The Horns of Elfland

I don’t know why I write fantasy.

I mean, I’m pretty sure I write fantasy because as a child I read fantasy. But why was I drawn to fantasy in the first place? When I was a child, all I wanted to read were books about magic. I read Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. I read fairy tales, and the Oz books, and The Once and Future King. Sometimes I would pick up books that seemed to be about magic, and they would not be, and I would get very angry at them. I would feel as though I had somehow been tricked. Bridge to Terabithia and The Witch of Blackbird Pond earned my ire. There was no witch, there was no Terabithia except in the children’s imagination, and what was the point of that? If the magic wasn’t real, I wanted no part of it.

Now, as an adult and writer, I will not write a book in which the magic isn’t real. I won’t promise you magic and not deliver, because that would have made my child-self furious.

But why was I so drawn to fantasy in the first place? Looking back, I can see that my obsession with Narnia, and Earthsea, and Middle Earth, had to do in part with the fact that I was an immigrant. I had lost my country of origin, and because these were the bad old days of an Iron Curtain across Europe, that country was as lost to me as Naria is to the Pevensies after Aslan tells them they must leave. There was no way to go back, not then. And I did not have a magical wardrobe. It also had to do with my sense of displacement — where did I belong? Nowhere in particular. I read books about imaginary countries to belong somewhere. While I was reading, I could pretend, for a while, that I belonged in Prydain or at Green Knowe.

But I loved books about magic happening in the real world as well. I still remember the strange little rhyme that Mrs. Tuggle sings in The Witch’s Sister and its sequels. I adored Carbonel and Mary Poppins and the house with a clock in its walls. Stories about magic happening in our world promised me that it was not as dull and ordinary as it appeared — that our real world had the possibility of magic in it. And I needed that promise, as I think all children do, because despite how we romanticize it, childhood is hard. When you’re a child, the world is large and doesn’t make much sense. Adults are continually telling you what to do. Other children can be cruel.

I even loved books that were what I might call fantasy-adjacent, like The Secret Garden or The Wind in the Willows. They, too, promised that there were hidden powers in the world, although we might not call them magic. The chapter in which Mole and Rat meet the god Pan is still one of my favorite episodes in English literature.

At that point in my life, I wanted to be a witch. When I grew up, I became the closest thing to one, which is a writer. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that witches cast spells: both witchcraft and writing are about using language to alter reality.

In “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien says some people simply have a taste for fantasy, while others don’t — and if they do as children, they will likely have it their entire lives. I’ve found that to be true. I moved from Nesbit to Anne McCaffrey to Isabel Allende without ever losing my love of magic. I still want to know that there are hidden powers and possibilities in the world, behind the facade of the everyday. I want to know that circumstances can change, that wishes can come true, that somewhere out there, someone or perhaps the universe itself loves us.

The title of this blog post comes from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

I think there are some people who hear the horns of Elfland, and some who do not. That’s all right . . . not everyone has to hear the same music. Those who hear them are the ones who long for magic, who try the backs of all the wardrobes just in case, who wait for their letters from Hogwarts, who secretly in their hearts believe that there is a deeper, truer life than this one, and perhaps even live as though there were. They make their homes in cottages out of fairy tales, or keep bees, or recite poetry. They talk to cats, and wait for a response. I do think, although this is based on no empirical evidence, only personal observation, that more people nowadays hear the horns of Elfland than when I was a child. There are more books about magic, there is more fantasy in media of all sorts, and that makes a difference. There is also a widespread view that we have lost something essential in our lives — we are losing the environment, we are losing handicrafts and old hobbies, we are even losing community with other human beings, and that loss is being felt. It makes us long for the ordinary magic of sitting under a tree, or weaving a tapestry, or telling stories with friends.

Nowadays, I make magic, or at least I try to. I sit down with pen and paper, or at a computer screen, and I put down words. Hopefully, when you read them, castles will rise above you, hills and green meadows will unroll around you, the sky itself will unscroll its myriad stars. Hopefully you will hear and see and, most importantly, feel my world and its characters. This is what it means to be a spell-caster, a witch or do I mean writer, a wielder of words.

I still hear the horns of Elfland. Nowadays, I try to transmit what they are blowing, to capture their music in my own language. But I know that the music comes from beyond me, as does the magic itself — that I am a sort of translator of what is already there, the underlying magic of reality. I feel it now even more than I did as a child. Adults are not necessarily more obtuse than children — we can also choose to become more sensitive. We can learn to hear the music better. Nowadays, hopefully, the horns of Elfland blow through me as well . . .

(The image is The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton.)

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Love, Home, Work

I’m the sort of person who makes lists.

I make lists of things to do. I make lists of things I’ve done. I make lists of books I want to read, clothes I want to buy, tasks I want to complete. I find that lists help me clarify my thinking, focus on my goals. And of course it’s always satisfying to cross items off once you’ve found, achieved, or completed them.

Several years ago, I started making lists of things I wanted in my life — not just what I wanted to read or buy or do, that week or the next, but ultimate goals. The lists contained anywhere from eight to twelve items. I would describe them elaborately, I suppose from the notion that if I could articulate what I wanted, I could have it . . . naming it would function as a kind of magic, a summoning. And it did in some ways — at least it helped me clarify in my own mind what it was I actually wanted (rather than what people told me I should want), and focus on getting those things in my life. I still have one of those lists pinned to my cork board, where I can look at it every day and see whether I’ve worked on the items listed. Today I’ve worked on six of the items — unintentionally, since it’s been such a busy day that I haven’t thought of anything but the immediate tasks at hand. Still, it’s a good way to check oneself . . .

But recently, I sat down to look at those lists again, potentially revise them, and it occurred to me that what I wanted in life could be described very simply, in three words: love, home, work. And that I was doing very well at one of those, somewhat well at another, and at yet another, not well at all.

The one I was succeeding at was work. This goal was about doing the work I love, and I’ve succeeded at that: I’m teaching writing, and of course I’m also writing. The last few years have been difficult, but they’ve been difficult because I’ve done so much. I will soon have had three novels published in three years, and there are all sorts of other projects in the offing. Work can be hard, work can be frustrating, but I’m very lucky to be doing what I do. It’s also the category that I have the most control over — I design my courses and seminars, I decide which books to write. It’s where I have the most freedom.

The one I was doing somewhat well at was home. Recently, I was told the building in which I live would be renovated, and I would need to find a new apartment. I looked around me and realized that despite living here three years, I had never finished furnishing this apartment. There are still paintings stacked against a wall, still furniture that needs to be reupholstered. It’s a charming apartment, but it has never felt like home. I spent two weeks looking for a new one, stressed and worried about trying to find a place to live in one of the most difficult rental markets in the country. Finally, I found a place — the first floor of a house in an old neighborhood with tree-lined streets, where, when I walked down the street, all I heard was birdsong. I was anxious about the expense — it was, of course, right at the top of my price range, the very most I felt I could afford. But it’s large and sunny, with high ceilings, tall windows, and old plank floors that are probably original to the house. It has an office for me, and a porch on which I can grow flowers. It’s not, I’m sure, where I will ultimately end up, but for now at least, it will be a perfect home. And I intend to make it that — this time, I will hang all the pictures on the walls.

Love was the one at which I was failing. I use the word “love” both broadly and specifically, including the wide network of family and friends, all the people one loves, all the significant others as well as any particular ones. In doing all the work, I realized, I had not left enough time for people. There is always this tension in the lives of what we call “creatives” — art takes so much time and effort, and often there is no time to socialize, to form bonds, even to talk on the phone. Last month, when I was finishing up my third novel, everything else fell by the wayside as I tried to meet a deadline. My cat, whom I had rescued from the streets of Boston as a kitten, died. I took time to be with her during her illness, but afterward, I did not have time to grieve. I realized then that there was something missing from my life, and that I would need to recalibrate, to find my bearings again.

So I guess I learned three things. The first was that what I want is really much simpler than I thought, that it doesn’t take elaborate lists. The second is that the things I want are variably under my control. I can seek out and create work, I can find and make a home, but I can really only make space and time for love. Human relationships, and other human beings, are still the greatest mysteries of all. The third is that I need balance — that I need love and home as well as work.

You can consider that my new to-do list.

(This is the park near my new apartment, where I will move in the fall. And that was one of the days when I was realizing all this, when it was running through my head, changing my thinking about what I had prioritized, about how I allocated my time.)

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The Thrift Store Rules

I love buying clothes in thrift stores. First because they’re so much cheaper, but second because I can find things in thrift stores that I can’t find in ordinary clothing stores. Floral skirts from the 1980s, when skirts were long and full; wool coats from the 1960s, with labels from companies that went out of business long ago. Cocktail dresses with real boning and structured bodices. I love being able to buy things that are no longer in fashion: one of my latest acquisitions is a black velvet opera cape with gray silk lining and a beaded frog closure.

But it’s easier to make mistakes at a thrift store than in an ordinary store, and over the years I’ve made many. So I’ve developed some rules for myself, which I’ll share with you. Fortunately, if you make a mistake at a thrift store, it’s likely to be a $7 mistake rather than a $70 mistake. Nevertheless, here are my rules (or perhaps I should call them principles), in case you find them helpful.

1. Understand sizes.

The sizes printed on women’s garments mean very little. First, they’ve changed over time. In the 1980s, I would have been a fairly consistent size 6-8. Nowadays, I’m somewhere between a 0-4, except in outerwear meant to go over other clothes, in which case I need a 6. That’s a huge variation: clothing sizes for anything made in the 21st century are wildly inconsistent. I can be an extra-small for some companies, a medium for others. Obviously, these are American sizes: British sizing is closer to the old American sizing, and European sizing is a completely different system altogether. I rather like the clothing labels I see in the European Union, where the size may be given in five different sizing systems . . .

Also, clothes from different eras are fitted differently. A Jessica McClintock skirt from the 1980s will be tighter in the waist and wider in the hips than a modern skirt. Why? Because it comes from a time before we all began exercising our ab muscles. Women’s waists were smaller and more compressible. So if sizes are meaningless, what should you do? You can, of course, try on clothing, but I don’t usually bother because the sort of clothing I buy in thrift stores always looks different after you wash it than in a thrift store dressing room, especially if you alter it in any way. It may hang completely differently . . . (I mostly buy dresses, skirts, and sweaters — if I were buying a pair of pants, I would certainly try it on.)

So I recommend two things. First, learn some general principles of sizing through trial and error. If you like Gunne Sax dresses, figure out how that company sized its dresses and the sort of figure they were meant for. Know that J. Jill garments always run a little large. You can actually learn a lot about fashion history this way . . . Also, carry a tape measure. Waist and bust measurements are usually the most important, and you can measure those flat.

2. Know your fabrics.

Sometimes there’s a fabric tag sewn into the inside right seam. Then you can see what a garment is made of. If you try to avoid wool, as I do (because it’s persnickety to care for and itches), you’ll know not to buy that particular article of clothing. But sometimes the tag has already been cut out, so you need to be able to tell what a garment is made of by feel. That just takes practice. I do still make mistakes — something that I thought was acetate or polyester may turn out to be silk, which is not always a nice surprise (silk can shrink, acetate and polyester won’t).

But practice guessing what a garment is made of and then checking the tag. Eventually, you won’t need to check.

3. Know your eras.

It’s helpful to get a sense for what era a particular garment is from, in part because that will give you information about how to care for it. Dresses from the 1980s are tricky because that was the Age of Drycleaning — many garments were made to be drycleaned. Items from after 1990 that are marked Dry Clean Only can usually be either thrown in the wash on a delicate cycle or washed by hand and then hung to dry. But a dress from the 1980s has often not be pre-shrunk or washed by the previous owner. Even an ordinary cotton dress may shrink by a third, which will make the zippers buckle — and it will be a different length than you anticipated.

Anything from the 1970s will fit you best if you have the body of the 1970s: boyish, flat-chested. Anything from the 1960s was made to be worn over a girdle. Know your eras so you know what to expect in terms of fit and shrinkage . . .

4. Consider alterations.

There are some alterations you can make yourself, even if you’re not a particularly skilled seamstress. You can cut out shoulder pads, cut off belt loops, sew straps on strapless dresses, change buttons, fix broken hooks and eyes. Consider having a well-stocked sewing box with buttons; hooks, eyes, and snaps in silver and black; a selection of needles and pins; thread in the colors you’re most likely to wear.

But there are alterations that, at least for me, require a seamstress. Do you have a seamstress? If not, consider finding one in your neighborhood. Mine owns a local drycleaning business, and she does things that I could not possibly do, like alter waists in such a way that you can’t tell they were altered. So when you love a particular garment but it doesn’t quite fit, ask yourself if it could be altered. Can a too-large skirt be taken in on the side? Can too-long pants be shortened? And — this is the important part — calculate the cost of alteration into the price. If I love a Herman Geist skirt, it may be worthwhile buying it for $6.99 and then paying an extra $25 for alteration. It will be a $31.99 skirt, but you can’t buy Herman Geist anymore, except second-hand, so that’s an entirely reasonable price.

I’m mostly writing about clothes here, but I also buy most of my jewelry second-hand, because I passionately love old silver and marcasite. So I have to consider whether a ring can be sized up or down, and how much that will cost. Is the piece still worth it to me, when I calculate in the necessary alterations? In addition to having a seamstress, I also recommend that you find the following: a good shoe repair shop and a good jeweler. And remember, although getting something fixed or altered will cost a little more, you will be supporting your local economy, instead of sending money to large corporations.

5. Know yourself.

Are you actually going to wear that stunning black silk velvet dressing gown that is so long it drags on the floor? In my case, the answer was no, but it hung in my closet for a long time. Finally I decided to give it to a friend. Same with the silver Sam & Libby sandals that were oh so strappy and oh so uncomfortable. I live in Boston — there are many thrift stores and second-hand shops. The one closest to me is enormous. I could easily come home with bags filled with garments that fit me — but that were not really me. The purple satin Jessica McClintock ball gown eventually just had to go back, because where in the world was I going to wear it? It had a bustle, and it was boned to within an inch of its (and my) life.

These are the things I have learned about myself: I do not wear uncomfortable clothes, no matter how beautiful they are. Wool, even the softest, finest wool, makes me itch and needs to be reserved for garments that don’t touch my skin. I don’t have a lot of time to deal with finicky garments or take dresses, unless they truly are special evening dresses, to the drycleaners. I love pretty purses but they hang, unused, on the wall of my walk-in closet. (I do have a collection of them — after all, one must decorate one’s closet with something.) My personal downfall is hats. I love how they look, but don’t actually like wearing them unless they are knitted hats on cold days. So much for chic little chapeaux . . .

Know what you actually wear and how you actually wear it. After all, you could have bought coffee and a biscotti with that $6.99. On the other hand, if you make a mistake, think of it as a lesson learned . . . That $6.99 paid for a little bit of self-knowledge.

7. Forget perfection.

If a garment were absolutely perfect and pristine, it would probably not be in a thrift store. It’s all right for skirts and sweaters to look a little worn — in fact, it’s better. Once, wearing garments that were lovely and cared for, but obviously worn, was a status symbol. As my European mother said one day, when I was complaining that all my friends had new clothes and I didn’t, “Only the nouveau riche wear new clothes.” So, you know, pretend you’re poor but genteel, and you inherited everything from your grandmother the countess, who had the most exquisite taste.

This rule applies to everything except shoes. Modern women’s shoes cannot be repaired as easily as older shoes could or men’s shoes still can, and most modern cobblers don’t do a very good job — if you’ve found a good one, never let him go. Shoes can have small scuffs, but they really should otherwise be in almost perfect condition, or they won’t last very long. Anyway, you want to take care of your feet, because they’re going to carry you for a long time. Hercules Poirot once said that however a lady might be dressed, she will always wear good shoes. Yes, I know, that’s terribly old-fashioned, and you may not care about looking ladylike. Nevertheless, if you have to pay a lot of money for any item of clothing, let it be good shoes.

8. Be mostly realistic.

There are some things I’ve found over the years that I just had to have. The embroidered silk evening clutch so delicate that it would be impossible to use, yet so fine that it did not belong in a thrift store. The silk scarf with flowers on it that I probably would not wear, but that, again, was so beautiful I simply wanted it in my vicinity.

Still, I mostly try to be practical. Will I actually wear that light blue sweater? Does it fit with what I already own? After all, I’m not running a clothing museum. I have a lot of closet space for a small Boston apartment: a bedroom closet for dresses and skirts, walk-in closet for more dresses and skirts, a hall closet for coats and scarves. I rented this apartment precisely because it had, for an apartment this size, an amount of closet space that I could not have anticipated or imagined. (Seriously, I was giddy at the realization. And a linen cupboard! You never, ever find this sort of thing. I rented my last apartment based on closet space as well.) Nevertheless, I have limited space, and of course limited financial resources. I mean, I’m a teacher, not a fashionista.

So, mostly be realistic, but sometimes be unrealistic, because sometimes you just have to buy the burgundy velvet dress and then find somewhere to wear it. (I wear it to the ballet.)

That’s it, those are my rules. I try to stick to them, but of course I make mistakes, buy clothes I later look at and wonder what I was thinking, who I thought I was at the time. It happens. And then I promise myself, next time I’ll know better, but at least I’ve learned something about myself, and perhaps even about the history of clothing and fashion. So I really should take myself out for coffee and a biscotti . . .

(The painting is A Moment of Contemplation by Fernand Toussaint. I would totally wear this dress.)

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What Will You Serve?

Recently, I was reading an article on how to find your life’s purpose. I always find myself reading articles like that — I’m not sure why, exactly, because I know my life’s purpose, but I suppose because I’m interested in how other people are defining theirs. (I’ve known what I want to do, what I feel as though I’m meant to do, since I was a teenager. The struggle, for me, has been actually doing it — getting through all the clutter of people wanting me to do other things. No one except me wanted for me to be a writer . . .)

The article said pretty much what all such articles say, in my experience: What do you love to do? What will the world reward you for doing? Where and how do those two things intersect? Define your goals, identify the steps to getting there. How do you envision your life? Plan to live the life you’ve always wanted . . .

And I don’t dispute that these are worthwhile things to do. I’ve done them myself: made lists, pinned them up on cork boards. But the article seemed, to me, to miss the heart of the matter. It also missed a very important aspect of trying to create the life you want: you’re going to fail. You’re going to fail over and over again, in a variety of ways. And if you finally succeed, if you’re living the life you’ve wanted for yourself, you will need to create new goals, or you will feel as though something, somewhere, is subtly wrong — as though you’ve gotten what you wanted, and yet it does not satisfy.

Because, here’s the thing: If you’re the sort of person who reads articles on how to find your life’s purpose, what you’re ultimately looking for is meaning. And you don’t find meaning by defining what you want and then getting it. You find meaning by serving something higher than yourself. So the central question I would suggest asking yourself is: What will you serve? To what will you dedicate yourself?

You see, if you’re serving something, if you’ve dedicated your life to something and are working for it, the failures are simply part of the service itself. They do not, really, matter . . . You can serve as well in failure as in success. And living the life you want becomes not a goal, but a process. So, what sorts of things can you serve? Well, you can serve music (by being a musician or composer). You can serve art (by being an artist), knowledge (by teaching), medicine (by healing). You can serve the handicrafts. You can serve birds. You can serve the ocean. There are an infinite number of things you can serve. (I suppose you can also serve things like money and power, but those are not true service — really in those cases you are serving yourself, glorifying yourself. And that is unworthy of you.)

It would be helpful, I think, if we still had gods of various disciplines. It’s easier, in a sense, to serve Asklepios than to serve medicine, or even health, which seem so abstract. So if it helps you, name your god, or if you prefer, your patron saint: Do you serve one of the muses? One of the saints that presides over teaching or metalsmithing or studying orangutans? (If there are no gods or saints for such disciplines, create them.) There are two advantages to naming your god or saint. First, it gives what you do an ethical dimension. You want to serve well. Asklepios has rules and standards for the practice of medicine. Clio demands that you record history accurately. Terpsichore wants to see you at the barre every morning. And second, it gives you something to pray to. We all need something, or someone, to pray to now and then.

I know that in my own life, when the first method, the method of the article, has failed me — when I have not met my goals, when I don’t see how I can possibly achieve the life I want — the second method keeps me going. I can say to myself, but I am writing the book I’m supposed to write. I am teaching to the best of my ability. I am serving the higher purpose for which I was made, and whether I succeed or fail is irrelevant to the fact that I have served, that I have done my part.

What do I serve? It’s not literature, exactly — that is the method, the way in which I serve. But my patron deity is the oldest of them all, Mother Night herself, and everything that, for me at least, she stands for: the darkness before the light, as Goethe put it. She represents the depths of the human mind, the darkness below the earth and above the stars, the formlessness that gives rise to the myriad forms. She is the source of all stories. That is where my writing comes from, when it’s going well. When I’m not sure whether I’m doing the right thing, I can ask myself, what would Mother Night say? And when I’m down and disappointed, I check to see — have I done anything worthwhile lately? Not in pursuit of my personal goals, but in service to the larger purpose of which I am only a part.

You, of course, can pursue your life’s purpose in any way you wish. But I recommend at least considering this way, asking yourself this question. What do you serve? And if you’re not sure, what do you wish to serve? At least, answering that question will teach you something new about yourself, which is always worthwhile.

(The image is Lady of the Night by Don Blanding.)

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The Problem with Screens

I’ve been having trouble updating Facebook and Twitter and this blog. I’ve even been having trouble answering email. No, it’s not a technical problem. It’s a me problem. I’m just so tired of looking at screens.

When did it start? To be perfectly honest, I think it started when I got an iPhone, several years ago now. I still remember my Blackberry with some fondness. It was the best, most fashionable device at the time. It didn’t do much, but it was easy to talk into and type on. I used it mainly to text. And then I got an iPhone. It was difficult to type on (what a pain, those little virtual keys you have to tap), and unpleasant to talk on (when you hold that rectangle up to your ear, anything on your face gets onto the screen — which in my case is foundation). What did I use it for? Primarily to check on social media and take photographs. I like taking photographs, and I even like posting them on Instagram, but I never get around to printing them. They exist only on my computer — on another screen. Other than that, I use my iPhone to Facetime with my daughter and shop on Etsy.

At some point, the ways to get in touch with me proliferated. There was email of course, and then text, and Facebook messenger, and Twitter direct messaging. I get at least a hundred emails every day — from students, the two programs in which I teach, people getting in touch because of my writing (which is my business, so all those emails are important too). And then of course all the random emails we get nowadays, although I try to unsubscribe and block. The problem is, I’m having a hard time keeping up with it all. My email is a triage center: which emails absolutely have to be answered? First priority: students. Second priority: anything relating to work. Third priority: anything relating to writing. By that point, there’s simply no time left, not if I want to get some sleep . . .

Of course, it could have been affected by the fact that at some point I began writing novels, which means a lot of time working on the computer. A lot of time staring at a screen. I try to deal with that by drafting as much as I can by hand. Anyway, a first draft goes much better for me if I write it by hand — it seems to flow better, and I know which word goes after the last one. That’s more difficult for me when staring at the computer. But of course the second draft is typed, and all subsequent drafts have to be revised onscreen. Still, I print out hard copies when I can. The process of switching from short stories to novels could have something to do with it.

But then, also, something happened last fall. Our politics changed, and with it the online world changed. Twitter, which used to be a fun, lighthearted, if rather silly place to be, became something else entirely. I’m not sure what, except that much of the time I spend there now feels wasted. And the Facebook algorithm changed again, I think. It’s still better than Twitter, but that’s not saying much. All in all, I’m not getting very much out of spending time on social media. There are still people I follow and want to keep up with — they are like little shining stars online, posting things that make me more hopeful, encourage me to keep working, show me the beauty of the world. But most of what I find online is either uninteresting or an advertisement. And the thing I’ve noticed is, nothing I see online seems to affect anything in the outside world, the real physical world. That goes on as though the online world didn’t exist. None of the Twitter outrage seems to affect anything. The real work, including the real political work, still seems to be done by boots on the ground.

I’m old enough (and I’m not particularly old!) that I still remember a world without screens, except the television set in a corner of the room. I remember getting my first computer in high school. I remember dot matrix printers and fax machines. Now we are living in the future, and honestly, I’m just tired of it. I have a sort of thirst for the real. On Tuesday, instead of sitting down in front of my computer screen and answering emails, I went out and ran errands. It was autumn, and leaves were falling, and cars were honking, and the sky was very blue. I went shopping, and did laundry, and watered the plants. Then I read a book. How did the online world go so quickly from being fun to an annoyance? Oh, there are things I like — being able to order music from Bandcamp, for instance. I have things available to me, like music from small indie bands, that I would not have had back when I was proudly recording cassette tapes. I even like streaming films and television shows on my phone.

But increasingly, I want to do things that are real. Increasingly, I am skeptical about the benefits of the online world, especially social media. I notice that my students are less and less likely to be on Facebook (they were never on Twitter). I’m going to keep using it — I’m going to keep posting things, because it’s part of my job as a writer (although I’ve come to think that having a “social media platform” is a waste of time). But I’m going to use it more deliberately, really thinking about what I’m getting from it, not allowing it to get overwhelming. And I’m going to prioritize what is real. Sewing. Drawing. The leaves turning red and yellow. Writing poetry in small books. Reading things written hundreds of years ago, by people who lived and loved and died. Feeling and hearing and smelling the world, which is magnificent. And I think it’s time I printed out those photographs . . .

(Yes, this is my sewing box. For real.)

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Living With Grace

I’m in the middle of trying to prepare for the university semester, but I’m also in the middle of trying to arrange my life after a very busy summer. I spent part of it in Eugene, Oregon doing research, and part of it in Brunswick, Maine teaching, and part of it in Budapest, Hungary with my daughter. I returned home from Budapest and went through the usual week of jetlag. It always hits me particularly hard coming back from Budapest, I’m not sure why. It’s more than the time difference: I think my body is adjusting to less sunlight and higher humidity, which is a difficult physical adjustment. And of course now I need to prepare for teaching, so my unregimented days need to become quite regimented again. I need to get used to being places on schedule, producing work on schedule — and to fitting the rest of my life in where I can. That is also a difficult adjustment.

I always find that when I need to adjust something mentally, the best way is to adjust my physical world, so I’ve been cleaning and arranging, with the goal of making my life graceful — that is, easy, pleasant, intuitive. I want to be able to move around my life as though I were dancing. I may need to move within a schedule or regiment, but at least I can dance through it, with as few stumbles as possible.

How do you do that, exactly? It occurred to me that there were three rules or principles I could give myself. Here they are:

1. Have what you need.
2. Have only what you need.
3. Put what you have in its place.

So how do these rules or principles work?

1. Have what you need.

One of the things I realized, traveling this summer, was that I needed very little to be happy. A place to live, where I could eat and sleep, whether that was a cottage I was renting, a hotel room, or my grandparents’ apartment. As long as it was clean, quiet, and had a place for me to work, I was fine. An environment for me to explore and walk or bike around in, whether that was Eugene, Brunswick, or Budapest. Healthy food I could buy or make for myself. Enough clothes to get me through a week, and a way to wash them. Things to read (I never travel without books, sometimes too many), things to write with and on. My laptop, my phone, and an internet connection — because with those three things, I have resources that would be unimaginable to people just thirty years ago. I mean, if I wanted to, I could spend an entire day doing research on my phone! That is still a miracle to me. And finally, people to see and spend time with. With just those things around me, plus an insurance card in case I get sick and a connection to my bank account in case I need money (let’s be realistic about the conditions that allow me to travel), I’m set.

I have a lot more than that here, back in Boston! Even in this small apartment, I have more than most people had a hundred years ago — shelves filled with books, a closet filled with clothes, cabinets filled with plates, bowls, far too many teacups . . . Art and music, and more art and music when I venture out into the city. I’m rich in things.

I do think that in order to live gracefully, it’s important to have what you need — both the basic necessities of life, and what you psychologically need. Under basic necessities I would put food and clothes. Under psychological needs, I would put books, art, music. If you have what you need, then you can go on to the second rule or principle . . .

2. Have only what you need.

Having too much is like eating a very large dinner, getting to the place where you’re satisfied and happy, and then continuing to eat. Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? Americans are probably most familiar with it from Thanksgiving. You’ve eaten enough, you feel full, and yet there’s so much more — apple pie! pumpkin pie! pecan pie! You have a slice of each, with ice cream, and by that time you’re starting to feel uncomfortable and a little sick. (The pecan pie does it for me. I can’t even eat it anymore. No matter how little I have, it’s always too rich.)

My problem, here in Boston, isn’t that I need more — I have everything I need. But I also have too much. So I’ve been going through the closets and shelves systematically. Which are the clothes I haven’t worn in a year? They can go to Goodwill. Maybe they’ll fit someone else, make that person’s life easier — and raise money for a charity at the same time. Which are the books I have because I thought I would like them, and then I didn’t? They can go to Goodwill as well. Do I have old documents I don’t need anymore — that perhaps I don’t even remember having? Old electronics that I’ve since replaced? Anything that is no longer contributing to my life and could be passed on?

I am by no means a minimalist. Books and television shows about paring down to the minimum, of living with bare walls and two soup bowls, hold no interest for me. I have too many teacups — I really should have a tea party — but I would never, ever get rid of them. Those teacups make me happy, even when they’re sitting in a kitchen cabinet. I believe in having a little extra just in case, and in having things that make your soul happy. So, I have extra rolls of toilet paper and a lot more teacups than I need.

But when you have the sort of excess that makes you feel a little sick and anxious, that’s when you need to put things in a large bag and take them to the Goodwill store. In a way, it’s the opposite of Marie Kondo. Kondo says, keep only what you love, and I agree with that — it’s an emotional way of deciding what belongs in your life, which I think is a good, solid way to make decisions. But you can also feel when something doesn’t belong in your life any longer, when it no longer fits. If it gives you a sense of stress and anxiety, that’s when it should go.

3. Put what you have in its place.

Of course this is the hardest part! Organize, organize, organize. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, bit by bit, step by step. Today’s step, if I can get to it, is to mend some clothes that have been sitting in my closet, waiting for a stitch here or there — a hem sewn up, a button replaced. I want to go through my books and make sure they’re in more or less the right places. In the last few days, I’ve been going through the closets — fall is a good time for that. I’ve been trying to make sure that everything is where it should be so I can find it easily, so I’m not stressed about where things are. That’s what will allow me to live gracefully in this particular space.

Do you have what you need? If so, what is its place? Decide where it should go, where it fits best, where you can access it easily. And then make sure it’s there — when you’re done with it, put it back. That’s part of the process I’m going through now.

If my apartment is organized, I can move through it easily, fluidly, as though I were dancing. Sure, I’ll stumble and fall sometimes. Don’t we all? But I have a lot to do — the rest of the year is going to be very busy! I may as well live it as gracefully as possible.

I thought about what sort of image to include with this post, and decided that the most graceful being I know is this lovely lady: Cordelia the cat. Sure, she stumbles sometimes. Sometimes she chews on a houseplant and throws up on the rug, which is not a very graceful thing to do. But in her motions, her stillness, her general attitude toward life, she is the embodiment of grace.

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Writing Without a Net

It probably sounds as though this is going to be a blog post about taking risks in writing. After all, look at the title: “Writing Without a Net.” But it’s not. It’s going to be a post about writing without financial security, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot and want to address.

What do I mean by financial security? It’s when you’re not really worried about finances, because you know that there’s a safety net underneath you. Like the circus performer balancing on her rope or swinging on her trapeze — she knows that if she falls, she’s going to bounce right into that net. It’s going to catch her. There are different kinds of safety net you can have. A very strong one is having an inheritance of some sort. More writers than you would expect do in fact rely on money inherited from parents or grandparents. Having an inheritance, something in the bank or more likely a trust, makes it much easier to focus simply on writing. You don’t necessarily need to have a job, you don’t need to worry about whether or not you can afford rent or food . . . That’s probably the best kind of security you can have. Another way of having familial security involves having parents or grandparents you can rely on in an emergency. If you need money, they will help you out. That’s not quite as liberating as an inheritance, but it does allow the writer to take risks. If she fails, well, there’s still a family net under her.

And then there’s relying on a spouse or partner. I think this is a much larger category: many writers have a spouse or partner who is the primary breadwinner — this can be someone who makes all the money the family relies on, or a significant part of that money. Again, it’s a safety net. As I said, there are different kinds of safety net, but basically, the idea is that the writer is free to take risks, to make decisions that don’t respond to immediate financial needs. My guess — and it’s just a guess based on personal experience– is that many, perhaps most, professional writers do have a safety net of some sort. It’s always been hard being a professional writer without one, which is why many writers we know from previous centuries came from the upper classes. Yes, they were the educated, the ones who had been taught literary techniques and conventions, but they also had the time and security to write.

Nevertheless, there are still a lot of writers who write without a net. I know, because many of my friends do. They rely solely on themselves. Sometimes they have other people relying on them — spouses, partners, children. And if they fail, no one is going to come bail them out.

Honestly? That’s a hard position to be in. I’ve known friends of mine who’ve had trouble making rent because a royalty check did not arrive, who’ve put off taking life-saving medications. What you have to do, if you’re relying solely on yourself, is create your own safety net, to the extent you can. Mine, for example, consists in part of a PhD that allows me to teach. The income from teaching pays my rent and buys me food. It pays for my healthcare. If I didn’t have the security of a steady job, I don’t think I could write at all. There are other ways — freelance work, for example. But it’s always a balancing act.

I think about these sorts of things because I grew up without much money. We were certainly not poor, and I had access to libraries, museums, a good public education. But I never had a sense of financial security. I did not have savings until after I finished graduate school and started to write — the savings are actually from the writing. I live in Boston, one of the most expensive cities in the country — my salary covers necessities. It’s writing that has put money into my savings account and given me the sense, for the first time, that if there were some sort of emergency, I could deal with it. And it allows me to pay for some luxuries (flowers, chocolate) without a sense of guilt.

I’m writing this post because I imagine there are many of you out there who are writing without a net, and what I want to say is that it’s harder. I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that. There are decisions I make about my writing life that are determined directly by financial concerns. For example, I envy writers who can afford to attend all the conventions. I can’t. For one thing, I have to work, so most conventions during the university semesters are out. For another, I simply don’t have the money. Let’s face it, taking into account airfare and a hotel room (even when shared), most conventions cost around a thousand dollars to attend. That’s a thousand dollars for four, maybe five days. A wonderful four or five days that you can spend catching up with friends, meeting fans, talking to people in the industry — I do love conventions! But it’s a lot of money. And there are other things I could do to advance my career that are harder because I’m writing without a net. Did you know that many, maybe most, authors organize and pay for their own book tours? Only the best selling authors get book tours organized by their publishing companies. Some authors have their own publicists and arrange for at least some of their own advertising. Those sorts of things cost money — they’re more difficult to do when you’re writing without a net and you need that money for other things, like necessities or, if you’re lucky, building up savings.

I wish I could do the things that writers with more financial resources can, but I can’t. What I can do instead is live my life, in the way that fits my particularly circumstances. First, I can think about how to create my own net, my own security. Second, I can focus on what is possible for me, what I can accomplish with the resources I have. Like, for example, writing this blog, which costs me only $99 dollars a year for web hosting. (Yes, even the small things cost money.) I can focus on the writing itself — I can try to become the very best writer I can be. And finally, I can try to live my life as gracefully as possible. The people I know who live graceful lives are not the ones with a lot of money, the ones with the strongest nets. They are the ones who create beauty wherever they are, under almost any circumstances. All of us can do that . . .

(These photographs are of me revising the sequel to The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter in Budapest, where I spent parts of July and August. One of the things writing has allowed me to do recently is travel back home to Hungary once a year. Ironically, a five-week trip to Hungary costs about as much as a single five-day convention . . .)

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