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Friday, November 26, 2010

Interview Series: Barbara Briggs Ward, Author of The Reindeer Keeper and the Snarly Sally Series

Celebrate the new season! Look no further than children’s author Barbara Briggs Ward’s writing to find that she’s fascinated by Christmas.

She has just published her first work of fiction for adults, The Reindeer Keeper. A heartwarming Christmas story, it taps back into that feeling we all experienced of truly believing in Santa Claus while dealing as an adult in an adult world. It centers around a family many readers can identify with and what happens when they are given the gift of an old farmhouse complete with 120 acres and a barn full of animals including a herd of reindeer tended to by an odd little man. What happens that Christmas is more magical than anticipated, as the couple welcomes their boys back home and comes to realizations they never thought possible. It’s who delivers this gift on Christmas Eve that gives them the strength to face their greatest challenge.

Additionally, Barbara’s short story, “In Anticipation of Doll Beds” came out on October tenth of this year in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas Magic, and she is currently working on a children’s picture book centered on Christmas.

JK: So, what’s the attraction to Christmas?

Barbara Briggs Ward
Barbara Briggs Ward: Truth is, my fascination is with snow. I absolutely love snow. To me, there is nothing more beautiful than a snowfall. So, when I put the wonder of Christmas with the beauty of a snowfall, storylines abound!

JK: Most of the snow I’ve seen has been in a city or a college campus, where it gets dirty, slushy, and troublesome to travel through.

Barbara: I grew up in the country. This was the biggest influence on the rest of my life, for it provided me a constant backdrop to explore. The more I played and explored, the more my imagination grew. There were four houses in a row, all filled with relatives -- aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, dogs, and cats. My cousins and I had fields and pastures, creeks and old barns to play in. But it was in a chicken coop converted into a clubhouse and filled with the desks, books, and chalkboards of an abandoned one-room schoolhouse where we spent the majority of our time. If you go to you can follow my blog, which chronicles those times growing up in the country. I have two favorite authors, both rooted in my childhood and that chicken coop: Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott. And if I wasn’t reading, I was folding pieces of paper and writing books.

JK: Those are my favorite children’s authors, too! You and I seem to have had similar childhood hobbies. Was reading encouraged at your house?

Barbara: Books surrounded me. My mother was always reading, as was my grandfather. There was an amazing bookstore in the downtown of where I grew up, and I would go there with my mother. The smell of words on paper sitting on mahogany bookshelves remains with me today.

JK: And writing was the natural development from that environment?

From Chapter 20 of The Reindeer Keeper
Barbara: I started to explore writing when I used to spend hours playing in my chicken coop. There was something about it that intrigued me. Having my favorite books around me added to the wonder. One Christmas, my grandfather made me a desk, which included inside its single drawer a pad of paper with a sharpened pencil. I knew right then that I wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t understand what that meant. I kept the scribbling up as I grew up. It was just something I did. After my first child was born, scribbles turned into endless storylines. I was hooked. Intrigue turned into passion. I had to write. I started writing because I couldn’t stop.

JK: What themes started to show up early on?

Barbara: I think because my father was a funeral director I was keenly aware of how beautiful the gift of another day really is. It offers us another chance. I’ve always been fascinated by people’s obituaries for they chronicle what individuals did during their time on earth. The thought of knowing when we began and not having control of the end date inspires me to make a difference; to take each day and live it -- actually live it to the fullest while, along the way, appreciating the little things.

JK: Yes, that would make an important mark on anyone, growing up in that environment! Have those experiences influenced your latest work?

From Chapter 16 of The Reindeer Keeper
Barbara: The specific inspiration for The Reindeer Keeper was a snowfall on Christmas Eve. Watching those big, beautiful flakes float by the window with Christmas lights muted in the distance filled me with an urge to write a story of the season for adults, entwining that wonder of Santa Claus we all once felt with real life we face every day. That’s all I knew when I sat down to write the story but as words came out, the characters took over.

JK: That’s how I know when a story is important in a big way, beyond me as a writer, coming from somewhere much deeper. Do you find that, because you’re reaching so deeply, your real life creeps into your fiction?

Barbara: There is a fine line between the two and sometimes that line disappears. Looking back, it was my grandfather’s barn I was writing about in The Reindeer Keeper. That barn, stemming from my growing up in the country, played a major role in this story without my even knowing it. It was never my plan to do this. It just took over as I let the words come out. I could sense that old barn in my childhood: hear the wind come through broken windows up in the haylofts. When the scene was inside the old farmhouse it was my grandparents’ old farmhouse. I could smell cookies baking, hear the clock ticking on the mantle and the floors creak as the characters made their way through a scene. When the scene was outside, it was outside where I grew up: the pine forest and frozen creek where we’d skate day and night. I knew I was blessed with an amazing growing up but I never knew how much it was engrained in my heart and soul until I wrote The Reindeer Keeper.
     When I was older, we moved from the country into the nearby town to live over the top of an historic old home, which my father refurbished to use as a funeral home. Its character was grand: stately rooms with ornate fireplaces that looked as if they came out of a magazine. Without realizing it, I learned so many lessons about life and living, both from my father and by residing above that stately residence. All of that comes out in the pages of The Reindeer Keeper.

JK: Did such vivid memories help you change your writing from a children’s book style to a novel? After all, even though it’s geared “to anyone who remembers that feeling of truly believing in Santa Claus,” this is your first work of fiction for adults.

Christmas lights at Boston Common
Barbara: Yes. I use language to help describe a character, to set the tone and emphasis in describing settings. In The Reindeer Keeper there is an odd little man whose use of language is short and abrupt but as you read along and learn more about this character that all makes sense. A reader can feel close to a character by learning a character’s language and this adds to that feeling of getting into the book itself.
     I never thought I could sit long enough and write for adults. I didn’t think I could take characters from one place to another. Then I met another writer who told me the hardest audience to write for is children. That’s when I made the decision to sit down and write this story mulling in my mind. Once I did sit down I couldn’t get up. The characters led me from one place to another.

JK: I understand you have a lot on your plate in addition to writing.

Barbara: Besides writing, I work full-time as Advertising Director of a regional newspaper group. This position has allowed me the opportunity of getting articles published. My goal is to build my writing career to a point where I can leave the paper and write fulltime.
     I also serve on two appointed boards serving the needs and concerns of the mentally ill. This is dear to me, as I am the mother of a schizophrenic son. I also have three other children.

JK: How do you squeeze in time for writing?

Barbara: Except for early Saturday morning, the only time I get to write is later on in the evening, usually after 10 p.m. Because of my full-time job and my adult son with special needs, who lives with me, the time I have to sit down and write is limited. But when I do finally find that time I instantly plug into the writer inside of me and off I go into the wee hours. I always keep a pad of paper with me throughout the day for jotting down thoughts, scenes, characters, and changes on whatever it is that I am working on or new ideas that might zing through my head.

JK: Does your work area help you get the most out of your limited time?

Pere Noel in Epcot Center
Barbara: My home is an older-style farmhouse minus the backstairs and pantry. Because my disabled son lives with me, I’ve turned one particular room into both my area and his. My desk is my favorite piece of furniture in the house. Aged, solidly built, it has a dignity earned over the years. Its drawers are deep. One even has wooden files built into it. The top is wide -- so wide that it easily accommodates my computer, my printer, all my notebooks and reference material, and there’s still plenty of room left for my coffee mug and oodles of sharpened pencils. Having this personal zone with everything I need at hand makes it a comfortable place to sit down and write. Nearby is my art desk, full of markers and colored pencils. It sits next to one of the two windows overlooking the backfields and barn. Birdfeeders are everywhere as are poplar and maple trees. In the center of that room is my son’s table on which he puts puzzles together. Next to his table is his recliner sitting near that other window. The room is painted a warm, pale yellow. Sunrises are breathtaking.
     Actually, “morning” is my favorite word, for it offers hope and a new beginning -- a gift of another day. Watching the world wake up yet again is empowering. Seeing the sky turn from black to hints of daylight inspiring.

JK: Wow, that setup would make any writer envious! Do you have any methods that might seem unusual or inspiring to other writers?

Barbara: I scribble on pads of yellow-lined paper when I first sit down just to get the juices flowing. I used to do most of my writing on pads of paper; then would transfer it to the computer. But now I am comfortable enough to go from beginning scribbles to the computer.

JK: Writing by hand really helps sometimes! I learned at a writer’s conference this year at the Pearl S. Buck estate that people who write on paper are happier and healthier than those who only write with keyboards. I never looked up the scientific data, but, intuitively, I felt it was true. Do you do anything else “analog”?

Barbara: Getting published was a long, hard journey, not for the faint of heart. When I started searching for a publisher it was before the internet-before the computer so the information and social networking opportunities now just a click away 24 hours a day/7 days a week were not available to me. I had to go to the library and do hours of research, then come home and type my letters, mail them, and wait. And wait and wait! Sometimes it took over 6 months of waiting just to be finally rejected. Sometimes I never heard back. I decided way back then I could be depressed about being rejected so many times, or look at those cold, form rejections as their loss, not mine. I chose the latter and have kept every one of them.

JK: Rejection letters as a badge of honor! I have a few of those, too. But eventually, you got an acceptance letter.

Barbara: I was first published in Highlights for Children. I remember thinking, “This is it. I made it!” But I soon learned that while it was a true accomplishment, the road ahead remained a struggle. My first and second picture books were published by the Landauer Corporation out of Des Moines: The Really Really Hairy Flight of Snarly Sally and Snarly Sally’s Garden of ABCs, centered on my character, Snarly Sally, “the little girl who doesn’t like to have her hair brushed.” The publisher had planned a major rollout for the first title but fate stepped in, as that book was released just as 9/11 froze the country in fear. The publisher pulled back and turned her main focus to home arts and crafts books, realizing the mood of the country would keep people closer to their own homes. (My second book was published in 2002 because of our contract). Again, I had a choice: forget about all of it, or take the books on the road myself. I chose hitting the highway, and I remain thankful that I did. I met so many people who loved the books. The feedback became my grassroots marketing and inspired me to push forward. I waited for that contract to expire, and, because of the internet and what it has to offer, I’ve taken the plunge into self-publishing both The Reindeer Keeper and the third picture book to follow the first two, The Really Hairy Scary Butterfly Rescue: A Snarly Sally Adventure. It’s coming out before Christmas.

JK: How could you be sure your books would be well received?

Barbara: I must point out that I didn’t dive into the self-publishing arena without first researching social networking, learning and understanding how to use what is at my fingertips to market both my brand and my products. My guide through this maze has been a book by Gary Vaynerchuk entitled, Crush It. I could never have gotten anywhere without this book. I keep it by my side and refer to it daily.
     The first Snarly Sally book was printed in 2001. I’ve been waiting since 2002 for that contract to expire so I myself could publish the third book. Even with that lapse in time, I still have people ask for the third book and still have people say they love the books, as do their children. Now that I am in control, I’m implementing lessons learned into the launch of the third title. This includes a website: Children are computer savvy. I know Snarly Sally has to be, too.
     For The Reindeer Keeper project, response has been tremendous!

JK: So, do you have a pretty good sense of your demographics?

Barbara: Having gone on the road with the first two books, I learned firsthand how important and supportive grandparents are. They love to buy quality books for their grandchildren. That is a market I intend to court. There is a definite fan base building for Snarly Sally.

JK: What do your relatives think about having an author in the family?

Barbara: Except for my oldest child, now an adult, and the original Snarly Sally, my family sees me as who they’ve always known: a sister, aunt, or mother, not a budding writer fulfilling her passion. This is fine with me. I just have to be true to myself. The same holds true for friends, and that’s fine too.

JK: Any words for struggling writers?

From Chapter 15 of The Reindeer Keeper
Barbara: Stay with it; don’t give up. Use the internet as your agent. Don’t be afraid to delete everything you wrote the last time you sat down and start all over. Writing is a process: a long, lonely and joyful journey!

JK: Thank you so much for talking with me and spreading your inspiring message.

Find out more information about Barbara’s positive, vivid, and exciting work, perfect for the Christmas season, at and She would love to hear from you at

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Alfonso X el Sabio: Conclusion

Alfonso X in an eighteenth-century
sculpture in the garden of the
Royal Palace, Madrid
Vacillating regularly between his second son and his grandson as he came under different pressures to name an heir, Alfonso was unable to avoid international incidents as he dealt with recurring and worsening illness, the distrust of the townspeople and their unwillingness to provide the funds he needed for the defense of the kingdom, invasions from the south and threats from the north. In 1277, Alfonso ordered the summary execution of his brother Fadrique. Although Fadrique had probably taken the opportunity caused by Alfonso’s illness and Sancho’s minority to seize the crown for himself, the official records allege a homosexual relationship that was imperiling the entire nation. In 1278, the Courts granted Sancho enormous power, making him a virtual co-regent with his father. Meanwhile, Alfonso’s queen, Violante, fled to Aragón, probably because of mistreatment she suffered as a result of Alfonso’s prolonged physical distress. Before she could return after a year’s absence, negotiations became highly politicized because of the whereabouts of Alfonso’s grandsons. In an attempt to curb Moroccan power in the peninsula, Alfonso besieged Algeciras, but Sancho gave the money intended for the siege to his mother for her expenses in Aragón, and the siege failed. To show his displeasure, Alfonso executed the innocent Jew who had collected the funds from delinquent taxpayers. Still desperate for money, he also held all of the Jews in Castile for ransom. Using these extreme measures as evidence of his father’s insanity and inability to rule, Sancho sought and gained the support of most of the royal family, Aragón, Portugal, and the military orders of Castile. He collected funds and convoked a plenary assembly to restore traditional laws and promise to maintain the coinage from the time of his grandfather.
The courts agreed to divest Alfonso X of all his power, leaving him with only the title of king. Alfonso pawned his gold crown and resorted to the help of his former enemy, the King of Morocco, who laid waste to many important towns that had turned to Sancho. During a final prolonged illness in Seville, the last loyal city, Alfonso disinherited Sancho in his testament, although in an addendum he refused to specify exactly who would receive control of his kingdoms. Sancho’s suspicious behavior drove some of the royal family members back to Seville, and the Pope excommunicated everyone in Sancho’s camp. When Alfonso’s brother, Manuel, died while acting as Sancho’s most important advisor, both camps began to make overtures to reconcile, but they were never to meet face to face again. Alfonso officially pardoned his wayward son and asked for a papal absolution for him just days before his death. It is unknown whether Sancho ever learned of this belated blessing.
From the Cantigas de Santa Maria. The king
in the bottom center is Alfonso.
In or about 1269, it seems that a horse kicked Alfonso in the face. Although not a matter of state, this incident would influence each one of Alfonso’s subsequent actions. Poor healing of a nasal fracture resulted in repeated infections, which eventually led to debilitating pain and cancerous tumors, which disfigured and ultimately killed him. This highly intimate knowledge helps to humanize the drama of Alfonso’s life. If we consider the severe physical pressures he was suffering as well as the confusing factionalism of his subjects, his equivocation and occasional rash behavior becomes much more understandable.
Alfonso X would be remarkable in any context, but he stands out in especially high relief against the society in which he lived. Literally backwards-looking, Alfonso’s subjects demanded time and again that he return his government to what it had been during previous reigns. The king wanted the best for his people, but he was never able to fully grasp just how hard he would have to push them into a future that made no sense to them. But, even at the sad end of his life, Alfonso probably realized that his intellectual legacy would prevail and that history would (eventually) regard him kindly. In this way, Alfonso still inspires us to believe in the value of education for the betterment of society.
The figure of the Wise King first sparked my attention as an undergraduate. It has steered my entire academic career, and sustained my interest through the unexpected work in history, linguistics and law that became necessary in order to complete my dissertation on his legalistic and literary output. 
To date, the best Alfonsine biography in English is Joseph O’Callaghan’s The Learned King (1993). Students use this well-researched piece as a reference once they already have some familiarity with thirteenth-century history, but I doubt they would pick it up at the library for a bit of fun reading. Additionally, it treats only the years of his reign, leaving Alfonso’s childhood, personal life, and subsequent legacy for the reader to find out. H. Salvador Martínez’s authoritative Alfonso X, el Sabio should appear in English translation by the end of 2011. However, even if it has been cut drastically in length, that book will still require enormous patience and previous knowledge of Spanish cultural heritage. I'm dreaming of a book that would reach a wide American audience. It would be the life story of one extraordinary person, without abstruse language or unnecessarily distracting notes. It would bring Alfonso’s accomplishments and tragedies to people who might never have heard of him. Perhaps readers would then feel inspired to pursue their own useful learning. Continuing this legacy of enrichment would be the most fitting tribute to a king who wanted most of all to increase knowledge.

Part One of this biographyA Day in the Life of Alfonso X  • Alfonso's Bookish Legacy • Cantigas de Santa María • Cantiga 185Alfonso's Astronomy • Alfonso's Last Book • 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Born on this Day in 1221: Alfonso X el Sabio

Alfonso X, el Sabio in a
20th-Century Painting
Alfonso X el Sabio arrived into the world in very good company, having in his family tree two saints, two great lawmakers, and one Holy Roman Emperor. He ascended to the throne at an especially dynamic and optimistic time in the history of his kingdoms. His father, San Fernando, had nearly doubled the size of the area he ruled by “reconquest” of Muslim-controlled territories in Andalucía. Motivated by the new skilled labor and refined culture within his borders, King Alfonso made an immense effort both to unite his kingdoms under one banner and to push that new kingdom, Spain, onto the European stage. He welcomed international scientists and craftsmen to his court, and there they worked together with Spanish Christians, Muslims and Jews to create the most voluminous and wide-ranging body of writings ever produced under the guidance of a single patron. Nevertheless, Alfonso was not to experience his cultural revolution as the astounding success it appears to be to modern scholars. By the end of his life, the king was ailing and alone, practically deposed by a rebellious son, and reviled by all but his most loyal subjects.
Children in Spain grow up regarding Alfonso as the practical creator of the Spanish language, a great scholar who spent so much time gazing at the heavens that the crown fell from his head. The lesson seems to be that great learning does not presage great leadership. How did such a learned and practical man bring such a disastrous end to an auspicious beginning? 
The Alphonsus crater on the Moon,
named for Alfonso X.
Alfonso’s insistence on the use of the vernacular for all court documents (including some foreign correspondence!) helped fix the forms of modern Spanish and established a naturally elegant style that would persist until the re-imposition of Latinized formations and syntax during the Baroque period. Although he did not personally author all of the works bearing his signature, as a bare minimum he planned and outlined the contents in detail and corrected the finished products for clarity and precision. The multinational, interfaith workshop he assembled and instructed has left a wealth of evidence of the kind of scholarship the king valued, including: the first major world history in a romance language; texts on astronomy and its instruments; a series of lapidaries; the largest collection of annotated music to have survived the Middle Ages; the magisterial Siete Partidas, which are practical interpretations of Roman law, explained in carefully reasoned essays; and the first chess treatise in the Western world.
As this incomplete list shows, Alfonso funneled his voracious curiosity into providing a complete catalog of useful knowledge for future generations. Contributing to every art and science of its time, it has influenced thinking in every discipline through the present day while also presenting vivid portraits of everyday life in thirteenth-century Spain. It shows Christians and Moors, women and men, beggars and kings, all cooperating and competing on equal footing. The legislative works in particular represent an ideal kingdom, which can be used to evaluate the real-life success of Alfonso’s policies. The scientific works remained state of the art for hundreds of years, having an impact on Christopher Columbus, Copernicus, and every serious stargazer until the mid-sixteenth century. The astronomy team calculated the length of the year we still use in the Western world today, which demonstrates just how successfully Alfonso’s scholars broke through the limitations of their time and place. Alfonso’s scholars practiced humanism before the Renaissance and religious tolerance in a time of pogroms and crusades.
Alfonso X ascended to the throne uncontested and well prepared at 30 years of age. He had already set in motion some of the key elements of his cultural projects. He had participated in some of his father’s military campaigns and felt ready to rule his new landscape according to some progressive theories of centralized government. But he was faced with a powerful noble class that felt entitled to unique privileges because of old laws known as fueros. These loose compilations held the validity of ancient custom, but generally clashed with the organized Roman-based law Alfonso was trying to establish for his outward-looking Spain. Our king found himself the victim of an eternal problem of visionaries: a populace too entrenched in the status quo to follow his dynamic lead.
The first turning point came early in the reign, when Alfonso was provisionally elected Holy Roman Emperor. At first blush, it was a dream come true for the promotion of Castile in Europe, but imperial politics distracted the king from urgent domestic matters and created insurmountable fiscal problems. The major example of growing discontent during the early part of his reign is the Mudéjar rebellion of 1264. The Muslim citizens living in many of the largest cities throughout Murcia and Andalucía rose up on the same day and besieged their citadels. The boldest even planned to kidnap the king and queen in Seville. Having gained support from the King of Granada, the rebels continued to cause problems for years to come and might never have been brought back in line if not for the help of Alfonso’s father-in-law, Jaume of Aragón. When the uprising was finally dealt with, Alfonso had learned some disheartening facts about his world. He could no longer trust any of the dependent Muslim rulers of the peninsula, even though they had been paying a yearly tribute in exchange for Castilian protection. Probably most disappointing, the king had to abandon his efforts to launch a “crusade” in Africa in order to maintain control at home. He would never extend his father’s legacy southward and claim more territory for Castile.
He had not given up on the dream of Empire—far from it. When his main competitor for the imperial title passed away in 1272, Alfonso was certain that he should go immediately to accept the crown. The noble families of Castile, on the other hand, had become more alienated with each extraordinary tax to raise funds to strengthen Alfonso’s candidacy and his bizarre insistence on Roman law. With Alfonso’s own brother Felipe as their leader, the nobles made an outrageous display of having suffered under the king’s policies and presented him with a list of demands. Alfonso met most of the requirements and evaded the more problematic ones in exchange for the money he needed to claim the Empire. Confused, the nobles gave up the castles that had been granted to them by the crown and, sacking the countryside as they left, went into exile in Granada, where they made a pact with its king. After a year of new demands, generous compromises, and genuine sacrifices as well as a life-threatening bout of fever, the king persuaded even the most obstinate magnates to return to Castile. He needed them for his imperial retinue.
Alfonso was finally able to make a physically draining journey to Beaucaire to see Pope Gregory X about resolving his imperial candidacy in 1275, only to be rebuffed. The twenty arduous years of campaigning had come to nothing. On the way back into Castile, things only got worse: his eldest son, Fernando, had died while attending to his duties as regent in Alfonso’s absence. Added to a father’s grief was the thorny problem of succession. Fernando had left behind two young boys. If Alfonso were to acknowledge his grandsons as his heirs, in accordance with Roman law and a binding contract he had made with the King of France, he would anger a large percentage of the powerful people in Castile, who, according to Germanic custom, felt that his second son, Sancho, represented a more viable solution. Sancho had already rallied the militias against the invasion his older brother had been attempting to crush, and he proved hard to ignore.
Read the poignant conclusion and get more links to great Alfonso stuff here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Born on this Day Not Many Years Ago: My Husband, and, On the Road!

Happy Birthday, Darlin'!

Your gift is that we are finally on our way. Today we drive through and out of no-luck Pennsylvania, into the vast open West.

Yes, the map shows 2,373 miles, 38 hours of driving (less if there's no traffic). On the way, we'll stop to say hi to friends in Ohio and family in Oklahoma. I'll blog from the road wherever possible, so stay tuned for exciting adventures!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What's Next -- You Tell Me!

As you may have been able to piece together through the hints in the posts on this blog, my husband and I can no longer support ourselves in Pennsylvania. Very soon, we're starting a journey across most of the United States with a few things in the car, to live with my husband's sister. It's the only solution we can think of to the intractable problem that my husband is highly employable and loves his work, but is only getting paid $1000 per month.

My husband says I should write a book about us. We went from $100,000 a year to $12,000. It's a pretty startling figure, but I'm thinking it's not that unusual these days. We were able to avoid foreclosure and we have someplace to go, even if it is more than 2,000 miles away. Overall, we're much happier than we were three years ago, when we had no money troubles, but didn't know each other yet.

So, I won't be able to post for a while as we pack up and I pay less attention to writing and the writing world. I hope to be able to post from the road, especially if we encounter anything interesting.

* I have some important birthdays to commemorate later in November, starting a week from today, so be sure to check them out!
* The day after Thanksgiving, I'm posting a great interview I had with author Barbara Briggs Ward, and that is sure to get you into the Christmas spirit!
* From the new digs, I hope to offer you more free excerpts of my writing! Tempting and thrilling!
* I'm also considering posting on how to be happy, seeing as my husband and I have found the secret. Please let me know if you would be interested in that kind of reading. I would love to know!

Lastly, I know my books are unusual and undefinable, but if you're feeling charitable and just want to help, please consider buying them or telling your reading friends about them. (The links are in the Good Reading link on the upper left of the page.) Research shows: it makes you feel lastingly good to help others! Even if I were sleeping under the stars and living on bread and water, what I would most want is to be read. The writer's disorder.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Visual Inspiration

I started this blog, not many months ago, with a picture of something that helped me really focus on writing. I think we're about due for some more visual inspiration.
Autograph manuscript of the collected works
of Christine de Pisan. Probably Paris,
1410-15. British Library BL Harley 4431, f. 4
First, we have the amazing Christine de Pisan (1364-1430). She is shown here as author and scribe at her uptilted writing desk, a faithful dog at her side. She writes with a very small stylus in her right hand, with a scraping knife in her left hand, ever ready for self-correction. This picture is found in an "autograph manuscript," meaning that studious people believe she actually penned the whole thing by her own hand.  Such a book was as rare in the fifteenth century as it is now, because most authors dictated to a scribe, and then copies and copies of copies were made whenever there was enough writing material and money. Most scribes were men, and most of them were monks. That Christine could read at all can be credited to a father who wanted to foster her learning, another rarity of the time and place. That she went on to write several eloquent, engaging, proto-feminist books, which were "bestsellers" of their age, is astounding. Everything about Christine and her book is extraordinary, and she had this picture painted on the first page to draw everyone's attention to that fact. She wears richly dyed fabric in the shade of Virtue, and has a pleasant face in the portrait. Being her own scribe, with the added ability to correct her own mistakes, gave her complete control over her words as they were handed down to posterity. This picture is justly famous and incredibly inspiring to anyone who sets out on daunting tasks.

You Are Here! But Why? Artist Unknown,
with color by Jessica Knauss
Second, we have the intriguing "You Are Here! But Why?" This was the cover of a brochure I picked up -- snatched up! quickly! -- when I was really not sure what I was doing at the University of ____. It turned out to be a piece of marketing for positions in the university food service. Somehow, putting dishes through the washer will improve one's future employment prospects. The brochure was not answering the question I was asking.

I like to contemplate the picture and its question and come up with my own answer. Depending on the situation and my mood, it can range from snarky to... inspiring.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Challenges of NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is a great concept! Write enough words every day in November to have 50,000, and that will be your first draft of your novel. It introduces some much-needed, concrete, obtainable discipline into the big idea of writing a sustained piece of fiction. Some of these books have gone on to be published and met with great success.

November is as good a month as any, I suppose. But my challenge with NaNoWriMo has usually been that it falls during a month when I've got some huge upheaval going on.

This year, we're getting ready to move. I'm lucky to write this bit here, since the computer is now on the floor, the desk having escaped to greener pastures a couple of days ago. Because my husband is out with his nose to the grindstone earning us a few dollars so we can eat, I'm left with most of the sorting, packing, and throwing away duty. I'm one of those writers who likes to have a dedicated nook for working, with everything close at hand, nicely decorated, ventilated, and perfumed, for maximum sense inspiration, so this is not the month for me to be writing. I admire anyone who can produce any creative work in a disrupted environment.

Last year, if you can believe it (I can hardly believe it myself!), we were also getting packed up to move! If anything, there was a lot more emotional strain in 2009 because we were leaving Cambridge, Massachusetts, a place I love as if I were born there. We came to this state for a job that didn't work out, and now every time we go downtown, my husband is appalled at how run down it is, and astonished that he ever took me here. In other words, we can't wait to leave. This time, we'll use our intuition a bit more in finding a new place to live. Cross your fingers that it works!

Two thousand eight was a banner year, as I met my husband! The part before November was pretty disruptive, and I wasn't in a mindset to take up the reigns of my writing career yet, and we flew to visit my parents in Oregon for Thanksgiving. Excuses, excuses.

The previous year, 2007, was the only November I had an idea, a plot outline, even! I had a desk to work at that wasn't going anywhere! I had tons of free time for the first time in five years, because I'd just completed my PhD! I was accustomed to taking on large projects! And most of all, I had ganas. I was able to keep up the NaNo pace pretty well for the first ten days of November, but then I started to feel pretty poorly. I thought, I'm sick, but that doesn't keep me from typing, I'll keep chugging...

But no. It wasn't to be. By the twelfth, I had self-diagnosed myself, using WebMD, with strep throat, and then it was off on a difficult journey to the doctor for tests and drugs, because back then, WebMD and/or other web sites had no qualms telling me that if left untreated, strep throat will kill you. YIKES. Now of course, they admit that that's not necessarily true, but it was pretty easy to believe at the time that I was about to die. Oh, the pain! Needles and knives all along my throat! I couldn't eat, couldn't speak, could hardly breathe. The last thing I remember about that November is that, in immense physical anguish, I had to call up a Spanish friend of mine I still haven't seen since, to tell him I couldn't meet him in New York, where he was running the marathon. Sorry, Antonio! And mostly, I'm so sorry, book!

Before that, I was shackled to my PhD, and NaNoWriMo was just getting started in California.

In November of 2011, I can only hope my desk won't have run away from me and that I won't come down with a dread disease. Just a little stability is all I ask. It's not a lot. I pledge now that, even if I'm working two jobs or something equally time-consuming, as long as I have some semblance of an idea and a desk to write at, I will participate in NaNoWriMo. I will write 1,667 words a day of the same story.

(Uneasy grin.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

"Real"ly Published in Cave Scribbles

My poem "Real" has made it into the genial Cave Scribbles, a journal that explores the human condition through words. Read the whole thing here. The link is also in the "Good Reading" page to the left.

I was inspired to write "Real" as a response to the vertiginous vacuum left after my boyfriend would visit me at college during Spring Break. As I've mentioned in another post, this was my first love, and I was madly and deeply attached to him. We went to college 3,000 miles apart, and our Spring Break schedules were skewed: his was the week before mine. Since I was the poorer of the two and couldn't fathom another plane ticket, he came to visit me, staying in the dorm common rooms or the bed-and-breakfast, witnessing me and my friends as we went to classes, sometimes took midterms, and prepared for our Spring Break. It was unreal to have him there, that tangible piece of my heart, bringing all his California goodness with him.  He fit in surprisingly well, considering that I slept in all-female dorms throughout college, but his presence was somehow on a different plane. He and my college never seemed to be occupying the same space at one time.

The sensation increased when he left and I turned to a week of no classes but plenty of studying. (There wasn't anything else to do, even if I hadn't been a complete nerd.) The entire campus was suddenly imbued with his presence. I thought I could hug him in the hallway, or get him a soda in the dining hall, but he just wasn't there anymore. I began to doubt that he had been anything other than a figment of my imagination. Hence the poem.

I don't think of this darling boy very often any more, but when I do, I get the same sensation that I made him up, a sensation backed up by failed Google searches. Somehow he's managed to remain anonymous in this era of information access. Very strange, indeed.

"Real" doesn't appear in Dusk Before Dawn (although many fine poems do!): Cave Scribbles is the only place you'll get to read it. Like my first boyfriend, it could easily become an evanescent experience, lost to the sands of time. Enjoy!