February 21, 2010

Reads That Feed

I recently read this post from the venerable Maggie Stiefvater about books that feed her creativity while working on a project. There are those writers who don't like to read while they're writing because they don't want to 'corrupt' their own authorial voice (there are those would-be writers who hardly read at all... say what?). That's something I can understand, to a point, but not something I resonate with. If anything, I read more when writing something new.

This is, undoubtedly, a procrastination tool ("It's OK that I'm not writing. I'm reading"), but it is also something else, something important. When I'm writing, I feel compelled to turn back to the writers that rocked my world with their words and their stories. I can turn to these beloved reads and know that I can crack them open to any page and come across passages like this:
He flapped again at the flies and looked out the window at the first smear of foggy dawn and waited for the world to begin shaping up outside. The window was tall as a door, and he had imagined many times that it would open onto some other place and let him walk through and be there. - Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain
And this:
"Hello boys."
"Hello, Mrs. Lisbon" (in unison).
She had the rectitude, Joe Hill Conley later said, of someone who had just come from weeping in the next room. He had sensed (this said many years later, of course, when Joe Hill Conley claimed to tap at will the energy of his chakras) an ancient pain arising from Mrs. Lisbon, the sum of her people's griefs.
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
And then this:
I loved hearing Anatole speak English. His pronunciation sounded British and elegant, with "first" coming out as "fest," and "brought" more like "brrote." But it sounded Congolese in the way it rolled out with equal weight on every syllable- a pig in a sack- as if no single word wanted to take over the whole sentence.
- Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
These books are what I want my writing to be: they are powerful without being overpowering, elegant without being flowery- every word and detail adds something powerful to the story and the flow. They inspire me, chiefly, because they are beautiful examples of voice. These are voices I can pick out of a crowd, so strong and assured that they literally sweep you off your feet and into the world they are creating. These voices have a unique and undeniable pull.

There are moments when I find this exercise deflating, especially on a bad writing day ("My writing will NEVER be this good. In fact, in comparison, it is two inches shy of abysmal"). These moments are almost always overridden by feelings of awe and inspiration. Every time I open these books, I learn something new that I can bring to my craft. I am challenged to rise above my best and reach for something even better. These authors feed my creativity in ways that make me want to be better.

Other books I like to return to are The Time Traveler's Wife, Bel Canto, and (for travel writing) Confederates in the Attic. Are there reads that feed your creativity? What is it about them that brings you coming back?

Strip, Baby!

This week, I was given some writing homework. I had to create a scene map for Spellbound- a chart, essentially- breaking the story down chapter by chapter. I had to list every scene in one short sentence, then step back and ogle at my story... naked. Kim (my lovely and fabulous tutor) assured me that this would let me see what needed to be cut- identify what stuff is my story and what stuff just... isn't.

Have you ever been in a dressing room, twirling around in front of the mirror in a dress you really, really like? You saw it in the shop window and knew it would be perfect for that wedding/big date/thing you have going on next month. The thing is... it doesn't quite fit. It's the right size, but it doesn't hug you the way it should. More than that, it just isn't you the way you thought it would be. You don't want to believe it, so you start to justify: the price is right, you're tired of shopping, the cut of the sleeves looks nice on your arms. Say what you want... you know it isn't right. So strip off that sucker and start again!

That's editing. As soon as I had all my scenes down on paper, I was astonished how easy it was to see what needed to go. Chapter 3 involved my main character, Jack, sitting in a windowsill and thinking about life. I'm all for retrospective sitting, but he does it for three pages... and the thing with introspective sitting is that it can be, well, a little boring. Some of it is necessary, because it says a lot about Jack's desires and motivations, but a lot of it just... isn't. And until now, I couldn't bring myself to cut it. Why? Because... I liked it. I thought that sentences like 'They were like a stone dropped into water, sending strange symptoms rippling through the air' were pretty and thoughtful. They were some of the first words of Spellbound that I committed to paper, so they were special. They just didn't fit. So I cut them.

I've always found cutting a hateful process, but this time it actually felt quite good. Empowering, even. I was able to identify what I didn't need and actually make myself delete it without any angst. If that's not a step in the RIGHT editing direction, then I don't know what is.

2,210 words cut so far (and that's just from the first three chapters)- 2,210 words closer to finding that dress for Spellbound.

February 15, 2010

Being Crafty: Decoupage

These days, it feels like all my creativity is channeled towards a computer screen. Writing, reading, keeping in touch: it's all accomplished through my pretty little Macbook. So much so that I am developing intimate feelings for my laptop that no one- NO one- should feel towards a lump of wires and screen. Sometimes, I need to take a break and do something creative that doesn't depend on a plug-in battery. Thus my love of being crafty.

When I graduated from grad school last year, I decided I wanted to make something for my friend Lyndsey, who graduated alongside me. She was my rock, my drinking buddy, my us-against-the-world partner in crime: I wanted to make her something special. She is a list/I-need-to-write-down-my-thoughts-on-this-subject person, like me, so I decided to make her some personalized notebooks using decoupage.

This is one of the easiest, most versatile decorating methods in the world. It hearkens back to the days when you used to smear glue over your family's furniture with your chubby, unattended little fingers. There are about a million and one different "looks" you can achieve, but the method remains insanely easy no matter what look you're going for. You don't need many supplies to do it: just a surface to work on (this can be anything from a notebook cover to a tabletop, canvas, glass, a jewelry/shoebox... you name it, as long as it's smooth), some cut-outs that you want to put onto said surface and some decoupage glue. I've been told that you can use regular Elmer's glue in decoupage, but I've never been brave enough to try it as a substitute. Just make sure that whatever surface you're using in clean and dry.

First, I wanted to cover the front and back covers of three spiral-bound black notebooks with
different panels of sturdy wrapping paper. I measured out each panel and cut it to the size I wanted. Then I whipped out my handy sponge-on-a-stick tool (you can also use a paint brush or a Popsicle stick if you're feeling reckless), covered the notebook with a not-too-thick layer of glue, and smoothed the wrapping paper over it.

I rolled a pencil from one end of the now-papered surface to the other to try and scare out any air bubbles hiding underneath the fabric. Wrinkling is the trickiest part of decoupage: if you lay on the glue too thick or if you lay your fabric down sloppily, you end up with air bubbles that look like little warts in your work. No good.

Next, I cut out all the little bits and pieces I wanted to use in my design. That included some bits of decorative paper, cut-outs from the front of a greeting card, some black satin ribbonand some stickers. Keep in mind when choosing things to decoupage that they generally need to be flat and lightweight, or else you risk them falling off your medium over time. You can put things like coins or beads onto your medium, but you'll probably want to superglue them instead of using the decoupage glue. Also, try to stay away from super-fragile or transparent tissue paper and the like. I used a gauzy paper on Notebook #1 and found it difficult to work with (I ended up liking the result, but it was a close call). Take it from me, they rip and change color when you coat them with glue, and they end up getting wrinkled when saturated. Again, the warts. Photos, ticket stubs, stickers, stamps, some kinds of ribbon and sturdy paper work best for this. If you end up using markers, make sure they're permanent, or they'll run when you put glue over them. I find that Sharpies work best.

Once I'd cut out all the things I wanted to use, I coated their bottoms with glue (except for the stickers, which stick themselves) and laid them down carefully. I usually do the roll-with-a-pencil technique as I go to prevent air bubbles while drying. Once I had done that, I used a black Sharpie to write quotes on the front of the notebooks that I thought Lyndsey would find inspirational. Once you've stuck on everything you want, it's good to let it dry for half a day/overnight.

The last step in to coat the whole project in a thin layer of glue. Just take your brush or sponge tool and paint the glue over the collage as a varnish. I'll usually let this coat dry for a few hours and then apply another coat. This will make your collage all shiny-like and will protect it from peeling/future damage. This is some of what I ended up with:

Front of Notebook #1

Back of Notebook #1

Notebook #2, still drying. See the air bubbles underneath the light golden paper? I like to think they ended up looking like a stylistic choice, but they suck nonetheless.

I was really pleased with the way the notebooks turned out (though not pleased to have mysteriously misplaced half my pictures of them when they were finished: sorry).

I made Manfriend a decoupage collage of our trip around the States for his birthday. Working with photos and a canvas make this one of the dead easiest crafty projects in the world.

Everyone likes a hand-made gift, and I've found that these are cost-efficient and fun. This is the craft for "I'm not crafty" people. Go ahead, give it a try. The six-year-old (and the technologically over-baked adult) in you will thank you.

February 10, 2010

Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?

Good old V-Day... one of the silliest holidays of the year. If I have to see one more add in which some dude gives his girlfriend some shiny piece of jewelry that makes her cry, I might start twitching. I have to say, though, that this holiday does serve a purpose in that it reminds you to tell the people you love that... well... you still love them. People like to be reminded of these things.

So, here's to some of the people I love:

My family, because even if I didn't 'have' to love them, I would love them. Because they're great.

Eve, for being an amazing and constant friend. I can't wait to read your new blog about Japan!

Aliya, for designing this blog and for being an inspiringly creative and fabulous friend. Check out her design blog and her regular(ly awesome) blog.

Lauren, for making me laugh (and for making me look super fly). Check out her makeup business and blog.

My camp friends, because they each brighten my life more than they know.

Kaitlin (my oldest) and Lyndsey (my newest) besties, for always being there.

My Manfriend, for holding my hand through life.

I hope you all enjoy your Valentine's Day, no matter who you're with or what you're doing. Do something splurgy. Indulge in yourself.

February 4, 2010

The Things We Carried

Almost a year ago, Manfriend and I went on a hiking trip. This trip, a three-day trek through New Zealand's Tongariro National Park, was supposed to be for my thesis project (at least, that's what I thought when I spent student loan money on it). I have never prepared for a trip so thoroughly. I researched the best foods to take on a days-long hike. I spent hours reading up on Kiwi mythology. I bought a pair of hiking boots. Then we walked off into the rocky wilds.
A week after we returned from said trip, my department decided it didn't want me to write travel articles about my hike, preferring that I put together a dry piece of academic nothing (because, let's face it, what is a grad degree without a certain level of frustration? We wouldn't want to make it about, say, my priorities and interests. No, no. Of course not!). But I digress...

I've decided that the time has come to sit down, whip out my notes, and write that article I so wanted to write. Here, I will share some of my thoughts as I look back on the experience. (And so I can show you my pretty, pretty pictures.)

We carried Camelbaks, thermals, candles and sunscreen. We lugged powdered drinks, prepared rice meals, cheese, salami, and cans of tuna. We carried slabs of chocolate and notebooks. More than anything else, we carried hopes that we would make it through three days and 22 miles with all of our belongings clinging to our backs.

22 miles doesn't sound like much, does it? In Tongariro, it is enough. Those 22 miles go over a rocky moonscape and around three snow-capped volcanoes, one of which served as The Lord of the Rings's Mount Doom. This park- situated in the Ruapehu District smack in the middle of the North Island- does look a lot like Mordor, but more beautiful and lush and complex. The weather is just about as dangerous.

Everyone we encountered- from the Visitor's Center staff to our hoteliers to the guy who picked us up from the airport- told us two things (with serious shakes of their heads). 1) That we were in for cold and snow, and 2) that people died somewhat regularly up in those alpine hills. Jackie, who drove us to our starting point, put it this way: "It'll be bone-chillingly cold, up there. You'll be playing the alpine game." The 'alpine game' means rapid changes in weather, fluctuating from dry heat to rain to sudden blizzard before you can think protective gloves. As we headed to the start of the trail, we felt apprehensive. We'd brought all the right gear, but did we really know enough?

Tongariro National Park is the oldest park in New Zealand; it is also the fourth national park established worldwide and has been established by UNESCO as one of the 25 mixed cultural and natural World Heritage Sites. It was given to the government by a group of native Maori people. The chief of that group, named Te Heuheu, knew it was the only way to save the land from farmers and developers. He knew that the land had to be saved, because his people believed that the three volcanoes- Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu- were sacred. I wanted to immerse myself in a landscape that someone found so inspiring that they gave it to the Queen.

Our first day's hike traversed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, heralded as one of the best day hikes in New Zealand. It is one of the most exciting and most dangerous, especially for day-hikers who assume that 'day-hike' = 'relaxed hike we can do in jeans and t-shirts'. We began by hiking uphill through vast expanses of grassy terrain. The lichen and tussock grass were highlighted by purple bursts of invasive heather. The effect was a rippling expanse of otherworldly beauty that Manfriend dubbed as 'fairy mold'.

Even with other hikers flanking us, the landscape was eerily quiet. We heard nothing but wind and trickling streams carrying snow melt down into the valley behind us. We climbed up the Devil's Staircase- our first big upwards push- scrambling over black and volcanic boulders, and inching along on ledge after craggy ledge. I leaned forward to counteract the weight of my pack (I had never hiked with weight before), feeling as if I might go tumbling backwards. Before we knew it, we were tramping through snow.

We passed the North Crater, a vast expanse of snow and rock, inching around the base of our first volcano. The wind was so strong that it pushed us sideways, but we were grateful for blue skies and clear-ish weather.

We struggled upwards over blackened, shifting scree for what felt like a long time. Manfriend made sure to make time for a quick geology lesson (nerd).

Then we emerged at the top of the world.

On one side, the volcano loomed. On another, the Red Crater glistened in the sun, dropping off into a darkened abyss.

In front of us, down a long slope, were the beautiful Emerald Lakes.

The color of the lakes, which are warm and smell like rotten eggs, is due to the high concentration of minerals washed down from the Red Crater. We fairly flew down the downslope like excited children, ready to sit down and enjoy the strange sights before us.

That night we slept at Ketatahi Hut, which sat on a hill at the edge of a Maori settlement overlooking the distant Lake Taupo.

The cabin had an old-fashioned feel, with its wood-burning stove and rustic wooden tables. Because it was Easter weekend, the place was insufferably crowded- people slept in tight lines on the floor, while the rest of us did some involuntary snuggling on the rustic bunks. (The mattresses were covered with a crinkly sheeting so that every time someone turned, the noise would resonate through the whole place. 'Crinkle-crinkle-crinkle, snore, crinkle-snore.' Silence... sweet silence... then 'CRINKLE-COUGH-SNORE!')

We stayed up talking with a Kiwi couple who'd hiked this part of the trail many times. John, big and loud and gap-toothed, applauded us first-timers for how prepared we'd been. "My goal for this trip," he told us," was to make it over the Crossing without having to haul anyone else out." He told us that on every other trip, he'd had to literally go back and save someone (usually foreign). He told us about an American hiker who'd gotten trapped at the top in a blizzard. "I had to sew up a gash on his thigh myself and carry him over my shoulder," he said. We gaped at this mountain man, feeling like we'd been lucky.

The second day saw us retracing our steps and walking past the Lakes again, this time including the Blue Lake.

We descended down a difficult slope and spent most of the day walking through the strangest landscape I've ever seen.

I felt like we'd been transported to the Moon. The land turned into red-brown silt and craggy rock castles piled up towards the cloudless sky. Melting snow cracked and popped beneath our feet, echoing in the sparseness. The bone-white roots of the tussock grass reached out of the dirt like gnarled, beckoning fingers.

This was the most difficult section of trail for me. I was tired. My pack weighed about one million pounds. My feet were burning inside my shoes, begging me to lie down and be done with it. When I saw the beech forest in the distance, I felt better. Imagine walking through a craggy desolation for hours, and then seeing in front of you a line of trees so distinct that you could draw a line where the forest began.

We hiked up through cool, shady woodlands, tree limbs draped with frothy swaths of moss. The dirt beneath us gave a little as we walked on it. We cooled our aching feet in a babbling brook.

At the second Hut, we met up with the Kiwi couple and about ten other people who we'd talked with the night before. That's one of the great things about these kinds of hikes: you run into the same people, allowing you to get to know them. We hung our socks out to dry and all sat out on the balcony, making dinner over mini stoves. There is such an easy, instant comraderie between hikers. It's as if, by having that one thing in common, you are able to become instant friends. We listened to more of the Kiwi's dramatic hiking stories as I rubbed my aching feet. My whole body ached with a fulfilling soreness. We talked and laughed until the candles burned out.

The next day, our final day, we hiked through more fairy mold with volcanoes on either side. We took our time over the rambling track, stopping for hot chocolate breaks and time to consider how far we'd come.

When you hike, your mind wanders: it was one of the surprisingly pleasant things about long-distance hiking. All of your worries and cares seem far away. There is only your immediate concerns remaining. When will we eat? How far to go? It is both invigorating and incredibly relaxing.

Looking out over the volcanoes, I found myself thinking about the Maori belief that had made the chief want to preserve Tongariro. The Maori believe that every mountain, stream and cave is one of their ancestors, an important part of their blood, their family.

I wondered what it would be like to define your life by the environment around you, to believe that it was a part of you. On that third day, I was given a window into that kind of life. Long-distance hiking brings you somehow closer to the land. The layers of worry and regular life that sit between you and the natural world begin to peel off, making everything seem closer to you. You are able to feel plugged into the landscape, as if you are a part of it. That was one of the discoveries from this trip that I will remember most fondly.

We carried a lot into Tongariro, but I think we carried a lot more out. We carried memories and laughter. We carried peace.