Tuesday, November 17, 2015

My Recent Work Elsewhere

Should you be interested:

How Our New Definition of Freedom Causes Cruelty
In the past, freedom meant to ability to obey one’s beliefs. Now, freedom is the ability to require others to obey one’s own beliefs about oneself. 
It's OK for Babies to Swallow 'Me-time"
(The funny thing is that despite the title, this article was written to discuss a mother's need for rest and refreshment. It's just that mental rest isn't quite the same thing as 'me-time.')

 I've also posted about the modern husband

Greensleeves (review)

by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, 1968 (newly released 2015)

The pacing of the prologue-like first chapter aside, I slipped easily into the world of this book and would have liked to remain there longer. Our eighteen-year-old heroine is a girl who has been haphazardly raised by seven different parent-figures, including her divorced father and mother, while being dragged up and down across Europe. When in Europe, she is perceived to be an American; while in the States, she is seen as European. Life has not been gentle to her sense of self. Our story opens with her desperate attempt to hit the pause button and escape for a time from her own awkward identity before she is pushed into a college education she does not want. She will be a detective. In disguise.

The story is told with charm, wit, and perceptiveness. Our heroine may be filled with angst, but it is a self-aware, rather mature angst that does not exaggerate her own importance or sap her sense of humor. Many aspects of this late 1960’s world are delightful. The way trendy blue eye-shadow and a massive hair-do, well glued-up, are used by our heroine to create a mask is fun to read about. The way daily life is conducted with a complete lack of modern screens is striking. The characters’ moral universe are appealing. They assume that love leads to marriage and that playing with sexual contact in the form of kissing and making-out is to awaken a deep, heavy, potentially dangerous thing that robs people of the ability to properly evaluate their mutual compatibility.

Yet the overall message of the story left me feeling ambiguous. Essentially, it is a well-presented, charming manifestation of the idea that life’s purpose is to find and know oneself. This must be done as an individual, and involves escape from other people’s undue influence (in the imagery of the novel, one must “escape one’s own cage”--the personal fears and insecurities that hold one imprisoned--without the help of friends, parents, or true love, because no one can save us from ourselves). Marriage is something to consider only after both parties have first pursued their own dreams and discovered who they truly are. This message is all the more powerful because, rather than being assumed, it is discovered by the heroine in a slow and non-preachy way.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

When Your Characters are Like Evil Robots: Thinking About Storytelling

(Ha! I'm back! I have grandiose plans of posting once a week again here, but I also sort of think that I'm going to write lots of articles for The Federalist, keep posting on Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife, finish my novel, make a quiet book for my son--I've pinned all these ideas on Pinterest--and also decorate the house for Advent. While pruning a zillion bushes in the yard. So, yeah. I get these delusions of grandeur whenever the three-month-old falls asleep for ten minutes). 

I've been reading books on my Kindle and pondering the wherefores and how-is-it-done's of fiction. I really loved Amends (review here) and The Dean's Watch (review here). They are polar opposites as far as tone, setting, and style go; but at the same time both convey the sense that their authors are compassionate people. I, too, would like to write as if I understand the fundamental flaws and human ugliness in my characters, yet love them anyway.

I have also been reading a few books that aren't as expertly written. One (a retelling of St. George and the dragon, set in the twilight-years of the Roman Empire and involving persecuted Christians and a pagan priestess) is constructed upon a fun and engaging premise. I want to like it, and I will probably finish it just to see how the author brings his ideas to completion. My problem is that I read for style and literary value as much as story. Maybe more. Because of that, this book doesn't work for me.

I found myself complaining to my husband (poor man) about a number of little issues within the book, and eventually, I realized that they probably all stem from the same problem. So many things happen in the book--the antagonist launches into action, characters join forces to travel together, someone helps our protagonists, etc.--for no good reason. That is, as a reader, I feel as though they happen because the author wanted them to, rather than because they grew organically from the things that had already happened. If that makes sense.

It's not that the author fails to provide any ostensible motivations. We are, for instance, told that the antagonist "hates" the protagonist and see that they have a rivalry. Unfortunately, the level of dislike that the author shows us (during a boyish insult-fest in the street) isn't enough to explain why the antagonist would jump from saying, "Your father is a coward" to deciding, "Today I will kill your mother." And killing the poor lady. And that's just the start of his aggression.

My guess (unless the second half of the book reveals a backstory heretofore unhinted at) is that the author doesn't really know why the antagonist would do such a thing. Not in an in-depth way (the way that the author of The Dean's Watch would have known). He simply needs his antagonist to get the story started. It's an easy trap to fall into. My own novel is not exempt from this problem. Clearly, I need to spend a lot more time trying to know and understand all of my characters. Then I will need to spend a lot of time learning to succinctly show their feelings and motivations. Hmm. This book of mine is going to take a long time to write. Even then, who knows if it will be any good? But, of course, all I can do is try. And keep writing.

Friday, August 21, 2015

I'm Still Writing (But It's One-Handed Again)

This poor, neglected blog seems doomed to suffer in silence for a while longer. Baby #2 made her appearance in July, and so far she would rather nurse than allow me to type. She sure is cute, though.

I have managed to compose a few pieces for elsewhere. Here are some links in case you are interested:

Target's Toy Aisles Won't Be Pink And Blue Anymore. Should We Be Mad? (for Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife).

"One system would like to say that defining boys as beings who wear blue is fine and dandy, and the other would like to say that trying to define boys at all is immoral (and that perhaps boyhood itself is a figment of our antiquated imagination). As this question is fought out, companies like Target (who have no wish to run afoul of the majority) keep a wary eye on the winds of change.

"Yet I think we make a mistake if we wade into the battle as if we must necessarily defend segregated toy aisles in order to uphold traditional beliefs about the sexes."

"According to ourselves, modern Americans have cast off the ruffles, paternalism, and prudishness of the Victorians. We certainly wear less fabric on our bodies at any given time than they did. However, in at least one way our bosoms beat as one: our cultures are linked by the conviction that it is our job to make the world a better place by reforming the beliefs and behavior of the masses.

"One peculiar way in which this desire to improve the world manifests is in the treatment of select groups from within society. The lives of upper and middle-class Victorian women—ladies who were sheltered, idealized, and expected to provide moral inspiration to their earthier male relatives—is generally seen as a relic of a bygone era. After all, we are so eager to reject patriarchal protection for women that feminists criticize efforts to teach women self-defense as part of rape prevention, and argue that bans against professor-student dating should be eliminated so (presumably, mostly female) students can learn useful life lessons about power and exploitation.

"However, we too possess the urge to protect, elevate, and perhaps infantilize a segment of our population. What the stereotypical Victorians did to women is what stereotypical helicopter parents (or alarmist neighbors) do to children. Examining the similarities tells us at least as much about ourselves as it does the inhabitants of the nineteenth century."

"Our society has ridden out, like doughty knights of old, on a grand quest to promote empathy. It is a noble goal. The ability to empathize (to imagine being in another person’s shoes) helps us to see each other’s humanity. It feeds the desire to treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated. Educators and researchers pursue the teaching of empathy as a way to combat bullying and bring peace to classroom life. The internet is full of articles, like this one from the Washington Post, that ask parents whether they are raising kids who empathize with others. President Obama even believes that the way to evaluate Supreme Court justices is to examine their empathy.

"Yet even though we pursue the holy grail of empathy, we may not be as good at cultivating it as we think we are. A paradoxical lack of empathy flourishes both in the sphere of pop culture and in the more serious world of politics and cultural morality. Right alongside online posts about teaching kids to be nice, we see gleeful articles filled with photos of some unfortunate celebrity whose skirt flew up in the wind."

Because Homemaking Does (And Doesn't) Matter (for Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife)

"Many women live a conglomerated life. For homemakers especially, the vocations of wife, mother, and keeper-of-the-house are so intertwined that it can be hard not to feel that a weakness in one area makes us inadequate in them all. Often we have no other outlet--no other employment, no cordoned-off hours of the day--that can make us feel successful at something unrelated to our families. In addition, the homemaker’s daily tasks involve serving the people whom we most love. These are not the people for whom we are content to do a “good enough” job."

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Motherhood, Individualism, and Falling Ceramic Toilet Lids

I mentioned that I was pondering the way our world provides lots of cautionary tales for parents, but not for children. Here is the result of those musings.

We've Over-Complicated Motherhood Because We Don't Like It
Some time ago I made the mistake of picking up a parenting magazine. The lead article talked solemnly about the damage that safety-obsessed parents can wreak on children, yet, ironically enough, the remainder of the publication was filled with far-fetched cautionary tales about the hidden hazards that lurk within our world (your kids might be misdiagnosed if you take them to a walk-in clinic; they might stab themselves with the contents of your purse; they might be injured while peeing if you select a ceramic toilet lid and it falls down on them). Modern culture may claim that mothers ought not to overprotect their children, but it does not really mean that. Instead, as most parenting magazines convey, the job of a good mother is to be the patron goddess who guards her child’s fate to ensure that nothing bad will ever happen to him. 
Read the rest here. 

I also wrote another article recently that addresses a similar topic.

Should We "Raise Our Daughters to be Mothers?"

(The answer is both yes and no)
The modern American educational system, both formal and informal, does not focus on preparing girls to be mothers. The general idea seems to be that as long as women wait until an appropriate, stable time in life to begin their families, they will be able to parent by instinct (sharpened, of course, by a few parenting books and internet forums). Motherhood, says our culture, is the sort of thing that will come naturally once an individual chooses to embrace it. 
However, I’ve also noticed a slew of articles lately that focus on the shock that motherhood poses to many women. For these ladies, the role of mommy turns out to be far harder, less fulfilling, and more overwhelming than they bargained for. An article inThe Atlantic suggests that many middle-class mothers would opt not to have kids if they were granted a “do-over” in life. Their biggest complaint, apparently, is that the role is so consuming as to devour their very identity: they cannot be the person they want to be while also being “mom.” Elsewhere I have heard writers argue that perhaps our high rates of postpartum depression (generally cited as affecting one mother in four) are exacerbated by the fact that modern women find themselves caught in a role that is different, and harder, than they expected. 
Read the rest here. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Podcast of My Story (via District of Wonders' "Far-Fetched Fables)

Far Fetched Fables
"The Hum of Refuge," a piece of flash fiction I wrote some time ago (some of you may remember it--it involves both razor wire and a reference to the Fey Folk), has found an audio home on one of Far Fetched Fables! Go HERE to listen.

You can also read a few of my other short stories here, if so inclined. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Cautionary Tales

I was talking with a friend about fairy tales lately. Among many other purposes, fairy tales once provided children with memorable warnings. The stories cautioned young listeners about certain aspects of humanity and about the necessity for humility and courtesy to strangers. When I wondered aloud whether a modern equivalent exists (do we tell cautionary tales to our children today, or just inspirational tales?) my friend pointed out that the modern world is full of cautionary tales. However, they are all for the parents.

Nowadays, it is generally the parents who are supposed to worry about strangers, dangers, and rustling noises in the woods. Not children. Children mustn't be exposed to darkness in their stories, lest they be alarmed. Not, at least, until they are old enough for the YA section.

I wonder why we do this. Being me, of course I think that all the adult cautionary tales and safety obsession is connected to other ideas, which are connected to other ideas, which show us what some of the problems in the modern world are. I'm working on an article about that.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

I just noticed that, after a long absence, Christie of the lovely blog Spinning Straw into Gold has posted again. Away I went to read the article. It turns out that she has won a "Very Inspiring Blogger Award" (yay!). As I scrolled down, I discovered that she has nominated Don't Forget the Avocados for the same honor (yay again!).

Thus, I am supposed to share with you seven things that you may not know about me.

1. The knees of my jeans often have food and drool stains on them. This is not because I eat with my knees. It is because my fifteen-month-old likes to wipe his hands and face on my body while expressing his impassioned desire to be picked up.

2. I really like the color red. Red tea pots, red dish towels, red mugs, etc. Even my toaster is red. However, I never did manage to convince my husband that a red accent wall would be a good idea.

3. The heroine of my novel-in-progress is from Berkeley, California, and her mother is a professor of folktales. This background becomes useful to my heroine when she is kidnapped by a folktale queen.

4. I prefer to compose all stories and articles in Times New Roman, even if I need to change the font to something else afterwards. Somehow, Times New Roman keeps the words flowing more smoothly for me.

5. I am fond of nasturtiums, feverfew, and Martha Washington geraniums (I picked some of the latter to put in my bridal bouquet).

6. The first "real" book that I read independently was Little House in the Big Woods. I devoured this at the age of eight, and thus began my life as a reader.

7. My younger sister used to hide my books to try to make me play with her.

OK, now it's my turn to nominate some other blogs. I'm sticking to those of a literary-ish theme.

Vintage Novels: Suzannah writes some very thought-provoking articles about writerly and readerly things.

Semicolon: I keep an eye on the book reviews here, and have found some great titles I would not have read otherwise.

Amongst Lovely Things: I really appreciate Sarah Mackenzie's discussions of classical education, homeschooling, and building a family culture around books.

Alison's Open Sketchbook: Alison is a visual artist, not a writer, but I enjoy the thoughts that arise in her life as a creatively-inclined mom.

Like Mother, Like Daughter: Most of this charming blog is not about books, but take a look at the Library Project on their site (the button at the top doesn't work: search for the term in the search box, or use the link I'm providing).

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Learning to Be a Novelist

My manuscript is progressing. Right now I have about 13,000 words, and my modern-day heroine has been successfully kidnapped by a folktale queen.

I like this book quite a bit. My ability to control a story--cutting, adding, and changing in order to achieve the desired effect--has increased significantly in the last year. It’s exciting to be able to do things that that I didn’t use to be able to. I still struggle to achieve the layers of richness and nuance that I would like, though, so I clearly have a lot of work and learning ahead.

One interesting question that the class has raised is whether an author needs to "love" their protagonist. It seems that most of my fellow classmates do feel deeply attached to their main character. I like my heroine, but I don't know that I love her. Is this because I don't delve deeply enough into her personality? Is it because I keep her at (too much of) a distance from myself? Is it because I won't know her fully until I finish the book? Is it because I just don't attach as easily as some people to fictional creations? I'm not sure yet.

I submitted the first six pages in my novel-writing class, and look forward to receiving the teacher’s critique tomorrow (so far all feedback has been through peer-workshopping, which always raises an interesting variety of opinions).

My current plan for the novel is to begin each chapter with a brief quotation from a historic folk/fairytale. Each quotation relates to the events of the chapter. The use of quotations seems to draw forth a mixed response from my fellow students, so I’m curious: do you (intelligent readers of my blog) like quotations at the beginning of chapters, or do you find them annoying/pretentious/something else?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Uncomfortable Mind of an Artist

It can sometimes seem as though would-be artists (including writers) cultivate chaos, doubt, and drama in their own lives because they think that therein lies the path to true creativity, or because they think it is glamorous to be a "suffering artist." I have not always been as understanding of these people as perhaps I should be.

Alison has recently started a series of articles for SDMW about how the pursuit of beauty (something she sees as the activity of all artists) is both alluring and crushing. It is one way in which natural law asserts itself and raises the great questions of human existence. There is a lot of food for thought in what she says. Her second article, in particular, helped me to see the struggling, chaotic, searching, artistic-type in a new light.

I recommend that you read both "Order, Beauty, and the Urge to Create" and also "Science, Beauty, and the Law that Kills."

On a related note, When Every Day is Judgement Day is another article by a different author (who comes from what seems to be a mainstream secular perspective) on a related topic. I was fascinated by her characterization of perfectionism as an attempt to drive a (futile and crippling) bargain with fate.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why I Won't Post as Much for a While

I have been wanting to (a). focus on fiction in a more disciplined way, and (b). be pushed to improve my writing. Over Christmas I decided that the perfect solution would be to take an online class. I need to take it now, since there is another baby Mussmann on the way (due this July) and newborns aren't always very good at allowing their mothers to spend hours on the computer. If you know what I mean.

Therefore, I have registered for a novel writing class for Winter Quarter. The goal of the class is to produce a complete novel outline as well as a polished fifty pages of the novel. I'm very excited about working on my story concept and about immersing myself in the world of fiction for a few months. Hooray!

The only sad part is that, because my writing time is limited, I probably won't be able to blog much. If I vanish from this space until April, fear not, I am not dead--merely busy, and hopefully producing a masterpiece-ish tome of insight, adventure, and pleasing sentence structures.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Myth of Arthur, the Problem of Articulate Villains, and Suzannah Rowtree’s Novel

I just finished my Advanced Reading copy (yes, it does make me feel delightfully important to be the recipient of an Advanced Reading copy) of Suzannah Rowntree’s novel, Pendragon’s Heir. The book is essentially a retelling of the story of Camelot, and therefore an exploration of the elusive, tragically costly, yet beautiful vision of building a city of light upon earth. Our young protagonist, Blanche, has been raised in Edwardian England. However, she discovers very early in the story that she is both the subject of prophecy and the daughter and heir of King Arthur. Or at least, she probably is--gossip about her mother’s chastity has sown doubt in some minds. Initially resistant to the idea of giving up her pleasant life in order to re-enter the medieval world of errant knights and rampaging villains, Blanche gradually matures into her role of heiress to a struggling kingdom. Meanwhile, her relationship with the impetuous, gallant (and admiring) Sir Percival also grows.

I soon found myself caring about the protagonists and enjoying all of the characters. Did I mention that there are several of the fey folk in this story? They are delightfully handled, and I am a sucker for well-portrayed fey folk. The relationships between characters are nuanced and often unexpected, and I was impressed by the action sequences and the author’s ability to write so many tense, believable, non-repetitive scenes of combat (although I admit that I know absolutely nothing about how to fight, and might not notice if the blows and techniques were unrealistic). In addition, the story explores significant themes. It is satisfying overall and demonstrates the degree to which the author has immersed herself in medieval and Arthurian imagery. I recommend that you read it.

In fact, the book is so good that I feel free to critique and analyze it as freely as if it came from the presses of a major publishing company. There is no need for me to be “kind” to the author by keeping any complaints, quibbles, or questions to myself. The pacing of the book is not perfect. Although both the beginning and end are taut and fast-paced, there was a section in the middle that felt a little too slow and episodic. I think this is because the main threads of the overall plot (and the relationships between the main characters) were allowed to sink out of sight while the characters gathered information and experienced minor adventures. The information and the adventures were needed for the overall story, but did not convey as much of a feeling of forward momentum. Some readers may disagree with this, and argue that I merely have a short attention span for knightly adventures.

I also find myself deeply struck by the problem of Simon Corbin, an articulate character who attempts to prevent Blanche from taking up her role as heir. In the language of a free-thinking Edwardian skeptic, he rejects belief in God as well as the idea that anyone owes a duty to a kingdom, a higher power, or a moral code. He argues for modern progress instead of feudal virtue. In a later scene, he challenges an idealistic knight with the argument that, just as even the “best” leaders sin, and just as good men use ignoble methods in war and conflict, it is delusional to believe that right can be defended without doing wrong. Ultimately, the conflict of the book could be said to be between these two positions: between those who wish to use only ethical means to create a kingdom patterned on visions of heaven (even though they know this struggle appears doomed), and those who wish to use any means necessary to create a kingdom according to their own ideas of what would be best.

On the one hand, I commend the author for creating Simon Corbin, because he is no straw man. It adds realism that our hero and heroine cannot best him in debate. However, I rather wonder if some readers (especially those who do not share the author’s beliefs) will not find Mr. Corbin’s arguments the more compelling (I once ran into this problem in a short story of my own: I tried to let both sides speak for themselves, and my liberal teacher thought that my story had made a much stronger case for liberal relativism than for conservative beliefs, because those were the arguments that resonated with her). Will such readers wonder if someone like Corbin might not have made a better ruler than a king who allows random knights to run around, walloping each other into an early grave, while the peasants do all the actual work? After all, Mr. Corbin is the only one who addresses “realistic” issues such as sanitation and the suffering of the poor.

The motivations of the good characters are harder to put forth in tidy, convincing arguments, and they rest more heavily on what might uncharitably be called mystical naivete. Here of course we see, in a nutshell, the challenge of a Christian author who speaks from her own perspective while trying to avoid heavy-handedly “proving” her own point, or pausing the narrative for a discussion of theology. If one speaks too often or too directly about God, one risks alienating non-Christian readers or of failing to remain in the role of novelist. If one approaches philosophical and religious themes more obliquely, one can have trouble providing a full, compelling picture of one’s beliefs.

I have been asking myself if Miss Rowtree should have handled her story any differently. It might have strengthened her tale if the good characters had defined Arthur’s kingdom more concretely, and, in particular, truly acknowledged the humanity and needs of the peasantry. I realize that this story is intended to fit into the tradition of the knightly tale, not that of a realistic novel, of course, but I wonder if Mr. Corbin should have been allowed to introduce the sufferings of the poor without having the protagonists also truly acknowledge this issue.  

Such questions aside, I enjoyed reading this novel, and I enjoyed thinking about the questions it raised in my mind. Many thanks to Suzannah for the opportunity to do so! I loved (and still love) her characters, and I look forward to seeing what she writes next. 

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