My Personal Retreat Up North

One of my birthday gifts back in January was a three day mini personal writing retreat up at the Grand Traverse Resort — alone time for me to revise my WIP, eat room service BBQ pizza, and ramble in the great outdoors a while.

My room was lovely…

My work space was comfortable…

And I did get a phenomenal amount of research and revision done. I even got to have breakfast with my sister while I was there.

After checking out on Friday, I swung by Hartwick Pines near Grayling to take a walk through old growth white pines.

Hartwick Pines, MI

I was the only one there, following someone else’s cross country ski tracks from earlier in the day, listening to the birds and the squirrels and the swooshing of my snow pants.

At Hartwick Pines

It was beautiful.

And it was exactly what I needed after two straight days of sitting, sitting, sitting.

Little Ghost Tree

Being out in the woods alone, with no sound even of distant traffic, is something I really wish I could do more often. It’s as necessary to my mental and emotional well-being as good food and exercise are to my physical well-being.

When it comes to gifts, nothing beats a little alone time in God’s country. Do my guys know me or what?

Christopher Walken Reads The Raven

We’re enormous Christopher Walken fans in our house. My husband and son often (often) do impressions of him, even when ordering food in public (aside: zero students working at area fast food restaurants find this amusing). So when I heard this lovely reading, the perfect pairing of material and performer, I thought I’d like to share it with you.

Enjoy.

Portrait of a Landscape

Last month I shared a photo from an excursion to Fenner Nature Center and mentioned I’d like to paint it. Yesterday afternoon, I did.

January at Fenner Nature Center

I did it partly as an avoidance tactic (the couple-day warm up has made me think I really ought to clean out the garage) and partly because I’m stuck on manuscript revisions (until I can get a call with a criminal attorney who is out of town) and partly because this is a big reason I quit a bunch of stuff (unscheduled time for creative endeavors).

This time around I didn’t take pictures between each step because I was mostly working wet-on-wet and you have to work fast without letting things dry between washes. But I do have a side-by-side comparison for you.

FennerPaintingComp

I wasn’t trying to reproduce the photo, just to use it as a reference, especially for the low horizon and big sky you get with the portrait orientation. Taking all photos in a landscape orientation (even when you’re taking photos of people, traditionally called portraits) is an easy trap to fall into when you have a traditional camera in your hands. It’s how they’re oriented — buttons, hand holds, etc. — and it’s especially easy to only take landscape photos of…well, landscape. But turning the camera in your hands can give you a far different perspective on your subject.

Looking at the side-by-side, I’m thinking I could have tried to keep the light bits of the sky a little brighter yet. I could re-wet the sky and lay in some darker clouds to make the contrast greater, but, as I said before, there’s always the risk of overdoing it.

I think I’ll let well enough alone.

On the Death of Artists

The literary world was dealt a double blow this week as two very different writers passed away at ripe old ages — Harper Lee at 89 and Umberto Eco at 84. Harper Lee published one book during her lifetime (evidence suggests she had little to do with the publication of Go Set a Watchman); Umberto Eco published around fifty, a combination of bestselling novels, literary criticism, and books for children. Practically every American who reads has heard of Harper Lee, while I would wager that only a small percentage of the US population has ever taken note of Umberto Eco, despite his prolific output and international success. Upon hearing of Lee’s death, people took to Facebook and Twitter to mourn. Eco? Two people I know (only one American) mentioned it.

It brings to mind questions of output, influence, and reach. What makes everyone able to connect Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird while most of us scratch our heads when faced with a headline about Umberto Eco? Why does one morality tale from an unassuming Southern woman outshine decades of intellectual rigor and innovation from an Italian man who was, by all accounts, a literary giant?

I’ll be the first to admit when I heard Eco had died I was a bit embarrassed that I couldn’t call to mind even one of his books. I knew I’d read Eco’s literary criticism in college, could even remember the professor who had assigned him, but I couldn’t immediately call to mind any titles. Scanning his book titles online, nothing jumped out at me. I’d forgotten him.

Surely I’d find him in one of my anthologies, those bricks of onion skin pages English majors lugged around in college. I’d see what I’d underlined and it would all come rushing back. Only, he wasn’t there. Had I imagined it? Had I simply seen and heard his name so many times in literary circles that I assumed I had read him? Or, perhaps more likely, my professor had made copies for his students to read from some out of print book, copies I simply lost track of or threw out sometime in the last fifteen years.

Had I ever read a word of Umberto Eco?

Now, there are all sorts of explanations for this. Americans heavily favor American writers when teaching literature. (The prof who had assigned him in my World Lit was from Gibraltar.) Americans don’t read in translation. Americans don’t read foreign-sounding names. American institutes of higher education have lower standards and expectations than those of Europe. Americans are stupid and self-absorbed.

And sure, a lot of those criticisms are based on valid, quantifiable data. But there is also the plain fact that reading Umberto Eco can be hard work.

Let’s compare Eco’s bestselling historical mystery/philosophical treatise The Name of the Rose with Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Both seem to have sold about 50 million copies and both are sitting pretty in the top ten or fifteen Amazon ranking in their categories, depending on what edition you’re looking at. Both have about four and a third stars from their many Amazon reviews (though Lee’s 8,385 reviews as of the writing of this post far outstrip Eco’s 550). Both books have been made into movies with big stars, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and Sean Connery in The Name of the Rose.

All in all, they seem fairly similar. But check out these reviews of Eco’s work:

“The book became a hit despite some obscure passages and allusions. This deftly abridged version…retains the genius of the original but is far more accessible.” — Library Journal

“Although the work stands on its own as a murder mystery, it is more accurately seen as a questioning of “truth” from theological, philosophical, scholarly, and historical perspectives.” — The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature

One Amazon reviewer called it “a rewarding but painstaking read.” Another said “As others have said, it’s wordy and at times difficult, but it’s very rewarding for those who persevere!” And these seemingly contradictory words from a review of his second novel, Foucault’s Pedulum, are revealing:

“If a copy (often unread) of The Name of the Rose on the coffee table was a badge of intellectual superiority in 1983, Eco’s second novel — also an intellectual blockbuster — should prove more accessible….Dense, packed with meaning, often startlingly provocative, the novel is a mixture of metaphysical meditation, detective story, computer handbook, introduction to physics and philosophy, historical survey, mathematical puzzle, compendium of religious and cultural mythology, guide to the Torah (Hebrew, rather than Latin contributes to the puzzle here, but is restricted mainly to chapter headings), reference manual to the occult, the hermetic mysteries, the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Freemasons– ad infinitum . The narrative eventually becomes heavy with the accumulated weight of data and supposition, and overwrought with implication, and its climax may leave readers underwhelmed. Until that point, however, this is an intriguing cerebral exercise in which Eco slyly suggests that intellectual arrogance can come to no good end.” — Publishers Weekly

Now compare those to these words about To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon reviewers:

“I was simply floored while reading this novel. I wasn’t expecting a ‘classic’ to be so readable.”

“It is so well-written and moving that it reads like poetry.”

“This novel is beautifully written, transporting the reader into the souls of all the characters…If ever a book was written that should be mandatory reading (not necessarily in schools but rather in life) this is that book.”

Did you notice what I noticed? Readable, readable, readable. Both authors explore interesting and important issues. Both have devotees (and Eco’s are generally more erudite than Lee’s when it comes to the reader reviews). But one is difficult and the other is not. Both are described as slow in other reviews I saw (Lee’s at the beginning and Eco’s at about the 2/3 or 3/4 mark), but one is compared to the slowness of a hot, sultry, summer day while the other is compared to slogging through mud.

Eco lovers might argue that he is dealing with far more complex philosophical and theological issues than Lee, and therefore he needs those 200 extra pages to get his point across. And that is likely true, and I don’t mean this post to be critical of such writing, because I certainly like reading (and especially rereading) difficult books when they deliver the kind of reward Eco’s are known to deliver. I recently had my first brush with Italo Calvino, another Italian writer, and found him both endlessly frustrating and completely riveting. As a reader, I don’t mind being frustrated. But I think I’m in the minority.

At any rate, Lee’s world of racial strife and systemic oppression and generational sins, and Eco’s world of 14th century religious schisms and hypocrisies, both seem, on the surface, to be just as important and applicable to life today. Our country is as racially broken as it ever was, and criticism of the church is always in vogue. Both narratives follow crimes and seek to divide the guilty from the innocent. And, quite honestly, I’m sure that just as many people have an unread copy of To Kill a Mockingbird at home as those who have an unread copy of The Name of the Rose, though likely most Americans have had at least a brush with Lee’s book in high school, whether or not they really did the required reading.

When it comes down to it, perhaps the difference is found in these terms: experimental versus experiential. Eco’s tome is very aware of its form and structure, and plays with those elements purposefully if the reviewers are to be believed (and why shouldn’t they be?) whereas Lee’s book is rooted in the world she lived in and the people she grew up with. Eco seems to have written what he thought about. Lee wrote what she saw and what she lived. And unfortunately, most of us today see it and many today live it too. She wrote what she knew, and what she knew is still in many ways our reality.

When David Bowie died last month I was amazed at how devastated people seemed on social media. With a few exceptions where it was obvious that the person had been deeply affected by his life as an artist, I had a knee jerk reaction to most of the postings, and it was the same as my reaction to people crying in the halls in high school when Kurt Cobain died: You didn’t care about him until he was dead and I can all but guarantee you don’t own even one of his albums.

In contrast, when Michael Jackson died I felt that most people who expressed sadness were likely actually sad about it because his music had been the soundtrack of their young lives. Worldwide internet searches for news on his death crashed Twitter and Wikipedia and forced Google to block searches because they thought is was an attack. People weren’t just searching and posting about him so they would seem like they were part of an elite group, like they wore a badge of artistic superiority. They were searching for something that exposed it as a hoax. They were searching for someone who would tell them it wasn’t true. Because to like Michael Jackson didn’t take a lot of effort. His music was experiential, melodic, catchy — readable. Bowie’s was experimental and odd. (Though, admittedly, they were both quite odd and provocative in appearance).

I imagine reviews for the music of Michael Jackson and that of David Bowie might mirror those of Lee and Eco. One accessible and singing a melody we are now more than familiar with, the other less accessible but worth the effort. And I wonder, when all is said and done, if fifty years from now Bowie’s influence on music might be far greater than Jackson’s, if Eco’s influence on literature will far outstrip Lee’s. And how much of it is the listener or the reader looking for someone to tell them how to feel about things rather than allowing the artist to leave it up to the audience to sort out on their own. When artists expect us to do our part, are we less likely to embrace them? If so, why?

One thing of which I am certain in all of this, is that whether you write one book or fifty, whether you’re the King of Pop or a wily rock subversive, to die as an artist who contributed something of yourself, who offered up your ideas and visions for others to make of them what they would, is a noble death, whether it comes in your sleep in your 80s, from cancer in your 60s, from an overdose at 50, or a gunshot wound at 27. It is in a small way to live on, in the hearts and minds of your audience and in the work of the artists who come after you who might point to you as someone who influenced them.

We may wish our favorite authors and musicians and actors wouldn’t die, especially when they die in tragic circumstances. But an artist is never really dead as long as their work continues to be experienced, in large numbers or small.

What can we glean then from the death of an artist? A call to press on, to create, to share, to contribute to the story of mankind. Make your mark. And make it a good one.

For When Life Feels Like It’s One Big, Long, Dreadful February

Despite my optimistic outlook on the first of the month, February sank its inevitable claws into me with blank skies, a family health crisis, missing friends who’ve moved away, and just a vague sense of stasis in the realms of work, home, health, and writing. It happens. Dinner out with my guys cheered me up last night and today, despite the continual white-gray skies, I’m feeling a bit better. This helped too:


To save as MP3, right-click here and select “Save as.”

You might not think listening to two guys riff on how depressed they’ve been would cheer you up (especially when, in my case, one is your husband and one is a close friend), but trust me when I say that if you’re finding yourself feeling stuck or less successful than you thought you’d be at this point in your life, listening to this podcast will help. It’s honest about the expectations we have for ourselves and the ways we fall short and how to deal with those feelings of discontent and disappointment, not in a “Hey, buck up!” kind of way but in a way that might actually make some use out of those experiences. And to hear two men talk through those things honestly is a rare find.

You can’t avoid February, and sometimes you might feel like your whole life is stuck in a February. But spring is coming and God is faithful.

Painting the Self Portrait Step by Step

This morning seemed the perfect time to start my self portrait. Dawn was bright and the air outside a crisp 4 degrees Fahrenheit, so why not stay inside and fiddle with paints? Things turned out far better than I had anticipated. For those of you unfamiliar with watercolor painting, it’s done in stages, starting with the lightest and most translucent colors. Each wash gets gradually darker, and if you go too dark too fast, there’s only so much “erasing” you can do, because painting over something lighter doesn’t work — the darker color always shows through. So watercolors are fairly unforgiving. But I’ve found through the years of dabbling in it that I’m so drawn to watercolors done well, so I keep on trying to get better.

I thought it might interest you to see how one gets from a drawing through the various washes to the final product, so…

First there's a light line drawing (too much pencil shading can destroy a watercolor painting, so the key is to stop before you think you should).
First there’s a light line drawing (too much pencil shading can destroy a watercolor painting, so the key is to stop before you think you should). This photo distorts the drawing a bit on the squatty side. Better angles on the rest…
Next lay a light wash (you can always go darker). Mine is a mixture of burnt sienna and alizarin crimson.
Next lay a light wash (you can always go darker). Mine is a mixture of burnt sienna and alizarin crimson.
I added cobalt blue to the skin mixture to get the tone for the shadows and used a darker wash of the original, with a bit more of the red, for the lips.
I added cobalt blue to the skin mixture to get the tone for the shadows and used a darker wash of the original, with a bit more of the red, for the lips.
Cobalt blue for the eyes, starting light. I'll add some payne's gray to the blue in a later wash.
Cobalt blue for the eyes, starting light. I’ll add some payne’s gray to the blue in a later wash.
This is where I figured I'd really mess up. When you first start adding dark colors it's a little nerve wracking because they are so hard to fix if something goes wrong.
This is where I figured I’d really mess up. When you first start adding dark colors it’s a little nerve wracking because they are so hard to fix if something goes wrong.
Now for the hair. Lay in the lighter warm highlights first. I used raw umber for mine. I also darkened the lips a bit at this point.
Now for the hair. Lay in the lighter warm highlights first. I used raw umber for mine. I also darkened the lips a bit at this point.
Here's where I really started thinking this would not work. The hair just didn't feel as nicely rendered as the face, though I knew most of it would get swallowed up by the black background eventually. The reddish brown tones in my hair are done with burnt sienna. The darker the color the less water I mixed in.
Here’s where I really started thinking this would not work. The hair just didn’t feel as nicely rendered as the face, though I knew most of it would get swallowed up by the black background eventually. The reddish brown tones in my hair are done with burnt sienna. The darker the color the less water I mixed in.
Now we start to get the background color and the shirt color. With such a dark background, you can see the flesh tones started to look too light, so I had to go back in and darken them.
Now we start to get the background color (a mixture of payne’s gray and burnt sienna) and the shirt color. With such a dark background, the flesh tones started to look too light, so I had to go back in and darken them. I also added more of the crimson to my cheeks.
Here is the final product. I kept going back in and adding more shadow to counteract the dark background. Not sure I'm quite happy with the way the hair darkens and blends with the background, but overall it did turn out better than I thought it would. And with watercolor you have to be careful of not going too far. You have to quit while you're ahead sometimes.
Here is the final product. I kept going back in and adding more shadow to counteract the dark background. Not sure I’m quite happy with the way the hair darkens and blends with the background, but overall it did turn out better than I thought it would. And with watercolor you have to be careful of not going too far. You have to quit while you’re ahead sometimes.

And because it’s so fun to see a reference photo and a painting side by side…

Side by side, I can see where I went a little astray with the eyes. But, all in all, not too shabby, I think!
Side by side, I can see where I went a little astray with the eyes — one looks further back in my head than the other. But, all in all, not too shabby for the first try. I’m amazed I got the colors as close as I did.

You can definitely tell I am not a professional! But it’s a fun hobby to pull out now and then. Now the perennial problem…what do I do with it?

A Self Portrait Photo Reference

When thinking rather halfheartedly about the new year I mentioned in this space that I might try to paint a self portrait in 2016. To that end I thought I ought to take a reference photo to guide me (looking in the mirror and moving all around doesn’t seem wise for a beginner like me — come to think of it, the whole thing may be a disaster). I think I have one I like…

Self Portrait Reference Photo

I have only now to decide whether I might like to make this even more interesting by trying out oil paints for the first time rather than watercolors. The dark background would certainly be easier in oils, though the skin would be easier in watercolor. Maybe I’ll start with a watercolor study and then do one in oils.

But don’t expect too much of me. It’s Ash Wednesday and today of all days I am more keenly aware of my limitations and all the ways I fall short. I’ve had some success in the distant past drawing human beings, but never painting them. I haven’t decided yet whether to show you the results of my efforts if they turn out catastrophically bad…

Government Documents Make Maeby Feel C-

When I began writing a book about the books we read over and over again and a quirky little used bookstore in peril, I had no idea I would end up mired in research about the federal criminal court system, reading documents like Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (which has a foreword by the current chair of the Committee on the Judiciary, whose delightful last name happens to be Goodlatte–seriously, it is) and perusing websites with colorful maps of Circuits of the Federal Judiciary and flow charts about how cases move through court.

And yet, here I am, hunched at my desk, squinting through it all and trying to figure out just how a couple cases in my novel’s backstory would have gone.

Imagination, if you let it, can take you to places you’d never expect (or go on purpose). This is not the kind of research I enjoy. I love reading well-written books about history or biographies of fascinating people. But reading dry-but-necessary material put together by the government makes me feel a little like this:

 

BoredEmmaStone

And this:

BoredEdwardNorton

And this:

BoredJamesMcAvoy

And occasionally this:

MaebyNoSense

So if there are any federal judges or district attorneys or lawyers out there who want to help me out with this, don’t hesitate to drop me a line. Sometime in the future you may get a free book with your name in the acknowledgments out of the deal.

Now don’t everyone all jump up at once…

Anticipation

Once we get into February, it’s always the same for me. Utter elation when the sun shines, pervasive gloom when it’s gray, and the urge to do something to hasten spring. Yesterday I had that urge. Of course there’s nothing you can really do to get the leave back on the trees and wake your garden up. But when the birds start singing mating tunes, it feels as though the time for sitting around is over.

So yesterday I got out of the house. I stocked up on birdseed to make sure all those lovely little birds would visit my yard. And, oh, they have. Cardinals and chickadees, downy woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches, juncos and house finches. Their energetic hopping and flitting about makes me ready to do the same.

I also stopped by a greenhouse in town and got some little succulents for my petite vintage windowsill planters. Why succulents? They’re easy, they’re cheap, and in the summertime I can re-pot them together in an arrangement and place them outside if I want to. Beyond that, I’m used to getting succulents from the days our cat ate everything else that was green.

Now when I look out my office window toward the bare backyard, I see a preview of green and a tiny world that is busily getting ready for warmer weather. Perhaps I should get busy on my own nest. Someone hand me a sander and a paintbrush…

A February First

I’m not sure when I’ve been quite this chipper on the first day of February — especially with no snow on the ground. I’m finally shaking a week long sickness, I’ve hit the ground running with a revision of a work-in-progress, and the birds have been singing their springtime songs. Yesterday afternoon (and into the evening) I cleaned out and cleared off my desk while bingeing on Design on a Dime. (Aside: Do you know that both bingeing and binging are acceptable, yet WordPress claims both are misspellings?)

Perhaps I’m feeling peppy because my own personal new year starts today. All of my overwhelming activities I stepped back from last year are truly done now and I have the delightful feeling of a carnival pony that’s been released from the wheel that kept me going around in circles and I can now follow where my fancy leads me. And this month it is leading me to get my next manuscript in shape, get the house in order, and check off a couple more items on my list of things to do before we possibly put the house on the market later this year.

The January thaw has us delirious with thoughts of spring even though we know better. Still, it was lovely yesterday to wear a light jacket to church and imagine the season to come. It should be in the low 40s the next few days, with wind and rain, but winter should return later this month. And that’s all for the good. I have firewood yet to burn…