Down for the Count

Monday, December 31, 2007

It figures that I spent the weekend before New Year's Eve grounded by head congestion, coughing, sneezing, and overall fatigue. I've been down for the last two days, but the combination of yesterday's bed rest and today's Day-Quil (or store brand knockoff thereof) seems to be doing the trick. Anyway, on to the year-end reflection.

There are some years that suck. 2005, for instance, was one of those "don't let the door hit you on the way out" years. I won't go into the details, but it involved an ex, a psuedostalker, and a lot of ill health in my family. Given this last month, I kind of feel like 2007 should have been one of those years as well. Between the deaths of two grandmothers, general anxiety and stress of major life changes, and ending with the cold from hell, this seems like the kind of year to usher out the door without ever looking back.

But on the other hand, so much good has happened this year. I married my best friend and I had him to help me though all the rough parts of the year. I also took an exciting chance to try to do something different with my career. That, naturally, has brought on a lot of the aforementioned anxiety and stress, but I'm still happier on my worst writing days than I was in the cube farm.

Shortly after my grandmother's funeral I told Hubs that I'd never known I could experience so much life in such a short time. This year has been chock full of it. Of weddings and funerals an taking risks and making gains and well, life. It hasn't been the best year ever, nor has it been the worst. It was what it was and when all the changes have subsided, I'm sure I'll be all the better for it.

I found this blessing on a knitting forum and it seems applicable to closing out this year. "May the best of your 2007 be the worst of your 2008. May all your wishes come true and that those who have found pain will again find joy."

Happy new year, everyone.

December Reading

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Marjane Satrapi
A Passage to India, E.M. Forster
The Uses of Enchantment, Heidi Julavits
Carnet de Voyage, Craig Thompson
Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut

Short stories
"Or Else," Antonya Nelson
"Heart Shaped Rock," Antonya Nelson
"The Geranium," Flannery O'Connor
"The River," Flannery O'Connor
"The Life You Save May Be Your Own," Flannery O'Connor
"Everything that Rises Must Converge," Flannery O'Connor
"Revelation," Flannery O'Connor
"Judgment Day," Flannery O'Connor
"Nobody Said Anything," Raymond Carver
"The Student's Wife," Raymond Carver
"Fever," Raymond Carver
"Beginners," Raymond Carver

Notable nonfiction
"Come One, Come All: A Megachurch Grows in New England," The New Yorker
"Rough Crossings: The Cutting of Raymond Carver," The New Yorker

Lots and lots of reading this month. The Flannery O'Conner entry can be found here. The Raymond Carver entry is forthcoming, once I gather my thoughts on the selections and the New Yorker article.

I read Bluebeard for next month's book group. It was my first Vonnegut and I'll be interested to hear what the rest of the group has to say. A few people were very excited about this choice, but I didn't think much of it. It was a quick read and there were a few passages with fascinating theories of artistry, but the story and the writing didn't do much for me. Don't know if I'll read anymore Vonnegut any time soon.

Finished!: Hubs' Christmas Surprise

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Another scarf for 2007. This particular neck warmer was a Christmas surprise for Hubs. Well, a sort of surprise. He picked out the yarn (Filatura Di Crosa 127 Print) back in October, but given my average knitting speed, I don't think he expected to see it for another few years or more.

He was almost right. Once he picked out the yarn, I started thinking about patterns that would show off the print. I wanted to do something very simple and I sketched out ideas for rib variations that, had they materialized, would have looked lovely. By the time I had a collection of patterns to try, it was way too late to try any of them.

Finally, with five days to go before Christmas, I decided to toss it all and resort to my old faithful: mistake rib. The fabric that results from mistake rib is worth all the tedium of creating it, if you ask me. It's a fun stitch that looks a lot more complicated than it is. It has more texture than standard rib and isn't as squishy. All in all, great fast scarf stitch. And, for this particular yarn, it has the added bonus of letting the print do all the work. The stitching is basic, but the print gives it some pizazz.

As for the surprise, it went very well. Hubs never saw me knitting the scarf, which was the biggest challenge. Usually I pull out the knitting while we're watching tv or driving, and so I gave up many great knitting ops to get this done. I ended up spending nearly three days knitting. (But given that those three days were spent catching up with season 1 of Heroes, I guess I can't complain.) The surprise factor was really what made the gift and it was totally worth all the knitting for that.

Although, I think this will be the last scarf for a while.

Things I Should Have Read in Grad School

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sometimes you've just got to surrender to the season. I'm a writer in need of a strict routine and when it gets broken or interrupted, I'm pretty much useless. So for the next few weeks I'm switching my focus to reading and studying other writers, namely writers that I probably should have read years ago.

Since I started reading books about writing, I've realized how much of my cannon is sadly lacking. I'm still not sure how I made it through a three-year MFA program without reading "The Dead" or D.H. Lawrence or John Steinbeck or Moby Dick for that matter. Every time someone sends me a 100 Greatest Books Ever meme I feel like someone should revoke my MFA.

Well, no more. Over the holidays I plan to not only do some fun reading (The Uses of Enchantment and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) but to beat my way through the list of books on my "I should read this" list.

Today was all about Flannery O'Connor: "Geranium," "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," "The River," "Everything that Rises Must Converge," "Revelation," and "Judgment Day."

I don't think you can make it through a college freshman composition course without reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find" or "Good Country People," but the rest of her stories are usually left for more avid readers, O'Connor fans, or literature majors. It's a shame, but it's not hard to figure out why. O'Connor's stories are not for the faint of heart. The characters are sympathetic, but difficult to like. I read a passage from "Revelations" to Hubs, who promptly retorted (about the character), "Wow, what a bitch." Exactly! And yet, still sympathetic. It's a mystery to me.

I'll leave the analysis and the academic review of these stories for the more skilled. The things I took away from them were probably not revelations to anyone but me. Anyway, I was struck by the language O'Connor used to create these worlds and characters. In "The Geranium" she writes, "People boiled out of the trains and up steps and over onto the streets. They rolled off the street and down the steps and into trains - black and white and yellow all mixed up like vegetables in a soup. Everything was boiling." That paragraph stayed with me, not just for it's electricity, but because it's a great (and obvious) example of using an image to depict a character's point of view. I was overwhelmed just reading that paragraph, which is how I would expect the protagonist (an elderly man from the country) to react to the New York City subways as well.

I also admire O'Connor's willingness to create ugly characters. Most of these stories dealt with a character with some physical abnormality. Those that are more intact physically are at least overweight or "plain." This is something I struggle with in my writing. I'm usually a little afraid to create an ugly character and in the all the workshops I attended, I recall only one story where a character was homely and that definitely wasn't the protagonist. I think we aspiring writers could all take a lesson from this and try creating a protagonist that is at least a little ugly. (Hmm... I sense a writing exercise here.)

There's so much more to take away from Connor's short stories. I'm glad I finally branched out beyond the usual stories. I'm sure I'll be returning to these stories for years to come to learn how to handle character, structure, place and so much more.

What To Do On a Rainy Day

Friday, December 14, 2007

When the weather outside looks like this:
And the kitties inside are doing this:
It's the perfect kind of day for making these:

This week has been dreary for reasons beyond just the weather, so I decided to just call it a sick week and not worry about the writing I haven't been doing. Today I braved the muck to get some Christmas shopping out of the way; however, a couple of hours in the rain was enough to convince me that errands can wait too. So I came home and made spiced nuts.

Spiced nuts are a Christmas staple in my family. My mother makes them every holiday and a few years ago, I took her recipe and began making them as well. Every year I bag up some nuts as gifts and they're usually a hit.

Unfortunately, this is the one recipe I selfishly hoard. I gave it out once when I was a secretary and my boss fell in love with them. She demanded the recipe. She even went so far as to call me at home on a Saturday to make sure she was doing it correctly (not that it's that complicated, but she was a bit flighty). Anyway, she made a batch and gave them to her clients. For several days following I fielded phone calls from clients who gushed over the nuts. One of our bigwigs even gushed while he was in the office and not once did she even mention that it might just be my recipe that she had used. Not that you have to credit the source, but even a private thank you to me would have been nice.

Anyway, since then I've refrained from giving out this particular recipe. Any other I'll be happy to share and take Saturday clarification phone calls, but this one stays in the family.

Temporary Hiatus

Monday, December 10, 2007

My grandmother passed away early this morning. As such, all writing (and knitting)-related activities are on hold temporarily. I'll be back online at the end of the week or early next week.

Writing Exercise: Lies

Monday, December 3, 2007

I'm back from spending an awesome weekend at a tiny Texas bed and breakfast. The women of my family have made this an annual trip and I can't tell you how good it is to get away from everything for a weekend.

But it's back to work now and time for my first weekly writing exercise. Over the weekend I read Antonya Nelson's "Or Else" from the New Yorker. Amazing story. I finished it and immediately flipped back to the beginning to read it again.

After reading, I was reminded of a character from David Benioff's The 25th Hour who claims to be the true author of a very famous poem. In his story, he had authored the work, but it was stolen by a colleague who then got all the credit and fame for it. This turns out to be a lie, but one that is humored by the character that actually knows him.

There are tons or writing exercises about lies out there, so I'm going to start out with something fairly general. Write a scene in which a character tells an elaborate lie about his/her life. 1000 words.