Monday, August 31, 2009

And it's not my nose, it's a false one!

I am currently revising a short story, about dueling and Laws of Science and saints and Jesuits. Well, fictionalized Jesuits, anyway.

As part of this, I've been researching scientists. Today, I discovered that astronomer Tycho Brahe lost part of his nose in a dueling accident when he was twenty, and wore a false nose of gold and silver for the rest of his life. Scientists and dueling, all in one! I was including him anyway, for reasons I'm going to keep to myself for now, but that just makes it even better.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

How not to teach writing

One of my friends has recently begun a program in graduate level creative writing. At the outset of the program, one of his instructors gave out a list of rules designed to improve writing. Some of the rules were quite useful, I thought, such as "Care about what you are writing about."

Unfortunately, there was also Rule 12. Rule 12 informed the students that they were not allowed to care about Thing X. (Yes, that's a paraphrase. No, I'm not going to link to the actual list.) This was pretty clearly code for, "Don't write speculative fiction stories." In other words, if you want to be a good writer, you can't be writing spec fic.

Look, I understand that nearly everyone has that one section of the bookstore that just doesn't get read. I'll be honest - I don't think I've ever bought a western, and I don't see that changing in the near future. Having said that, I have no problem understanding that by not reading westerns I am missing good fiction. It's just that there are a lot of books that I want to read, and my time in which to read them is finite. There's going to be some stuff, and some really good stuff, that I'm going to miss. But there is a difference between understanding that a particular genre isn't your thing, and dismissing the entirety of it as not worth caring about, and hence not worth writing in.

A casual reader gets to make those distinctions. A teacher does not. It's one thing in, for example, a course on playwriting, to insist that your students turn in something that is a play, and not a sestina. But a good teacher understands the distinction between something that is not the sort of story that he would read for entertainment Saturday morning, and something that is genuinely poorly written. And a teacher who believes that all of Genre X is poorly written needs a new required reading list.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A review: When You Reach Me

SInce one of the things I plan on working on in the near future is a YA novel, I've been making an effort recently to read a lot of YA fiction. It's something I've always done in a small way - if a favorite author writes YA, I follow her to that side of the bookstore, I love Harry Potter, Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy, Tamora Pierce and others - but I've been making a conscious effort to look at what's being written in that corner of the world.

Even without that, I would have picked up Rebecca Stead's new book, When You Reach Me. The favorite book of the story's narrator, Miranda, is Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.

I really enjoyed When You Reach Me. The characters were real people, and their relationships played out like real life. On a writerly level, I was extremely impressed by the manner in which the ending pulled together the variety of plot threads, and made something extraordinary out of them. As Miranda says, "...it was like an invisible hand reached out and snatched away my veil. And for almost a minute, I understood everything."

The thing I found most interesting about this book is that while there is a definite speculative element to the story, and that element is key, it is not the focal point of the book. Rather than lighting off fireworks and yelling "Look! Here! Time travel!" Stead allows the speculative dimension to be just another dimension of the story she is telling. It haunts the edges, but never quite takes over. It becomes yet another part of the amazing things that sometimes happen in Miranda's life. And although when I first starting reading When You Reach Me, I wanted that speculative element to be more present, by the end, I was glad Stead wrote the book that she did. She perfectly captured that sense of possibility that is present in childhood. When You Reach Me is a quietly lovely book, the kind of story that is perfect for a fall afternoon. I highly recommend it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

You can call me... The Doctor

The observant among you will have noticed a small, but key, edit made to my profile. That's right, I successfully defended my dissertation today, and so am no longer a grad student, but a Doctor of Philosophy.

Mostly, I am still too excited to actually make coherent thoughts. But I wanted to thank you all who have supported me in this project, both those of you that I actually know, as well as those of you who just dropped an occasional comment on one of the posts where I was stressing about the dissertation again. It helped. I appreciated it. Thank you.

A defense begins with a personal statement. In lieu of anything more exciting to say, this is mine. It's a brief explanation of bits of my project, and why it was important to me, and how I wound up writing about what I did, anyway.

***
In A Revelation of Love, Julian of Norwich uses the concept of different streams of time to explain her revelations in a manner which makes them doctrinally acceptable to the church. A key part of her text includes a passage where, from a place seemingly outside of time, Julian watches the separate parts of her showings simultaneously unfolding before her. As I look back over the process of writing my dissertation from the perspective offered by its completion, I am struck by the different places in time in which this project began, and came together.

Officially, this project began slightly over three years ago, when I selected the texts that I would focus on, and began my secondary research. At that point, I had only the vaguest idea of how the texts of these four women – Julian of Norwich, Joan of Arc, Margery Kempe, and Anne Askew – fit together. Aside from a generalized curiosity, the only thing in my head that even approximated a thesis was the suspicion that when two women that history has defined as holy were burned as heretics, the definition of “holy” might be worth looking into.

Yet if we wrinkle time just a bit, the beginnings of this project were much earlier, somewhere back in elementary school. Joan of Arc has been my favorite saint, a hero of mine, for as long as I can remember. Probably my fascination with reading about her began when I talked my parents into buying me Regine Pernoud’s Joan of Arc: Her Story at a book sale at Holy Rosary Church. I went through a period of obsessively reading saints’ lives, and I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where having books to read was a necessity, not a luxury. Reading about Joan, this fearsomely brave and articulate young woman, who, like King Arthur, had a miraculous sword pulled from a stone, only increased my interest in her. My desire to work on her life in a scholarly fashion began after law school. I was researching an article that argued that freedom of dress is inherent in the first amendment right to freedom of expression, and I discovered that the crime that condemned Joan to the stake was the fact that she wore men’s clothing. I was appalled. It seemed like such a petty, cowardly reason to condemn someone to death. And it was a death as a heretic, orchestrated by the Church that later canonized her.

But while some of this project grew out of my fascination with Joan, and my desire to better understand how the events of her life and death unfolded, other strands of this project were woven at an even earlier time. When I was in first grade, my Mom’s friend Gail gave me a copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery award winning book, A Wrinkle in Time. It is the first book I remember reading on my own, and the experience of reading, and rereading, that book shaped the kind of reader that I am. Through that reading I learned that literature can wrestle with the numinous, that Story can be a tool to explore truths beyond the literal meaning of the words on a page. This is the reason that I came to study literature in a formal capacity, and a component of why I write: I believe that if the universe can be created with a Word, that words hold the key to our understanding of the universe as well. It was in A Wrinkle in Time that I found the tools to understand Julian of Norwich’s use of time as a means to explaining her revelations, and the shape of this project as a whole.

It was also A Wrinkle in Time that gave me one of my strongest experiences of the effect of context on perception, something that became a key factor in formulating my argument in my dissertation. I am sure that I am not the only one here who knows the opening line of A Wrinkle in Time: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Because of the quality of L’Engle’s book, for years I considered that to be one of the greatest openings in literature. It was not until I began grad school that I heard of the Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad fiction, so named because Edward George Bulwer-Lytton began his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, with the following convoluted agony of an opener: "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." Context is everything in perception, in fiction as well as in holiness.

Here, as in Julian’s showings, the threads of time loop in on themselves, and as much as the roots of this project go back to a book first read in the earliest days of my education, they also go back to a little over a year ago, and a conversation with a friend. We were discussing why people choose to write the kinds of stories that they write. There are only two kinds of stories, he said, the mimetic, and the speculative. People who write mimetically are interested in explaining the world as it is. People who write speculatively are interested in exploring the world as it could be. This distinction exists in theology as well, and is perhaps even more true there. The purpose of theology is to seek to understand what is ultimately unknowable. Thus, nearly any theological writing contains a certain degree of speculation. But the four women that my work focuses on wrote texts that pushed the boundaries of acceptable theological speculation to engage in what I would call speculative theology. In their writings, they perform the theological equivalent of a tesser, a wrinkle in time, and end with the realization that the shortest distance between two points of understanding is not necessarily a straight line.

At its heart, my dissertation is about perception, and the gap in perception that occurs in speculative theological writing. It explores the interstices between what is perceived to be holy by an outside group, and what is experienced as holy by an individual, and the consequences when those two definitions of holiness cannot be made to exist harmoniously. There is a quotation by Samuel Taylor Coleridge that is often used to explain the process by which a witness interacts with the presence of speculative elements in a work of art. Coleridge defines that interaction as: ”That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” My project analyzes these four works of poetic faith and looks at something that was equally fantastic – the act of willing belief that they all asked of their readers.

The difficulty inherent in speculative writing, whether fiction or theology, is that not everyone is willing to engage in acts of poetic faith. Julian temporarily doubted her showings, denying them as ravings. Margery’s dramatic gift of holy weeping caused people to wonder whether she had a devil within her that caused such behavior, and she was imprisoned and tried as a heretic. Joan wore armor, and led an army, and dared to say that she did both by God’s command. Anne quoted Scripture to provide evidence for her theological assertions, and knew her Bible better than the learned churchmen who interrogated her. Both were burned.

The sticking point in each of these instances, the thing that prevented the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, was the gap between mimesis and speculation. The spiritual experiences of these women were too far from what was perceived as acceptable to be believed, much less tolerated. Their experiences weren’t understood, and so they were not seen as holy. Because of this, one of the things that became most important to me in working with their texts was determining what these women wanted to accomplish in their presentations of themselves and of their spiritual experiences. Their writings were their means of bridging the gap between the mimetic and the speculative. And as much as they sought to increase our understanding of the ineffable, I believe that it is my duty as a scholar to wrinkle time – to see from a different perspective, and increase our understanding of their lives and work.

The last chapter of Julian’s A Revelation of Love opens with the line, “This boke is begonne by Goddes gifte and his grace, but it is not yet performed, as to my sight.” Stating that a work is unfinished is an unusual way of ending it, but also a deeply true way. For as much as a project has many beginnings, it has many endings as well, and both are ongoing. As Eliot writes, “What we call the beginning is often the end/
And to make an end is to make a beginning./
The end is where we start from.” The completion of this dissertation marks an end, and a beginning for me. Thank you for being part of both.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ever after

We know things about stories. They begin "Once upon a time" and end "They lived happily ever after."

Except, well, when they don't. Except for when there's a whole second act beyond "happily ever after."

I recently read a draft of a story for a friend. She started the story, she said, with the aim of finally writing something with a happy ending. But when she was finished, that wasn't what she had. Except, the ending that she had was perfect. Well-paced, all the needful emotional beats hit, and something even better than a happy ending: an ending with potential.

It made me think about what I want when I read. Oh, I have my comfort books, romances mostly, that are the literary equivalents of a cup of hot chocolate. I love those books, and they fill a need for me.

But the books that really resonate in my soul are the ones where the ending is right, rather than necessarily happy. And that's actually, I think, a much harder trick to pull off. Because the good guys don't always win, and even when they do, not everyone survives to see it. Hearts get broken, and foul deeds go unpunished. A wizard may choose to break his staff and drown his books, and there is a truth there that is deeper than the fleeting pleasure of happiness.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Not what I had planned for the afternoon

When the sirens went off, I didn't really pay attention. The tornado sirens always go off on Wednesday afternoon. Except... they were still going off. And the sky was heavy and thick.

A quick glance at the internet meant taking the siren seriously, and getting Sam I Am and the Four Felines of the Apocalypse to the basement. Cats, incidentally, do not enjoy being evacuated. They make their dislike of this process known with vigor. And claws.

And then, I discovered the basement was flooded.

I am grateful that the tornado missed me, and also grateful that, at least according to early reports, it was small, and no one badly hurt. And I have a wet-dry vac, and the only things that seem to have been ruined beyond saving were some outlines and notebooks from law school. And while it did get me an A, even I don't want to read my Securities Regulation outline again, even for the purpose of nostalgia.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A review: The Magicians

The new novel by Lev Grossman, The Magicians, has perhaps the best opening I've ever read:

"Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed."

The next 402 pages aren't bad, either.

I've been excited about The Magicians since I first started hearing about it earlier this year, and when I began reading it, I braced hard, certain that I had built my expectations up into a fantastical, Gaudi-like edifice, and that no matter how good the book was, it wouldn't be as good as the imaginary book that had been living in my head.

I don't even remember what that imagined book was going to contain. The Magicians broke my heart in exactly the right way, along the fault line of a lifetime's worth of reading.

Imagine that you find out one day that you can do magic. Not card tricks, and sleight of hand, (although Quentin can do those, too) but real magic. Spells and incantations, words and will. Such a thing will change your life utterly. And when I say, "change," there is a voice in your head that hears, "better," yes?

Imagine, too, that the story that you always wanted to step into, whether through the Wardrobe or the Looking Glass, was real. And that you could go. It would be magic, right? The place where you always belonged, where secretly your truer, better self was waiting for you to find her?

The Magicians wrestles with these questions, and with the assumptions that underlie them, and does so elegantly. This is a book that really thinks about what happens when a magician by training discovers he is also a magician by blood, when a class of magicians graduates into the mundane world, that wonders what actually happens in between the lines of our favorite childhood books. It is a dark, harsh story, as steeped in reality as it is in magic, the kind of thing that leaves ghosts in your thoughts to haunt your reading far beyond when you have closed the back cover.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

The kind of review I want someday

A couple of days ago, one of my friends called. She had an errand to run, and her six-year-old daughter, Sierra, wasn't feeling well. Could I please come over for about twenty minutes and sit with her?

I said that was fine. On my way out the door, I grabbed a book to read to Sierra: Crazy Hair, by Neil Gaiman, with utterly fabulous illustrations by Dave McKean. She loved it.

A couple of days later, I was walking my dog past their house. Sierra came up, slipped her hand into mine, and said, "Could that book we read come and live at my house, please?"

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Wherein I finally let you in on a secret

Some of you may remember when I wrote this post. I had just finished writing a short story, my first post-Clarion piece of short fiction, and I was wondering where to sell it.

The thing is, I sold it the next day.

Today, I received the contract, and I am so very, very delighted to tell you that my short story, "A Life in Fictions," will be in the anthology Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio.

Why, yes. I did do a mad dance of happiness all around my house.

(Incidentally, I don't know what this person thinks they are selling.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

WorldCon 2009

My plan last summer, if I hadn't gotten in to Clarion, was to go to WorldCon. I was pretty nervous about the idea of going to such an enormous convention, but my very persuasive friend Pat promised to see me safely through the experience. Since I knew there was no way I was getting into Clarion, I bought the membership. Like I've said before, I am awesome at planning.

This year, when it came time to buy the membership, I didn't hesitate. One of my instructors was going to be the Guest of Honor, and a number of my friends were going. In all, Megan, Emily, E. J., Keffy, Paul, Nalo, Jim, Geoff, and Neil were there. One of the best things about going was getting to spend time with all of them again.

There were many other kind of wonderful things about WorldCon. Some of these were even part of the programming: getting to hear the fabulous Cat Valente read her World Fantasy Award nominated short story, "A Buyer's Guide to Maps of Antarctica," attending a wonderful panel about using diction and language to signal things in stories, and watching a conversation between Nobel Award winning economist Paul Krugman and writer Charles Stross which was fascinating, and made me want to read work by both of them.

One of my favorite parts was watching the Hugo awards. The winners were both utterly gobsmacked and extraordinarily gracious. It really made me feel proud to be, even in a very small way, part of that community. And while it was wonderful to be able to cheer for all of my winning friends, the most wonderful part for me was watching David Anthony Durham's acceptance speech for the Campbell award, which brought me to tears. Dave is not only a talented writer, but an individual of great character, and I am so very happy for him.

Most of the truly wonderful things that happened were completely unscheduled. We were introduced to the exceedingly talented photographer Kyle Cassidy, who let us temporarily act as his entourage. (This involved having a posh drink in a lovely hotel bar - nice work if you can get it.) Neil sent John Picacio to talk to us at the Tor party. Aside from being a brilliant artist, John is a brilliant and generous person, and it was always a delight to see him. Also at the Tor party, my Clarionmates and I received career advice from George R. R. Martin, and yes, that is the sort of thing that makes your head feel explody when it's happening. We engaged in an ongoing snark-fest with John Scalzi, who is exactly as awesome as he seems on his blog.

Even with that level of awesome, by Sunday night, Megan and I had come close to having enough. While we both enjoy meeting new people for the sake of meeting new and interesting people, we also both kind of detest the sort of meeting new people for the mere sake of using them for career advancement. So post-Hugos, we skipped out and went back to the aforementioned lovely hotel bar, seriously discussing whether we would ever go to another convention. But we had excellent conversations with the charming Doselle Young, and Lev Grossman, whose new book I cannot wait to read. We were introduced to Lou Anders, who is utterly brilliant and spent a lovely time speaking with him and John about conventions, and reading, and many other delightful things. I also got to chat with Paul Cornell, who wrote my favorite WorldCon post, about Shakespeare and literary tattoos. (It is possible I may have also asked him if he had a spare TARDIS.) Delightful conversations with interesting people. If that's really what cons are about, I'll definitely return.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

...and back again

Home from Montreal. Also, tired still. I'm not quite sure how Megan had the energy and coherence to make a WorldCon post, but she did, so I will link you there. I promise to write one soon, but for now I will just say that it was lovely to reconnect with old friends and meet amazing new ones, that I'm very glad I went, and that I'm still trying to decide whether my brain was more broken by watching a Klignon get his groove on to Dancing Queen or by the spontaneous dance-off of Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi on the steps at the Tor party.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Far and away

Right. As soon as I am done typing this, the laptop gets packed, and I go to the airport to Montreal and WorldCon. I am so excited to be seeing my friends that I almost don't care that I have to get on an airplane to do this. I'll post if I can, and will occasionally twitter. And I'll let you know all about it when I get back.

Monday, August 3, 2009

And as I fall I feel myself relax

I will not be going back to school this fall.

This is not a startling statement, or even an interesting one, out of context. In context: Ever since I started kindergarten, I have gone back to school in the fall. Oh, sure, there was the hiatus between law school and the PhD program, but I was teaching at the law school then, so I went back to school in the fall. I'm so used to school in the fall that for me the new year actually begins in September.

But yesterday, I formatted my dissertation according to the strange and arcane conventions of my university and, as I told my committee, this only required cursing in three non-English languages (the particularly foul Latin happened later.) So it is officially complete, and being reviewed. And today, I filed the paperwork for my graduation. Assuming the defense goes as planned, and I don't need to make any significant post-defense revisions to the dissertation, I will have a doctorate at the end of this month. (Feel free to address me as The Doctor at any point after that.)

And then, something that is already beginning: the rest of my life. At least right now, that's not in academia. I'm writing, which is both amazingly exciting, and amazingly terrifying. There have been days that I haven't slept, for wondering if this is perhaps the worst idea I've ever had, and at least as many nights where I've gotten out of bed at some appalling hour to go to my office and write because I shouldn't be wasting my time with silly things like sleep. I worry that if I don't do well, for whatever value of "well" is particularly stringent, that I'll let down the people that believe in me, and worse, I'll disappoint myself. But I am doing this anyway, because I have a chance to try, and I will not live the life where I do not take those chances any more.

The title of this post is from Jason Webley's song "Icarus." It's a fabulous song, one of my favorites of his, and one of my favorite myths, as well. Maybe it's a misreading, but I would rather fall, than never fly.