What’s In A Category?

Gail Willwerth Upp, actress, writer, editor, director, lover of the mountains and lover of life.

Gail Willwerth Upp, actress, writer, editor, director, lover of the mountains and lover of life.

 

In all my social media accounts, I am asked to categorize myself.  What is it I think I am, what do I do, how do I wish to present myself to the thousands (all right, tens) of people who want to read what I have to say?  In all of them, I say, more or less in this order, that I am an actress, a writer, an editor, a director, and (to be totally soppy about the whole thing), a resident of a mountain paradise (more or less, but don’t ask me what I think of it in January) and a lover of life.  What in the world do I mean?  It’s not like there aren’t whole scads of people out there using some of the same appellations about themselves on their Twitter, Facebook and blog accounts.  So this (rather self-serving) blog is about what I do mean when I characterize myself by those terms.

Let’s look at them one by one:

Actress.  First, this usage is deliberate.  I know it is considered politically correct these days to call a female who acts for a living a “female actor”.  This drives me wild.  There is nothing wrong with the term actress.  As people are divided into two sexes (and many more preferences), so are the casts of plays, movies, television shows and videos.  Calling those who portray female characters who are themselves female (this is getting complicated in today’s world, isn’t it?) “female actors” is like calling a wife a “female husband”.  Actors come in two genders because the work they do comes in two genders, so let’s stop being weird about this and go back to using the perfectly understandable and respectable term “actress,” okay?

English: Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet.

Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet — not my role of choice but she was quite an actress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That said, why do I consider myself an actress?  I am, as we all are to some extent, what I do.  What I spend my time doing I’ll get to later, but it’s not acting.  So how can I call myself an actress when there have been few times in my life when I was actively pursuing acting as either a profession or an avocation?  (Of course, let’s realize this, that for most actresses and actors, they are not spending most of their time acting, they are spending their time trying to get acting work while doing other things to keep body and soul in calling distance of each other.)  And yet, I’m an actress.  So, for me, it must be a state of mind, a way of looking at the world, a way of defining myself.

And so it is.  Acting is central, in my judgment, to the experience of being human.  One of the ways we learn our culture, how to be human in our world, is through watching actors (and dancers and singers, of course, but to a lesser extent because those are more stylized art forms) show us human beings going through human disasters and triumphs, solving problems, reaching (sometimes) epiphanies, or simply getting the guy (or girl).  As a minor example, random research on my part indicates that most of us learned how to kiss from watching actors kiss in the movies or onstage.  When I got my master’s degree in theatre, I was asked in my final written exams to explain the purpose of theatre.  I remember very little of that horrible day, but I do remember the central thesis of my answer:  theatre is life with the irrelevancies taken out, a mirror held up to us so we can see ourselves with meaning.  It isn’t just entertainment, like a circus, a way of passing the time in laughter instead of drudgery for a moment.  Acting can be that, and there is nothing wrong with it.  But acting, at its finest, helps us learn, helps us understand, can even help us adjust our behavior, our insights and our goals in a way that is more useful to others and more fulfilling to ourselves.  Acting–whether in movies or plays or TV shows–doesn’t often reach that halcyon height, but it does so aspire.

And so I am an actress, because I believe, with Victor Hugo, that if one must steal bread to survive, steal two loaves and sell one to buy hyacinths for the soul.  To me, the theatre (in whatever media it comes) and the people who create plays, movies, TV shows, and all their wonders, are the hyacinths for the human soul and even if I am a very junior colleague in so exalted a group, I am deeply proud to be of their company.

The photo of me at the top of this essay is my new headshot, by the way.  I didn’t really plan on it being quite this size, but computers and I have some little issues and inserting photographs into my blogs is definitely one of them.

Writer.  This is what I genuinely do.  I sit down at the computer ostensibly to look at my emails and see if any of those I’m following on Twitter have anything interesting to say (Russell Crowe always does, even if I don’t understand most of what he’s talking about) and wondering what my Facebook friends are up to, just a few minutes, tops, and the next thing I know, it’s three hours later and I’ve started a blog (that’s how this one came to be) or edited one, or opened my novel to the  “start here” place and worked on dialogue or a new chapter.  Writers write.  That probably ought to come first on my category list and yet it doesn’t.  You see, I have acted, I have felt that magic touch me and reach out sometimes, if not often enough, to touch the audience.  But I have not sold anything I’ve written beyond one story that became a television movie (called “Bluffing It”, a movie about adult illiteracy).  So for some weird reason that has no logic whatsoever, I am an actress even though I have never in my life been paid for acting but not yet a writer because I have not been published and earned royalties.  And yet I write all the time.  I have spent over 40 minutes polishing a Tweet (I really hate that term, as my reader knows from prior blogs) so it will say exactly what I mean it to say within the 140 character allotment and I have five (count ‘em folks, five, followers (persons of discernment, each and every one)).  I spend time I really don’t have trying to come up with something funny or pointed or at least on topic to comment on Facebook friends’ postings.  And it can take me weeks to get one of these blogs to a place where I’m willing to have anyone read it.  You might notice that not one of these activities can be said to be remunerative, but they sure are writing and I write, even emails to friends (or perhaps especially emails to friends) as if for publication, as if these scribblings, no matter how ephemeral they are, will be in some sense my legacy to this world.

The cover of the first edition of The Great Ga...

The cover of the first edition of The Great Gatsby (1925) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And so I am a writer, even if I say it tentatively, as if it were presumptuous of me to try to edge into the great consortium of writers in the world.  How can I possibly ever consider myself to be a peer of my most admired writers?  I am all too aware that nothing I could ever write would approach my favorite “good” novel, The Great Gatsby.  Worse, I am just as aware that I’m not likely to write something as good as any one of Dick Francis‘ thrillers (I’m currently re-reading Under Orders and it’s just as terrific as I remembered it).  Of course, on the other hand, I have read or tried to read books which I cannot believe have actually been published, they are simply so bad.  How do the authors (using the term quite loosely in this context) manage to combine turgid, boring plots, uninteresting characters that all seem like the same person, and poor grammar all at the same time?  But then, they’re published and I’m not, so maybe I shouldn’t be so sniffy about them.

The novel I’m re-writing now is entitled Crawfish Blues.  I am deep within the second act, miring my heroine in mud up to her lavish hips (since she lives in the Louisiana Delta, this is not entirely metaphorical), re-structuring her problems to make them, I fondly hope, more cogent, deeper, and more interesting to the eventual reader, should such there ever be.  When I am working on Crawfish I’ll realize that all of a sudden, I’m hungry and it’s time (past time, probably) for a shower, and five hours will have passed without my noticing except for the increasing ache in my upper shoulders from crouching over the keyboard.  Oh well, if I wrote as Jane Austen did with quill and parchment, I would have writer’s cramp.  Writing is, for something one does sitting down, quite physically taxing.

So I am a writer, no matter how tentative.

Editor.  This category is a little more complex, because when I worked in the film/TV industry, I did so as either a picture or sound editor or as a teacher/trainer of picture or sound editors.  Leave it to me to manage a way to remain obscure in this most flamboyantly public of industries.  But you find your niche, sometimes.  Film editing is a vitally important craft to the creation of films whether feature or TV, narrative or documentary.  In fact, in many ways a lot of films are created, not just finished, in the editing room.  And nowadays, with digital cameras giving filmmakers virtually no limit on the amount of footage they can shoot, even on low-budget projects, the editor is vital to organizing and making sense of the footage, carving out a story from all that, well, stuff.  For me, editing is like writing or acting:  it is something into which I lose myself and all track of time.  Some part of my psyche loves the intricacy, the puzzle-like quality of editing film footage, the ability you have as an editor to create the timing for a comic moment that the director (evil grin here) totally missed or the chance to build an almost unbearable tension out of quite simple, ordinary elements.

Director.  I directed plays at various schools in which I taught and worked, I directed plays for summer theaters (and also produced), I directed plays for community and small professional theatre.  Directing led me away from acting.  I went to film school to be a film director.  Unfortunately, I discovered that the job of film director is different in both quality and quantity from that of play director–it almost never has to do with the fun part of play directing, working with actors, and it mostly seems to consist of not having enough time or money but having way too many questions that need to be answered right this goddamned minute.  It also has a lot to do with pleasing people who have no understanding of the craft of filmmaking whatsoever, they only have money.  I also discovered that if I didn’t suck at film directing, I was only about two steps up from that nadir.  That’s when I became a film editor, which I got pretty good at.  (The other reason I moved away from film directing is that work on a film set is only slightly less tedious than watching paint dry.  I have been on movie sets where watching a board warp was almost intolerable excitement.  An editing suite is a carnival ride in comparison.)

The Music Man

The Music Man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, I was a director, but now I’m not and I’m okay with that.  At least for a while.  One of the problems that comes with ever having directed a play or even a student film is that it is almost impossible to watch somebody else’s work onstage or at the movies without wanting to do this most complex of tasks once again.  I went to a concert in Estes Park a little while ago, two choirs of locals put together to sing some of the more well-known songs from Broadway musicals.  They did a good job with a medley from “The Music Man” and by the time they had finished Lida Rose, I had cast the whole musical from local talent, figured out who would do the choreography and music direction, and designed the basic set.   By the time I was applauding their efforts, I had figured out how and from where to get the musical instruments and how I’d do the big march at the end (winding through the auditorium).  It gets in the blood, directing.

But then I remember all the things that go with directing a play, especially in a small town where everyone is a volunteer with other demands on their time:  finding the personnel, getting the costumes sorted out, building the set, searching thrift shops for props, forcing busy people to rehearse.  Often it comes down to one person and that person is you (well, in this case, me).  Plus, to direct anything in a small town, you are also the business manager, the publicist, the seller of advertising, the sweet-talker getting donations, the saleswoman finding sponsors or even a spare bit of window where they’ll let you hang your poster (first, design your poster and sweet-talk the printer into giving you a huge discount).

You may have noticed reading this essay (and my social media headers) that nowhere do I consider myself to be anything having to do with selling, marketing, publicity, or shilling of any kind.  Which is probably the most important reason I’m not actively an actress, or a published writer or a working editor or, for that matter, a director.  The part of the job that can be the most important part is getting the job, forcing yourself past the wall surrounding all these professions to reach the inside where the casting directors are, the agents, the publishers, the producers, the directors, the people who make decisions about which actress, which writer, which editor and which director they will hire.  And if I sucked at film directing, let me tell you I really sucked at selling.  When I was a little child, my mother would end up buying all my boxes of Girl Scout cookies because I could not, just really could not, bring myself to go from door to door actually asking people to buy them, no matter how good a cause.  I found it humiliating and I still do.  No, I have postponed necessary phone calls and mailings to get auditions, meetings, whatnot in Los Angeles, New York and here in Colorado for reasons that reach from the sublime (must take a drive around the national park RIGHT THIS MINUTE) to what even I recognize is the ridiculous (I really have to clean the escutcheons behind the doorknobs because they have fingerprints on them–seriously?).  I hate this part of the business of show business with a genuine passion, as much as I love the acting, writing, editing and directing parts of it.  That work I can do.  Selling?  Not so much.

Long's Peak

Long’s Peak

Lover of the Mountains.  This one isn’t, of course, a profession, although many of my friends up here in Estes Park have made it a profession by working for the national park or being a tour guide or hiking instructor.  Me?  I like to look at mountains, not get them all untidy with hiking trails and footprints and litter.   For me, being a lover of the mountains has more to do with the fact that I was born within sight of the Rocky Mountains and that I don’t like flat places and I’m not madly in love with oceans or jungles or humidity than that I want to be out there putting my stamp (literally) on a mountainside.  I’ll walk around a mountain lake and I’ll do some hiking during total eclipses of the sun (that’s a metaphor, folks, er, folk), but mostly I just like to look at the mountains, specifically and mostly Long’s Peak, and feel the peace of wildness enter my soul.

Lover of Life.  Okay, this one is sentimental tosh and I know it.  But it’s true.  I’m one of those who gets a huge kick out of just the simple things, eating and drinking good wine (and better gin) and laughing with friends (I had a dinner party this week during which I forgot to put the oven on to bake the potatoes so we had microwaved potatoes for dessert, which thankfully my guests seemed to find funny) and seeing blue sky and dreaming my (still adolescent and proud of it) dreams and knowing I’m still around and wondering what’s coming next and hoping we all survive it.  I still think in my heart of hearts that this death thing is optional.

As a final word, it seems to me looking back on this essay that apart from the great delight of talking about myself exclusively, what I’m really saying is that I’m a storyteller.  I come by this honestly.  My father never met a story he couldn’t improve upon and I never heard the same version of one of his stories twice.  He also, come to think of it, directed all the plays at whatever high school he was principal of at the moment (which is amazingly true–he had a temper and a definite sense of values that didn’t usually match the conventional wisdom of the time which usually ended up trumping keeping his job, so there would come a time where he got on the wrong side of the school board and we would leave town just ahead of the tar and feathers–luckily this was in Colorado, where there was always another small town that needed a high school principal too desperately to listen very hard to the complaints of the prior school board and that is one of the longest parenthetical phrases I’ve managed to include in this set of blogs so far).  At the end of this essay is a photograph of him from long before I was born or even thought of.  He died far too young and I miss him still.

I am, like him, a storyteller.  I don’t consider, ahem, modifying a story of my youth (or for that matter, my last week) to make it funnier or more interesting or create a bigger point lying, I consider it enhancing, eliding the irrelevancies, just like theatre.  Storytelling is how we became human long, long ago and how we change and get a little better (very very very slowly unfortunately) as humans now and how we will always do so.  A while ago, okay a long while ago, there was a Star Trek episode in which the plot centered around the Enterprise taking a traveling acting troupe from one outpost to another.  I loved that episode and found myself thinking that, should there be such a thing as reincarnation, that’s what I’d like to come back as–a member of a travelling troupe of players being ferried around the galaxy on a starship.

All I ever wanted to be or ever hope to be in this life or in any other I  may be fortunate enough to live is one of the hyacinths for the soul that we poor players are and all we can be.  Well, I’d also love to share such a life with the love of my life (this life or any life I’m given), once I meet him.  But as a profession, make mine storytelling, whether it’s writing it, directing it, acting it or (if in some lifetime I’m given the gift of a singing voice) singing it.  Just don’t make me have to sell it.

Arthur Charles Willwerth, my father

Manners

Although I’m not sure I want to reveal this to the world, I read etiquette books for entertainment.  I have a collection of them, the earliest published in in the 1870s, the latest Miss Manners‘ new revision published in 2005.  This is part of my interest in history, because etiquette books help me understand now just how people actually behaved, but how they thought they should behave.  And sometimes, these old books give some form of insight into why.  Furthermore, reading a series of such books over time lets us know the human behaviors that have actually changed, and those that haven’t.

Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) upon receipt ...

Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) upon receipt of the 2005 National Humanities Medal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If books about the proper use of forks, leaving of cards, and methods of introductions seem a strange source for any such insights, I can only suggest you try reading them.  Just as laws prohibiting something (running red lights, for example) are only promulgated if a lot of people are doing the prohibited action, rules of etiquette behave the same way.  An etiquette book will only write that is is rude or boorish to use the tablecloth as a handkerchief if people are using tablecloths to wipe their noses (which is a really disgusting thought, isn’t it?).    And today’s etiquette books don’t even mention using the tablecloth in such a fashion because apparently the shame of it all finally changed the behavior.

On the other hand, every etiquette book I’ve ever read has long, long, long treatises on training children into the civilized pretence that they’re grateful you came to their birthday party, and that the present is a surprise and delighted in not because it’s the latest toy but because it was so thoughtfully given.  Apparently, human nature is not going to change that fundamentally.

Historically, the role of etiquette in human life apparently has been twofold:  the first, to make it possible for humans to live in social groups without decimating each other; and the second, to help us in the task of arranging our societies hierarchically (that is, to know who is on the same level as we are and to keep the arrivistes out).  But even more basic than that, humans do not have a built-in set of instincts or hard-wired behaviors to help us live in groups, such as gazelles do, or dogs or even gorillas.  Moreover, we live in social groups much larger and more complicated than our DNA was designed to handle.  Even now, it is noticeably difficult for anthropologists to determine whatever social behaviors come “naturally” to humans, even those living in small groups.  So laws are necessary for us, and religious and moral systems, and etiquette.  All civilizations have systems of etiquette, just as they do laws and religions, and all are designed to, well, control human behavior.

So let’s look at the two reasons given above for the use of etiquette in our lives.  The first makes rules from the simplest (when walking up or downstairs, keep to the right) to the most complex (one leaves one of your own calling cards and two of your husband’s when making morning calls) in order to make living in groups of people larger than one’s family, well, easier.  If we all more or less keep to the right when climbing or descending stairs, we get to the subway platform faster (which allows us more time to wait for the subway, but no system is perfect).  The calling card issue, while out of date in today’s world, and too complex even when it wasn’t out of date, does have a logical basis.  Married women (with their marriageable daughters) made the “morning” calls (always made in the afternoon).  They left one of their own cards, sometimes if they had a daughter with her name penciled on it, for the lady of the house to keep, they left one of their husband’s cards (it was assumed he had far more interesting (or at least less boring) things to do with his time than make morning calls) for the lady of the house, and one of their husband’s cards for the gentleman of the house (it was considered rude for a lady to leave a card for a gentleman for obvious but never overtly mentioned reasons that the only possible relationship between a lady and a gentleman not of her own family was, ahem, romantic).  Thus, the husband was taking part in social life without being bothered (which was what he probably had in mind) and all the recipients had bits of pasteboard with names and addresses on them from which to make up their invitation lists.

In High-Change in Bond Street (1796), James Gi...

In High-Change in Bond Street (1796), James Gillray caricatured the lack of courtesy on Bond Street, which was a grand fashionable milieu at the time. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All of this sounds so arcane and ridiculous to us, doesn’t it?  But it has its present day analogues.  Morning calls became incredibly elaborate, but their original function was to stay in touch with those one wanted to remain friends with, become friends with, or social climb to be friends with.  Today, we use Facebook, Twitter, email, texting, even the incredibly outdated telephone call, to do the same thing.  All this kind of technology we use in our iPhones, iPads and computers today was first created in order to facilitate and ease the human need to stay connected with friends, acquaintances, and whatnot.  It is hard to even imagine today how isolated a family would be in its own house before the invention of the telephone.  What other way then getting out of one’s own house, walking or riding or taking a cart or coach to somebody else’s house and then physically “calling” upon them would there be to maintain one’s friendships before the telephone?  When “calling” first started, even writing a letter was a major issue (some very fine people couldn’t write, some postal systems were dreadful, and postage costs were very high–in eras when a penny bought a loaf of bread, to send a letter cost a penny or more).  And, by the way, it was called a “morning” call because until the 1820s or so, “morning” was all day from arising until dinner–people didn’t usually eat lunch, and “afternoon” as a concept didn’t really get started until the 19th Century.  (This is reflected even in our Bible, where in Genesis the narrator says “and the evening and the morning made the first day.”

I’ve gotten off track.  My point (and, to quote Ellen DeGeneres, I do have one) is that, however simple or elaborate, however common-sensical or ridiculous, the system of etiquette in general and most of its rules in particular are designed to both ease and codify the way we humans behave in groups.  Etiquette is designed to supplement law and morality and to handle those small items of human contact that don’t rise to thou shalt not kill.  Rather, they remain on the level of one just simply does not spit on the sidewalk.  (This, by the way, is a rule that I wish was more honored in the observance than the breach.)

The second use of etiquette is or can be considerably less benign.  Humans, no matter how right or wrong each considers the concept, live in hierarchies.  Even in the most liberal and free of countries, there are hierarchies, some more or less codified, some simply feeling “natural.”  The hierarchies in some countries seem cruelly limiting and immovable to our eyes, those in others may seem so nearly invisible that the country approaches anarchy, but they are always there except in the simplest hunter-gatherer groups (where the principle of hierarchy is anathema and any attempts by any tribe member to behave exceptionally in order to get exceptional treatment is shamed).  Part of this makes sense, as it did to Samuel Johnson, who said (testily, as he said most things) that the idea that the highest ranking person went through a door first was not snobbish but merely practical, designed to get the show on the road (that is a very loose paraphrase of what he said, by the way).  He does has a point.  Although I would say most of us in the United States would not agree with it in principle, there does need to be an order to things.  In the past, in terms of etiquette, the order was often from the top down.  What made it unfair to our eyes was that the people who did the ordering were almost always those sitting at the top or at least those who could convince others they were sitting at the top.  Usually this was not done, at least originally, in any mannerly fashion but by simple force of arms.  After that, of course, the hierarchy was ordained by God and that was all there was to it.  Many of us in the modern era find this rather suspicious, especially given the words of our several religious heritages, most of which state that the humble are quite as important as the, well, important.

Be that as it may, humans were never very good at accepting the idea of a hierarchy unless that human was at the top or could reach it, and so etiquette began to perform a double function.  First, the people on top elaborated their etiquette, as they elaborated their clothes, to distinguish themselves from the upstarts crowding in on them from underneath.  Second, the people underneath (those upstarts) began to copy the manners they perceived in their supposed social betters so they were less distinguishable from the ones on top.  This became quite a race starting in the late Middle Ages when trade and the creation of wealth from other means than plunder got started again.  Its most amusing and appalling recrudescence from our point of view is probably that of sumptuary laws, which defined what each segment of society could actually wear.  Believe me, this was not much of an issue in the Dark Ages, because nobody had good-looking clothes.  But once it was possible to import fine wool or even silk, it became a major THING.  There were even laws in Parliament distinguishing what a middle-class tradesman’s wife could wear (boring black and dark colors with high necks and long sleeves) and what the Earl could wear (silks, velvets, ermine, furs, jewels).  This might seem to some to be as limiting for the Earl as for the tradesman’s wife, but it probably was more galling to the latter than the former, especially when the tradesman became the chief of his guild and had more money than the Earl down county whose castle was falling down.

Why were clothes so important?  Because how else do you determine if somebody is SOMEBODY or just folks?  As Russell Crowe expounded in a recent movie “Robin Hood”, what is the difference between a knight and one of his men-at-arms?  Well, primarily the horse, because nobody but knights could afford them, but also the fact that the knight wore chain mail and tunics in the colors of his heraldry, while the man-at-arms wore coarsest wool in dark colors.  So anybody, whether low or high on the hierarchy, could tell literally at a glance who was who and who was where simply by what they were wearing.  (This seems really odd to us because except at weddings and suchlike, most of us wear jeans and t-shirts (or would like to, even when we can’t), no matter what rung of the social ladder we’re clinging to at the moment.)

Knights of the Temple II

Knights of the Temple II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oddly enough, this has repercussions to this day.  Certain professions have uniforms, sometimes explicitly so, sometimes simply an unwritten compact.  Beat cops and traffic patrolmen wear uniforms, as do all members of the military on duty.  So do janitors, usually, and doctors and nurses.  Laboratory technicians wear lab coats, insignia of their profession, while supreme court justices and district judges wear judicial robes, insignia of theirs.  The members of church choirs wear robes, too, their uniform.  And we all know a lawyer or accountant when we see one, because they always dress (whatever their gender) in business suits.  There are many reasons for uniforms, but they all are based in the simple problem of recognition of a professional or social group by those not members of that group (or even by other members of the group).  Doctors wear scrubs because their own clothes are less sanitary or at least less easy to keep sanitary, but the scrubs are relatively uniform in appearance so we can all tell when we’re in the emergency room which is the woman who’s actually going to stop the bleeding.  Some uniforms become amazingly complex and dazzling (look at the picture of a general in the Marine Corps one day and you’ll see what I mean), while others stay simple or become more simple through time (those judicial robes are the descendants in spirit of the elaborate churchly or noble robes of the Renaissance).  I suppose there could be a rather sniffy moral to be drawn at which uniforms get fancier and which don’t, but I’m reaching the end of this essay and I’d rather not be sniffy anyway.

Again, uniforms and sumptuary laws are an example of the use of etiquette as a means of organizing society vertically, as it were, just as rules like not touching the water fountain with your mouth help to organize social groups horizontally to make life simpler, easier, more elegant and more pleasant for everybody in an equal way.  Etiquette has gotten a bad name over the centuries for the vertical organization, because it is basically not fair or equal.  Unfortunately, for many of us, we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water and decided all etiquette was wrong or limiting or constricting because some etiquette has been used to exclude.  Which results in a lot of spitting on the sidewalk, attempting to go up stairs which are filled side to side with people descending them, making ascent impossible, and such outrageous situations as no more morning calls.

Manual on Courtly Etiquette, Volume 10 (稿本北山抄,...

Manual on Courtly Etiquette, Volume 10 (稿本北山抄, kōhon Hokuzanshō) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spring Thoughts

Aspen trees near Aspen, Colorado

[NOTE:  I'm categorizing this post also as  "writing" because I am attempting to write a somewhat descriptive essay--creating a picture with words.  I would be most interested to know if I approach this goal, but then again, I'm putting in several images to help . . . . ]

Received an ecard today from a friend filled with budding flowers and trees and an Easter message, and I realized that spring did in fact, ahem, spring going on a month ago, in late March, as it always does.  Except in the high country in Colorado.  Here, I have always maintained, we have one day of spring in which the aspen bud (aspen is both singular and plural so imagine I mean “aspen trees bud”) and the lilacs bloom.  This happens some time in June, hopefully early June, hopefully after the last snow, and then we have approximately two and a half months of summer, if we’re lucky.

This early spring we’re having here in Colorado (completely apart from the lack of rain or snow and the resulting fire danger) is a little disconcerting.  Whether it’s a weather (ooh, clever use of words, there, Gail) anomaly or a symptom of climate change (a scary and controversial topic into which I’m not going), that’s not what normally takes place at high altitude.  Here, historically, we’re more likely in March, April and May to get heavy snows instead of snowdrops.  I’m trying to remember (using increasingly faulty equipment) when we in past years saw the first crocus, the first robin, the first bluebird, and it seems to me it was later in April than has happened this year.  I definitely remember, however, always seeing the first crocus peeking through the snow.

In any event, spring has a special feel to it, doesn’t it?  Freshness, balmy air with a few brisk winds for contrast, growing things.  I don’t think there’s a green as beautiful at any place or time as the green of new leaves with the sun shining through them.  All the animals start up their lives again after the winter’s rest, scurrying around finding food and nesting materials, making homes, getting ready for babies.  The birds chirp so cheerily and some of them dart around in such finery, their feathers so filled with color and life, they lift the heart.  And even while recognizing the practical reasons for flowers, oh they look so frivolous and bright, waving in the breeze on their stems.  Even here in Estes Park, where we don’t have much spring to speak of.

Now, New York is a place that understands spring!  They do the season right in that state.  Nature in New York starts with the forsythia, which is a kind of bush type of thing that in spring has delicate yellow flowers arrayed on more-or-less dark red new canes.  The rest of the year, these bushes are kind of background, but in spring they become sun-colored lace by the sides of the roads.  The forsythia is followed by daffodils, huge clumps of daffodils all blooming in a kind of yellow frenzy against the darker green of their leaves and stems.  Then the tulips pop out, bringing pink and purple (and, of course, more yellow) into the mix.  By this time, the trees have gotten the message and their new green leaves start to unfurl, making even an elderly dowager of a maple tree look like a girl again, quite giddy with the fun of dancing through the spring.  If had lived closer to water (although in New York city, water is always closer than it is in Colorado, it seems), I would also have enjoyed the pussy willows (as we called them), the little paw-like catkins bursting out of the willow wands.  I saw them in the florists shops, though, and touching their softness was almost irresistible.

lilac Syringa vulgaris in bloom

Lilacs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Soon after the robins and bluebirds arrived, other bushes and bulbs would spring forth, and the flowering trees would turn into sticks of cotton candy, cloudy with pink or white blooms.  Then, the most glorious of spring flowers would finish the show:  lilacs bloom earlier in New York than I ever remember from Colorado and I love lilacs, their color and their scent, more than almost any other spring flower.  In my Bronx neighborhood, there were several older houses that had lilacs bushes so huge they were more like trees, so filled with blossom that walking by them was a heady experience, the fragrance saturating my senses.  And so spring renewed a tired world, animals and people and flowers coming out of their winter funks, with even the spring rains feeling soft and warm and welcoming.

Here, it’s quieter, somehow.  The blooming plants seem to grow more closely to the ground and their blooms are not riotous in their color, at least not this time of year.  The mountains in Colorado have glorious wildflowers that array themselves in rich, paintbox colors, but those come later on, in June or July.  Now there’s the haze of green new growth that underlays last year’s dead stems, fuzzy buds on the aspen that will (hopefully after the last snow) break out into a green so delicate even from a distance you can see the veins in the leaves, and there are the crocus (croci?) with their pale lavender and cream cups and soft green leaves.  Later, in early June, there will be the blue flag, a kind of native iris, which creates a haze of blue in the low-lying ground close to the reservoir and on the big meadows in the park (as I mentioned in an earlier post about how we in Estes Park talk, this means Rocky Mountain National Park, the best back yard in the world).

While all this greening and coloring is going on, the animals–and the people–start to put off winter coats and lethargy and begin making a big fuss about life again.  While I always love to watch the deer and elk (and, yes, even the bears from a safe distance and usually on the other side of a window), it is the tiny ones that fascinate, the chipmunks and ground squirrels.  Because they are fair game for predators (we are a wild place here in spite of all our cars and houses and electric lights), from bobcats to eagles, they move quick quick quick and then sit up and scan their surroundings as this one is doing:

RMNP rodent

RMNP rodent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then, there are the birds darting through the air, building nests, finding new things to eat, flirting with the big folk.  Truly beautiful birds make Estes Park and the mountains their summer home.  While we may not have cardinals or orioles or purple martins as the East Coast does, we have Stellar jays (blue shading into black, unlike the blue and white of the more standard jay), camp robbers (I can’t remember their actual name, this is what we call them up here, big birds in gray and white, utterly fearless), ravens and crows, chickadees, cedar waxwings, magpies, downy woodpeckers and our own wonderful blue, blue, bluebird, among many others.  They fill the air with song and their quick, darting flight.

And, later, in June, will come the flying jewels, the hummingbirds.  Almost everyone keeps bait around their houses, either the kinds of (usually red) flowers the hummingbirds adore or a hummingbird feeder.  They are enchanting to watch as they zip through the air or hover, with that distinctive sound they make, not quite the hum of their names, but not quite a buzz either.  They are quite territorial, and the battles between two of the tiny males are more furious and aerobatic than any other aerial combat.  They move so fast it is as if our eyes see where they were and not where they are.  Here in the mountains, they arrive at the very end of the spring renewal, and they delight us all summer long.

Finally, there are the big animals, the elk and deer that wander around all winter in scruffy coats and lost antlers, now sleeking up into their summer wear, growing new weapons covered in softest velvet, eating everything in sight.  And the bears come out of their dens in April (early this year, it seems), searching for food and frightening the populace (bears are not cuddly, not tame, and they are very dangerous).  While we see bobcats and coyotes all winter, the eagles and hawks seem to reappear in the spring, as do the Canada geese and the whistler swans.  They love our small lake here, a place to rest and find food during their travels.  So spring increases our populations of animals, and that burgeoning brings the tourists, another sign of spring.  If nothing else let us know it is nearly summer, the sudden inability to turn left would.  And so spring, bringing our senses back to life after our winter naps, leads into summer, the rich, fat season, filled with skies nearly purple in their blueness, leaves darkening into forest green, animals raising sleek babies, the joys of water and air and rocks, views and breeze and tiny, surprising lakes, rivers and summer thunderstorms.  And the memories of spring.

Spring’s pageant is ever new and ever the same.  It is, after all, the circle of life, and as necessary to our planet and our lives as the sun itself.  Perhaps it is intrinsic to spring that it be exhilarating, beautiful, warm, fuzzy, or perhaps that is just a bonus.  In any event, even here in our much shorter, quieter springtimes in the high mountains, our hearts and spirits lift with each chirp of a bird, each bursting forth of an aspen’s leaves, each bloom of a lilac.

Two males hummingbird are fighting. They do it...

Hummingbirds in Combat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Mountain Bluebird

Monday, Monday

Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve which is one of ...

Rainy Day at a Dam in Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before the Flood (in my case, two of them, the Big Thompson Flood and the Lawn Lake Flood), I used to love a rock group known as “The Mamas and the Papas“.  They had wonderful voices, quite lyrical, and a rich style, unique for the time, sounding much more well-produced than many other contemporary groups, which, following “The Rolling Stones“, preferred a rougher edge.  One of The Mamas and the Papas’ earliest hits (after “California Dreamin‘”) was a song entitled “Monday, Monday“.  It was a very ‘Monday’ song, about treachery and betrayal.  It pointed out that the day might leave, but the Monday feeling hung around.  I’m not sure why Mondays feel that way, but this one sure does.  I was confident that when I stopped working at the day job, Monday would once again be the bright start of the week, not its lowest nadir.  But some Mondays just are nadirs, and that’s all there is to it.

Monday

Monday (Photo credit: Eric M Martin)

Sometimes nothing works except Tuesday, but there are a few things a person can do.  Running away to Australia (where it already is Tuesday) is probably not an option for most of us; it isn’t for me.  But writing is always an option.  For instance, I didn’t know when I started this post that it would end up being about writing, or actually about anything having to do with getting over a Monday.  I thought it was just going to be a complaint, about weather and not enough sleep and having to run errands and do chores and pay bills, to say nothing of political emails that I will truly say nothing of, but that I’m very tired of getting.  Instead, my thoughts turn to the psychological benefits, let alone the artistic benefits, of writing out one’s less than stellar or chirpy moods.  That’s what I’m in the process of doing, after all, and it’s working.

Whether in a blog or simply a private journal, writing about what you’re (I’m) feeling helps in a number of ways:  First, for me at least, it helps me figure out what I am feeling, and often I’m not sure.  I may have just a case of the blahs, kind of “itch”, as Connie Willis so beautifully puts it, a kind of existential angst that can afflict anyone.  But writing about it can often pinpoint what is really going on.  In my case, today, it combines not enough sleep with a meeting I’m not sure I’m ready for and then stir in just a bit of waiting for an email and then getting an email, not even remotely the one I’m waiting for, that seems to come from the bowels of political nastiness and you’ve got that Monday feeling.  Or at least I do.  But there have been times when the bad mood went a lot deeper, and writing made it possible for me, eventually, to see what really was bugging me.

Second, at times writing about the problem can help you (me) find a solution.  Sometimes, of course, the solution is just to stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with life.  At other times, when the problem goes deeper, the mind is searching underneath consciousness for a solution, and writing, especially the kind of writing you can do on a computer in a journal, can help you get out of your own way so you can see what you need to do or feel or be to resolve the issue.  Here, the trick is to simply write, without the little critic we all have living in our heads yammering away about the quality of what you’re doing (somehow the little critic never seems to think that the quality is good, darn it).  It’s hard to shut him or her up, but it is possible.  Just keep writing, let the words come out, no matter how silly or self-serving or mindless they seem.  Eventually, your mind will settle down to the hard work of letting you know what’s wrong.  It’s kind of like therapy, only using touch-typing instead of psychoanalysis.

Third (one of the smaller tricks of writing is to realize that the brain likes things in threes, so when you provide, in an essay, lists of options or whatnot, make sure there are at least three of them), when the time comes, and it inevitably does, that the solution does not appear right then and there, save what you’ve written and let it sit.  Put it away and come back to it on another day, preferably not a Monday.  Not only might you realize there is a resolution somewhere in that storm of words that you didn’t see before, but also you might have an essay, a blog, or a part of a greater work just sitting there waiting for you to refine it.  A double blessing.  And even if the solution isn’t forthcoming, you will probably come to realize that it was just Monday, after all, and things are better simply because life is change.  (Plus, you might still have a usable piece of writing!)

Like the song, “Monday, Monday.”  I have the feeling that composing that song took away the writer’s blues.  And even if it didn’t, he got a great song out of his dreary Monday.

The Mamas and the Papas Deliver

The Mamas and the Papas Deliver (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Home

My Home in Estes Park

I recently read a magazine article which was primarily about the subtle joys of retirement.  Her point was that, while it was hard to become accustomed to determining her own use of time, she found it to be a great wonder in her life.  I agree with that wholeheartedly, both the difficulty of getting used to it and the joy it brings being truly the captain of my fate, as it were.  But something she wrote got me to thinking.  One of her greatest joys now that her children have grown and she’s no longer employed is that she does not have to be home at any given time, nor stay home.  Her life, now, can be and is spent away from home, in the great world.

For me, however, the entire purpose of retirement, the delight I gain in not having a paid job, is that I can stay home.  I have always liked home best, enjoyed the freedom of doing what I wished inside the cozy, private space of my own domain, taking care of my house and possessions, working on my computer, reading, sewing, needlepointing, even watching TV, enjoying the antics (even if they are mostly asleep) of my cats.  I still arrive back at my house, put my car away and close the garage door with a feeling of safety, security and joy.  I’m HOME!  I remember how glorious that feeling was when I was working, but it still lives in me every day.

So I’m curious.  What about the concept of  home can be to me such a welcome refuge, but to others more a prison?  Perhaps for the writer mentioned above, her time at home had always been spent dealing with, picking up after and mothering children, cleaning the space, figuring out what to have for dinner, and much more.  It could very well have been a place where there was no leisure, no self-determination, no feeling of refuge.  It could very well have been a place where the writer simply had more and even harder, perpetual work to do.  I have heard from women, particularly women with small children, that leaving home, getting out of the house, is like being released from a particularly noisy, messy and sticky jail.  I didn’t have children, so that aspect of life at home was not at issue.  But I was married, once, and sometimes the presence of a husband seemed to loom over me.  My home, my rooms, weren’t really mine.  I was fortunate because our house had a small basement room that I used as a sewing room and (later on) a refuge from my marriage, and I suppose it served as an emotional release valve.  Since he never went in it, my husband didn’t comment about its tidiness or lack of same or the ways in which I stored and organized my projects there.  But I have clear memories of him going through the living room and rearranging ornaments so that they were militarily square with the edges of the surfaces they were on.  I remember quite clearly how that drove me quietly crazy.  I remember, too, that he once made an entire day’s discussion (lecture) over the fact that I had forgotten I already had gelatin and continued to buy packages of it until I had over 20 packages.  Of course he was right and I didn’t buy gelatin again throughout the course of our marriage (that’ll show him), but what irritated me is that he was spending his time going through MY kitchen cabinets.

Now, from his point of view, of course it was also his house and he had a perfect right to take an interest in it and make his stamp upon it.  (It should be noted, he had his own room that he called his dressing room that I didn’t enter except to clean, so there was a kind of parity.  It should also be noted that we had similar tastes (not, obviously, for gelatin).  Also, he was old-fashioned in some ways and thought that the decoration of the house was up to me.)  So I didn’t make an outsize fuss because I did know he had a right to live in our home just as I did.

But I have to admit that I didn’t miss living with him when we divorced.  How lovely to live in my own place where I could have as many packages of gelatin as I wanted in my cupboards.  (Oddly enough, I don’t buy it any longer, don’t seem to want to eat gelatin salads.)

Robert Frost's Farm

Robert Frost's Farm (Photo credit: StarrGazr)

So perhaps my concept of home, as is the writer’s first mentioned above, is doing what we want to do in our own space, whether that is cocooning (me) or spending most of the time outside of it (her).  There are a great many concepts of home, I think, ranging from my own utter sense of refuge and welcome and gladness to the home-as-prison feeling, where the home is just a house, just a place to put possessions and (occasionally) sleep.  Robert Frost once said, “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  He was talking, I think, more about family than a physical space, and he has a good point.  When I was a little girl, we moved often, because Daddy changed jobs about every other year.  He always said that “home is where the heart is.”  Again, he wasn’t talking about a physical space, but an emotional place of welcome.  Until his death, I was always completely secure in that emotional loving space.  Later in my life, the specific house got more important, I admit, to my sense of being home, because the emotional center left when he died.

On the other hand, however, the concept of home can’t really be encompassed by four walls and a floor and a roof.  My sense of home now comes deeply because I have returned home, home to the mountains of Estes Park.  My home still is the refuge that shuts out the cold and snow and the demands of the outside world, but my home is also and always the mountains surrounding the Estes valley, the sense of peace and joy that coming back to the place I was raised always gives me.  When I lived in Los Angeles, my sense of home was truncated because I didn’t really like it there, and I kept trying to imagine the house that would make it all right.  That never worked.  My sense of home in Los Angeles became my friends, not the places they lived, but the connections among us that made living in a big city less lonely.  New York, well, Manhattan, was home immediately.  I fell in love with it and made my neighborhood my home (this was of course facilitated by the fact that New York apartments, unless one has pots of money or rent control (neither of which I had), are small, cramped and usually face north for some reason.  So my sense of home expanded to include my block and the public spaces I had the great good fortune to live next to (Central Park and  Lincoln Center).  But now, home is Colorado, or at least that part of it from Denver to the continental divide in which my small town nestles.

Cloudy Afternoon Over Central Park, New York City

Cloudy Afternoon Over Central Park, New York City (Photo credit: andrew c mace)

And one last comment.  Let’s face it, a home would be a prison, by definition, if we couldn’t leave it.  Which is what, I think, the writer I first mentioned above still felt after years as the mother, wife, housecleaner, “chief cook and bottle washer,” as my mother would have said.  Just let me out of here.  Come to think of it, I wouldn’t feel my great joy in coming home, in closing all the doors behind me and feeling safe and enclosed, if I hadn’t, after all, been out in the great world.  In all things, it is the contrast that points up the value.

The Secret to Writing

First, there is more than one.  But there are few.  So this should be a rather short post.

The primary secret to writing is to write.  A lot.  Many many words.  Often.  I think we have all known bright, interesting people who are convinced that the Great American Novel hides somewhere in their minds.  But unless the GAN actually makes the trip from inside the mind to on the page, it really doesn’t exist.  Writing is like any kind of performance, it requires talent, opportunity and rehearsal.  We may be intrigued by the possibility of competing on Dancing With the Stars or The Voice, taking a bow for an Oscar-winning role, appearing onstage at the Met or Carnegie Hall, receiving a standing ovation for a rendition of Mendelssohn‘s First Violin Concerto (or, for that matter, for a soulful solo of “At Last”).  (Or maybe that’s just me.)  But, let’s face it, without a combination of chance, ability and practice, the only thing any of us would be able to do if we found ourselves onstage at Carnegie Hall is to blush and sidle off stage right.

English: A post-concert photo of the main hall...

Carnegie Hall--Image via Wikipedia

Native talent is something that we can do little about–it either exists in us or not.  (Although I believe we each of us have more talent, more talents, than we have ever explored or will ever have time to explore.  And there is something to be said for the notion that talent may be another word for desire, for love of the thing.  So it’s not something to worry about.)

Opportunity can be iffy.  If you want to be an astronaut, apart from the training and the scientific and physical abilities you must demonstrate, you have to realize how few slots open up each year.  That’s simply a given.

But rehearsal?  Now, that’s something we all can do, each in our various areas of desire.  All the time.  Every day, in some way.  Keep a journal, start a blog, Write poetry, songs, short stories, novels, words on a screen, as many as you can.  To be a writer, write.

The second secret to writing is to read.  In my friend’s blog, Sharon Sings and Writes, she tells us the many ways in which she organizes her life to make it possible for her to read what she wants and needs to read to help her enhance her writing.  I do many of the same things, skimming through articles, discarding those that aren’t ‘speaking’ to me, choosing books and magazines carefully.  But I read almost to the point of addiction (oh, well, actually, far past that point) every day.  I read when I’m eating (alone), when I’m watching TV (except for Downton Abbey and The Good Wife), when I’m taking a bath (I wish they’d create waterproof books–far too many of mine have wavy edges after an unexpected dip in the tub), when I’m doing chores, and sometimes while I’m writing (this is not easy).  I read the newspaper, magazines, articles on the web, books (books for research, books for enjoyment, books for knowledge, and novels, novels, novels).  I hope you love to read.  Very few writers who love to write hate to read.  And, by the way, if you are writing without loving it, there is very little point.

The third secret to writing is to learn how.  Writing practice and reading as much as you can are key here, but there is also formal learning.  Learn the structure of our language, learn how to write a sentence, a paragraph, an essay.  Read books on writing, such as “Bird by Bird” and “On Writing”. Learn syntax and grammar, punctuation (a fun way to do this is to read “Eats Shoots and Leaves“), and spelling.  Yes, even in a Spellcheck world, you need to know how to spell.  Spellcheck does not pick up everything.  Take classes in composition as well as in creative writing.  Constructing a non-fiction article requires using detail and evidence rather differently than you do in fiction, essays or poetry.  Learn how to touch type.  Unless you are Anthony Trollope, you will probably do your writing on a computer.  While Hildy Johnson in “My Gal Friday” managed quite well using two fingers, touch typing is a lot faster.  And you don’t want the mechanics of getting the words out to interfere with the flow inside your mind.  Learn formats.  In other words, learn the rules of your trade.  You may then break those rules at your pleasure, but you can’t break rules unless you know what they are.  Remember, Picasso knew how to draw.

The fourth secret to writing is to figure out what you want to write, why you want to write, and how.  Not everybody wants to write for publication.  If you wish to write for your own enjoyment, have at it!  And find a writing group specifically designed for expression.  But if you do want to write for publication, first, learn to cope with criticism.  Hopefully you will receive the kind known as ‘constructive criticism,’ that only hurts when you breathe.  But you will have to deal with criticism in one way or the other even if the only person who ever reads your work is your mother. Second, find out what markets there are for what you want to write.  Writer’s Digest can help you here; it is an invaluable resource for the writer for publication.  This magazine will help you learn how to find the market, how to present your work, and how to handle the business end of being a writer.  It will also help you improve your writing with prompts, contests, and articles about specific writing issues.  I can recommend it wholeheartedly.  And if you want to write screenplays, realize that nobody, NOBODY, will read your work if it isn’t in proper format.  This is as the laws of the Medes and the Persians.  Even if you’re the brother of the producer’s nephew’s girlfriend’s nanny, which is as close as most of get to nepotism in a most nepotistic Industry, you won’t get it read unless it looks like a screenplay, reads like a screenplay, is as long as a screenplay should be, and uses camera directions properly.

Summer reading, 2011.

Summer reading, 2011. (Photo credit: revbean)

The fifth secret to writing I may have mentioned.  Write.

And, finally, note I did not entitle this blog post “The Secret to Publishing.”  My list of published writings is so slim that if you blink while reading them, you’ll miss them.  And none of them would you find on Amazon.com.  Ahem.  So that’s a secret I’ve yet to crack.  Anybody out there who’s figured that one out, please do not hesitate to let us all know.  Happy writing.

The Great American Novel -

The Great American Novel - (Photo credit: unprose)

Forests

[NOTE:  I belong to a writing group designed for self-expression.  The moderator assigns fifteen-minute essays (stories, poems, whatnot) based on pictures, grab bags of images, words, concepts, almost anything.  Each member of the group writes for the regulated amount of time and then we read aloud.  Occasionally, on this blog, I will publish some of the essays I have written in that group in a new category.  This is one of them, slightly modified.]

A Thick Forest

A Thick Forest (Photo credit: Jon Person)

“A forest which has never felt an axe.”  A time before history began.  Imagine a land filled with the green of growing, with the rustle and creep of living.  A land with no horizon, only trees for up and water for across.  A place where you cannot hear your own footsteps.  There are many such on our beautiful planet, from tropical rain forests to jungles to temperate rain forests to hardwood forests to pine forests in all our mountains to perhaps the most beautiful of all, the redwood and sequoia groves on the west coast of the North American continent.  But, let’s face it, humans really don’t feel comfortable in forests.

We did not start in such a place, we human beings, but in a wider, less lush world.  When we first came upon forests, in Africa and later in Europe, Asia and America, we found them uncanny.  We have always preferred spaces where we can see what’s coming at us.  In all the tales, the forest is a most frightening place, where the very trees, more alive than those in pastoral settings, can capture you and you’ll never be seen again.  Look what happened to Hansel & Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood or what almost happened to Frodo‘s friends in Pangorn.  To our species, just getting started, a forest was not a refuge, but a trap.

Arthur Rackham, illustration to Hansel and Gretel

Arthur Rackham, Hansel & Gretel--Image via Wikipedia

But the forest can be sanctuary.  If it’s harder to see your enemies in a forest, it’s also harder for them to see you.  Snow White found safety in a forest.  And so did the Celts.  Long, long ago, the Celtic tribes moved with their cattle and their looms and combs and swirling artistic designs, their ability to mine and market tin and salt, west and north from the Great Steppes into and over the heavily forested Alps.  Once over that barrier, they found a forest so primeval it seemed black instead of green, a forest anchored by oaks growing for hundreds of years, a forest so solid with growth that the occasional light-filled glade must have felt like a special benison from the gods, a forest in which the flow and pool of water was so astonishing–and so necessary–that each spring and pool soon became inhabited by its own goddess.

The Celts built a beautiful and sometimes terrible culture in the forests of Europe and the British Isles, in those primeval wooded places.  They hacked at the fringes for firewood and charcoal and space for houses and fields, but they worshipped the true untouched forest, feeling at home, at peace and filled with grace within its sheltering branches.

English: Maximum Celtic expansion in Europe. B...

Furthest Expansion of the Celts--Image via Wikipedia

Their culture remained supreme in Europe until the Romans.  The Greeks traded with them and warded them off, finding their religion barbaric, although they discovered the Celts’ priests–the druids–wise and cruel and crafty.  Best to keep them on the other side of Parnassus, after all.  But the Roman legions cut down the sacred oaks, walled and roofed over the sacred pools, renamed the gods and goddesses and so tamed them, even Cernan of the forest and Brigidda of the waters, suppressed the druids and the human sacrifice which had kept those woods so dark over thousands of years, and rammed through their stone roads to open up the forests to trade.  The intricate culture of the Celts never recovered–and neither did the forests.

But it is that Europe, that England, I long to see, the wooded land before the Romans, the sacred groves and pools, the interesting, productive, artistic, cultured and deadly people who, almost unique among the world’s tribes, loved the forests.  There are some pockets of forest left, just as there are still Celts among us, but mostly the black forests covering huge square miles of land are gone in Europe and England, cut down to build ships and palisades and houses, to clear fields for crops, and to burn as fuel.

Apart from the Celts, we humans have always found forests frightening and prefer them once they have felt the axe.

A Study in Sherlock

Chinatown, London. Benedict Cumberbatch during...

Image via WikipediaImage via Wikipedia

Not precisely as writing avoidance, but certainly as a part of my, ahem, research into writing, I have been re-reading the entire Sherlock Holmes canon.  The one by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that is.  To round out the experience, my local (Denver) PBS station is very kindly re-broadcasting last season’s “Sherlock,” an update of Holmes’ adventures set in 21st Century London and starring, wait for it, Benedict Cumberbatch (a name I keep wanting to recite, somehow, as “Bumbershoot,” which I think is an English appellation for “umbrella”), who does make a particularly nifty Sherlock.  I am also reading (us compulsive readers never read merely one book at a time) Laurie R. King‘s latest in her series on Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes, entitled “Pirate King”.  I also plan to see the new Robert Downey movie in which he plays Sherlock and I always record and later watch the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series, also on PBS.  Here are images of Mr. Cumberbatch and Jeremy Brett.  I found a picture of Sir Arthur, but could not, apparently, upload it.

Sherlock Holmes

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I am relishing all of these excursions into Sherlockia, as I believe it is called, and I’m exploring, today, just why.  Reading the original stories would seem to be an exercise in nostalgia, with stories that were original when they were written, but that seem quite familiar now.   Even so, they are good stories, set well within the characters of Lestrade, Holmes and Watson, and with twists that seem organic and yet rather astonishing (if you, like me, have a tendency to forget plots over time, you have the pleasure of reading a “new” story each time you open a book, no matter if you’ve read it before).

Certainly the setting appeals — London in the smoke, the sound of horse-drawn cabs, men in frock coats and top hats, women in sweeping skirts, rain, fog and gaslight.  Somehow in the new Cumberbatch series (if I use his name long enough, I’ll remember it and NOT Bumbershoot), they have managed to get across the “now” of London, truly a world-class, brilliant city, and yet evoke the original setting of the stories, for which I salute them.  So that’s another reason.

But I think it’s the character of Sherlock Holmes that is so compelling.  No matter how it is interpreted, from the original stories to Basil Rathbone, to Brett, Downey, and Cumberbatch, the character is sui generis — the world’s first and only consulting detective.  And of course it is not only his excellences that appeal, but also his more problematic traits.  The interpretation of those traits make the character of Holmes endlessly interesting, as if he were a real person.  Is he a misogynist?  Well, perhaps Irene Adler would not agree, and Laurie R. King has married him off to her creation, Mary Russell, so something else seems to be going on here.  Is he an addict?  Even Dr. Watson was not sure of that, but was sure — and this seems likely — that the thrill of the chase was Sherlock’s addiction, much more than cocaine.  But just imagine these days, as a writer, creating a series character, one’s hero, with a substance abuse problem.  It is done, of course, but then the book ends up being about the substance abuse.  For Doyle, it was a concern, yes, but a sidebar.  Sherlock’s skills overcome all such problems.  I have read that Doyle, as a medical student, had a teacher who used — actually created — all the techniques Doyle later ascribed to Sherlock and who was the inspiration for the character.  Perhaps somebody reading this knows the name of that man and can let me know it.

What does this have to do with writing, or any other possible focus for this journal?  Just this:  for me as a writer, the importance of Sherlockia, apart from the sheer enjoyment of watching and reading, is that the creation of an original, fascinating, intriguing character is paramount.  I don’t know whether there are only seven basic plots, as some have stated, or 36, which others tell me, but the characters a writer creates can be limitless even while they are bound by the realities of human nature, as limitless (and as bound) as each human being on the planet.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a character in Sherlock Holmes that will live as long as people read or watch filmed entertainment.  Something to aspire to.

Oh, and on another topic entirely, here in Estes Park, we are all quite giddy — the wind has dropped.  After what feels like weeks, even months, the wind has died down.  Calloo callay!

Random Thoughts on Writing

Faced with a blank screen, I’m reminded of all the frustrated thoughts writers have about the process of writing; or as so often happens, the process of not writing.  Entire books have been written about this. I often think that, no matter what a writer may be blocked from writing, he or she can always think of things to say about not writing.

I have loved words in a row since I can remember and I can’t actually remember ever learning to read them.  By the time my memory formed well enough to give me some continuity, I simply read, anything and everything my parents provided and anything I could manage without their knowledge or (sometimes) permission.  I have always spent as much time reading as the world would allow me, even at times holding a book with one hand while I cooked or made the bed or did other chores with the other.  As a character says in a Robert Heinlein novel, “The Number of the Beast“, I would “read when I’m sleeping if I could keep my eyes open.”  Only one exception exists — while I can read in airplanes and trains, I cannot read in an automobile.  I get carsick.  Very carsick.  I think it has something to do with the horizon line, but in any event it used to be so bad I couldn’t actually read a billboard (remember them?) while the car was moving.  Better now, or perhaps there are just fewer billboards.  I will read almost anything, although I am embarrassed to admit that my pleasure in what is considered “good” literature is pretty minimal.  Still haven’t gotten past the third page of “Ulysses” or the second page of “War and Peace“, but I’ve read every novel John D. MacDonald ever wrote.  Twice.

What this has to do with writing is obvious — a lot of compulsive readers turn to writing sooner or later.  Sometimes it’s as simple as “gee, I can do that,” sometimes it’s more along the lines of “well, I could do better than that with one hand tied behind me,” and sometimes it’s just that one thinks one is going to run out of reading material unless one creates one’s own.  In my case, I suppose it was a combination of all three, mostly the first and the third.  Although another impetus was all the non-fiction writing I’ve done in schools over the years.  (It used to be my boast that I could do a 30-page research paper, with quotes, footnotes, and a coherent narrative, from a standing start in a little over 24 hours, using only materials I could find in a two-hour search in the library.  And that was before Wikipedia, of course!)  And after working for lawyers, legalese simply pours from my fingers onto the screen without in any way engaging my brain (or anybody else’s, undoubtedly).  So words on a page is easy.

What isn’t easy is words on a page that make sense, lead somewhere, create interesting characters doing interesting things for interesting reasons, that have a point and that keep people reading not because it’s just Gail maundering on again, but because the narrative is so compelling.  That’s hard.  And unlike some blessed writers (whom I’m sure have their own difficulties), in order to approximate this I must rewrite and not just once or twice and not just to catch typos.  I must plan and outline, I must know where my hero is going before she does (or he), or she’ll never get there.  So sometimes looking at a blank screen makes me think about all the reasons for not writing.

Some of them are outside the writing process itself.  There is absolutely nothing like being faced with writing work to do to make cleaning the oven or sorting the pantry or doing the laundry intensely attractive — and this for a person whose primary claim to domesticity is that I was born here (that’s a quote, by the way, from my writing partner and friend Sharon Goldstein).  I have even gone so far in times past to avoid writing that I would more or less come to and discover that the silver was newly polished and that everything in the Welsh dresser had been washed.  Now this is world-class writing avoidance.

But there are more insidious methods to avoid writing, methods that take place while you are supposedly actually writing, but you’re actually not.  The best and most defensible way to do this is to “edit.”  This means going over past work to “edit” or “copyedit” or “improve” it.  It means placing commas, putting brackets around things to deal with later, rewording sentences that aren’t quite just exactly right, going back and removing the editing you’ve just done.  Every writer, even the occasional writer of a presentation or a school paper, will recognize these ploys and many others.  You can spend several hours “not writing” in this fashion and still feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Another favorite ploy, which works especially well when you haven’t yet written down a word of your great American novel, is “research.”  If you do it right, you can make “research” substitute for actual writing for weeks at a time.  After all, if you’re going to write a book about, say, the Arapahoe tribe’s use of Estes Park as a summer hunting ground, why, then, you’ll have to make a pilgrimage to the Estes Park Historical Museum, to the Estes Park Public Library, and then, just to be thorough, you should undoubtedly hike in the areas where the Arapahoe roamed, as it were.  Of course, for those of us like, uh, me, who live in Estes Park, “research” would be better writing avoidance if it were undertaken in some other spot, such as, say, Rome or Paris, or London.  Which is probably why I, for one, have a tendency to write about Rome or Paris or London (especially London).

Another means of not writing is to plan and outline and then tinker with the plan and the outline.  I find that I can do this for, too, for weeks at a time.  And if, later, as usually happens, my outline falls apart under the weight of the words in a row I finally, all excuses exhausted, get down to writing, then obviously I have to redo the outline.  This dance can take care of actual months of writing time.

But the final writing avoidance takes place during the period I laughingly call “rewrite” during which I realize nothing I’ve written except odd bits of dialogue would interest anybody, even somebody in solitary confinement given only my book to read for the rest of his or her incarceration; when I realize that every bit of it has to be redone from scratch.  This is depressing, of course.  (It also is not objectively true — any writer contemplating their own work bounces inexorably from “this is the best thing I’ve ever written” to “this is the worst piece of something or other (words to be supplied by reader) that has ever been written by anybody.”  There is no middle ground, by the way.)  But the depressing part of it is true, and usually leads to putting away the novel for a while, which is the ultimate writing avoidance.

I’m not doing that at this moment, I’m merely trying to get a running start on this blog, so my not reading through and making notes on the latest draft of “World Enough and Time”, written by Sharon and me, with an absolutely vital plot assist from Joe Bays, Sharon’s husband, is defensible for about the next, perhaps fifteen minutes before I’d better get down to it.

Two more random thoughts on writing for today:  One, that the Brightweavings website kept for Guy Gavriel Kay often has posts by the author that are quite illuminating about the process of writing and what the writer’s life is like (he also writes really good alternative universe fiction).  I recommend the site for all readers and writers.

And, finally, one of the great accessories a writer should have are pets, in my case and I recommend them, cats.  Not only are they accustomed to strange behavior on the part of their humans, they are wonderful means of writing avoidance in themselves.  Here are pictures of my two:

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