I visited France for a week this summer, and I promised some pictures. It was a beautiful trip. I traveled alone, using Paris as my base to explore Versaille, the seat of the Sun King, Giverny, the home of Monet, and Marseille, the beautiful coast. I would have liked to leave Marseille early to visit Provence on the way – don’t we all dream of those lavender fields? – but it was not to be. In fact, my circumstances in Marseille became unexpectedly dark – a story I will tell another time.
For now, some light, from the City of Light, La Ville-Lumière. I first visited the Palais Garnier, the first French Opera house that now houses ballet. Natalie Portman’s husband Benjamin Millepied leads the company there today. It was breath-taking inside. Glass, light, crystal, chandeliers.
And a Muse. Of course I would show you her.
This is the grand entranceway for season ticket holders. As I walked in this building, I realized I had written about it without ever being there. The Palais Garnier is exactly as I pictured the Theatre of Tragedy in my world of Nyarteme.
Except my version had more snakes.
The Opera house was where people socialized and held court. Women would sit in their boxes, holding meetings. The later you arrived, the better, because it meant you were busy and therefore important. The shows were not spectacular or even relevant, because no one was really listening; it was like a modern cocktail party or an outdoor movie, but with wigs instead of canapes and corsets instead of flipflops.
There is so much detail on every surface that you could wander the Opera for a year and still find little vignettes to admire. Carved dragons, gods behaving badly, a placard for a phantom. Every facade is meant for consumption.
I loved the Room of the Sun and the Room of the Moon. Though I am usually partial to the moon, the Sun was just a little more lovely in the Palais. Mirrors, mirrors, always mirrors. See and be seen. Paris itself is a city of eyes.
You may have heard of a book or a show called Phantom of the Opera. This is the theatre from which it is based, and here is the Phantom’s box. Leroux’s novel was inspired by a real incident in this very building when a counterweight for the great chandelier fell from the ceiling into the crowd, maiming a woman. This beautiful ceiling is a new addition, meant to bring some modern color into this old institution. I sat there for awhile in a little red chair, staring at an empty stage as tourists streamed by, seeing a show in my own mind – one with Muses and mirrored masks, with fire and pythons, with memory and magic art.
I found out one day that I could read Greek. It was a nice surprise, much like learning that I could inexplicably cook amazing prime rib. I was in a diner at the time, as I frequently am here in New Jersey, when my new powers took hold.
My partner and I were waiting for our hummus when my eyes fell on the paper placemat beneath my silverware. I had looked at it countless times. There were ads for market research, for law firms, for an innovative way to haul elderly people up staircases they could no longer climb.
Then something in the upper corner caught my eye.
I have been to several countries: Greece, Italy, Turkey, France, Germany, and Japan. As a child, I learned Japanese. As a teenager, I learned Latin. As a human being in western civilization, I learned (some) Greek. Linguistically, my bases were well-covered, which enabled me to later try Sanskrit, Gaelic, Polish, Danish, medieval French, and more. Danish was breathtakingly easy.
Gimo Mendes fra Mozamibique er politisk, poetisk, personlig og frem for alt pluralistisk. What does this Danish mean? I think you have an idea. You just read Danish – congratulations.
We always think it is so hard to read, to hear, to speak another language, but they’re not the same operation. There is not one mental bucket called ‘French’ with an arrow next to it that says ‘can’t do’. There are many discrete tasks, incremental victories, and dubious degrees of accuracy. Personally, I can often read other languages. I can guess at meanings based on a few words, the context, and a little personal magic. I have done this for completely made-up languages, and I am not alone. When a sentence of gibberish has a familiar grammar, the rest falls into place.
“Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.”
Reading is easy. It’s how I learned every language except English. Speaking is harder. Before, you disassembled something. Now, you must assemble it. You can get by with stock phrases and a limited vocabulary, of course. And I do. I know how to say thank you in French, German, Latin, Japanese, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and probably others I cannot even remember. It’s enough.
The hardest is to hear. When someone else addresses you in this tongue, at an unknown pace, enjambing words together, using synonyms you don’t know, being formal or informal in a way you did not learn.. too often I have stared blankly. It’s a different skill, a different muscle. If they had only written the phrase down, I would have known it. Because I can read.
Did I say reading was easy? That if only a foreign speaker wrote a phrase down, I’d know it?
It’s only easy in Latin languages. In Greek, Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Russian, and a few others, it is a complete disaster.
Because they have their own alphabets, a double translation must take place. To read, I must translate the word into its sound, then its sound into its meaning. In Latin, the word is its sound to my brain.
S-o-u-n-d is sound. That funny looking squiggle is an S. The circle is an O. It sounds like ss and ow and..
But what’s 東京?
And what’s Nεκρός?
東京 is Tokyo. In Japanese, they have not one but three written languages. Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.
Well, I can read romaji. But romaji is not listed, you say? That’s right. It’s not. Romaji is not a written language in Japan – but it does convey Japanese. How? It expresses the sounds of hiragana using the Roman alphabet.
Tokyo is Romaji. とうきょう is its hiragana. (Above, I used its kanji, because Tokyo is always written that way. Yes, that’s a wrench in the works.)
と う きょ う – to. u. kyo. yo. u. Highlighted above.
You can see the う – u – in there twice. That wasn’t so bad, was it? と う きょ う is Tokyo! Ah, but what does Toukyou mean?
Tokyo means nothing. It’s a place. But neko means something. Shiro means something. Or does it? I recently finished reading Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. It is a Japanese novel translated into English. There are several characters with nicknames like colors. Shiro means white… and she’s also a teenager.
I’ve thought about trying to translate a Murakami book into English on my own. It would be a laborious work for the reasons described: I would need to translate its hiragana, katakana, and kanji mixture into sounds I understand, then translate those into English. Some words would need no translation. I know ao is blue. I know aka is red. I know neko is cat. But there are thousands of words I do not know. In a 100,000 word novel, I might have to do 25,000 lookups.
And what would I have at the end of this process? A mess? An incomplete hack? No. It would be something beautiful and rare; my own completely unique understanding of a book based on my own imperfect translation. The words would have nuances peculiar to me, based on my understanding of English. I might not glean the humor or the puns. I may completely miss a ‘not’ and believe the main character confessed when they did not. In Japanese, the words for probably and maybe are the same. Think about the implications.
I might misunderstand the book entirely. Certainly, I would not understand it as Murakami intended it.
And yet it would be completely mine. The book I translated – perhaps The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles – would have a shape in my mind unique to me. It would have a meaning that only I could give it. It would be an experience only I could have.
Now I ask you.. Is a book in English any different? We assume we have the same experience because we speak the same language, and yet that is a complete illusion. Our shared understanding of these sounds obfuscates the fact that our understanding of the concepts beneath them is broad at best. Our interpretation of every theme, scene, line, and word is nuanced in ways very particular to our feelings about the phrases, the sentiment, the paper, the typeface, and even the environment around us at that moment. Every book reading is unique. Every book meaning is misunderstood.
It’s just a matter of degree.
If you are a scientist, a mathematician, a sorority sister, or a fraternity brother, you know your Greek alphabet.
Nεκρός. Nu. Eta. Kappa. Rho. Omega. Sigma. Even if you did not know the letters, you might see N. E. K. ?. O. C. Let me help you.. that p is an R. That C is an s, a sigma, used to denote the end of the word. You might recognize it as the symbol for sum. This word is over; this is its sum.
Nεκρός. Nekro. Necro. Necrosis, Necromancy. Death.
The ad on that diner placemat was for a Greek funeral home. I understood it instantly, like magic. It was always magic, really; ordinary magic, evolutionary magic, only seen for its miraculous nature when it took me by surprise. I wasn’t trying to read Greek. I just did.
I didn’t mean to go to France. And I didn’t mean to enjoy it.
At first, I had planned to go to Ireland with my partner, but he decided he wanted to stay home with our cats instead. One of them had been ill lately so I was grateful. I therefore decided to travel myself and select a place he would never want to go. My main choices were Greece and Paris. We have been to Greece before and quite enjoyed it, but he wouldn’t mind if he didn’t see Athens twice. Similarly, Paris has not held any mystery for either of us. I am not particularly romantic, nor do I find the Eiffel tower or the architecture that striking.
I do, however, love art. Are you shocked?
And though I had all but decided to go to Delphi and Meteora in Greece, a flight sale happened that took me to Paris instead. I decided to spend a low-pressure week there simply absorbing art, eating pastries, and visiting museums. Paris inspired the city of Syduire in my novel, so it was amazing to find myself in places like the Palais Garnier and realize that, quite accidentally, I had recreated it in my story. I had never seen nor heard of this opera house before, but once I was in it, I knew it was the Theater I had written about. Amazing. I will write more about France in upcoming posts, because it changed me so much, despite my original disdain for it.
But I’ve been back from France for a few weeks. I then got a tooth removed, obsessed over the World Cup, caught up on work, and here I am with free time once more..and newly inspired to improve my manuscript. I’ve been working on it, then paused at a particular scene last week when work became hectic. Today when I returned to revising, I decided to inspire myself/procrastinate by making some art.
It took no time at all for the town was quite small,
he found the Worder’s wagon behind the inn just like the shopkeeper said he would.
Long and ornate, it reminded him of a carnival wagon. The Worder clearly lived in it – one side had shuttered windows painted a garish green, and a few potted plants clustered on its sill. The door was open but cast in darkness thanks to its small awning. All of this he would have been happy to observe from a safe distance, but then he saw the books piled on the steps.
He had a weakness for books. He had only been in a handful of bookstores in his entire lifetime. Recalling the shopwoman’s nonchalance toward the Worder, Merrick crept up to the wagon and rapped on the wooden rail.
“In,” a harried voice yelled, and Merrick obeyed, ducking into the dark doorway. Books surrounded him, reaching the ceiling in teetering towers. There was just enough room for a slender man to slip between them. Shelves lined every wall, sagging from countless tomes. It smelled like paper and antiquity.
“What do you need?” Merrick heard the voice but did not see it. He weaved in and out of a few stacks until he saw a desk wedged in the corner. A man with tan, narrow features sat there, pen poised above a piece of paper. There was a clipped note to his voice, a slight severity to the vowels, as if he hated to let the words escape his mouth.
“Just looking…” He trailed off as he noticed the Worder was now staring at him. “What?”
“You look around. I’ll pull some books for you.” With that, the man slid out from his desk and disappeared behind a tower of volumes. Merrick blinked, trying to creep towards the doorway in case he needed to escape quickly. He heard the Worder whispering to himself, followed by thumps and clouds of dust.
“Here are some.” The man was at his elbow again, a large crate in his hand stacked high with texts. “Look through them.”
“I.. I can’t–” Merrick stammered as soon as the crate caught his eye. He knew he should decline and leave – he had neither the time, the space, nor the gold for this adventure – but the pile of books, all cracked leather and gold-rimmed pages, called to him.
“You insult me?”
“No, no, I just can’t–” Merrick began. “I can’t carry all those books.”
“Ah, of course. Well, come back with me to the table and take the ones you can carry.”
“No, I don’t need any–”
“They’re your books. You must take them,” the shopkeeper interrupted in irritation. “They demand it.” He retreated to the back of the store, then waved Merrick to follow him.
His mind roiled with theories. Mistaken identity. Some sort of con. Thievery. There was no good explanation for the Worder’s behavior. Yet his feet moved of their own volition, taking him deeper into the bookstore, further into the darkness of paper and ink.
Your books, the man’s voice echoed in his mind.
He only owned one book of his own. The rest belonged to the carnival. It was called The Fisherman’s Guide to the Basskills. It was completely useless, and, at four coppers, that’s also why he could afford it. Every coin spent on himself was a coin that did not help his mother.
The book was only twenty-seven pages, and it smelled of mildew, but it had been his. The thought of owning a nobler book today was more than he could resist.
The shopkeeper unpacked the books from the crate with a thump, sending up a cloud of dust from his table top. A flameless lamp cast a yellow circle on the surroundings. The Worder muttered something, and the word glow flickered into existence above the lamp, bursting with light like a firework. Merrick stared.
I finished splitting the first half of my current epic fantasy novel into its own story this weekend. It required some rewriting and rearranging, along with a new ending. I have now finished this novel twice. I will likely finish it at least twice more – once for an agent, once for an editor. Publishing is quite the ordeal.
All parts of a novel require deliberate, but the ending is particularly delicate. It must be well-paced, satisfying, emotional, and persistent. Pacing and persistence were on my mind the most tis past week. My climax is quite the ride – puzzle pieces fall into place with explosive results for the main characters. It’s incredibly emotional. I need to give the characters time to react to that after, and I need to let the reader breathe a little, too. Then another emotional high. Then another breath. Then an action high. Then another breath.
My novel ends on a breath. I think ending immediately after the action leaves readers lacking closure. They want time to savor events with your main character. Did someone die? Let the other characters mourn for a page, then end with hope. Did two characters come together? Give us a paragraph of them basking in happiness.
After a great deal of tragedy, I tried to end with some hope. However, there is danger in ending on a breath like that. It may not be memorable. You want readers to walk away with a stunned look, shaking their heads. You want them to pick up their phone and text someone, ‘I just finished this book and you have to read it’. Give them a sense of completeness, but don’t take too long. Don’t deflate the balloon of their excitement, or that referral may never happen.
And find a great last line.
The best one I’ve read is Fitzgerald’s for The Great Gatsby.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
It stands alone as a comment about life. It encapsulates the book perfectly. It is poetic, evocative, memorable.
Gatsby dies on page 174, and the book does not end for 18 more pages, or about 5,000 words. In that time, we learn about his secret life, his funeral arrangements, the emptiness of his relations, and Nick’s feelings about the whole affair. It is a melancholy ending, but it gives you pause. Here is a tragedy, dissected. Here is a nation, analyzed. All leading up to that one sentence. In a way, the whole book is leading up to that sentence, that summation.
This is what we should strive for. Writing is a house authors build brick by brick, yes. But for a reader, it is a mountain to climb. A linear journey. The last step should be exquisite, and the view at the top devastating.
The image to the left was inspired by the Great Gatsby’s ending. The boat upon the water is itself hazy and watery, like the American Dream Nick sees in all his western acquaintances.
My ending is also melancholy. I strove for heft in my last line. It doesn’t encapsulate the book – the previous line does that – but it speaks to the future. I think it says something about life.
My first beta reader reviewed my rewrites and enjoyed them, so after months of my boat moving backward against the current, it may float forward once more. The WIP is once again done.
I celebrated with some cake.
Is it still procrastination if you do something productive with your time? Or is it just a poor choice? I’m not sure which I’d rather be accused of.
I’m in the process of splitting my 225K manuscript into two manuscripts of ~125K each. It’s aggravating; while there’s a natural splitting point, that split point is not an end. It’s the equivalent of the way they broke the Harry Potter, Twilight, etc movies into two parts. The first movie ended, but it didn’t truly conclude.
While I could have done a straight split of my book and called it a day, it would have ended and not concluded. I don’t think that’s a good situation to be in as a debut author, so additional writing and rewriting was a necessity. I was also concerned about having a downer ending, since the mid-point of a book is typically when things get worse or backslide for the hero. I therefore committed to fundamentally changing the story to give someone, anyone a positive outcome in book 1.
I really did not want to do this. I’m a little worried the new ending lessens the impact of something Really Important that will happen in book 3. The Really Important event is so important that it was one of the first things I envisioned about the Muses series five years ago. But – c’est la vie.
That’s the dark truth of publishing. It sounds great – you can write what you like from home and have adoring fans! No, the only thing you are guaranteed is working where you want. You probably don’t get to write what you want. You will probably change your book to appeal to a theoretical agent. Once you get an agent, they will have revision notes. Once you get a publisher, your editor will have revision notes, too.
So here I am, rewriting a book I thought I finished months ago. I’m not always in the mood for it. When I procrastinate, I might blog. I might work on photos over at LauraInDigital.com or MyEgyptianMau.com. I might make brownies – or some artwork.
I was in a surrealist mood as per my twitter stream this weekend so I hunted down some pictures of people with giant eyeballs for heads, melting mouths, etc. The photo to the right is one I stumbled onto. It’s not truly surrealist, but I really like Agnes-Cecile’s work in general so I thought I’d show it off a little.
It’s fun to look at other people’s art, but I wanted to make something myself. I had a photo of myself playing cello in a mask that I thought had a lot of potential. I had been working on ‘painting’ it for a few weeks but it was boring me. I got the idea to grunge it up instead, and I think it was a great choice. There are several grunge layers atop the painting with some music-note highlighting.
From a conceptual perspective, her hand on the cello is intentionally decaying. Her eyes are closed, and her face is masked. We see nothing of this woman except the blue mask. It is also the clearest part of the image because the fake face endures the longest, and her music the shortest.
You could choose to see a statement about modern celebrity here, but I would rather interpret it as it applies to Nyarteme. In Artists of Song and String, the third book of the series, Celia is a celloist who is forced to play for her captor. She shows him a fake face, and he goes to startling ends to strip her of her mask and change her music to his liking – hence her fading hand.
An upright bass is a noble instrument. At nearly 6 feet tall, it is taller than many men – with an even deeper voice. I met one in December, and I fell in love. Somehow he fit in my small car, and together we drove across the farmlands of New Jersey, up the dirty factory-laden turnpike, and into my tree-filled little town. I helped him out onto the street. I bid him to lean against my car while I closed the driver’s side door.
And then he fell over.
There was a sickening crack. A jangle of strings. A thump. A sickening feeling in my stomach as I surveyed the lumpy music bag on the street. I knew without looking inside that the worst had happened.
I had snapped my upright bass’s neck right in front of my own house.
I hauled the shards of my musical dreams up the stairs to my apartment, trying to ignore the clanking and discordant jangles. Every step had its own dying noise.
Unfortunately, I needed to be as quiet as possible, because my significant other was sleeping. He wasn’t supposed to know I had an upright bass, you see.
Because it was a gift for him.
I had eye surgery before Thanksgiving. It was supposed to be run-of-the-mill Lasik, but at the last minute, the surgeon decided to do a much more invasive procedure on my right eye. This is my dominant eye, my photography eye. I don’t know why I said yes.
What followed is an adventure – still in progress – in which we wait for the entire surface of my cornea to grow back. It was painful. I couldn’t see very well. I couldn’t drive to my appointments. I spent a lot of time in a dark room with my eyes closed. Lou was unfailingly wonderful, driving me to places, getting me food, waking me up to put eyedrops in, making me an eyepatch (yarr!), and listening to my kvetching about how my eye still wasn’t healed yet. (After 7 weeks, this conversation is still ongoing.)
I decided to get him a gift in gratitude. He was a minor viola prodigy in his youth and can play nearly any instrument with surprising dexterity. When I started to learn the cello, he wrote sheet music for me by ear, because we decided we should duet Pink Floyd and Rasputina. I noticed that he preferred to pluck my cello more than bow it, and he often played the blues.
Obviously the man needed a bass.
Upright or double basses are very expensive because they are so huge. My bass is not even a full-size, and it is nearly 72 inches tall – before I even extend its foot-peg. That’s a lot of wood – both to fabricate and to ship. I didn’t want to buy a $3,000 instrument when Lou would probably just pluck it at night. However, a nice young man on craigslist sold me his spare for $250 because it had a small defect.
A tiny crack in the neck.
He said it could be repaired. I asked him if a luthier had looked at it, and he said his music teacher had done so. It was shallow, right at the part of the neck where it meets the body. I didn’t mind. The odds of that crack breaking the neck with our minimal amount of play were small.
Little did I know I would be looking at the pieces of a double bass in my living room just an hour later.
By the way, it turns out Lasik eyes can cry.
I hauled the body into our library, texted and cried to my friends, and started googling. I had been prepared to deal with a crack. I wasn’t helpless. I could work with wood, glue, stone, anything.
If it was just a crack, I might have been calmer. But there was more. The bridge, which is the piece of wood that holds up the strings. The soundpost, which is a cylinder of wood precisely placed inside the bass and held between the walls with tension alone. And then I’d have to restring it and tune it.
Truthfully, this was Lou’s forte. He was always adjusting my cello bridge, obsessively retuning our instruments, geeking out over which strings or varnish or bows to use. And the bass was just so big. Even with its neck snapped off, the body was over 3 feet long and two feet wide, heavy, and for gods’ sakes, it had a soundpost rolling around in it. I might not be able to fix it alone.
If I gave him a broken double bass, would I be giving him work, or would I be giving him a project?
That night, I asked him if he wanted the good news or the bad news. Lou being Lou, he said he wanted the bad news.
Me: “I dropped it on the street and it shattered into pieces.”
Lou: “Uh oh. What’s the good news?”
Me: “I got you an upright bass.”
He was game. We examined the remains. It was a clean break – the neck still fit into the bass’s body with only a slight gap.
Our options were gluing it or nailing it. Nailing it was permanent and would mar the instrument forever. We decided to glue it. Off to Home Depot we went, for hide glue and clamps. They didn’t have real hide glue – the granules you cook on your stove – so we bought Titebond Original. It, and hide glue, dissolve in water, so if we wanted to undo our glue job, we could. Crazy glue and epoxies are permanent.
We did a test run with the three clamps because we would only have half an hour to work before the glue set. It was a good thing we did the test run.
The clamps didn’t fit. Now, I don’t mean we needed more clamps or different clamps. Oh, that would be easy.
No, the problem is that the main clamp needed to hold the fingerboard and the neck onto the body. What’s the fingerboard, you say? It is a perfectly curved black bar beneath the strings. Perfectly curved. Why? Imperfection changes the sound because the strings will hit any flaws when they vibrate against the board.
A perfectly curved surface can’t hold a clamp. The clamp has nothing to grip. Nothing.
Lou wanted to give up, but, like the musical elements were his forte, getting it DONE was mine. I went to the hardware store and got zip ties. I pulled out every piece of double-sided tape, caulking, and putty I had. (And I have a lot, being an artist. Trust me.) Anything to give this clamp purchase.
I put two non-slip chair foot pads on the back and front of the bass, then I added double-sided, sticky mounting squares on top of them. This gave the clamp something to ‘grip’ and added friction. For support, I ringed the area with grey caulking putty so there’d be resistance if the clamp started to slip.
We tightened it. We waited. It held.
Lou was dubious when he saw my contraption, but I was overjoyed. We disassembled the clamps, painted on the glue, put the clamps back on, and cleared away the excess glue that started leaking from the cracks. We waited one hour. We unclamped it. We let it cure for 24 hours.
And when we picked it up, the neck HELD. We glued that biscuit-loving thing back on, and it WORKED.
I am Dr. Frankenstein.
We were far from finished. The strings were loose, the bridge was off, and the soundpost was rolling around in the instrument like it didn’t have a care in the world. What’s a soundpost? It is a wooden cylinder that spans between the front and the back of the bass. Nothing but those two wooden walls hold it in place. If it doesn’t fit exactly and snugly between them, it will fall down. Its purpose is to vibrate after you agitate the strings, thus vibrating the air inside the instrument and projecting the sound. Moving it slightly in any direction will change your instrument’s tone.
So this was a delicate task requiring extreme dexterity and extreme precision. In the dark. Awesome.
We tied a string around the post, then put it back in. What followed was an hour-long, two-person fishing expedition involving two twisted wire hangers, a dental mirror, a compact mirror on a string, a flash light, and a starving cat crying at the door.
We used the string to pull the post upright inside the instrument, then used the wire hangers to nudge it into place. There was a very faint circle on the wood where it had stood before, thanks to time and dust. However, once we got it to that spot, we had to stand it up, and it had to stand exactly straight up and touch the upper wall of the bass, or it wouldn’t be snug, and it’d fall over.
Oh yeah – do you the back of a bass is curved? That means the bottom of the soundpost is also angled. If it is placed at the wrong angle, it won’t fit!
We got it in. Lou didn’t think it was snug enough. He tried to turn it. He knocked it over. We started over. Finally, we got it. It took an hour.
Next – the bridge. That’s not hard. It’s much easier to do in a bass than in a cello because the bridge is bigger. You can see leaning or off-center problems more quickly. We stringed it. We started to tune it. I tightened the strings, wincing at every creak, waiting for the neck to snap back off from the tension and impale me in my newly lasered eyes.
It did not.
But then I heard the dreaded words.
“We have to unstring it. I put the bridge on backwards.”
There was no way I was unstringing this bass after all the work and anxiety of tuning it the first time. Women’s intuition also reminded me that the notes of a double bass are not the same as a cello or a viola. I looked at him. I asked carefully, “What makes you think that?”
“Well, G should be here, but G is over there, and–”
Deadly calm. “Let’s pull up a picture on the internet of where the notes are on a double bass. And double check.”
“Fine.” A minute passes. “Oh.”
“So, I did it wrong, but in the right way, and the bridge isn’t backwards at all. I just thought the G was the first string, and it’s the last string. So we don’t have to take off the bridge. We just have to retune it.”
That was all I needed to hear.
We tuned it. We hoisted it up. We plucked it. We bowed it.
It was alive.
It now sits in our living room in its own stand, looking like the beautiful steampunk artpiece it is. I love the brass key-shaped auto-tuners, and I love the sound. Lou plays the blues on it sometimes. He improvised a little tune that I composed further. We’ve decided it is the themesong for our new kitten.
We have a new bow coming for it. Lou still plays my cello because it is more convenient than unclipping the bass, but I don’t mind.
I write stories about Art. My second novel, Artists of Song and String, is about Josanne, a singer who is trying to find a new voice, and Celia, a celloist who is trying to hold on to her old voice. An obsessed fan of Celia’s has taken her hostage and is trying to change her music to see more of himself in it. She resists, and he withholds Miraval, her beloved instrument, from her as ransom. Miraval is her only friend. When he threatens to destroy her, it nearly destroys Celia, too.
I didn’t need to break a double bass to know that it would ruin her. I didn’t even need to be a musician. I think most people, novelist or not, would feel sorrow when something beautiful is destroyed. And this double bass was unquestionably beautiful. I was the last person to hear it play, and that means something. It passed into my stewardship, full of potential, and I squandered it in the worst way by letting it shatter on my street.
Though it’s been fixed, it doesn’t sound the same as before. It could be that the young man who sold it to me played an exceptional piece, or that he had more skill than we do, or that the acoustics of his music room are different than our living room. It could be that the bass, once resurrected, did not come back the same, like all the stories of old. I don’t know. Honestly, I can’t even remember what it sounded like. I heard it sing for 60 seconds back in December. It’s like remembering someone had a pretty face, but not being able to name any of their features anymore.
It’s alright. Maybe it played well that day because it knew it was dying. Maybe some other bass spirit took its place when we brought it back to life. It doesn’t matter. We play it, we enjoy it. I saw the sunlight sparkle off its brass tuners the other day, and it was beautiful.
My cat breeder called me up before Christmas to offer me a purebred Egyptian Mau kitten.. for free.
I already own one, and I had been thinking of taking on another – an adult – for awhile, but Lou was hesitant. Wintermuse, our first Egyptian Mau, is famous for her alpha status: she is only 7 pounds but has unhesistatingly backed a Maine Coon up into a corner and swiped at him.
We thought maybe a gradual introduction with a kitten might soften her steely heart and agreed to meet the kitten. We named him Solstice after the day we received him. He is full of love and purrs.
Of course, she hates him.
It’s been over three weeks, and while the hissing and growling is diminished, it’s not gone. They fight every day for one reason or another. For the first 1-2 weeks, Lou and I traded who had to sleep in the library with the kitten and who got to sleep in the bed with Wintermuse. They are a handful. Up until recently, they needed almost constant supervision to break up the fights. I only recently gave them more freedom… because I just couldn’t take it anymore. My house is a disaster, and I have work to do.
But! He is so cute. I did a photo shoot with him yesterday. Here is my favorite ‘raw’ shot. You’ll eventually see more photos at my website http://www.myegyptianmau.com.
I lost NaNoWriMo this year.
It was my fourth year and my first loss. It was a bummer.
In the last post, I mentioned November was not so good. Indeed, a few things went wrong.
1. I was getting feedback from internet strangers on my first chapter of Artists of Body and Blood.
2. I was continuing my second novel, Artists of Song and String, which I had started in NaNoWriMo year 2, rewritten in the off-season, and was now rewriting again.
3. Artists of Song and String is technically difficult due to its heavy emphasis on music, sound waves, vocal techniques, and instruments.
4. I got laser beams shot into my eyes.
But.. I think it’s okay.
Let’s take these one at a time.
1. Feedback From Strangers
I joined a writing community where you critique other people’s work to get points, which you then spend to post your own work and get critiques. This seemed smart. Writers critiquing writers. The more critique you write, the more points you get. This began to be a problem.
It encourages the critiquer to point out EVERY thing they don’t like, even when it is minor, irrelevant, and purely opinion. I am guilty of this, too. The problem is that you end up with 650 words of negativity, 50 words of forced niceness, and no sense of how important anything is. In addition, these people may not write in your genre, and they might not be critical readers themselves. Sifting through it all takes a psychological toll.
I found it increasingly difficult to write new material for NaNoWriMo while the old material was being torn apart. I started NaNoWriMo on Day 3 or 4.
2. Story Confusion
I knew I was going to work on Artists of Song and String. I had already written 60K of it. I had edited and rewritten 30K. I started to work on this 30K for the third time and was just so bored. It’s not a great way to get your 1.7K words a day. I eventually decided to just pick up at a part I knew I hadn’t reached yet and start fresh from there. That seemed to work. I wasn’t hitting 1.7K every day, but the 900 word days were balanced out by the 3K days. By mid-month, I was consistently 3 days behind because of my late start, but I was confident I could make it up.
3. Story Difficulty
I mentioned some 900 word days there. I am not writing a literary novel that conveniently takes place in the real world where cars, cell phones, current fashion trends, and slang can be assumed. I am writing brand new cities, new cultures, people who fight with vocalizations and sound waves, musical instruments that have their own personalities, etc. This is hard. My normal day involves something like ‘How can someone kill three other people using only a cigarette, some rocks, and a human voice?’
I got frustrated with my progress at one point, enough that I started up a completely new story about a couple that went to a lake for a swim. I wrote 2K words in an hour because it’s so easy when you don’t have to build everything from scratch.
Of course, no one wants to read about a couple that went to a lake for a swim.
4. Laser Beams In My Eyes
I got Lasik surgery on Nov 22nd.
Well, I was supposed to.
A few things went wrong.
Despite assurances by two separate doctors that I could get Lasik in both eyes, the surgeon decided 10 minutes before surgery that I would need to get PRK, a more invasive procedure in my one ‘complicated’ eye. I had to decide on the spot if I wanted to proceed. I said yes.
This is where events took a turn for the worst. The valium didn’t really work on me. My hands were shaking in the laser suite. The numbing eye drops did not disable my blink reflex, so I kept trying to do that despite the clips in my eyes. We got the PRK eye done first. I was mouthing the alphabet to myself in an attempt to stay calm. The pain in my eye was like a distant echo, as if the eye drops had not taken away my eye’s ability to hurt, just deafened my ears to its cry.
They started on the other eye, the Lasik eye, then wheeled me over to another machine. I wasn’t allowed to talk or move. So much for the alphabet. I had a stuffed animal to grab but someone offered me a hand and I probably crushed their bones. They suctioned my eye into blindness and inescapable blue sparks. Then it was back to the laser. The surgeon said I did much better with that eye. Well, yes, because staring at a laser is a lot easier than having your eye suctioned. It was a vacation in the Bahamas, in fact.
Unfortunately, because they changed my surgery at the last minute, I didn’t get the right post-operative care for that eye. I didn’t know it would be quite so painful, or that my eye would turn red, my nose would run, and my face would swell. Oops. I came back the next day, they gave me some numbing drops, I got some additional medication they forgot, and then I filled a prescription for percoset and slept for 3 days. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Needless to say, I didn’t make my word count.
The Lasik eye was a champ but the PRK eye will take weeks to heal. I wore an eye patch for awhile, but my good eye got tired fast. I still didn’t write. Thanksgiving loomed closer. I managed a day or two of writing before the end, but then I gave up. I was 25K behind. It just wasn’t possible.
It’s been 13 days, and both eyes are 20/20, but the PRK eye sees double or triple vision. I am on steroids for the next month. It’s not been awesome. Lasik was supposed to be a weekend recovery. I have regrets. (Update: PRK eye is not 20/20 and still sees ghosts, 8 weeks later.)
But It’s Okay
I won three other NaNoWriMos. I wrote a novel in the offseason of 250K words. I don’t write every day, but I can meet goals and finish things. That’s the important part. I didn’t write 50K words in November 2013, but I wrote something, I thought a lot about my story, I have a finished novel lying around, and there are 26 days left in December. I can write all year-round.
The silver lining is that now I can understand why people don’t finish and use this experience to make recommendations to the NaNo team about ways to encourage those people.
November was a rough month for me. October was a great one all the way to the end, so I suppose November was the pendulum swinging back.
But let’s talk about October for now, and perhaps early November. I secured $30 tickets to see Sir Patrick Stewart (Xavier, Picard) and Sir Ian McKellen (Magneto, Gandalf) talk at the New York Times, where I used to work. They were incredibly charismatic and charming, both with the crowd and each other. Sir Ian McKellen’s face is wonderfully expressive. People hate their age and their wrinkles, but in his case, it is a feature, not a bug; his face has a putty-like mobility, and the ability to, say, hide his eyes when he smiles has only widened his range of communication. He was playing the crowd all night, let me tell you. He is a bit of a scoundrel and a ham at times, but he also reflected quite seriously on Shakespeare, Pinter, and the challenges of being gay prior to the 90s. I actually based a ABB character on him years ago – Dacre of the Aadya, the Steward of the Word – and after seeing him in person, it was an excellent decision.
Sir Patrick Stewart was more reserved, but he looked decades younger, and he was wearing zig-zag socks, so I think he has a wild streak in him somewhere. 😉 I was surprised to find the two of them are the same age – 73-74. I was front row as the two of them bantered back and forth, and I tried to sneak a picture of Sir Patrick Stewart at the end. He actually stopped and smiled for me (!), but the photo still came out blurry, alas.
The two of them were promoting their repertory set at the Cort Theatre. They were performing two prize-winning plays: No Man’s Land and Waiting For Godot. I decided to go full-immersion and get tickets.. for both.. in the same day.
Yes, I saw two Broadway shows in the same day. I might be crazy. I did it because they recommended it, and they are incredibly persuasive, but also because it was a rare opportunity. The rush ticketing system and its $35 seats certainly helped.
Waiting for Godot was a 2 PM matinee. We paid $100 each for second-row tickets, and it was well-worth it. The play is both hilarious and gut-wrenching, as it deals with the ambiguity of old age and memory. Really, it is an exceptional piece. (At one point, Sir Patrick Stewart popped out of the wings right in front of me, just as I was putting a piece of gum in my mouth. I looked up, my hand frozen in place, feeling as if I was caught not paying attention to Sir Patrick Stewart. Oops.)
I was a little worried that it’d be difficult to watch a second play with Stewart and McKellen in all new roles, but it was not.
No Man’s Land was 8 PM. We actually had front-row tickets this time for $30, due to rush tickets. I went into the city at 9:00 AM, got in line at 9:30 AM, and waited for the Cort Theatre box office to open at 10 AM. By the time I got to the front, Waiting For Godot had run out of orchestra seats and was selling the boxes on the sides. Luckily, I already had tickets for that. I crossed my fingers and asked for No Man’s Land instead.. and got front row! At 8 PM, I literally sat right in front of my 2 PM seats, and they only cost $30.
No Man’s Land also deals with old age and ambiguity, but it is a more difficult to play. There is less laughter and less goodness. In Waiting For Godot, Didi is someone you root for; he tries to be good, he encourages Gogo to be good, and he is forever optimistic. Gogo is earthier and more prone to bad behavior, but he pulls at your sympathies, too.
There is no one sympathetic in No Man’s Land. Everyone has an angle and a fault, and it is these flaws that essentially imprison them in No Man’s Land. There is no optimism in this play. There is feeble hope, but it is a hope bound to dishonest things.
To continue the theme of Sir Patrick Stewart haunting me, I sat on the far right-hand side of the front row, and the set for No Man’s Land consists of Stewart sitting in an angled easy chair on the far left side of the stage. This meant his natural line of sight fell right on me. I became worried that I hadn’t put my phone into airline mode, and I was fussing with it but afraid to look into my bag too much. Why? I didn’t want to be caught not paying attention to Sir Patrick Stewart again.
Of course, from his point of view, he’s probably thinking ‘Haven’t I seen that girl before? Stop following me around.’ I did find this line-of-sight to be slightly uncomfortable, in the way I found it a little uncomfortable to look the Dalai Lama in the eye when I went to see him a few years ago. I suppose this is an animal brain thing. When someone with perceived power stares at you, you worry you’ll be eaten.
However, this is a writing blog, not a celebrity blog, so let’s get back to important matters. The villains in my first novel are Actors. This was a natural fit, as the very nature of acting and theatre is artifice and manipulation. It was easy for me to imagine the negative side of acting – the histrionics, the pretension, the addiction to attention. However, I’ve never acted and I wasn’t overly familiar with the positive side of this particular craft.
Intellectually, I understand many actors are quite reasonable people, and some of them simply disappear into roles with startling ease, but this immersion is precisely the difficulty of appreciating acting. When someone inhabits a wonderful character so well, you forget the person and see only the character. You only know when it’s been done incorrectly. I’ve seen a lot of plays over the years, but it was truly educational to hear McKellen and Stewart talk about their acting process, then go on to demonstrate it in two different roles, back to back. They were entirely effective. They were completely different people in both plays.
In Waiting For Godot, Stewart as Didi is loose, dancing, possessed of a paternally booming voice. Stewart as Hirst in No Man’s Land is stodgy, stiff in his chair, and silent. He wears a tie that is too wide for him, and the addition of silver hair completely transformed his usually open face. Both of McKellen’s characters, Gogo and Spooner, are down-on-their-luck and shabby, but Spooner’s sly enjoyment of Hirst’s expensive knick-knacks gives him a predatory air. Gogo, meanwhile, can barely keep his eyes open. All of this just hours apart.
And in these two actors, there is no a trace of manufactured celebrity, high-maintenance behavior, or pretension. The air they gave off in the Times Talk was completely genuine. McKellen admitted to needing an audience, but it wasn’t the pathological craving one associates with stereotypical actors. It was, basically, a reminder that somehow, somewhere, there is a Actor in my imaginary city of Drame who is quite decent and finds their fellow Propans a little dodgy. Or murderous.
More importantly, it reminded me of how small changes and ticks can express vastly different personalities. Our brains are wired to understand the human face. The tiniest twitch of the eyelid, the tightening of the lips; we understand someone’s displeasure instinctively. Actors ride a fine line of subtlety in mimicking this; they must do enough with their faces that the deep, unconscious part of our brains can notice it, but not enough that our conscious brains catch it and reject the lie. That’s just the most basic level of competency. Once they master that, they must convey the right meaning. An eyebrow raised too high is surprise. An eyebrow raised just a little might be sarcasm. Acting can be a very precise art, one that lives and dies in millimeters of skin. Seen in that way, it is really quite remarkable.
Last Friday, I finished editing Artists of Body and Blood and sent it to two trusted beta readers. (Thanks, guys!) What a milestone! I’ve had one very special reader consuming every chapter as I wrote it and giving line-by-line feedback, so this is not the first time people have seen my story, but it still feels very special. My friends are torturing me a bit because they’ve been very quiet overall, saying ominously ‘We’re taking notes.’ 😉 I was saved from my own imagination when my friend Allison finally told me she couldn’t stop reading it.
Could there be better words to hear?
You think you’re done when you visit writing, but you’re not. And I don’t mean that there’s a mountain of work left to do around proofing, printing, publishing, promoting. Of course there is. No, I mean the story might be done, but it is not dead. When someone else is in the midst of reading it, you can feel the potential around them like a magnetic field. My friend Allison was a quarter through, and when I realized what awaited her – the character changes, the tragedies, the excitement and awe – it really hit me that I created something. There’s a world out there that I have mastery over, and it now lives in other people’s hearts. Their experiences of my story are only imperfect mirrors of my own, but they still come back to me like little echoes.
It’s a unique feeling. I have made a lot of art in my life. I have transformed clay into animals, blank paper into people, canvas into snowstorms, and random nuts and bolts into chess sets. For several years, I wrote storylines for a fantasy roleplay community, and people actually participated in my stories in real-time. It still wasn’t quite like having people read my novel. There was no anticipation.
I’ve noticed that most visitors who come to my site read my blog and look at my art. They do not read chapters. My friends and I have observed that it is images that rule the internet because they’re so easily consumed and shared. They are low-investment. Reading takes longer, and perhaps you save that for the sites you trust.
I understand that. I participate in a lot of photo communities because it’s so easy to get exposure and likes. But when someone likes my photos, they’re done. In five seconds, they’ve experienced the totality of that image. Maybe they felt something. Maybe they did not. My drawings, my sculptures, my paintings are the same way. You see, you consume, you move on. Perhaps with a sculpture, people spend a little extra time turning it over in their hand, but that’s it.
A story needs at least several minutes and perhaps several hours to consume. At 675 paperback pages, my novel is at least seven hours of investment. There is no way I can intercept someone mid-enjoyment of my visual art pieces because that experience is so short, but I can certainly do so with a story. I can observe the changes on their face. I can ask them how they feel about a character and get different answers. Time is passing, the world is changing, and, for once, I know the future.
I know the future because I wrote the future.
Is this not the power chased by heroes, gods, and monsters? To know what lies ahead?
There was a time in high school I gave up writing because I realized that I could never control someone else’s visualization of my work. I could write that the sky was twilight blue, but I could never know for sure that they saw it that way or fully understood how beautiful that sky was. If I could not dump the contents of my brain into theirs’, writing was a fool’s errand. My thoughts on this have obviously evolved. I still can’t pour images right into your brain (though I got pretty close with this image of one of my book’s scenes, seen to the left).
But I’ve come to realize that just because I can give you an image doesn’t mean I can give you a feeling. What I wanted when I told you about the sky was to communicate how deep and lush and mysterious I find the world at twilight, when all is blue and on the cusp of darkness. It is a limbo of potential and possibility. The landscape balances between night and day. It was never about the specific color. It was about the color evoking the feeling. It’s imprecise, and it always will be. You can’t control other people, and so you can’t control what they see and feel with certainty.
But that’s alright. Knowing that we’re on roughly the same journey is enough. You read the book; you know the plot; maybe you did not feel everything, but you surely felt something. When I was a young writer, I did not understand how worthwhile this imperfection could be.