Inspiration Monday

Inspiration Habits

Whew! It’s been so long since I posted Inspiration Monday. 21 days! I didn’t realize it had been that long, and I feel pretty bummed about it. Sort of. See, I have a bad habit of going big and then fading out. I don’t like doing that, but I think I might have bitten off a little too much to chew with this blog for now and my other work. I still have some big ideas but I don’t have the time to execute them. So I’m working on getting myself that necessary time, and also cutting back a little on posting so that I have room to breathe.

I’m also in the middle of living a crazy personal life, which is so much fun and so much growth as a human who happens to be married to another human. Man, marriages make a lot of work don’t they? Mine is great, and we are happily, stupidly in love after 4.5 years of marriage and nearly 7 years together. Yet, as with all of life comes growth and sometimes that growth is painful but important. I’ve been doing a lot of that these past couple of weeks and so this blog hasn’t been on my mind as much. I feel like I’ve been embodying the quote above and although I’ve neglected some of my work it’s been such a welcome break from the everyday life I’d been living that I appreciate it. Sometimes you need to escape from the everyday. Don’t let life pass you by while you’re waiting for something to happen. That is a lesson I’ve spent 32 years coming to understand because I am a consummate waiter. I wait for the future and I wait for when my life will resemble what I imagine and then I go and get disappointed when it’s not working. I like making plans and goals that I work towards but I don’t want to get so focused on the future that I forget about right now. I’m trying to break that habit (slowly but surely!) by being more of a doer. And right now it’s hard but fun to change my path.

Inspiration Monday: Laura Benanti

You know Oprah’s motto, “Live Your Best Life Now”? I have a feeling this lady is doing just that.

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Laura Benanti is a Tony award winning Broadway star also seen on TV shows that I love, like Nashville, the short lived Go On and currently Supergirl. She’s also hilarious on Twitter and in real life. But why is she my inspiration for this week?

Because she looks like she is comfortable in her own (admittedly gorgeous) skin, and comfortable being her goofy, witty and endearing self. She’s such a professional but she seems like she’s having a blast doing it. Because she has come forward talking about the issue of going through a miscarriage and wanting to talk about it.  And because she is open, and expressive and energetic. Last week I was feeling pretty tired and trying to get my word count for the day but I needed a midday pick-me-up. So I watched her performing with The Skivvies and was instantly revived and ready to get back to work. She’s got such an enthusiastic spirit that I admire. As I get older and feel more comfortable with myself, someone who has talked about feeling younger and being herself as she gets older, she is my newest role model for living my best life.

Now go watch her videos!

 

Inspiration Monday: Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

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This is one of my favorite quotes from an imminently quotable man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s Martin Luther King Day here in the United States, which, if you know anything about our current situation, is irony at its most depressing. I don’t want to get into it in an Inspiration post (#BlackLivesMatter), but I do want to talk about why I love this quote.

It comes from his speech “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” which was given in Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, and it is frighteningly prophetic.  He had just been attacked and nearly killed in New York City, and so he is talking about how, like Moses, he has seen the promised land, but might not get there with everyone else. He is encouraging his listeners to keep up their efforts and to keep the movement alive, even though he’s also telling them he will probably die. And even as he talks about the struggles they have gone through, and will go through, and the mace, and dogs and violence against them, he holds fast to his principles, saying “it’s nonviolence or nonexistence”.

This is a powerful speech. Not only because it outlines the economic boycotts they will impose, or its prophetic qualities, or even his rhetorical skill. It’s powerful because of the inspiration and encouragement he gives. And that is why I love this quote so much, because of the truth behind it, and the context in which he says it:

“The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding–something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya: Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee–the cry is always the same– ‘We want to be free.'”

Even today, over 40 years later, we still face so much confusion and trouble. And we must keep marching forward, arm in arm, focused on that statement, and that goal: “We want to be free.” It’s a beautiful quote, and it means so much to me as I watch the efforts of groups like “Black Lives Matter” and more trying to use their voices and continue this struggle forward.

But I also love this quote for the encouragement it gives to all struggles. I say it to myself when I am stuck and frightened, or worrying too much and can’t see the answer. I remind myself that only when it is dark can we see the light that leads us forward. When it is dark we can see the light shining from the people ahead of us, or the ones who love us so fiercely that they light up with it. And we can see the light of all the good things that we do have in our lives.

We can see the beauty of the stars, and that is a gift too. I begin thinking about the people who watched the stars all those years ago and how far we have come. We have used science to shoot ourselves up into that darkness and learn about the stars and planets that shine down on us. That is proof of progress right there. These are the thoughts I have when I’m trying to remind myself that it’s just one more step, just keep going one more step.

I hope you are encouraged in your struggle today. I hope you take heart from Dr. King, and look at the stars when it is dark. I hope you think for a while about how far we’ve come, and I hope you take a step further today, both in your work, and also in your efforts to make this country one that Dr. King can be proud of.

If you would like to watch the full speech you can do that here.

 

Helping Preserve Women’s Rights History

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In 1848 the first women’s convention on equal rights was held in Seneca Falls, NY. There, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martha Coffin Wright and Lucretia Mott led the gathered women in the creation of a document modeled after the Declaration of Independence, which held that men and women were created equal.

Their Declaration of Sentiments, as the document was called, was then signed by the women and the 30 men who attended (including Frederick Douglass). This kicked off the women’s rights movement in our country and paved the way for women’s suffrage, and other vitally important changes to ensure women’s rights. But, in addition to actual improvements, it also called for things like equal pay, which is still an issue we struggle with 167 years later. Their last sentiment especially hit home. It is as follows:

He has endeavored, in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.

Women still face these issues. The fight is not over. And the need for recognizing women who began this movement is not over. The White House, and the Chief Technology Officer, Megan Smith, have been working with the National Archives to find the original Declaration of Sentiments. After Frederick Douglass took the document to Rochester, NY to publish it in his newspaper, The Northern Star, the document has gone missing. They are hoping to find the original Declaration, or any evidence that can explain what has happened to it. In addition to this important piece of history, they are seeking other artifacts important to the women’s rights movement in this country. You can read more about it on the White House’s blog. And you can help spread the word! Get the message out so that we can find and preserve a part of history that is often ignored or unknown. Use #FindtheSentiments to spread the word!

What I Wish I’d Said

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Recently, as I was making my rounds in one of my British Literature classes, listening to what the groups had to say, and clarifying some confusing points, I stopped to chat with a group of particularly bright and funny students. I don’t know exactly how the subject of romance novels began, but I know I wish I had ended it very differently.

My students don’t know I write historical romance, so they don’t know how I feel about the topic. Like many writers I use a pen name. I do this for several reasons, as I’m sure you do too, if you use one. I am not ashamed of my writing, but I understand that some people might not see it that way, and at the moment I’d rather keep my writing life separate from my day to day life. Nor do I talk about my writing in the classroom. I generally say I write historical fiction, which is true but doesn’t carry nearly the same connotations.

So, when one of my bright students started lambasting romance novels for all of the tired reasons you’ve heard before she didn’t know she was speaking to a writer and reader of romance. She just thought she was talking to her professor of “High Canon British Literature”. And I was thrown off my game a little bit, trying to maintain my professional persona, and wasn’t prepared to defend the genre. So I said nothing and I did nothing. But this is what I wish I had said:

“Hey, B. I hear what you’re saying about romance novels, that they are ridiculous and overly romanticized and nothing is ever really like that.  And I agree. Romance novels are ridiculous, overly romanticized and unrealistic. But I want you to stop and think about why you are criticizing a genre that millions of women (and men) read and love. What is it about the genre that you find so distasteful? Is it the fact that it’s unrealistic or overly dramatic? Because in that case you should also be criticizing the Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stories we just read. Or the latest Avengers movie or Stephanie Meyer novels. Vampires and superheroes and monsters and green knights who challenge people to beheading games are unrealistic and overly dramatic too.

No, I don’t think it’s the overly dramatic quality that bothers most people. I think it’s deeper than that. We have a hard time accepting sentiment and emotion. We are uncomfortable with our soft, squishy feelings in the light of the day, and so we joke about them. We make them less important than they really are. We are uncomfortable with passion and so we pretend it is silly, except when we want it ourselves, and then only as long as it stays tidy and doesn’t expose our vulnerabilities to others. I do this too. I get it.

Or, maybe you think it’s a silly genre because women are the primary readers of it? In that case, I’m disappointed. It hurts all women when we look down on our gender as somehow less than because they make up the majority of fans for a specific type of creative endeavor. Do you see other men making fun of each other because of equally ridiculous action movies? No. So why do we think it’s okay for people to make fun of romance novels?

Perhaps it’s the sex? Perhaps you are uncomfortable with a genre that accepts and praises and revers sex? Why exactly? Why can people be okay with feeling emotions of fear and anxiety in a horror movie, and be moved to scream or cover their faces, but aren’t okay with being turned on or moved by descriptions of sex?

See, I think that people are afraid of all of these things when it comes to romance novels. They’re afraid that the overly romanticized plot lines will make women unhappy with their real lives, (and if they are, is that always a bad thing? Maybe they need to change). And they’re afraid that the “formulaic nature of genre writing” will somehow dull our brains (Law & Order, any body?). Or they are afraid of the emotions or the sex. It’s a sad world we live in when we accept monsters and fear and blood, but get squeamish at the thought of love and sex.

Or maybe it goes deeper. Maybe we make fun of romance novels because they are written by women and for women. We’ve been reading a lot of literature in our class and very little of it shows a woman’s voice. Not until recently were women even allowed to be writers, and even today women are rarely recognized for their writing as men are (See: Jennifer Weiner’s campaign to get equal reviews in the NYT). We call women writers “subliterary” and we call their writing “women’s fiction” or “chick lit”. And that’s a problem, because male writers don’t face the same kind of criticism, even when their writing is formulaic as well. We don’t say that mystery writers, or sci-fi, or fantasy writers who are men are “subliterary”. We don’t have a derogatory term like “bodice-rippers” for the types of lighter fiction that men write or read. No. We save it for women. And we save our disdain for the genre of romance because women write it.

In addition to the other issues we discuss, my class has been focused on helping you and your classmates see that women’s experiences are often overlooked, negated or not acknowledged. That women are accused of being “lewd” or “coy” and everything else, but are rarely allowed to speak on their gender’s behalf, or even on their own behalf. Many of you have stated that things have gotten better, which is true, but we still undermine women at every turn, and making fun of a genre of literature is just another example of this and I’m sick of it.

The romance genre is about people falling in love, and fighting for that love. It’s about a plot that ends satisfyingly, just like John Grishman novels do. It’s about acknowledging what makes us human, and flawed and working to overcome or accept those qualities. And I don’t see how those things are some how beneath us, or should be mocked. Do you?”

Had We But World Enough and Time I Could Make You Love Poetry Too

In addition to writing about love, I spend a lot of time talking about the literature of love, and of sex. I teach British Literature as a professor at a community college in Texas, and I get to teach high school students all about British Literature from 1000 to 1800.  I say “get to” because it is my privilege. I feel very fortunate on most days to be the one who gets to introduce them to the complex wonders of Chaucer, Donne, Marvelle and yes, Shakespeare. I love showing them why I enjoy sonnets and love extended metaphors and all the other ways that poetry challenges us, and makes us respond to the words on the page. And sometimes they point out things that make me pause and re-evaluate my own responses and then I have a deeper appreciation for the poems we’ve been reading for the past 500 years. Today, I got to experience that, and it was a great way to finish the day.

Today we discussed two of the better known “Carpe Diem” poems, Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time” and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. (The latter happens to be one of my all time favorite poems and the link I’ve included has a great version of it read by someone who sounds awfully like Patrick Stewart.)

As we were reading the poem I pointed out why he praises various body parts of his lady, and what he is trying to do by focusing on her eyes, forehead and heart, and also why he is trying to convince her that if they had “but world enough and time” then he would be committed to loving her “ten years before the flood”.

One of my students mentioned that parts of the poem are really weird, and that the idea of worms trying her “long preserved virginity” was a really gross image. When she said this I agreed, and I also pointed out that he compares them to “amorous birds of prey” and suggests that they “tear [their] pleasure with rough strife,” and that these are not usually images or birds we associate with love. When we think of birds and love we think of songbirds, or doves or lovebirds. We rarely think of falcons and hawks.

But, I went on to say, this is one of the reasons I absolutely love this poem. Andrew Marvell contrasts these gruesome or unpleasant images with some astoundingly beautiful ones. He says to his mistress that “my vegetable love should grow / vaster than empires, and more slow” which brings to mind green growing life, and vines curling outwards across the land. I love the idea of vegetable love. It seems so precious and earthy, and yet it brings forth life and nourishes us. Or, if you aren’t a fan of vegetable love, you might prefer, “the youthful hue / sits on thy skin like morning dew”. I would swoon if someone said that to me. But, shortly after that he’s talking about death and ashes.

And for me, the contrast between the beautiful and the ugly is what makes this poem startlingly great. It’s like life, in that beautiful things are set right next to ugly ones. Amazingly beautiful flowers grow out of mud, and lovely, wonderful things are right next to gruesome, awful ones. This poem sees the reality and the beauty and isn’t trying to hide one with the other. And that makes the beautiful things all the more marvelous (get it? Marvell-ous?) and the ugly things take on their own sort of loveliness.

So many of the poems from this era try to disguise their intentions with flowery, lovely language, or complex rhymes so that we don’t notice the truth. Or, we might notice it but we see it as insincere. Marvell might be insincere in his commitment to this woman, but he’s honest about it. He’s saying if we had time, I’d make you all sorts of flowery speeches, but we don’t. We’re going to die and it will be awful. Let’s enjoy things now while we can, and even if we can’t stop time, we will give it a run for its money.

That right there is how I finished my class. *Mic drop*. Isaacks Out.

By Heart

Last night, before bed, I read this article on The Atlantic‘s weekly series, “By Heart”. It was their end of year round up of the series which interviews writers and asks them to discuss their craft based on a sentence they love. There were lots of excerpts that were excellent and although I disagreed with some of them I found them all valuable. This thing of writing is so personal and so often romanticized that to see how other people approach it, and what works for them is so damned useful. Rather than think, “oh, Jim Harrison does it this way, so I have to as well,” you can look at another author and go, “yes, that feels right to me.” Not that Jim Harrison’s way is wrong, but it might be wrong for you. I think I responded most to Linn Ullman’s quoted interview (full one here.) She talks about needing a place for her characters to inhabit before she can really understand what they do and what these actions mean for the story and for their characters.

Here is the part that The Atlantic excerpted:

When I begin writing, I need to have a place.  It can be a small: even a single room, though I like to be able to see the layout, the colors, the objects inside. I need to have that stage so that my characters have a place to move around. If I can develop that sense of place—and that other crucial quality, the narrative voice—then I feel sure I will find a story, even if it takes some time.  If I don’t have the place, and I don’t have the voice, I’m writing without a motor. It all becomes just words. But once the voice comes, the “here” comes next, and then the “something happened”—what we call plot—follows from it.

In this way, writing becomes a listening experience—a way of being responsive to what you have written, and letting it guide you. Some writers say “the characters come to me,” or the “characters become alive to me at night.” Bullshit. I don’t believe that my characters are alive. But the process requires a form of artistic listening, of understanding the consequences of the decisions you’ve made. If you are lucky enough to find voice and place, there are real consequences to those choices. Together, they limit the possibilities of what can possibly come next—and they help point the way forward. Your role, then, is to not stick to your original idea—it is to be totally faithless to your idea. Instead, be faithful to voice and place as you discover them, and to the consequences of what they entail.

I think I responded so much to this because I agree with what she says about world building, because without place we don’t have context. We don’t have space for our characters to move around in. And we don’t have real consequences for the choices a character might make. I love that she says “they limit the possibilities of what can possibly come next– and they help point the way forward.” I completely agree, and I like it as a function of story craft. It is the events and the characters that dictate the story.

If I were to choose my quote it might be the one that is currently emblazoned on my coffee mug. It’s by Walt Whitman and it reads: “The secret of it all is to write… without waiting for a fit time or place.”