Good Reading for Bad News

Perhaps it is not so much that the news is bad as that it is relentless.

I am a member of the Generation That Has No Name, too old to be a Millennial, too young to be Gen X. For most of my childhood, the most advanced piece of technology in our house was the television, big, bulky, and immobile. That and the daily newspaper we shared with my grandparents, who lived next door, was where we got our news. We had a whole day to digest the newspaper, and the nastier bits were sweetened with recipes, comics, and the ridiculous plights of the people who wrote to Dear Abby. We didn’t get a computer until I was in high school, and I don’t remember having the internet anytime before my senior year. And anyway, you couldn’t be online if someone was using the (landline) phone.

We usually had the 5:00 p.m. news on in the background of the evening rush, and sometimes, if something big was happening, the 6:00 p.m. news as well. But that was all, except in summer when my mom sometimes turned on the noon news for something to do. I was in bed by 11:00 p.m., not yet up at 6:00 a.m. So the news came to me in a manageable way, and we were spared the Comments Section. The worst you could do was call in to the station or write a letter to the editor, and both were beyond the abilities of most trolls.

But now the stream is constant and almost unavoidable and we hear not only the news, which seems BAD BAD BAD, but we hear what everyone, from our nearest and dearest to total strangers, thinks about the news, which is perhaps worse.

I’m not suggesting a return to an imaginary and idealized past, nor am I suggesting that we don’t have a responsibility to engage with our own moment.

What I am suggesting is that the brain, my brain at least, which tends toward anxiety and panic and the slippery slope fallacy anyway, must find a way to cope if it is to survive.

Books are the answer to most things. Some people speak of comfort food. I have comfort books.

Years ago, a colleague in New Jersey told me that after 9/11, she couldn’t read for a long time. Her brain wouldn’t focus, and the emotions reading stirred in her were too much for a mind worn out by tragedy. When she could read again, she turned to the old yellow-jacketed Nancy Drews of her childhood. Around the same time, living far away from home for the first time, I came home from work every day to reread the Anne of Green Gables series, eight books’ worth of places and people who were old friends, any emotional response tempered by long familiarity.

I have always been a cozy mystery fan, and I find myself turning more and more to them lately. Agatha Christie got me early. And I got to wondering, why on earth do I find murder mysteries (of all things) so comforting?

The answer, of course, lies in another book. Fascinated by my own fascination with the cozy mystery, I turned to Lucy Worsley’s literary history The Art of the English Murder. And what do you know? Those cozy mysteries by the Four Queens of Crime (Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh), written in the years between the World Wars that constitute the Golden Age of this kind of book, are designed to comfort. Perhaps they weren’t purposely written that way, at least not at first, but that’s what a traumatized society produced.

englishmurder

Worsley sets the scene:

Their world was rural and well-ordered, with country houses and cottages alike inhabited by readers of the Daily Mail. Into its confines, the writers of the detective novel’s golden age sowed the seeds of passion and violence. But in their tens of thousands of light novels, a detective character entered the scene, cleared away the body, solved the crime, punished the wicked, and neatly tidied up all the loose ends. In the years following the First World War, people wanted leisure reading to numb, not to stimulate, their capacity for experiencing horror. (Introduction)

She quotes Edmund Wilson writing in the New Yorker in 1944:

The world during those years was ridden by an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster which it seemed hopeless to try to avert. (Chapter 19: The Women Between the Wars)

Yikes. That sounds too close for comfort.

Christie herself explained it this way:

A detective story is complete relaxation, an escape from the realism of everyday life. It has, too, the tonic value of a puzzle—it sharpens your wits. (Chapter 19: The Women Between the Wars)

It puts my brain busy at something else, figuring out the puzzle, so that it can’t run in endless loops, like the 24-hour news cycle.

I do some of my comfort reading on paper, but increasingly I do my recreational reading on my Kindle, on my phone, and on my iPad. (I read Worsley’s book on my Kindle, which is why, sorry, no page numbers on the quotes. I have an old Kindle.) The same technology that inundates me with more information than can reasonably be processed also provides me with quiet moments to allow my brain to rest and recover, to store up strength, to pull itself together. It’s all in how it’s used.

What is your comfort reading like?

 

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“Mr. Rogers Talks About Discipline” and I Talk About Mr. Rogers

One of the great things about having a  child is that I have an excuse to watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood from the beginning. While my daughter loves the show, especially snapping her fingers to make a “snappy new day,” I often find that Mr. Rogers says exactly the thing I need to hear in my own life and work, and he doesn’t shy away from the hard truths.

We’ve made it to 1982, to the week titled “Mr. Rogers Talks About Discipline.” I confess that my inner child groaned and rolled her eyes when she saw that title, thinking that it was about obeying your parents, blah, blah…but I should have known Mr. Rogers better than that.

It’s about the other kind of discipline. Self discipline, where you make yourself do hard things. Here’s a link to the full lyrics of “You’ve Got To Do It.”

I’d like to quote just a couple of the stanzas here. These are the ones that had me nodding along and (nearly) crying.

You can make-believe it happens, or pretend that something’s true.
You can wish or hope or contemplate a thing you’d like to do,
But until you start to do it, you will never see it through
‘Cause the make-believe pretending just won’t do it for you.

You’ve got to do it.
Every little bit, you’ve got to do it, do it, do it, do it
And when you’re through, you can know who did it
For you did it, you did it, you did it

If you want to ride a bicycle and ride it straight and tall,
You can’t simply sit and look at it ’cause it won’t move at all.
But it’s you who have to try it, and it’s you who have to fall (sometimes)
If you want to ride a bicycle and ride it straight and tall.

[…]

It’s not easy to keep trying, but it’s one good way to grow.
It’s not easy to keep learning, but I know that this is so:
When you’ve tried and learned you’re bigger than you were a day ago.
It’s not easy to keep trying, but it’s one way to grow.

Oh, my goodness, Mr. Rogers.

It’s you who have to fall.

It’s not easy to keep trying , but it’s one good way to grow.

I think these are things we tell children, but there’s this persistent idea that as adults, we should never fail and we should be grown.

How silly is that?

As a writer, I fail all the time. I fall all the time. And I try all the time, and I grow all the time. But often I forget that all of that is okay, that it’s expected, that it’s even a desirable state of affairs.

In 1987, I wrote Mr. Rogers a letter, and he wrote back.  My mother found his letter in our attic, and now I have it on my desk in a folder I call “Inspiration.”

He wrote:

 You asked me where the ideas for our puppets come from and why Daniel Tiger is scared and shy. Courtney, ideas for Make-Believe come from many places, just like ideas for your own pretending do.

[…]

I wonder if you ever do some play with puppets? You might like to try with sock puppets or puppets made from paper bags. I wonder what your puppets would be like? What you would think of would be unique because it came from you.

Sometimes, on bad writing days, I imagine how interested Mr. Rogers would be to hear about my work, how he would search for the roots of it in my childhood, ask me if I had always been interested in making up stories about history. (Yes. Ask the kids in my neighborhood about “Medieval Times,” everyone’s favorite game.) He would ask if my own little girl influences my work. (Yes. I want to tell stories that say something I would like her to know, but not in a didactic way, just in the way that all good writing says important things. I try to write books I would like her to have.) He would ask if I ever think about the people who will read my work. (Sometimes. I try to think about the pleasure readers, not the reviewers. But sometimes I can’t help thinking about the reviewers.)

I know all this because I’ve seen my share of Mr. Rogers’ interviews recently.

I got a lot out of watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, but I think I might need Mr. Rogers even more as an adult. Children know to keep growing. Adults sometimes need a reminder.

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Why I Write and Read Short Stories (Plus Some Ancient Gossip About My Love Life)

When I began writing seriously in high school, the first pieces I wrote were short stories. I had a few reasons for this:

  • My English teachers made us write one every year.
  • I had no idea where to even begin writing a novel.
  • I am impatient and like to finish things quickly.
  • Anthologies often include short stories. Textbooks are often anthologies.

I had no intention of publishing any of the short stories I wrote. Mainly I wrote them for the smiley faces from my teachers.

I also wrote them to work out my very complicated feelings about the long string of boys I went on one or two dates with, who, to a man, either liked me way too much and wanted to put a ring on it right then (No, thank you, but I will enjoy these delicious homemade chocolate-dipped strawberries. Oh, you picked the movie? Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes? You too have seen Titanic four times in theaters?) or stared silently across the table at Applebee’s (the Greenville one, not the Simpsonville one, EITHER because we were fancy OR because he didn’t want to be seen with me OR, more probably, because he asked where I wanted to eat and I said not the Simpsonville Applebee’s because it will be too crowded and we’ll have to wait forever so we went to the Greenville Applebee’s instead) like a deer in the world’s largest headlights while the waiter (whom I knew from another school) lectured him about how lucky he was to be on a date with me. Yes, this actually happened. Why did said waiter never ask me out? Why did I never ask him out as, ever a glutton for punishment, I was prone to do? These are mysteries for the ages.

Somehow I very rarely went on dates with boys I might have had a good time with, but I frequently went on dates with boys I know for a fact I did not have a good time with. My first real boyfriend identifiable as such broke up with me on my birthday. Fortunately I was a Jane Austen fan and could see the humor and the narrative possibilities in this even then. For about a year, my favorite song was “Think of Meryl Streep” from Fame. Also, I cried a lot. Sorry, Mom. Also, I printed a ton of emails and AIM conversations for later perusal and analysis with friends. No doubt this is what made me such a great literary critic. (But what is the subtext? What does the writer mean?)

So now I am way off topic and have forced you to read far too many parentheticals, but this has given me an idea for a hilarious novel and reminded me that one of those short stories I wrote was kind of good, and maybe I should revisit it. The lesson here is that no writing is wasted, not even wandering blog posts.

ANYWAY, I was talking about short stories, which I have been reading a lot of lately. The reason I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately is because I am in heavy research mode. This means that most of my reading needs to be research-related. If I get into novels at this point, I will never do the research reading because I will be too into the novels, and I will spend my research time pretending to work but secretly reading novels instead. I am so sneaky, but I have an unfortunate tendency to tell on myself. (See above.)

I recently dipped back into writing short stories to revisit two characters from The Last Sister, in “The Quickening,” a free holiday read you can access by clicking here.

Ahem, and now for the original purpose of this post:

I want to share with you two sets of short stories I’ve been reading.

The first is the Forever Finley short story cycle by my fellow blogger at YA Outside the Lines, Holly Schindler. Forever Finley is a series of interconnected short stories set in the fictional small town of Finley, Missouri. Stories release once each month throughout 2016. I have read the first four: “Come December,” “January Thaw,” “Forget February,” and “Dearest March…” I love these because I love seasons and calendars and holidays and other passage-of-time things. All of the stories work as standalones, so you don’t have to read January to understand March, for example. As a reader, I look forward to the release each month. As a writer, I’m excited about the possibilities Holly is exploring for hybrid publishing and non-traditional formats.

The second is a posthumously published collection of Irish writer Maeve Binchy’s many short stories, A Few of the Girls (2015). My great-aunt, who was from Ireland, got me hooked on both Binchy and British television at a young age, and I was greatly saddened to hear of Binchy’s death in 2012. But I was delighted when A Few of the Girls popped up in iBooks. It was like a present I didn’t expect. Binchy is best known to American audiences for Circle of Friends (1990), thanks to the movie and to Oprah’s Book Club. I also recommend The Maeve Binchy Writers’ Club (2008), a collection of her lectures, to writers. Though she breaks almost every formal fiction rule there is, reading Binchy, both her fiction and her lectures, feels like sitting at the table with a cup of tea listening to a friend tell you all the latest gossip.

I hope you will check out these and other short stories. If you have any great recommendations for short story collections, please leave a comment and let me know. I’ll be in research mode a good while yet.

 

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The Joy of Caring Less

I always thought I was a one-project-at-a-time kind of girl.

I have discovered I was wrong.

In my January post at YA Outside the Lines, I discussed the frustrations I’ve been feeling about writing in the last year.

It was bad. As in can’t eat, can’t sleep, drive my family crazy bad.

I’m happy to report that it’s now much better, partly because I decided if writing was making me this miserable I shouldn’t do it because it’s not like it’s paying very many bills, either. But I can’t not write.

I used to write for myself, because I couldn’t not do it, and because I enjoyed making my mother and my English teachers cry—it is something, isn’t it, to make people feel? It’s a kind of power. I wrote with no thought of publication or awards. Those things were too far off.

Then I was published, and there was critical approval, if not money in it, and I have always loved approval better than money, anyway.

I wanted them again, those tiny hits of approval that really do hit my brain like a drug.

HOW COULD I GET MORE?

That became my goal, not writing what made me glad to write, not the projects that pulled at my heart and made me happy, but this.

WHAT CAN I GET PUBLISHED?

WHAT WILL MORE PEOPLE READ?

HOW CAN I MAKE PEOPLE LIKE ME AND GIVE ME MORE OF THOSE LOVELY APPROVAL HIGHS?

I discovered, in my desire for publication and approval, that I could not write. I was holding everything too tightly, afraid of failing, afraid of wasting my time.

Something made me let go. I don’t know what. Maybe my arms finally got too tired. I let myself drift.

I drafted (in longhand, which I haven’t done for over a decade) an historical fiction picture book. A book featuring real people (always very scary to write about) who spent a remarkable evening together and left behind a record of it so sparse it could not become narrative nonfiction because I had to fill in the gaps. It’s something I never would have let myself write while I was holding on so tightly to what would sell.

I began it two Friday nights ago while my husband bathed our daughter. I never write at those times, when it is loud and I can hear her laughing and splashing and him singing some song he loves from his own childhood about elephants playing on spider webs. I began it because the first lines came into my head and I needed to get them down before I forgot. I realized I had been an elephant on a spider web, and no elephant can play on a spider web if she thinks too hard about it. I felt joy in writing for the first time in a long time, and I woke up the next morning and finished the draft. Whether it ever sees the light of day or not is immaterial. Those six hundred words brought me back.

Last Thursday, I forgot to put my daughter’s school bag in the car, and I ended up driving to and from her school three times during what is meant to be my work time. It was okay because in that drive I realized which novel project I should be working on. The one I know is not “commercial” enough. The one I know can come from no one but me. (There are, however, pretty dresses in it, and the calculating part of my brain that knows I can sell historical fiction as long as there are pretty dresses—come on, you know it’s true—rejoices.)

In my research for various incarnations of the above novel over the past year, I stumbled upon a nonfiction story I wanted to tell. My husband has been after me for years to do nonfiction, because I do love it and I am good at it and I was trained as a historian first. I registered for a class on writing narrative nonfiction, because I also find great joy in learning and reading and homework assignments.

These projects are very different from each other, but they all have connections. All are set in my beloved eighteenth century because I think I am right, after all, after much wandering, to focus my work there. There is great joy in knowing a world well, and it’s interesting to see the same world from so many different angles as I work on different projects.

Working on three projects at a time enables me to hold them all with a looser rein. If one fails, perhaps another will succeed. I don’t feel so uptight about things. If I get stuck on one, I can switch to another. Nothing is life or death. Some people need to pour everything they have into one thing at a time, but I can’t. Because what if I give everything I have and still come up short? I can’t do it. I freeze in terror.

Working on a variety of projects keeps me from getting bored, from holding any one project so tight it can’t breathe, so tight I can’t breathe. It keeps me from caring too much. Caring too little is bad. Caring too much is bad. I need to care just enough to do the work well and then to let it be.

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Greetings from the Playroom (And the Office and the Nursery and Sometimes the Kitchen)

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to spend more time on my blog and social media sites. When my daughter was born (16 months ago!), I panicked and cut everything down to the barest of bones re: writing. That meant spending my precious, precious time actually writing books, so I quit on my personal blog. However, I kept blogging with my blog group at YA Outside the Lines, and sometime last fall I came to the conclusion that if I could write one blog a month there, I could do it here.

I thought I’d bring you up to speed by writing first about where I’m writing. This lovely room with dark paneling and a pretty fireplace (cold and covered in sharp places, don’t worry, the baby is safe) and wooden beams on the ceiling used to be my library. The walls used to be lined with bookshelves. It was my favorite room in the whole house.

I never spent any time in it. It was a storage room for books. Now it is my daughter’s playroom, and I spend lots of time in it. It’s still my favorite room because see: lovely.

About a year ago, we moved the bookshelves downstairs to the basement (finished and dehumidified, don’t worry, the books are safe), where they still provide relatively easy access to the books despite the fact that we have to maneuver around all the other stuff we don’t have room for upstairs. (In other news, I am Marie Kondo-ing my house. I know that book made a lot of people angry, but I have so far done my dresser and looking at my sock drawer is the definition of bliss. So, angry people who are perhaps a little bit sensitive about someone suggesting you own too much stuff, I suggest you do what you would do with any other self-help book and take the parts that work for you and toss the rest. I…really…the anger about that book just baffles me, but I like organizing and tidying, so maybe that is personal bias.)

I’ve just started writing from the playroom. I used to spend all the working hours in my office (like most people), except (unlike most people, I guess) my office is in our smallest bedroom.

Three summers ago, while visiting my parents, I worked in the dining room off the kitchen, discovering by accident that I work better with more going on around me. I can cook chicken while also writing! Who knew? Oh, the possibilities! My childhood home, which you can buy and I will hate you only a little bit, has an amazing kitchen desk, which I think is the greatest thing in the world. I would love a kitchen desk, and I don’t even do much of our cooking.

I’ve made a similar discovery in the playroom. While certain types of writing call for more focused attention, there are loads of things I can do while also taking bites of imaginary food.

And here’s where history comes in handy. It’s a very practical course of study because you realize that things have not always been the way they are right now. As with Marie Kondo, you can take and toss from various eras. Look at me being so postmodern.

I am embracing the meshing of work and life that used to be common when almost everybody worked at home and rejecting the compartmentalization common to the mid-twentieth century, when my house was built. I’m learning rooms can have more than one purpose. (This is probably obvious to other people.) I’m writing with distractions and without them. (To be honest, when I don’t have distractions, I create them. I’m the kind of writer who needs to look up between sentences. Hello, Facebook, what great/horrible thing do you have for me today?) My daughter gets loads of focused one-on-one attention from a variety of adults, including me, but it’s also a good thing for her to see me work, and we are lucky that I can do certain kinds of work and play at the same time.

I started writing this in the playroom, while watching my daughter transport pretend food from one side of the room to another. I’m finishing it in the quiet of my office. My favorite place to write is in the glider in the nursery. That thing is comfy, and when it outgrows its usefulness there, into my office it goes.

How do you use your space to best advantage? Where do you like to work and play?

 

 

 

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The Quickening

Slide5“The Quickening: A Last Sister Short Story” is a holiday gift for my readers and is available as a free digital download for your computer, tablet, or phone.

The Anglo-Cherokee War has just ended and survivors Owen Ramsay and Amelia Williamson have made their way to Owen’s childhood home in the South Carolina backcountry. Join them there for Christmas 1761.

Download “The Quickening” below.

TheQuickening

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COVER REVEAL: The Summer After You and Me by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski

I’m very excited to be participating in the cover reveal for The Summer After You and Me by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski, a blogging buddy of mine at YA Outside the Lines.

Here’s the scoop:

Sunbathing, surfing, eating funnel cake on the boardwalk—Lucy loves living on the Jersey Shore. For her, it’s not just the perfect summer escape, it is home. And as a local girl, she knows not to get attached to the tourists. They breeze in over Memorial Day weekend, crowding the shore and stealing moonlit kisses, only to pack up their beach umbrellas and empty promises on Labor Day. Lucy wants more from love than a fleeting romance, even if that means keeping her distance from her summertime neighbor and crush, Connor.

Then Superstorm Sandy tears apart her barrier island, briefly bringing together a local girl like herself and a vacationer like Connor. Except nothing is the same in the wake of the storm. And day after day, week after week, Lucy is left to pick up the pieces of her broken heart and broken home. Now with Memorial Day approaching and Connor returning, will it be a summer of fresh starts or second chances?

And here’s the beautiful cover! Congratulations, Jen! I can’t wait to read it.

TH SUMMER AFTER_CVR_Highres

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Spelling “Tuesday”

Just in case it makes any difference, Stephen and I have been reading aloud to our daughter while she’s in the womb. Our most recent selections are the Winnie-the-Pooh books, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne, which I have read many times but not since I wrote a paper on them in my undergraduate children’s literature class ten years ago and which Stephen has never read at all.

Owl Winnie-the-Pooh(Side Note: Judging by the “Lists of Inspiring Quotes from Pooh” and the abundance of Pooh-themed greeting cards, lots of people have never read these books because those “inspiring quotes” are either taken out of context or I have no recollection of Pooh ever saying them. Stephen learned the hard way never to buy me a Pooh greeting card because I will say something like, “When did Pooh say any of these insipid things? Never! Look, it’s not even punctuated correctly!” He has taken to calling this body of work “Apocryphal Pooh” to assuage my offended literary feelings.)

But back to my story. In The House at Pooh Corner, Rabbit observes that Owl must be respected because “You can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn’t spell it right.”

Owl gives it a go. He does something, even if it’s not perfect. As a writer, I often feel like I’m spelling “Tuesday” wrong. Like I’m failing even when I’m succeeding, because maybe I could have done better. Have I, in fact, always done my best? Will even my very best ever be good enough?

I was devastated for a minute when Stephen told me he thought my current manuscript was better than The Last Sister, because The Last Sister has a publisher and (some) people will read it and maybe find out that I am a total fraud at this writing thing, while my work-in-progress does not yet have a publisher and maybe no one will ever read it, which seems somehow worse. In both cases, perhaps, I have spelled “Tuesday” wrong. But at least I have spelled “Tuesday.” At least I have not spent my life not spelling “Tuesday” for fear of getting it wrong. Which, I suppose, is a fancy way of saying I have not allowed perfectionism to stand in the way of action. Which is kind of a big deal for me, because I am nothing if not a perfectionist. I have dared to do it wrong, but at least I have done it. I have to respect myself for that. I should respect myself for that, and my work should keep getting better. By the time a book comes out, I should be a stronger writer than I was when I wrote it.

Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms and devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

To me, that’s all another way of saying that we should try to spell “Tuesday,” even if we fail. What’s your “Tuesday”? How can you dare to spell it wrong today?

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World War I and the Power of Story

I planned to write quite a different blog post, but then the Internet reminded me that today is the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I, so that other post will have to wait.

All I can really remember about how I came to my interest in World War I is that sometime in middle or early high school, I saw a picture of some soldiers and thought that was the last time guys looked truly hot in uniform. Tell me, who doesn’t love a man in puttees? My mom told me my great-grandfather, who fought in France and spoke of the war only in reference to French girls in order to annoy my great-grandmother, would have appreciated that.

Also, I think it partly came down to a question of fairness. I’m an American. Americans can talk World War II all day long, but we’re kind of lost when it comes to World War I. That’s partly because we weren’t in it very long, but I think there’s more to it than that. World War II calls up more emotions Americans are comfortable with: clarity of purpose, a solid win. As a culture, we don’t like to dwell on the past, no matter how much it affects us. And what’s the use of a war no one could really win? I became interested in that neglected war because I saw that it was neglected, overshadowed by its bolder, more triumphant offspring. All wars are sad, but World War I seemed to me especially so, not as if the events were sad, but as if the war itself—insofar as wars have a consciousness—were sad.

World War I will always appeal to storytellers because it’s such a perfectly constructed tragedy, almost too perfect to have occurred naturally, as if it were scripted to wring the audience’s hearts. For a century, World War I has provided the raw material for excellent works of literature. It’s sometimes called the most literary of all wars, and maybe that also piqued my interest, because the military and diplomatic history of the war doesn’t interest me any more than military and diplomatic history ever does. (Not much).

I’ve grown out of my high school belief that F. Scott Fitzgerald was The Best Writer Ever to Live (Sorry, Dr. Bruccoli. Please think I am still smart.), but his take on the war in Tender is the Night rings truer to me than any other:

“This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.”

“General Grant invented this kind of battle at Petersburg in sixty-five.”

“No, he didn’t—he just invented mass butchery. This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.”

You see what I mean about why World War I appeals to writers and other artists? Half the work is done for you before you get there. I’d love to write about World War I, but I don’t know if I could do it right. Perhaps I am too American, too ready to grin into the sunlight, too unwilling to look back and grieve properly, to walk purposely into the darkness of a time which brought no real triumph—and indeed no satisfying conclusion.

What period of history draws you back time after time? Why do you think that is?

 

 

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Working Through A Monumentally Bad Day

A few weeks ago I had a Monumentally Bad Day, and today I’m having another one, though this one is not quite as bad. My Monumentally Bad Days usually start with lack of sleep the night before, which is not necessarily a pregnancy symptom—I’ve struggled with insomnia my entire adult life. Right now, everything is compounded by the stress late pregnancy is putting on my bones, joints, and muscles, so I spend a lot of time in a physically and emotionally draining state of chronic pain. Nine weeks to go. Only nine more weeks. I hope.

Add to that my ongoing struggle with the fact that I don’t feel either my writing or my teaching career is where it should be (and teaching’s on hold until we leave Illinois—thanks, ridiculous state certification requirements that don’t exist anywhere else! I really need another Bachelor’s degree now that I’ve been teaching at the college level for years: that definitely makes sense.), the fact that I feel like I miss out on almost everything important in the life of my South Carolina-based family and I’m afraid my child will miss out on even knowing her extended family, the fact that I AM NOT HAPPY about having a baby so far away from home, and a few other areas of dissatisfaction I feel powerless to change because God knows I have tried, and you have the recipe for a disastrous meltdown.

This isn’t meant to be an Eeyore post. My life is very blessed in many ways, and I’m nothing short of delighted that I won’t have fifteen family members in my hospital room taking pictures of me shortly after giving birth and peeyore in snowosting them on Facebook, so there is always a silver lining. I don’t know if I even have fifteen close family members—we’re a small bunch, like the Tudors but without the beheadings. These are just the things simmering under the surface that rise to the top when I don’t feel well. Yesterday, I had a Monumentally Good Day, so I guess it all evens out.

But I still need to work, even on bad days, even when I don’t feel well, even when Baby seems intent on spending her entire day repeatedly hurling her full body weight at my vital organs. I’ve tried cutting myself slack, and it’s not for me. I’m much happier when I expect more of myself.

I started this list for myself on my last Monumentally Bad Day, just to remind myself of things I can do to make it better and get things done.

How To Work (Even on a Bad Day):

  • Make sure you’re physically comfortable. Make sure the lighting is right for the work. Go to the bathroom if you need to. (I am really bad about this. For some reason I feel it’s a waste of time.) Brush your teeth. Wear comfortable clothes.
  • If you are making no progress on one item on the list, for whatever reason, move on to something else. Sometimes the best thing you can do is leave it and come back refreshed. Don’t use this as an excuse not to work on a project just because it’s hard, though. Only switch if you are really blocked. Just make sure you’re spending your time working on something.
  • Nap if you’re genuinely tired. Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is take a nap, especially if you really are sleep-deprived. This doesn’t have to take all day. Half an hour can sometimes make a huge difference in the quantity and quality of the work.
  • Eat if you’re genuinely hungry. The idea of the starving artist aside, low blood sugar never produced genius. But don’t eat too much, and don’t eat junk. Both will make you sluggish, and that will not help you think.
  • Exercise. I have a treadmill in my office, a recumbent bike downstairs, and several yoga and strength training videos. I am one of those annoying people who really enjoys exercise for its own sake. Sometimes, when I’m achy or tired or cranky, I have to remind myself that I always feel physically and mentally better if I get moving. Even now. And exercise is really good for your brain power.
  • A little caffeine goes a long way. Or it does for me, anyway. I’m limited to one cup of caffeinated tea a day right now because of the baby (I could have two and still be well under the limit, but I’m trying to be as good as I can), but as soon as she’s out, I am going to get so messed up on caffeine. Seriously, it helps. I know some people will get all judgy about caffeine consumption, just like they get all judgy over how long you breastfeed or if you babywear or cloth diaper or make your own baby food or whatever. (These people need to get a life and perhaps some perspective. I will do what is best for my baby, but I shudder at the thought of getting my identity from any part of my baby’s digestive system. Just saying.)

So there you have it. My notes to self about Working Through a Monumentally Bad Day. How do you stay productive at work when either your body or your brain isn’t cooperating?

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