Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Four days into my Facebook fast

I vowed on my Facebook page (where else?) four days ago that I was taking a break from Facebook. But I have found it difficult to entirely avoid it because: people use to to email me; I get invites to local events sometimes; and not wishing a friend "happy birthday" seems rude when their birth date is noted there.

Then there is the difficulty of communicating to/with live broadcasts.  The Kojo Nnamdi radio show did an interesting story on the survival of newspapers yesterday (Rebuilding the Newspaper Pay Wall) and I wanted to share my thoughts with the guests about the Washington Post. I emailed the show, but realized it wouldn't be read immediately, so  I surrendered and went to its Facebook page to post a comment.

Still, I haven't written a status update since that vow I made Sunday. But I'm itchy to answer Facebook's "What's on your mind?" as soon as I think of something wry or descriptive. It's become a habit or even an addiction, describing my life by the moment, in the moment. Equally addictive, the need to know what other people are doing and observing on any given day. But I've mostly let the "News" stream/ticker go by unread, accumulating.

So what am I doing with the extra time I have now? I'd like to boast that I am writing more (I am), but I might as well also confess that I've begun to tweet.

Monday, September 26, 2011

"I want real people!"

When my son was a toddler, he didn't want to sleep in his own room. While the family bed concept might work for some people, I needed my sleep and found that hard to achieve with three bodies in a double bed, especially with a child as intellectually energetic as he was. He could easily stay up to midnight with only a one-hour mid-day nap at preschool. So we would tell him, "Go to bed, you've got Mr. Bear and all your stuffed animals with you."

"I want real people!" he would shout back.

(Eventually, we fashioned a solution for him. Whenever he was lonely, he could come and get into the sleeping bag we left for him beside our bed. With just a rug beneath it, it proved less comfortable than his own bed and he would return to it after an hour or so. Soon, he stopped coming to it all.)

The other day, in the midst of writing all day by myself, I took a break and opened up my Facebook page. It was the day that Facebook launched its new everyone-everywhere-has-something-to-say format. I couldn't pick out anything interesting or important from the chaotic stream, so I closed it quickly. But I still had a need to communicate and let someone know I was alive.

"I want real people!" I said to the empty house.

I know that such quiet is necessary to write (and to do my other, editing work), but my days have a lot of quiet to them. For me, too often, Facebook and a full Inbox have become substitutes for real encounters. And by opening them as much as I, often necessarily, do, I am keeping myself from the potential for such encounters.

The new Facebook format that I loathe has given me an excuse to wean myself from electronic forums. Unfortunately, at least right now, there is nothing to fill the void I thought I was filling with them.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Necessary and unnecessary gestures

I am finally revising my YA novel, moving from first draft to a sort-of second draft. This is where I am rewriting my too-much-telling-not-showing first chapter; cutting unnecessary adverbs; and starting to add "texture" and "layers."

One of my attempts at texture is to add gestures to my characters. I figure when they're talking to one another, the reader should be able to know what they look like in that moment—otherwise, they're just mannequins with dialog coming out of their mouths. But this is so much harder than I had imagined it would be. In rereading what I've written/recently rewritten, I've found at least two characters who tap their feet when they talk. Yikes!

So I tried to think about recognizable fictional characters and what their signature gestures might be and all I could come up with is Harry Potter rubbing his scar. Surely other characters in Harry Potter had recognizable and repeated physical gestures, but I can't think of any. Maybe the gestures become so much a part of their whole physical portrait that nothing particular can be pulled out. I can envision Ron slumping around and Hermione intently studying, but if they tapped their feet or rubbed their faces, I don't remember it.

The problem with Harry Potter is that the characters in my mind are often replaced with the actors who played them in the movie, e.g., Dolores Umbrage is now Imelda Staunton cruelly strutting around in her pink suit, wand ready to inflict pain.

Perhaps I should try to imagine actors playing my novel characters to see what gestures and other stylish flourishes they might take on.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

More literary maps (paper and computer-based)

Illustration of the voyage of the Pequod, from Moby Dick, one of a series of 12 literary maps produced as a calendar by the Harris-Seybold Co. in the 1950s. From American Treasures of the Library of Congress.

Often in the past, I've needed visuals as an aid in fully understanding a story. When I took a class on Dante's Inferno in college, I kept finding myself lost in the circles of hell until I drew them all out on a long scroll of paper. I glanced at it under my desk during class. In the years since, I've yearned for a laminated, fold-up Streetwise-like map to accompany books I was reading—not just for Dante's Inferno, but also for Huckleberry Finn's Mississippi, etc.

Of course, fantasy novels often have accompanying maps on the inside pages.  (The Map Room: A Weblog About Maps has a great round-up of maps for Imaginary Places, including both books and movies).

After I wrote my post on creating a geographic map for Alice Munro, I googled around for examples of other Internet-based "literary maps." Here's what I found:

• Google Lit Trips - developed "as part of the Google Certified Teachers program," it offers free downloadable files "that mark the journeys of characters from famous literature." One problem I have with it is that you have to download a separate file for each book and you have to use the Google Earth application to run it.  Another problem is that, compared to a map put up on Google Maps, the files are relatively static. They're files versus something more akin to a fluid web page.

Wikimapia - According to Wikipedia, this is a "privately owned, online map and satellite imaging resource that combines Google Maps with a wiki system, allowing users to add information, in the form of a note, to any location on Earth." There are some literary places marked, but they're noted individually. For example, search for "F. Scott Fitzgerald" and you'll get a map that marks his grave site.

The Atlas of Fiction - This site uses Google Maps to mark real locations mentioned in selected, singular fictional works. For example, the map for Jane Austen's Persuasion marks "The Cobb, Lyme" where "Anne meets the Harvilles and Captain Benwick; Louisa's accident." Also offers a World View, where major sites in fictional works are offered as a group.

• Finally, the New York Times produced a Literary Map of Manhattan in 2005, with quotes from the books noted at selected locations.

I'm sure there's more out there, but this is all I've had time to find this afternoon. Happy mapping!

A different kind of literary map: the USA Literary Map features a "total of 226 geographically connected authors." (Click on the link to see a larger image of it).

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Geography of Alice Munro (Literary mapping with Google Maps)

One of my goals this summer was to read Alice Munro's Selected Stories in sequential order, to get a better feel for her evolution as a writer.  Unfortunately, being an American, all the stories seemed to me to take place in that amorphous area called Canada—I imagined prairie-like towns with long winters and too-brief summers. Then I realized one day that perhaps I should look at an atlas to get a sense of how far her characters were traveling on trains, when they moved, etc.

Of course I was stunned at how far it is between Wingham, Ontario, town of her birth, and Vancouver, BC, where she moved with her first husband—a distance of some 2,500 miles*—and how different the terrain is between the two places. Also surprising—how close to the U.S. border many of these towns are. The book, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, was an excellent source for charting the real places in Munro's life, as well as cluing me in that Wingham is probably the town she fictionalized in many of her stories.

I wanted to dig a little deeper, to see what the streets, lakes, and mountains might have looked like to her characters, so I looked around to see if anyone else had created a visual representation of these places. Since I didn't find it, I created a quick Google Map marking some of the major sites in her life and fiction:

(Please realize that this is a work in progress).

You can click on most places and zoom in until you can get a street with all the businesses marked on it. If you're able to put the little golden man on the spot, he can show you geographic features, buildings, even people walking on the street. For example, if you click on Munro's Books, you can put the little Google man there on the street to find charming, European-style buildings, with mountains in the distance.

If there are other, literary, publicly available Google Maps available, I'd like to find them and will eventually list them here. I imagine, like everything else Internet, I am not the first to try do this. Soon, I imagine, nonfiction authors might create a public Google Map to use alongside a modern history or biography.

* I know this because I used the Google Map "Get directions" feature.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bertie Wooster plays the blues

I gave my hubby the complete PBS "Jeeves and Wooster" series on DVD for our anniversary earlier this month. We just watched the episode where Bertie (Hugh Laurie) plays "Forty-Seven Ginger-Headed Sailors" (excerpt above).

Then, only a day later, Laurie appeared on the "Today" show playing a song from his new blues album. (I couldn't link to it directly, so enjoy the YouTube video that Blogger only allowed me to link to):

I have nothing significant to add here—I just liked the contrast between the young and old man, the simpleton and the serious blues musician. And I'd like to express my admiration for Laurie's ability to reinvent himself in a different country, with a different accent and different dramatic intent. (Still, I have to admit, I really miss Bertie Wooster).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The dream of dictation, slightly dashed

For a long time, I've had the fantasy that I can find software that will allow me to take long walks and write at the same time—a program that will convert my speech into typed words. It would be like having my own secretary/transcriber (or wife... see Tolstoy, et al.).

So I downloaded a popular dictation app for my iPod and tried it the other morning. The results are mixed (see below). While some phrases and even sentences are nearly intact (i.e., "as I write this I'm jogging with Wii fit"—true!), there is a lot of gobbledygook (i.e., I'm sure I've never spoken the word "equestrian" out loud). One big problem was the lack of punctuation. Perhaps another use for this might be to create inner dialog for mentally ill characters:

wondering if I should write something about who wants to be a man they're equestrian with the Manale for Steve's angle and also the fact that I'm doing it everyday of the Lycan I got for now as I write this I'm jogging with Wii fit actually I not writing or typing I'm dictating to something and my iPod you'll see the results after I e-mail it to myself and put it up here so the question is is it possible to ride and walk or exercise at the same time and end up with a readable text. I'm not sure it is but it sure would be great if I could walk in right same time I'd like to try to write dialogs or to speak dialogs without typing get this evening sounds like him and everything will be in my own southern accent elk characters perhaps we'll something

I later realized that I might create punctuation by simply saying "period" and "comma," etc. This worked, but it's a little awkward (and a lot like that famous Victor Borge routine). I read out loud a paragraph I'd written by hand:

Earthlings are strange Megan G-alt. Perquimans in to take a lot of time with her hair. She talked about hair and her earth here have her hair may Chun. Men seem to think about Paul's throwing and kicking and hitting. The women through their hair up and divided and shaped and Minka for sure. Women had around breasts and then didn't, the sept the fact ones. Lemon tart around in high heels and then more comfortable shoes with socks, get both expected to walk next to one another as equals,

I know that "G-alt" is actually supposed to be "thought" since that's what I had written down. But if I had taken a walk and talked out a story, I'm not sure what I would end up with if it was the only copy of it that existed later. Of course, I could use this method to come up with a surprising phrases, e.g., "Lemon tart around in high heels" might be a line in a surrealistic poem (it was actually dictated as "Women walk around in high heels").

So my dream of cheap/free dictation is slightly dashed, for now, but I'll probably use this app when I do a phone interview for work, hoping it might cut down even a slight bit on all the transcription I usually do afterwards.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Nostalgic for the dark

We went without power for a total of five days after Hurricane Irene. It wasn't a totally bad experience. In fact, the first couple of days after the power came back on, I felt nostalgic for the dark.

Around 7 p.m., it would start to get dark inside the house and we would light candles at the dining room table, eating dinner and playing board games.  Later, we each read by flashlight or lantern, cozy in chairs or our own beds. All was quiet save for the loud hum of neighbors' generators and the song of cicadas, heard through our open windows.

I would have been glad for another few days of it—it felt romantic to read by candlelight, even to boil water for morning tea on the camp stove outside. And I could have withstood even the increasingly cold and quick showers. It was almost like camping, taking us from our normal electronic realities. Even better, I read a short story every night without worry that there was something else I needed to do because there was nothing else I could do.

But while we read and talked, our freezer was slowly defrosting its contents. The 7-lb. bags of ice from 7-11, replenished each day, did little to stop the sickening descent of frozen food warming to room temperature. After the power came back on, I spent half a day wiping out the refrigerator and the freezer and throwing out two big garbage bags of food. 

With electricity there was suddenly laundry to do, email to be answered, bread to be baked, gadgets to be charged. I haven't managed to sit down and completely read a short story in one sitting since then.

Of course, the next time we lose power (we seem to lose it at least twice a year), it may be 20 degrees outside. This bit of nostalgia was possible only because we had beautiful weather and easy access to restaurants/food. Still, I wonder how I might recapture that lovely, justified feeling that no matter what I was doing then, it was all that I could and should be doing.