Imagination doesn't just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving [problems] or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful. [Some people] would call this escapism, but they would be be entirely wrong. I would call fantasy the most serious, and the most useful branch of writing there is.
--Diana Wynne Jones

Monday, May 2, 2016

Revising My Tongue

You know those times when somebody asks you a question and everything depends on a decent answer, and somehow what comes out of your mouth is the opposite of what you meant to say? And as soon as you say it, it's out--you can't take it back--so you have to talk around the idiotic thing you said so it sounds like something different from what you actually said--opposite, hopefully, but what you really need is to have un-said it. To stuff it back in your mouth where it came from. Along with your foot. Because it certainly didn't come from your brain.

This happened to me a few weeks ago. It was a job interview for a teaching position and the question was one of the easiest questions they could have asked a novelist: "What is your personal revision process?"

I spend my life writing and then revising what I write. And also suggesting ways for other people to revise. I know my process. This should have been my dream question, the one that sealed my chances for a job teaching beginning university writing as a first-year grad student. Right? Besides, I'd heard rumors the school is desperate for as many graduate instructors as possible so the real professors don't have to teach the dreaded beginning writing classes. The interview may have been a formality. Nothing to be nervous about.

But the University Writing Committee was sitting there looking at me, and I was nervous, so what rolled off my tongue and out of my mouth right into the air, where it hovered (cloud-like, menacing) was some peculiar and utterly nonsensical babble about Strunk and White and perfect grammar, punctuation, and making sure you have a clean manuscript.

Perfect grammar? What? I don't think I was the one who said that. Was I?

The committee looked at me with identical wrong-answer blank looks on their faces. Which made me forget the original question, so I tried to fix it by talking about how to help students rearrange their ideas into something coherent...or something.

It didn't work. And I never actually answered the question.

Speaking is not writing. What I needed was an overhaul revision of my misbehaving tongue, which thought it had a brain and didn't.

Another pair of eyes, my real brain meant to say. An outside critique, since I'm blind to my own worst errors. Big to small, I should have said. Start with the big, the book as a whole: are the characters strong, and how do they change, does the plot structure work, does everything build to a climax? Then what about sub-plots, each chapter's arc? Have I followed through with all threads and themes, kept my dialogue and voice consistent throughout, made my world rich and deep, my descriptions in line with the mood of each scene? Book, chapter, scene, then the small stuff: each sentence, line and word; does everything flow?...And then, ok, yes, punctuation and grammar, typos.


Somehow I got the job anyway (I wouldn't have given it to me), but I've been obsessing ever since about the answer I should have given--the one actually inside my brain and not just my mouth--and if I hadn't had two papers to write and a final to study for, I would have run to my laptop and pounded out a blog post on the spot: all about my personal revision process.

Ah, well. Good thing I'm a writer and most of the time, when the words come out wrong, or stupid, or really, really crappy, I can revise, over and over and over again, sometimes for months. Sometimes a year. A really big overhaul--like where I decide to completely rewrite a hairy, beastly novel--maybe even a couple years or more. The key to no writer's block, ever, is permission to write that first crappy, wrong-headed first draft. And then revise until it's perfect.

Too bad there's no delete button for words off the tongue. All you can do is mutter, "Er, what I meant to say is...." and move on. Either way, it's a sort of revision. And if you're ever going to have a decent relationship with anyone, ever, you've got to learn to do it: "Sorry, I shouldn't have said that...," "I didn't mean..." "Let me tell you how I really feel..." "I was a beast. Let's start over, ok?"

Yes, mouth-revision is an excellent thing. And forgiveness when you try again? That's even better. Good thing the University Writing Committee thought so...

Or else they were desperate...

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Le Guin in Defense of Fantasy

This is a re-post of one of my favorite essays on a pet topic. Why do I write fantasy? For the same reason I read it: for pure delight, because it speaks true, and because I believe in the power of imagination. Here Ursula K. LeGuin argues eloquently in defense of fantasy (from her 1979 book of collected essays, Language of the Night). 

Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?

"The Language of the Night" by Ursula Le Guin
This was to be a talk about fantasy. But I have not been feeling very fanciful lately, and could not decide what to say; so I have been going about picking people's brains for ideas. "What about fantasy? Tell me something about fantasy." And one friend of mine said, "All right, I'll tell you something fantastic. Ten yeas ago, I went to the children's room of the library of such-and-such a city, and asked for The Hobbit; and the librarian told me, 'Oh, we keep that only in the adult collection; we don't feel that escapism is good for children."'
My friend and I had a good laugh and shudder over that, and we agreed that things have changed a great deal in these past ten years. That kind of moralistic censorship of works of fantasy is very uncommon now, in the children's libraries. But the fact that the children's libraries have become oases in the desert doesn't mean that there isn't still a desert. The point of view from which that librarian spoke still exists. She was merely reflecting, in perfect good faith, something that goes very deep in the American character: a moral disapproval of fantasy, a disapproval so intense, and often so aggressive, that I cannot help but see it as arising, fundamentally, from fear.
So: Why are Americans afraid of dragons?
Before I try to answer my question, let me say that it isn't only Americans who are afraid of dragons. I suspect that almost all very highly technological peoples are more or less antifantasy. There are several national literatures which, like ours, have had no tradition of adult fantasy, for the past several hundred years: the French, for instance. But then you have the Germans, who have a good deal; and the English, who have it, and love it, and do it better than anyone else. So this fear of dragons is not merely a Western, or a technological, phenomenon. But I do not want to get into these vast historical questions; I will speak of modern Americans, the only people I know well enough to talk about.
In wondering why Americans are afraid of dragons, I began to realize that a great many Americans are not only antifantasy, but altogether antifiction. We tend, as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect, or as contemptible.
"My wife reads novels. I haven't got the time."
"I used to read that science fiction stuff when I was a teenager, but of course I don't now." " " "Fairy stories are for kids. I live in the real world."
Who speaks so? Who is it that dismisses War and Peace, The Time Machine, and A Midsummer Night's Dream with this perfect self-assurance? It is, I fear, the man in the street - the hardworking, over-thirty American male - the men who run this country.
Such a rejection of the entire art of fiction is related to several American characteristics: our Puritanism, our work ethic, our profitmindedness, and even our sexual mores.
To read War and Peace or The Lord of the Rings plainly is not "work" - you do it for pleasure. And if it cannot be justified as "educational" or as "self-improvement," then, in the Puritan value system, it can only be self-indulgence or escapism. For pleasure is not a value, to the Puritan; on the contrary, it is a sin.
Equally, in the businessman's value system, if an act does not bring in an immediate, tangible profit, it has no justification at all. Thus the only person who has an excuse to read Tolstoy or Tolkien is the English teacher, because he gets paid for it. But our businessman might allow himself to read a best-seller now and then: not because it is a good book, but because it is a best-seller - it is a success, it has made money. To the strangely mystical mind of the money-changer, this justifies its existence; and by reading it he may participate, a little, in the power and manna of its success. If this is not magic, by the way, I don't know what is.
The last element, the sexual one, is more complex. I hope I will not be understood as being sexist if I say that, within our culture, I believe that this antifiction attitude is basically a male one. The American boy and man is very commonly forced to define his maleness by rejecting certain traits, certain human gifts and potentialities, which our culture defines as "womanish" or "childish." And one of these traits or potentialities is, in cold sober fact, the absolutely essential human faculty of imagination.
Having got this far, I went quickly to the dictionary.
The Shorter Oxford Dictionary says; "Imagination. 1. The action of imagining, or forming a mental concept of what is not actually present to the senses; 2. The mental consideration of actions or events not yet in existence."
Very well; I certainly can let "absolutely essential human faculty" stand. But I must narrow the definition to fit our present subject. By "imagination," then, I personally mean the free play of the mind, both intellectual and sensory. By "play" I mean recreation, re-creation, the recombination of what is known into what is new. By "free" I mean that the action is done without an immediate object of profit - spontaneously. That does not mean, however, that there may not be a purpose behind the free play of the mind, a goal; and the goal may be a very serious object indeed. Children's imaginative play is clearly a practicing at the acts and emotions of adulthood; a child who did not play would not become mature. As for the free play of an adult mind, its result may be War and Peace, or the theory of relativity.
To be free, after all, is not to be undisciplined. I should say that the discipline of the imagination may in fact be the essential method or technique of both art and science. It is our Puritanism, insisting that discipline means repression or punishment, which confuses the subject. To discipline something, in the proper sense of the word, does not mean to repress it, but to train it - to encourage it to grow, and act, and be fruitful, whether it is a peach tree or a human mind.
I think that a great many American men have been taught just the opposite. They have learned to repress their imagination, to reject it as something childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful.
They have learned to fear it. But they have never learned to discipline it at all.
Now, I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an eggplant. Like all our evil propensities, the imagination will out. But if it is rejected and despised, it will grow into wild and weedy shapes; it will be deformed. At its best, it will be mere ego-centered daydreaming; at its worst, it will be wishful thinking, which is a very dangerous occupation when it is taken seriously. Where literature is concerned, in the old, truly Puritan days, the only permitted reading was the Bible. Nowadays, with our secular Puritanism, the man who refuses to read novels because it's unmanly to do so, or because they aren't true, will most likely end up watching bloody detective thrillers on the television, or reading hack Westerns or sports stories, or going in for pornography, from Playboy on down. It is his starved imagination, craving nourishment, that forces him to do so. But he can rationalize such entertainment by saying that it is realistic - after all, sex exists, and there are criminals, and there are baseball players, and there used to be cowboys - and also by saying that it is virile, by which he means that it doesn't interest most women.
That all these genres are sterile, hopelessly sterile, is a reassurance to him, rather than a defect. If they were genuinely realistic, which is to say genuinely imagined and imaginative, he would be afraid of them. Fake realism is the escapist literature of our time. And probably the ultimate escapist reading is that masterpiece of total unreality, the daily stock market report.
Now what about our man's wife? She probably wasn't required to squelch her private imagination in order to play her expected role in life, but she hasn't been trained to discipline it, either. She is allowed to read novels, and even fantasies. But, lacking training and encouragement, her fancy is likely to glom on to very sickly fodder, such things as soap operas, and "true romances," and nursy novels, and historicosentimental novels, and all the rest of the baloney ground out to replace genuine imaginative works by the artistic sweatshops of a society that is profoundly distrustful of the uses of the imagination.
What, then, are the uses of the imagination?
You see, I think we have a terrible thing here: a hardworking, upright, responsible citizen, a full-grown, educated person, who is afraid of dragons, and afraid of hobbits, and scared to death of fairies. It's funny, but it's also terrible. Something has gone very wrong. I don't know what to do about it but to try and give an honest answer to that person's question, even though he often asks it in an aggressive and contemptuous tone of voice. "What's the good of it all?" he says. "Dragons and hobbits and little green men - what's the use of it?"
The truest answer, unfortunately, he won't even listen to. He won't hear it. The truest answer is, "The use of it is to give you pleasure and delight."
"I haven't got the time," he snaps, swallowing a Maalox pill for his ulcer and rushing off to the golf course.
So we try the next-to-truest answer. It probably won't go down much better, but it must be said: "The use of imaginative fiction is to deepen your understanding of your world, and your fellow men, and your own feelings, and your destiny."
To which I fear he will retort, "Look, I got a raise last year, and I'm giving my family the best of everything, we've got two cars and a color TV. I understand enough of the world!"
And he is right, unanswerably right, if that is what he wants, and all he wants.
The kind of thing you learn from reading about the problems of a hobbit who is trying to drop a magic ring into an imaginary volcano has very little to do with your social status, or material success, or income. Indeed, if there is any relationship, it is a negative one. There is an inverse correlation between fantasy and money. That is a law, known to economists as Le Guin's Law. If you want a striking example of Le Guin's Law, just give a lift to one of those people along the roads who own nothing but a backpack, a guitar, a fine head of hair, a smile, and a thumb. Time and again, you will find that these waifs have read The Lord of the Rings - some of them can practically recite it. But now take Aristotle Onassis, or J. Paul Getty: could you believe that those men ever had anything to do, at any age, under any circumstances, with a hobbit?
But, to carry my example a little further, and out of the realm of economics, did you ever notice how very gloomy Mr. Onassis and Mr. Getty and all those billionaires look in their photographs? They have this strange, pinched look, as if they were hungry. As if they were hungry for something, as if they had lost something and were trying to think where it could be, or perhaps what it could be, what it was they've lost.
Could it be their childhood?
So I arrive at my personal defense of the uses of the imagination, especially in fiction, and most especially in fairy tale, legend, fantasy, science fiction, and the rest of the lunatic fringe. I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing, but a growing up; that an adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act well and wisely in the adult, but if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of the most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination: so that it is our pleasant duty, as librarians, or teachers, or parents, or writers, or simply as grownups, to encourage that faculty of imagination in our children, to encourage it to grow freely, to flourish like the green bay tree, by giving it the best, absolutely the best and purest, nourishment that it can absorb. And never, under any circumstances, to squelch it, or sneer at it, or imply that it is childish, or unmanly, or untrue.
For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.
So I believe that we should trust our children. Normal children do not confuse reality and fantasy - they confuse them much less often than we adults do (as a certain great fantasist pointed out in a story called "The Emperor's New Clothes"). Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren't real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books. All too often, that's more than Mummy and Daddy know; for, in denying their childhood, the adults have denied half their knowledge, and are left with the sad, sterile little fact: "Unicorns aren't real." And that fact is one that never got anybody anywhere (except in the story "The Unicorn in the Garden," by another great fantasist, in which it is shown that a devotion to, the unreality of unicorns may get you straight into the loony bin). It is by such statements as, "Once upon a time there was a dragon," or "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" - it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at the truth.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

February Survival Guide

Anyone who knows me at all, or at least reads this blog, probably knows February and I don't play nicely together. This (in spite of anything I might have said in the past) has nothing to do with Valentine's Day, which is, after all, a cute, little holiday full of chocolate and flowers and little love notes...even if the mall (and yeah, ok, everywhere else you go) can't help celebrating with bad colors and trying to pass off eroticism as romance. I don't have to go inside the mall if I don't like it, do it? Especially since See's candy has moved out to a larger store in the parking lot.

I tried to analyze what happens to my brain in February, and traced it to a lack of light, built up since about November, mixed with soupy-orange air caused by natural winter valley inversions and a lot of industrial smoke stacks and of course way too many cars on the road. Plus usually some bronchitis or flu. Or both.
The view from Sundance, looking down into the polluted valley below

That's probably most of it.

This year I haven't been sick, but my laptop broke, which was worse, because sickness is sort of a nice excuse to take some vacation time from all social interaction and have a writing marathon. So I've been studying literary critical theory instead of writing fiction and if you want to know, Saussure and Derrida are not making me like February any better. Well, and now I have a new computer, and if you think that's nice, well, it's not, because, well, learning curve, right? My old laptop was OLD. But it was my friend. I was used to it. I didn't have to think about how to use it.


There are things a person can do to survive February.

For instance.

With or without your laptop--maybe even on paper, heaven forbid!--you can make up the most fantastical stories just for fun and never submit them to anyone. And then later, maybe you will, because, dang! maybe they actually ended up being pretty good.

You can read Patrick Rothfuss, Name of the Wind and then hurry out to Barnes and Noble and get the sequel, too, for a Valentine's present to yourself, because it's the perfect Aspirin Read for a month when the air is so thick you can taste it on the walk to class, and your husband doesn't realize you need a book a whole lot more than roses. I love discovering another great fantasy author.

You can play the soul right out of your piano. Or violin. Or kazoo. Whatever.

And listen to music that makes you weep. Weeping for beauty is an excellent cure for brain-fry. Which is also a great reason to re-watch "Bright Star," about the poet John Keats, and weep through all the poetry and especially the music scene and that other scene where John pets the cat. (Side note/warning: do not watch "Bright Star" if you have pneumonia. You will feel like dying).

Finally, exercise--indoors, if you have to, if the air is especially orange--and get some sleep. That goes without saying, right? It's amazing how good sleep is for the brain and how foolish to stay up until midnight or one a.m. writing blog posts when it's February. Really, really, really foolish...

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Candles and flowers

Saturday I got nothing done, thinking and reading and watching things unfold. I woke up to "Did you hear about Paris?" And then, like most of the rest of the world, did almost nothing but hear about it all day long.

I went for a walk this morning to quiet all the chatter still in my head. Social media, augh. It won't let
me stop thinking about Paris and Lebanon and Syria and bombs and horror and how quickly fear turns into the same kind of hate that caused the horror in the first place.

If that makes sense.

Sometimes it doesn't make sense to me, either.

But I don't think love and fear happen together.

And some of the chatter helps. A huge conversation with the whole world on what to do when people suffer. It's amazing we can do this.

My favorite story today was the little 3 year old French boy and his father being interviewed by a reporter, and the boy thinking they might have to move to a new house because of the mean men with guns who might shoot everybody. You've probably all seen it. No, his papa said, they won't shoot us. See all the flowers people are putting all around? That's to fight the guns. The candles, too, Papa? Those are to remember the people. So, the candles and flowers will protect us? the boy said again. Yes, his papa said.

I loved the smile on that little boy's face. Ok, yeah, I sort of cried. He wasn't the only one who felt better. It reminded me of the story of Ferdinand the bull, and how flowers saved him from violence, too.

Yesterday I needed to get far away. Practiced the piano for a long time. Tried to work on my latest novel, made some progress, too distracted to concentrate very well. All those chattering voices. Urgh. I need my brain back.

I didn't realize how crazy I was feeling until I walked out this morning and watched the light hit the white mountains, the sun burst out over the peaks like quiet glory.

My phone not quite capturing the moment

I found tiny icicles dripping off firs, smelled sunflowers and sage crushed and bent under yesterday's snow, heard the chickadees and finches going at it, and witnessed all the dead and dying leftovers from summer buried under a perfect layer of whitest snow, like forgiveness. An old metaphor, but that's how it felt.

Not sure the icicles are visible.

The craziness finally faded in all that beauty, and I thought, yeah, flowers are a pretty good weapon against guns and les m├ęchants, those mean guys. The three-year-old was right about the candles: remembering people we love--sadness without anger--that's protection, too. Maybe beauty and remembering are the only good weapons when there are people in the world who don't care if children die.

And a father teaching his son about love--that's about as beautiful as anything.  Love is what flowers and candles both meant anyway, right?

Thanks, Papa.

But sometimes, all those voices out there talking to each other through wires and screens, well, it's a little much, especially when the conversation turns nasty. Some of us are introverts. You know? So tomorrow I'm putting away all my screens except my novel-writing one and going for a nice long run in the snow. I'll light a candle to remember Paris, and Beirut, and especially the Syrian refugees, and then I'll let the birds and mountains help me find my brain again.

Time to let the real voices fade so there's room for imaginary ones in there.

Salut, tout le monde!

Narnia lamppost. Sort of. Not really. Still nice. 

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