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Back in the Black Forest: Revisiting the Grimms


Sixty Fairy Tales of The Brothers Grimm, 1979 (translated by Mrs. Edgar Lucas, illustrated by Arthur Rackham)

I’ve returned to my old stomping grounds: the classic fairy tales. Rereading has always been a happy pastime for me. I was one of those kids—ready to start over with Once upon a time as soon as I’d heard The End. It’s comforting to revisit a story, to be delighted again by characters and ideas, even when you know what’s going to happen at the end.

Under the guidance of some master storytellers and interpreters of the form (Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Robert Bly, Angela Carter, and others), I’ve learned that rereading can uncover new things, too. Especially if I’m willing to pull back traditional interpretations to search with fresh eyes, or if I’m ready to examine gaps and silences instead of just leaping straight over them. This time through the Brothers Grimm, I’m looking around the corners in the stories, mining fissures to find what may be hiding there. I’m also trying to peer back into the eyes of the storytellers to see if they have anything else they might like to say. Here’s an example…

Remember The Frog Prince? (A princess drops her golden ball in a well, a frog offers to retrieve it—for a price. She agrees, but as soon as her favorite toy is recovered, she runs off, leaving the frog in the lurch.) Conventional analyses of this story tend to focus on the importance of integrity and keeping your promises. In the story, when the king hears the details, he makes his daughter fulfill her obligations. So, Froggy gets to eat from her plate and she even has to carry him up to her room. There’s nothing wrong with learning to keep your word, but I can’t stop thinking about what happens next…

Detail from Rackham illustration: “So she seized him with two fingers, and carried him upstairs.”

When the frog tries to crawl into her pretty, silken bed, the princess slams him against the wall. Now, for the record, I do not condone violence against animals—it’s just the princess’s anger here that fascinates me. There’s a line she can’t cross, even to please the king. She made this bargain in haste without really considering the consequences, and when payment comes due, it’s too much. So, she gets mad.

Here’s the funny thing—the pothole in the story that I’ve always been encouraged to skate past—her anger IS the necessary catalyst required for transformation.

After Froggy hits the wall, he pops back into his original, charming prince form—no kissing required! It seems like the original storyteller here understood that keeping your word is important, but protecting your boundaries when you’ve entered into a bad bargain might be even more rewarding. That little facet of this story really holds up—in fact, it seems made for readers today.

There are a host of reasons why teachers and mentors and gurus have used stories to pass their wisdom down. Stories are easier to remember, for one thing. But they can also be elastic—they can grow and bend and twist with us. Narratologists have noted that fairy tales were likely never meant (just) for the children gathered around the fire, but told for the benefit and entertainment of everyone listening.

For me, all of this means that I never have to outgrow these tales—but I know if I return, I might discover that my allegiances have changed. I’m sure I’ll always want to see Hansel and Grethel escape the cannibalistic witch, but I’m less excited to see a damsel in distress get rescued and married off to her champion before she’s had a chance to grow up properly, to rescue herself, or to see the world. It’s likely that the endings might change for me too; I expect them to feel a bit more ambiguous. The sense of justice in happily ever after or they all got what they deserved depends entirely on who we’re cheering for.

Increasingly, I’m much more intrigued by the wish-granters and the catalysts now—those enigmatic figures lurking at the edge of the forest or in the bends of the path, offering help and advice and resources to the worthy and the curious. I confess I’m also sympathizing more and more with the solitary crone—minding her business, growing herbs in the forest— who’ll defend her territory if she has to, even though she might much rather just be left in peace. I must be entering a new phase.

I know of readers who reject the notion of going over old ground, but some books seem to be worthy of a return trip. I’m often tempted to seek out a good story again and again so I can see it from all sides, examine its facets, and imagine myself in each one of its thousand little worlds. And, as a writer, it’s one of my goals to make stories that are worthy of a second look—to create books with capacious themes, and ideas that bloom, and characters that hold new gifts in their hands every time a reader comes around.

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Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author. Illustrations in photos by Arthur Rackham.

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BACCA Writers

Critiquing Critique

Writers need help to be our best. We need careful readers with sharp, unwearied eyes looking at our work, shining the light of what they know on what we’ve written. We might prefer to avoid it, but in the quest for excellence, a little aid is absolutely necessary. So…

How do you find (and give) helpful help?

How do you create an environment where respectful and rigorous critique is possible?

What are the essential elements of a beneficial critique?

The members of BACCA have been thinking and talking about this lately. We’ve put our heads together and gathered some of our thoughts here. In my own thinking about these questions, I’ve uncovered a point of origin—an opening strategy I use when I approach the work of another writer.

Assume it’s there for a reason…

I begin with this: everything is intentional. I assume the writer has something in mind and figuring that out is my first job. Simple enough—but it goes against the grain. A book feels finished, complete, but it’s natural when handling a manuscript to assume that it’s flawed—it’s a draft, after all. But if I assume from the start that every surprise, every unfamiliar turn is a flaw and not a carefully chosen move, I miss an opportunity—a chance to learn something, to see from a new perspective.

After enduring disappointing critique experiences of my own, I’ve learned that it’s best to identify a writer’s project before I do anything else. This summary becomes my north star as I spend time and get to know a manuscript, mapping out its tendencies, its borders, and its open ends.

Believing that every part of a manuscript is intentional, included for a specific purpose, doesn’t mean that there is nothing more for me to do and no way I can help. Useful comments are in conversation with the project summary I’ve identified. Positive comments highlight parts of the writing that support and enhance the goals of the project. Questions I have may indicate places could undermine or conflict with what I believe the writer is trying to do.

If you find yourself in unfamiliar territory…

It’s human nature to privilege the familiar. We like to know where we are and what kind of story we’re in. Roughly knowing what to expect—a series of predictable surprises—makes us comfortable. But, assuming that a draft needs to be remade to look familiar can cause real damage. I know this first hand.

In one graduate-level workshop, my writing was chewed up and spit out, over and over. Criticism is never fun, but some of the feedback I received in that class was legitimate and some of it was not. Some of it made me a better writer and some of it threw me off track. It took me a long time to sort out the constructive comments from the lazy, arrogant ones.

One student (I’ll call him Mark) indulged in what I now regard as a careless, irresponsible style of critique. Every time I submitted work, Mark would speak first, but he would always say the same thing:

I just don’t know where I am in this poem.

The comment itself seemed innocent enough. As a jumping off place for discussion, it might have been. But Mark, once lost, dismissed my poems entirely and refused to go further. If he didn’t know where he was in the poem, he assumed it must not be good. Inevitably, the rest of the class would follow his lead, even though I knew from their written comments that they’d had different reactions. Unfortunately, the facilitator of the class allowed him to dominate discussions of my work with this same comment, over and over. The indulgence helped no one in that room.

The problem with his comment, which he never realized and (to be fair) I never revealed to him, was that it was based on a false assumption: if he got lost in my poem, I had failed. But, it was never my project to locate him in a known place and time. If he had known where he was, I realized later, that would have been a failure. Mark’s poetry was full of trains and clocks and suburban sprawl—things I wanted to escape. I wanted to explore wildness, myth, and emotional rawness; I wanted to illuminate the edges between civilization and uncultivated territory.

Of course Mark didn’t know where he was!

Sadly, he was unwilling to push past the shock of being in unfamiliar terrain to discover the qualities of the world I was trying to create. So, we both missed a chance to learn from each other. If he had stretched his imagination past comfortable, if he’d thought to identify my project instead of just pointing out what it wasn’t, there might have been meaningful critique—which could have helped us both.

The best first gift…

Several artists I know—writers and painters and musicians—have told me that the most thrilling moment is to have someone encounter their work and really see it, to spend enough time with it to know it and really get it. Maybe this is the best first gift we can give each other in a meaningful critique. To say, yep, I see what you’re doing…

At the very least, it seems a decent place to start.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by author.

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BACCA Writers

Truth Tellers and Doorways: Joy Harjo

© Karen Kuehn. Courtesy of Blue Flower Arts.

In June, 2019, a side door in the House of Change opened a crack. Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke (Muscogee Creek) Nation, was named the 23rd poet laureate of the United States. She is the first indigenous poet and the seventh woman to hold that post. Chosen by the Library of Congress, the poet laureate’s role is to raise consciousness and enhance appreciation for poetry. In her first and second terms, Joy Harjo has chosen to represent not only marginalized female and Mvskoke voices, but to make space for a wide range of indigenous writers—through the production of an anthology, When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through (2020), which she describes as “a doorway,” and her special project, Living Nations, Living Words, a digital story map introducing the country to Native poets, past and present.

I’ve been celebrating the good news by revisiting her work. I first immersed myself in Harjo’s poetry in college, where I fell in love with the collections She Had Some Horses (1983) and In Mad Love and War (1990). I felt drawn to the rhythm and power of these poems, the mix of dark and light, and I relished their keen revelation of female experience. Harjo visited my college twice during that time. In tongue-tied awe, I sat a few seats away from her when she attended my poetry writing workshop. Listening to her, I experienced for the first time the vast difference between poems on a page and poems read out loud by the poet that made them.

In light of the many challenges that 2020 has delivered, Harjo’s appointment might seem like a trivial thing to emphasize. Poetry itself might seem trivial, even irrelevant. An inert remnant of the past. A form dismantled in the last century, its shards left scattered around the waste land. Nevertheless, poetry isn’t dead. Poets persist. They continue their alchemical work, boiling language down, transforming mundane experience, offering up insight and epiphany.

Joy Harjo suggests that poets do even more. In 1994, she wrote “I believe that the word poet is synonymous with the word truth teller.” Throughout her work, Harjo reveals the truth of her experience—the harsh and the exhilarating. Published in 1979, the poem “I am A Dangerous Woman,” is so real and relevant it could have been written five minutes ago. Harjo reads it here.

Harjo’s poems are built not just to say something, but to do something. As an active extension of an ancient oral tradition, they are meant to serve as rituals and ceremonies—for change, for remembrance, for celebration—as the creeds and invocations and prayers of church are meant to do. Harjo’s poems are constructed to open doors. Because Harjo insists that words have power, her poems are made to alter and to move us and to possibly change the world. Here, a poem to release fear.

The second time I heard Joy Harjo read, she brought her saxophone and a band with her. The audience experienced, firsthand, the power of the oral tradition, witnessing the creation of live, unrepeatable versions of her poems with music in a space and time. Not fixed on a page, but fully vital. When I left that event and went back to my dorm room, I felt restless and wrong indoors, somehow. I remember wandering back outside, stirred up. I only felt right under the night sky. Her words had worked on me, opened something up.

In the current socio-political era, the truth we encounter is something to be questioned and inspected and is often found to be as insubstantial and unreliable as wet cotton candy. In such a time, we might start to believe that we can’t make a difference. All around us, words are used to obscure rather than illuminate, so it seems even more significant that someone committed to telling the truth has been given a prominent space to speak and be heard. I think we’ve received the teacher that we needed—someone to remind us that words have meaning and power, someone to remind us that “All acts of kindness are lights in the war for justice.” (The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, 1994)

Last month (November, 2020), the Library of Congress announced that Joy Harjo has been reappointed and will serve a third term as poet laureate—a rare occurrence. (She is only the second poet in seventy-seven years to do so). We might have more to learn; I know she has more to teach us.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group

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BACCA Writers

Innovation Inside the Lines

A minor confession: I love form. I thought I’d only write free verse. I thought I’d be one of the bull-in-a-china-shop rule breakers of fiction. I thought I’d start each project with a slate clear of the traditions that came before. But the more I read and the more I write, the more I know that form is beautiful and useful – and it’s my secret tool for innovation.

madegrid.

For a long time, literary forms and their limitations were an imposition. I rebelled against rhyme. I shirked the sonnet, vilified the villanelle. I objected to outlines, too. (Who cares if they made life easier? They reminded me of schedules and routines – those despised limiters of my childhood, interrupting the long, open days of summer.) If I followed the rules, if I used traditional form, I was sure I’d be stuck, locked in some stuffy, dust-bunnied room, with outdated decor. I wanted to be a writer, unrestricted, unbound. Free to go anywhere, like the wind.

After more study and practice, I developed a grudging respect for the forms I’d mocked. I recognized that good forms have a purpose, and a tendency. The sonnet, music box-like with its rhythms and revelations, conjures an intimate experience. The villanelle lulls; lines repeat, pull, seduce. After all, even the wind wants something to blow against: leaves, channels of rock, cattails, and blades of grass. How else can it sing?

Form elevates, too, inviting precision and tautness. When making poems or stories, using form can be like stretching words to fit a frame, pulling ideas across lines until they are strong and resonant, like the skin on a drum. Form pushed my writing further. The unnecessary fell away. Muscly words that did twice and three times the work emerged. Eventually, I found my way to more subtle, yielding forms – syllabics underpinning a line of poetry, a fragment of myth whispering up from the molten core of story – hidden, intricate architectures that could help hold the work up, not hold it back.

Forms restrict, but they also invite us to play. The astonishing gift of form is surprise, our unexpected rise to the occasion as we work within the confines imposed. Inside the lines, we improvise and innovate, fiddling until something fresh arrives. Form, then, becomes a doorway to the new. A welcome paradox.

wildgrid. In the last few months, most of us have traded one set of limitations for another. Under stay at home orders, the days, stripped of appointments and engagements, yawned open, while the scenery stayed the same. We’ve seen (or experienced) suffering and loss, but something beautiful has happened, too. Unforgettable demonstrations of creativity have emerged from the limitations – all the sweet, wacky, clever ways that people have dreamed up to stay connected, to encourage and check on each other from a distance. Invented games. Birthday parades. Unexpected reunions. Teleconferencing-propelled collaborations, between unlikely collaborators, that resulted in brilliant performances and artistry. Stripped of airbrushing, pomp and circumstance, many of these productions have looked a little less shiny than we’re used to, but a little more comfortingly real. Maybe it reminds me of childhood: the silly, wild games, the true play of abandon and recombination built from the tools and materials at hand.

As quarantine restrictions lift, routines of normal life will return, but I hope the spirit of innovation and improvisation will persist. When the power goes out, we remember how much we love candlelit dinners, storytelling, and card games. It’s too easy to forget these simple pleasures when the lights come back on.

Here’s a favorite example of quarantine creativity: The Roots, with Jimmy Fallon and Brendon Urie, performing Queen’s Under Pressure (featuring David Bowie). It’s a great cover of a great song and a bafflingly good use of the video conferencing platform. Note, particularly, the genius use of “found-at-home” instruments by The Roots: a reminder that if we want to make music, we will find a way. Most of all, I love the joyfulness of their performance. Here’s proof that in times of stress, we still want to create things together, to delight and encourage one another. It gives me hope.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.

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BACCA Writers

Finding the Elusive: Inspiration

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Inspiration and a Gift  – Full Moon at Bent Creek by visual artist, Stanley B Watkins

Many of us are in new territory—a time of exile has begun. Swimming in the uncertain and strange, we wait and worry and wonder and shop. It’s even hard to know exactly what we need right now and how much. Perhaps, like me, you didn’t find what you were really looking for in the grocery store. No one shelved serenity in between the bags of coffee and tea, or comfort in the paper goods aisle. No guarantees that life will return to normal were stocked on the empty shelves where they used to keep bread. We may have to create what we really need right now—we may need to find serenity, comfort ourselves and each other, and stir up some hope.

In that spirit, a week ago I reached out to a handful of my creative, artist-friends with five questions—a survey of sorts about sources of inspiration and creative process. Individuals, participating in a wide variety of creative genres and ranging from 20-something to 80-something, responded with exquisite bits of wisdom and inspiration—more of it than I can share in one post, so stay tuned!

This feels like a good time to implement the “dessert first” strategy, so I’ll share some of the most hopeful parts now—answers to the questions below. I hope that you will find these thoughts as encouraging as I have during this chaotic, strange, and lonely time.

#1 Has anything inspired you lately?

# 2 If you could give the world a present…?

Joy, whose creative fields include music, design, and art, finds inspiration looking at houses—“I immediately start moving walls in my mind and imagining the full potential of the space”—and listening to music and sounds around her—“The hum of the vacuum cleaner once turned into a song.” 

Her gift:

 I would love to give the world the gift of safety and security, real and perceived.

Gareth Phillips (a.k.a. January Zero), a singer/songwriter, recording artist, and poet, shared this slow-motion video of a Chinese spouting bowl being played—“I like most about this video that, well beyond its eye-candy value, it reveals the relationship between sound/vibratory waves and visual patterns.” 

His gift:

I would like to give everyone an hour of perceiving the world from a completely different viewpoint. I’m not thinking of the perspective of a different subculture or religion or ethnicity or gender, although those would work well too. I’m actually imagining if everyone could see the world through the eyes of a bird or butterfly, which can see color in the ultraviolet spectrum, or from the angle of an animal (or person) who uses echolocation, like bats and dolphins. If we could smell fear or happiness, for example, as bees and dogs are said to be able to do, how might our experience of aggression and kindness shift?

JW Kennedy, who creates cartoons and music, shared this inspiration: “Red Letter Media does a YouTube series called “Best of the Worst” where they watch really bad movies and critique (but also enjoy) them”…reminding him that “a lot of earnest joy can result when someone has the nerve to put their creative project out there, even if it technically “isn’t any good.” It’s a great inspiration to GO FOR IT and be less critical of my own work.” 

His gift:

I’d love to make a video game based on ideas I’ve had for more than a decade .. and let everybody play it for free.

A music teacher wrote that she was inspired “when a student plays something really well and I see their little smile to themselves that they got it. That inspires me. C played a whole song by ear on mandolin by himself and looked up at me and smiled.” 

Her gift:

I would give the whole world a northern lights display or shut off cell service for 24 hours so people will look around.

Anne, a writer, musician, photographer, coach, and editor, lately has been reading numerous mystery novels—“the comparisons and contrasts are super inspiring.” She has also gotten “intuitive hits for details of a writing project I’m finishing, and I’m so grateful.” 

Her gift:

 I’d organize young girls to learn to write about what’s on their minds. If they learn to trust their own thoughts and ideas before they hit puberty, I feel there is hope for them to become independent women who make up their own minds.

A painter, teacher, musician recently watched the end of the movie Lucas, she saidIf this doesn’t move you, you need malox: The locusts won’t be coming back for 17 years, I wonder where we’ll be then.” 

Her gift:

 If I could give the world a present today, it would be a work of art on the magnitude of Norman Rockwell…..when you look at it, it will inspire peace within.

Gene Beverly, a writer, woodworker, and general creative, was inspired by this quote from Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island:No matter how ruined man and his world may seem to be, and no matter how terrible man’s despair may become, as long as he continues to be a man his very humanity continues to tell him that life has a meaning.”

His gift:

Tolerance and love. I believe we are all connected with one another and whatever we do or say will in some way affect the rest of creation, be it ever so small.

Carolyn O’Neal, a fiction/nonfiction writer and beekeeper, was inspired by Elizabeth Warren at the debates—Brilliant, caring, and articulate, she captured everything I want to follow in a leader. Plus she loves dogs.” 

Her gift:

 I’d like to restore the oceans to their pre-industrial age health. Before whaling, before drilling, before plastics. I wouldn’t want to turn back the clock on anything else. Not on food or transportation or plumbing, and certainly not on health care. Just save the oceans.

Jeannie Beverly, whose creative fields include painting, photography, calligraphy, and writing, was inspired by the most recent film version of Little Women—“seeing the movie made me realize I have always identified with “Jo,” who is the writer. For the first time, I think that has always made me think I might write.” 

Her gift:

The will and the dedication to save our planet. A greater consciousness of the beauty and variety around us all the time and how terrible it is to destroy it.

Writer, Darrell Laurant, is inspired by the organization “Better Angels” that teaches people “to listen to and communicate with others with whom they disagree. This change in attitude is badly needed, and the existence of a group like this inspired me.” 

His gift:

The ability to see every other person on the planet as an individual, and communicate with him/her on that level without pre-conceptions or stereotypes.

David, a mixed media artist, writer, and idea generator, has been inspired by the return of the sun after rain, a recent excursion to natural settings on the outskirts of VCU in Richmond, and reading Howl’s Moving Castle“I recommend it for those looking to return to what it felt like having childlike fantasies.”

His gift:

Does it have to physical? If so, I’d say food. A different meal for each persons needs. I believe food is a powerful tool for just about every need. If I can get a bit more magical… I’d like to send out an aura of calm energy and let the whole world just breathe and be ok together for a little while.

Bonnie, whose creative genres include gardening, landscaping, music, and conversation, was inspired by a Kombucha workshop. She found it “fascinating and yucky at the same time! Who would’ve thought that this would’ve been a delicious drink?” 

Her gift:

 Unplug, go outside, enjoy the day and each other.

Steve, a brilliant, subtle thinker, who “composes (prose) for an audience of one,” has been intrigued by the activity of squirrels and crows he has observed on his bike commute to work—“All the squirrels look alike to me, but I don’t understand their furtive movements, I don’t know what they do when it snows, I don’t know where they live since I see so few nests in the trees. I don’t even remember what their nests are called.

And crows are more interesting than that. 

His gift:

Poverty relief is always a reasonable answer. Otherwise, an antidote.

If you’d like to participate, share your answers in the comments below.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group.

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The Release of High Tide

high tide1 (2)

 

It’s here, now—the novel our friend worked on throughout her adult life. High Tide, by Andrea Fisher Rowland, is complete and beautiful. With her gone, High Tide is what we have left to hold in our hands—a little world of ideas, a collection of words born from her preoccupations and worries and loves and time. While she raised a son and taught school and graded papers and built a life, Andrea also wrote a novel and poetry around the edges of her life. In her last years, even in her last hours, she returned to these writings with hope.

Any writer knows that these are the moments to fantasize about: feeling the weight of your book in your hand, flipping through pages bound together in their final order, running a hand over a smooth, beautiful cover. From that first, hopeful, audacious moment that we set a pen to page, we dream of seeing copies of our book on a shelf in a real bookstore. Through the careful, devoted efforts and expertise of Dorene Fisher and Anne M Carley, Andrea’s dream of having High Tide published has been realized.

Members of BACCA and other writers that Andrea knew gave this novel their time too. Sharing work for critique a little at a time over months or years is an exercise in patience and mind-stretching understanding—for the writer and the reader. Scrutinizing parts of a larger work so closely, while trying to hold the whole of it in our minds over time is slippery business. I read High Tide both ways—piece by piece over months and months and all at once in a few days. After revisiting it, I found that as familiar as it felt, I had hardly known the novel at all. It was like trying to recognize something at a distance that I’d only been viewing under a magnifying glass. Before, I’d missed some of the novel’s dreamy energy, its pull, its soft momentum.

Experiencing it in its entirety, some of us have realized that High Tide isn’t so easy to categorize. Not just a drama or a thriller or a mystery, it borrows elements from these genres, while pressing questions about human impact on the natural world and the repercussions of our fraught relationship with the environment.

High Tide might be best described using words we know from other forms: art, music, and poetry. I think of a tapestry as I follow dynamics between characters, or sort out the interplay between the personal and universal. The voicing is fugal—as the point of view of one character rises and falls, the perspective of another character takes a turn, first doubling and amplifying themes, then diverting focus and introducing new ideas and emotions. In tone, the novel is often elegiac, as characters face moments of growth, love (in all forms), and death or loss. Whatever we name it, however we describe this book, it is best to be experienced—the fulfillment of Andrea’s dream and part of her legacy, a gift from her to us.

andrea (2)While it’s dangerous and lazy to assume that any poem or work of fiction is autobiographical, I can’t deny that writers leave a part of themselves in their work. Without assuming too much, we can still expect to meet Andrea here as we read, to find a trace of her wandering in these pages. For those of us who miss her, this is a comforting thought.

On Saturday, December 7th, we will celebrate the release of High Tide and the life of Andrea Fisher Rowland at Baine’s Books & Coffee, in Scottsville. Friends of Andrea, if you’d like to hold High Tide in your hands and meet the forces that made the publication of this novel possible (Dorene Fisher and Anne M Carley), join us in Scottsville between 10:00 am and noon.

(Baine’s Books & Coffee, 485 Valley St, Scottsville, VA 24590)

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.

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BACCA Writers

Required Reading, Part One

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I’ve started a list of books that I consider “required reading”—not books that were forced on me, or titles that I would force on anyone else, but books that made me, the stories out of which I seem to be built.

Like most human beings, I resist when I’m told to read something and I don’t linger long in the company of those who enjoy shaming others for what they haven’t read yet. Anyone who really loves reading knows that there are too many wonderful books to read in one lifetime—you have to choose. So, while I don’t like bossy imperatives, or veiled humiliation techniques, I do love to see lists of things that have inspired others. I’ve started my own list with one of the first books that really mattered to me: The Once and Future King, by T. H. White.

I’ve heard that if you want a clue for what to do with your life, a vocation to pursue, you should look back at the things you loved to do as a kid. Buried in the play of childhood you’ll find the rewarding work of adulthood. When I was young, I became fascinated with King Arthur, and I began reading versions of the Arthurian legends and comparing them—letting the versions sink into me, letting the differences and irreducible truths permeate. I took that story in from every angle—devoted myself to it.

I could have started with Tennyson or Malory, but I began with T. H. White. The Once and Future King became the standard bearer for me and one of the building blocks of my understanding, one of the contributing factors of my emotional range. For years, if asked, I called it my favorite book. After I had studied literature for awhile, I decided that I should read it again, to see if it still had something to give, somewhere else to take me. I found that it had weathered very well.

Beyond the legend, beyond the story itself, which manages to hold up under all this re-visitation, here are just a few reasons why I love this book:

The Once and Future King starts with a children’s book. The Sword in the Stone (Book I) is a lovely book about humility, deep friendship, loyalty, forgiveness, and learning to see the world from the perspectives of others. It introduces us to Arthur before he’s a king, when he is just “the Wart.” Growing up with the protagonist, as Harry Potter fans can attest, is a powerful way to get to know a character. For the curious, there are versions of The Sword in the Stone, too—subtle variations between the stand-alone title marketed separately for kids, and the one included in the complete novel, which some critics say is darker, influenced by the horrors of World War II.

Also, one of the characters moves backwards through time, growing younger while others age. This formal choice is how White gets away with his use of anachronisms, and the 20th century social and political commentary sprinkled throughout the book. Another tiny, perfect reward that this device offers is a moment that I didn’t catch my first time through. Near the beginning, two of the characters meet—for one character, it is an introduction, the origin of what will be an important relationship, for the other (who experiences time backwards), that meeting is the very last time he will lay eyes on a beloved friend. This little heartbreak, nestled into the opening pages, disappeared the first time I read it. I could only fully feel it—as devastating as a tragic ending—after I knew what the characters would mean to each other, on my second read through.

oafk2And, I have White to thank for manticore, bodkin, escutcheon, greaves, angelica, featherfew, varvels, jesses, guidons, vergescu, fewmets, menee, hurdy-gurdy, foin, gelid, limner, ricks, rusks, purlieus, slee, souterrain, and widgeon. This is just a sampling of the rich vocabulary from The Once and Future King, a brief catalog of terms you might learn from various categories, including falconry, jousting, armory, architecture, hunting, heraldry, and archery.

Finally, The Once and Future King is full of flawed characters and human truths. I consider it a brief, effective course in empathy. The pretty people in the story aren’t always good, and the “good” aren’t always very likable. Most Lancelots you will encounter are handsome, dashing, irresistible. White’s Lancelot, however, is homely, isolated, uncomfortably religious, and he feels bad about himself most of the time. The book also gives us despicable characters who get redeemed, and decent, well-meaning characters who land in terrible positions, often of their own making—sometimes through big, glaring mistakes, sometimes through a series of little, shuffling missteps that eventually lead nowhere good. Finding themselves in tragedy, or violence, or grief, they have to choose a best way forward, an honorable way to keep going and make things better.

Do you have a core of required texts? A list of books or stories or poems, without which you’d be someone else? Please share titles from your list in the comment section below.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.

 

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BACCA Writers

Creative Stalking

shreds

It has taken months and pages and ink and hope, but I think I’m closing in on the story that will be my second novel.

Elizabeth Gilbert reported that Tom Waits, in an interview for GQ, said every song has a distinct way of entering into the world: “He said there are songs that you have to sneak up on like you’re hunting for a rare bird, and there are songs that come fully intact like a dream taken through a straw.” I think stories are the same. We can’t expect them all to arrive in the same way, with the same grace and ease. We can’t expect the story or the muse to do all the work.

I’d love to think I’m sneaking up on this new story, stealthy in a stylish trench coat, but I think I’m looking more like a clumsy stalker at this point. It started about a year ago. I’d been playing with a thread, batting it around, seeing where it might lead. But unlike the idea for my first novel, ROOK, this thread was quite thin. I had a character and a setting. No plot. Not yet. So, I gave myself the task of getting to know that character. I did this by writing one page (600 words) every day for a month. By the end of January, I had a lovely stack of paper. I also knew more about my protagonist and secondary characters, as well as some juicy details about setting, and a few plot lines and themes. Not a bad start.

Then I put it away. For months. When November, 2018 approached, I decided I’d try my own, unofficial novel writing month. One page a day had been easy to achieve. But the goal for NoNoWriMo (Noelle’s Novel Writing Month) would be 50,000 words. If I hand-wrote three of those unlined pages, front and back, every day, at 600 words per sheet, I’d have 1800 words, which after 30 days, would get me to 54,000—well over my goal.

Regarding my choice to hand-write and type later, I figured it would give me freedom. I wouldn’t be constantly checking my word count, interrupting the flow of writing. Besides, certain ideas never bloom for me without the time that writing by hand affords. (Although some ideas, I’m sure, which could have been captured in a typing context, might slip the slow net of writing by hand.) I also decided that I would not look back and revise, or try to keep up with typing pages. I would just focus on the writing, which meant I had a big job ahead of me after November.

I’d read advice from NaNoWriMo veterans, who suggested completing an outline first—brilliant guidance for writers who start with plot. That was not my situation, but I still needed a map of some kind, even if it didn’t take me on a straight line. So, I compiled a list. Instead of plot points, I made a list of possible scenes, situations, questions, happenings, and images that could lead me into new territory. I came up with 80 of these and they sustained me for the entire month. One of the hardest things about writing 1800 words a day is—obviously—time. I didn’t suspend my life during the month of November, so I had no time to waste. It was incredibly valuable to have an evocative list to lean on—80 ways back in to the story.

How did it all turn out? Well. There were moments of enchantment, disenchantment, and uncertainty. Since I’d done no re-reading or revision, I really didn’t know if the whole business had been a bust or a coup. I still don’t.shards

I achieved some clarity along the way, though, and learned some good lessons:

  • November is a crazy time to try to write 50,000 words. Thanksgiving. Cooking. Cleaning. Planning. Family time. Travel time. Mind-fuzzing pie. After an extremely faithful start, I let a whole week of writing slide in the middle of the month. (Thanksgiving came early last year, if you remember.) I didn’t even try to write again until the pecan pie was gone.
  • It’s true what they say: nature abhors a vacuum. For fourteen days or so, I had fiercely protected my writing time, but once my vigilance slackened, so many obligations and pressures crept in, eroding the time, luring me away.
  • Resources are important. I’d planned ahead on the paper I needed, but by day 12, I’d run out of ink in all of my good pens. I fell back on borrowed/purloined BICs, which I also demolished. After the luxury of my Navigator G7 Gel Pen Deluxe, this little downgrade made the process much less enjoyable. In Harry Potter speak, it’s like going back to the Cleansweep after you’ve busted up your Firebolt. At least I had something to put on my Christmas wish list: ink refills.
  • Finally, November taught me just exactly how little time I had been carving out in my life for an actual writing process. Nothing feels as good as writing every day. Even after I got exhausted with the project, the daily writing practice felt essential and necessary. Why is it so hard to make space for this?

I’m revisiting those pages now, hoping to find a shape to this thing, to discover the edges and center. After all the distractions, I managed a strong finish, but while I had intended to write 90 pages, I ended up with 52. Ouch. I guess it’s not all about the word count. On the other side of NoNoWriMo, I have a few things to celebrate. I have material to work with. I haven’t lost my will to write.  And, after typing a few of those November pages, I realized that on those crazy, unlined sheets of paper, I was averaging significantly more than 600 words per page…

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.

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BACCA Writers

A Mind of One’s Own

The act of writing, getting words down, can feel like a fragile feat of magic—a meticulous balance of time, space, and solitude, and those even more unpredictable ingredients that comprise inspiration. If it sounds convoluted, sometimes it feels that way too.

A lot of writers form a ritual for this: a schedule, a place, and a set of tools or totems—some magic words—all of which, together, unlock the doors to their work. In contrast, there are the brilliant and prolific that purportedly produce with ease, like William Carlos Williams, who changed the landscape of modern American poetry while tending a thriving medical practice—whipping out poems on his typewriter between patients. Maybe there’s a middle way, something reasonable, something modest, perhaps along the lines of Virginia Woolf’s criteria for a good writing practice: a little money and a room of one’s own.

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The question of territory is critical—for the women writing in Woolf’s day and now. Carving out and claiming a space for thinking, for writing, for painting, can be a radical act, an audacious move, a declaration of independence. I find that it’s not just a question of taking ownership of rooms, but of guarding boundaries around selfhood too—body and mind.

More and more, the mind space is assaulted. Constantly steered by outside forces, shuffled into ever narrowing corridors of thought, directed to look this way or that, to feel this or that, I find it’s getting harder to know what really needs my attention, where my focus might truly do some good and where it merely feeds the frenzy.

If I want to write something of my own, I have to defend myself against the words that come in waves, entreating me to spend, own, or act; to hate, or to hate the other haters; to speak up, or to shut up; to get out there, or to get out of the way; to prepare for weather that is or isn’t coming; to declare my allegiance to the superficial; and to bow to the pretty packaging masking a destructive hidden agenda.

It helps to have a physical room of one’s own, but if I really want a safe space, I’ll need locks that work against these messages, as well as traps for ads, sound-proofing to keep out political rants and propaganda, and firewalls and Faraday cages to guard against texts, tweets, barbed comments, and non-news. I might as well build a moat.

Even if I could silence everything coming at me, what about the echoes in my own mind? If I retreat to my retreat, but carry all that noise with me, have I really gone anywhere? If I took someone else’s train of thought into my creative space, I’ve been for a ride, but have I traveled at all? Sometimes a room of one’s own isn’t enough. To find what’s real again, I might need to find a space beyond language, to visit what’s bigger than words, so that I can hear my own mind.

As someone who loves words and studies them, I could wonder why it feels essential to put them down, but sometimes we need a break from what we love. We need to be in the presence of beauty or wonder or power that can’t be shaped or limited by our methods of framing, our attempts to summarize and control. We seek out the ocean at times like this to let the roaring take over, we go to the mountains, the sanctuary, or we try to find a safe, warm spot to witness a storm.

In the presence of what’s bigger than our words, an energetic exchange happens, a settling of questions and of self-contrived debts. Finally, the gnawing stops, the faint pain of background angst that never crescendos enough to be dealt with by the conscious mind somehow gets resolved, handled completely by the beauty and by the wordlessness.

What am I preparing myself for in these moments? I want to be wiped clean, but for what? The ability to discern rightly again and become attuned, more sensitive still? From a stunned state, answers come—the truth about our most guarded wants and needs, about the unfit compromises we’ve made. Solutions to life problems and story problems rise up too—as if they were waiting for uncontested ground on which to emerge.

Maybe I want to hear the quietest sound more clearly. The other gift from this kind of time is the all-too-brief ability to interpret upon re-entry, to hear the clamor that one has acclimated to and to understand it for exactly what it is: noise. Maybe that noise has served as a distraction, diverting us away from what we might do, substituting its messages for ours. But maybe that noise has also done violence, shaping the world for us into its sharpest, most damaging version. If I want to recognize the difference, I need to recover the weight and value of words, to become a better instrument for measuring them. So that I can start again.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photo by the author.

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BACCA Writers

Finding yourself in new country

 

egg and book

It’s time to get serious about writing a second novel. Well past time.

I have been warned by other writers, and now I know it’s true: just because you’ve written one novel doesn’t mean the next one will be easy to write. Starting over is hard, especially at first. It’s much more comfortable to just keep tinkering—to keep honing and shaping that first world you have created.

It makes sense to finish before you start something new, but polishing for years, that’s a different story… a cautionary tale, in fact. In college, I remember hearing of a professor, who, after a brilliant start, frittered years of his career away rewriting that first book over and over, never declaring it finished. I can’t let this happen. I don’t want to wake up ten years from now and find I’ve written nothing new. Fortunately, a deadline looms. (I’ve learned to love deadlines in that way you love a person who tells you the truth, no matter how hard). In a few months time, the writers of BACCA will have finished reading what I’ve written. Soon, I’ll need to deliver something new.

I’ve known some artists and musicians that somehow always seem to have seven pots simmering on a four-burner stove, but that’s not me. I can only pour my full creative energies into one concoction at a time. I’m learning that both creative methods have merit and both have challenges. While idea wranglers never have to ask “what’s next?,” they might struggle with focus, follow through, and knowing where to begin. They might also have trouble ever finishing any one thing. Idea monogamists, on the other hand, might toil happily on and on, right up until they start to see that quiet dark at the end of the work, looming like the vast unknown of space. Then, watch us as we cling, lingering over what’s left to do.

Some compare the creative process to giving birth, but for me it’s more like allowing myself to be born into something new, reincarnating, or dropping myself into unknown territory. Leaving the comforts and familiar details of my first novel to explore something foreign feels a little like leaving a city I’ve loved and moving into a place that hasn’t made space for me yet.

I’ve packed up and moved over a dozen times: across towns, across states and across the short side of the country more than once. Allowing one’s self to be a stranger in a strange land is difficult medicine, a conditioning of a certain kind. My great-grandmother used to say—three moves equal a [house] fire, and I’ve puzzled over this bit of wisdom. I assume she was calculating losses: items broken, misplaced, or left behind. Before bubble wrap and packing tape, the potential for breakage during a move must have been great, and the consequences severe. Before moving vans, whatever possessions didn’t fit in the truck probably had to be given away. Perhaps it felt better to some people to just stay put.

After changing my scenery so many times, I’ve learned to pack well—things rarely break, and if I give stuff away, or leave it behind, I’m usually glad. Still, there are losses, intangible ones, that somehow always get left out of the equation: familiarity, job connections, roots, the ease of well-known routes and roads, and those casual, comfortable acquaintance-ships that make life feel just a little warmer and more welcoming. When determining what I’m leaving behind, I always forget to factor in the barista, who starts making my drink before I order, the neighbor across the street who always waves, or the cheese monger that I worked with once, who’s going to lead me straight to the wedge of triple-creme brie, which has just been freshly cut, but not a second before it had ripened. And none of this begins to cover the long-distance tax placed on real friendships, which inevitably erodes all but the strongest of connections. On the other side of a move, these losses don’t seem so intangible after all. Knowing and being known, being remembered—these are powerful elixirs that bolster hope, purpose, and connection.

 

Gifts come, too, from learning how to move: resilience, humility (being the new girl over and over is tough), map-reading skills, perspective, and, very often, some good stories.

After so many transitions, I should be an expert by now, and I do have some of it down: packing and lifting, finding a great space, and setting it up quickly. Learning how to feel at home, though, and knowing how to let go of what I’ve had to leave behind without a long mourning period—these challenges are sticky every time.

It shouldn’t surprise me, then, that instead of mapping out the unknown territory of a new novel, I’ve been hanging out in the first one—revisiting all my favorite spots one more time. I’m already nostalgic, even though I know that every book is a world that can be returned to over and over again.

For the second novel, I’m searching for an un-erodable center around which the rest can accumulate, manifest—a character, a plot, an image—that will not wear out. Something essential will come, something elemental from which I can forge more. While keeping an ear open for the call of the muse, I also find it helps to hang out often by the sacred pools where they congregate, so I’m writing every day. That way, wherever I wander, I’m never a stranger to the page.

It’s time, now. It’s time to get brave, to find myself in a new country, to learn the unfamiliar faces, and to memorize the names.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a new member of the BACCA Literary group. Photo by the author.