The Man Who Brought the Magic

A Stubborn Silence

After my brother died last Christmas, all my instincts for resistance went into overdrive: I stubbornly wouldn’t accept it, not completely. No ripping off the bandaid for me. I was going to fight it to the bitter end, with every bit of mettle my life driven-to-overcome-being-different afforded me. I put my head down and worked. I revised and edited and beta-read before and after work.

I crawled into a hole.

Of course I was called upon to come up with Michael’s obituary–I was the writer after all. I cried and tried to put into a few words the best of my brother:

Mike worked as a CAD draftsman, and his passion for nature and animals inspired his family and delighted several lucky cats and dogs. Mike walked the earth in peace and his loving humor will be sadly missed. Survived by his beloved wife of 30 years. . .

But I couldn’t write what he meant to me. I couldn’t talk about the memories and put him in the past tense. I wouldn’t. I wrote his obituary but I refused to even think about his eulogy.

A Monument to Memory

I cried in private, as my whole family did. Stoic at the funeral. Had to be strong for my mom and dad. Had to be available to do all the tasks for my sister-in-law, who was understandably shattered. Numb, I supportively did the income taxes for the deceased. I obligingly designed my brother’s headstone (an oak tree on his side, two chickadees on hers).

And a few weeks later, there it was: my brother’s death was literally carved in stone.

I visited the grave at least once a week, same as my sisters, though we never went together. In the wooded town cemetery, just inside the main gate and near the monument to my 3rd great-grandfather who settled here when the town was new, I stood in snow and rain beneath a ragged hickory, a lost little sister weeping alone.

When I tried to write myself out of grief, I always wrote about my experiences now; I didn’t write about Michael, about who he “was”.

But suddenly this month all that has changed, as evidenced by that abhorrent “was” I typed with heavy deliberation in the last sentence.

The Wind Beneath My Wings

When Michael became sick and was dying of cancer, a lot of people said something that was like a bitterly cold slap in the face: “I didn’t know you had a brother.”

Just because he wasn’t on Facebook?! I felt hurt and I felt hollow with guilt: how could people not know about Michael? All my life he’s been with me every moment–everything I was ever interested in or enjoyed, it’s because I was following in his footsteps.

He was my hero, my inspiration, he raised me when my mom was busy with my younger sisters. He taught me to tie my shoes and to read and write and swim and climb trees and find salamanders and what the constellations were and why the moon landing was so huge. From him I learned that Star Trek wasn’t real, but it was still true.

He showed me how to plant veggies and watch wild birds and how to hammer a nail, and he took me to get my first library card. I loved exploring nature because he did. When he wrote poetry, I wanted to write poetry. Because of him I learned you could talk to animals, if your heart was in the right place.

I saw magic in everything because he showed it to me.

What’s So Bad About a Good Word

I’m ready to talk about Michael now, but I haven’t the skill to write his eulogy. I can’t write something about my brother and then put a period at the end. I’ll just have to keep telling stories of who he was before I ever was.

Michael was. He was gentle and compassionate and funny and curious. He was someone who could feed wild animals from the palm of his hand. He was the brother who could take a little Aspy girl who never got a joke and make her laugh milk out her nose. He was the teenager who graduated high school and walked across America in his knee-high moccasins.

Michael is: he’s still the biggest influence on my life, and he’s missed every day with a thousand silent agonies: sisters, mother, wife, nieces.

But from now on, that’s about all I’m going to let be silent.

A month for wrapping up

Back from a “wasn’t that a party” vacation up north (it was a “re-do” of a disastrous one a few weeks before) and all geeked out about unicorns and mermaids in the back-to-school free-for-all that is, I think, the biggest party of the year, I find that I’m a year older this month and that the end of summer feels like an end of a year.

May it be the end of sometimes-crippling grief and mourning. After my last major revision and the flurry of beta readings, all accomplished while my head was down and I refused to “live” in a world without Michael, my brother who died at Christmas. Isn’t it normal to go to one extreme, then the other, before finding balance again?

Well, I’ve been in the mood for being alive again, all right. For feeling something, even if it’s happy crying at movies (I’ve seen Mamma Mia 2 three times) or listening to loud music, a sharp contrast to all those months of silent hard work in solitude.

This is a year-end, in many ways. I sure didn’t feel like taking care of anything else while I wasn’t taking care of myself, so no growing things were added to my not-yet-a-cottage garden. I’m finally shrugging off the guilt.

May it be the end of heads-in-the-sand everywhere–as we send kids back to school, time to take a long, hard conscious look at the values we want our kids to share. Bullying doesn’t seem to go away, and I’ve lived and played in communities this year where racists somehow feel emboldened to share THEIR values. Time to be vigilant and warn your kids that this isn’t the world as we want it!

Bullying seems to be on the rise in cyber-world, too. Medievalists are being attacked by alt-right medievalists who can’t bear to allow POC into their sphere. Gamer-gate. People having to close up their cyber-shop and leave. Cocky-gate. It goes on.

Please be vocal so that these bullies can’t gain a foothold! Please help me usher in a year of dreams making reality something better. We can learn from the purity of unicorns, rainbow sparkles and all.

Exquisite illuminated medieval manuscript you may not know but recognize

Sundays are a great day to catch up on books–why not book appreciation? Remembering a time when books were cherished, even revered.

The marvelous late-medieval illuminated pages of the Isabella Breviary are often familiar even if you don’t realize where they were from. Enjoy!

http://www.medievalists.net/2018/07/artists-isabella-breviary/

My New Adult Frustrations

A lovely lament for books for the age group I’m passionate about writing for/about.

I would repeat the question: what New Adult (college age, starting out on lives/careers) books do you know of that are more than escapist romance–they actually write for this exciting and important time of life?

Word Wonders

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Hello friends!

My reading journey was a weird one. I started off just like any kid, devouring children’s books from age zero (my mom used to read to me) to age nine, then I transitioned to middle grade until age twelve. So far, so good, right? Well, from there I jumped straight into new adult and adult romance books. YEP. No young adult novels, whatsoever, those weren’t available to me so I went to the next category that I had at hand and at a reasonnable price (my mom also had a small collection at home that I read and could use later to exchange at the secondhand bookstore). I think I read hundreds of romance novels between age 12 and 16. There were days when I’d read two in one day.

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Do You Really Know the Language You Live In?

TSElastyr

You think in this language, you know who you are through language; you LIVE in the language of English, but how much do you really know about it?

Thanks to the unique historical development of the English language (no other language on earth can claim its complexity), we’re blessed with one of the greatest vocabularies anywhere. We have a variety of synonyms even for common, everyday things.

In fact, I’ve been frustrated trying to express myself in other languages, only to find I have to use the same word in one sentence I just used in the last sentence. Really? I have only one choice to mean two different things for which I have a comprehension of subtle differences?

As frustrating as an Inuit trying to tell us what kind of snow it was. Okay, SOME languages have us beat in SOME ranges of synonyms, but STILL, for the most part. . .

Today in Part I of a two-part blog, it’s necessary to give some fast-and-loose history before I can talk in Part II about the actual words and how we can use them to add precision and depth to our writing.

Part I: A Concise History, or, Why We Don’t Speak British

To understand how the English language came by a far greater vocabulary than most languages in roughly half the time, you have to look at England.

Not yet a twinkle in a Frisian’s eye

In Roman Britain (from Julius Caesar till they threw up their hands in frustration in 410 AD and left), the natives didn’t speak English because it didn’t even exist yet. THEY SPOKE BRITISH! More accurately, they spoke old Brittonic or Celtic which is where Gaelic and Welsh come from.

The Romans felt they had a handle on the Britons, but then the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, and a smattering of Frisians kept invading from what’s now Denmark and north Germany. When the Romans left these folks over-ran England and before you knew it everyone was speaking Anglo-Saxon.

We also call it Old English, but in actual function, it’s a completely separate language from modern English. Not only have the words and sounds (and alphabet) changed considerably in that time, but the grammar is completely foreign to modern English speakers. Still, those Anglo-Saxon words DID change and are still around, becoming all the most common of the words we speak today, like WORD and WE and SPEAK and TODAY.

(Paul Kingsnorth manages to write for us, using only an Anglo-Saxon/Old Norse vocabulary adapted for modern readers, a novel that is fittingly shows the reaction of a native Englishman when the Normans come in and change everything.)

But of course the land we now call England after those Angles (don’t feel bad for the other tribes: we already have a Saxony and a Jutland and some Frisian islands) was just so freaking adorable that invasions happened again and again.

Ragnar Lothbrok and his infamous brood, on HISTORY channel

Right about the time the Anglo-Saxons forgot they were the barbarian invaders and settled down nicely into Christianity, along came some REAL barbarians: Vikings! The name struck terror in the hearts of English monks and priests everywhere, since their churches housed exactly the kinds of goodies the Vikings wanted to take home.

Until they didn’t even want to go home. Old Norse shared Germanic roots with Anglo-Saxon but it wasn’t the same language, and you can draw a big diagonal line across England from the northwest to the southeast with place-names showing just how far the Vikings pushed in and settled. The Vikings’ language didn’t displace Anglo-Saxon (not the way the Celtic languages were pushed out and stayed separate languages), but they added a whole lot of words.

A new patois: English Kings speaking French

The Anglo-Saxons never stopped fighting the Vikings, and they were so tuckered out from these battles that the Normans had an easier time sweeping in from France in 1066 and taking over. (There’s a spectacular early movie all about it: it’s called the Bayeux Tapestry.) In fact, William the Conqueror did the job so impressively that no new Vikings even bothered to invade after he set up shop. And neither did anyone else, ever again, ever.

William brought with him all his French friends to enjoy the spoils and BAM, everyone who was anyone in England spoke French. But Anglo-Saxon didn’t just go away; the French nobles had to talk to their servants and those servants talked to the rest of the peasants, and what would you expect with all that mingling? The two languages had a baby called Middle English.

Okay, it took longer than nine months, but the process was evident all along. Eventually Geoffrey Chaucer, who could’ve written in French, up and decided to give the local vernacular a whirl in works like the Canterbury Tales, and the pure French of the ruling class began to fade away.

“More than kisses, letters mingle souls.”  –John Donne

But we’re not quite yet modern English: there’s one last major wave of influence that will tweak the language, but this time there was no marauding or killing involved. There was, however, considerable sighing and swooning and everlasting promises.

Latin was no stranger to England: first the Roman overlords spoke it, then the church leaders after Christianity came. But after the Renaissance took off down in Italy and spread out, English poets were more than a little embarrassed that their language was downright clunky compared to those beautiful Italian sonnets.

Folks TRIED to write sonnets in English, but the rhythms of the language just didn’t fit, either. So English writers just started STEALING new words left and right–prettier ones. (Not just that, writers like Shakespeare eventually adopted new poem forms that made English sound better anyway, like the blank verse iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s plays.) They stole from Italian and they stole from French and they stole Latin-sounding words that really made English sound grandiose and respectable.

And they ALSO did something that would make past editors of the Oxford English Dictionary sit up in their graves and cry, “Desist!”:  they made up new words!! (In the modern age we’ve seen how tech has required rapidly introducing new acronyms and memes, but we’re also a lot more chill when people just do what people do, and diss the old-fashioned idea that language is static and carved in stone.)

So many new words were successfully added into the English vernacular that Middle English was left in the dust. But here’s the clincher: the old words didn’t go away. The time of Shakespeare is known as Early MODERN English, and it had Anglo-Saxon words, and it had Norse words; it had a splash of Celtic and there were still the French words and the Latin ones and the Italian ones and even some words from the New World just being explored.

And this still wasn’t the end of the behemoth language English. It was one thing to add new words from new lands being explored–but all languages were doing that, all the time. It was another when the speakers of English became the conquerors and the British Empire expanded around the world. Native English speakers were living on five continents and absorbing words by the hundreds.

This is just the briefest history of England and its language, showing how we got so many words. In Part II I’d like to show you what this means for you: why all these synonyms you have at your disposal each carry the weight of history along with their meaning.

See you in Part II: A Precise Lexis

Ever wonder which train you’re on?

This has been coming up like a portent in my life in one way or another for a few days now: the message behind the oh-so-true aphorism, Man proposes, God disposes. Or, the best-laid plans of mice and men. . .Or the quote I just saw on Twitter: Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters won’t have a title until much later (Bob Goff).

How many times in my fifty-three years of life have I proven this?!

So I wonder why someone’s so bent on sending me the message now.

If you’ve followed this blog, you’d know that I had fifteen years of relatively uninterrupted bliss in a condo at the top of the building with the best friend I’ve ever had, a loud, bold, curious, in-your-face high-maintenance SCARY-smart Siamese cat named Tonka.

Then two years ago all hell broke loose–and a lot of good stuff, too. I defied the odds (and the draconian lender requirements) and bought the house of my dreams–the perfect little bungalow with the big back yard, a half acre backing up to the wooded town swamp right in town. A conservatory/dining room with windows all around jutting out into a back yard right out of a Disney cartoon: deer and bunnies and constant birdsong. LOTS of mature trees, a shaded patio, a lovely bedroom loft, a hammock and a tree swing would come, and I’m still working hard on the creative financing needed to score a white gazebo. Even as I convert the back lawn into an English cottage garden.

My Writing Retreat, right at home.

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So why have I scarcely moved in? I’ve only just now given up painting the ugly mustard dining room so-I-could-even-use-it myself and hired someone? Every single room (except my loft) the same dull color: I love coffee with two creams but not on the walls.

Tonka was already old; she enjoyed several months having her own back yard, then passed away. A profound depression ensued. And the Goff quote above applies to the sad chapters of life, too: depression has a way of fooling you into not realizing you’re not in it WHILE you’re still in it. Just. . .nothing happens.

I occupied my new house; I didn’t LIVE in it. With nothing painted, nothing decorated my way, and half my possessions still in my parents’ basement, I felt like I was staying in someone else’s house. My sister and a roommate live here, too; the rent was sorely needed to finance central AC and gutter guards and the evicting of seven red squirrels from where they lived in my basement ceiling.

For months I juggled finances and the cat situation: my second cat Peaches was terrified of my sister’s cat, who had to stay cooped up her bedroom all day till she could come out, supervised; both suffered till my sister’s cat, also old, passed away a few months after Tonka. But not till after a bizarre episode when my sister broke up a cat fight and her cat inflicted infected wounds on her hand that turned so bad she was three nights in the hospital and six weeks on a pik line antibiotic!

Then there was a heartbreaking episode with the new Siamese George: we loved him but he was an energy that could scarcely be contained, our possessions in constant danger, and the stress was too much for Peaches, and we had to let him go.

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I tried to warm up my numb, cold emptiness and assuage the constant ache of a genuinely broken heart with the activity of keeping up a new house. I almost lost my writing altogether. A lot happened but I was on automatic.

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Last summer brought a flurry of joyous family weddings and a new baby in the family, my great-nephew, who is SO clever and engaging and cheerful and funny. Then, one year after Tonka died, the life that was finally being saved and buoyed up with joy sank to the lowest point yet: my brother had stage 4 cancer. Having metastatized from the colon to liver, there was talk of chemo, but he never regained strength, and I knew in the back of my mind what not everyone accepted. He passed away on Christmas.

This time I thought I was going to embrace depression for what it was, but in truth I was in denial mode from day one: I began hiding out at the coffee shop, before and after work, my head down as my writing flowed. Still doing it. But gradually I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself every day, feeling the most gut-wrenchingly angry I’ve ever felt and nothing to be angry at, and spring finally happened.

I’m not done with winter yet

Spring in my yard is, in spite of my half-hearted efforts, pretty spectacular. Tulips and daffodils everywhere, and now, the most fragrant peonies will soon open.
And spring brought the most joyous wedding yet, my (very) young niece. My great-nephew grows and is the miracle that pulled my family through the suckiest winter ever–especially my parents, burying a child.

The dining room is new and waiting to be filled again with the table where I can write comfortably at last–and save a fortune on coffee shop bills. My painter’s taking on the kitchen next. Maybe the ball will keep rolling–I don’t know, life is STILL in flux. But I hope I continue to embrace my new home and allow myself to actually enjoy it, to make plans again, to find peace.

Chapter: not yet named.

 

Am I Ready for a Writer’s Conference?

The answer is yes. I don’t even know you, but that’s the answer. Still, if you’re curious about this infrequent phenomenon or need convincing, read on.

I’m fresh off back-to-back writing workshops/conferences, and I’m geeked and inspired and feeling pretty much like an expert, so I’ll share what I’ve learned for anyone wondering if a writer’s conference is for them.

What a Writer’s Conference isn’t

I stopped going to professional conferences while a grad student in the last century–literary presentations by academics at places like the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Newberry Library. New Historicism textual studies were just taking off and I always came home, my messenger bag stuffed with xeroxes of Shakespeare’s quartos or the title page of some Marlowe play whose illustration I’d colored in out of mild boredom.

I never mingled well afterwards, either, preoccupied as I was with whether there was a run in my unaccustomed-pantyhose or if I’d spill the *&%# punch. Everyone was there to impress everyone else and I could barely walk in high heels. I’ve been to weddings with less ambient tension. I confess, it was about the third time I started ducking out of the presentations in order to check out the awesome museums nearby that I realized I probably didn’t have a future in this particular field.

What you can expect

Well, a writer’s conference is nothing like academia. I’m less shy; others are more at ease to begin with. You could get away with jeans if you look nice; business cazh if you’re pitching an agent. We the attendees speak up more at the talks; we’re there to meet other writers, too, and the organizers know it. Getting to know each other is actively fostered. There is still that charge of excitement running through: many writers are going to pitch sessions throughout the day, those speed-dating table hops where you have ten minutes to try to sell your novel and hook an agent. You see those folks who are pitching off in corners through the day, nervous, silently practicing their 250-words-or-less.

And appropriately, many of the talks address how to craft the perfect pitch or the perfect query letter, for those of us unpublished and looking for agents to guide us through the exacting and competitive world of publishing. Most of the speakers are Real Live Agents, too, the faces on the other end of the monster-scary query letter, but you’ll also find authors speaking and signing their books. Still other sessions may discuss a particular genre or some other aspect of writing and publishing in the 21st century. Your fellow attendees will represent virtually every age group and level of experience, from newbie NaNos to published authors.

Book nerds are in heaven.

Born too early

I am so freaking envious of young writers in the internet age! Time was I wrote long-hand in notebooks in a vacuum; today you have an entire internet community to teach you the craft, to discuss popular books with, to bounce ideas off of. Every tiny aspect of writing a novel is discussed in some forum somewhere: how to name characters and “build worlds” consistently, when you need to do a little research, or when your protagonists won’t vacate your dreams at night. You can learn online how to navigate the worlds of self-publishing or traditional publishing and where and whom to query.

You can write and transmit your story digitally to beta readers you also find online (infinitely better than running your story past friends and relations) without ever getting the entire thing printed out only to find a typo on p.26 and that the pagination went sideways on p.49. Ditto for querying the agents: in cyber-world you can always fix the mistake, and “free” is so much easier than marching a heavy package with your double-spaced, single-sided manuscript down to the post office and paying postage over and over again through the nose.

And when you need a real live comrade in the trenches, the internet can hook you up with local NaNo write-ins or writer’s groups or the occasional writer’s conference. I’ve spent very little money on this whole endeavor of becoming a novel writer again: bought a laptop, a couple of flash drives, and my own domain for this blog. The writer’s conference will become, for you, the exception.

Money well-spent

The conferences aren’t free, and often neither are the pitch sessions, but there’s a whole lot at a writer’s conference that makes it worth the expense. You might spend $100-200 on a local (state) conference, and even more on a national one–plus the expense of travel and accommodations–but no reason you can’t stick with local.

Finding other writers near you and especially practically doubling your number of Twitter followers overnight when you promote each other after the conference is already money well-spent. And following these folks will keep you in the loop on future writer-related events in your part of the world.

Meeting agents, either in the sessions or while pitching them, is probably the most valuable take-away of the writer’s conference. You can read online twenty or thirty times how to interact with an agent and get your query noticed, but it doesn’t really sink in until the genuine article tells it to your face. You get a better appreciation for what their job entails–and what your own job as a writer is.

On the one hand, you’re writing for an extremely competitive market, and your job is to show how your work is fresh and worth-the-agent’s-while to try to sell, and to do it in a few short words, maybe only 250 of them. But on the other hand, your work is valuable: it is, after all, what publishers need, and they are looking for it. And it’s not a lottery; it is possible to do your research online and know what’s selling, what publishers want, and what agents are looking for. (Search tweets for agents’ #MSWL – “manuscript wish list”.)

What does it mean to pitch an agent face-to-face?

Larger conferences might include a couple of free pitch sessions with the different visiting agents, but at the Michigan Writing Workshop it was $29 for 10 minutes with an agent; at Rochester Writers Conference it was $50 for 15 minutes.

Your actual pitch only takes about two minutes! The rest of the time is valuable one-on-one time with professional feedback, whether or not you’re asked to query later. But do research the agent you request (this has to be done ahead of time, at registration)–not all agents represent the genre or audience you’re selling to.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO SIGN UP FOR A PITCH SESSION! Unless your manuscript has been through a couple rounds with betas and several revisions, and probably also a professional free-lance editor (another necessary and worthwhile cost), you’re not going to be ready when that agent says, “E-mail me the entire thing! I’m interested!”

Or you may, like me, have been practicing writing a query because (BONUS advice) it’s a good way to focus your novel’s core points and locate the fluff, and you want to practice your practice query on a pro before you send it out in a written query, and that’s all right, too.

You don’t even have to have a finished (started?) novel

So you show up for the conference with no agent appointments–even better, you won’t have to be a bundle of nerves till the pitch is over! You can sit back and relax and socialize when you can. You may have heard you should bring author business cards to a conference, but that’s an expense you certainly don’t have to pay if you’re not ready. The word is, those cards are more for trading with other authors than they are for the agents anyway–but as long as you jot down Twitter handles, that’s all you really need to keep in touch.

Make sure you know if there will be coffee or not–because if there isn’t, well, you’re a writer and the caffeine withdrawal headaches will ruin your day. One of my conferences included no sustenance at all; the other provided a light breakfast AND lunch. So you can’t assume.

Of course, you’ll also want to suss out parking, how long to get to the conference, and all the usual. Have a pen and a notebook (when do you not?) and soak up the wisdom from agents and colleagues. Usually there are multiple sessions/topics going on so you have to choose the one you most want (you don’t have to sign up or reserve or anything), but wandering in an out isn’t at all frowned-upon, especially since some folks have a pitch scheduled.

Lastly, you may want a watch. At lunchtime I discovered I had a dead phone, the hotel lobby was huge and no clock, and I had a pitch in a couple hours!! I awkwardly had to keep asking various folks until it was very nearly time, when I sat near enough the agent I could tell when she was ready for me. That was a bit of added stress I didn’t need before my very first agent encounter. (My novel wasn’t done, it isn’t cut down nearly enough, but I was asked to query her.)

Google “writing conference” and your state or region, or ask around. There may be a shot of enthusiasm waiting for you one day soon.

All-righty, maybe I’m not the expert yet! Have you been to a conference or two, or more? Please share your advice or your juicy conference story in a comment!