Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In Defense of Harry Potter

I had an interesting moment the other day when a new character was introduced in the novel I was reading. Her name was Merope. I knew the name came out of Greek mythology (Merope was the name of one of Atlas' daughters), but I kept getting a flash in my mind of a bedraggled young woman with stringy black hair and a very white face. The image was so vivid, I thought it had to come from a movie.

This happens a lot. I have near-perfect recall for just about any actor I've ever seen in a movie. I've only been stumped a few times, most notably by Hugo Weaving who I saw in Priscilla - Queen of the Desert, The Lord of the Rings movies, and The Matrix and didn't recognize as the same person (largely because Weaving is one of the few actors who can change the cadence and tone of his speech from role to role - Johnny Depp can do it, too, but I've never failed to recognize him since I've loved him since his 21 Jump Street days, and he's usually the star of the movie with his name above the title). It wasn't until a friend called Weaving 'Agent Elf' that I realized I'd been completely fooled.

I usually know the names of the actors, too, not just the roles they played, and have been known to recognize dog and cat actors as well. This ability is like my super power and might lead you to believe I spend lot of time reading the tabloids or memorizing IMDB, but nothing could be further from the truth. The information just sticks. Like Crazy Glue.

This time was different, though. I didn't get the snippet of dialogue that usually helps me figure out who the actor is or the name of the movie he or she was in. Every time I saw the name 'Merope,' I got that flash of the woman's face until it hit me. It wasn't a movie. It was the sixth Harry Potter book I was remembering. Tom Riddle's mother was Merope.

When I realized that, I turned to my husband and told him I want to be able to do exactly that, create an image with words that is so vivid a reader will think they've seen it rather than read it. That's not just good writing, that's amazing writing.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shouting about Rivers

All this week I’m guest blogging at To Be Shouted, a creative blog started by James Wilson and his family. Each month, they choose a topic and each family member plus one guest blogger gets a week to do whatever they want with the topic. Posts on previous topics (bread, Sundays, home, maps) have included meditations on the topics, essays, paintings, photo essays, stories, just about anything you can think of as a way to conceptualize the topic in a creative way. This month’s topic is ‘river,’ and I’ve been immersed (pardon the pun) in the subject for the past couple of weeks preparing for my To Be Shouted debut.

I’ve been having a good time with the topic, but what’s been really interesting is watching my creative arc as the project developed.

My first step in developing something interesting was to brainstorm. What did I know about rivers? What rivers did I know? What did I think about them? What came to mind when I thought about the word ‘river.’ I wrote down everything I could think of and tacked the list on the cork board over my desk so I could see it each day.

As I got closer to my deadline, I began researching the topic on the Internet. What was a river? What came up on the first page when I Googled the term ‘river?’ That search led me a recording of Joni Mitchell’s “River” on YouTube which got me thinking about the number of river-related songs I knew. So I started searching on YouTube for videos of songs about rivers, which, in turn, led to the post I put up today. But it also started me thinking about the symbolic use of rivers in music, literature and art.

I also thought a lot about mythology and river gods, the words associated with rivers and the effects rivers have on the landscape. I wrote a couple of things about those topics, but I also wanted to do something creative.

The next step in my process was the jump into interpretation of rivers, leaving the physical reality of rivers behind and moving into the metaphysical and symbolic. I’ve written a poem, have a piece of flash fiction/short short in the works, and am working on a couple of visual pieces – all of which will start hitting the blog in the next couple of days.

What’s been nice about this is watching the creative work evolve. So often, when I’m faced with a grant proposal or a residency application, I have a difficult time coming up with what I want to do, a difficult time describing the kind of work I want to create. I now realize, that’s mostly because I’m trying to jump to the last stage of this process without doing any of the previous stages, without any of the brainstorming or processing of information. The work I propose always feels flat. So the guest blogging on To Be Shouted has been a valuable microcosm of my creative process and a really good learning experience for me.

Monday, August 22, 2011

To Be Shouted

I will be guest blogging over at To Be Shouted from today until the end of the month. To Be Shouted is the brain child of my friend, James Wilson, and his family, all of them talented artists. Each month, they choose a theme and write, create art, or post images related to that them. This month, the theme is 'river.' I've got some meditations, a poem, a story, and some art pieces that will be posted over the next ten days. Come check it out.

(the image above is one I took several years ago at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Lake Itasca, Minnesota. The line of stones the girls are walking across marks the boundary between lake and river, the beginning of a journey that ends some 2,300 miles later in the Gulf of Mexico)

And Now, Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Life

Today is the first day of school for my younger son (the older one went back to school last week), which means the house belongs to myself and the two dogs (who spend most of their time sleeping) for several hours each day.

It would have been tempting to plan to dive right back into work and start zooming away on the novel as soon as the door closed behind the younger child, but, I know myself better than this. I knew I would need some decompression time, time to adjust to the silence of the house (and the increase in environmental noise - like barking dogs and construction - that would become louder because of the vacuum), and I actually planned to give myself some space to do this. I'll pat myself on the back. I got myself right. Finally.

The house is quiet. Too quiet. And feels empty. The dogs are both sacked out - big dog on the couch and puppy by the sliding glass door. It's an overcast day in Baylandia, which makes the day feel even quieter.

So there's decompression from the kids going back to school and no longer being in the house. And there's also decompression from spending the weekend in Reno for Worldcon, which was a whirlwind of panel discussions on topics as diverse as infectious diseases (a catastrophic epidemic will not wipe out the human race, all it will take is a disease that kills 10% of the population to sufficiently disrupt such essentials as distribution of clean water and food and we'll die of water and food-born pathogens), writing fiction with real people as characters (make sure to choose someone who has been dead long enough to have few heirs or someone who does not have a litigious estate), and the nature of consciousness (a "philosophical zombie" is someone who does not know if anyone else has consciousness because, while you know you yourself have consciousness, you can not absolutely know for sure that anyone else you meet does as well). The highlight of my weekend was meeting Guy Consolmagno, or Brother Guy, who is an MIT-educated Jesuit priest and astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, who set us straight about a number of things including that the excommunication of Galileo was not about his science, it was a political move brought about because Galileo's patrons, the de Medicis, had fallen out of favor. Two years after his excommunication, Galileo was back on his estate carrying on just as before. (which, of course, makes me want to research it and write about it - this weekend was great for giving me more stories that I will probably never be able to write)

Another highlight was the panel discussion on linguistics. The academic credentials of the four panelists were incredibly impressive - PhD's all - but what really impressed...the moderator created the Klingon language and one of the panelists created the Dothraki language for the HBO Game of Thrones series. (Also amazing to me...the number of times George RR Martin crossed my path just wandering around the con like all the rest of us mere mortals. Unfortunately, I never had my camera handy when he did so).

Despite Worldcon's focus on SF and fantasy writing (or maybe because of it), I found plenty of interconnection with my own work. A talk about the ways ancient cultures have mapped the heavens gave me lots of information that relates directly to the novel, as did the linguistics discussion. I often went back to my hotel room at the end of the day with my head spinning and so mentally exhausted, I couldn't even contemplate playing Solitaire on the computer.

So, here I am again, just me and my words, and a novel to complete, and a whole bunch of new stories to think about. Which will make my next blog post very timely. Awhile back, I asked several writer and artist friends, how they created a balance between the existing work and the new ideas that inevitably form while you're engaged in a long-term project. My next post will focus on their responses.