Banned Books Week – Day 1

So, in honor of Banned Books week, I decided to post every day this week, talking about a different book that’s had an impact on me.  Not necessarily books that have been banned, just ones that have left their fingerprints all over my heart.

And I know this week technically started yesterday, so I’m a day behind—whoops!  Nevertheless, you’re getting 7 Days of Book Ramblings from me!  I’ll try to do a double post sometime this week to catch up, so I’m not just backdating everything.

Let’s start with A Wind in the Door.  The title is appropriate for a beginning.  A wind in the door can signify a lot, but to me it carries the weight of something is happening, it’s time to pay attention.

A Wrinkle in Time, the first book of Madelaine L’engle’s Time Quartet, is the most well-known.  But the second book is the one that stuck with me, that I reread so many times.  I remember my middle school library, and checking out this book and one other (Peppermints in the Parlor, by Barbara Brooks Wallace) for Summer Reading with such frequency that the librarian once tried to coax me to check out a new book instead.

Wind in the Door
A Wind in the Door by Madelaine L’Engle


I’ve talked before about how much I identified with Meg.  But I also loved the weirdly fantastical world that L’engle created, one that existed alongside and beneath the surface of our own world.  In her books, beings of all species are aware of this greater reality, and exist as Teachers to guide Meg on her journey.  The Teachers in this book consist of no less than a mysterious dark giant;  a snake living in the woods behind Meg’s house;  and the family doctor.

Meg’s journey in this book is a variation on the Fantastic Journey, where she becomes microscopically small in order to enter the cells of her sick younger brother to find out what evil force is literally destroying him from the inside out.  Far from being stringently biological, L’engle paints a dreamlike picture of the world at this level, with its farandolae and mitochondria (NOT midichlorians, which is its own Star Wars kettle of fish).  It is, like most things in the Time Quartet series, a spiritual journey as much as it is a literal one.

It is also a book about growing up, and about the joy of being.

I’ve read this book at least a dozen times, growing up.  But it’s been a long time since I’ve cracked it open.  Maybe it’s time for a reread 😉

Happy New Year

Happy new year to all my readers!  It’s bitter cold up here in Pittsburgh, and we’re getting a lot of snow, but here’s to an exciting start to a new year.  I’ve got a lot of story ideas floating around, a lot of plans for this site, and I can’t wait to jump into them!

May the coming year bring us closer to who we want to be.

View of a snow-covered deck and partly cloudy sky.
Nothing is quite so cozy as looking out on fresh snow and not having to leave the house!

First Snowstorm

We had our first big snowstorm of the season this week.  A few inches of snow fell over the course of two and a half days, and the world was transformed seemingly overnight.  Dying grass and stark, leafless trees were suddenly layered under a white blanket of snow-themed cliches you’ve probably heard a thousand times by now.

Still, it’s a cliché that’s based on a truism:  the shift in landscape, happening so quickly, is magical.  Literally transformative.  One moment we are here, and the next, we are still here but ‘here’ is someplace different.  We don’t need to have moved from our spot.  The world has changed around us.

A porch overlooking a snow-covered neighborhood
Looking out on a changed world.

Snow and slush and ice are a mess to drive through, and I’m not a big fan of the cold, but I never get tired of this dramatic turning of the seasons.

It’s probably for the same reason I love fantasy.  It is a shift into a new world.  A thrilling, dizzying change in perspective.  It is our landscape transforming, and we—sometimes without even knowing it—transform with it.

Playing by House Rules

Hi folks, one quick announcement: later this week, I will have a new short story out!  Watch this space for more details!

I hope, if you are reading this, that you are enjoying a fine Thanksgiving weekend.  I hope your time with family and/or friends was enjoyable, and I hope that if you’re traveling, that your journey is safe.  A safe journey is a good thing to wish anybody, because we are all journeying, in one way or another.

In honor of a holiday deeply steeped in ideas of family and tradition, today I’d like to talk a bit about traditions.

Traditions are a bit like house rules for that old, well-loved board game you’re always playing.  Maybe the house rules make the game sillier, or more challenging, because that’s what the gaming circle likes.  Different gaming groups will have different house rules, because the dynamic is different and people are looking for various experiences.  House rules arise organically and stick around because (ideally) they work.

For example, I’ve spent the past several years enjoying Thanksgiving (and every other Christmas) with my in-laws.  Prior to every holiday dinner, deviled eggs and a shrimp platter are brought out as appetizers.  The deviled eggs are there because my brother-in-law brought them one year and they caught on like wildfire.  So he continues to bring them and we continue to enjoy them.  The shrimp platter is there, presumably, for a similar reason:  one person did it once and everyone liked it, so it stuck around.  So now, our family holiday tradition involves deviled eggs and a platter of fresh shrimp.  It’s assumed that, barring catastrophe, those two items will be present.  They are the house rules.

But here’s the thing about both traditions and house rules: sometimes they don’t work.  Sometimes they change over time.  Just as they arise organically, they can be phased out or altered organically.  People move away, social connections shift.  Life happens.

Let’s go back to that gaming group.  Maybe half of them like a good challenge and they insist on using the house rules to make that favorite game harder, while the other half of the group would really prefer a lighter experience, and feel frustrated and left out.  There are many ways this particular situation could shake out, based on the players and what they agree to.  But the point of my extended metaphor is this:

The ultimate point of traditions is to create a positive group-bonding experience through the use of shared emotional touchstones.  And if the traditions you’re familiar with don’t give you that, it’s okay to create different traditions.  It’s okay to have prime rib for your Thanksgiving dinner.  It’s okay to have a friendsgiving dinner, and host or attend a gathering of folks who don’t or can’t visit family.  It’s okay to sit at home playing video games with your significant other.

This can be hard.  Thanksgiving is always presented as one very particular experience in our media.  And if recreating that experience is difficult or impossible for you, it’s easy to wonder, “Is there something wrong with me?”

Nope, you’re fine.  Sometimes traditions leave people holding the short end of the stick.  Sometimes they pressure people, through the invisible web of social obligations, to enter situations detrimental to their well-being.  You are not obligated.  Traditions are not set in stone.  They are implied social contracts that are always subject to re-negotiation.

So for those of you celebrating a non-stereotypical Thanksgiving, I hope it is a great day for you.  I hope you have fun writing your own house rules, making your own traditions, and telling your own stories.

Dracula in the Gaps

There’s a lot to say about vampires:  their raw and deadly charisma, their powers wrested from the darkness, their sexuality, their connection to humanity’s dark half.  Every generation takes their stab (haha) at our perennial shadow-selves.  If you wanted to do a research paper on vampires, you couldn’t swing a bat (haha) without finding plenty of ink already spilled on the subject.  They continuously draw us in even as they creep us out.  They are walking metaphors for hunger, loss, power, lust, immortality, blood.

But I’m not interested in those right now.  Today I’m going to talk about another, tragically-overlooked side of this creature of the night:


You see, Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire novel “Dracula” isn’t just a straight-up horror novel, starring a whole bunch of Victorian Brits freaking out about the Other.  It’s also an epistolary novel:  it’s told entirely as a series of diary entries, newspaper clippings, letters, and fancy wax-cylinder audio recordings (cutting-edge tech at the time!).  Much of the underlying horror of the threat of Dracula is that he resists being coherently pinned down to the page.  Many of the protagonists’ logs start with “This makes no sense, let me get my thoughts in order…” and devolve into “I have no idea what is going on and that terrifies me.”  Creating a record of one’s experiences was supposed to be a way to put one’s problems in an easy box, where it could be safely examined and prodded, until one could understand it and then come up with a clean, rational solution.  And Dracula kept leaking out of that box, like so much evening mist slipping through a crack in the door.

The modern equivalent would be a story put together from a series of blog posts, tweets, status updates, hyperlinks.  Heck—why not steps measured with a FitBit, or browser histories?  I’d love to get a good look at Jonathan Harker’s Google search history.  And did anyone else notice how there’s no record of that AirBnB listing that he selected?  How is he going to leave that 1-star review?  “Castle drafty and mazelike, wifi spotty at best, and unseemly women kept assaulting me in my bed.  Breakfast was decent.”

Epistolary stories—broadly defined as stories formed out of diary entries or letters—create narratives that are both raw and unreliable.  Raw, in the sense that they feel like they’re coming at us straight from the source.  Unreliable in that it calls our attention to the fact that we are only seeing pieces of a story, told from limited perspectives.  We’re given pieces of a puzzle we have to put together on our own—or in some cases, guess at what lurks in the gaps between them.

These may be the reasons epistolary novels are most commonly seen in romances and in horror.  Both genres focus on the strong emotional reactions of protagonists who often cannot see the larger picture until the climax, when they are facing down the monster or the love interest (or, in some cases, the monster love interest).

Of course, you can have lots of fun putting together a collage story in all sorts of genres.  One of my favorite fantasy short stories inter-splices the main narrative with fictional auction records.  Or this charming and hilarious piece of Batman fan-fiction, a story with surprising emotional heft told entirely through a series of Excel spreadsheets.  One of my own stories, Why I’m Asking for an Extension on my Paper, takes the form of one side of a phone conversation between a college student and her professor.  We never hear exactly what the professor is saying.  We can only guess at their responses, the face they’re making, the tone of voice.  For all we know, it could be Dracula on the other end of the line.

And maybe that’s what’s fun about both Halloween and epistolary stories:  playing with and playing in the gaps, spending good quality time with what we don’t know.


What Stories Give Us: Part 1

In light of my last post, I wanted to take a deeper dive into what stories give us.  Stories aren’t all true; fiction is, by nature, something made-up.  (Fantasy, even more so.)  But whether they’re true tales or works of the imagination, stories give us many things. There’s a reason we’ve kept storytelling around for so very long. I could probably be here all day listing what I think it gives us.  But today I will just focus on one: empathy.

Here’s a true fact about me:  I’ve never been kicked out of my home for making music.  I’ve never been stuck behind enemy lines, knowing that any enemy soldier that found me out would probably kill me.  I’ve never dealt with the pressures of being royalty, or the dangers of being a runaway slave.

But stories have given me a glimpse into what that might have been like.  Stories have taught me a lot about people.

There’s an anecdote related by Gene Wolfe that I think about often when I’m putting together a story:

Not so long ago I saw a magnificent German shepherd lunge from between two parked cars, held in check by a blonde who could have played first base in the National League.  And it struck me that a fantastic adventure could have been filmed on the spot simply by hanging a skull about that woman’s neck and equipping her with a broadsword—but the woman and her dog are everything, while the skull and the sword are nothing.

The woman and the dog are everything.  Because, no matter how fantastically you’ve dressed up your story, it has to be about characters.  It has to be about people.  And it has to make us care about them.

It doesn’t mean that character has to be human.  We tell stories about aliens, animals, ghosts.  But the point is, they give us insight into what it’s like to be human.  They give us windows into experiences we’ve never had (and might never have).  And that insight teaches us empathy, which is probably the most important gift we have in this world.

empathy cat
I had no idea how to evoke empathy in a picture, so here’s my cat. Just seeing him contentedly curled up in my lap relaxes me.  That, too, is empathy.

Empathy is a skill.  It takes work and effort.  Sometimes the process of learning to understand people (especially those whose lives are very different from your own) means letting go of false assumptions or comforting simplicities.

But I think it is necessary work, and stories help us do that.

I’d like to hear from you now:  what stories have given you greater insight & understanding into people?  What stories have made you feel for a person or people you never thought you’d care about?  Or heck, just tell me a story that moved you deeply.  True stories count!

Writing & Grief

The world has been exceptionally heavy this past week or so.  I’ve been waffling on what to write here since so much of what I’d like to talk about seems almost frivolous in the face of devastating hurricanes and yet another mass shooting.  John Scalzi recently spoke of this in a general sense, about writing when the weight of the world is pushing you down.  But more specifically, today I’d like to talk about writing through grief.

My brother David died on New Year’s Eve, 2003.  It wasn’t an expected death, not the result of any illness or anything preventable.  Just a stray bullet fired when it shouldn’t have been, and he was gone.  Like that.  He was 24 years old.

David was a jazz musician.  He was one of the most passionate, creatively talented people I knew, and now he was just gone from the world.  All the things he could’ve done, all the songs he could’ve written, all he could’ve contributed to the world with his passion, none of it would happen.

I was a year younger than him, fresh out of grad school at the time and stumbling my way into adult independence.  Grief came like a hammer-blow.  I wasn’t in a good place to openly grieve much; I was financially unstable and in a living situation I can generously describe as fraught.  So I carried it around like a quiet weight inside me for a long time, as if the iron head of that hammer had lodged itself in my chest.

I didn’t write much in the year that followed.  In general I was an optimist, quick on the rebound and convinced there was little in the world that couldn’t be solved with a little imagination and a determination to do good.  But grief wasn’t something you rebounded from after a good night’s sleep.  My brother was missing from my life.  Everything felt off-balance.

What was the point of me telling stories about dragons or superheroes in the wake of such a loss?

Over time, my grief scarred over, healing as all wounds do.  I gradually began writing again, though there were some days where his absense struck me more.  There were days where I turned his loss over and over in my head, wondering how I could best honor his life.

About three years later, I pulled a half-finished novel draft out of the trunk.  I’d gotten stuck on Chapter 6, not really sure where the plot was supposed to go.  I played with it, writing a few sentences, and then a paragraph.  The next thing I knew, I’d broken the story’s dam open and the words began to flow again.

I was about two-thirds of the way through that first draft when I realized I was writing about David’s loss.

My main character was, in her own sideways manner, a creator of stories.  She, too, lost someone imporant to her.  She, too, stared into the abyss and wondered what the point of it was.  The book was the two of us feeling our way towards the answer.

Telling a good story isn’t the end-goal.  It’s what that story gives to the person who hears it.  Stories give us hope, and joy.  They give us insight and empathy.  They give us a new perspective.  They show us ways of being in this world, and dealing with all the ups and downs that entails.

purple flower
Nevertheless, we persist.

I can’t tell you what your own path through grief will be like.  That road is deeply personal.  But I can tell you, with certainty, that the world needs your voice.  It might take you a while to figure out what you want to say, especially when the world feels like it’s spinning off into the darkness.  But your story matters.  And one day, when you are ready, I would love to hear it.


Cultivating Mental Green Space

I’m sitting in Schenley Plaza, a spacious green lawn in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.  Oakland is a busy urban hub overflowing with universities and colleges.  Their presence means that there’s a lot of green space here: grassy plazas, parks, wide sweeps of lawn, and lots of green nooks between and around buildings.  Places where the proverbial student can tuck themselves in with a book and pore thoughtfully over its contents, in a pose worthy of dozens of college brochures.

I love finding these little patches.  There’s nothing like turning a corner and finding an unexpected garden in the middle of the city.  These are the places I go on my lunch breaks, toting a notebook or a netbook or now a Neo2, whatever writing tool helps me get the most work done.  Sometimes I tuck myself in with a book and read someone else’s words.  Sometimes I just sit and admire the view, breathing slowly.

There’s already been a lot written on the value of green spaces by people much more versed in urban planning & civil engineering than myself.  I couldn’t break down the Quality of Living metrics for you.  But I do know that their presence gives me something insubstantial but immeasurably valuable:  a visual and emotional break, a patch of beauty and serenity in the middle of the urban bustle.  A space to breathe.

I need green space to write.  Not necessarily in the physical world (though that’s always nice to have); I need to cultivate *mental* green space.

green space
This garden is on a wide grassy lawn crammed between the two busiest streets in Oakland.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I’m a magpie brain.  I’ll find all sorts of other things to distract myself with if I’m not careful.  Give me free time and I’ll try to fill it up with chores and craft projects and TV shows.  Or even worse, I’ll get sucked into the neverending  black hole that social media can be, spiraling endlessly downward to the lightless gravity core.  And when this happens—as it’s been happening a lot lately—I find it even harder to work up the momentum to sit down and write.  I get stuck on a sentence and suddenly I’m looking at my phone.  I’m not sure where a story should go and suddenly I’m reading a long-form essay on the Political Scandal du Jour.  And I still don’t know where the story should go because I haven’t taken the time to step back and breathe.

Stories can stew in the back of my head without me giving them much conscious thought.  But to really get into the nitty-gritty of shaping and building and detailing, or just to play with new ideas and see where they’ll go, I need that quiet time when I put aside everything else and just let my thoughts run around the park.  Suddenly I’m moving through the world in the most productive haze, doing mindless chores or just taking a walk while mumbling about a character’s background or deciding what the most vital conflict is.  Ideas flower, and my feet find the path and follow it eagerly.

Call it negative space, or downtime. Call it Dedicated Musing Time or, heck, call it Miracle Jenny’s Miraculous Green Space Productivity Program (patent pending).  But we shouldn’t be afraid of giving ourselves that space when we need it.  Of putting the phone on the other side of the room, taking a deep mental breath, and having a nice long think.

I know that’s what I need to do.  So I guess it’s time to start covering busy mental parking lots with mulch and grass, to plant little gardens, to aggressively carve out spaces to just breathe.  And my thoughts can be like toddlers let loose to chase each other over the grass, or the man in gym clothes slowly yoga-ing himself into a pretzel, or the day camp kids chasing a giant 6-foot tall beach ball wherever the wind takes it, or even the occasional college student curled picturesquely over a book.