If you’ve been wanting more content from me, I recently joined Instagram. I’ve mostly posted pictures what I’m reading and my chickens, but there’ll be a barrage of Free Fall promo soon, I’m certain.
Last week, my mother sent me four boxes filled with all the books she’d collected when my brother and I were kids. She and my father are moving and as my brother doesn’t have any children, I got them. I gnashed my teeth because we just moved and our house is filled with books. But who turns down more books? Certainly not this girl!
As I unpacked, inside one of the boxes I found Hilary Knight‘s Cinderella (1978). Of all the books she sent, this was one I sat down with re-read on my own, cover to cover, as soon as I took it out, a tingling sense of remembrance settling over me with each turn of the page.
Knight is most famous as the illustrator of Kay Thompson’s Eloise (1969). In comparison, his illustrations for Cinderella demonstrate the effects of the 1970s on aesthetics, particularly in his use of color (think Precious Moments).
But what amazed me was how well I remembered the pictures: the gauzy sleeves on Cinderella’s ball gown. The ginger prince in his pale blue coat. A discarded blue bottle and a lizard in the corner of the garden. The wisps of hair escaping from Cinderella’s chignon. As a child, I had studied these illustrations. Closely. Obsessively.
What I hadn’t remembered was this this version of Cinderella is set in the Regency (or perhaps a decade later, I’m not good with clothes and dates). At the very least, these images could serve as costume inspiration for the Austen adaptations I’d be avidly consuming a few short years after I put this book away.
I closed the book. I reopened it. I read it again. Holy cow. Maybe Hilary Knight’s illustrations for Cinderella primed me to love Austen and Regency/early Victorian England. Maybe Knight is responsible for everything that followed.
I’m utterly certain that this book set me up to appreciate Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for The Nutcracker (which Brain Pickings profiled here), a book I loved so much and for so long I took it with me when I moved out of my parents house. Sendak’s illustrations for Hoffmann’s novella (set in the late 18th century) got me into bel canto opera, which led to…
You get the point: inspiration is nested. It’s random. It’s unpredictable. And I suspect that we all process it differently. Books and words inspire me, but I don’t tend to remember them quite as clearly as I do images. Ditto for music, taste, and smell, all of which are more abstract.
When I reopened Knight’s Cinderella, I realized that for me, the picture might be the most important thing. Or at least the one that stays with me the longest. The swept of a line, the shade of blue, the quality of light: these have become part of me forever.
So what inspires you? What’s the core of what you’re writing or reading these days? And did anyone else have this edition of Cinderella?
I try not to write about writing itself on my blog because such topics tend to only be of interest to other writers. Also, I don’t always (okay, I seldom) feel like I have something original or worthwhile to say about the writing process. But to break my own rule and be a little cryptic…
For a long time before I started writing fiction down, I was writing it in my head. I didn’t realize it, but I was carrying around a bag and I was putting all sorts of things into it. Jokes that I (and those around me) told. Words that I liked the sound of. Bits of description. Images. Smells. Fragments of motivation and psychology. And questions–so many questions. Why did he do that? Why did I say that? Could this have happened another way? What is she thinking? Etc.
When I started writing, I began taking things out of the bag. I recently re-read Special Interests and it amazed to me how much truth I told while lying. The bones of the scene, the things that were happening in terms of the plot or characterization, would be wholly fabricated. But every single detail of the scene would be true. The book is a patchwork quilt of my experience in and observation of the world.
For a long time in my writing life, I would take things out of the bag and tap them into my stories slant (sorry, Emily Dickinson, that’s one of those words). I mean to say that I used a trick not too differently from how it happened or where I had once seen that sweater or how that thing had tasted. I just sort of twisted a bit.
However, I’ve been writing something that is (for me) very different and crazy. But here’s the thing: I’m using just as much stuff out the bag as before. Maybe more. I’ve discovered whole other rooms, whole other continents, in the bag. So what I’m trying to say is that I am larger than I thought I was. And for the moment at least, that makes me less scared of my writing than I’ve been in a long time.
We, as writers, are told to develop a brand. To make a promise to our readers and to deliver on it in terms of voice and tone and story and setting. What I’m writing now doesn’t feel all that off-brand. It feels like me…but slant. And on the bias, there are entirely new ways of being.
Last week the Irish band U2 did a terrible thing. They released a previously unannounced album and Apple automatically put it into everyone’s iTunes accounts–for free.
I know, right? Those jerks.
I’m mostly joking; I did find the situation creepy. Let me decide if I want your music. If I don’t, let me delete it. And at least as serious as the presumption and privacy violation, as I started listening to the new album, all I heard was over-produced, generic pop. Like most of their recent efforts, this album lacked verve and originality. The band’s fingerprints, even. After a few spins, I think I’m out.
Songs of Innocence did, however, spark an intense discussion about the group and their place in popular culture, including a fascinating New Yorker article by Joshua Rothman on “The Church of U2.” (Aside: I was discussing the piece with my friend Kimberly Truesdale, she pointed toward some pieces she’d written about the same themes a decade ago, including this one. Very smart stuff.)
In the process of reading these essays I started listening to the U2 music I actually like including their masterpiece “One.” In the chorus, the speaker sings, “We get to carry each other.” And today, the emphasis in the line sounds to me as if it’s on the word “get.” As in we have the opportunity to carry each other. The responsibility. The reward. The expectation. All of these things, good and bad at once, come from being subject to one another.
I have inconsistent work habits to put it mildly. I’ve written 7,000 words in a day, but most days I write none. I cannot defend this. It is not good process. I know it, and yet I persist in doing it. I think about my projects all the time, but they occupy my fingers less. I don’t think of it as the muse leaving the building. It’s more like a tide. At periods, it will be in and my brain is fecund. Then it rolls out and I’m like a shell baking on an arid shore.
Or like a vessel. I pour myself out, trusting that it will refill. And right now, I’m waiting.
There were a lot of things in my head when I started writing Special Interests: a scene involving a boy giving a girl references so she’ll go out with him; Bob Woodward’s book about the 2008/2009 economic crisis, The Price of Politics; and the movie (500) Days of Summer.
I did not, for the record, hate the latter as much as many people did. (And I am going to spoil it in what follows. You’ve been warned.)
For starters, my own relationship to hipsterism is complicated. For a long time, I thought it was a word that Allen Ginsberg uses early in “Howl” and nothing more. Then one day in about 2006 I realized that it was a thing–a real, contemporary thing–and many of my friends demonstrated symptoms. Not in a bad way. Not in a pretentious way. But in an “Have you heard the new Wilco album?” “are you coming to my urban canning party?” “you did NOT just use a paper towel” way.
I’m procrastinating. And in moments of procrastination, I blog. And in case in moments of procrastination you read blogs, I present for your viewing pleasure a list of my most treasured lip-locking moments in cinema. I’m stealing this idea quite shamelessly from Katy Regnery, who blogged about her favorite movie kisses a few weeks ago.
Follow me below the fold…
The day was hot; summer announcing itself. There’s a smell in the south — warm earth and wilting verdure — that I forget every fall and rediscover in the late spring: the smell of summer. The breeze stirring my hair didn’t cool me, though it moved the wheat in which I stood. From the top of the hill, looking down over the field, I tried to imagine the scene 150 years earlier when the Battle of Chancellorsville raged.
I stood at the spot where Robert Lee’s Confederate troops flanked Joseph Hooker’s Federal forces. Among the Federal troops at Chancellorsville was the Connecticut Fifth, the unit to which the hero in my forthcoming novel, Brave in Heart, belongs. Without spoiling the book, the battle is significant to the story I’m telling. I’ve looked at engravings. Read survivors’ accounts. But I needed to see it for myself.
One hundred and fifty years ago today in northern Virginia, the Battle of Chancellorsville began. It would take a week and claim 24,000 lives. That’s a number that requires a moment to sink in. Maybe it helps to write it out: twenty-four thousand men perished there in fighting over seven days.
Aside from the massive human cost, Chancellorsville is interesting to me because it was the beginning of the apex of the Confederacy militarily. Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg it seemed quite likely that the Confederacy would win the war.
After years of study as a curious amateur, then as scholar, and now as a writer, I still can’t understand why things were so close for two + years and particularly for those two months. How could the Union — with more than twice as many people (the ratio gets even more unbalanced when you take into account Confederate unwillingness to arm the sizable enslaved population), almost all of the industrial production, and vastly superior infrastructure and wealth — not crush the Confederacy immediately?
The answers to that question (e.g., weak military leadership, hubris, bad luck, differences in culture, etc.) proved so costly it makes me ill. The American Civil War should have ended quickly, but it did not and thus 660,000 people died and cultural rifts were entrenched that still haven’t fully healed (see Confederates in the Attic).
But back to Chancellorsville! It was a decisive Confederate victory, though the death of Stonewall Jackson clouds this assessment, and it set up the dynamic for the war’s true turning point, Gettysburg. Because of his win at Chancellorsville — a win that occurred entirely because of tactics as he had been badly unnumbered — Robert E. Lee felt emboldened to invade the Union and that turned out to be a mistake, though the war wouldn’t end for two more years.
Chancellorsville has a long and prestigious literary history as the subject of Stephen Crane’s novella The Red Badge of Courage, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “A Night at Chancellorsville,” a poem by Herman Melville entitled “Stonewall Jackson,” and a diary entry by Walt Whitman from the very underrated Specimen Days in America.
On July 1, I’ll be waltzing quite brazenly into the party with my novel Brave in Heart, a historical romance that finds it’s turning point on the Chancellorsville battlefield. I hope you’ll join me there.
The number of images I was downloading to track my inspiration for various works in progress was getting overwhelming, so I jointed Pinterest. You can see my boards here. Currently, there’s one for each of the (someday soon to be) four novels in the Dauntless Love series.
For whatever reason, I don’t tend to use inspirational images for my contemporary writing, but I find them very helpful for the historicals.