Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Vision Care - with gratitude

Yesterday I had an eye appointment. It had been three years, but my prescription was fine, my eyes in good condition. I'm thankful.

I'm thankful because the woman at the counter asked me, not where I was employed, but whether. And I could answer "yes."

I'm thankful because after somehow reaching my home safely despite the eye drops, I couldn't think of what to do. I couldn't read. I couldn't work a puzzle. Couldn't go outside (too bright) to fiddle in the garden. So I'm thankful that I have vision.

I guess I wasn't always that way. As a boy, I didn't want to wear glasses. So I hid the note the school nurse sent to my parents. Destroyed it, more like--and suffered for another two years. I remember using the complex refracting properties of my fingers and eyelashes to read the chalkboard. This must be how people used to do it, before they invented glasses.

Then--well, I thought maybe I should experience some kind of miracle. Raised with faith-healing on television and in revival meetings, I decided that my eyes warranted divine intervention. So I prayed, and then when it didn't happen, I felt guilty. And then when I was tired of that, I sulked.

Somehow it took me another thirty years to discover that the miracle was there all along. I can see! With lenses, I have 20/20 in both eyes. What a gift that is. And this morning, even though my eyes ache a bit from the drops and the torment the doctor put them through, I'm not taking for granted the sight of sunlight on the green leaves of the dogwood, or the flicker of green lights on my router, or the ability to read what I've just written.

When I finally got the glasses, the first thing I noticed were the gray hairs on my mother's head. I was young and dumb enough to say that out loud. But in a sense, gray hair is also something to be thankful for. I should know; I've got some of that, too.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Thoughts on The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Handmaid's Tale (cover)
I can't prove it, because after reading several interviews and descriptions, she hasn't told me, but I suspect Margaret Atwood followed a kind of intuitive approach in writing The Handmaid's Tale.

By intuitive, I mean that kind of writing in which you allow character, setting, dilemma, to lead the way, rather than a pre-arranged plot. You, the writer, don't know what's going to happen--or at least, not very clearly how you'll get there--when you sit down to write the first chapter. Some people call this the "pantser" (vs. "plotter") approach--writing by the seat of your pants. Bradbury put it like this: "Find out what your hero wants, then just follow him."

Here are my reasons for thinking Atwood tackled The Handmaid's Tale this way:

1. The scenery/environment is well developed, but the trajectory of the main character (Offred) is episodic for much of the book. It lacks a clearly defined "plot."

2. Offred is fully realized; her inner life is available to the reader--or at least as much as it is available to her. This is virtually impossible to achieve, as far as I can tell, in a highly plotted novel, for the simple reason that the characters become cogs in the machinery of plot. In such a novel, the complex, layered thoughts of a character tend to be more hindrance than help, since they'll often lead to unpredictable actions that derail the plot.

3. Atwood remarks that she knew where the story was going, so she didn't have to query herself about it; this suggests that she sometimes does have to query herself--meaning she doesn't plot out in advance. So did she this time? I doubt it. Knowing where the story is heading is a sign of a very realized sense of the character in relation to the situation in which she's been placed--her limitations, or parameters, within that situation, and within her particular personality.

This, in my view, would not mean there would be no persons, situations, or even characters arising in the unfolding of the story that the conscious mind has not planned in advance. For instance, when Atwood placed Offred in a relationship with a married man (in her past; "Luke"), did she foresee the tension this would create with Serena Joy, the wife of the Commander for whom she's a "handmaid"? Or did this rather come to her in the telling of the story, a "lucky happenstance," a chance encounter that presented another layer to the story? Because, to me at least, this element complicates a simple before=good/after=bad equation. And I find it convenient to suppose that Atwood's subconscious resisted that equation, more than (or as much as) her conscious mind.

But, of course, I'm only guessing. Call it intuition.

Well, I promised "thoughts" and really have only given you one. So let me add another, unrelated: Somehow it doesn't bother me that Atwood has distanced herself from sci-fi. In one article I found (in the Guardian), she admits to writing sci-fi, "or speculative fiction, if you prefer." A writer like her, working in "literary" fiction as well as speculative (or sci-fi), can be excused for wanting to distance herself from space octopi. Just saying.

If you've read the novel (or better yet, an interview or confession I couldn't find; or better still, you are Margaret Atwood) and you'd like to weigh in, I'm all ears.

Update: I overlooked an interview with Margaret Atwood in The Paris Review when I was writing this post. It turns out I was right. Here's what she says:

When I’m writing a novel, what comes first is an image, scene, or voice. Something fairly small. Sometimes that seed is contained in a poem I’ve already written. The structure or design gets worked out in the course of the writing. I couldn’t write the other way round, with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers. As for lines of descent—that is, poem leading to novel—I could point to a number of examples. In my second collection of poems, The Animals in That Country, there’s a poem called “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer.” That led into the whole collection called The Journals of Susanna Moodie and that in turn led into Surfacing. Or, another line of descent, the poems in parts of True Stories have obvious affiliations with the novel Bodily Harm. It’s almost as if the poems open something, like opening a room or a box or a pathway. And then the novel can go in and see what else is in there. I’m not sure this is unique. I expect that many other ambidextrous writers have had the same experience.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Saturday of Spring

You know it's been a rough spring when your baseball team is 10-4 and you haven't watched a single inning, haven't looked at a single box score, don't know who's new on the roster, couldn't name three players still on the team with any conviction at all.

Such has my spring been. The grass in the back yard--did I say grass? I meant clover--is mid-calf. The squash I planted in the greenhouse has grown to monstrous proportions, and yet I haven't started peppers. I haven't mended the garden fence, which I destroyed after seeing deer in the yard. I haven't even bought the supplies to do it.

Ironically, part of the blame falls to baseball. I have two boys now in the littlest leagues, one still hitting off a tee and daydreaming on the infield, and the other hitting real pitches hard (sometimes) and trying his darnedest to throw like a man. Fabulous quantities of practices so far, with the game schedule creeping inexorably toward us. If you've been there, you know. I won't see a clear Saturday until June.

Ah, Saturday. You my lost friend. Leisurely time to mow the lawn, mend the fence, hack at old tree stumps, light a pipe, whittle, toss a ball … Will I never know you again? The quiet Saturday of Spring, the dull chatter of baseball announcers, the hum of the crowd in the background, the exaggerated crack of the ball in the mitt or on the bat, the roar of the Fenway faithful as the ball soars out toward the Green Monster.

So that's what I'm missing. Time to kill. The leisure of a game that says, "Hey you! Slow down and watch this pitch. Nothing may happen. Or everything may happen. And there will be three hundred of these pitches today, over the next three hours. And you will watch every one of them. And feel not one ounce of guilt."

As I said, it's been a tough Spring.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Twice-Read Authors

I recently listed some “twice-read books” as a way to share my interests as a reader. But some of my favorite authors were left off, because though I’ve read more than one book of theirs, I haven’t necessarily read any of their books twice.

But if reading a book says something about you, I think reading more than one book by an author might, too. After all, these are folks I came back to because they offered me something—however lowbrow or highbrow that was. They represent only a small percentage of all the authors I’ve read. Life is full, and there are many books. If I’ve dipped back into the well of an author, that probably means something.

Not counting trilogies and series as more than one book, or authors that after reading a second one I knew it was mistake, here are the ones I remember, in roughly the order in which I read them (or came back to them):

Jack London
C. S. Lewis
Mark Twain
H. G. Wells
J.R.R. Tolkien
Stephen Lawhead
George MacDonald
Patricia McKillip
Ray Bradbury
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Shakespeare (not just for school!)
Franz Kafka
Ernest Hemingway
Isaac Asimov
Orson Scott Card
Ursula K. Le Guin
Jane Austin
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Dean Koontz
Daphne Du Maurier
Henry James
George Eliot
Stephen King
Jane Yolen
W. P. Kinsella
Paulo Cuelho
Neil Gaiman

I think that list shows a few things about me: I tend to gravitate toward (and enjoy!) classical authors. If I’m adventurous (and sometimes I am), it’s only for a short fling—so they don’t make the list. Paperback writers are almost unknown to me (this is quite true). For me reading is an event, a cultural experience. That might make me limited in some ways, particularly in knowing what may appeal to the masses. But we are what we are. I like an intensely well crafted story, careful language, depth of meaning—except when I don’t.

Who’s on your list?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Spring Flowers are Not Delicate

Photo credit:

Daffodils. Forsythia. Their names suggest freshness and delicacy. They come, tender and yellow and lovely, out of the soil or from old stalks, when the air warms up. One is tempted to think they are weak in their fragile courage. After all, doesn't the summer heat scare them away?

This year, when the weather has been halting between extremes, this lesson has come home to me: these flowers are anything but fragile. Two days ago it was 30 degrees. I, softened by the warm weather and too many years in this temperate climate, could hardly stand the sharp wind. My winter coat was at the dry-cleaners and I had only a thin jacket to keep off the cold. A couple of hours out of doors without sunshine and I was miserable. The daffodils … they suffered too. They looked droopy, their yellow heads hung down, and I thought they were doomed. But come a little warm sun and they perked up again. They're bright and healthy today again.

The tiny yellow forsythia blossoms, so delicate they seem to be made of butterfly wings, should be dead, too, by my logic. It's frosted the windshield more than once since they made their appearance on those old bare stalks. And yet here they were again today, looking unfazed by the weather's whims.

I could go on. Other people probably have known this all along. I'm sure there's some perfectly logical, ecological explanation for all this. The flowers have adapted for this cold weather; they're able to endure swings of temperature common to springs the world over. They have to be or they wouldn't have survived. Yes, yes, of course, all that must be true. And yet, in some fundamental way, I mistook delicacy of beauty for delicacy of constitution. No doubt men (like me) have been doing this for endless ages. And so I register my fault.

But even more, since in the rhythm of nature I experience spring as a dawning of hope, a promise of newness after the barren winter, I take a lot of solace from those resilient blooms.

No, spring flowers are not delicate. They are as tough as an old tree. And so is their promise.

I'm not the only one thinking about this:
The daffodil: a hardy bloomer, heralding spring

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Editing as Following the Story

stream in the redwoods
Photo credit: inajeep
I've made no secret that I'm perpetually reworking a story I wrote several years ago (See Snow White and Her Shepherd). Recently I took it up again, after another break. Some parts still aren't jelling for me. But after all these several rewrites, what more can I do?

What I've come to see this time through the story is that I've gotten better at what feels like an essential skill of my craft: following the story. Seem obvious? At the rewrite stage, this is very difficult to do. There's a kind of inertial drift to the story. It goes this way, because it's already down on paper this way. And something in me has tended to resist upsetting the order or the drift of the words already there. One has to get past that readerly impulse that treats a story as a thing complete, wrapped around in cellophane, observable but beyond shaping. "Following the story" is different than reading what you've already written. It may mean ignoring what you've written.

The whisper of the story comes, for me, by way of nagging sensations of doubt. What is my hero doing here? What happened to the wound he received on page 12? Why is this land lush and green and not dry and wind-blown? Or why is it built up like a medieval fortress when it should be earthy and wild?

The key, the thing I feel I'm getting better at with practice, is the capacity to trace the offending element to its root and excise it. But rarely can you get away with a surgical removal. The thing that's offending is bound up with your original misperception of the story. In taking it out, you are changing the fabric of the whole. And so, at least for me, you have to begin following the story forward again, from that point. You have to listen patiently for every change that your excision requires, as you read, edit, rewrite, rework, mold the materials of the story.

But it's this constant listening, this ear to the story, to following its course as you would a fragile stream in a thick wood, under heavy brush and leaves, not knowing--again--where precisely it will take you. It's the admission that you're following--not reading, but searching out the story again. That's key.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Gunmen in the Park

The last words you want to hear at a public park, out with your children, especially these days: "Put your hands in the air."

It took me a moment to register this. I'd heard the sirens--they aren't that uncommon--and I'd been watching my boys play on the "fort" some fifteen feet away. The policeman's voice came from over my shoulder, and I turned my head to look.

"Hands where I can see them," he repeated. The officer was big, and more sirens were screeching behind us. I followed his gaze and then I saw them. My children were between me and three young men in black and fatigues, standing with their arms raised. I stood and walked to the play set.

"Boys, come on down from there," I said, calmly. Maybe too calmly. I didn't want to scare them. But the park, a bustle of happy cries a moment before, had gone quiet as a museum. My boys were transfixed, too. Then my youngest slid down, while the other stood his ground, watching it unfold.

"Come down. Hurry up," I said. The reality of the situation was starting to set in. The tallest two youngsters, boys really, wore long black trench coats, and they were not thirty feet away. And my oldest was still between me and them. I tugged him off the play set, corralled his younger brother, and crouched down behind the laughable protection of a chain ladder countless children had used to climb into the "fort."

The police officer had raised his voice again and he was now nearer the youngsters. I don't remember that he had a gun drawn. I don't remember a taser. I do, though, remember the moment he reached them and took their guns. They were long, assault-rifle-looking guns. And he said something like, "You scared people."

toy guns
Image from
I don't know what happened after that. The guns, I think, were toys, or maybe BB guns. The tallest kid should have known better; he might have been in eighth grade, and he had a long, blank face--maybe surly, maybe annoyed, but not obviously sorry. The middle child was maybe in fifth or sixth grade; he was the one with the fatigues. The youngest was only a small child, maybe a year older than my second-grader.

It took a long time for the situation to dissolve, though, I do know that. The police cars sat for several minutes with their flashers pulsing, and more still without them. The arresting officer took the young men behind a building and, presumably, to his cruiser parked out of sight. He was carrying their guns, and I was left with the boys, wondering how soon was too soon to let them play normally.

Meanwhile, as I held on to them, reassuring them, explaining that it was only a mistake, keeping my voice steady because … oh my God, it could have been something a lot worse … I realized something I hadn't before: only after the crisis had passed did I understand what could have happened. Like most people, I assume more innocence in the world than evil, even after all I've watched unfolding on the news. I just don't have it in me to expect mass murder. Neither did anybody I saw in the park that day. Nobody fled in a panic. And I can't say I'm sorry for that. In fact, I think it's those of us who don't expect it or think it's normal who will ultimately press for the real changes that are needed: an end to bullying, an end to hate-speech, to stock-piling and paranoia, to the glorification of violence. Sensible gun regulations. Kindness in public places. Care for outcasts. These are the kinds of changes that could make for a world where I won't have to do more than I did in the park that day.

And, as it turns out, when you think about it, I was right, wasn't I? Those boys weren't bent on killing us all, now were they? So maybe believing the best about people isn't such a bad place to start after all.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Border Crossing

doe in the yard
This week a one-antlered buck stood on my leaf pile, surveying the yard. Three does were with him, munching on my lawn. The eldest curled herself up by the fence. The younger ones ranged around her, one by the bird bath, chewing endlessly on a tuft of grass; the other worked her way from the bare-limbed pear tree to the ivy at the edge between my yard and my neighbors', where she, like her mother or sister, nested in the shade.

I went away, changed clothes, did something or other. And after a while I came back and they were all gone. At least I know now, I thought, why my garden fence is in such disrepair. I know what happened to that parsnip I planted in the fall. I know what the coyotes are yowling at outside my study window after the moon has risen.

It's nice to know.

This year, I'm told, was the warmest in 4000 years. It hasn't been this warm since before Moses walked up Sinai into the cloud that had led his people through the wilderness. Those were days when a pillar of fire led the people by night. But it wasn't as hot as it is now. In the decades to come, say the scientists, it'll peak record temperatures since the last ice age. Which is to say, I'm guessing, since as long as we can tell. I have the feeling, the suspicion, that the last ice age is the limit of our meteorological knowledge. What they're telling us, maybe, is that earth has never been hotter than it's going to get, at least since human life has been here.

Meanwhile, a family of deer have camped in my yard. I don't have much hope for my garden, though I'll try. I'll do my best. And I'll keep my kids indoors at night in case of coyotes.

But it seems odd that the turning of the climate should coincide with the renewal of wildlife in my neighborhood. It seems like this apocalyptic turning should be dire, and I have no doubt it eventually could (and maybe will) be. But just now, it seems only like the first harbingers have crossed back from the wild into unfamiliar places. And it's hard not to welcome them, in spite of my garden.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Winter's Long Fingers

Since last weekend, when I declared the end of Winter and welcomed the beginning of Spring, my faith has been tested.

Monday came chill, and the week unfolded colder and colder by degrees. Sleet tapped at our metal roof, and on the way to town, we saw bare tree branches dressed out in thin layers of ice. Lovely, true; but ever so cold, that damp kind of cold that is winter here in North Carolina.

Yesterday, meager clusters of snowflake fell to the wet ground. By afternoon, I was playing baseball with the boys in the yard, pitting the sunshine against a stiff breeze.

Today, seven days later, the temperature is hovering beneath freezing. And snow is in the forecast for Wednesday. And what will I do? Nothing in me, or the daffodils pushing through the ground, wishes to yield quarter to Old Man Winter. Lovely as his painted trees and delicately engraved flakes are, his time is coming to an end. What will I do? Find the good in a longer winter? Yes, I could do that. Forestall my eagerness for spring? I could try. Admit that I was too eager ... that I was wrong to welcome Spring? I could, but I won't. The birdsong won't allow for it.

I know what I'll do. I'll begin planning my garden. I'll take out the small, portable greenhouse and set it up indoors. I'll plant seeds in peat-pots. I'll mend the garden fence. I'll begin hauling the compost to the beds. I'll plant some hardy crop, and watch it grow--maybe broccoli, for once. Then, when Old Man Winter withdraws his long, cold fingers, I won't be caught unprepared.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The First Day of Spring came in February

Calendars notwithstanding, today was the first day of Spring.


  • my son found a flower growing in the yard
  • I went on a bike ride with my son
  • I was hoeing in my garden, and red potatoes I had planted in the Fall came out, like little eggs given to us by the Easter Bunny
  • I grilled hamburgers for lunch (check and mate!)

Most of all: I wanted it to be Spring. And so did my sons, and my wife, and the birds, especially the one that sang outside my bathroom window this morning. Him especially. He was dying for Spring to be here. No, not dying. He was announcing its arrival.

One must always listen to birds in these matters. They know.

So Happy Spring, if you're lucky enough to live where it came today. And if not, if you're still in winter, hold on. Your hope is soon to be rewarded. Or if you're in summer, rejoice with me, because today Spring came.

It's here. Everything is new again. Bright with promise. And the garden awaits me, its soil dark and damp. Life will come up through the earth, weeds will sprout, trees will bud, birds will ta-ta-tap at my house, bees will eat holes in my porch ... All this is upon me. And this week, with any luck, I'll get the first seeds into the potting soil, and I'll start my plans, ever elaborate and full of schemes, ever derailed by life and accidental seedling deaths -- but not yet. Today all is fresh and green and blooming in my mind. The broken-down garden fence calls to me, pushing aside the last of my winter chores. The rain gutters need my care. My bicycle chain needs oil. My legs need stretching. I'm dreaming of hiking in the woods. I'm gazing at this and that, thinking of paint and hammer and nails. I'm a homeowner astir. I'm a beaver come out of the winter chill.

Yes, Spring is here. I know it in my bones.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Meeting Brer Rabbit

When I was a boy, my father, who was always too busy, would sometimes refer to (but not tell) stories of Brer Rabbit. I suppose, in retrospect, he didn't remember the actual stories, just the gist. Or maybe he feared he wouldn't get the dialect right.

Even so, it awoke in me a thirst to meet this compelling creature, and find out about his mischievous deeds. I did, too, many years later--perhaps as many as thirty years, to be exact.

It happened like this: I had a gift card for a bookstore. A friend, apologizing needlessly for the "lack of thought," had sent me something I would actually use and that felt like a luxury. I used most of it to buy a hardcover edition of The Hobbit, to replace the old paperback that I had foolishly tossed out in a move. (Well, donated to the library ...)

Then, a couple of weeks later, or perhaps a month, I was back at the bookstore with my youngest son, then four years old. He liked to play with the train set they keep in the kids' section of the store. So I went back with him and started browsing the kids' books. You maybe haven't looked in a while; I hadn't. There were depressing quantities of "series" and relatively few stand-alone books. Shelves and shelves and shelves of these series, all with look-alike spines. And then in one corner, half a shelf or so, some "fairy tales."

Shelf of books
This is my shelf, but you get the idea. Can you spot Uncle Remus?

I snooped through them. Most were reproductions of classic tales. But tucked among them, small, in a yellow cover, with a reddish-orange spine, there it was:

JULIUS LESTER The Tales of Uncle Remus PUFFIN. 

I took it off the shelf. You know the feeling: a little tingle goes up your arm. The book has a bit of magic in it. It's been waiting for you. I get that sometimes at the library. Only this time, it could be mine.

The front cover:

The Adventures of Brer Rabbit


Uncle Remus (book cover)

I flipped to the introduction. The LAST thing I wanted was a bowdlerization of a set of tales I'd heard of (but never heard) my whole life. But then again, it was Puffin … A charming introduction by Augusta Baker, dated 1985, calmed my fears. I read part of a story (to the tune of my son's choo-choo). And that was that. I took it to the register and handed it to the clerk.

"Someone's getting a treat," she said, looking at my son.

"Well, we both are," I said, with a shy smile.

I took out my gift card, depleted the last penny of my balance, added a couple of bucks, and it was mine.

Postscript: I read these tales to my boys, with much pleasure, over the course of the next couple of months. I followed it up with a free iBook collection of original Joel Chandler Harris tellings. I like those old ones, yes; but Lester's renderings have a soft spot with me.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I come (to faerie) because

Like most of you, I stumbled into faerie, following some half-heard pipe over a half-seen hill.

Through the wood-shade, across the voices of a stream. Lay back on grass there, with tall blooming lace and the green perfume of a thousand stems. Dangled my fingers in the water there, among the pebbles and the flitting guppies. Made a house for a grasshopper in my hands, felt the scratch of his feet on my palm. Raced through its pasture. Swung from the branches of a tree.

I come back because the world of the city of men is more blurry. It's more blurry here, the beauty harder to find, winking out between eyelashes. And I need the keen edge of faerie to find it. Or the city-world becomes, for me, too dull for words. Too void of sensation, that layer of feeling, like a cocoon of forgetting.

That's why.

Postscript. This in reply to a question by Terri Windling: "What brought us here to the numinous landscape of Faerie, and why do we stay?" See the conversation at Myth & Moor: The Desire for Dragons

Sunday, February 10, 2013

iA Writer - My Review

This is the first text I've typed on my new text editing program, iA Writer. App purchasers crowed about how it helps you focus on the text you're writing, and not get distracted by formatting and other things. I don't consider myself a highly distractible person, but I have noticed a tendency to perk up when an email comes into my box. And then there's the occasional icon that tempts me into doing "something else."

The app was on sale (for a limited time!) for $5. And I had an iTunes gift card from Christmas which, admittedly, I should be using for music, since I don't have much. Or should I? Considering that I don't often invest in writing tools, maybe this is the best option. (This is a Mac app, if you haven't figured that out.)

It's early in the game, but I must admit the experience is different. My screen feels more like a type-written page and less like a computer monitor. And yet in some ways I suppose it feels more like an old-fashioned monitor.

In Full-screen mode, you see nothing but what you're typing, and about 21 lines of text (mostly) above it. There's nothing else but a lot of "white space" at the margins; and you have to hover the mouse at the bottom to find out your word count, or hover it at the top to save.

When you're not in Full-screen mode, the window you're typing in looks like a disembodied square of whitish space with plain black text. The margins disappear, but you can still see your icons and so on. That's part of the point: Go into Full-screen and you literally block out everything but the text.

My next task will be to copy and paste something I've been working on in MSWord into the editor and see how it looks. Wish me luck … Okay, that went without a hitch.

The one thing I don't like (or not yet) is that you hit "return" and there's no blank space or other indication (like indent) that you're starting a new paragraph. That seems like it would make editing difficult. If I put two spaces in, will that make it awkward when I export it? Let's find out … Well, not exactly.  It left one return but with an extra space between the two paragraphs. And it turns out that's what it does if you only hit return once. Let's see if that causes a problem for the document I just pasted from Word… Nope, not a problem. So you can either double return or just once, I think … and that leaves it with a space between paragraphs on the other end. (It exports to an .rtf file.)

One last thing: there's a feature called "Focus Mode." When you turn it on, the only sentence you see in black is the one you're typing (or editing). Hit period, and that sentence goes to light gray, and the new words start in dark. Works for editing too: move your cursor to a sentence, and it comes into "focus." Your focus sentence always appears in the middle of the screen. (That feature helped me catch a couple of typos on this post; and spot some poor transitions.)

So my one gripe would be that I have to hit "return" twice to see separation between paragraphs as I type. Most everything else feels strange but potentially helpful. Strangest of all, to me, is that the keyboard itself almost "feels" different, when I'm typing in the program, as if the keys are larger than they used to be. Not sure I want to mess with my writing mojo this way (at least for a novel). But it's great for a blog post!

P.S. I pasted this text from iA Writer directly into the text box on blogger - no issues.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Twice-Read Books

"If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he rereads."
- François Mauriac (courtesy of Kara Monterey, @kmonterey)

Intrigued by this quote, I’ve pulled together a list. This is the order in which they occurred to me. I’ve not been one to read many things more than once, so the list is short. When you’ve looked through it, and been duly shocked and amazed by my tastes, I’d love to see what would be on your list.

The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, The Screwtape Letters
The Bible
Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, The Gambler, Notes from Underground
The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit
Strunk and White
The Brothers Grimm
Stephen Lawhead’s Song of Albion Trilogy (The Paradise War, The Silver Hand, The Endless Knot), Dream Thief
Patricia McKillip's Riddle of Stars Trilogy
The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
Phantastes, by George MacDonald
The Odyssey
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
My Father's Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett
Alice in Wonderland
The Wizard of Oz
Selected Poems of Ezra Pound
Any number of picture books, but especially Dr. Seuss

I don't know that this reveals my "heart," but it says something about the kinds of stories I like. There's a bit of my history in there too, and no doubt some of my personality comes through.


Friday, January 25, 2013

The Arrogance of CGI

If you’ve been watching the latest movie trailers, you know that Hollywood has ramped up its use of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) to create incredible and bizarre worlds and every manner of fantastic creature. In one sense, this is quite an accomplishment, but in another, it’s a kind of arrogance. Because CGI has, in the hands of some movie producers, tried to pull back the veil on the sacred wood. And I’m fighting back.

Let me back up. This observation began within me like a little kernel, planted there after re-reading Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” a little over a year ago. Tolkien said that of all stories, fantasy was least successful as drama (i.e. theater), because the magical parts of the story come off looking ridiculous and unbelievable. At the time I thought (as you might be thinking), “Yeah. But that was before CGI.” Nowadays, a good graphics team can simulate very realistic fairy worlds, believable ogres, fabulous magic smoke, and transformations that would rival the ones that you see in your head when you read.

Aha! (he says, melodramatically)

Intentionally or not (let’s go with it, though, and say intentionally), CGI has come on the scene to lay bare the fairy wood to the all-seeing camera. Now any lover of things fey knows that all-seeing human eyes, close-ups and slow motions, do not mix well with the fairy world. Those who peer into the mysteries do so to their own doom. Pandora: don’t open that box. Young maid: don’t look at the wolf when you enter the castle. Narcissus: don’t look in the water.


When I peer into the computer-generated world of fairy, what do I see? Is it an image of myself, meant to enthrall me to my doom? Is it an illusion that will sidetrack me from the true path, which would lead to the unmaking of the spell that holds me and mine in thrall? Is it a false wisdom that will cost me no end of trouble?

But there’s more. Perhaps old professor Tolkien was right. Maybe even with CGI, the all-seeing stage—the screen—still makes a mockery or a monster of the mysterious realm. Maybe fairy continues to elude us, because we want to ravage its secrets. We’ve lost sight the peril of treading there, and we’ve made the sacred groves into theme parks.

Better yet, maybe seeing the magic wonderfully enhanced (with digital sound) leads us to disbelieve in it, robbing us of the very thing we enter the fairy wood to find: something beyond ourselves.

Perhaps allusion, which is by nature more elusive, is necessary to create the illusion.

(or have I gone too far ...?)

What think ye? Am I just playing here? Is this just a way to plead for the richer experience of reading, of seeing the fairy world in my own head, experiencing the transformations in the words of the storyteller? Is it, worse still, envy at the skill of CGI? At its capacity to make clear the thing I only imagine?

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

Enchanted Castle (cover)

There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots  in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets, and the like, almost anything may happen.

I first encountered E. Nesbit in my little Victorian fairy story collection, “Modern Fairy Stories.” Two of her stories were included in that volume: “Melisande” and “The Magician’s Heart.” The stories were entertaining, but not my favorite in the collection.

This is the first of her novels I’ve read. It was published in 1907, the same year that Ozma of Oz (the third Oz book) came out. I happened to be reading them both at the same time; Ozma to my boys, and this one to myself.

What intrigued me about the book, honestly, was the feeling that “This must have influenced C. S. Lewis.” I thought this because there are two boys and two girls who get caught up into magic at a castle. There’s a mythological, Greek-gods dimension to the magic. But most of all it was the language the children speak, which I seem to recall one of Lewis’s biographers said came from books, not “real life.” (That was A. N. Wilson, whom I have never forgiven for that biography.) Obviously the date of publication and the English setting fit, too. (A quick Google search shows that Lewis was a Nesbit fan and knew he was working in her style.)

But once begun, I found the story intriguing on its own terms and, in some ways, intricately wound. The children get drawn in by degrees and through a series of mistakes in magic. What begins as a nuisance is gradually revealed to be a much deeper, more tangled web. And things that seemed impossible to explain—and deus ex machina plot twists—turn out to have deeper roots in the story. It ties together nicely.

The book also features several fairy tale allusions, most of them humorous, and a bit of horror—nothing too rough for a nine-year-old. Better still, as the quote above shows, Nesbit took seriously in this novel that a fantasy should open up the reader to the mystical dimension just beyond nature—or perhaps always just concealed within it. Like Lewis, her story aims to lift your thoughts to something higher than your mundane experience. It rises at points to genuine mystical feeling.

I needn’t say more. You’ll either read it or, if you’re tempted by a faster resolution, there are plenty of plot summaries on the web.

In fact, I’ll give you one, with analysis (below). Meanwhile, if you’ve read The Enchanted Castle, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

One resolution is enough

I hate making resolutions, because I find that the more I tell myself not to do something, the more I want to do it. Whereas, the more I tell myself I should do something, the harder it gets to do it.

This led me, already at about 18 years of age, to resolve never to make New Year’s resolutions.

Fortunately, that resolution expired a long time ago. And now I’m ready to try a new one. It’s about envy. I hereby resolve to try not to envy other peoples’ success so much.

You see, I’ve spent almost my entire life feeling like an underachiever. (Doesn’t seem to matter that people looking in from outside think I’m the opposite.) By this time of life, I should have … How did that person … while I haven’t yet even …?

That’s a soul-sapping way to live. I’ve tried, more than once, to be happy for those others. I just don’t usually feel it. Maybe I would, if I just kept trying. But one thing I can do, and I’m willing to try to do, is avoid the ugly green feeling, the jaundiced glare. I can at least withdraw from that feeling. I can at least try not to envy the success of someone else. I know well enough that nobody’s life is easy, however it looks from outside. I know that whatever they’ve gained, they have the opportunity—like me—to feel like it isn’t good enough.

But I hope they don’t feel that way. And I’d be shocked if the most successful people allow themselves to glut on that feeling.

While I’m at it this confession business, here’s the really humbling thing I need to do, and that’s learn from the success of others. Where did I get the idea that I had it all figured out? Stupid. I’m just stumbling along here like everybody else. Only I seldom succeed at things I most want to succeed at, because I shrink from failure. I don’t put myself out there for criticism. I don’t take the necessary steps.

So that’s another resolution, wound up in the first. Knock off the envy, one; and try to learn from the people who succeed. Imitate them if you like how they did it; don’t if you don’t. But don’t be all “Well I could have done it too if I had …” Don’t. Ever.

There. That ought to last me another twenty years.

Here's some related reading, if you like: 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

This Year - A Few Highlights

Here are some highlights of year 2012. (I'll keep it brief.)

I published my first story, “The Unicorn Hunt” and had a second (“Stonepit”) accepted into an anthology (I’ll keep you posted when it comes out).

I sent out about 10 stories, some more than once. That includes the two above (and two mentioned below).

I did a fair amount of writing. By my count, I wrote (at least in first-draft form) nine short stories. I rewrote (yet again) my first and still most maddening fantasy novel, Foldwin the Shepherd. I wrote and lightly revised a very short novella, with the working title A Dryad Dream. And I finished and edited (first round) a new novel, tentatively entitled Unfoldings. Whew. And I had thought it was an off year.

I went on at least three awesome hikes with my wife and boys here in North Carolina. I also took them fishing, and my youngest caught his first ever fish.

I broke down and bought an iPad. I also broke down and got a Twitter handle (@pylefantasy). Those things aren't related, I swear it.

I discovered a fascination with Middle Grade fiction. The Tale of Despereaux was an ally in this.

I took a sudden and powerful interest in my family tree. I’ve made astounding progress tracing it back, in some cases into the sixteenth century. All this from scratch as of April.

As an outworking of that, in October I made a meaningful trip to Tennessee, to the gravesite of my ancestor Conrad Pile. Saw the valley where he settled down, among the first to till the land there.

I don’t mean to make it sound like there weren’t any bumps along the way. But I like to lift out the good days, don’t you? What highlights, celebrations, joys, for you this year past?


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