American Folk

Discovering new music is always an interesting journey -most of the time a new band is uncovered in relation to an artist that is already familiar (thank you Pandora), but sometimes the discoveries come out of left field like a glow in the dark lawn dart late at night. The latter best describes how I came across American folk musician Amber Rubarth, but I am getting ahead of myself.

A backwards story: hardware to music

Short of watching KEXP videos on YouTube, I typically rely heavily on Pandora and friends to discover new artists and genres of music. However, sometime around March of this year, getting an itch to upgrade my existing stereo system, I started researching speakers and the many sundry other things required to build a 2-channel system from the ground up. Now almost 4 months later I still do not have a stereo, but do have a much broader exposure, for better or worse, to the niche world of people who call themselves “audiophiles” (An audiophile is a person who is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction). My research began purely to try and understand hardware related things like speakers, amps, etc -but one of the fun parts of this endeavor actually ended up becoming learning about the music used by these said “audiophiles” to evaluate the systems they were reviewing. I do not remember where I first saw Amber Rubarth mentioned, but I know it was one of Steve Guttenburg’s many videos, where he talked quite a bit about the amazing sound of her Chesky recorded albums. Chesky is a label based out of New York City, known for their uncompressed, live recordings which are often done in churches and other venues with naturally good acoustics. They also use binaural microphones for the recordings to simulate the way the human ear receives sound, giving the recordings a very natural signature and also making them pretty epic for headphone listening. After falling down the rabbit hole of research, I decided to see what Chesky and Amber’s albums sounded like.

Folk music is not foreign genre to me, there have been times when the Avett Brothers or Lumineers would cycle through my listening sessions, but it was never a staple. That being said, I have quite enjoyed the sound of Amber Rubarth’s music -acoustic with a heavy reliance on guitar and stringed instruments for many of the arrangements. The Chesky recorded albums “Sessions from the 17th Ward” and “Scribbled Folk Symphonies” both have a very real sound to them -with the instruments and vocals being reproduced with a sense of real presence in a room. If you enjoy folk music, or like bands in similar genres, then Amber Rubarth’s albums mentioned above are definitely worth checking out -relaxing to listen too with a beautiful sound. She has made many more albums than just the ones listed above; however, I tend to re-listen to the same basic pieces over and over and over and over after discovering something I like -so I cannot comment on her other discography since I haven’t actually listened to it yet.

Strive
Just Like a Woman
Ball and Chain
You Got Through

An Interview with Arrietty (#2 in a TMW Interview Series)

The weekend is here and that means it is time for another writer’s interview here on TMW. In case you missed the memo last week -for four consecutive Fridays TMW will be posting a new interview with each of the contributors here on the blog (scroll down a couple posts to see last Friday’s entry). This week’s interview is with Arrietty -ENJOY!!

Interview

  1. When you were younger, what motivated you to write?

My early writings were primarily poetry, and my two main sources of inspiration were my cat and rain.  I would say my general writing motivation was sharing things I thought were interesting that I learned about in books or school.  Poetry was a niche all to itself in my early writing life, and my motivation to write poems was trying to craft something beautiful that expressed what I felt about the people, animals, and nature around me.  And I also loved to make my poems rhyme, no matter how nonsensical it made the result, so rhyming was perhaps another motivation.

  1. In the beginning, what types of things did you enjoy writing the most?

Poetry was my favorite type of writing and in some ways still is, although I also really enjoy reviewing books and writing literary essays.  I wanted to write stories, but they were always a lot harder for me, so I generally found poetry more fun.

  1. Now that you have been writing for several years, how have those initial motivations to put pen to paper matured and changed?

Well, I don’t just write to rhyme anymore.  I have also developed a passion for nonfiction genres, from essays to reviews to personal reflections.  Fundamentally, my motivations to write have remained what they were when I was little: 1) writing to share information I find interesting and 2) trying to make beauty with words.  However, my subject matter and inspirations have broadened and matured.  I would say that a new, more mature motivation is my desire to help people through my writing.  I think that developed a lot because of my work as a university English tutor.  Sharing my knowledge about English and grammar and helping students improve their writing turned out to be a lot of fun.

  1. How have the types of things you write changed as you have grown more adept in your capabilities?

As I’ve grown more confident, I have tried to expand the topics I write about and push my comfort zone by trying different genres.  My work has become more focused on writing advice as I have grown more adept in my writing capabilities.  I have also learned to be more flexible about how I write.  I try to be more informal in some of my writing and create a more personable voice, even though third person is my de facto setting.

  1. Do you feel that worldview makes a difference in the approach an author takes to their writing?

Yes, I think worldview shapes every aspect of life, including an author’s writing.  What we think about and write about, how we think and write, our perceptions of other people and ourselves, and the topics and messages we choose to write about all stem from our view of the world and where our hearts lie.

  • Why do you think this way?

I think worldview influences an author’s approach to writing because worldview affects people at their core, and writing very often comes from the core of who we are—or at least aspects of writing do.  The way we see the world will shape how we portray it for others and our motives for writing in the first place.

  • If yes, how has your worldview shaped your approach to the craft?

As a Christian, I aim to bring glory to the Lord by showing the beauty of creation through my poetry, the image of God in my stories about people, the truth that God defines in my essays and devotional pieces, and the wonderful, God-given intricacy and loveliness of language both through my writing itself and in my essays and reflections about language.  To take a page out of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I seek to “[r]ejoice in the Lord always” and cause others to do so too (4:4).  I also desire to bring to the forefront and cause others to think on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable,” for as Paul tells Christians, “[I]f there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

All around us, but especially on blogs and other rabbit holes on the Internet, I see so much negativity, criticism, and plain meanness.  I rarely read comments but once got carried away scrolling through 200+ comments on a blog post because they were such nice, touching, uplifting notes.  It all felt a little too good to be true, and sure enough, by around the 150th comment, everything fell apart and people started giving know-it-all advice and then retaliating and name-calling.  I had to laugh a little because I needed this dose of reality, this sharp but sad reminder that sin can permeate even the “nice” things in life (for some reason, “nice” makes me think of that song from Into the Woods; what does that say about my worldview?).

While I cannot erase the blot of sin and should certainly not try to pretend it doesn’t exist, I think it’s important to fight darkness with beauty, light, and truth.  Helping readers grow as writers, sharing information that might be useful, focusing on the beauty that surrounds us even during challenges and sorrows, and bringing joy or laughter to others are a large part of what drive me to write.

  1. In your opinion, are there personal benefits to practicing writing beyond just exercising your creative outlet (let’s ignore writing for financially motivated reasons)?

Of course!  I think practicing writing has quite a few benefits.  For me personally, exercising my writing skills helps me clarify my thoughts and forces me to learn more about subjects that interest me so I can share more about them.  Writing opens up new horizons and lets us explore where our imaginations can take us, and if we never practiced, we would never go anywhere.  Few people accomplish anything great without practice, and I think that’s true for writing as well.  We need the trial and error, the writing muscle stretches and pain that come with regular practice if we are going to reap the rewards of sharing our ideas effectively or reaching our readers.

  1. You like to write poetry -what would be some advice you have for those interested in learning how to write poems of their own?

First, write about something you know well or that interests you.  Don’t just choose a topic because it seems poetic.  Also, you don’t have to always use a scorched earth strategy.  Some topics deserve to be poeticized countless times, like rain.

Second, do your research, whether it’s observing a bird or discovering what material the Statue of Liberty is made of and the fact that the green stuff that appears when copper oxidizes is called “verdigris.”

Third, focus on rhythm and strong word choices before you try to rhyme.  The former are usually much more important to good poetry than the latter.

  1. What poems would be in your top five of all time, and what do you find makes them particularly impactful/enjoyable/appealing?

That’s a really hard question.  I’m not overfond of superlatives, but I’ll give you five of my top poems (not necessarily the top five).

“I Never Saw a Moor” by Emily Dickinson.  I love Dickinson’s simplicity.  She captures in this tiny poem the essence of imagination and faith and the worlds waiting to be explored within the covers of a book.

“My Kate” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  This may seem like an odd choice.  Probably literary critics would call it old-fashioned or accuse Browning of supporting the Victorian patriarchal ideal for women, but “My Kate” has always touched me with its sincerity.  This tribute reminds me of people I know who do good for others in little, invaluable ways that leave an indelible mark and a hole in life that can’t be filled after they’re gone.  At its core, this poem feels to me like a tribute to ordinary people who change the world in their own important way.

“Daddy Fell into the Pond” by Alfred Noyes.  I’ve loved this poem since the first time I heard it.  It reminds me of my family and tells such a clear, funny story that makes me feel like I’m there.  I also have fond memories of this poem because I once used it in a Father’s Day card and had the best time pasting clipart raindrops all over the cover of the card.  Daddy probably didn’t appreciate the card all that much, but the poem was about a daddy, so I felt that it was appropriate at least in its main character, if not in its tone or general details.

“The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy is beautiful.  I love the picture of a tiny bird seeing joy and hope in a world that is dark to man’s eyes.  This thrush and its uncowed cheerfulness remind me of the Carolina wrens I enjoy watching.  God’s creatures are often wiser than we are.  Hardy’s religious beliefs are a matter of debate and he seemed to struggle with Christian ideas throughout his life.  But this poem is a reminder that even broken men can reflect God in their work, if perhaps unintentionally.  Hardy shows how he struggled with darkness and longed for a hope that a bird could see but he could not.  While this poem expresses the author’s doubt and struggles, it also reflects the beautiful Hope that really does exist and should elicit joy from our hearts as well as from little songbirds.

“Opportunity” by Edward R. Sill.  This is a very rousing poem and tells a story that rings with knightly romance.  My favorite part, though, is the theme about not making excuses but using that which is given to fight for a cause, even if winning seems hopeless.  Kind of reminds me of Gandalf’s advice to Frodo in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring: “‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.  ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”  When given an opportunity, even if it’s not the gleaming sword or the grand adventure we might have wished for, the real test of who we are is what we do with it.

  1. Who is your favorite contemporary author, and why?

If by contemporary, you mean someone who’s still alive and writing, I think N. D. Wilson is the winner.  His books are fun adventure stories, and I love his quirky writing style and creative twists on fantasy worlds in The 100 Cupboards series and The Ashtown Burials.  I think what makes his crazy stories feel real is that he draws on his own experiences as the initial inspiration for his settings, characters, and adventures.  This especially comes through in Leepike Ridge and Boys of Blur.

Some authors who are close contenders in their own way would be J. B. Cheaney, Brandon Sanderson, Gail Carson Levine, Robin McKinley, and Gary D. Schmidt, but none of the authors have quite the consistent pizzazz of Wilson, and I also don’t think they influenced my writing or literary tastes quite as much.  If Lloyd Alexander were still alive, he would rank up there too.

  1. What are you reading currently?

Glad you caught me on a good day!  My reading list varies quite a bit and might give people a weird impression of my taste in books if I were to answer this question on another day.  I’m currently listening to Howards End by E. M. Forster and reading Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber, Building a Storybrand by Donald Miller, and How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.

  1. What does your continued pursuit of this craft look like going forward? Do you have any specific long-term goals or aspirations?

I want to write more stories and fiction in general.  One of my goals is to try my hand at new genres, gain more mastery over dialogue and character development, and build larger story arcs.  Mystery, romance, adventure, and fantasy are all genres that I want to explore, but we’ll see how brave I am.  For a more short-term goal, there’s a story sitting in my drawer that is covered in crossed-out sections and handwritten notes and is patiently awaiting an ending.  Another of my goals is to write a long poem.  Perhaps not an epic poem, but something with a larger narrative than my usual ones.  With my poetry and my fiction prose, I feel like I am more of a sprinter and need to train to become a long-distance writer.

Probably my biggest aspiration is to create a story and world that I believe in and feel is so real I can step into it and look around and just write about what I observe happening in it.  I’m discovering that being a writer takes a lot of believing, imagining, and suspending one’s disbelief.  And at least a pinch of something magical.

An Interview with Catdust (#1 in a TMW Interview Series)

Normally, we TMWers are all about the solitary writing life.  But we’ve decided to try something new and collaborate a little.  Every Friday this month, we’re planning to share a series of special posts where we take turns interviewing each other about our literary and writing lives.  This week, Arrietty is interviewing Catdust.  (Aka, Catdust is this week’s victim, sacrifice, whatchamacallit…and I didn’t know how to spell that until just now.)

As I suspect is usual in these cases, I posed questions that I wanted answers to, but that I know I would struggle to answer if asked.  I hope you enjoy Catdust’s insightful responses.

The Interview

A: What’s your writing muse?  What animal, setting, object, or person inspires you in your writing or often becomes part of your work?
C: Most often, my muse(s) are the people I’m surrounded by, and occasionally events I attend. I’ve written pieces inspired by my family members (“‘’Coon”), college roommates (“How to Get the Guinea Pig”), middle schoolers I was teaching (“Required Statements”), and boyfriend (“Lilies in Water”).

Of course, though “The Wedding Ballad of Lottie and Paul” was based on a real wedding I attended, the evening didn’t end quite so dramatically.

A: What has been the hardest genre to write in?
C: Oddly enough, I’m going to go with “fiction,” broadly. I write a lot of it, but it never ceases being hard. Making dialogue sound natural, and trying to actually write the nuances of tone and gesture is can be a very frustrating endeavor.

Also, to be honest, I have little patience for writing descriptions of things, or places, or appearances – a rather essential aspect of most writing, I know. I’m an admirer of short, powerful descriptions, and live in holy fear of writing unnecessarily flowery or detailed passages, and have yet to master the happy medium to my own satisfaction.

A: If you could have a writing superpower, what would it be?
C: I would love the ability to recreate my witty and dramatic phrasing exactly as it sounded in my head when I was taking a shower (or otherwise unable to write). All inspiration seems to flee as soon as I touch a keyboard.

A: Who were three of your favorite childhood authors?  Why?

  • Gail Carson Levine. She wrote children’s and young adult fantasy novels. While I of course adored the magical settings, fairy tale trappings, and romance, I also appreciated the strong female leads that appeared in most of her books. I use that phrase, “strong female lead,” very unironically. It was their personalities that made them strong – their cleverness, their kindness, their bravery, their “moral fiber,” to use an old-fashioned expression. For reasons beyond the scope of this discussion, I consider her novel Ella Enchanted to be, well, one of the “most bestest” books ever.
  • E.L. Konigsburg. While much of my reading as a young lass rarely varied from the fantasy genre, E.L. Konigsburg could get me to stray off that beaten path. She didn’t write fantasy; she wrote realism, but her novels were fantastic studies of character. The Second Mrs. Giaconda might be the best of them.
  • Lloyd Alexander. Though most known (in some circles) for his Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander was quite a prolific author, writing several other series and numerous standalone novels. They can be light, humorous works, or deeper, darker stories, but each one has sparkling characters, unique settings, and involving plots. His Westmark trilogy (Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen) is supremely underrated, in my opinion.

A: Have you ever read a book based on its cover?  If so, did the book live up to your expectations, or did you become a firm believer in the proverb “don’t judge a book by its cover?”
C: Sometime in my early childhood, I remember being chauffeured around the children’s section of Barnes & Noble, and seeing a cover which intrigued me. It was green, and brown, and gold, and there was a girl holding a sword and facing a grisly dragon – I was looking at the c. 2000 paperback edition of The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley. Right up my alley, or at least, it would be several years later once I requested it from the library. It’s now one of my favorite books.

I like to think I’m a pretty good, if harsh, judge of covers – at least, I can’t think of any time my harsh judgement has steered me too terribly astray. Now, as for all the books that I might have liked, but misjudged, well, let’s not talk about those.

A: What are three pieces of advice you would give other writers based on your personal experience?
C: Don’t get too attached to your writing. Sure, sometimes you write something that you know is good, and other people think so too. But much of the time, people will tell you how much they loved some piddly piece of writing you did, while heaping no praise on that other work you thought was much better.

Don’t wait until the last few hours before a deadline to write something. You may occasionally produce something truly inspired, but more often than not the result will be mediocre and you will not be happy. Please note that I rarely listen to this advice.

Do embrace the potential of “word vomit.” Sometimes just writing something, anything, however horrible it is, is all you need to get those creative gears turning.

A: Is there a writing genre you’ve never tried but always wanted to?
C: Mystery. I admire a well-crafted, suspenseful story, but whenever I’ve brushed the edges of this genre, I’m never satisfied with the outcome – my prose sounds dumb and my clues too obvious. Thus, I’ve avoided writing a full-blown mystery or detective story.

I have a similar problem with romance and horror, but slightly less of a desire to write either.

A: What intimidates you when you’re preparing to write a new project?
C: Having to write “the middle.”

Let me explain: I know how I want the story to start, approximately, and I know how I want the story to end. To be honest, I often have the ending fully-formed. But, in order to get from the beginning to the ending, and to make that ending meaningful, you must slog through the middle, the details of how you got from Point A to Point B…and there’s all that description you have to write. It just takes such a long time to physically write…

…I’m not sure I would have lasted as a writer prior to the invention of the keyboard.

A: What are five books that have really influenced you as a writer?
C: “Influenced” may be too flattering of a word; it may be more like “inspired,” and may not be a good thing. Please also note that this is a slightly different list than “Books that have Influenced Me as a Person,” although there is some overlap.

  • 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson. The first novel in a trilogy is fantastical in its plot, economical in its story beats, and walks that line of quirky yet realistic dialogue.
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Absolutely some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read, and not because it’s super flowery or anything like that. Beagle’s command of strategically selected and placed adjectives results in exactly the sort of descriptions I wish I could write, and creates a story that, though other times amusing and other times strange, is ultimately heartrending.
  • Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley. This one takes (even more) explaining. Each of Robin McKinley’s books has influenced my writing in some way. I can point to each one and say, oh, this one taught me this, and that one taught me that. And Spindle’s End is actually not my favorite of her books, by a long shot. However, McKinley does always have a tendency to write prose with a lot of parentheticals, meandering sidebars, punctuation-on-top-of-punctuations-and-hyphens-too, and seemingly random tangents for the sake of tangents. It’s less pronounced in her earlier works, but she is in rare form in this novel, which taught me that you can have that many parentheses and that much wandering prose and still be a popular, published author. Thus, I’m including this particular novel on the list to make the point that not all influences are good influences.
  • Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris. I think this might have been one of the first real novels I ever read. It’s a fairytale, a comedy, a romance, and introduced me to the idea of really messing with those ol’ fairytale tropes.
  • Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. This is a semi-autobiographical novel, not a fantasy story, and I draw upon its sense of comedy every time I write any humorous story about my own life or family.

A: If you could assume the writing voice of an author and write a sequel to a book or series, what book/series would you choose, and why?
C: I’m going to go with my gut reaction on this one, even though I know better. I would assume the writing voice of Dodie Smith and write a sequel to I Capture the Castle. It’s a nearly perfect book, structurally, and really needs no sequel. “It really does end precisely as it should,” I tell myself. And yet…the ending made me so sad. Not because anyone died or some overwrought drama occurred; it’s actually a more light, humorous book. But the truly human emotions present in that bitter, bittersweet final chapter make me want something more every time, even if it is against my better judgement.


Stay tuned for next week’s interview!

Header image: Created by Arrietty

Fun Spanish Etymologies

One of my favorite parts of studying other languages is finding connections in the meanings and etymologies of different words.  When asked what languages have influenced English, the top responses would likely be German, French, and Latin.  Most people wouldn’t think to include Spanish in this list.  While its linguistic influence is smaller than that of the other languages listed, Spanish is a crucial part of English vocabulary.

A common example of the influence of Spanish in American vocabulary is evident in the terms Americans use for items and activities associated with cowboys and the West.  For instance, corralrodeo, canyon (cañon), buckaroo (vaquero), bonanza, and lariat are all Spanish loan words or derivations.  Words like tobacco, cigar (cigaro), hurricane (huracán), barbecue (barbacoa), and potato (patata) all come from Spanish and are generally terms derived from Latin American indigenous languages.  Now, though, these are everyday words in English, used around the world.

Today, I wanted to share the etymology and linguistic connections of five Spanish words.  Several of the connections are ones I learned through my Spanish classes, but I’ve also researched the etymologies of a couple of the words on my own because I was curious about them.

parasol paintingParasol: This is the Spanish word for sunshade and is a combination of para from the verb parar, which means “to stop,” and sol, which is the word for sun.  Thus, this word literally means “stop-sun.”

Paraguas: This word means umbrella in Spanish and is a combination of par and aguas, literally meaning “stop-waters.”

Jubilarse: I have always been fond of the Spanish word for to retire.  Retirement from a job should be a joyful occasion, and this beautiful Spanish derivative of the Latin word for rejoice perfectly expresses this feeling.

Desayuno: Like in English, the Spanish word for the first meal of the day literally means to break one’s fast.  Des– means to stop doing something and ayuno is the Spanish word for fast, so this word literally means “not-fast.”

Mayonesa: The word we know as mayonnaise has unclear origins, according to articles on the Internet.  But one of my Spanish professors said that mayonnaise was invented on the island of Minorca when there was a shortage of butter and an excess of eggs and that the name comes from the city of Mahón.  Mayonnaise is just a French version of this Spanish word that was introduced into the English language.

Painting credits: The Herd Quitter by C.M. Russell and Morning Walk by John Singer Sargent

 

 

 

 

 

When the Wind Blows

“What’s the use of worrying? It never was worthwhile. So, Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag -And smile, smile, smile.”

Jim Bloggs singing to his wife Hilda

The Berlin Wall fell 31 years ago—the conclusion to a long and brutal struggle. It marked the end of an conflict that twisted the world for 42 years—dominating public policy, spending, and aggression, all the while casting the shadow of nuclear proliferation across the entire globe. Now, in all honesty, I had to look up when the Cold War started, and more significantly, when the Berlin Wall fell—and while there may be many out there who do know these dates, I would venture a guess that my experience is probably more normative than any historian would be happy with; but, for my own generation, and probably well before me, the Cold War is a fixed piece of history—not personal, but a story we read in a history book. It is equivalent to reading about the symptoms of cancer from a textbook, as opposed to having that personal relationship with a loved one or friend fighting for their life. One is impersonal/dispassionate, the other incredibly emotionally charged. It almost feels experientially as if the purported words of a top world leader of the mid-twentieth century ring true: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.”

Raymond Briggs, a British author and illustrator, is most famous for his children’s books, such as The Snowman. However, despite rising to fame related to his works for children, in 1982 he published the adult graphic novel When the Wind Blows. This novel stands in a unique place for fiction -humanizing an era that is often relegated to clinical analysis and anti-Vietnam diatribes. Set during the Cold War, the novel follows Jim and Hilda Bloggs, an elderly couple living in England. They have a single son, residing in the city, but are otherwise unattached and enjoying the retired life. Life is normal, that is until the USSR launches a nuclear assault on the West, spiraling England, and the Bloggs, into an apocalyptic unknown. Now, When the Wind Blows is unquestionably a critique of the effects of nuclear escalation and government bungling, but not in an angry or overly political way. Unlike the majority of media put out during the Cold War decades which relied on anger and fear as the primary emotions to drive change (give Black Sabbath’s classic song “War Pigs” a listen sometime), Briggs relies on pure, everyday, normal, humanity to drive his point home. As Jim and Hilda navigate a post-fallout reality, the reader is shown the little ways that they care for one another, fuss over each other, and love one another, even as the world around them is crumbling. Raymond’s time as a children’s illustrator really shines on these pages, combining his simple and pure illustrations with the broken and sobering subject-matter gives the panels an emotionally haunting quality that is unique and powerful.

When the Wind Blows is not a ‘happy’ story; in fact, it is the most beautifully tragic graphic novel I have ever read. Raymond did his homework whenever writing the 40 some-odd pages the story spans, and his depictions of such things as disaster preparedness, radiation sickness, and deprivation are eerily accurate and emotionally haunting when painted in his unique art style. However, the most impactful aspects of the story are easily the main protagonists Jim and Hilda: their interactions, and gentle, loving, ‘normalness’. Tragedy and destruction were not new in 1982 when Raymond Briggs published his book, and they are no stranger today either, but what When the Wind Blows forces us to remember is that catastrophe is never just a number -every number has faces behind it. If we forget that, then we agree with Josef Stalin that “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.”

What Doesn’t Kill You…

I braced myself for the weight of the bar. I’d been doing bench press for a while–if you’ve never bench pressed before, here’s a basic fact sheet:

  • It’s an exercise that people (mostly men) do in order to have big chests in order to impress other people (mostly men).
  • It makes it easier to participate in conversations where someone might ask, “How much can you bench?” (translation: what is the maximum weight that you have ever brought to your chest and then pushed towards the sky) “Well, my 1-rep max in college was 170.” (translation: the most I’ve ever done is 170 pounds)
  • “Bench press” involves lying flat on a bench, grasping a bar over your chest, lowering it to your chest, and then pressing the weight back up (I’m not describing this in order to be condescending; this description is for all the sheltered nerds like me who grew up never going to a gym and never learning this essential life skill)

The jargon of weightlifters starts making a lot of sense after a while, which is fortunate and unfortunate. Because familiarity with the jargon and basic movement is not the same as skill.

Back to the story about me bracing myself for the weight of the bar. When I bench press, I line up my ring fingers with the smooth bands that wrap around the bar in 2 places: this ensures that the weight is evenly balanced on both sides of me. With my feet firmly planted and chest inflated like a lobster (they have big chests, right?), I lifted the bar from the rack above my nose and, arms still locked, moved the bar into position. The ideal position for me is above the “big” part of my chest. Then, it’s a matter of drawing the bar down to my chest until the bar touches; and then explosively contracting the chest and arms to push the weight back up.

At some point during this particular session, I overloaded myself. I attempted to press the weight back up from my chest, and my body gave out. It was an uncomfortable feeling as the weight dropped automatically back to my chest and lay there, pinning me to the bench. Normally, more serious weightlifters would have a workout buddy to “spot” them (keep an eye on them throughout the set to assist in case they lose control of the weight), but I didn’t have a spotter.

I carefully tilted the bar to one side until the weights of that side rested on the ground, then pried myself out from under the bar, and re-racked the weight. No injuries, and a valuable lesson learned!

I thought of motivational slogans, which I had always thought and now KNEW to be rubbish: “We are always stronger than we know.”

Well, sometimes, we aren’t stronger than we know. Sometimes, we decide to lift too much weight, collapse under the weight, and either have to pry ourselves out of the situation or yell at a friend to come help us.

Don’t buy the hype. And, if you do want to lift heavy weights, find a workout buddy.

The Nine Days’ Quarantine

I’ve been in quarantined for nine days now.

Now that I’ve gotten your attention, I’m tempted to use twisted phrasing, bent facts, key omissions and other such dark marketing powers to paint you a harrowing picture of my circumstances. Instead, I’ll go ahead and tell you the less-than-pitiable truth of how I got here.

Nine days ago, I returned from a lovely five day vacation in the tropical waters of Grand Cayman with my boyfriend and his family. When we first arrived in Grand Cayman, things in the U.S. were just starting to get weird, but hadn’t yet gotten bad. Through sheer luck, we even managed to time our return plane trip so that we avoided the mass panic at DFW International Airport. Still, since we’d been “traveling internationally,” Boyfriend and I decided to quarantine ourselves for the requisite 14 days in an abundance of caution.

So, essentially, I was sheltering in place before it was cool.

My boyfriend and I have since spent most days working from home together – him holed up on one end of the room with headphones in, and me holed up on the other end of the room with headphones in. For the interest of the general public, here is a non-comprehensive list of items we have accomplished during this time, ranked in order of Most Useful to Most Useless. Items in italics were accomplished by Boyfriend.

  • Attended virtual church and virtual church community group – I’ll say it: quarantine ain’t what it used to be back in the good ol’ Medieval ages.
  • Finalized multiple work-related projects – not to go all sappy, but we’re both incredibly lucky to work for companies that give us remote work capabilities.
  • Applied a liberal dosage of WD-40 to Girlfriend’s squeaky bathroom door.
  • Called my Grandma – she’d left a voicemail while I was flying over the Gulf on Monday that didn’t actually show up on my phone until Friday. What strange corridors of the Verizon network it got lost in, we may never know.
  • Took a field trip to Boyfriend’s house (we’ve taken the stance that if one of us is infected, the other probably is too) and cleaned out his closets. Many dust bunnies were slain.
  • Discovered a 12 pack of toilet paper I’d bought a month ago and forgotten in the back of my car. Yes, I also hoarded toilet paper before it was cool.
  • Exercised almost every day – I’ve been exploring workout videos on fitnessblender.com and utilizing my stationary bike.
  • Persuaded girlfriend to join in daily exercise, mostly through the use of bribery via chocolate cake.
  • Wiped off my bathroom counter for the first time in none-of-your-business.
  • Successfully made spaghetti squash.
  • Learned there was more than one way to cook spaghetti squash.
  • Threw a shark themed birthday party for two – Boyfriend’s birthday was this week, and I’d managed to order some shark-themed decorations (streamers, balloons, tablecloth, etc.) from Amazon right before things went from weird to weirder. Why shark? Unclear; some scholars point to origins as a macabre joke surrounding scuba diving in Grand Cayman.
  • Played Small World with boyfriend, a board game that I’d had on my shelf for quite some time, but hadn’t actually gotten into yet.
  • Learned how to play Small World, subsequently beat girlfriend at Small World.
  • Played Villainous, a Disney villain-themed board game; ditto on the extended shelf life.
  • Learned how to play Villainous, subsequently beat girlfriend at Villainous.
  • Taught girlfriend how to play solitaire.
  • Learned how to play solitaire.
  • Played approximately 24 games of solitaire in 24 hours.
  • Accepted delivery of a large coffee cup full of gin, a six pack of rose cider, three rolls of toilet paper and a potato. No further elaboration will be given at this time.
  • Played approximately 54 games of Speed with Girlfriend.
  • Lost approximately 50 games of Speed.
  • Got Boyfriend to watch Frozen II.
  • Eventually got Boyfriend to stop pointing out plot holes in Frozen II and just enjoy the music.
  • Finished the TV show Firefly and watched its cinematic continuation, Serenity.
  • Yelled at Boyfriend because of certain [spoiler] in Serenity.
  • For some reason, spent approximately five minutes digging out my sticker collection so I could give Boyfriend a snail sticker and tell him it was the “snail of approval.”
  • Inundated Boyfriend with approximately 80,000 coronavirus memes.
  • Hid the chocolate cake while Boyfriend was in the bathroom.
  • Dropped ice down the back of Girlfriend’s shirt to extract information about whereabouts of chocolate cake.
  • Taped balloons to streamers so that the balloons hung from the ceiling.
  • Spent approximately ten minutes of work day “boop-ing” balloons on head.
  • Spent approximately ten minutes of work day “boop-ing” balloons on head.
  • Taped mass of balloons to girlfriend’s desk while she wasn’t looking.
  • Dropped roll of toilet paper in the toilet.
  • When asked what he was doing, Boyfriend said he was shuffling cards. When asked why, he said, “’Cause every day I’m shufflin.’”

Honorable, Non-Ranked Mention:

  • Made this blog post.

A Fine Line of Length and Style

As their definitions quickly make clear, short stories, novelettes, and novellas are all short pieces of prose fiction.  What, then, differentiates these different literary categories?

Short Story

Short stories are the briefest of these three prose genres.  While most definitions do not include a word limit, Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary says in its description that the general rule is that short stories are typically no more than 10,000 words (“Short Story”).  An article from WriterMag.com places the cap for a short story at 7,000 words (“The Novella”).  To put these estimates in perspective, a short story of 10,000 words would be about 40 pages of text if written double-spaced with a basic 12-point font.

One unique element of the short story is that it tends to include few characters and focus on one theme.  This creates the “unity of effect” that is characteristic of this genre, according to the definition from the American Heritage Dictionary (“Short Story”).

The short story in action: “Signals” and other works by Tim Gautreaux, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Alan Poe

Novelette

Short Story, Novelette, and Novella word counts
While there is no set word count for the these genres, these ranges from the Nebula Awards rules may be a useful guide.

While novelettes lack a prescribed length, just like short stories and novellas, they tend to be between 8,000 and 15,000 words long (“The Novella”).  A work of 15,000 words would be about 60 pages, using the same formatting listed above.

According to the Collins English Dictionary, common characteristics of the novelette are that it is “slight, trivial, or sentimental” (“Novelette”).

The novelette in action: “Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle, “—That Thou art Mindful of Him” and “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, and “The New Atlantis” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Novella

A novella is longer and more complex than a short story.  This type of prose fiction often includes a moral lesson or satirical elements.  In an article for The New Yorker, columnist Ian McEwan likens the novella to a movie and estimates that a typical screenplay averages 20,000 words, which he indicates is the normal length of a novella as well.  An estimate from an article on the website Writers Digest by Chuck Sambuchino and from WriterMag.com puts the length of a novella between 20,000–50,000 words, with 30,000 as the average (“The Novella”).  This means that the novella is twice the length of a short story in its briefest form.

Like a movie, a novella is more complex than a short story and may include one or two subplots and some rich character development, but within the constraints of a more abbreviated space than a novel would allow (McEwan).

The novella in action: Candide by Voltaire, The Decameron by Boccaccio, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.


Works Cited

McEwan, Ian.  “Some Notes on the Novella.”  NewYorker.com, 29 Oct. 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/some-notes-on-the-novella.

Nebula Awards: Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.  “Nebula Rules.”  15 Nov. 2019, nebulas.sfwa.org/about-the-nebulas/nebula-rules/.

“Novelette.”  Collins English Dictionary, 12th ed., HarperCollins, 2014,            http://www.thefreedictionary.com/novelette.

Sambuchino, Chuck.  “How Long Is a Novella?  And How Do You Query Agents for Them?”  WritersDigest.com, 18 Nov. 2008, http://www.writersdigest.com/publishing-insights/how-long-is-a-novella-and-how-do-you-query-agents-for-them.

“Short Story.”  American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,             http://www.thefreedictionary.com/short+story

“Short Story.”  Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, Random House, 2010, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/short+story

“The Novella: Stepping Stone to Success or Waste of Time?”  WriterMag.com, http://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/novella/.

Worldbuilding Resources

What do writers do when they are procrastinating while putting together a story? They go hunting for writing resources to help them with worldbuilding! This is a concept I’ve always struggled with as a writer—I relish the dialogue but drag my feet with the setting. In developing the world for Death and Taxis, I have been researching writing resources for assisting with world development.

Reddit – 100 Worldbuilding Prompts

https://www.reddit.com/r/worldbuilding/comments/als11s/100_worldbuilding_prompts/

This seems like a good list, filled with some offbeat questions to get the mind thinking differently about their world – such as question 17:

It’s late at night and I’m hungry, what food venues are still open?

The Novel Factory – The Ultimate World Building Questionnaire (131 questions)

https://www.novel-software.com/theultimateworldbuildingquestionnaire

This resource is broken up by category and therefore gives more structure to the world development than the previous resources. The first section pertains to the physics and nature of the world, the second section to geography and natural resources, etc.

As an added bonus, Brandon Sanderson, one of my favorite fantasy authors, teaches a course at Brigham Young University on novel writing, and all the lectures are available online: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLH3mK1NZn9QqOSj3ObrP3xL8tEJQ12-vL

That’s all for today. Back to procrastinating worldbuilding.

Exploring “It”

Any grammar Nazi worth his or her salt knows the atrocity of the missing antecedent.  The worst of all errors is a sentence that begins with “it” (à la, “It was a dark and stormy night”).  What I have realized, though, is that few rules like these are so unarguable that someone hasn’t broken them with success.  After all, the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice have an unforgettable ring:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In fact, this scenario where the great authors break the rules reminds me of the final rule I learned in my photography class a couple years ago.  My teacher taught us photography composition rules, such as the rule of thirds and leading lines, but then the list that he referenced ended with the tip that rules are meant to broken.  And that is where true talent often shines through.  Where some people realize they are Austens, and others discover they aren’t.

Examples of “It” in Action

Fahrenheit 451 movie image
Fahrenheit 451 (2018)

  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — George Orwell, 1984
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Why “It” Works

Clarity and precision are paramount when you write to explain, persuade, or inform.  However, in literature and poetry, authors can break these rules and intentionally confound readers with unclear subjects.  Sometimes a sense of mystery or confusion can be a tool instead of a hindrance.  I think this power to create mystery and suspense is part of why a sentence that begins with it can be powerful in artistic writing situations when, in other contexts, the construction would be weak.

In the opening lines quoted above, each author makes a startling claim.  If Bradbury had merely said “it was a pleasure to burn wood in the fireplace,” his readers would have responded “duh!” and slipped into boredom within seconds.  The same would have been true if Orwell had stopped at “April.”  His second clause packs the punch in the opening line from 1984 with its final word.  Because clocks don’t strike thirteen.  And if clocks are doing this, then something is wrong, and the audience already feels the wrongness with this simple, jarring statement.

Don’t state the obvious if you are going to start a sentence—and especially a book—with it.  Make it count.  Lure the audience in with a benign “it was…” and then catch them off guard.  This sentence construction is likely to fall apart without a startling claim.  In fact, I think this explains why “it was a dark and stormy night” is ridiculed, while the opening lines I referenced above are revered.  Dark and stormy nights are commonplace.  Describing a night in this way does little to set this particular evening apart from any other and fails to capitalize on the power and mystery of it.

Summarizing “It”

Based on the claims above, perhaps a simple formula is possible:  Successful sentence beginning with it = “It” + verb + startling claim (humorous, thought-provoking, intriguing, or surprising).

Now, the next time you’re about to pounce on a sentence with a missing antecedent, red pen in hand, remember that it serves a valuable role in writing and even has the power to form some of the most memorable quotes in the history of literature.  Further, if you’re feeling creative, try using it to begin a story and see if the formula works for you (please share your sentence in the comments).  Perhaps you will be the next Austen, Dickens, Bradbury, or Orwell.


References

Quotes from http://americanbookreview.org/100BestLines.asp

Image from Fahrenheit 451 (2018) from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0360556/mediaindex?ref_=tt_pv_mi_sm