Category Archives: A prose flourish

Apologies for Being Otherwise Busy, and a Suggestion for a Great Halloween Read

Hello, website, Twitter and Facebook readers! My apologies for going quiet mostly for a whole week or more now. I’ve been busy getting ready for moving (possibly) and simultaneously submitting poems, articles, and prose bits to publishers/magazines and checking on the same in Submittable and other sites. But as your reward, I have a Halloween suggestion for reading which will be guaranteed to shiver your timbers as well as the rest of you, from one of the greats. Please follow the Yellow Brick Road, or the trail of breadcrumbs to my very next post–it wouldn’t be a Halloween post if I didn’t keep you in suspense–and read my 2012 post on Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man. If you read the book, I promise you won’t be disappointed (Brrrhhhhh! And here I thought I was a back-to-nature woman!). Happy haunted dreams!

Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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An Adventure in the Innards of Amazon.com, and What Came of It

Well, last night–I should never start anything at night, I know, because lately, my desire to have my poetry read has helped cultivate in me a blatant disregard for time, in other words, I stayed up all night wrestling with perhaps an Amazon, but certainly not an angel–last night, as I was saying before mad parenthetical remarks took over, I tried to find my poetry book on the Amazon site.

Though you might think this was ego, it was only partly so. Oh, well, some. Mainly, I was concerned to judge what difficulty readers were going to have finding my book on that site, since buying things like yarn and wrinkle cream and air fryers is a lot easier on Amazon, usually, than locating a book you’d like to read, unless it’s the latest bestseller. And I felt that I could pretty much anticipate that I didn’t have a great chance of being well-represented yet on Amazon, because 1) it’s only been 4-5 days since my publication date 2) poetry overall, unless it’s one of the “greatest hits” or a recent crowd favorite or critical success, doesn’t sell as well as prose, and 3) I can’t seem to get a consistent price from the different places selling it to report to you for you edification and (I hope) for encouragement to get it for yourself.

I mean, the publisher kindly sent me some bookmarks and flyers the other day to be handed out to people I distribute free copies to and others who might be interested, and the publisher’s price was listed on it as 8.99 pounds (in U.S. dollars, $11.99, though I don’t think that includes shipping costs yet). And on Book Depository, the last price I saw a few days ago was a little above $12, with free worldwide shipping. And now, on Amazon, the price was upward of $14, plus shipping, unless you will buy one of the reduced new or used copies from other sellers listed on Amazon. Obviously, I like money as much as the next person, but someone on Twitter mentioned the other day that brick-and-mortar stores actually return more money to the publisher and to the author than online sellers do, so I’ve no clue what exactly to tell you, except my goal is overall to get as many people reading my book as possible, and if you can afford to get it by ordering it from a brick-and-mortar store or purchasing it outright from one who is already carrying it, then that’s great, and supports local business, which it seems is what everyone is trying to do nowadays. But if on the other hand, you live in an area with an uncooperative book merchant who doesn’t do quality fiction or poetry (which I happen to think mine is), and if Amazon is your only ordering option, then like the man said, “Order and be damned!” Actually, what the man said was “Publish and be damned!” but you get the point. My main interest is in having you embark on the reading adventure through my book and having you trace the footsteps that I took in writing it (so yes, I guess there’s some ego involved, but also a desire for book-companionship).

But what did I find in Amazon, you ask? Well, I had a hard time finding any poetry books, at first, that weren’t among a handful of audiobooks, many of which seemed quite honestly to be more self-help books in verse than anything else. Then, when I got smart (and it takes a while to suss out Amazon’s search terms, they aren’t simply correct author and title, the way they should be and the way you wish they were), I typed in trickier terms. Finally, I was both relieved and dismayed to find my book: relieved because I found it at all, but dismayed because of where it was in the poetry section, on page 69 or so out of 75, after more than about six pages of other sorts of books (notably funeral books for writing in memorials!) had passed several times. And other poetry books were in the same location which looked like pretty good books to me. I like Amazon less than I used to for this experience, I have to say. For your handy information, in case you want to order my book from Amazon, here’s what will turn it up right away, quick and easy, if you type it in exactly this way, caps and all where needed:

paperback poetry books Bennett Poems from the Northeast

That’s all. Uncapped where necessary, no quotation marks or other punctuation. Easy as pie to do, but hard as all get out (at least for me) to have deciphered and figured out on my own.

At any rate, all grousing aside, I’m delighted to be finally in print and able to share these writing experiences with you, and I hope this helps you to get a copy of the book, and to enjoy it. My bewilderment aside, there are probably plenty of you out there who know how to do these things easily. All the best in reading and writing, Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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Matthew 25:29–A Sunday “sermon” from an agnostic, on the topic of “Them as has, gets.”

I’m taking as my departure point for an essay on creative writing today a Biblical verse which has perplexed a good many people, and caused others to wonder if God was on their side after all. I mean no disrespect to those who are believers, it’s just that the Bible, like the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and other religious scriptures the world over, is part of the substructure of the culture, whether we like it or not, and as with all these texts, it has a great many conundrums, puzzles, riddles, and posers in it for even the diligent, reverent, and hardy.

The verse in full runs: “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” For those who are more interested in Biblical lore and interpretation than in creative writing, my actual topic, there is a site which I personally know nothing about and cannot vouch for online, but they advertise a whole study guide online on the Biblical topic. They are called ConnectUs Commentaries. At this point, you might want to stop reading me, and start reading them.

Now, for my commentary. The verse is certainly a head-scratcher, insomuch as it doesn’t at first seem suggestive of New Testament standards of justice and fair play. I can remember my grandfather, who was a poor man, a coal miner, but who was deeply religious, and non-resentful of those who had more, still wryly smiling and saying, “Them as has, gets.” And he seemed to see it as an interpretation of the way things went in earthly life, where things are unfair sometimes, perhaps more often than not, and rich people and advantaged people got more of whatever good life they already had, while others not so lucky got nothing, or lost what little they had. His own fortunes improved, I am happy to report, but “them as has, gets” still seems indicative of a lot of things going on in the world today, for a lot of the world’s people. Of course, if it was speaking of spiritual qualities, it’s perhaps my own prejudice, but I think my grandfather had those in spades, and maybe that’s why he was able to remain a secure believer in his religion all his life.

So, what does this has to do with creative writing? Well, we all know what it’s like to suffer from so-called “writer’s block.” It can exist in having a case of “diarrhea of the mouth and constipation of the brain,” or spewing out lots of meaningless garbage that’s clearly useless for any other purpose than being tossed out. Or, it can exist in simply trying to function in a mental vacuum which is not cooperating with you. It’s blank, bare, void: it hates you, it resists your every effort to populate it with images or rhetorical structures, if you’re a poet, with characters and scenes, if you’re a fiction writer, with arguments and provocative thoughts, if you’re an essayist, or if your work is a cross-over which uses the techniques of more than one of these forms, it refuses absolutely to talk to you and let you do anything at all. So, what do you do? If you want to “have” something that will miraculously produce that, “to you much will be given,” what can you do?

First of all, don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. I mean, if after a long, hard haul, you then decide you want to run a florist shop instead of write, that is your choice, and you may be someone for whom it’s a good and mature choice, but you’re the only one who can really make that decision. I mean, you may always find that once in the florist biz, you are an excellent writer of your own marketing material. And that may be what you really want to do with whatever writing talent you have. And everybody can develop at least some; c’mon, now! But it’s also true, to honor the opposite position of truth, as I used to tell my younger brother when he said he wanted to be an astronaut, or a concert pianist (he never said those things, I can’t honestly remember exactly what I was bugging him about): “If you want to be the world’s best concert pianist, as long as you’re sitting in the floor by yourself in a cardboard box, you’re it. But the minute you get out, it always depends on the opinions of other people.” I could be a real wiseacre when I was an adolescent, and a real pain in the ass, but I occasionally said something that was pretty much okay.

So, if you 1) don’t give up and 2) rely on someone else, not necessarily on anyone and everyone whom you can foist your problematic manuscript upon, you’re at least part of the way there. And now, I am going to say something more original, I hope, which maybe you haven’t heard so frequently. The other first two observations are standard fare when it comes to advice, but I didn’t want you to think I hadn’t heard them before, or was unaware of them. 3) Keep the manuscript, even just the blank paper with a title or four words on it, if that’s all you have. Keep revisiting it every day or two. Keep looking at it. Try first one sentence then another after the first four words. Use the four words as a suggestive sentence fragment, then write a couple of complete sentences to follow, or a couple of other poetic lines. If you’re trying to write an essay upon a certain topic, and your topic is one you have pre-selected, this may be a little harder to do, but you can always try a different slant on whatever you’re writing about. Always, always, always, always, when writing a poem or story or novel, be willing to follow wherever the thought leads, just to see where it’s going before you decide it’s not what you want. Always let it talk to you for a while, let it run away with you. You’ll know soon enough if it’s sheer crap. And if you doubt yourself, that’s the time to put it in front of your friendly audience, in all its minor and unachieved glory. That person or those persons may be wrong in what they say to you about it, particularly if they tell you to ditch it totally (most thoughts end up leading somewhere that you may even be able to pick up years later and develop), but you can take an angle, perhaps an entirely new angle from what they say to a new stance on the topic for yourself. It’s a debate, after all, a discussion, not a dictation from them to you. By the same token, you can’t make them feel what you feel about it, so if your feeling is strong enough, take their advice with a large grain of salt, thank them for their effort graciously, and go on about the business of grooving along with the poem/story/novel/essay/etc. which you feel strengthened in your pursuit of. And again, remember, however small the portion you start out with, your goal is always to develop it beautifully, meaningfullly, into more: “Them as has, gets.”

Shadowoperator

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When is a teenager more than a usual teen, and how are rulers formed? “Mithra: Stone Sorceress, Hidden Pharoah”

I ask my readers to bear with me as I cope with the eccentricities and idiotic difficulties of the new editing systems now preferred by WordPress instead of the Classic editing form. Any more rational company would charge the paid-for plans for the amount of choice selection now forced upon the ordinary (unpaid) user like me, who would vastly prefer the old system of HTML editing by easy access to editing choices. Instead, WordPress has installed a complicated system of choices for editing on the ordinary user, and saved the lovely, simple, ordinary “Classic” editing format for their “business” users for another two years. I wouldn’t ordinarily inject formatting problems in a literary post, except for the incorrect typing, above, of the title of the wonderful book I am reviewing: full book titles are supposed to be put in italics, not in quotation marks, but even finding the system to use for a simple italic form involves one in learning the complete system of new formatting options. It should read, Mithra: Stone Sorceress Hidden Pharoah, but it was not to be. At any rate, that bit of business being concluded (and I hope the author, J. M. Rattenbury, will forgive the apparent citing of a short story when his book is a fine, more than 300-page YA novel), I get down to the more important “meat” of my discussion (flies around the table thus already having been swatted).

As many of you may remember, I have earlier mentioned that I was the proofreader of a bracing and energetic YA novel that was to be published late this summer. Well, it has made its appearance, and I would like to recommend it now to the public as the excellent historical fantasy it is. In its basic outline, it follows the adventures of a fourteen-going-on-fifteen year old young woman in Egypt, who suddenly is made aware of her own royal status at the same time as she is deprived of all the adults she had previously depended upon who could guide her steps or help her achieve adulthood safely. Instead, she is forced to make do with the help of a slightly older young Roman soldier and a young boy, at a time when Rome was the predator upon Egypt for the sake of its grain shipments.

Mithra, it turns out, is a Ptolemy, and is the granddaughter of Queen Cleopatra, which leaves her open to the animosity and conquest-hungry behavior of the Roman Emperor, though it helps ensure her popularity with the average Egyptian citizens of her country, who are tired of the Roman occupation and Roman brutality and overreaching qualities. Along with the young Roman soldier, Lucius Crassus, who has been jailed by his own officers for refusing to kill Mithra, she travels by ship up the Nile from her home city of Alexandria to the area around Memphis and the Temple in Saqqara, where she hopes to find a way of solidifying her hold on the country through a mystical rite known as the worship of the Apis Bull, the symbol of the god Lord Ptah. She must deal with the accidental absence of Lucius and depend only upon the help of Inteb, the young boy travelling with her, after a while, when it seems that Lucius has met his mortal match. But although she is alone in some senses, she has with her a magical amulet named Sopdet, which gives her power over stone and metal, and has besides her growing adulation by the ordinary people of her country.

This book is a book for all those who like to ponder what would have happened if….if Cleopatra had left an heir, if they themselves as young adults had been in Mithra’s situation, if it were possible actually to be the possessors of a magical amulet, if the whole situation around them depended upon their own luck and skill at learning about people. But it’s also a book for older people who want to experience what their teenagers like to read about, what they daydream about, what heroic experiences they themselves still fantasize about in their more mature achievement-oriented lives. That is, it’s a family book, which could be read aloud as an evening’s entertainment on various evenings to amuse young and old. As an adventure story, it shares some of the better qualities of the great adventure and travel stories, like The Lord of the Rings, Narnia, The True Game Series, Dune, and others which have coming-of-age themes in them.

The book is available from booksellers in the United States and Britain at least, possibly elsewhere worldwide, but it is also available online from Amazon.com for $12.99, and Amazon.uk for 9.99 GBP (under the author’s name, J. M. Rattenbury), Mithra, and on Kindle. As well, it is possible to acquire it directly from the UK publisher at https://olympiapublishers.com/books/mithra, ISBN number 978-78830-744-4. For those in the Boston area (where the author hails from) it is also increasingly available and can be requested at the public libraries. I have deliberately not mentioned the ending, as it has an intriguing sort of cliffhanger at the end, not in the interests of posing resolution difficulties for the audience, I don’t think, but merely in the interests of taking a new view of the ancient world. Though the age of the protagonist is 14-15, I would recommend this book for anyone from a mature twelve-year old to a curious twenty-year old, or for any parents or family members interested in sharing the adventure. Shadowoperator

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When vanity meets vanity–shilly-shallying and a final decision

Vanity is one of the main ways you can decipher that you’ve been touched by something, one of the main symptoms of an emotional or psychological injury, and while this can sometimes be good, and a sign of personal growth, at other times, it just goes on and on in its own way, until we decide to forget about whatever troubles us and “live for the moment,” as we are often told to do.

But when personal vanity meets personal vanity in one and the same person, it’s a real battle royale, since there are two different blocking figures standing in the way in two different directions, Vanity One (as we’ll call her) on the left-hand side, and Vanity Two (as we’ll call her) on the right-hand side. What can one do then, to prevent being squeezed to death between the two of them as they become overweening, or to prevent being torn apart between the two of them as they pull in different directions?

All this fooferal is simply to announce for my readers and commenters that I finally stopped shilly-shallying (a dialectal expression which originally probably was derived from “shall I, shall I not”). I finally deletetd all the posts which contained my poems, deleted the page which contained my first complete book of poems, and started preparing to be published in print/ebook form, I hope by early next summer some time. The “take down” was necessary in order to avoid copyright violations, and all in all, though I hated losing the comments that people had made on my site in response to the poems (since they unavoidably come down too when the posts come down), it was a necessary stage of personal growth, which if I want to, I am free to feel has made me more mature (there’s got to be some way of getting the opportunity to pat myself on the back, right? Vanity Three is waiting eagerly in the wings).

I will wait to announce the final information for book accessibility and purchase until things are actually completed, and will on this site try to get back to reviewing and commenting on books and articles or just upon life, when the notion strikes me and I feel there may be a use for the comments I make. So, while I apologize for having to delete both the poems, if you enjoyed them, and your responses (and had a hard struggle with myself about losing the material), it was necessary in order to avoid getting torn apart by the two vanities to choose a side, and stick with it. I hope you will still comment and I welcome you to my site for that. I see by my stats that a lot of you are still reading my older articles and reviews, which is all to the good, and soothes all my vanities, but I do hope in the coming months to add some new items to the list. Thanks for your patronage and tolerance, and stay as happy and well as you can during this hard time of the pandemic, when everyone is feeling a bit out of sorts personally and professionally, whether they have had contact with the Covid-19 virus or not. Shadowoperator (Victoria L. Bennett)

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Three Books on Race and Caregiving, and How They Differ

Since the 1950’s, when America’s consciousness of race relations began to be raised willy-nilly (a good thing, one must see, long overdue), books on the topic of race have proliferated exponentially, from both black and white authors.  My topic today centers around three books by three white female authors, and examines some ways in which the three books differ.

Kathryn Stockett’s book The Help perhaps attained the highest degree of somewhat mixed attention and notoriety because it not only drew excellent actors to it on screen, but also because it attracted a lawsuit, which hit the news as well.  In the story set in the 1960’s, a Southern-raised white woman, nicknamed Skeeter, has her awareness of her black nanny’s life reality altered forever by getting better acquainted with her from an adult perspective rather than from that of a dependent child.  She tries to help the nanny, Aibilene, and another black woman, Minny, by engaging in writing a book from their reminiscences of working for white families in the South.  The entire community of black employees ends up contributing bits and pieces of detail, but this book is somewhat disappointing because as has often been said of other efforts of the kind, it has the sort of kindness that comes from noblesse oblige, from giving a hand up rather than offering a hand across.  It’s a feel-good book in many ways, centering its disapproval on obvious villains and acts rather than getting into the nitty-gritty of the many tiny ways in which everyone can use lessons in cultural awareness.  The lawsuit in real life which arose from this publication came about because even though Stockett apparently pledged herself not to use one of the contributor’s names (for this book has a meta-dialogue going on, in that it was researched in somewhat the same way that the fictional book was), she merely spelled it differently (fictional character, Aibilene, real-life nursemaid of her brother Robert, Ablene), with the result that Ablene Cooper was advised even by the brother to sue Stockett.  Ms. Cooper apparently found the characterizations of her in the book insulting and embarrassing.  All in all, this book is one stage, perhaps the first and most elementary, that a reader might travel on the road to awareness.

Another book takes a similar tack, but handles the entire relationship between the white child  and her black caretaker more delicately (this time the white protagonist is a fourteen-year-old instead of  being Skeeter’s home-from-college age).  The child is instrumental in getting her black nanny, Rosaleen, out of a degrading job with the girl’s father and busting her out of a jail cell where she is being kept, beaten and weak, for a small offense and for defending herself against people trying to keep her from voting.  Still, somehow, this child’s version of noblesse oblige is less insulting than that in the previous book, at least in the mind of this reader, precisely because the character is a child and cannot be expected to appreciate all the subtleties of adult discourse.    In this book, The Secret Life of Bees, the child has a sense of natural justice regarding her black companion rather like that of Huckleberry Finn in that eponymous novel, as opposed to the high-handedness of Tom Sawyer.  By a series of fortunate flukes and a sort of natural spiritual instinct, the two women find their way to the household of a group of black sisters with a connection to the girl’s dead mother, and learn the intricacies of the art of bee-keeping.  This book maintains as well a spiritual element, in which the black women and the girl practice the worship of a Black Madonna, represented by a ship’s masthead they once came into possession of.  This book is set in the 1960’s as well (in South Carolina), but the conflicts that arise from racial tensions and stresses are the background for the girl’s coming-of-age; Sue Monk Kidd has wisely chosen to center the novel closely to the subject of gradually evolving maturity and womanhood, and the child becomes a more mature adolescent in the company of her black saviors.  This book is more affirmative of black politics and awareness because it reflects the reality that a young girl/teenager is more likely to be taken care of by a group of supportive women than she would be, or would be able to be, for them.  The sisters are represented as caring for their own, and capable of caring for others, and as the centers of a vibrant and deeply spiritual community.  This is perhaps the second evolution of awareness a person might pass through on the way to a more mature understanding of race relations.

The third book, Small Great Things, is a novel which takes place in contemporary times, in a hospital in Connecticut.  The title is taken from a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, in which he said that “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”  I find it the most maturely conceived and executed of the three novels.  First of all, the author took a notable risk:  she is white, but chose to write not only from the perspective of a black labor and delivery nurse in a hospital, but also took the risk of entering the minds of a group of white supremacists, thus tackling the unenviable task of attempting to practice the old adage “to understand all, is to forgive all,” which is of course far from being literally true, but which has a germ of truth.  She uses that germ and the huge overall injustice of what happens to the black nurse together, to show that though our situation is perilous, with difficulties complicating things from both sides of the racial divide, we can still sometimes win out over some of the problems we face.  This book is a challenge to simplicity, particularly simplicities of the sort which arise in The Help.  The nurse is attempting to take care of a white baby who comes under her care in the birthing unit of the hospital, but when the white supremacist parents see her, they demand that no black person be alloted to care for their child.  The conflict comes for Ruth Jefferson (the nurse) when the baby needs to be resuscitated, and she is the sole responsible person available:  does she go ahead and try to save the baby, or abide by the parents’ expressed and written instructions for no black person to touch the baby?  She hesitates, and as another adage says, and as it is true for at least a while in the novel, “She who hesitates is lost.”  The rest of the novel occupies itself with how the follow-up lawsuit against her (which deprives her of her job) affects her, and how her son begins to act out in response to his mother’s troubles, how her friends (and apparent friends) react, and what happens as well in the family of white supremacists.  There is a certain amount of back story for both sides, which deepens and enriches our understanding of the whole conflict.  As well, Ruth Jefferson is not pictured as a saint; she has her own moments of feeling petty or vengeful, which are truthfully related for the audience in the fictional courtroom as well as on the meta-level of the book, so that the courtroom scene isn’t an easy giveaway to one side or the other.  For me, this book represents the best of the three books, with Sue Monk Kidd’s book coming in a good second.  Stockett’s book, a book very popular with a lot of book clubs, just as the other two are, may certainly be considered a place to start in raising one’s own consciousness, the more especially if one has not read a lot of fictionalized accounts of race relations.  I feel that if someone has not read these books before, now is the time to take advantage of being able to buy one’s books, of one’s Kindle account, of the cheaper prices of second-hand books, or of one’s local library offerings, to read them and sort out one’s own impressions.  Keeping up with factual accounts is of course paramount, but fiction has a way of sneaking in that’s more subtle, and it can offer a range of suppositions and positions that can help people feel what their neighbors “across the way” feel, see what can be seen from other vantage points, and of course change their attitudes of prejudice.  Fiction, in its subtlety, also can show us just how insidious such prejudice is, and we can see its trail where we never thought to be on its track.  If I’m going to spend the post spouting adages, then surely the last should be “Know thyself,” which speaks to our ability to know the ways in which we ourselves, however enlightened we think we may be on either side of any situation of racial divide, fall short, with an eye to correcting ourselves.  That’s all for today, and just in case you think I’m too solemn today, you should know that all three of these books are quite lively and not ponderous and preachy, though there are certain things worth preaching about, certainly.  Shadowoperator

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How to write a how-to book–Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”

Most of us who write, have aspirations to write, or just like reading about good writing and how it’s done have heard of Anne Lamott.  She’s the fine essayistic voice behind such classics as Bird by Bird (her book on teaching writing) and other, more obviously spiritual books such as Help, Thanks, Wow (her book on what prayer is all about) or her books about her son’s and grandson’s youth (Operating Instructions: My Son’s First Year and Some Assembly Required:  My Son’s First Son respectively).  The breadth of the things she can write about (because she also writes fiction) is astounding, but behind it all is a firm grounding in just what makes us human and reachable by others; for Lamott, it’s our sense of humor.

Today, I would like to share just a little of what I think makes for success in her work, and it is this sense of humor she shares with us so readily.  Even when she’s discussing situations in which she has encountered the most fragile of writers’ egos, or the most obnoxious of them, she does so with a rich appreciation of their underlying connection to her and her own experiences.  She shares little snippets of these experiences constantly, and while being aware that she must once have agonized over things just as much as the rest of us do, we are coaxed along through the narrows, shoals, and dead falls of being writers by her amused look at her own trials and difficulties with other writers, publishers, editors, family, and day-to-day confusions.

True, it’s often hard for us to laugh when our own work is concerned, and Lamott discusses at length in several spots how some of her students seemed nearly to want to call her a fraud because she couldn’t give them quick and easy answers about how to get published.  Her take on this whole conundrum was that one should write for the sake of writing, and publish when possible, if possible.  Her final encouraging word seems to be that writing is a spiritual task, a fulfillment of personal goals more precious and worthwhile than the mere search for fame and fortune.  Now, one could also believe that it’s easy for her to say, since she is a famous and respected writer.  Except, of course for the fact that she discusses freely her own search, at first, for fame and fortune, and the sum and total of her book’s argument (though it’s really important to read the whole of her book and not rely just on my word) is that true satisfaction comes not from finding fame and fortune through one’s writings, but from the process, as I know you’ve heard it said before.  It’s just that Anne Lamott makes the best argument for this frequently-cited idea with a grace and hilarity which you won’t find in other writing guides I’m familiar with, where everything is self-serious and clunky, even, full of nice one-liners supported by lengthy paragraphs, which, however well-intentioned, rely on some particular set of tricks of the trade some of which even contradict those in other writing guides.

Lamott is nothing if not blessed with a light touch; this makes her book easy to read, which is not a curse:  it’s free of causing that overwhelmed feeling one often has after reading a writing guide, that feeling of having too much responsibility weighing one down, that feeling of being unequal to the task of writing as advised.  This may be because Lamott doesn’t come up with a particular theory of writing, or support a particular style; instead, she gives general advice about where to seek for material starting out (from one’s childhood, from overheard conversations, etc.), about how to accept criticism in a beneficial manner, about how to know when criticism is not based on good fellow feeling, about how to deal with what publication is really like, about how to deal with writer’s block, and other issues facing those who are rank beginners and who are seasoned writers equally.

Anyone who is interested even in the issue of how other people write whether or not they write themselves might find a good read and more than a few chuckles in this book, which though funny as hell is also gifted with an underlying commitment to the subject that it’s easily possible to sense.  After reading this book and finishing it a couple of days or two ago, I felt the impulse to write an essay other than a literarily-based essay on a work of literary fiction, such as I ordinarily publish here.  Though it doesn’t have the comic power of Anne Lamott, it’s a piece such as she advises us to write, based on things from our own lives, and so I want to share it with you, my audience, and will use it as my next post.  Until then, make an effort to get a read of Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, or indeed any of her others while you are waiting to read that one, and I promise you will be entirely delighted with her material and her voice alike.

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“The Private Lives of Cats”–a runaway bestseller?

For months now, people have been mentioning to me a book called The Secret Life of Bees, so dutifully, I’ve put the book on one of my library websites and am waiting for it to get off a waiting list.  In the meantime, however, and due to various promptings from my feline companion, Lucie-Minou, a ravishing calico torbie young lady who will be 4 years old on July 2, I’ve been speculating that perhaps there needs to be a (yet another, yes) book about cats which details and examines issues including their innermost secret thoughts, longings, urges, and etc., as far as these can be determined by a mere human audience.  Always taking into account, of course, that cats are natural performers, not like dogs, rollicking clowns, but sleek, Oscar-winning stars of the show.

But let’s get first things first, you say.  What’s a calico torbie?  A calico torbie is a three-way cross between a calico (black, white, and orange), a tabby (in this case gray and brown) and a tortoiseshell (markings like a tortoiseshell, in various cat colors).  And Lucie-Minou says, “Now that you’ve satisfied your profoundly repugnant concern about the colors of my fur, let’s get on with it!”

What do Lucie-Minou and Fluffy and Pom-pom and Sylvester and Hector and Gilgamesh and Chloe and Bella all think about while peering forth out of sometimes narrowed eyes at the world?  When hiding under the edge of the bed with two feet peeking out, what personal history of grandeur makes them assume that humans will be able to resist touching the two little feet, or tickling the little back where it lies curled?  When Lucie-Minou leaves the bedroom at night after I tell her “Goodnight, sweet kitty,” (hoping of course that she’ll curl up at my shoulder and stay), does she simply go into the other bedroom and sleep on the pile of clean, unsorted laundry, where I’ve found her when I seek late at night, or is she secretly planning a coup, involving her Fancy Feast Broths, or perhaps the space on the couch that is in contest between her and my guests?

I know, of course, that she recalls her own past life (and that of her ancestors) as royalty in ancient Egypt, and any time I forget and tickle her tum, she puts up with it for a bit and then gives me the not entirely civilized reminder of a paw on my hand with a claw just barely extended.  But what, what, what, is she thinking while she suns herself by the living room window, or is she merely sunbathing as we all do after a long, hard winter?And what is the mystery about her and the opera?

About her and the opera, you say?  What do you mean?  Well, it’s like this.  Every night of the week, our local classical radio station broadcasts the music of all sorts of classical composers, as it does all day, for that matter.  When Lucie-Minou and I are ready for bed, I take a book or my crochet and turn in, and put the radio on.  And she jumps up on the bed and both purrs and kneads her claws in the covers as the music plays.  She will stay until I turn the music off most times.  But woe and betide! On the two weekend nights, the station plays opera, and Lucie-Minou, in her apparent abhorrence or disdain (which is it?) for the human voice as an instrument leaps off the bed and goes to sit alone in the living room for the evening.  I’ve learned (or been trained) to cut off the radio or not even turn it on those nights in order to keep her with me.  So far so good, she is indifferent to opera.  She has a right to her choice.

But then, what’s so special about the opera “Norma”?  For, I have a subscription online to opera, and I decided the other day to play “Norma,” which I had never heard before.  Now, Lucie-Minou has many times heard me play the operas during the daytime, when I am in my chair in the living room, where she often likes to sit (at opera-less times) on my lap.  But her reaction to the opera has basically been the same as usual:  she goes into another room, sulking or not, it’s hard to say.  When the beginning strains of “Norma” sounded, however, she just twitched her ears slightly and maintained her position on the carpet, a little ways away.  It’s a short opera, only two acts, and as the action hetted up and the singing became more impassioned, she glanced at me curiously, which means with wider eyes than usual, because though cats are constitutionally curious, you can rarely get a self-respecting cat to admit that humans are interesting, or at least not often.

Suddenly, to my great surprise, she launched herself up onto my computer table, and then strolled across my midriff and sat herself down, in between me and the laptop, apparently so that she could see and hear better.  She sat there, ears still twitching, for a good half hour, so that I felt like saying “Down in front!” since she was very slightly obscuring my view.  Then, when her basic questions were satisfied, such as why a Druid priestess would fall in love with a Roman general, and why they spent so much time mewing at each other instead of chasing back and forth across the scenery, one in pursuit, one fleeing, she got off my lap, but continued to sit by my chair, apparently listening, until the opera was over!  When the introductions and interviews came on at the end, she took her leave from the room, and when I went to look for her, she was having a post-performance luncheon at the silver bowl.  No clapping for her!  So, what provoked this change of heart, and was it only the one opera that she liked?  Should I try “The Barber of Seville” again?  Or perhaps, with a bit more caterwauling, “Carmen”?

Yes, it’s all still a mystery to me.  But I live in hope that someone, someday, will write a book entitled The Private Lives of Cats.  Or something like that. shadowoperator

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Some serious God-talk for a contrary soul, no holds barred: Anne Lamott’s “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers”

To reveal a truth that puts me in the rearguard (if anywhere at all) in the procession of people who expect things from a mysterious eternal source, not only do I refuse to give that source a conventional name, such as Allah, Yahweh, Christ, Buddha, etc., but I find great difficulty in being thankful.  I’m the grumpy child, the child who’s never satisfied, who grouses and complains about everything and wonders why things aren’t different, even though I myself haven’t perhaps done that much to make them different.  To others of more thankful vein, it sometimes seems that I believe we all enter the world with a certain amount of currency to spend, and I’m angry because I got shortchanged by the Powers That Be.  What Anne Lamott instead insists in her guidebook to prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers is that we’re all born with the same spiritual currency, and we can either shortchange ourselves and others, or recharge our “gift cards” by realizing that life is, in fact, a gift, and that we have the power to increase our appreciation and enjoyment of it, and to get both us and others through some of the rough spots.

When I first started reading her book, I found the trustfulness and the willingness to compromise with God annoying (as if one has a choice about compromising with an eternal principle, but then of course, she seems to think we do, in a sense).  She seemed to go from inspiration to inspiration, from eager acceptance of a divine force to a certain easy relationship with it, though she emphasizes throughout the book that these things aren’t true.  I had a certain skeptical “Oh yeah, sez you” attitude about it, which wanted to say that it’s just impossible to be so much on “hail-fellow-well-met” terms with some of the really suckassy things that happen, both in the name of God, and in the name of the negative principle (which some call “evil”), and which we’re asked to believe is a sub-province of God’s concern, one which he or she has reasons, mysterious ones, for not controlling better.

I continued to read, however, waiting for the “punchline,” as if someone were telling me a joke or tall tale; there had to be a punchline, a conversion scene, a “I-can-top-everything-I’ve-already-said-with-something-that’ll-knock-your-socks-off.”  I was getting near the end of the book and thinking that though less talented writers had sometimes given me something significant in less well-crafted words, that this epitome of the golden phrase had for once disappointed, when I found my passage.  This is something that usually happens to people in a prayerful audience when the minister or prayer leader says something that touches home, and then sometimes there’s an invitation to “come on down to the front and worship,” and that part always has infuriated me, and embarrassed me both for myself (my can sunk firmly in my seat, not budging), and for those who drift thankfully and solemnly down to the “front.”  In fact, I have only been in that sort of prayer gathering once or twice as a child or adolescent, the church I mainly attended not being so demonstrative, but existing, however thankfully, on a more “I’ll give you a call from my cell phone later” sort of relationship with divinity.

But certainly, thanks in part to the good humor and honesty of Lamott’s spiritual manual, for it is certainly something anyone in the habit of seeking illumination should have a look at, I had that important “ah-ha!” moment near the end.  I wasn’t expecting it, though so much of value had gone before (and I was sulky about that, because it meant I couldn’t dismiss the book wholesale).  Here, as if she knew me well and knew how many times I have dieted and starved and tried to get my avoirdupois under control, is the passage I ran across, full of simplicity and yet full of her particular brand of jesting about things which we often wince from, when they are dealt with by more solemn or thankless hands:

“You mindlessly go into a 7-Eleven to buy a large Hershey’s bar with almonds, to shovel in, to go into a trance, to mood-alter, but you remember the first prayer, Help, because you so don’t want the shame or the bloat.  And out of nowhere in the store, a memory floats into your head of how much, as a child, you loved blackberries, from the brambles at the McKegney’s.  So you do the wildest, craziest thing:  you change your mind, walk across the street to the health food store, and buy a basket of blackberries, because the answer to your prayer is to remember that you’re not hungry for food.  You’re hungry for peace of mind, for a memory.  You’re not hungry for cocoa butter.  You’re hungry for safety, for a moment when the net of life holds and there is an occasional sense of the world’s benevolent order….So you eat one berry slowly….Wow.  That tastes like a very hot summer afternoon when I was about seven and walked barefoot down the dirt road to pick them off the wild blackberry bushes out by the goats….Wow.”

This seems so colloquial that one might almost miss the artistry.  And because I’m not a happy camper, I demand a certain level of artistry; I tell myself I deserve it, as a professional reader, but perhaps the truth is also that I sometimes engage in games of one-upmanship with other more fortunate writers, who’ve hit the print page.  That is, of course, my privilege, as a trained reader, but it also can blur the distinction between major issues of composition and minor faults or inattentions.  In Lamott’s quoted passage above, she not only hits on a huge human issue, the issue of displacement activity, a psychological phenomenon in which one urge or desire to act is replaced with something apparently less intense (in some cases, not this one, less harmful, as when a bird under challenge from another bird will whet its beak on a branch, or attack something inanimate).  She gets at the issue of real desires vs. cheap replacements that are no good for us.  And, she shifts the narrative from the “you” it starts out in to the “when I was about seven” part as if piercingly aware of the defensiveness people like me have to being rescued by gods.  Now, granted, berries are better, but in my ordinary life, “the wildest, craziest thing” I might do is to go into a health food store and buy blackberries.  Or at least, it runs a close race with other forms of genuine activity, because I’m likely, being on a reduced budget, to convince myself that berries at a health food store are way more expensive than a candy bar, which is cheap eats for all who dare disregard their health.  At any rate, this was my passage, the passage that particularly touched me.  It reminded me of all the times my five-year-older aunt and I rode up into the country with my grandfather on his repair truck (he worked for the Coca-Cola Co., and the big supply trucks often overheated or broke down up in the hills where they travelled in the summer).  My aunt and I usually found berry bushes, totally wild and unsprayed because they belonged to the earth, not to farmers or growers, and we collected and ate berries to our hearts’ content.  Now, my aunt is in a nursing home and will probably continue there, despite the fact that she is not very elderly, because she had a brain bleed about a year ago which decreased her ability to function.  Trying to take a page from Anne Lamott’s book, I attempt to place the one experience of her, speaking haltingly to me over the phone, side-by-side in the eternal scales with my youthful experience of gathering berries together, and thanks to Lamott, it’s a bit easier to do, even for someone like me, who feels a little safer on the non-trusting side of life.

So, that’s really all I had to say:  Lamott’s book is a lovely book, one that you may fight with as you like, but that may turn out to have something for you too in it, even if you are not profoundly spiritual, as I believe she must be.  After all, you don’t have to say “God,” or even “god,” or even “goodness me!” if you don’t want to.  All that’s required is a mindful attention to the up currents as well as the down currents, and a resolve to be a better, or at least a more completely whole, person. shadowoperator

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My all-time favorite Halloween movie, and why (without spoilers)–“An American Werewolf in London”

Now it’s time, my readers, for my nearly annual Halloween post, and though I would like to cast a few shivers down your spines myself, for the sheer glory of being able to say that I could write almost anything and get by with it, I’m not talented in several directions, and that’s one of them.  As well, it may sound funny to say that a particular film is my “favorite” scary film, when I have not made a habit in even the slightest way of either watching scary films or posting on them.  Nevertheless, to my way of thinking (and when I was young I did have a penchant both for scary films and television shows, when I could sneak them past the household censor), this is the film to which no other scary  film I’ve seen trailers of quite manages up, and the standard by which I measure all chills and thrills of that kind:  “An American Werewolf in London.”  Here’s why:

There is a strong human emotional response to being frightened, and that is to giggle nervously, as if hoping that it is all a joke, and not true.  Films and fictions which play off that reaction are usually more successful simply because (for example) a dessert which has both sugar and a little salt in it tastes better than a dessert would just with sugar:  the “salt” of the successful horror film is the comic moment (as in, “I’m taking this with a grain of salt,” indicating only partial belief, hence the tendency to giggle, as if being teased).  This moment seems to reassure us that all is not as bad as it would seem.  But of course, in a true horror film, once that comic moment has passed, a truly horrific scene follows, and if done correctly, scares us even more.  Some films have played on this, but none I’ve encountered do it quite as well as this by now venerable movie.

For example, this movie has not one but two stock or stereotypical kinds of situations to play off of, both of which it uses to both comic and horrific advantage:  the horror film’s moments of heightened activity, such as the witches’ den and the warning given there, the original werewolf’s initial attack, complete with only partial visuals of slavering jaws and reddish eyes, the results of the first attack along with the discounting of the werewolf story by local police, and so on and so forth.  The second strain of stereotype is a play on the by-now-familiar ruefully comic routine concerning the naïve or innocent American in the Old World, of which London is the example in this case, though of course the story must begin on the moors, as is only appropriate and conceivable, playing on both American and British urban suspicions of rural settings and the people there.  Though there are also moments of gore, they are not in the forefront as much as in more recent films (or at least, in the trailers I have seen, and yes, ignored), as this movie is quite intelligent and doesn’t depend entirely on the “oh, gross!” factor for its success.  Of course, there must be a love interest, which in this film is played by the lovely and extremely talented Jenny Agutter, as a nurse in love with the young American.

Without spoiling it for you (and believe me, I haven’t begun to tell you about all the scary and funny moments of this film), I cannot do more to persuade you to see this film for the first time, or if you’ve already seen it, to see it again.  So, have a happy, scary, safe and funny Halloween, and don’t eat too much candy (you never know when you might need to run from a monster or visiting American on the loose)!

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