Of bird nests and writing . . .

Spring is an enchanted season: buds just waiting to burst, chilly mornings that give way to gentle, warm afternoons, limbs that were brown and bare a minute ago suddenly sport a tinge of green. It is all so expectant and exciting. Kind of like the orchestra pit tuning up before a big musical.

I’ve been working away on my second novel and I’m at a point that the newness and the anything-is-possible excitement feeling has faded away. Now I find myself questioning just about everything: Is the voice is right? Should I switch to third person? Are the different perspectives working? I’m far enough in that it would be painful to start again, but not so far along that I have the momentum behind me to charge ahead.

Yesterday, I was pondering whether to start afresh or stay on course as I stared out the window at our backyard, just beginning to show the signs of Spring. My deep literary thoughts kept being interrupted by a very industrious robin going back and forth. I finally got up to investigate and saw that the little bird was busy building a nest in our patio umbrella. It’s a great place, really, to build a nest. It is protected from rain and the narrow pole is a good deterrent to any predators. But it is our patio table and we kind of like to use it as the weather gets nicer. I can’t see having a bird family dining with us being the most appetizing of situations.  So, in that moment, I had another decision: do I let the robin do its thing and build away or stop this before it goes too far?

I should point out that I have a soft-spot for bird’s nests. There is a complex and yet simple beauty about their design and the vulnerable, needy creatures they protect. I would never think of destroying a nest that was built or–gasp–one that contained eggs. But there was still time. Still time to let the robin make other, more permanent plans.

(Wait! I see a metaphor coming!)

The process of building a nest is not so very different from building a story. It requires the right location, a strong foundation and layers and layers of supporting material. You do your best to scout the right place and then you just have to go all in.

So, I’ve decided to let it be. Obviously, something in that robin’s instinct told her that our patio umbrella was just the right spot to start a family. Why should I argue with nature? And maybe I should trust my instinct as a writer and keep going with my current work-in-progress. Too much questioning kind of takes the beauty out of the process.

 

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When a Picture is Worth a Thousand (800) Words . . .

I am always fascinated by the first moment of inspiration–when that spark, even if it is only a glint in the periphery, makes itself known. It may take only a moment to be acknowledged and acted upon, or it might take years of quiet gestation. Regardless, it is a gift and one that I am always grateful to receive.

Last year, I entered my first writing contest–a short story competition hosted by the Historical Novel Society. I thought it would be fun to try my hand at a short story after years of novel writing. I don’t think I even had a moment of doubt that I would write about Consuelo.

The inspiration for the story came from this portrait by famed American artist John Singer Sargent. I first saw the portrait on a family trip to England after my high school graduation. I wasn’t overly impressed with Blenheim Palace (my tastes at the time ran more medieval) but when I passed by this painting, I could not move. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s long neck and proud, pleading eyes stopped me in my tracks. From our tour guide, I learned she was one of the young American heiresses forced into a loveless marriage by an ambitious mother desperate for a title (think Downton Abbey without the lovable Lord Grantham). I wanted to write her story and boldly began my first novel.

Cut to twenty-(ahem) years later and I never finished the story. There was college, and life, and marriage, and children. But through it all, I never really forgot about Consuelo. 

So I researched a bit and began my short story, The Pearl of Blenheim. I had such fun writing it and was honestly shocked when it was short-listed for the contest. The HNS has recently published an ebook of the top twelve stories and, having read them all, I am even more shocked that my story received second place. These are some really great short stories . . . and if you are looking for some inspiration in this new year, I would highly recommend giving them a read. 

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Pilgrimage to Milledgeville Part II

In true Flannery O’Connor fashion, the road to her family home is not a straight one. I can’t help but think she gets a good laugh each time one of her devotees ends up at the non-descript Milledgeville Mall, which is where GPS will take you if put in the address for Andalusia.

We had to do a little backtracking until we noticed a sign directing us to a small driveway cut into the side of Highway 441. As we slowly drove down the wooded, dirt road to the house, I could almost swear I saw the Misfit peeking out from behind a tree.

Though Flannery died in 1963, walking into to her home feels like she might have just run down the road with her mother, Regina, to the grocery store. The house is far from a shiny, bright tourist attraction. It’s  a little gritty, a little sad, but ultimately as real as Flannery herself.

The front door opens to a small staircase with a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus prominently hung on the wall. Just to the left is Flannery’s makeshift bedroom. It was originally the home’s parlor but was made in to a bedroom when advancing lupus made it impossible for her to manage getting upstairs.

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The poignancy of seeing Flannery’s crutches propped up next to her writing desk is impossible to escape. Her physical sufferings and limitations forced her back to the small Southern roots that she had so hoped to escape. But, perhaps, it was that very thing that allowed her to focus solely on her vocation.

The room is sparse and ascetic–bringing to mind a nun’s cell. In the middle of the room, a typewriter sits at the ready on a little desk pushed up to the back of an armoire. Flannery was obviously not into feng shui, but she was a writer who knew herself well and kept visual distractions to minimum. (note to self: a beautiful view does not necessarily aid writing).

It is amazing to think that from this little room, Flannery honed her craft to create some of the greatest fiction of the 20th century. If you are interested in visiting Andalusia, or learning more about Flannery, I highly recommend visiting Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation.

 

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Pilgrimage to Milledgeville Part I

God bless my sweet husband. I realize that going two hours out of the way on a 14-hour car trip with children is asking a bit much. And that this particular detour was to an out-of-the-way old farm house in the middle of Georgia in the middle of summer, well, I owe him one.

I can’t easily explain my almost obsessive desire to go to Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor’s family home in Milledgeville. It was more than a sight-seeing visit to the home one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. For me, this was a kind of pilgrimage to visit a dear friend.

Sure, this friend passed away years before I was born, but that’s no problem. One of the best things about being Catholic is that we don’t limit our friends to just those we pass some time with here on Earth. We believe in the communion of saints and I don’t know if I could get through one single day without some sort of help from my friends on the other side.

Flannery has helped me be a better writer and, more importantly, she has encouraged me to become a better person. Through her stories and collected letters, I have gotten to know Flannery–her wit, her humor, her absolute commitment to her vocation as a writer and her profound, unsentimental faith.

During her time at Andalusia, Flannery often invited those she corresponded with to come for an afternoon visit on her front porch. I can’t help but think my longing to get to Andalusia was somehow an invitation in itself.

Next up: peacocks, Drano, the Misfit and other images from Andalusia.

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Letter Writing Tips from Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More’s work for Henry VIII often took him away from his beloved children for long stretches of time. Keep in mind that this was 500 years before phones, e-mail or Skype. Letters were the only way he could keep connected to his growing children and their changing world.  The letters he sent home were obviously cherished, as they were kept safe for years after his execution (even though the King and Thomas Cromwell were intent on destroying all of Sir Thomas’s writings). His collected letters were finally published in 1557.

One of the sweetest, I think, is a letter written in 1522. You can almost feel Sir Thomas’s homesickness, as he fairly begs for letters from his children. And always the teacher, he outlines for them how best to write a good letter:

Now I expect from each of you a letter almost every day. I will not admit excuses—John makes none—such as want of time, sudden departure of the letter-carrier, or, want of something to write about. No one hinders you from writing, but, on the contrary, all are urging you to do it. And that you may not keep the letter-carrier waiting, why not anticipate his coming, and have your letters written and sealed, ready for anyone to take?

How can a subject be wanting when you write to me, since I am glad to hear of your studies or of your games, and you will please me most if, when there is nothing to write about, you write about that nothing at great length. Nothing can be easier for you, since you are girls, loquacious by nature, who have always a world to say about nothing at all.

One thing, however, I admonish you, whether you write serious matters or the merest trifles, it is my wish that you write everything diligently and thoughtfully . . . I strictly enjoin that whatever you have composed you carefully examine before writing it out clean; and in this examination, first scrutinise the whole sentence and then every part of it. Thus, if any solecisms have escaped you, you will easily detect them. Correct these, write out the whole letter again, and even then examine it once more, for sometimes, in rewriting, faults slip in again that one had expunged. By this diligence your little trifles will become serious matters; for while there is nothing so neat and witty that will not be made insipid by silly and inconsiderate loquacity, so also there is nothing in itself so insipid, that you cannot season with grace and wit if you give a little thought to it. Farewell, my dear children.

 
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(Day)Dream Dinner

I just finished reading Reed of God by Caryll Houselander and am furiously working on a presentation I’ll be giving about the book tomorrow (!) Clearly, I am procrastinating because I just want to think about how much Flannery O’Connor and Caryll Houselander resemble one another.

It was a tough book for me to get through because it is more of a meditation and I find I do my best meditating through fiction. But I’m so happy I persevered because there are passages of the book that I am sure have changed me forever. I highly recommend it.

But in the meantime, I do feel certain that I’m going to have to add Caryll to my Favorite Writer I’d Like to Invite to Dinner List (I think she’d especially have fun trading witty jabs with Evelyn Waugh). She’ll also get a chance to visit with Flannery O’Connor and we’ll all have a chortle at how much they look like sisters.

I will have to take some time with the seating chart. Not sure how Geoffrey Chaucer and Tolstoy will communicate–maybe I could seat Sigrid Undset in between? And then there is the question of  what to serve? I’ll have to give that some serious thought . . . .

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The Headline Hat

There has been quite a bit of talk around the blogosphere and twitterverse about Justice Antonin Scalia’s choice of hats for the Inaugural ceremony earlier this week. Turns out he was given the hat (a replica of the one worn by More in Holbein’s famous sketch) by the St. Thomas More Society of Richmond Virginia.

Was the Justice sending a secret message about the current state of affairs or was he just showing that good millinery never goes out of style? You be the judge.

 

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