing up a lovely thing into a box to be stored until next year.

So on this day, the 27th of December, the third in the Twelve Days of Christmas, we are in need of three French hens.  I have no idea where one could procure such a thing, but we do have the internet, where all dreams are possible. It is almost 2016, and there is so much to do, and I have discovered my own uncharted territory in the romance genre. You all figure out the hen situation, I am going to make another cup of tea and finish this novel, which may or may not be titled A Lady’s Glass.