There is nothing quite as wonderful as an essay that pinpoints something you hadn’t quite been able to put a name to previously, something that has been deeply bothering you in ways you couldn’t articulate. In this case, it hasn’t just been bothering me; it’s been obstructing my airways. This article, “On Smarm,” was like an intellectual Heimlich maneuvre. It’s long, but very worth reading for anyone who’s ever felt paralyzed by the demand to say something “nice” or say nothing at all.
Faced with that choice, I go silent very quickly. And I’m not a mean person, friends. I’m not. But it’s so easy to step on toes that you don’t even know are there – toes where there shouldn’t be toes! Most people have invisible toes, in absurdly huge quantities! If I am charged with the burden of never hurting anyone’s feelings EVER, I can’t do it except by staying silent. Indeed, no one can. Everything hurts somebody. People are amazingly woundable.
Before I posted that bit of mockery yesterday, oh the anxiety I felt! I was riddled with it. I almost didn’t publish, and even then I had to put that disclaimer at the beginning. Nothing but silliness to see here, folks. God forbid I should assert an opinion about something.
My anxiety isn’t all bad. It led me to make sure I focused my mockery at an idea – an idea abundantly deserving to be mocked, I must add – rather than a person. There were lines that bordered on meanness; I blunted those, or omitted them entirely. I think the results were good.
But maybe I don’t have to fret so much. When did I become so gun-shy? Eh, I know when, and I don’t really want to talk about it. But here’s the point: it has always been my rigorous belief that if I write honestly, I have nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes my honest reaction is mockery, or criticism, or anger. I never wish to hurt anyone, and when I do, I will face it and deal with it. But I don’t have to be stymied by fear.
Tip o’ the hat to Alyssa Rosenberg for pointing me toward that essay. She also thinks Seraphina would make a good movie, so you know she’s a person discerning intellect and excellent tastes.
[The following contains hyperbolic silliness and should not be taken literally. I do not consider children or children’s literature unworthy. I write it because I love it and believe in it. Also: don’t mistake my tone for anger. This is me laughing merrily. I feel a bit silly explaining myself in such detail, but this is the internet. Tone is hard to hear on the internet.]
Ah, my darlings, the winter bear has been prodded from her slumber.
First there was an article about how Kent University was ‘penitent’ for belittling children’s literature. “Huh,” I said to myself. “Is that Kent University in Canterbury? I played cello at a Messiah workshop there, long ago.”
Indeed it was, or one of their campuses, anyway. Close enough. Satisfied, I went back to sleep.
But then we get this follow-up article today: Children’s Fiction is not Great Literature.
I have to admit, I scoffed at first. However, I have come away transformed. I am a convert. Permit me to explain.
“Great adult literature aims to confront the full range of genuine human experience,” quoth the article. Of course it does! Except for children’s experience, which isn’t genuine experience after all. It’s barely what we’d call human. As some fellow on The Simpsons once said, “You kids don’t know what you want! That’s why you’re still kids! Because you’re stupid!”
It’s not like serious adult literature has never explored the experiences of childhood. I always thought James Joyce’s description of wetting the bed in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was particularly sublime. Nobody understands bed-wetting like an adult, though, and this is the entire point! Children do things without understanding the nuances! They only discern black, white, good, evil, and bright cartoonish things. When Joyce wets the bed, it has gravitas. Pathos. Introspection. Of course, James Joyce was far too Great to spend an entire book wetting the bed. He grew up, as any sensible person ought, and moved on to genuine human experiences like sexual urges, fear of hellfire, and spiritual epiphany. None of which children have the faintest notion of. Don’t tell me they do. I can’t hear you, lalala.
Now, does this mean that any individual work Great Literature must encompass the entirely of human experience? Of course not. That would be silly. Nobody has time for that. No, no, Great Literature merely has to be capable of containing anything. As the article explains: “a novel written for children omits certain adult-world elements which you would expect to find in a novel aimed squarely at grown-up readers.” So you see, virtue lies in not omitting – in omitting to omit, if you will – those elements of the adult world which would disturb, confuse, or just plain bore a child to tears. All the really genuine stuff, in other words.
Greatness in literature is like the load-bearing capacity of a bridge: nobody’s really going to drive a ten-billion-ton truck over your bridge, but it has to be strong enough, just in case. Because seriously, you never know. Somebody might have a truck that’s beyond your feeble imagination. We must allow for the full range of possible trucks, even the ones that don’t exist.
Children’s books, on the other hand, are like little wobbly rope bridges, capable of carrying only the wee-est, twee-est widdle emotions, only the fluffiest kittens of experience. Is there anything more futile and ridiculous than a fluffy kitten of experience? Surely the universe could get on quite well without fluffy kittens at all. No one would miss them. Stop blubbing, you.
It is therefore self-evident that the more Human Complexity a work is capable of containing, the Greater it can be. This is why (self-evidently) more greatness may be found in epic poetry than in sonnets. There’s only so much complexity you can cram into a sonnet, especially if you’re being strict with the rhyme scheme (I prefer English, myself). And don’t even get me started on haiku. How much Genuine Human Experience can 17 syllables possibly hold? I’ve had complex adult emotions with more syllables than that. I had one just now. It was self-congratulatory-dyspeptic-smugtasticrabby-glibberishness. Haiku that, darlings.
In sum: it’s not enough to write children’s emotions or experiences well because they are inherently unworthy of literary consideration. A Great book potentially contains anything (except silly kid stuff). The problem with Harry Potter (which I think we all agree exemplifies the entirety of children’s literature) is not that there isn’t anything Complex and Genuine in such books, but that there can’t be, by definition. QED, thank you, and goodnight.
The Viola Organista! It’s like a harpsichord and a cello had a baby! Read this article about it, and be sure to listen to the performance as well. I’m loving this so hard. It sounds like a string quartet to me, playing Baroque-style without vibrato. Incredible.
In other news: I’ve been relaxing most arduously, playing Mass Effect 2, doing housework, attending to all the things that need attending (the dog, largely; she’s been ill, poor thing). I keep having ideas for fiction. I am jotting them down, then letting them float away, which feels like the height of luxury to me. I’ll get to them; there will be time.
I hope November is treating you gently, too.
My darlings, I have news: I have completed the most recent draft of the sequel, and I sent it to my editor this morning. I have spent the last two hours bouncing around my house like a ping pong ball, because – ye gods – this is such a weight off my heart. I can’t even tell you. I’m made of words, but I have no words.
Do you know what the very best thing about this is? No, it’s not the fact that you really will get to read the sequel this decade, although that’s pretty nice. OK, very nice. But the very best thing is that today is November 1st, and it will take my editor a few weeks to read the draft and get comments back to me (alas, let us not pretend the book is completely finished).
I have November, for novel-writing purposes, OFF. Nothing in November.
This has been a special goal of mine ever since last November. Allow me to explain.
I have known, ever since I moved to Canada, that November is the nadir of my year. It’s dark, and getting darker. It’s rainy, and getting rainier. Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in October, so there isn’t even a holiday to liven things up between Halloween and Saturnalia. I get epically bummed out. Seasonal affective disorder? Maybe, but the point is, it happens every year, so theoretically I ought to be able to come up with a strategy to combat it.
My previous strategy — keeping my nose to the grindstone and muscling through — did not work. In fact, it made things worse. For the last two years, in particular, by the end of November I have been not merely depressed but burned out and exhausted as well. There had to be a better way.
Well, lovelies, there is. This year I am proclaiming the month-long holiday of November Nothing! While others toil at NaNo, I shall be celebrating NoNo.
NoNo has exactly one rule: Be gentle with yourself. It is the month of restoration, of remembering what you love and why and doing exactly that. Of resting when you need to, laughing as much as possible, slowing down and staying sane.
I’m planning to be here a lot, honestly, because you know what I miss? Writing for fun, or for no reason at all. While I was working on revisions, I felt guilty any time I came to this blog, particularly if I was going to write something silly. Well, NoNo rejects the idea that only focused, goal-oriented tasks are worthy! We laugh in the face of that idea! Time spent doing things you love is never, ever time wasted, and sometimes goals just have to wait their turn.
I am here to laugh and enjoy myself, and probably write more about prog rock than anyone but me cares to read. And if it starts to feel like work, maybe I’ll slack off — I have permission! It’s Nothing November, my dears, and you are all welcome to join me, fully or whenever you’re able.
Be gentle with yourselves. I’ll see you tomorrow.
I would like to give credit where credit’s due: this was all my husband’s idea. He planned it, he researched it, he (and my son) did most of the cooking. And although I won’t say this was the most delicious meal I’ve ever eaten, it was one of the most fun.
They started out yesterday making hardtack, not just for us to eat straight, but because figgy dowdy is made mostly of hardtack. Hardtack itself is made of flour, water, and a little salt, then baked at a low temperature until it is hard as a rock.
We baked a second batch with a different recipe that used a little butter, and indeed, those were a lot easier to chew. Below is a plate full of the authentic hardtack, illustrating how much a sailor would receive as his ration every day:
The next day, my husband and son took the designated amount of hardtack out on the balcony and beat it to death with a bat:
Figgy dowdy requires hardtack crumbs, which are in fact quite hard to make. Hardtack is – I may have mentioned – pretty hard. Anyway, they finally crushed it sufficiently (or decided it would do), and then they mixed in the other ingredients: raisins and currants (which had been soaking in rum overnight), chopped figs, a little flour, a little sugar, a little nutmeg and ginger, more rum, water, three eggs, and a LOT of suet. Here’s my son kneading the mixture together. All those little white pellet-shaped things? SUET.
We then wrapped the mixture in flour-dusted cheesecloth, tied it shut, and set it in a pot of boiling water for three hours.
At one point, all four burners on our stove were going: boiling the figgy dowdy, heating up water to add to the figgy dowdy if it boiled down too low, cooking up the pease porridge, and boiling the salt pork. Hot work on a hot day! The pease porridge was basically yellow split peas and onions, boiled down to mush, and then some egg and seasoning added in. THEN, it too was wrapped in cheesecloth and put in to boil with the salt pork.
So ok, the salt pork and pease porridge (hot!) were done before the dowdy, so we had our dinner all together tidily like so:
What’s that in the mug, you ask? Why that, darling, is grog — rum, water, lime juice, a little brown sugar. I found it drinkable, just. I liked the peas best. The hardtack was very cracker-like, honestly; nothing to fault but the texture. Salt pork, however, is nasty, at least the way we prepared it. To be fair, I don’t know that any meat is at its best, particularly, when boiled. Still, I found this unpleasantly salty, and the half-inch fat rind was kinda tasty, but it really sits in your stomach like a lump.
British sailors were rationed a pound of salt pork. PER DAY. I can’t even imagine.
So ok, you’re wondering how the figgy dowdy turned out. I can read your mind, clearly. Well, it turned out like THIS:
It held together reasonably well. It looked a little like a loaf of soda bread, or a brain. We were able to slice and eat it for dessert.
I would imagine that if you’ve been stuck at sea for months, eating a pound of hardtack and a pound of salt pork every day, this probably tasted sweet and delicate and heavenly. It was a bit like bread pudding, I guess, but damper and greasier and not very sweet at all. I liked it, but it was a lot of work to make. My husband was thoughtful enough to run the figgy dowdy ingredients through a nutrition website and make us this:
Apparently their rations came to about 5000 calories per day. I imagine trimming the sails and heaving the capstan and dancing the hornpipe took a lot of energy, but ye gods, I can’t even imagine. My stomach still kinda feels like I swallowed a rock.
For all those wonderful wall-song suggestions! Even the silly ones. Maybe especially the silly ones, because I can always, ALWAYS use a laugh. It’s good to have a pile of new music, and from so many different genres, too! I am a little astonished that nobody suggested “100 Bottles of Beer”, however.
I was thinking about walls, in particular, because I have been feeling like I’ve put a wall around myself, and I don’t like it at all. I had big defensive walls when I was young, but I tore them down years ago and decided I wasn’t going to live that way anymore. Somehow, though, getting published and making this transition from “Nobody You Ever Heard Of” to “Somebody a Few People Have Heard Of” has been scary and uncertain enough that the walls went back up.
Have you noticed this blog getting more boring and impersonal over time? Yup. That was the walls going up. If you read the entries sequentially, you can see it happening, like time-lapse photography. Little by little I said less and less. It got to the point where I could barely write anything here at all, where I felt the internal censor half choking me any time I tried.
The thing about my internal censor – and my defensive walls – is that they get super zealous about their jobs. They weren’t just applying themselves here on the blog, but everywhere. My “real” writing. My life. I have been cutting myself off at the knees, truncating my thoughts, boxing myself in at every corner.
And for what? Am I so scary that I need to be contained? Are my honest words such a liability that I need to keep a muzzle on?
There is nothing terrible I want to say, but I have to feel absolutely free to say something terrible or I find I can’t say anything at all. Writing – the thing I chose to do, the thing I love – has become a misery as often as not. I’m tired of that, and I’m done suffering. It’s not necessary. I can say exactly what needs to be said. I have the power, the right, and the ability to judge rightly what to say.
The first rule of shame-Grendels is never talk about shame-Grendels — but that’s their rule, invented for their own self-preservation. They know that when the sunlight hits them they will dissolve into dust. That’s why I’m saying this here, because it will help precipitate their disintegration. It is time to stop shouting at myself and enjoy my work again.
And I really, REALLY want to get to the point where I can explain to you why listening to YES is like eating an excellent sandwich. That’s a goal, perhaps. I will know the last brick has been kicked aside when I can finally be that funny and serious — together — again.
That would be ME, darlings. I haven’t been here in a while, and I apologize. I travelled and rested, and in the meantime my editor perused the draft and came up with twenty thousand ways I could improve it. I’ve just dipped my toe back in this week, and… well, it’s always cold at first, until you get your midriff in, and then it’s all right. In fact, I’ve found a number of things to be excited about.
So there you go. Work proceeds apace (a slow pace, maybe) and work is good.
The flowers have all come out over the last few weeks, which is helping enormously. I really ought to spend a day just photographing cherry trees and putting them up here, that I might have something lovely to look at during the long cherry-blossom-free months. They are stunning, like clouds rooted to the ground, or branches laden with barely-pink snow. The sheer decadent abundance of flowers. I walk the dog by specific routes, just so I can pass under all my favourite trees and gape up at them. Someday a blossom is going to fall into my mouth. I’ll let you know if it does.
Huh, they both start with piano solos. I hadn’t noticed until I listened to the beginning of each in close succession.