Friday, March 7, 2014

The scrutiny of celebrity

I try to imagine what it would be like if I were to write a blog post and then, a few minutes later, walk out to get the mail and find myself surrounded by paparazzi, documenting my every move.

Who am I wearing?
Croft and Barrow

What is my hairstyle?

Being a successful performer in the United States means a level of visibility that I cannot fathom. I cannot think of any other art form that requires this of its most successful participants. Even Stephen King could probably walk down most streets in America without anyone bothering him.

If I could only sit down and write when I was at my most gorgeous, I'm afraid I would hardly write at all. I am grateful to have chosen an art form that can be accomplished in sweatpants.

I've been thinking about this since watching the Oscars the other night. It is that incessant scrutiny, I'm sure, that led several of the older actresses to try to smooth away the aging on their faces. The result was too much like the Ecce Homo fresco in Spain that an elderly woman tried to restore but instead turned into a muddy ruin. Alas, I didn't recognize Kim Novak. (I don't mean to add to the snarkiness by saying this, and I'll say no more about how she looked,  but would instead point the reader to an excellent and respectful piece about Ms. Novak from the Self-Styled Siren blog).

The criticism really should be aimed at the doctors who engineered these pumped-up, swollen faces, claiming them as more youthful and vibrant. And also to those who make it their job to tell us who passes and who doesn't—the self-proclaimed experts at celebrity magazines and shows like TMZ. Or maybe it should be directed at all of us, sitting in movie theatres or on our sofas in front of the TV, deciding who is beautiful or not, feeling somehow superior by making such judgements when we ourselves probably wouldn't be able to survive under such scrutiny for more than a couple of minutes.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Artist's Way

A few weeks ago, I began to dip into the book, The Artist's Way. In case you don't know it, it's a 12-week workbook for creative people to get their creative lives back on track. (I'd never heard of it until someone recommended it to me, despite its having sold over a million copies).

One of the things that its creator, Julia Cameron, recommends is doing "morning pages"—three pages a day of stream-of-consciousness babbling, preferably as soon as you wake up. That's all I had been doing so far. That  explains my absence here because my morning pages (which I confess I often write in the early afternoon or even at dusk, or whatever is the soonest I have time to sit down and go at them) have replaced my attempts at blogging. I suppose that's because they serve a similar purpose for me—sharing my thoughts in the moment. Cameron recommends that people starting out with the program not look back at the morning pages for a while, so I can't dig through them looking for blog post fodder.

Today I began the first week of the program more or less in earnest. One of the things she suggests for this week is to work on affirmations and to listen for how your inner-censor will try to negate them. She calls these negative whispers "blurts." Listening for blurts is the real work here. She also offers a list of 20 common negatively held beliefs about being an artist. And there, at number 20, is mine: "20. It's too late. If I haven't become a fully functioning artist yet, I never will." The funny thing is that I said this to myself at the age of 30. It follows that if I haven't been published widely, it is too late; I am obviously not any good—never mind that I have been busy working jobs, rearing children, keeping house and pulling weeds in the garden, too busy to research markets, write cover letters and polish prose as much as I think it needs.

(I have always tried to assuage such negative talk with a reminder that Helen Hooven Santmyer published And Ladies of the Club at the age of 88; but looking at her entry in Wikipedia just now I see that she published a book when she was young, and continued to write and publish poetry while working as an English professor at Wellesley College. So that HHS story will no longer serve to soothe me.)

Does it matter when we create or how much we create as long as the desire to make something is not diminished? That is what I hope to teach myself this week. To stop whining and to just keep writing.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Must Masterpiece Theatre butcher BBC dramas?

"I don't want to be somebody's sweetheart—I want to be somebody!" Denise declares to Sam in the fourth episode of "The Paradise." This is perhaps the purest statement of an ongoing theme* in the series. But American viewers who watched "The Paradise" on PBS this winter didn't see it. It went to the cutting room floor, along with the eight or so minutes that were cut in PBS's broadcasts from the original 59-60 minute BBC episodes.

In its December 5th issue, Parade Magazine explained that the reason for the lag of four months between the BBC and PBS showings of "Downton Abbey" was to allow time for "editing for American audiences." One might assume that this means the disappearance of references to obscure facets of Britannia. But what it really seems to mean is to allow PBS to add ads—Ralph Lauren's anorexic girl-women slouching in their fur hats, rich people enjoying river cruises—along with a Masterpiece Theatre introduction.

Since receiving the original BBC version of "The Paradise" on DVD for Christmas, it has become a game with me to try to figure out which scenes and snippets of dialogue were cut from the PBS broadcast. Party scenes, perfumed letters sent on a tray, old lovers meeting in a park—all appeared for the first time in this viewing. Sure, the series could move along and seem intact without such moments. But some cuts are more egregious than others: the orphan, Arthur, finally being told his true origins by Mr. Lovett (the PBS version had him bring up the question, never resolved); Clara being ordered never to go to Mr. Moray's room again by Mr. Dudley (no reason why she suddenly stopped trying in the PBS version); Sam's more blatant attempts to romance Denise; Miss Audrey talking about "regret" with Mr. Moray, a phrase he will later, significantly, repeat to Denise that  same evening (revealing that Miss Audrey was more empathetic and aware than was seen in her American form).

I know that PBS has to pay for its programming, but I wish there was a way they could do it without resorting to such surgery.

When I was young and in a small town with few intellectual resources, I looked to PBS as a lifeline to the greater world. It is a lifeline I have cherished for many years, even after I moved to bigger towns. I hate to cut that lifeline now, and I won't entirely. But if there is a BBC drama I really want to invest my time in, I know now that I will have to buy it on DVD or wait for it to appear on Netflix if I want to see it the way the screenwriter and director intended for it to be seen.

* Unlike the female characters in "Downton Abbey" who are punished for trying to rise above their station, or for simply being women.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Winter break

I haven't written much in the last couple of months, what with holiday planning and cooking, and all the concentrated work that was necessary to earn a couple of weeks of free time. Then there was an enjoyable two weeks of traveling, eating, visiting, reading books and sleeping late. (And then the last few days of playing catch-up.)

In the past, such a length of silence might have put me in a panic. To not put down words at least every couple of days used to feel like a kind of death--or, at least, a lost chance to communicate in a deeply rich or lasting way. Instead, this time, I enjoyed eating sushi, swimming, seeing a planetarium show, taking photographs... I was not looking to write anything down or to think a particularly profound thought.

It was vacation, in other words, finally, guiltlessly, spent.

The problem now is how to break a silence that has become so friendly and familiar--how to begin again. I have had time in the last couple of days to write something in this space but I hesitated, wondering what I really needed to say. There was a lingering quiet that I didn't necessarily want to disturb.

Perhaps this is what keeps most people from writing. They have made their peace with the quiet or have no urge to fill it up. Or, the short stretches of quiet stretch into a long period of silence that is hard to break. I am not sure I have fully broken that silence yet, but at least this is a start.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Romance to the rescue

A couple of years ago, I wrote about how I got through the darker months of winter by listening to melancholy music. This year, I've discovered something else to get me through the long nights—romance!

I've never understood why anyone would voraciously read one Harlequin and then another. I was grounded in the real world, thank you, too busy to read such trifles. And yet now I find myself watching episodes of the BBC show, "The Paradise," again and again. I have watched the episodes as they have aired on Sunday nights and then again during the week while washing dishes or folding laundry; or I sneak in a few minutes at a time on my iPad before I go to bed using the PBS app. I go back and forth, watching Episode 7 and back to Episode 3. It has become an addiction—I think I've watched some of it at least every couple of days.

There is no logical explanation for this. I—who abhors shopping and soap-ish dramas, and who is deeply loved—have totally immersed myself in this 1875 department store world that is full of meaningful glances and sweeping violins. Perhaps I need the escapism since my life is tied up so much now to the computer. And the chillier air is keeping me in more, away from the yard and all the flowers I could be transplanting.

But I think the most compelling ingredient for me is how well the actress, Joanna Vanderham, who plays shopgirl Denise, can convey lovesickness. Just a bob of her head, a tilt of the chin, her eyes widening, and I am convinced that she is infatuated with Mr. Moray, the owner of the Paradise.

How would you write such gestures or describe the emotion she seems to convey in these scenes without making treacle? And how would you write a love scene that would move the reader in the same way?

What about the declaration of love, met and unmet, is so compelling to me? Perhaps to declare one's love is rebellion against loneliness, of being an individual. It is one of the bravest acts we can perform, the consequences life-changing, no matter what the response will be.

Friday, October 18, 2013

How to find the "best" children's books

During a lull at the library yesterday, I began to browse around for "best of" book lists for children, middle-schoolers and teens. I know that such lists neglect many great books, and if you stringently sticks to a list, you might not find the best book for a particular child at a particular time.  However, for me, this is a good starting point/reference tool! 

Preschool and kindergarten
• Caldecott Medal and Honor Books, 1938 - Present
Full list (includes Honor books, book descriptions; divided by decades)
Printable list (Medal books list in reverse chronological order)

• 100 Books to Read Before Kindergarten  (Louisville Free Public Library)
Printable list

Elementary School/Early Middle School

• Newbery Medal and Honor Books, 1922-Present 
Full list (includes Honor books, links to book descriptions; divided by decades)
Printable list (Medal books list in reverse chronological order)

• (NPR) 100 Must-Reads For Kids 9-14 (chosen by NPR readers)
Full list/descriptions (includes book covers; divided by genre)
Printable list

• Parent and Child/Scholastic 100 Greatest Books for Kids
Interactive bookshelf (Appears on virtual bookshelf; lets you divide by genre, age group)
Printable list (shows recommended reading age group under titles)


• 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels (books chosen by NPR listeners)
Full list/descriptions (includes book covers; divided by genre)
Printable list

* Note: I'll do "Young Adult" books in a separate entry, to better divide them by genre and to include more contemporary YA novels.

Friday, October 4, 2013

"Can you recommend a really good children's book?"

"Can you recommend a really good children's book?"

I hear this at least once a shift when I am working as a substitute reference librarian. An anxious parent wants to excite their kindergartner about reading. Or a parent of a bored eight year old wants to nudge them back into the habit of reading.

How do I determine what a really good children's book is? Or which book, among all the hundreds of books in the library, is the absolute best at this moment for their kid?

I try to remember what I read to my own children when they were young. Arthur? Dr. Seuss? Amelia Bedelia? I am often irritated with myself that I can only remember and recommend old standbys, especially for the younger set.

So many books, so little time, given that I must make a decision by the time I walk to the stacks, whether I will arrive in the A-author section or the Ws, or somewhere in-between. If asked to suggest a book when I'm on the floor (and away from the computer), I rely mostly on my own experience. Has your third/fourth-grader read Holes or The Magic Thief yet? (Books we read aloud or listened to in the car.)

Of course I can google "if you like _______ you might like ______," which I often do before I go back to the stacks (or I can look at recommended book lists on library web sites or Barnes and Noble's Recommended Kids' Books lists.) But what if the request is simply "a really good book." How do you really search for something like that? I am entrusted to make this judgement simply because I sit at a reference desk; sometimes I feel like King Solomon, expected to pronounce my judgement—this book should be taken home, not all these others.

One thing I love about being a librarian, even if only on a part-time basis, is that  I must literally think on my feet, solving constantly changing problems and requests posed by adults and children. And, sure, a lot of it is familiarity with the Dewey Decimal system and simply where things are in the library. But there's also that chance to inspire someone or find him or her the information she or he needed at just the right time. That's a lot more fun than just sitting at a computer all the time.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

My life on the screen

I've had a migraine headache for the past 24 hours (my first full-blown migraine ever). It goes away for a time and then seems to get re-sparked if I happen to look at the edge of a bright light, or I bend down or I look too long at a computer screen. (I am typing this now without looking up).

This has made me ponder what life would be like if I never used a computer again. Perhaps I could go back to paper/pen and typewriter for my own personal writing. But I've realized that so much of the rest of my working and social life now depends upon access to a computer screen. I edit publications that are housed only on the Internet; some of the articles I write and/or edit never even make it to paper—there remain forever virtual. And I have also been working occasionally as a substitute reference librarian—spending the majority of my time not walking amid hundreds of shelves of books, as the image suggests (or, please, shushing people), but in front of a computer screen, looking up the whereabouts of book titles and information.

Without access to a computer, I wouldn't be able to earn a wage, at least not in the way I have for the last 20 years. If this headache doesn't go away, I wonder what work remains that is untethered to a computer. I suppose I could weed plants, babysit children or clean houses—things I did in college for money or bartering deals. But I can't think of any well-paying intellectual work that doesn't involve my looking into what right now is this liquid-crystal source of pain.

How strange that so much of my life is confined to this 20-inch display—or that I think I have access to the world when I am really just sitting in my chair, moving my fingers along a small rectangular piece of plastic.

Friday, August 2, 2013

How do you know when you are done: Advice from Mary Amato

Mary Amato was kind enough to respond to my query about how a writer knows when she is "done" with a project:

How do I know when I'm done? Definitely NOT by reading and re-reading and re-reading.

I step away from the pages, from my carefully-crafted sentences and I consider the big picture of the story. I often do this by creating a kind of visual outline or map of the story and then looking at it to see if it all adds up.

I try to show this in my videos that I post on the writing process. [For Mary's tips on the writing process, see the Resources Index on her web site.]

 Usually once I have everything right with the plot, then the voice and the writing comes more easily. Then I know when I'm done if I feel what my characters are feeling in every scene.

 --Mary Amato

[Feel free to send me your ideas on how you know when you are "done" and I'll share them in future posts.]

Friday, July 5, 2013

Why blog? (The unintentional and ongoing hiatus)

Why blog? This is a question I've asked myself recently whenever I guiltily remember that I still have one.

It's certainly not for fame or even the paltriest amounts of money—unless you're lucky and you somehow strike a chord with the public. You write about celebrities or celebrity neckties or the minutiae of parenting or... whatever I'm basically not interested in reading or writing about.

The great thing about having a blog is that it provides an instant forum.Whether anyone else cares about it or not, you can translate a thought into a short essay in a few moments' time and send it out to the Internet universe. There is still something powerful and mystifying and exciting about that for me.

But I, obviously, haven't taken advantage of that lately. I've been busy with multiple part-time jobs—not so busy that I don't have a few moments at the end of the day to collect my thoughts, but busy enough that there is not much to collect at day's end.

I understand now why middle-aged people seemed so boring to me when I was younger. There is a certain worn-out/worn-down quality to this time in life that I haven't entirely escaped. When I was in college, I thought I would always ponder poetry, wonder about the meaning of life in all its quotidian fragments. But, instead, these days I seem to ponder how I will pay the next credit card bill, how many more emails I need to answer, all the things I need to do that never seem to get completely done.

Busy-busy-busy and boring-boring-boring.

So, what we have here instead is blank space—more than five weeks of it. I don't think the Internet universe has missed me. Yet I have missed whatever this is—this silent listening, this momentary audience.