What Madeline Said

Recently, I came across some quotations from Madeline L’Engel, and they seemed to me so useful, and so essentially true, that I thought I would make a list of them here. I read in part to get myself through the difficulties of life, and I’m always grateful for a book that takes me away from them, and at the same time teaches me how to deal with them more effectively. Because life is difficult, isn’t it? If you think it isn’t, you’re very lucky . . . or haven’t been paying attention. That doesn’t mean a book has to be therapeutic. The fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson have more to teach us, I think, than many self-help books.

I first read L’Engle as a child: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind at the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Those books were infinitely comforting to me. They said, the universe is bigger than you know. Evil exists, but you can fight it. You have allies, the whole of creation is your ally.

So if you’re in need of some wisdom, as I am right now, here are a few quotations from L’Engle. May they help.

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

“A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete. A self is always becoming.”

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability . . . To be alive is to be vulnerable.”

“Some things have to be believed to be seen.”

“Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth.”

“We are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes.”

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”

“Inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it.”

“But unless we are creators we are not fully alive. What do I mean by creators? Not only artists, whose acts of creation are the obvious ones of working with paint of clay or words. Creativity is a way of living life, no matter our vocation or how we earn our living. Creativity is not limited to the arts, or having some kind of important career.”

“We don’t want to feel less when we have finished a book; we want to feel that new possibilities of being have been opened to us. We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.”

“I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their own validity no matter what.”

“It’s a good thing to have all the props pulled out from under us occasionally. It gives us some sense of what is rock under our feet, and what is sand.”

“If it can be verified, we don’t need faith . . . Faith is for that which lies on the other side of reason. Faith is what makes life bearable, with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys.”

“That’s the way things come clear. All of a sudden. And then you realize how obvious they’ve been all along.”

“Only a fool is not afraid.”

“I do not think that I will ever reach a stage when I will say, ‘This is what I believe. Finished.’ What I believe is alive . . . and open to growth.”

“Stories are like children. They grow in their own way.”

“On the other side of pain, there is still love.”

Madeline L'Engle

Stonecoast: Wizard of Earthsea

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the workshop I led at Stonecoast last winter, on fantasy writing. I mentioned that I had given the students a series of quotations, and we had discussed them as examples of various writing issues and techniques. This is one of the quotations I used to talk about character: the beginning of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. But there’s so much more going on here than the establishment of character! I have a list of writers that I learned from myself, as a writer. Le Guin is one of the most important of them. She’s one of the reasons I try to write clearly, fluidly. I think lyricism is based on clarity of expression. She’s also one of the reasons I try to write about ideas, as much as I try to write about characters. She’s one of my models for what a courageous writer looks like.

So what is she doing here, in this opening?

“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns on its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.

“He was born in a lonely village called Ten Alders, high on the mountain at the head of the Northward Vale. Below the village the pastures and plowlands of the Vale slope downward level below level towards the sea, and other towns lie on the bends of the River Ar; above the village only forest rises ridge behind ridge to the stone and snow of the heights.

“The name he bore as a child, Duny, was given to him by his mother, and that and his life were all she could give him, for she died before he was a year old. His father, the bronze-smith of the village, was a grim unspeaking man, and since Duny’s six brothers were older than he by many years and went one by one from home to farm the land or sail the sea or work as smith in other towns of the Northward Vale, there was no one to bring the child up in tenderness. He grew wild, a thriving weed, a tall, quick boy, loud and proud and full of temper. With the few other children of the village he herded goats on the steep meadows above the river-springs; and when he was strong enough to push and pull the long bellows-sleeves, his father made him work as a smith’s boy, at a high cost in blows and whippings.” — Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

First, notice that we are on the move: just as in the beginning of The Hobbit (which I discussed two blog posts ago), we as the readers are in motion. This time, we begin above the island itself, looking at it from what is often called a bird’s eye view. That’s a particularly accurate description here, because we swoop down over the island, from its high peak toward the towns on its slopes, then down still further, to its ports and bays. We fly up again toward the village of Ten Alders, and then we are with the boy who will become Ged, watching him herd goats in the meadows. It’s as though we’ve landed in the branch of a tree, and are watching this intractable boy. At the beginning of Le Guin’s book, we are the Sparrowhawk. We move as the hawk moves.

This happens thematically as well. The opening moves from a grander, larger view toward a smaller, more intimate one: Sparrowhawk to Ged to Duny. Dragonlord to archmage to goat herd. The Deed of Ged to this story, of the days before his fame. But as it moves downward and inward, it has already told us that it will move upward and outward: the boy we are going to study and spend time with will become something we can scarcely comprehend: archmage and dragonlord. We will start in Ten Alders, but the journey will eventually take us from isle to isle of all Earthsea.

I’ve become convinced that one way to introduce tension into a scene, any scene, is through opposition: show the reader opposites. This entire scene is structured by the oppositions between boy and man, village and world, present and future. Even the opposition between poetry and prose, because somewhere out there is the Deed of Ged, but this is not that story.

It’s a brilliant opening.

A Wizard of Earthsea tells a story that sounds, on the surface, a bit like Harry Potter: boy goes to study magic at a school for wizards. And yet it’s also about as unlike Harry Potter is it could be. It’s less popular, although I suspect it will become more of a classic. I think it’s less popular because although Ged also has to defeat an evil that he first meets at his magical school, in A Wizard of Earthsea that evil is himself. That’s not as much fun as defeating a villain like Voldemort, is it? Harry Potter is more fun. But A Wizard of Earthsea is deeper. It’s less wish-fulfillment, more a deep lesson about the self, a lesson we eventually all have to learn. J.K. Rowling is a very good writer. Ursula Le Guin is something more than that.

But here I’m talking specifically about her writing technique. This is an opening every writer should study, for the way it moves, the way it has us enter the story. Like the opening of The Hobbit, it’s genius . . .

Wizard of Earthsea

(This is the version of A Wizard of Earthsea that I read as a child, and still own. Predictably, I had the boxed set of all three books.)

How I Do It

Sometimes, I don’t do it very well. But I keep doing it . . .

This blog is inspired by two articles I read lately about female writers: “The Price I Pay to Write” by Laura Bogart, which was itself a response to “‘Sponsored’ by My Husband: Why It’s a Problem That Writers Never Talk About Where Their Money Comes From” by Ann Bauer. Bauer wrote about how getting married and being supported financially by her husband had given her the time she needed to write. Bogart wrote in response about how she struggles without that sort of support — what writing is like when no one is sponsoring you.

Since then, I’ve seen several writers describe how they, individually, make it work . . . and I thought I would add my voice to the mix. I was particularly prompted by a friend, an editor, who posted on Facebook, “I’m pretty sure that people who write publishable books and also have full-time jobs are magical creatures, like unicorns.” Which makes me a unicorn, I suppose . . .

Because I have a full-time job, and a part-time job, and I write. I can’t afford to do it any other way.

Here’s how I do it. My full-time job is teaching undergraduate writing at Boston University. I teach a 3/3 schedule, which means that each semester I teach three classes. I’m in class nine hours a week, and then on top of that I prepare for class, meet with students, and comment on their papers. In a typical week, I’ll spend more than forty hours on my full-time job. And I’ll spend extra time making sure that I’m up on what I’m teaching, meaning that I’ve read the latest books and articles on the topic I’m teaching. After all, I’m supposed to be a scholar, teaching my students to think like scholars, or at least take the same time and care as scholars would in their research. Right now I’m teaching fairy tales, so all of that research is pure pleasure for me . . . I love reading fairy tale scholarship and keeping up with the popcultural discourse on fairy tales. I don’t always love commenting on grammar errors, but that’s part of my job — and honestly, I’ve learned a lot from doing just that. It’s not always the most comfortable job in the world — yesterday I walked several miles back and forth from classes in the cold and snow, because the trolley system isn’t working after our record snowfalls. But it gives me a steady income, health insurance, and most importantly the freedom to teach topics I love. I get to structure my own classes and much, although not all, of my own workday. I’m very lucky to have a job I love doing.

Or rather, two jobs I love doing. My second job is teaching graduate creative writing students in the Stonecoast MFA Program. Each summer and winter I go teach a residency at Stonecoast, and in the spring and fall, I mentor three to four students. I read and critique their writing, and we talk about writing issues. It’s more challenging, in terms of the writing issues involved, than teaching undergraduates: we’re focused not on the mechanics of writing, but on the art. On creating characters who come alive, a setting that you’re convinced is real. On moving a story at the right pace. On the practical side, these two jobs give me what I think of as a solidly middle-class income. Not as much as I earned my first year out of law school, twenty years ago. But as much as an experienced legal secretary would be earning. Enough for necessities and some luxuries. (By luxuries I mainly mean books.)

I have two extraordinary expenses that I can’t do much about. First, I live in Boston, which is one of the most expensive cities in the country. People from places like Asheville, North Carolina grow pale when I mention my rent. It takes up fully a third of my income, for a comfortable but certainly not large one-bedroom apartment. Second, I have a ten-year-old daughter, for whom I share responsibility. I want to make sure that she has what she needs, like clothes for a growing girl (the speed with which she destroys jeans is truly astonishing), and also some luxuries, like cello lessons and trips to the museum.

I consider myself very lucky: I can pay my bills, which include student loan payments from when I was in graduate school and pregnant with my daughter, so I couldn’t teach. I can afford some things that make life more comfortable and pleasant, like good chocolate. But I try to reduce my expenses as much as possible. I don’t own a car. I buy most of my clothes at either The Gap or Goodwill. I almost never go out to eat, and when I travel it’s usually because I need to be somewhere for a conference or research. It’s almost always on business.

So where does writing fit into all this? Well honestly, it fits into the nooks and crannies. It fits in whenever I can fit it in. I suppose it fits in where other people would be watching television? Or knitting, I don’t know. I try to fit it in wherever I can. Which means that I’m less productive than many of my friends who are making a living from writing. They simply have a lot more time to write. That’s the downside — the upside is that I’m not sure it makes a difference in terms of quality. If I weren’t working, I would probably be writing more — but I’m not sure I would be writing better. When I think about the writers I love, they didn’t write a lot, or at least not as much as it would have taken to support themselves simply by writing: Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen, Angela Carter. But they wrote supremely well. Some of them were lucky enough to be supported in various ways, but those were other times. I’m not sure being supported is a particularly good idea now, and I suspect that Austen, if she were alive today, would have a job. She would be supporting herself.

Who knows how it will work out for me. I hope the novel I’ve written is good, I hope I can write the sequel. I hope there will be other novels, short stories, essays, poems. There are times I get tired, times I get dispirited. But I think we all do, no matter our circumstances. For the most part, I love what I do.

So how do I do it? I just work very, very hard. Perhaps someday it will be easier — I’d like it to be. I’d like more time to write. But in the meantime, I fit writing in whenever and wherever I can. I suspect many of us do.

Boskone 2

(This was me at Boskone last weekend, being the writer rather than the teacher or academic . . .)

Stonecoast: The Hobbit

I want to write a couple more posts about my experience at the Stonecoast residency this winter. As you know if you read my last post, Stonecoast is a low-residency MFA Program in which I teach, which means that I go up to Maine for residencies in the winter and summer, and then mentor students during the spring and fall semesters. This past residency, I led an elective workshop on writing fantasy. Most of the workshop was spent critiquing the stories students had submitted. But we also talked about the particular challenges of writing fantasy. The first day we talked about setting, then characters, then plot, then style. I thought I would talk for a bit here about creating setting in fantasy fiction, because it presents problems that realistic writers don’t have to deal with.

Basically, when you’re writing fantasy, you may be setting your story in a world that doesn’t exist. It can be much easier for a realistic writer, because he or she will have points of reference for the reader. “I walked through Central Park” immediately conveys an image to most readers (who have been in Central Park, or more likely seen it in movies or on television). “I walked through the gardens of the temple of Ashera” tells the reader exactly nothing. It conveys absolutely no visual image, except perhaps a green horizontal thing beside a gray vertical thing. So as a fantasy writer, you often have to work harder.

The day we talked about setting, I brought in a quotation for us to discuss. You’ll recognize it at once:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that meant comfort.

“It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill — The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it — and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had a whole room devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms of all were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows, looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

“This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses have lived in the neighborhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how one Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbors’ respect, but he gained — well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.” — J.R.R. Tokien, The Hobbit

That’s Tolkien at his most brilliant, getting you right into the story by describing where we are, by giving us setting. But notice how cleverly he’s doing it, and what risks he takes. In a hole in the ground lived . . . what? A hobbit. We have no idea what a hobbit is, so he has to tell us, not by telling us, but by describing that hole in the ground. He’s not actually going to tell us what a hobbit is until later. The reference to a hobbit can make us feel displaced, so he’s going to place us: we’re in a hole. He starts by doing something I was taught not to do in writing workshops: telling us what isn’t there, what that hole is not like. It’s not dirty or wet or dry or sandy. No, it’s comfortable. And then he describes it.

One thing I’ve come to understand from teaching writing is that to work, writing needs tension: you need to feel things pulling against each other. Tolkien starts that pulling right at the beginning: the tension between our assumptions and the truth. We think a hobbit hole might be nasty, but it’s not. Look . . .

And then Tolkien takes us on a tour. One continual problem with how writers describe setting is that they stop, and then they describe. We are still. Tolkien describes the hobbit hole, but notice that we are on the move: we enter through the door, move down the hall, hang up our hats. (Just as the dwarves will, later in the chapter. We are the hobbit’s guest before they are. We are the storyteller’s guest, and only at the end do we realize that in a sense, the storyteller was the hobbit all along.) Then we keep moving down the hall as it follows the curve of the hill. We look out the window, over the garden and down to the river. Then we are finally introduced to our host.

And do you notice where the novel begins? At the end of the third paragraph! There it is, bam: this is the story of how one hobbit had an adventure. So we have another source of tension: a hobbit went on an adventure. He found himself doing and saying things, and he lost . . . something. Found and lost, lost and gained: can you see the wonderful balance of the passage? We’re at the beginning, and we’re already talking about the end.

Tension comes from the juxtaposition of opposites, which we have plenty of in this passage. Suspense comes from things we don’t understand: we start by not knowing what a hobbit is, and we end by not knowing what the adventure is. And so we begin our story.

This is one of the most brilliant openings in English literature. By the end of the chapter, a great deal will have happened, and in the second chapter Bilbo will be off . . . no dawdling for the hobbit or Tolkien either. And from that second chapter on, he will always be in trouble. The narrator will be throwing rocks and rings and wargs at him.

These are the sorts of things we discussed in our workshop. In my next post on Stonecoast, I’ll talk about character . . .


A Still Place

I haven’t posted for a while, and it’s partly because I’ve been so busy. Mostly because I’ve been so busy. But there’s something else . . .

I feel as though I’m in a still place, a place of stasis. That’s not necessarily bad. Stillness is also peaceful, and I’ve been feeling less frantic than I have in a long time. It’s a good place: I love everything I’m doing. I love teaching undergraduate writing at Boston University, I love teaching my graduate creative writing students at Stonecoast. I have enough money to cover my living expenses and some luxuries, which certainly hasn’t always been the case. (Graduate school — ugh.) I live in a beautiful apartment, in a beautiful city. I just happen to have the best daughter in the world.

But it’s a strange place, too, because I’m not used to standing still. I’m used to things happening, to continually moving toward. Or, you know, away from . . . I’m used to a sense of motion, rather than stillness. It’s strange, for me, to think that I could stay here for the rest of my life, and it would be a perfectly good life. If nothing changed, I would be fine. Of course, that never happens. Things always change: if nothing else, I will get older. Nevertheless, if I stayed here, where I am, for a long time — it would be perfectly fine. And sometimes that fills me with a sense of panic.

Winter Storm 1

I think it’s because I’ve spent my entire life moving from place to place, adjusting to new circumstances. Hungary to Belgium to the United States. Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to Boston. To Richmond to New York to Boston again. University of Virginia to Harvard to Boston University. And now here I am, having lived in Boston for a long time, having been at Boston University for more than ten years, as a student and then teacher. A great deal has happened in that time — and it’s really only in the last few months, since I settled into this apartment, that I feel as though I’ve arrived someplace. That I’m not just transitioning from one place to another. There’s something lovely about feeling settled. But I’m not used to it.

I suppose what I should be thinking is, I’ve come to a place that I can build on. Here, where I feel both strangely at peace and agitated from that strangeness, I can finally start to build what I want to, which is books — I want to build out of words. My first full-length novel is already with my lovely agent. I just sent him a synopsis of the second novel. And I do have so many ideas, for novels and stories and essays . . .

So I suppose my advice to myself should be: settle in and work.

Winter Storm 3

The other thing I need to remember, to remind myself of, is that nothing ever stays the same. Stasis is, in the end, an illusion. The world may feel still, but it’s spinning. Everything we do, every choice we make, can change what happens. Who knows what will happen with this novel, or the one after it, or the one after that. The more we do, the more opportunities we are given to do things. And that sometimes means we are overwhelmed with work (ahem). But it also means we get to do amazing things . . .

I have already gotten to do a lot of amazing things. And I intend to do more.

So I need to take this stillness as the gift it is — a time when nothing seems to be happening, and I can maybe catch up, take a breath. Get ready for whatever is to come.

Winter Storm 4

(These pictures are from our snowstorm last week. Today we are having another snowstorm, and once again university classes are cancelled. I don’t remember them being cancelled twice in one semester . . . ever. Not since I arrived here more than ten years ago. This is a particularly heavy winter, just right for being contemplative.)