How to be a witch

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What you’ll need: broom closet, wart remover

SonglistDefying Gravity from Wicked, Black Magic Woman

Further readingThe Witches by Roald Dahl

When I was about 12, I found a book at the library about Celtic goddesses and magick (yeah, with a “k”). It was so out-of-place and exciting that I became completely enthralled. Much of the book was the retelling of Irish legends, but at the very end there were various spells for different times of the year (Samhain, Beltane, etc) as well as love spells and the like. I am proud to say that I didn’t try out any of the love spells, but, as a 12-year-old girl, I was not surprisingly intrigued.

In the end, I was too afraid of witches to much pursue the idea of being one. As an insatiable fan of Roald Dahl’s, I read The Witches, but was very sorry I had. Dahl’s witches were bald and without toes and lurking all over the world in high heels and wigs. This was much scarier than the giants in The BFG–I knew those were fake. The witches, though, I couldn’t be sure weren’t real. For a few weeks after finishing The Witches I had a hard time getting to sleep at night, worrying that a witch would sneak into my room and turn me into a mouse.

Caravaggio's Medusa--doesn't she look lovely?

As a kid, I was similarly afraid of the witches in Hocus Pocus, the Wicca teens in The Craft, and the Wicked Witch of the West, and the evil witch who curses Sleeping Beauty. But when I got to high school and read Macbeth and The Crucible, my interest in witches was reignited. I found out that one of the women killed in the Salem witch trials was a distant relative.

Women in mythology are quite adept at being killed for their seemingly supernatural powers, such as Cassandra and Medusa (my Halloween costume this year). And women throughout history, up until the present day, have been accused of such powers so as to strip them of land, blame them for crop failures, and punish them for refusing sexual advances. Fear of witchcraft might have historically been conflated with fear and hatred of the devil, but in practice it looks much more like fear of the feminine. A scary thought indeed. On that note, Happy Halloween!

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Writers on writing

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My post about NaNoWriMo from Friday reminded me of the duality of writerly opinions about how to create a first draft. John Gardner, who is perhaps as famous for his books on writing as his fiction, declared that you must strive to choose every word perfectly the first time around or else your story will be irretrievably led astray. Anne Lamott countered this advice in her wonderful book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by encouraging writers to produce “shitty first drafts.”

The great thing about writers is that they all have different advice and methods for writing, and they’re all right. One of my great loves is the Paris Review interview series. The Paris Review, which has been published since the 1950s, contains interviews with novelists, poet, playwrights, and nonfiction writers all talking about their crafts. The writers–Tennessee Williams to Chinua Achebe, Hemingway to García Márquez–explain their habits, their successes and failures, their idols and contemporaries, their views on the history and future of literature. And, while reading them, I almost always feel a sense of kinship. Their habits sound familiar, their idols the same as mine.

One quote I particularly like from García Márquez talking about reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis: “The first line almost knocked me off the bed, I was so surprised. When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.” The way he describes Metamorphosis is the same way I felt when I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude–I didn’t know anyone was allowed to do that.

Here are some of my other favorites Paris Review quotes from writers talking about writing:

Literary criticism, which is bound to pursue meaning, can never really encompass the fact that some things are on the page because they give the writer pleasure. A writer whose morning is going well, whose sentences are forming well, is experiencing a calm and private joy. The joy itself then liberates a richness of thought that can prompt new surprises. Nothing else–cheerful launch party, packed readings, positive reviews–will come near it for satisfaction.  –Ian McEwan

When I reach the heart of a story that I’ve been working on for some time, then, yes, something does happen. The story ceases to be cold, unrelated to me. On the contrary, it becomes so alive, so important that everything I experience exists only in relation to what I’m writing. Everything I hear, see, read seems in one way or another to help my work. I become a kind of cannibal of reality. –Mario Vargas Llosa

What is an artist? He’s a man who has antennae, who knows how to hook up to the currents which are in the atmosphere, in the cosmos; he merely has the facility for hooking on, as it were. Who is original? Everything that we are doing, everything that we think, exists already, and we are only intermediaries, that’s all, who make use of what is in the air. Why do ideas, why do great scientific discoveries often occur in different parts of the world at the same time? The same is true of the elements that go to make up a poem or a great novel or any work of art. They are already in the air, they have not been given voice, that’s all. They need the man, the interpreter, to bring them forth. –Henry Miller

Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. –William Faulkner

NaNoWriting

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Once again, I realize this topic might have thematically corresponded better with another week: next week. On Tuesday, November 1st, writers from around the country and world will start novels that they pledge to finish by November 30th. For this is NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, where the theory (false, in my opinion) that everyone has at least one good novel in them is tested out.

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in 30 days; clearly, quantity is valued over quality. Writers are invited to write-ins at local libraries and bookstores, and commiserate and give each other pep talks on the online forums. Your worth as a writer is measured by your word count. If you meet the arbitrary goal of 50,000 words (a novel typically has more like 100,000+ words), you “win.”

I could not learn to do this in a month

Do you hear some skepticism in my tone? Seeing how November is fast approaching and that I am taking a novel-writing class, I considered signing up for NaNoWriMo. Why not? It could be a good external source of accountability, in addition to my classmates. Still, something bothers me about it. Mostly it’s the idea that all you need to do to write a novel is write a shit-ton in one month (granted, the NaNo site reminds writers that revision is necessary after the fact). Most famous writers agree that writing a novel instead requires you to write every day for, oh, a decade or two. Sure, writing a novel might not take all 3,650 days but you need to practice writing for that long to be able to write a good novel. I do not expect to pick up glassblowing tools tomorrow and be Dale Chihuly by December, but this is the sort of attitude that NaNoWriMo reinforces for amateur writers.

But not until last night did I consider another problem of how NaNoWriMo approaches the novel. Last night was the seventh class of my novel-writing course. We were workshopping a woman’s historical novel, and for the first time in the class nothing positive was being said. The woman didn’t seem bothered by this–she was completely ready to throw it all out and begin again. Our teacher asked how much she writes on average per week. The woman said, as an example, that she wrote 30 pages in 2 days last week. For a second, I felt a pang of jealousy and guilt–why can’t I write that much at once? Why don’t I write that much? But our teacher immediately said, That’s too much.

Our teacher’s point was that the woman had an attitude that none of her writing mattered, that she could and would delete it as easily as she wrote it. The energy you put into a piece of writing is the same energy the reader feels when reading it. Thus, we didn’t think her writing mattered either.

So what does that mean for all the would-be NaNoWriters? There are plenty of good reasons to be involved: to connect with other people, to challenge yourself, to try something new, to be inspired, perhaps to hold yourself accountable to a goal you’ve always wanted to achieve. As long as you’re realistic about these reasons and expectations, I imagine it would be a lot of fun. Just put in the energy you want to get out.

10 favorite novels

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I kind of hate being asked who my favorite authors are. There are very few authors of whom I’ve read the entire oeuvre. In fact, sometimes I avoid reading more of an author’s work when I’m completely enamored of one of their novels, because inevitably I’ll feel disappointed (or so I learned when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera). Picking out favorite novels, though, is a piece of cake. If I thought a little harder, this list could easily expand to 25 or 50. In the interest of time, I’ll stick to my top 10:

Cover art from One Hundred Years of Solitude

1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez: I read this book for a world literature class in high school. When the town of Macondo suffered a plague of insomnia and lost their past, when a Buendía daughter ascended into the sky with the laundry, when it rained yellow butterflies I would think You can do that?!? I’d never read anything like magical realism before, and it flipped my world upside down.

2. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: This is the kind of book I wish I’d written first. I mean, one of the characters is an opera singer, another is a translator, and it’s all set in an unidentified South American country. And it’s so freakin’ flawless. One of our assignments for my novel class was to bring in a paragraph we love from a published work. The only difficulty was choosing which one of Patchett’s incredible paragraphs to bring.

3. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: This was the only novel I brought with me to Spain. And, even though reading it was pretty much all I did with my free time, it took me three months to finish it–it’s that dense. Reading it was realizing that magical realism can exist outside of South America. Reading it somehow was both wading through Rushdie’s thick sentences while also being buoyed by his exuberant energy. I don’t think any other novel could have sustained me for so long.

4. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray: One of the two best novels of last year. For a book about an Irish boys’ prep school, it’s surprisingly long. And it’s surprisingly wise. I’ve bought it for all the boys in my life thus far.

5. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: The other best novel of the past year. And also, technically, the only book on this list that’s not a novel. Instead, the book is made of interconnected stories that grow out from each other, wind back on themselves, delve into the characters’ pasts and launch into their futures. I got to see Egan at a St. Paul event called Talking Volumes at which she spoke of how her writing process for this book was just to follow her curiosity. It all began with a tiny moment in her own life, from which she wrote a story and then she wrote a story about one of the ancillary characters from the first story. I like this as a description of the creative process–follow your curiosity and see where it leads. Egan also has a very cool website which you can read about all her moments of inspiration and how they led to different stories.

6. Saturday by Ian McEwan: Set all on one day in London, Saturday is a deep study of one character’s psychology. McEwan loves detailing how tiny decisions and collisions set a course that affect an entire life. When he did this in very popular Atonement I was so angry I threw the book across the room at the end of the first chapter and never picked it up again. When he does it in Saturday, it’s extremely effective.

7. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood: Atwood is the queen of creepy science fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale being perhaps her most famous twisted novel. It’s best, though, in the Blind Assassin because the novel is a story inside a story inside a story inside a story. The innermost story is a gorgeous piece science fiction that is told by one unnamed character to another (which happens to be a novel written by another character). In the science fiction section, orphans are made to create fine carpets for the ruling class; a carpet’s quality is determined by how many children were blinded in its making. The orphans, once blind, have no place to go except an elite assassins’ club where they use their other senses to get close to their victims. The other surrounding stories are just as incredible.

8. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex is full of transformations: we’ve got the Greeks who become Americans, cousins who becomes spouses and, of course, the main character who is raised as a girl before going through puberty and finding out she’s biologically male. Given that I sold more of this novel than any other when I worked in a gay and lesbian bookstore in Provincetown, MA, I’d say this is a favorite in that crowd, but the questions of identity are relevant to everyone.

9. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon: Another novel I wish I’d written. In fact, there are some similarities between this novel and the one I’m currently trying to write. I love reading novels like this where, when you get to the end of it, you share the characters’ nostalgia for their pasts. And who can beat a novel where Hitler’s getting punched on the cover?

10. My Antonia by Willa Cather: I read this when I was perhaps 12 or 13, and it taught me what nostalgia tastes like. I think the books I read at that age had a deeper emotional impact on me, and this one in particular seemed to settle into my bones. My favorite line from all of literature is when Jim tells Ántonia, “Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’ve have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister–anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.” Forever after, that’s how I’ve understood love.

What are some of YOUR favorites?

 

How to be a novelist

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What you’ll need: a plot, patience

Songlist: Paperback Writer by the Beatles, Open Book by Cake

Further reading: On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner

If he can do it, so can I. Right? He's nothing special. Right?

It was a gray, uninspired Monday in October, the first day of the 43rd week of the year. She had run out of topics.

Yeah, that’s today, and yeah, that’s me. It’s not completely true, but fiction never is. The sky is more blue than gray, and I have at least a few weekly themes still up my sleeve. But as I was thinking through these remaining topics, none felt quite right today. So I’ve decided to venture into risky territory: the truth about me.

If you’ve read this blog at all, you can probably guess that I like writing. I always have. I wrote my first story when I was four, which was before I knew what the letters I was drawing signified. In second grade I got special permission from my teacher to sit outside in the hall every day for a half hour and work on a novella called “Mary and the Deer.” I had a dream to become the youngest novelist ever published (my goal was to be published at 12, and I remember being someone sad on that birthday, knowing I’d let the deadline slip past me).

Knowing I wanted to write novels for a living is like knowing one’s own sexual orientation: it was an early and immutable fact about myself, something I could not change even if I wanted to (and I don’t). Still, it feels risky to admit. All the other jobs I’ve highlighted over the past 10 months in this blog have been wonderful dreams, but also ones I’m all right with letting go of. Not writing a novel is the one thing that I would regret more than any other on my deathbed.

The stairs up to the Loft Literary Center--built to look like pages of a book

For that reason, I signed up for a course at the wonderful Loft Literary Center this autumn called “Working on Your Novel.” I thought of an idea for a novel about a year and a half ago, and started writing about a year ago. After writing every single day for two months I got burnt out and stopped completely. I was hoping this class, which started in September, would help me get back on track. I was hoping especially that my teacher or a classmate would give me some invaluable insight about how I might proceed.

Two weeks ago it was time for my manuscript–all 60 pages I have so far–to be critiqued. When my teacher came around she had a few questions about characters and plot. But she had just one piece of advice: keep writing. Her main objective for me? Finish the novel by the end of the course. I must admit, this was a little disappointing and very terrifying to hear. I already knew I had to do that; I needed to know how.

But, alas, that’s the truth about writing: there are no shortcuts. I can read all the how-to books and interviews with writers I want (and I do so love reading them!) but in the end there’s only one way to finish a novel: keep writing. On that note, I’ve gotta go; I’ve got some writing to do.

Advertising is based on one thing: happiness

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The writers of the critically acclaimed HBO series Mad Men didn’t create the rules for advertising, but they do describe them well. Advertising is about showing how a product assuages the fears of the customer (whether or not they knew they had those fears); advertising is about happiness. Don Draper explains:

This is a simple, obvious, and unbreakable rule, and yet there are so many ads that go astray. Or they think the formula is somehow different. Kate Dailey wrote an article for the Daily Beast about the ads that are aired during Mad Men episodes, and how many miss the point entirely. The advertisers seem to think that viewers enjoy Mad Men because it’s retro cool and full of male bravado and submissive women–but that’s just the front. The real allure is what’s behind that front, how the men screw up and what the consequences are for the men and women alike.

Getting ad men out of hot water? No, thanks.

Yet the advertisers press on blindly. A Clorox ad aired during Mad Men shows a white shirt with a red lipstick smudge on the collar, with the words “Getting ad guys out of hot water for generations.” Subtext: Clorox helps men cheat. But Clorox’s main demographic is women. Instead of assuaging the customers’ fear, the ad creates or increases it.

About a year ago, AMC announced a partnership with Unilever. Unilever, a giant marketing firm, created spots for six of the many brands it represents–Dove, Breyers, Hellman’s, Klondike, Suave, Vaseline–that would be similar in style to the show itself. The majority of the ads are set in an ad agency much like Don Draper’s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, with a short contemporary ad at the end. Almost every one of the retro ads objectifies women–again, women are the main buyers of these products (and the main demographic that views the show). So how are these effective?

Better these advertisers actually watch the show they’re trying to mimic, and learn from it:

Best superbowl ads

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Superbowl Sunday is the one day in the year when people will turn on the television just for the commercials. Based on 2011’s showing, those people would have been disappointed. I can’t remember much, except that most of the ads were dreadful. And then there was that one ray of light:

But will the Darth Vader kid stand the tests of time like other Superbowl classics? Like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird shooting for a Big Mac?

Or like this other great duo?

Slapstick humor often scores big:

As do animals:

And then there are those few companies that put all the pieces together and seem to start a cultural phenomenon every single year:

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