Swimming in Proust

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

In mid-May my book discussion group will meet to discuss Swann’s Way, the first volume in Marcel Proust’s 7-volume masterpiece,  In Search of Lost Time.   We’re not taking on the whole seven volumes, of course – if any of us want to do that, we’ll do it on our own. But this overdue introduction to Proust (how is it I never got around to reading his work before this?) can be enough for now. I’m not sure how well we’ll all do with this book – book club members take Proust on with uneven results (click here for one take on that.)

Possible Book Club Reaction

Possible Book Club Reaction

Happily, I’m loving the book – no real surprise there, since I ask little from the plot line of a book and a lot from the language. Proust, who writes long, complicated sentences (even Proust’s whole name – Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust – is Proustian!) can be challenging, but I like his digressive style, and I particularly like the way he plays with temporality and the idea that memories change the smell, sight, taste, texture and music of the present moment. I like to linger and float with a story – I need to move forward only so often. This ability to linger isn’t shared by everyone. An editor once said  to Proust’s brother, “My dear friend, perhaps I am dense, but I just don’t understand why a man should take 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before he goes to sleep. It made my head swim.”

Swimming. Precisely. I like my head – my whole body – to swim in a piece of fiction, and I often shoot for that effect in my poetry.  Sometimes submersion is a good thing, and my natural inclination as a reader and a writer is to get a little obsessive about (and totally soaked to the skin by) anything that captures my interest [see ** note below.] When I read, I read in a trance. And during my more lucid moments with Swann’s Way, I dog paddle by doing Proust-related research.

I hunt up Proust’s precise landscape on the Internet…

The village of Illiers-Combray.

The village of Illiers-Combray.

I find a picture of his bed at Aunt Leonie’s house…

Proust Slept Here

Proust Slept Here

I look up a recipe for the very famous madeleine (sugar, flour, eggs, butter, salt, rosewater…aha, there’s the Proust: rosewater!):..

l_5181_madeleine“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the cake . . . a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it…. but ….as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me …. immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage…” (from Swann’s Way.)

I imagine myself learning French and reading Proust in the original. “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: ‘Je m’endors.’ ”

And while I’m at it (speaking French), wouldn’t it be nice to go to France and see the original manuscripts…?

First Proofs - Swann's Way

First Proofs – Swann’s Way

I imagine the trip…I go to the Proust Museum. I drive around Normandy in a Peugeot. I read the remaining six volumes of In Search of Lost Time in a nice little cafe every morning for several months.  I order tea and a madeleine every day.  I write postcards home…

proust stamp

Chère famille, je suis toujours là en France. Je nage dans Proust.

I buy an old farmhouse and restore it…

Chez Julie

Chez Julie

also, considering Proust’s lifestyle, I buy a townhouse in Paris…

Paris Townhouse

and at night (no matter where I sleep) I take at least 30 pages to turn over in bed….

Viking/Penguin Classics came out with a new translation of the first volume, by the novelist Lydia Davis, about ten years ago, and now it’s true, I’m swimming in it. Maybe growing gills would be a good idea? It’s hard to come up and breathe the regular air when you’ve been spending afternoons with Proust. As if that weren’t enough, I’m trying to read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life before our discussion because I think it will help me understand the profound effect this book has had on some writers I admire – both in terms of their own writing and in terms of the way they see the world.

There’s no guarantee I’ll love Swann’s Way through to the last page. But I’ll be glad to have read it. I’ll end here with this quotation from Proust. It’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever come across – it’s true, and it’s basic: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” When writing teachers say, “Make it new,” that’s what they mean.

———————————————-

**Note: I say “swim,” but other people describe it in a less complimentary way. Consider this review of Proust’s work by another author whose writing I admire, Alexander Wollcott: “Reading Proust is like bathing in someone else’s dirty water.”

Closer Look at Woman in the Bath by Pierre Bonnard

Closer Look at Woman in the Bath by P. Bonnard

Ah, well  – that’s what’s fun about a book discussion group: so many different reactions to the same book! If you’re a writer, remember that you’re not writing to please the largest possible audience – that produces insipid writing. Instead, you’re writing for the reader who is going to feel buoyed by (immersed in, swimming in) the way you tell your story.

 

 

WRITING RECESS

Next week I get to start a series of Writing Workshops with a group of fourth graders at Maplewood Elementary in Edmonds. The kids are giving up their lunch recesses to take part. I hope they end up writing like they play out on the playground – with fun and abandon.writex2677

This week, I am gathering ideas for writing games, exercises and prompts. Here are some possibilities:

1. ROUND ROBIN WRITING. This emphasizes the basic form of any story: beginning, middle, end. Using a prompt, (I think I’ll go with “I used to live in a palace…”), kids have six minutes to write a beginning to a story. Then we trade papers and take six more minutes to write middles that fit the beginnings received. Then shift again and on to endings. We finish up by reading our creations, an important part of all writing shenanigans.

2. PICTURE THIS. I have a pile of photos that evoke story. Each kid can choose one as a starting place and see where the story goes. writex4679

3 and 4. COULD WE LIVE HERE? Two sessions. First session, as a group we will create a setting, voting as necessary to narrow things down. Then we’ll brainstorm a list of characters who might live in this place.

In the second session, each kid chooses one of these characters to write into a story in that place.  This is a suggestion from Cassie Cross who teaches at Bellevue College. I wonder if it will work as well with fourth graders as college students?

writex16765. MAPMAKING. Each student maps a place that is special to him or her – neighborhood, house, room, school playground, backyard, grandma’s house – and labels it with stories that happened there, or could happen there.

6. YEAR BY YEAR.  I will ask the kids to think of their childhoods year by year and write a memorable event for each year, noting that memories juicy with emotion hold the most story. Then we’ll choose memories as story jumping-off places. I am curious to see what these ten-year olds remember about their childhoods.

writex3678

7. BEGIN WITH MUSIC. Five-minute timed writings to music. For instance, I’ll play a Bach cello concerto for five minutes and the kids can write the story that is suggested. Then I’ll play a penny whistle jig and they’ll start a new story. I remember using this exercise with the wonderful Lillie Rainwater’s fourth/fifth graders at Hawthorne Elementary in Seattle. Ms. Rainwater advised the kids to think of leaping into a story like jumping into double Dutch twirling ropes. Catch the rhythm of the music, she told them, and jump in with words.

That takes us back to the playground. And recess!

Thanks to Paul Borchert, librarian at Maplewood, for helping this Writing Workshop idea come to fruition. And thanks to any of our BATT Blog readers who add to this list of writing prompts, games and exercises in the comments.

Note: photos to illustrate this post are from those I will use for exercise two.

Ode to Steig

steig painter

Spring induces a feeling of joy, and in that spirit I offer this ode to William Steig. Steig was born in Brooklyn in 1907 and lived until 2003.
He was famous for his work in the New Yorker and for his many wonderful children’s books including Dr. DeSoto ,steig doctor desoto

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,steig sylvesterShrek,

steig shrekand Zeke Pippin.

steig zeke pippin

He was famous for his drawings and his language. Steig loved wordplay and even letter-play.

steig fn l

He came from a family of immigrants with strong (Socialist) political views. It was a wildly creative family. His parents, brothers, in-laws, wives, children and extended family painted, wrote, sang, made jewelry, drew and expressed themselves in myriad ways, as did Steig. He stitched…

steig stitcheryand he carved.

steig sculpture

Recently I spoke to students in Pocatello, Idaho. Over a few days and many talks I realized the nugget of what I wanted to say to them: that creativity is a habit, not a gift. Sometimes people say “I don’t have a creative bone in my body.” But creativity isn’t a bone - it’s a muscle, and it grows stronger with use. Steig’s creativity,empathy, and wit were limber and strong.steig carnival Steig was a follower of Wilhelm Reich and believed in unleashing his energy,  sometimes sitting in an orgone box in order to do so.
His work vibrates with energy. He evokes a wide range of emotions, often starting with but not always ending with humor.

steig eternal sea

steig insect

steig turkeysteig axolotl

 

I am grateful for all of his work, but most blissfully for his images of bliss. Who could not love this painting of a Sweetheart, a Swain, a Swine and Some Swans?

steig sweethearts

 

If you are hungry for more Steig you can read The World of William Steig, written by Lee Lorenz.

steig gorky rises

Fishtails

Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale-mermaid

Contemplating bird wings for my last post got me pondering other animal attributes we humans envy, which then led me to thinking about mermaids.

Arthur Rackham-To Hear the Seamaids Music-A Midsummer Nights Dream

I’m not sure what it is about mermaids that is so alluring. Is it our fascination with beings that can exist in multiple realms? Why else would we fantasize about having fishtails instead of legs? Personally, I think I’d rather be able to fly like a bird.

Fortina

Yet, when I was a young girl I dreamed of being Marine Boy‘s helpful mermaid friend, Neptina – or at least getting hold of some of that oxy-gum . . .

Marine Boy and Fortina

The mythology of mermaids goes back thousands of years and across multiple cultures.

Russian print-mermaid and merman

Mola-mermaid fishing

Mexican folk art hanging mermaids

Jose Francisco Borges-Iemanja

Often they were considered dangerous, luring men to their doom with their sensual beauty and seductive voices.

Medieval mermaids besiege ship

They were known to be vain, fond of looking at themselves in mirrors and combing their hair.

Medieval mermaid with mirror

Some theorize that what early mariners saw as mermaids were actually manatees.

National Geographic-manatee love shot

Really? Those poor sailors . . .

But by the 17th century mermaids had moved from the feared to the fantastic,

Merbabies birdbath at Versailles

Mermaid fountain at Versailles

the romanticized,

John William Waterhouse-A Mermaid

landing eventually in the realm of fairy tales, the most famous being Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Vilhelm Pedersen-The Little MermaidAndersen’s story was a tragic tale of misguided love and sacrifice, a subject of many beautiful illustrations.

Arthur Rackam-Fairy Tale mermaid sillouettesJeannie Harbour-Little Mermaid

Maxwell Armfield-The Little Mermaid

Edmund Dulac-She Held His Head Above The Water

And then Disney got hold of her and she became the insipid creature many girls now idolize. At least Neptina had some spine.

Disneys Little Mermaid Wallpaper

One day at an outdoor community pool about five summers ago my daughters and I watched, mesmerized, as a young girl wearing a mermaid tail lowered herself into the water and started swimming around, mermaid style. From a distance, she looked amazingly realistic and the scene, in spite of it being set in a chlorinated, square enclosure, was charming. After she removed her tail (the pretense looked like hard work) we went up and spoke to her. She said she got the idea and the DIY mermaid costume instructions off of YouTube.

Currently you can find thousands of videos online of people “mermaiding.” My teen-aged daughter follows a site called Project Mermaids where models and celebrities pose for photos in elaborate mermaid costumes to demonstrate “how precious our ocean and beaches are.”

Maybe it’s not just the idea of being able to exist in multiple realms that makes us envy those with wings and tails, but also the idea of defying gravity, either underwater or above ground.

I guess it’s human nature to want to be more than human.

Unknown artist-mermaid

 

 

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” E.B White

K Hollingsworth-Cat Window books

Painting by Karen Hollingsworth

About a week ago I sat down with Julie and Julie and Margaret and Laura for the first time. A new writing group. A group of women I know from the writing community: some I know pretty well, some I’m just getting to know. All I could think was how lucky I was to be among them.

As a group they’ve published dozens of wonderful books; each is dedicated to her craft; each has high standards for her work. They all know how hard it is to write the short form—poetry, picture books, early readers. And I need them for that. I need their exacting standards, their critical eye.

But I need them for something else. Companionship in this difficult career. I need their clucks of commiseration, their murmurs of agreement. Their encouragement. Their industry gossip. Their inside jokes. Their book recommendations. Their ups and downs with husbands, children and editors.

I’m greedy. This is my second writing group. I have another long-standing group with friends, Dia Calhoun and Kathryn Galbraith. They are true-blue buddies and writing companions. So why two groups?

The creative life is uneven. There are times of great production and times when nothing seems to come. Sometimes an entire group can go stale. Sometimes a group gets shaky because of illness or a personal life crisis takes up so much of a member’s mind and time. Someone leaves. Things fall apart. Or at least grind to a crawl. Maybe I’m hoping that when one group falters, the other will be perking up.

And you can become familiar with each other’s work. It’s easy to fall into a pattern—a familiar call and response in terms of the feedback you get and the feedback you give. It was startling and fun, last week, to hear new and different voices chime in on my work.

So, I’m buying insurance, I guess. I can’t imagine functioning without a writing group. I’ve never failed to get an important insight from a critique. I’ve never failed to get a boost out of talking with people facing the same challenges, frustrations, goals and hopes that I am.

I can’t hear someone else’s words without suddenly feeling an eagerness to write my own words. I can’t help but take any feedback to anyone in the group back to my own work. Someone lands a great contract and I want that, too. Someone is frustrated that they haven’t heard from their editor and I get to tell my story about the three-year wait. Someone’s child has quietly grown up while we were busy making other plans.

Sure Virginia Woolf wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.”  But she also wrote: “Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends.”

Image

This Is Your Brain on Folk Music

Inside_Llewyn_Davis_Poster_72dpi_RGBInside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from the talented Coen Brothers, is finally out on DVD – I’ve been dying to see it, but it came and went quickly to theaters in Seattle, and I missed it. As a writer, I’m always interested in seeing what other creative people’s take is on creativity and the creative life in general. The wait was long, but it was worth it.

It’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it films (as is most of the Coen Brothers’ work) with quite a few people disappointed by it.  I loved it. I thought about it long into the night, and the next day found myself singing songs from the folk music scene of the early 60′s. Those were the years I began to get interested in poetry, read Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg and Kenneth Patchen. I subscribed as a teenager to the Village Voice (worlds away from my own non-Village home in San Jose, California – but hey, we had our own little coffee house called Freight and Salvage.) I took guitar lessons from Marty Ziegler, I listened to Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, the Clancy Brothers. In the movie, when a young clean-cut duo gets up to sing “The Last Thing on My Mind,”  I could sing every single word of it. What is it about memory – our brains on music – that allows us to call up song lyrics (and the touch, taste, smell, sound, and sights of the moments that surround them) so easily when we can’t even remember where we put our keys or our reading glasses? Here’s a wonderful rendition of it with Liam Clancy and Tom Paxton.

And many years later, those evenings spent singing folk songs with other faculty members of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, up in the faculty lounge late at night during our residencies, with Leda Schubert on guitar and my fellow Books-Around-the-Table friend Laura Kvasnosky sometimes there on ukulele – those moments were golden.

But my reaction to Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t all about nostalgia.

The film deserves attention from anyone involved in the arts because it examines creativity, talent, personality, ethics, integrity, commercialism, perseverance – and how all those elements get harnessed or go wandering off in an artist’s life. [If you have trouble with spoilers, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs. Me, I never mind knowing in advance what's coming - it helps me watch the scenes more carefully....]

There’s a scene in the movie where Llewyn has a chance, finally, to audition for Al Grossman (played beautifully by F. Murray Abraham, who did such a fantastic job in another movie which examines artistic talent, Amadeus.) Grossman was the manager in the 60′s of the famous music venue Gate of Horn in Chicago, and he represented most of the big folksingers of the decade – Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Richie Havens, and – later – Janis Joplin.

The audition is Llewyn’s big chance, yet he chooses an obscure traditional ballad, a difficult song to perform, and Grossman responds by saying he doesn’t see much money in it. He gives Llewyn mixed advice, some good (look for a partner who can add depth with  harmonies) and some offensive (cut the beard into a goatee, clean up) and Llewyn simply walks away.

Llewyn's Audition with Al Grossman

Llewyn’s Audition with Al Grossman

It’s almost like the musician gives the manager a test by singing this ballad in its pure, traditional form – and Grossman fails the test. At least that’s how I saw it play out. Historically, of course, it was Dave Van Ronk (the real-life folksinger Llewyn is based on) who failed Grossman’s test and then drifted back into the small Gaslight Cafe scene of Greenwich Village rather than use the Gate of Horn and Grossman’s mentorship as a springboard for national success.

Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t garner the usual prizes or attention that Coen Brothers’ films usually do (think O Brother, Where Art Thou – which the wonderful T-Bone Burnett, a big part of Inside Llewyn Davis, also helped conceive.)  I’ve been trying to sort out why, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the hero of the tale is so complicated – it’s hard to understand him. Does he self-destruct over and over again, or is it just a hard, mean world for a struggling artist? He’s not always nice – in fact, he’s often unappealing: sarcastic, smug, dismissive, judgmental, irresponsible. He takes advantage of people, rotates through their apartments eating their food, using their couches to crash, sees himself as a person who does not compromise, is not interested in the real lives of other people. He’s all about himself and his music – and you never quite know if he lost his musical partner to suicide because of troubles the partner had or because of how little joy or support Llewyn was capable of. Nevertheless, one of the crew says (in the Special Features section – watch that, it’s fascinating, especially T-Bone Burnett talking about jamming for the movie) that she thinks everyone in the movie is a phony except Llewyn. I didn’t feel that way at all – I guess it’s all about perspective. But in a certain way, as a writer, I empathized with Llewyn’s attempts to stay true to his talent. Besides, he’s just so sad. Even a person who does it to himself deserves some sympathy, no?

So please, rent the movie, watch it and come to your own conclusions. Talented artists are not always easy people to get along with, and Llewyn is not a nice-guy hero. The same was true about Mozart in Amadeus, of course – Salieri, his less talented colleague, watches as the miserably adolescent Mozart giggles his way to fame and fortune. Llewyn has his own failings – and he’s no Mozart-level genius. So…is the film saying that a lack of talent does him in, or a too-highly-honed sense of integrity, or just plain bad luck being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or his own disaffections or….? What are the Coen Brothers telling us about artistic endeavors? I’m not sure yet. If you’ve seen the film, help me figure it out – add a comment below. Why do some artists make it and others don’t? What, as an artist, do you owe to your own talent? Is the world a hospitable or hostile place for artists? And is Llewyn actually a talented artist or an Almost-but-not-quite? Or is he despicable, as many viewers claim?  What does the world owe him? What does he owe the world? As writers, we can think about that a bit.

llewynAnd what do you think the cat is all about?

Gosh, I love a movie – or a book or a song or a painting or any work of art – that leaves you thinking.

While we think about the answers to those questions, let’s go put on a few of our old records (still have a phonograph?) and be amazed by our musical memory. How many you can sing along to from Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin’,” Richie Haven’s “Mixed Bag,” Ian and Sylvia, Peter Paul and Mary, the Clancy Brothers, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez? Hey, how about Dave Van Ronk’s incomparable “Dink’s Song,” which you’ll recognize as Llewyn’s signature piece. Lovely song.

CALLING THE MUSE

Seattle hosted the national AWP (Assn. for Writers and Writing Programs) conference for four days last week. My fellow BATT-blogger Julie Larios and I were on a panel entitled, “Calling Your Muse,” along with authors Zu Vincent and Debby Dahl Edwardson who we know from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

For my part, I hoped to leave our listeners with an easy-to-follow, How to Call Your Muse list.

In our audience were over 100 writers. Surely these people had some ideas how to call a muse. If I’d known anything about crowd-sourcing, I could have crowd-sourced a good list.

Or I could have based my list on my experiences over the past 20 years, creating 17 picture books and a middle grade novel.

But I felt more research was needed.

So I imagined hiring George Clooney to lead an investigation. Yes, he looks hot in a lab coat, but this would be strictly scientific. He’d film me writing, then do a frame-by-frame analysis. Maybe the Muse would even be caught on camera?

moose

mousse

George’s research would reveal exactly how I do it: Eight Easy Ways to Call the Muse

    • Snuggle your dog
    • Nibble dark chocolate
    • Look out the window and squint
    • Tap out a few words.
    • Check your email
    • Sip tea
    • Google something, possibly related to the project
    • Scratch your ear
desk

On location for George Clooney film.

That’s it: snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, scratch.

But the more I thought about it, I realized what’s actually happening when I SNSTCSGS is not only calling the Muse, but also answering the Muse’s call. Or maybe – more exactly – conversing with the Muse. It’s a two-way street. I gather the storybits and tools that call her. In turn, she calls to me, urges me to use all this stuff. That’s how the Muse works.

The 12,000+ writers who attended AWP have gone home but I’ve continued to muse on this muse thing. I’ve decided there must be more than one muse, that it takes a village –  well, at least a Swiss army knife of muses –  to get the work done. For starters:

THE ILLUMINATOR MUSE – How else to explain why a writer’s attention is drawn to stuff that is charged with story? She shines her light on ideas, objects, memories, experiences, words themselves, art materials, research, juicy bits of overheard dialogue. The list goes on and on. For instance, my attention is drawn to my #4 watercolor brush and naples yellow gouache and I want to paint something. It will be sunny. Oh, already a story starts to gather.

Making stories depends on assembling material and tools, on gathering quirky facts and notions, on laying seemingly disparate things side by side, on comparing, contrasting, connecting. Sometimes the Illuminator Muse carries a candle like Wee Willie Winkie, and other times she holds a Klieg light high above her head. “Pay attention,” she says, “And report back.”

GESTAPO MUSE – This one has a big glue pot and keeps me in my chair. I almost wish she’d carry a cattle prod, too, and deliver a jolt when my attention wanders.

MARSHALL McLUHAN MUSE – The Marshall McLuhan Muse calls with the seductive nature of the creative zone itself. The medium is the message. Work comes out of work. Or, as Julie Paschkis puts it, “Put in the drudgery and the alchemy happens.”

CRAFT MUSE – A practical gal, the Craft Muse inspires with conferences like AWP, classes, SCBWI talks, and, of course, through other people’s writing. I’m especially inspired to create books that become part of the circle of parent and child reading together, a circle I loved dearly.

I am sure a muse team assembles for each writer, offering skills as needed. For instance, a journalist friend reminded me about the Deadline Muse. How could I forget this muse that calls me every month when it’s time to post here?

What we were really talking about at our AWP panel was twofold: where do ideas come from and how do you sustain motivation?

Muse-assisted or not, my ideas come from paying attention, a habit of mulling, and from savoring stuff that amuses me. (Ah, “muse” is hidden there.) And why write? Writing’s how I figure out what I think. It makes sense of my world.

So I’ll stick with my snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, and scratch.

But I wonder. Maybe we could sort of crowd-source with our BooksAroundThe Table readers. How do YOU call the Muse?

Mosaics

picasiette exterior

Last week my husband discovered a book at Goodwill about Picassiette. From 1938-1962 Raymond Isidore covered his home and property in Chartres, France with mosaics.

picasiette summer house picasiette patio picasiette interior

He was given the nickname of Picassiette which means both “plate stealer” and ” Picasso of plates.”

picasiette coupleHe created beauty from materials that would otherwise have been thrown away.

picasiette detail

In 2004 I illustrated a book by Melissa Eskridge Slaymaker called Bottle Houses: The Creative World of Grandma Prisbrey. (It is out of print now, but still available used.)

Bottle Houses coverTessa Prisbrey also created a world out of materials that she scavenged – bottles, old dolls, pencils and broken dishes. She called it Bottle Village. You can see a video about her on line.

Bottle Village 1973

She made buildings from old bottles and filled them with her collections.Paschkis Prisbrey pencils

Paschkis Prisbrey pencil house

I visited Bottle Village before working on the book. Much of it was damaged by an earthquake, but much of it survived. While we were there a hummingbird followed us through the site, so I included it in many of the illustrations.

Paschkis Bottle Houses p.15

I didn’t get to see the kittens that she dyed with food coloring but I could imagine them.

Paschkis Bottle Village wall

Grandma Prisbrey transformed trash into treasure. Her life included a lot of sadness, but she seemed to transform that grief into creativity.

Prisbrey portrait Paschkis

Here in the NW corner of the map, Tim Fowler is creating a wondrous world.
Here are some of the figures in his yard.Tim Fowler mosaicTim Fowler mosaic

Tim Fowler sculpture

He has been working on a great mosaic wall for years.

Tim Fowler wall

Tim Fowler wall

Eventually the wall will surround his lot, but it includes windows.

Tim Fowler wall

If you are out of town you can visit Tim through this videoIf you are in Seattle, wander by 26th and Howell in the Central District and say hello.

Tim Fowler sculptureI hope this post will inspire you to make mosaics and to be happy when a beautiful dish breaks.  Here is a how-to video for a mosaic picture frame;  you could adapt the technique to other surfaces.

Tim Fowler gate

Wings

Birds placemat

“Birds have wings; they’re free; they can fly where they want when they want. They have the kind of mobility many people envy.” – Roger Tory Peterson

I must be one of those people to whom the famed naturalist was alluding. I find that things with wings, especially bird wings, have a special attraction. Real birds fascinate me. How they have evolved, the way they communicate, their behavior. And of course, how they move. This attraction extends to other winged creatures as well – angels, putti, mythological characters. Anything with wings on it seems imbued with magic.

Cherubs-Neopolitan-mid 18th c

Have you watched the PortlandiaPut A Bird On It” skit? Now, I enjoy the humor in that show as only a true urban Northwesterner can, but since that episode aired, I can no longer indulge my bird love without a twinge of shame. Damn them. Don’t they understand that we just envy birds’ mobility?

M Chodos-Irvine -Get Out Of Jail Free charm

So bear with me while I bare my feathered soul.

There is something about birds that I find comfort in. I don’t collect birds like a philatelist collects stamps. Rather, such items accumulate around me like pigeons around a cafe. They inspire me. Why shouldn’t I want bird imagery on things I have around me in my nest, so to speak?

Such as outside my window, on a metalwork piece by artist Deborah Mersky.

Deborah Mersky-Crow metal hanging

Or on the walls of my home, as in one of my favorite paintings by Joe Max Emminger, “Bird Moon.”

Joe Max Emminger-Bird Moon

And on jewelry.

MOP bird pin

Blue bird and moon pin

Winged school bus pin

Japanese bird badge mount set

I also have amassed a large number of bird related postcards.

I H Jungnickel-Der Hahn als Festordner

Bill Reid-Haida-Raven and the First Men

Pablo Picasso-The Dove

Claude Coats-Disney production image for Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs

Crows-detail of Japanese screen-c 1650

Ruan Sidi-Jinshan folk art-Ducks Eat Rice

Along with this page from a Mary Poppins “Magic Paintless and Dot-to-Dot” coloring book by J. LaGrotta and E. Eringer for Disney Inc.

J LaGrotta and E Eringer-Disney Mary Poppins Magic Paintless and Dot-to-Dot

Of course, the works some of my favorite children’s book illustrators have wings too.

Julie Paschkis:Julie Paschkis-Word Bird-Flutter and Hum

Leo Lionni:Leo Lionni-Tico and the Go copy

Lizbeth Zwerger:Lizbeth Zwerger-Swan Lake

Wood engraving is a beautiful medium for portraying the delicacy of feathers. These are some of my favorite prints in that medium.

Sarah van Niekerk:Sarah van Niekerk-Jacobins in a Bay Tree

Eileen Mayo:Eileen Mayo-Two Doves-1958

John Buckland-Wright:John Buckland-Wright -Endymion-1943

This is a wood engraving of the sculpture of the Winged Victory of Samothrace by an uncredited illustrator, used as an advertisement for air power. It came from the now defunct scrap file at the Central branch of the Seattle Public Library.

Winged Victory of Samothrace-Airlines determine the destiny of nations-artist unknown

There are wings of inspiration in all sorts of places. I took this photo of some old airline signage from the Boeing Museum of Flight.

Boeing logo bird arrow

I went to Paris recently. Paris has wings everywhere you look.

Winged monument Paris

Winged Victory statue Paris

Wall decor painting - Louvre

So by now it shouldn’t surprise anyone that bird imagery shows up often in my work.

M Chodos-Irvine -Dreamer

M Chodos-Irvine -Cycnus

It helps to have some good reference materials. I have accumulated a number of  bird books, but there are a few that I use often. Birds In Flight, by Carrol L. Henderson, has excellent photos of birds on the wing. Any bird book by Roger Tory Peterson will be good. The World of Birds, by Peterson and James Fisher has good structural information, such as this page on the anatomy of the wing.

R T Peterson-wing anatomy

The “How To Draw” series from the 40s includes a handy instruction book on drawing and painting birds.

How To Draw and Paint Birds cover

Hunt makes it look so easy.

Lynn Bogue Hunt-How to Draw and Paint Birds-pg 14

Audubon’s illustrations are fun to peruse. His birds are placed in the most awkward positions, yet they are graceful in their own torqued way. I guess this is what you get when you are drawing from death, rather than life.

Audubon-White-tailed Kite

Birds and wings and feathered things. They tell a story of flight, of soaring, and of freedom. May they inspire you to make great art. Or at least put a bird on something.

Jean Honore Fragonard-The Cage

Love: That Old MacGuffin

Book - HeartHappy Valentine’s Day, Everyone!

Love, love, love…ain’t it grand? Especially for writers, since nearly every work of literature has at its most fundamental level something to do with love – the finding of it, the loss of it, the overwhelming and transformative pressure it exerts, the thinning out of it or the strengthening of it by degrees, the confusions of it, the comforts of it – whether it’s love of self, of a friend, a lover, a family member, a community. Sometimes it’s love of a place, which can be just as strong as love of a person. Often falling into it is the inciting incident, though just as often falling out is the denouement. Sci-Fi, mystery, thriller, literary fiction – it doesn’t matter what genre – love is almost always there, whether at the surface or flowing along at the river-bed level of the narrative line.

Since poetry’s narrative line is shorter, or sometimes not even there, it addresses momentary fascinations wrapped up in interesting and seductive language – that’s a different thing altogether. Not that poetry is fundamentally flirtatious. There are many deep, determined, and long-lasting love poems. But they are usually brief.

Sonnet

I think that’s because a poem wants to come out out singing. Happy lovers have their sweet duets, disappointed lovers  have their Blues. But are momentary fascinations at the heart – no pun  intended – of fiction? No. Fiction by its very nature engages us in something more prolonged.

Last Sunday the New York Times published (in its Book Review column “Round-Up”) a collection of thoughts from well-known writers about what literature has taught them about love.  Here’s how the column was presented:

Recent studies suggest that reading literature may make us smarter and more empathic, even more civic-minded. But what can literature tell us about love? Writers in a variety of genres share the books that taught them about love — and a few that led them memorably astray.

The list of writers who responded includes Hilary Mantel, Gary Shteyngart, Natasha Trethaway, Ann Patchett, Com Toibin, Jeanette Winterson and Khaled Hosseini, among others.  David Levithan tells us about reading Weetzie Bat. Colm Toibin insists he hasn’t learned anything about love from literature (though how intriguing to say, “Teaching us is one of literature’s afterthoughts; it is fiction’s bored sigh.”)  My favorite answer comes from the novelist Charles Baxter.

Charles Baxter, who knows a thing or two about a thing or two....

Charles Baxter, who knows a thing or two about a thing or two….

No wonder I love his stories so much, when he’s the kind of person who can say this:

“What literature teaches us about love is so multifarious as to be self-canceling. Shakespeare, for example, tells us that love is comical (“As You Like It”), passionate (“Romeo and Juliet”), disgusting (“Troilus and Cressida”), ennobling (“Antony and Cleopatra”), and is probably the most significant part of a young person’s sentimental education (the sonnets) even when it degrades the one who loves, as it usually does. Ovid assumes that everyone wants to love and to be loved (“Ars Amatoria”) and then to get free of the whole mess (“Remedia Amoris”). In Wagner’s version of the Nibelungenlied, Alberich the dwarf gains power by renouncing love. You get out of the game, you achieve mastery of an undesirable variety. But, as the musical comedian Anna Russell once observed, Alberich wasn’t going to get any love anyway, so he might as well renounce it.

Love is therefore a MacGuffin: It has no meaning of its own but gives a particular meaning to every situation. Anything you say about it is probably true, and the opposite will also be true. It’s beautiful and destructive in “The Iliad,” fecund and creative in the “Vigil of Venus,” plain stupid and scary (“Madame Bovary”). Love serves as the locus for sentimentality and domestic piety. In its name, terrible things are said.

One thing’s for sure: As a force, it changes people into fools. Or royalty. Or: It doesn’t change people. Take your pick.”

I agree with Baxter (or do I ♥ him?): Nothing about the nature of love in stories is nailed down or inert. And nothing says that as a writer you have to be consistent in your attitude toward it. Shakespeare (whoever Shakespeare was) didn’t feel the need for consistency. One play leaves you feeling like love is all the matters…

"My love is deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have...." (Romeo and Juliet)

“My love is deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have….” (Romeo and Juliet)

…and the next teaches you that love is for fools.

a-midsummer-nights-dream-william-shakespeare4“Methought I was enamored of an ass.” (Midsummer Night’s Dream)

As writers, we need to acknowledge love’s presence  in our stories, don’t we?  We won’t all write “love stories,” of course.  But we’ll always need to understand that stories – characters and the choices they make (doesn’t that define the word “narrative”?) – turn on love or the lack of it.

Try asking yourself this question: What will your readers learn from you? Before you can answer that, you need to sort out the answer to the initial question: What has literature taught you about love?  Answers (in the comments) much appreciated! And while you’re thinking about it, you can read the NY Times column here, and you can even let the Beatles (50th Anniversary? Amazing) serenade you for a bit. If you want to see what the KidsLit people are posting for Poetry Friday, you’ll find the round-up at Linda Baie’s blog, TeacherDance.

All you need is love,
all you need is love,
all you need is love, love,
l♥ve is ♥ll y♥u need.

flower love and peace