Gusto

Spring has sprung! I’m spending mornings with the balcony door open and feeling the itch to plot this year’s garden — along with a number of other allergy-related itches due to the neighborhood trees, but everybody’s got to live. And I’ve got to the point in preparing the ebook document where the light at the end of the tunnel looks less like an oncoming train.

So while I’m slogging through the last tedious bits of work, I give you two pieces of music pour s’amuser. One is a fascinating piece by a traditional Japanese drum ensemble, which I could watch over and over. One of the first things I noticed was that these young people played the entire piece while sustaining a lunge. Could I sustain a lunge for ten minutes straight? I doubt it.

The other is a piece I have long delighted in, ever since I heard it when it was being used as the postlude for ordinations at the cathedral. This is pretty great, but you really haven’t heard this piece till you’ve heard it in person in a resonant space. If I wanted to heckle Michael Stern at the Kansas City Symphony, I wouldn’t call for “Free Bird,” I’d call for somebody to get up in the organ loft and play the Widor Toccata. Every time I’m at the Kauffman I keep hoping the program will put that organ to use, but it rarely happens, alas.

Gusto is the thing. Sometimes I think it’s the whole point of music: if you have gusto and don’t know what to do with it, I say fire up one of these babies.

Now to await the first thunderstorm of the spring, when I will blast the “Dona nobis pacem” from the Bach Mass.

Tell the whole world, why doncha

Had a beta chat re: “Household Lights” today, which reminded me of this amusing incident tangentially involving one of my other beta readers….

One evening last month, I was at a friend’s house for dinner with the spouse of one of my betas, and as we were going to our cars and waving goodbye to one another, I stopped.

Me: I’ll have to come over next week and tell you and S all about the sex scene I just wrote.
Him [ears congested from the weather]: Oh, yes, S would like to see you too, real soon!
Me: No, I said I want to tell you about how I wrote a sex scene.
Him: What? You wrote about seeing something?
Me: NO. I WROTE A SEX SCENE.
Him: What??

At this point K’s whole neighborhood knows I wrote a sex scene, and D still doesn’t. I go closer to him.

Me: Scene!! I wrote a scene!
Him: Oh, a scene!
Me: With sex in it.
Him: OH! Well, that’ll sell.

When I told S about this little tableau later, she laughed fit to kill.

Fortunately for my reputation in K’s neighborhood, none of my betas have seen fit to ask me to revise said scene. Even if they had, though, I think I’ve learned my lesson about throwing out references to sex scenes in the driveways of friends’ houses.

Candlemas: fiat lux

Well, I’m a bit pleasantly tipsy, and I’ll tell you why. I spent the day writing, and in celebration of the fact that I have but two sequences left of this story, and am recovering nicely from my illness, I walked down to the Blue Koi and sat myself down at the bar to eat pot stickers and read The Princess Bride (because after all, I’m leading the discussion at book club next week and I ought at least to have reread the book).

I also asked the bartender to make me a gin martini, and he made a doozy. It was good. It was big. It was big and good, and I drank every drop plus a large cup of jasmine tea for afters. And then I walked home in the damp and no-longer-so-fucking-frigid night.

Have I mentioned how I love my neighborhood? A block along in my journey home I passed two young men on the sidewalk in black hoodies. They had warm skin and facial hair and one had an affectionate arm thrown over the other’s shoulder. As I approached he smiled at me and said Hi silently, and held up his hand. I slapped it as I passed. And I walked on happily into the night and that is what my neighborhood is like.

And now, and now, I must go down and get my laundry out of the dryer in the basement if I want a clothed bed to sleep in, and I have written all but two sequences of this story, and drunk a very large and delicious gin martini and eaten a serving of pork dumplings, and tomorrow is another day, and this one was pretty damn good.

Light to all.

By the numbers: end of January outlook

  • 38,000 — words written on “Household Lights”
  • 4 — sequences left to write on my list
  • enough to stuff a cushion — number of tissues applied to my massive sinus infection
  • 5 — approximate number of Very Important pieces of mail I need to unearth for adult things like getting my car tags done
  • 0 — number of fucks I am able to spare for that right now
  • -2 — the anticipated low for tonight’s weather conditions
  • 7 — number of swords I own, in case any Upper Plains person laughs at this
  • 2 — Lindor truffles on my desk…oops

And so on, and so forth, &c. &c. In other words, I aten’t dead. Barely.

Edited to add: I recounted my swords. I have one (1) rapier; one (1) practice foil; one (1) sport saber; and five (not 4) épées. So I have 8 swords, not 7.

I gotta skip my prayer meeting

Snow ice cream wants just eagle brand
And I’ve got eagle brand on hand
And I’d rather not walk to the store
Bringing tracks from my boots on the floor
There’s an 8-inch cake of snow on my car
(And my right windshield wiper blade won’t come about)
And things being how they are,
The morning church service is OUT!
So it’s sticking around on the spot:
But tea, loungewear, and ice cream I’ve got!

My filking muscles are atrophied; I’m not sure what else Nathan Detroit would make of my snow holiday. I do, however, know what I am making of my snow holiday: I’m writing. My aftermathy novella is coming along, though I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that it’s developing a crunchier plot than I prepared myself for. Still, writing is writing, and I think I’ve nearly reached the halfway mark of the piece.

Of course, one can’t spend a snow holiday entirely buried in one’s laptop screen; like everybody else in the city, I had to get out and take pictures and put them on Facebook (obnoxious as it is; note to self — look into getting an Instagram account). People become like small children again, studying the details of the transformed outdoors with earnest enjoyment, shyly waiting till others were out of direct sight to take pictures with their phones.

The gloves I put on for my walk, in a happy serendipity, had a hole in the seam of the right forefinger, and I used it to stir the screen of my phone to take photos, snow lighting wetly on the lighted surface. I took shaky video, too, of drooping branches dotted with berries, of the shifting crunch of my boots as I made my way among the laden branches on the neighborhood sidewalks.

Why? Is it that we can’t help knowing that snow is transient, and therefore want to capture the experience of seeing it, hearing it, being out in it? The way it transforms the everyday look of things and makes them new? My footprints on this walk are visible in the snow — I can see exactly where I’ve come and what my steps look like getting here — but on any other day, I can’t see them. The silence, maybe: the way the snow-filled air wraps one around in a strange acoustic warmth. Maybe those things together make for the urge to reach out — not in the moment, that’s too much a treasure — but right after. On my walk, I met some people and left them to their privacy as I valued mine, but others looked up and smiled, and I greeted them back. I stopped at the entrance to the park to watch families sledding and making snow angels. I almost wanted to take a picture of that too. A picture of the beauty and hardship and holiday and inconvenience that is all so obviously shared by everyone present — a situation — a scene.

Like that old canard about how, when the talk turns to politics or other contentious things, someone suggests: “Let’s talk about the weather.”

Well, why not?

Merry Christmas, and an Angry New Year

Apparently Sunday blogging didn’t happen yesterday. Instead, I had some needed downtime, in which the most strenuous thing I did was to draft a map of the island country featured in Ryswyck, to show to an artist I would commission to draw it properly for the book. I would show it here, but a) there’s a reason why I’m hiring someone else to draw the map and b) I digitized and edited it at its full size to retain the details, and this post wouldn’t support an image that size.

Meanwhile, the items on my production schedule for the book are slowly coming together, though we’re still in the stage where things happen discretely instead of in linked chains of tasks. I expect it to pick up as spring comes on. Currently on my writer’s easel is a novella-sized treatment of the aftermath of the book, which if it edits well will serve as a sampler of the ‘verse and an intro to the second book in the series, which has been storyboarded and a few scenes sketched in. I’m doing my best to take advantage of the post-winter-solstice surge that is part of my creative rhythm.

It’s only in recent years that I have noticed that pattern enough to take advantage of it; for a long time I was too relieved that the torturous contraction of autumn was over to realize that it had an effect on my writing too. Not just the amounts of production, but the qualities of it change: less maudlin, more driven.

Which brings me to today’s subject. For Christmas, I gave my closest friends a copy of Rebecca Traister’s new book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. It’s a short, trenchant treatment of the current situation we find ourselves in, and the attempts our society makes to obscure the power of anger in women by belittling or demonizing it. Just days ago I woke from a vivid dream about a fascist corporate takeover in which propaganda was spread printed on women’s shopping bags — seemingly friendly advice crowded in little text boxes and meme-sized photos: “Remember, if you start to feel angry, just remember that you’re a bad person, and the feelings will subside.” This morning I woke from a dream in which I went to a guru’s office in part to report that someone had rifled my briefcase bag and taken valuables from it, only to receive a bulletin later that I was banned from the building because being angry over the theft had made me dangerous and disruptive.

I used to have the luxury of thinking dreams like this were due to the idiosyncrasies of my brain and my life experiences. That’s a luxury that’s long gone for everyone.

The funny thing is, if you can get over the bone-deep suspicion that your anger is a sign of depravity, you can get a lot done. When I conceived Ryswyck six years ago, its dangers were all hypothetical, its moral imperative the stuff of parable. I worked on it slowly, stymied at times by mental and emotional obstacles. Then suddenly, there was nothing hypothetical at all about a post-post-apocalyptic tale in which the principle of courtesy becomes the last hope of people mired in a dehumanizing war. I was galvanized into action and wrote the last two-thirds of the story in a fever of fury. Then followed, of course, the long process of beta reading and editing and market research. Pressing to find the place of velocity.

We think that anger is no more than a feeling, an outrage inflicted upon us by the people or the situation that is making us angry. It’s that, to be sure. But finding something to do — not about it, but with it, in it — transforms it, transubstantiates it into something life-giving, even joyful. It becomes something we want to offer to the highest.

What we choose for our highest is the next perilous point.

So, for the New Year I wish you the anger to offer and the best place for offering it, and in those in-between times, a means of cheer and relief. I’ll be on the fencing strip, myself. Cheers!

Of arts and crafts

Once, watching a friend create a delicious meal in her kitchen, I observed a distinction that I had often had in mind about creative endeavors: that there is a difference between a person’s art and their craft. Craft, as I feign it, is a thing you can learn, become enthusiastic about, even take to a satisfying level of mastery. But art is more than that. It’s the ability to take that endeavor’s internal rules and see how to bend them, even break or replace them, to make something unscripted, something previously unimagined — by one’s self at least.

For my friend in the kitchen, cooking was her art: she could follow a recipe, but she could also reverse-engineer one. She could take what she had mastered about cooking food and do something new with it; she could create, with joy and (sometimes only medieval words will do) maistrie in her own domain.

Cooking is not my art. I have managed to develop some craft, but the kitchen is not what I would call my natural domain.

All the same, it’s stimulating and salutary to take up crafts from time to time, new and old. I immersed myself in two crafts this weekend, and it was a great deal of fun. I joined my friends and their baroque jam band for a Beatles-themed Christmas concert; and while I was at it, I borrowed a friend’s camera and practiced composing shots of my friends playing while the chorus (me) was resting.

Neither music nor photography is my art. I’ve been a player of flute and piccolo, an ensemble singer, a self-appointed rhythm section in church (friends don’t let friends clap on 1 and 3!), but despite all those years of practice and effort and enjoyment, I don’t have the ability to intuit a musical situation and jump into it the way my musician friends do. My musician friends don’t go off-piste: the piste is wherever they say it is. And it sounds wonderful.

I’m not a photographer either. But recently I’ve been so sick of my crappy phone camera that my friend (possibly to stem the tide of recreational complaining) lent me his camera to practice taking shots with. I got a few good ones and probably a large number of unremarkable ones; photography as a craft, for me, is pretty satisfying.

Writing is what I consider to be my art. I work at craft, refine it, revamp it, but in the domain of words, the piste is wherever I say it is. Of course, unlike with music and photography and the visual arts, everybody speaks a language — and everybody has an internal world that they believe contributes to the sum total of positive meaning in the universe. Which it does. So to jump into the situation and start articulating what it means, besides being a creative enterprise, is a very brash act.

I’m not a particularly humble person, but there’s a point where ego simply gets left behind and what remains is a realm of divine stubbornness. I think every person who has discovered that divine stubbornness has found their art: regardless of whether they achieve recognition or confirmation of their quality. The rest, as the poet says, is not our business.