Reading Middlemarch

I’ve been reading Middlemarch and I find myself liking it. In complete and utter honesty, before I started to read it I thought it was stuffy, and this is coming from someone who went through a phase of voluntarily reading classics in my teens. I’ve also realized I don’t really know what it’s about – a fine surprise when reading classics – and I’m resisting so far to read up on the plot on Wikipiedia.

I was inspired to read it after listening to Rachel Hartman’s keynote speech at Book Camp and borrowed it from the library shortly thereafter. I didn’t get a chance to thank or to let her know during Book Camp, but recently I did so on Twitter and we had a lovely, brief conversation. I intend to read her book, Seraphina, soon.

As I go along, one of the things that strikes me the most about George Eliot’s writing is her use of language; enough that I stop and reread it, whether it’s a passage or dialogue, whether it is witty or a kernel of truth or wisdom. It’s the sort of language I want to remember and reuse myself, when the occasion calls – in other words, quotable. I’ve been charting my admiration for Middlemarch on Tumblr, but I wanted to have most of my favourites (so far) in one spot here.

“Brooke is a very good fellow, but pulpy; he will run into any mould, but he won’t keep shape.”

“People may really have in them some vocation which is not quite plain to themselves, may they not? They may seem idle and weak because they are growing. We should be very patient with each other, I think.”

In the current shift in fiction (as well as movies and tv shows), with, and attention to, well-written independent female characters where falling in love and marriage aren’t the be all and end all, reading this sentence strikes a chord and sounds presciently modern:

“And to me it is one of the most odious things in a girl’s life, that there must always be some supposition of a falling in love coming between her and any man who is kind to her, and to whom she is grateful.”

There is also much to be said for pearls of wisdom,

The meaning we attach to words depends on our feeling.

Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure.”

But selfish people always think their own discomfort of more importance than anything else in the world. I see enough of that everyday.

Young folks may get fond of each other before they know what life is, and they may think it all holiday if they can only get together; but it soon turns into working day.

Quoting Middlemarch does not do it justice, no more than reading quotes from it, but it is in the action of writing down these quotes that I express my admiration of this book. It could be compared to watching a movie and quoting memorable dialogue from it afterward; likewise, as I read Middlemarch I have a compulsion to write parts down that move me and that I am compelled to share with others.

I’m over two hundred pages in and I had to return it, half-heartedly, to the library before I could finish it but as it is a rather leisurely read, so far, I think I’ll be buying my own copy soon. (The copy I borrowed is this Penguin Classics edition.)

In Our Natural Habitat

“And here we see writers in their natural habitat.”

This was a random thought, and then recurred more frequently during the time that I volunteered at my library’s writing and book camp for children and teens. For one week, we went to workshops led by authors and illustrators, while practicing and honing our writing skills. There is so much I could tell, but I would never be finished as I would keep remembering another story, then another, and another… But if I were to name one thing that stayed with me afterward, it would be the writers that surrounded me during that week.

On the last day, there was a gala where some of the campers read from their work. As we all listened to each story, I was struck by the uniqueness of their voices and by their inventive imaginations. Whether they were short pieces, poems, excerpts of a larger work being worked on, I just wanted to keep on listening. “What happens next?” (The readers had a minimum of two minutes to read, maximum three minutes. At two minutes a bell would ring, the kind at a shop when you want to get the shopkeeper’s attention; at three minutes, there would be a cowbell and we were all supposed to shout, “More cowbell, less reading!” The cowbell only happened once but everyone pleaded to have the final paragraph read.) Throughout the readings, my spirit was lifted as the readers – these writers! – inspired me.

When we weren’t attending workshops or listening to keynotes, we worked on our writing. And here is when that thought occurred to me – “writers in their natural habitat.” I would look up and see everyone’s heads down, pen (or pencil) to paper; fingers to keyboards, and it amazed me to think that in one space, simultaneously, all of us were in different worlds; each of us creating. Sometimes there would be brainstorming between two people, if not more, in hushed, excited whispers; on occasion, there would be a sigh or groan from someone as they tried to figure out what to write next or what to write at all, but, mostly, the only sounds you could hear were the clicks and clacks of a keyboard and paper being written on.

Friday Links

It’s Friday, and that means it’s the weekend! Since getting a Tumblr blog, I’ve been posting a lot there. As I realize that not everyone is on Tumblr, I’ve decided that every Friday I’m going to post a links roundup of the most interesting things I blogged about on Tumblr or that were the most popular based on number of likes/reblogs. Think of it as a weekly newsletter!

Now, without further ado:

1. I’m currently doing research for a historical novel I’m starting, set in Canada during World War I. I’ve been tagging my posts with “WWI novel”, as I don’t actually have a title yet.
2. My Dear Bessie, love letters sent between Chris Barker and Bessie Moore during World War II. Their story is beautiful and I’m looking forward to this book.
3. Project Hound: an exciting idea for a book app, adapting the story of The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.
4. Another Arthur Conan Doyle link, a fan theory about the possible connections between Sherlock Holmes and Edward, the Black Prince.
5. Responsibility of the writer, a tag I’ve created to keep track of inspiring quotes by authors about the importance of writers and their duty.

That’s just some of what I’ve posted – head over to Writer’s Bone on Tumblr for more!

Behind the Scenes

I’m a big fan of behind the scenes stuff, whether it be movies, tv shows, or books (such as an insight into an author’s writing process, etc.). When I started this blog, I hoped to do more of that but so far, I haven’t.

After reading Austin Kleon’s book, Show Your Work!, I thought about this more and how I might be able to show behind the scenes stuff more effectively and decided to get a Tumblr. While I love seeing other people sharing their process, their behind the scenes, out of habit I keep my cards very close to my chest when it comes to creating. But I’m learning when, sometimes, it is okay to share and I’m making that distinction as I share some of my story ideas (things I’m working on, or just thinking about so far) with family members and friends, as well as fellow writers.

The Writer’s Bone Tumblr is an extension of this blog and allows me to share things – my inspirations for my projects, quotes from authors I like, etc. – in a way that is freeing. It is freeing in a way that I don’t feel compelled, or obligated, to have to write a proper post in order to just share something – which is how I feel when I post something here or on one of my other WordPress.com blogs, whereas with Tumblr I can post a photo, for example, and maybe I’ll only write one or two sentences, or a basic summary, without it being a full-blown post. I’ll also be using it to tie in to topics that I might blog about here in the future. Tumblr is my notebook, my book of ideas, my commonplace book on the Internet.

Keep an eye on the tags! If I post or reblog something that relates to a piece I’m working on, I will tag it accordingly.

Wired Love

I’ve been reading Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet, a book about the invention of the telegraph and in one of the chapters, he details how the telegraph revolutionized the communication of romance, which blossomed over the telegraph much as in the same way it can today with texting and other forms of online communication, and sometimes culminated in marriage.* Long distance relationships and romances had existed before, with loved ones writing letters to each other but, of course, this process was slow and letters could take weeks to arrive, as well as carrying the potential risk of discovery if correspondence was forbidden or, especially in a lady’s case, without permission.

People getting to know and falling in love with each other, without ever having met face to face, seems commonplace now and it has provided material for love stories, perhaps the best known being Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail but there is an even older story, written during the days of the telegraph, and mentioned in The Victorian Internet, called Wired Love: A Romance, or Dots and Dashes by Ella Cheever Thayer.

Intrigued by the title alone, I decided to look it up and according to Wikipedia, the author was once a telegraph operator and used her experiences in the writing of this novel, about two telegraph operators who engage in an “online” or virtual courtship over the wire. There is an excellent post about it and that made me want to read it even more on Clive Thompson’s blog here. (He’s written the book Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better; I’ve put a hold on it at my library.)

Through Mr. Thompson’s blog, I found out that Wired Love also inspired this art installation called “Sounder and Relay” by Silvia Ruzanka and uses excerpts of dialogue from Wired Love.

*Marriages were also officiated by telegraph and were legally binding.

 

Spontaneous Writing.dpm

This post was inspired by a chat I had with a friend recently. We were talking about writing (he is in the process of finishing his first ebook) and I said to him, “Sometimes when I’m working out an idea, I’ll just start writing it out – even if I’m not sure where to begin – and sometimes, as I’m writing, I’ll see a different direction or a different angle and I’ll go with it, even if that means interrupting the initial idea I had going. It’s kind of like those giant leaps of logic you have when you’re a kid and you’re playing or making up stories.”
I actually experienced that recently with a story I’m working on right now. The whole writing process was like that as I really didn’t know what happens beyond the seed of the idea, so I’m figuring it out as I go along. In some ways, this process is kind of like of a choose-your-own-adventure story.

A few days after this conversation, I came across an interview from last year with Alan Bradley, the author of the Flavia de Luce series, in which he was asked to describe his writing style and he said that it was “spontaneous”. When I read that, it was as if a little spark of recognition started – realizing that my writing is spontaneous, too.

To me, spontaneous writing doesn’t mean waiting for inspiration to strike. In fact, the word “spontaneous” comes from the Latin word spontaneus, meaning “willing, of one’s free will” (Online Etymology Dictionary), whereas the etymological definition of inspiration is “immediate influence of God or a god” (OED) or “divine guidance”. As it is commonly understood, inspiration comes from external causes while spontaneity comes from within.

When I’m writing, if I get a different idea – that different direction or angle – and I decide to go with it, rather than putting it aside and carrying on, I am writing spontaneously. I once compared it to improv and I suppose it’s also like when some writers talk about how their characters start talking to them, or do something completely different that they weren’t expecting. For a long time, I thought the notion was rather twee and I tolerated it, though only now – only now – do I think I’m starting to understand.

I view this act of writing spontaneously as different from rewriting or editing while you write: editing requires already existing work, whereas spontaneous writing is going with the flow, even if that means you could take a slightly different route to get to where you were headed or you may end up with something else completely different from what you might have had in mind.

This post was written and published with Desk PM.

Three things to read, watch, and use

I guest posted today on the website 27 Good Things, where I share three things good to read, watch, and use. It was tough to narrow down since there are so many things that I like and love, but I think I managed. The books I listed are very much reflective of my recent reading material.

I’ve already reblogged it on trend & chic, and am posting it here and on Z’s Cup of Tea as well. I wish I could just reblog it again, but it seems you’re only allowed to reblog once under the same account on WordPress.com.

I was asked if I was interested in being a guest after I tweeted about one of the books I list, “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield and thanked John Saddington (@saddington) for recommending it. (He didn’t directly recommend it to me, but he did mention it as a book he tells everyone to read in a link that he had tweeted before.) Next thing I knew, I was tweeted by Mike, who runs 27 Good Things, and after a few more tweets, he asked me if I would like to do a guest post and here we are!

I first came across 27 Good Things when I read a post with John sharing his good things, which was when I learned about Daniel Pink’s “Drive” and shortly afterward borrowed it from the library. In that vein, I’m glad to have shared these three things to read, watch, and use and it is my hope that readers will find them useful, inspiring, informative, and entertaining, while maybe also discovering something new to them.

You can read my guest post here.

An Hour of Code

I first learned HTML in high school when I took IT as an elective. I learned the basics of HTML and it was thrilling as I learned how to build a basic website. It was with this rudimentary knowledge that I knew how to fix small formatting issues in my posts when I was blogging when WordPress.com wasn’t otherwise cooperating. I desired to learn more HTML and, eventually, CSS but it wasn’t until this year that I finally did so. At the same time, back then – perhaps ironically – I either didn’t believe or see how I’d be using those skills again.

Well, here we are. Ta-da!

I had long been aware of Codecademy, discovering it when I was looking for ways to learn HTML and CSS online. (Books weren’t that helpful, or rather they didn’t suit my learning style for learning code. Learning code is very much an interactive, hands-on experience; it isn’t static, which is how it seemed when I tried learning from books.) Fast forward to February 2014, when I saw Codecademy’s free app on Apple’s App Store homepage. I downloaded it and it was a breeze to do. Within an hour, I had completed it and I entered my email address. Unwittingly, I had signed up for Codecademy, as I soon learned when I received an email from them.

I took it in stride: perceiving it as a serendipitious accident, as I signed into the Codecademy website and started the HTML/CSS course, completing it within two days. On the same day I started learning JavaScript. (It should be noted at the time of publishing this post, I’ve fallen off the bandwagon for some time now with JavaScript. Need to get on it again.)

Perhaps because I already had something of a foundation to work on, HTML was fairly straightforward. CSS was easier than I had anticipated. There was a kind of, almost, addictive quality to learning HTML and CSS; I had to force myself to take breaks. And this is when something weird happens when one is learning something and doing it with ease – there must be something wrong. As I progressed through the lessons and exercises I kept looking over my shoulder, to see if anyone would catch me but no one did.

We’ve been trained and conditioned that struggle is part of the learning process, or part of most things worthwhile – and sometimes, it is – but that doesn’t mean it must be so, for when struggle ceases understanding begins. So often, in learning, struggle occurs because one isn’t understanding what one is trying to learn or isn’t being taught to them in a way that makes them understand or resonates with some part of them. Thus, when we’re learning something new with such ease and joy, we have been conditioned to think – to believe – that there must be something wrong because it can’t be this easy.

Or maybe it was easier than I had anticipated, because I had been overthinking it until I just jumped. It was easier than I had thought. Reading about HTML and CSS gives a stunning impression of complexity to the beginner, when the opposite is just as true. Since I started, coding1 is a source of joy. It’s fun, as well as infuriating at times (JavaScript particularly) but at the end of the day, that’s what makes it a joy. It’s inspiring and, while I’m not an expert and am still learning, I look at websites with fresh eyes, possessing a better knowing of how they work (and sometimes why they don’t) underneath all the window dressing. I think of how I would customize the theme for one of my blogs. Once, I thought of an idea for a website and just by imagining it, I knew how I’d code it, which is something I expressed on Twitter. I knew the feeling of it. (I’m currently flexing my new skills with a few fun and exciting challenges, and my experience level has yet to meet that feeling place but I’m getting there.)

Code is technical, and it can also be creative and be used creatively. It’s a wonderful experience to be creating something and in a way that’s also new to me; different from creating something from my imagination with words or by drawing, or mixing ingredients together to cook a meal or bake a cake. It may be a different process but at its heart is still creating. (See this post on the Touch Press – one of my favourite app makers – blog: Yes, Apps Can Be Art!)

1 Since learning, I’ve come across posts and forums arguing that HTML/CSS is not coding as they are markdown languages. All the same, I regard both as important languages to learn and as good introductions to web development.

P.S. This is my second post to be written and published with Desk PM! :D

Everything Is Awesome

Last weekend I saw The Lego Movie with my family and I was blown away. It’s an entertaining movie that can be appreciated at face value, which might be that it’s a commercial for Lego just over an hour (and that’s what many people are calling it) and yet, I also found, there is a profound, powerful message promoting individuality and creativity and imagination.

This was something that occurred to me while watching it, and something that I reflected upon later as well as talked about with my family. It took a few days to write this post, as I’ve assimilated my thoughts as well as questioned them, wondering if perhaps I’ve read way too much or too deeply into a kids/family movie (because kids/family movies are supposed to be pretty lightweight, right?). At the same time, however, I realize that, rather than be passive and let it solely entertain me, I engaged with the movie and that these thoughts are my dialogue with it. The best art, or anything for that matter, is art that engages, that impacts and affects you, and, long after you’ve exited the movie theatre or turned the last page of a book, stays with you. Such is the case with The Lego Movie.

While I have written only about the themes of the movie’s message, there are occasionally a few plot details that may or may not be constituted as spoilers. In fact, this whole post may be a spoiler as I went to see The Lego Movie with only the knowledge of the basic plot and what I’d seen in the various clips – none of which explicitly revealed the movie’s message and that subsequently moved me so deeply. Thus, you have been warned. Continue reading at your own discretion or come back to this post later, after you’ve watched the movie, and read it then.

The protagonist, named Emmet, is just your ordinary, regular construction worker who learns that he is “The Special”: “the most important, most interesting, greatest person of all time” and will save the world. Qualities that Emmet effusively denies until he eventually rises to the occasion, while learning to think for himself after following instructions for every aspect of his life and realizing the power of imagination as well as creativity and innovation.

“Follow the instructions” is a mantra throughout The Lego Movie, as President/Lord Business decrees that everyone must follow the instructions: a vain attempt to make everything perfect and to never change anything. (There’s a twist to President Business that adds to this, although I’ll keep that a surprise.) As it is explained later, however, the reason why people don’t leave things exactly as they are is because someone else’s (President Business) creativity inspires them to create something of their own, or to riff on it; “stealing like an artist“.

In an otherwise upbeat and positive movie promoting individuality and creativity, there is a darker note, albeit as briefly as it is noticed by Emmet before he forgets, in a scene early on in the movie in which President Business addresses the populace with a reminder about following the instructions or they’ll be put to sleep, then swiftly moves on to announce Taco Tuesday while Emmet is watching his morning TV. Within the same breath, he also announces that he’ll be destroying the world as we know it in two days’ time and there is a moment of shock from Emmet – “Wait! What did he just say?!” – and is barely able to process it before the next program, “Where’s My Pants?” comes on a split second later and Emmet promptly forgets.

While watching, this scene struck me. Within the space of less than two minutes, the writers had managed to make a succinct, yet subversive, statement about today’s media reminiscent of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and  Russell Brand’s speech on Newsnight about how entertainment is used to distract us from important issues. Hardly has the worry of the world’s destruction entered Emmet’s head than sooner it is gone, distracted by a show in which the guy’s only line seems to be “Honey, where’s my pants?” and the same scenario repeats and repeats ad ifinitum.

The theme song, “Everything Is Awesome!!!” (yes, officially with three exclamation points) is in itself deceptive. With a catchy beat and infectious lyrics, one might miss the lines “We’re the same, I’m like you, you’re like me, working in harmony”; reminding me of the “like and equal” argument that Meg Murray had with IT, the massive disembodied brain, in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. In an interview with the writers and co-director Chris McKay, Chris Miller states about the song that, “People can’t quite tell that it’s supposed to be both sarcastic and sincere at the same time.”

In contrast is Wyldstyle: a character who is independent and doesn’t follow the instructions. While Emmet is the universal “nobody” who becomes a “somebody”, Wyldstyle is somebody who is a shining example of individuality over the course of the movie. As a character, and more specifically, as a female character, she has received some criticism for what some have interpreted as falling into the tired stereotype for female characters, that of being someone’s girlfriend and playing second fiddle to the male characters or scolding them, after appearing to be a strong female character but what actually makes her strong is what she isn’t. While she may not follow the instructions for building, she conforms to the expectations of someone else: her boyfriend, Batman, by trying to be something she’s not – tough and mean – but Emmet sees through this and calls her out on it. Wyldstyle isn’t even her real name (“Are you a DJ?” she’s asked by Emmet when she first tells him her name; this is repeated again by Vitruvius in the Wild West) – instead, we learn she’s actually called Lucy when she finally tells Emmet. (“Lucy? What kind of name is that? It sounds like the name of a bank teller,” says Batman soon afterward.)

Conformity in order to meet someone else’s, or society’s, expectations is something explored with another female character, Samantha “Sam” Sparks, in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which Phil Lord and Chris Miller also wrote and directed. Sam is incredibly intelligent, but in order to be accepted she often tries to pretend to be less smart than she actually is as she would be made fun of due to her intelligence.

While “strong female characters” in fiction and TV/film are de rigour and are supposed to be kick-ass; conversely, a female character can also be strong without being aggressive: she can possess a quiet courage, such as holding her own in a time of turmoil or sometimes even if it means having to follow the rules to survive – I nearly always get exasperated when a woman in a movie or TV episode puts herself into the line of danger after being explicitly told to stay safe (usually by a man – which I suppose constitutes in itself a reason to not listen, since we’re supposed to be shown by this example that she’s strong and independent, not a damsel in distress. In the immortal words of Grumpy Cat, “No.”). A female character can still be feminine, she can fall in love without it being obligatory and is still strong, not despite that but because that’s part of who she is. A strong female character is strong not because she’s tough or isn’t a love interest, but because she is true to herself.

I believe that Wyldstyle/Lucy is a strong female character because what Phil Lord and Chris Miller have done, with her character, is telling girls (and boys) that we don’t need to conform to be someone other than our true selves to be liked by someone or accepted, whether by a person or by society.

The Lego Movie is a great movie for kids and adults alike with many jokes and one-liners, while also managing to be cleverly subversive and promoting a powerful, positive message at the same time and it is done masterfully. Five stars!