Falling in Love

A couple times in my life I’ve avoided falling in love. The first time I was aware of doing it was in 1985, which was a watershed kind of year for me: I had a breast cancer scare (that turned out to be benign); My father went into a steep decline and died; A six-year long relationship finally crashed and burned; I met the Mathematician; I started field work for my doctoral dissertation; and I saw a movie that I tried not to see.

The Eric Garden was a tiny theater on Nassau Street in Princeton, just across from the university. I didn’t often have money or time for the movies, but then one day I saw a new movie poster to the left of the ticket booth.  Recall that this was long before you could google a movie trailer to see what it was about, so the poster was all I had, but on that basis it was clear to me that this was a movie I would adore.

Look at it, this object of my reluctant admiration. I still get a flush when I see it, all these years later.

The odd part: I simply could not make myself buy a ticket and go inside. I waited until the last day of its run, and then, sure enough, I was very put out with myself for waiting.  I would have happily bought another twenty tickets and seen it twenty more times. Assuming of course my graduate school budget had stretched so far. Because I waited, it was a couple years before I could see it again, but I thought about it, a lot. 

So now this phenomenon has repeated itself, but this time with a novel. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came out in 2009 so it has been about eight years that I’ve successfully avoided reading it. I somehow knew that I would love it, and so I stayed away from it. 

I’m here to confess that again, I was wrong to wait. I just finished it, at 2 a.m., and I’m kicking myself because now I know that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is one of those novels that I will re-read every year. I’ll start feeling lonely for it first. Then the story will keep intruding into whatever I’m thinking about until I  give in, sit down and read it again. There are maybe six novels and just as many movies that have this ability to kidnap my attention.  

As I just finished reading this novel, I need to think about it for a while before I’ll be able to put into words why I like it as much as I do. Of course that will mean reading it again. Once or twice, at least.

Who Writes Like Me: Literature Maps

I recently came across Literature-Map, a website that has some magic formula it uses to predict which authors you will like based on the name you give them. So say you adore Hemingway and are hoping to find an author you’ll adore just as much. You go to this website and type in his name,  and up pops a map. You can see Hemingway’s map here.  

According to this map, you will probably like Faulkner and Salinger (because their names are closest in proximity to Hemingway’s), and you probably won’t like Nabokov or Joyce or even Shakespeare. 

So of course I had to experiment. I put in Sara Donati, and something like this showed up (click for a larger image):

Note first: This image has been edited; I took off the names of some authors simply because I don’t want to get into a discussion of whether or not our work is similar.  

Some things that I found interesting:   there aren’t many authors whose work is similar to mine. I’m not even similar to myself, which is quite a trick. The closest in physical proximity are Jean Auel, Rebecca Cable, and Marion Bradley. Furthest away are Patricia Veryan, Stephen Frey, Kerry Greenwood and Karin Slaughter. 

To try to figure this out, I used color coding. Light blue means I have only vague associations for the author. I may have read something of theirs, but without some research I don’t remember what that could have been, or what I felt about it.  I read a lot, so I’m a little surprised that I’m unfamiliar with so many of these authors. Especially as many of them (apparently) write in a way that appeals to readers who are drawn to my work. 

Light red means I do remember this author’s work, and I really don’t see any similarity. In fact, in some of these cases, I would rather not be compared. 

Light green means I know this author’s work and I like it. Almost none of the light green authors are in near proximity, which is no surprise at all. Let me just approach this another way. 

The Literature-Map people compare Hemingway to writers like Dickens, Tolstoy, Rand and Twain. Why these authors in particular? Why is Shakespeare on this map, but not Austen?

Why is Stephen Frey, of all people, on my map? I love Karen Slaughter’s gritty crime novels, but they are set in modern day Atlanta and have to do with themes that are in no way similar to the stories I write. Why is she on my map?

I’ll answer my own question: the algorithms behind these maps are defective. I let the Visual Thesaurus help me with this particular cloud:

Maybe there’s a website out there that does a better job of predicting a reader’s tastes, but if so, I haven’t come across it. Please let me know if you have. 

Writers Resist

You may have heard about Writers Resist, and if not, here’s the skinny, from their website:

Our democracy is at risk. Growing public cynicism and an alarming disdain for truthfulness is eroding our most dearly held democratic ideals. As writers we have tremendous power to bypass empty political discourse and focus public attention on the ideals of a free, just, and compassionate society…. 

Throughout the US and in other countries, writers are organizing their own Writers Resist events on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, January 15, 2017.

Invited speakers will read from a curated selection of diverse writers’ voices that speak to the ideals of Democracy and free expression. The public is encouraged to attend.

I’m cynical by nature, so I’ll just admit that while Writers Resist is an appealing idea, it doesn’t seem to me to promise very much in the long-run. It’s not as though we’ll have any particular insight into strategies for resistance. We’re just one more group of people who are frightened and angry and worried. 

But it doesn’t hurt, and it may well help in some ways for writers to get together and invite the rest of the non-writers in their communities to come listen to them read and talk. So I offered my help and ended up creating the poster for the Bellingham Writers Resist Event. And here it is. 

It may just be depression that’s weighing me down, but this whole thing makes me feel weary.  

Wise Women

I would guess that most writers are interested in what other writers have to say about the process of writing.  Everyone needs validation, after all. So when I come across something an author said that strikes me as especially relevant or interesting (or funny, or inspiring), I add it to the quotes collection for this weblog. They show up in the right hand column under wise guys.  

Of course many of the quotes are by women authors, but somehow I can’t give up on wise guys as a title. There are too many complicated associations that work for me. And wise guys and gals would be awful.  So I’ll leave the title as is, but I wanted to make those of you who still stop by here (because I don’t post very often — I tend to do that on FaceBook these days) aware that there are some gems available for your inspiration. So for example, one I love especially:

…writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me.’

Jhumpa Lahiri
Notes from an apprenticeship. The New Yorker. 13/20 June 2011

If you happen to notice a quote you think I’ve got the wrong attribution for, or if you know a source and I’ve left it out, please do leave a comment. I’d appreciate it.

Edited to add: All the quotations are supposed to be accessible on one page, here. But it doesn’t work very well. Looking for a solution. Just fyi.

revealing words on words

There are many things to admire about Barbara Kingsolver’s work. She has written some novels that I think about all the time, even years after first reading them. Her people and their stories crawl into my head and make a permanent home for themselves there, settling in between  Aunt Helen’s overgrown garden at sunrise in the hottest days of summer and the sound of chalk squeaking in Sister Peter Joseph’s fourth grade classroom.  What more could any author ask for? 

Then today I came across this quote about writing, and now I know that she is indeed the wise woman I suspected she must be on the basis of her fiction. Because it all comes down to this.

“A novel can educate to some extent, but first a novel has to entertain. That’s the contract with the reader: you give me ten hours and I’ll give you a reason to turn every page. I have a commitment to accessibility. I believe in plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want the people I grew up with — — who may not often read anything but the Sears catalog — — to read my books.”  

Barbara Kingsolver

Toni Morrison at 85, and life goals

In February Toni Morrison turned 85. I did mean to post about it back then, and just yesterday realized that I had missed the date by something close to a year. Luckily she’s still out there writing things that need to be read. So for example, an essay about the election called Mourning for Whiteness. Toni Morrison has never shied away from difficult topics. 

I would love to come and help out wherever Ms Morrison is having Thanksgiving, because I think it would be an education of a very rare and valuable kind to be able to listen to her talk to her nearest and dearest. To hear her tell stories would be the perfect compliment to reading her stories, the novels that have so moved me over the years.  Toni Morrison speaks from a heart of gleaming ebony;  she speaks the language of her community.

When the Oakland African American English controversy was washing over the country, Ms Morrison was one of the few prominent black academics and role models who did not give in to that full-blown moral panic; she did not reject the language she is most comfortable with or the children who speak it. Jesse Jackson said some harsh and destructive things about African American English, which was rather ironic as he is a main speaker of that language.

Toni Morrison has always talked about the power of African American English and its importance, as in this 1981 interview:

The language, only the language. The language must be careful and must appear effortless. It must not sweat. It must suggest and be provocative at the same time. It is the thing that black people love so much—the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them. It’s a love, a passion. Its function is like a preacher’s: to make you stand up out of your seat, make you lose yourself and hear yourself. The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language. There are certain things I cannot say without recourse to my language. It’s terrible to think that a child with five different present tenses comes to school to be faced with those books that are less than his own language. And then to be told things about his language, which is him, that are sometimes permanently damaging. He may never know the etymology of Africanisms in his language, not even know that “hip” is a real word or that “the dozens” meant something. This is a really cruel fallout of racism. I know the standard English I want to use it to help restore the other language, the lingua franca.

Ms Morrison is someone I admire greatly, for her courage and power as a writer and a woman and a woman of color.  I hope she glides along to ninety trailing essays and novels and stories behind her. 

This quote from her is the truest thing I know about writing.

Passion is never enough.
Neither is skill.