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For the past six weeks or so, I’ve been taking a course to further my journey toward becoming a certified English teacher. “Methods of Teaching Secondary English” is a required course for teachers in Maine. For the class final project, we were assigned to design a lesson plan that is “original, inspired (or inspiring) and presented using some type of technology, which might be out of the comfort zone of the author.” I am not accustomed to making videos or movies of myself using iMovie or Youtube, other than the occasional cat video that I make in my living room. (Note: I never subject others to these little movies about whatever funny thing my cat did. I think the Internet has plenty of these gems without my contribution.)

First, I had to learn how to use iMovie. I started by calling my best friend, who seems to know all things related to whatever issue I’m having on my Mac. Then, I watched tutorials on Youtube, started practice filming for a different assignment earlier on in the course. I made the dorkiest iMovie, trust me, including action shot of me, weeding my garden as a metaphor for how English teachers have to cultivate the “constant gardener,” or “constant writer,” in their classrooms. Then I set up a Vimeo account, which was fairly easy. I may be the last person to do this (have you done this yet?) Next, I had to edit my iMovie, patching together many, many pieces of footage, or “clips,” and record voice-overs for certain parts, attempting to sound professional without sounding like the authoritative Catholic school nun from the 1980 “Blues Brothers,” scolding my audience, well, without the ruler.

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I made a video for my final project. I designed an original lesson plan called, “The Writers Cafe.” Also, I had to do a rain-dance in my dining room, wait patiently for 22 hours while the video uploaded to Vimeo and “converted,” whatever that meant. It was such a long wait that I thought I had done something wrong. And I had selected the “high” quality resolution but not the best quality/professional resolution. I made it with the recent-most version of iMovie on my MacBook Pro. So far I have received some great feedback from my instructor and classmates on my lesson plan. The video is no longer available for viewing.

Literary analysis and figurative language are among my favorite subjects to teach my students in English Composition. While other teachers might find these akin to “pulling teeth,” I thrive on the challenge. I like to create original hand-outs for my students for each assignment, or in some cases, multiple worksheets. My teaching persona might be considered “the Hand-out Queen,” if there are such things. (What’s your teaching style? Aren’t there quizzes in magazines for this?)

Literary analysis, also known as literary criticism, is a tool that writers use to examine elements in fiction, creative nonfiction or poetry. When a writer uses this tool, the objectives of the essay might include answering some of these questions about the literature:

  • What is the story or book (or collection) about? (this does not mean that you write full plot summary or a book report)
  • What is the problem or conflict in the story, book or poem?
  • What points is the author or poet trying to make about society, love, religion, war, culture, or some other important topic?
  • What’s the main idea of the poem or story?
  • What symbolism is used? Analogies, central themes?
  • What lies beneath the surface? Is there an underlying tension?
  • What kinds of emotional response does this piece of lit. bring about for the reader? Does it bother you? Did it affect you in any way? Any elements of surprise, suspense?

The above list is just the beginning. Of course, I start with the basics, including an understanding of metaphor, point of view, character development and how to write a thesis statement. But my students still appreciate seeing some additional examples that dig a little deeper. I offered this lesson to be helpful. Maybe others will find this useful, too.

Revising & Strengthening Literary Analysis Essays

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My dining table has become the “grading station”

  • Make sure to have a clear thesis statement in your first paragraph (or the opening sentence of second paragraph). This thesis statement will direct the essay.
  • Make sure to have quotes from the literature you’re analyzing (quotes from the text) —These quotes will range the gamut from short phrases to longer “block quotes,” which you must indent & center (and format single-spaced).
  • Make sure to correctly identify whether it is a novel (fiction)—and identify which genre, e.g. detective/crime story, suspense/thriller, Victorian gothic, science fiction fantasy, novelette, which is a short novel, such as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle); or a creative nonfiction book such as a memoir, travel narrative such as Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, science and nature memoir, such as Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; or short story, such as “The Open Window;” or an essay.
  • Make sure that you have correctly identified the type of narrator (e.g. omniscient (all-knowing), a named character in a novel (whether a protagonist or minor character), the author (if memoir), and kept that distinct throughout your essay. Be careful not to confuse these.

If you have selected to analyze an entire book, for example, a memoir—imgres-1let’s say, John Berendt’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated creative nonfiction book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1995), there is a LOT to analyze in a full book. However, in a short literary analysis essay, you’d be wise to focus your thesis statement on one concept or two themes, and dig into that idea, or parallel ideas, from a multitude of angles. For example, you might notice a lot of scenes, conversations between people in the book and references to “house-proud Savannah” and the pride of the residents in the Georgia city. You might also notice how Berendt uses contrast to depict envy among the same people. As a reader, you could step back and look at “pride” as a positive and “envy” as a negative; go further, and we look at “good and evil” as “pride and envy.” Or, as another example, you might be more interested in the theme of what it means to be “a true Savannahian.” Whatever grabs your interest is likely to work well in an essay that you craft.

Then we can skim through the book, and hopefully you have thought to annotate the text with sticky notes to color-code your favorite quotes. If not, you’ll have to go through the text again and find passages in the book that mention “jealousy,” “envy,” “pride” or “proud” (or “house-proud,”) or any characterizations that speak to these concepts. Select 4-10 quotes. You want a combination of short phrases, any special terms coined by the author or a character, location-specific phrases that are relevant to your analysis/thesis statement, a longer quote that you will indent to create a block quote. See below for a few examples of a phrase, a sentence quoted in the body of your paragraph an indented block quote. If you have a long quote and you want to use only parts of it but to keep it mainly in tact, use a […] << like that within the quote and within the body of your paragraph. This keeps it sleek. Nothing in quotes should appear in your essay unless it is a direct quote from the text. In other words, don’t put something in quotes if it is from your brain; it will confuse the reader.

An exception to the quote rule: if you’re quoting a literary critic, who has made a comment on the text that you’re analyzing, in which case you’re quoting that critic AND you must then cite that source and attribute that concept to the literary critic. Hot tip: if you quote a literary critic, keep that reference to a minimum and put it in one paragraph. You don’t want to confuse your reader and have quotes from literary critic(s) mixed in with quotes from the narrator and quotes from the characters or real people in the text.

Here is my example.  This is a snippet of a literary analysis essay I wrote about John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil:

In “house-proud Savannah,” the reader quickly sees the lush lawns and elaborate porches of the prominent homes “north of Gaston” (Berendt, 48). But what most visitors may not realize is that there are rules in Savannah. These rules dictate socially acceptable behavior for a “true Savannahian.” We know that the narrator and author, John Berendt, is a writer from New York, not a native to Georgia. He meets Joe, who explains the rules of Savannah living. Joe says, “Rule number one: Always stick around for one more drink. […] That’s when you find out everything you want to know.” Throughout the story, John attends a number of cocktail and dinner parties, and he engages in lively conversations with colorful characters—all real people living in Savannah. One thing he learns: locals are more forthcoming with him after he has earned their trust and they have had a few drinks together. It is during one of these parties that he sees the shadow-side of a prominent figure in the community and learns the truth about a crime, a murder.

Joe’s discussion of “the Rules” continues— “Rule number two: Never go south of Gaston Street. A true Savannahian is a NOG. ‘NOG’ means ‘North of Gaston.’ We stay in the old part of town.” The reader is permitted entrance into this tightly-knit, exclusive community—Savannah—and through Berendt’s writing, gains the privilege of learning these local secrets, or rules, for society, or at least, for Savannah. We learn what it means to be a “true Savannahian,” one who sticks around for one more drink, stays “north of Gaston,” and finally, “observes the high holidays,” such as St. Patrick’s Day and the annual football game (Berendt, pg. 48). We later learn that there are consequences for breaking the rules of Savannah living, or repercussions for failing to be “a true Savannahian.”                                                                         ~LCS

The GirlAnother example. Fiction.  Looking at “coming of age” and peace/purity versus darkness/devil (or fear v. wonder) themes in Peter Benchley’s short novel, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez (1982). Notice the use of an indented block quote in an excerpt of my essay:

Peter Benchley’s novelette is a magical story with elements of suspense, not unlike his famous novels, Jaws and The Deep. However, unlike those other full-length novels, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez is a coming-of-age story. Paloma is a girl of sixteen, whose name means “dove,” a symbol of peace, purity and of “the Holy Spirit.” She lives in a village beside the Sea of Cortez and thrives on her saltwater swims and boating expeditions into her own world of magic and sea life. By 16, Paloma has encountered many sea creatures, including sharks and barracuda, and she has indigenous knowledge—partly taught by her late father and partly by her brother, Jobim, also known as Jo. Her brother’s knowledge of geology and marine life had come from his elders; Paloma prefers to learn by observation and first-hand experience. She embraces fear and curiosity equally—but above all, maintains a sense of wonder about the sea world.

“Paloma looked up. One behind another, a procession of hammerhead sharks passed overhead in a parade. Their silver-gray bodies were as sleek as bullets and the sunlight touched the ripples of moving muscle and made them sparkle. Paloma loved the hammerheads, for they seemed somehow to focus her thoughts about God and nature.” (Benchley, 26)

                     Paloma considers that if there were any animal that were “particularly blessed,” it would be the hammerhead shark. Sharks had been “critical to the island’s survival” and yet, the hammerhead species had survived there for millions of years. (Benchley, 26) Most 16-year-olds would be terrified to swim with hammerhead sharks, which are known to attack divers in other parts of the world. But Paloma understands the sharks. She admires them. She understands them. She uses her fear as a tool, as she might a fishing knife or piece of rope within her diving bag. By contrast, when she encounters a giant manta ray for the first time, she faces a new type of fear and must conquer that fear. The manta ray, known locally as a “Manta Diablo,” or “black devil fish,” symbolizes the very antithesis, or opposite, of the young pure-of-heart Paloma.

As the story develops, Paloma explores the Sea of Cortez, puts herself in close proximity with the “Manta Diablo” and compels herself to conquer her fear. She finds a deep resolve within herself and gains a profound understanding for the nature of things, and more importantly, her identity as she becomes a woman. Benchley illustrates her sea adventures as if each one were a rite of passage, which Paloma herself has invented. No one is telling her to seek out the “black devil-fish,” let alone ride on top of the ray, in fact, her brother and the others warn her to stay away from the mysterious creature, a thing of myth and mystery. Despite those warnings, Paloma swims with the manta ray and rides on its back. She conquers her fear, comes to know herself more confidently and enriches the local knowledge and understanding of the manta ray’s behavior and biology through her observations. ~ LCS

I arrived at the Department of Mysteries’ Center for Occupational Prophecies, where I attended a required workshop–after one hour of sleep last night. Because I’m not used to city parking situations, I got a little lost between the garage and Department of Mysteries building (but my wand, er, smartphone, led me in the right direction.) I’m not too proud to say that I also got lost on my way back to the garage but by then, I was under the influence.

The man leading the workshop smiled like he was full of smelly cheese a la Professor Slughorn as he loaded his PowerPoint. Posters with backward lettering, apparently motivational spells, clung to the wall with Scotch tape. A smoky haze of cigarettes, marijuana and fire-breathing dragon breath immediately enveloped me in Conference Room B. (The Death Eaters were in Conference Room A, thank goodness.) Most of the attendees gruffed and puffed over the necessary paperwork. Most of us had filled out our Star Trek logs prior to the workshop. I held my breath in between moments when I could not contain myself and blurted out: “Is this the workshop where we learn how to write an ‘effective resume’ or is that next week?” and “Wait, is that an example of ‘what to do,’ or ‘what not to do?’ Both are grammatically incorrect.” *Shudder* Apparently grammar is a matter of opinion. Not surprisingly, it was followed by a bulleted list of tips: 1) Use correct grammar, 2) Maximum 1 page (etc. It really only got worse from there.) Here’s an example of a resume that the Workshop Wizard liked:

John Smith
15 Plain Road
Anyplace, ME 04099

Tools I Know:

Drive tractor. And 4-Wheelers.                                         Compressers
Cutting tools                                                                    Electric discharge machine
(Etc.)                                                                                 Misc. tools

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At the 10:30am break

Clearly, the Workshop Wizard prefers the functional format, which hiring managers have practically outlawed. When I overheard some guys in the back row grumble, “Here she goes again,” and moan any time I asked a question or made a comment, trying to help the innocent, I clammed up. I wished I’d brought my invisibility cloak. Or, at least magic ink so that my SS# and contact information wouldn’t be visible on the sign-in sheet as it was passed from person to person at an alarmingly sluggish rate, especially in the back row.

After the workshop, I fled on my broomstick into a nor’easter. It’s the kind of snow that splinters your eye balls with miniature ice picks. Wind blew long curls into my mouth and I walked awkwardly along the slushy side-walk, swearing and muttering. People avoided me. I probably looked like one of those “Lost Souls” from the Lakes Region. (We don’t get off the Mountain of Doom very often.) By the time I had circumvented the block twice and changed direction (my eye glasses fogged into a cataract-glaze), I was dazed and confused like Liv Tyler. I felt hot under the collar. My pretty blue wool coat smelled like college days and frat parties. Finally, I found the parking garage and climbed the stairs to the 4th floor–but my sea green Subaru was not there! Did I get towed? Oh, no! I scrambled up the stairs to the 5th, then the 6th floors, horrified to see giant mounds of snow I hadn’t seen before. Merlin’s beard! I’ve been towed! I knew this public parking garage–albeit inconveniently located but only at a $2/hr rate was too-good-to-be-true! Argh! In slight panic mode, or more realistically, an allergic reaction to Conference Room B in the Department of Mysteries (Miseries?) I took the elevator down to the ground level and found a nice parking attendant who was willing to look for my car (on the 6th, 5th, 4th and finally, 3rd floor), while I had an neurotic breakdown, probably breaking out into hives by this point. (I tipped the helpful fellow and thanked him profusely.)

Then, as I warmed up the car, relieved it had not been towed, I listened to a new voicemail: “Leah, you have been selected to attend a required workshop next Thursday….” (in addition to the one I’ve been selected to attend on Tuesday.) When am I supposed to practice casting the Patronus charm? When I am supposed to study for the OWLs? When am I supposed to fight evil and save the world?

Tomorrow night’s the full moon in dramatic Royal-Leader-of-Meltdowns-and-Billowing-Manes-Leo. This blast of energy lasts 10 days.

The full moon yesterday drove me to tears. It’s the sort of energy that turns me into a wounded animal or cursed character from Greek mythology. Normally, a full moon in Aquarius sends me jumping for unexpected joy, since I was born with a triple blast of the cool, breezy and sometimes hurricane-like gales of Aquarian air.  While I’m “Aquarius Rising,” I’m a watery Pisces (Decan 1), which makes me stormy. Truly, I get most creative during thunderstorms, hurricanes and blizzards. Living in “Thunder Town,” where the radon in the granite and abundance of lakes and ponds attracts frequent thunderstorm activity has helped me to be productive and prolific as a writer, for the most part. (This past year has had its share of dry spells and strange weather.)

The incredibly beneficial Grand Water Trine with Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune in the three water signs (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces), with a cosmic “jackpot” moment the week of July 16-19th, was especially golden for those of us born in Decan 1 Pisces with Feb. 23 or 24th birthdays (like mine!), or born in the first few days of Pisces (Feb. 20-25th) more generally. Last week, when I got terribly upsetting news about my poetry manuscript, I thought, “Where’s my cosmic jackpot?” Then I had a wonderful meeting-of-the-minds with a fellow literary nerd, and thought, “Hmmm, perhaps THIS is my cosmic lottery ticket!”  Yet, I was wrong.  Someone yelled “Bingo” prematurely…and we all know that’s a ‘no-no.’ Thus, I had a few epiphanies during this blowhard of a full moon. Ugh.

Summer 2013 is odd in that it has not one but two full moons in Aquarius–one on July 22nd, which dared people (go on, I dare you, see what happens) and the second one on August 20th.  The August full moon is supposed to be aspected with far fewer challenging or oppositional energy for those of us with Aquarian traits (or Pisces, for that matter). I’m hoping for a creative splash of full moon energy to make up for the suck-the-life-out-of-you whirlwind we just had yesterday. Late August could heighten or inspire some cutting-edge ideas.

swimwear19565Fortunately that Grand Water Trine I mentioned has wonderfully magic effects that last into next year, with Jupiter in Cancer (for those of us Pisceans) until July 2014.  This is happy news, especially for my fellow mermaids & mermen looking for a true, soulmate love. But this is just the beginning…we have a whole year of this dreamy Neptunian influence. How lovely! Grab your retro glam swimsuit and pose like a ’60s pin-up girl at the beach. That’s the Pisces way.

If you want a video podcast of your August horoscope, check out Kelly Rosano’s podcast series. I like her. This one’s for Pisces (August 2013). You can find the others at her All Are One Youtube Channel. 

In the middle of the heat wave in Maine, I’m under the gun with a deadline at work…and grateful for air conditioning in my writing room. Since starting the new job, I haven’t had much time (if any) to write for myself, except for journal entries. Even then, it’s practically forced.  Regular swims break up the long hours at my desk doing the graphic design lay-out and provide relief from the heat. So do pineapple coconut popsicles. Today I’m editing at my desk with my feet in a large pail of ankle-deep water. Lovely. Why didn’t I think of doing this before?

Recently I received a set-back in the form of a rejection from a publisher on my poetry manuscript. Serious bummer. I’ve always had a thick skin though especially with rejection (at least, with writing). Laughed it off over dinner with a friend and went to see a comedy–“Heat” with Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. As my dad would say, it delivers a few good belly laughs, even though the plot is fairly predictable. It’s probably better with a margarita in hand.

NewGlassesDG

Just got new eye glasses and very pleased:  they make me feel like I’ve got my mojo back from 10 years ago. I can’t explain it but they’ve put a little pep in my step. The eye glass technician who fitted the glasses onto my face introduced himself like this: “Hello. I am Wolfgang, the opera singer.”  Wolfgang Liese belonged to the Washington National Opera.  Apparently this is his ‘retirement position,’ as he used to own a business called, “Classical Eyewear,” long ago. He’s probably close to 70. I told him about my blog on classical music inspired by wetlands. He sang the lead in “The Marriage of Figaro.”  He continued in a strong (German?) accent, “When I was born, Christ bestowed a gift upon me. I have the rare ability to look at a woman and know exactly what she needs and wants. For you…” (he stared at my face intently, heating up the frames of my new glasses, then cooled them and put them on my face) “…you are perfect.” This was an unusual eye glass fitting, let me tell you. And there were two pairs to fit (and replace my unfortunate glasses that I wore for 4 years.) Hurrah! Ironically, the Jimmy Choo sea green pair (not pictured) came in a white snakeskin, I’m assuming faux, case. (I didn’t pick this out.) Year of the Water Snake? Ah, I’m dreading my post on Strange Wetlands about the Northern Water Snakes making a serious come-back as a species in Maine, by the way.

If you’re fumbling around for the right writing routine, read this blog post by Maria Popova on the Daily Routines of Famous Writers. I liked it. Perhaps Hemingway invented the stand-up desk. Does anyone know if that’s true? If so, leave a comment. Stay cool, kitties.

imagesAs luck would have it…

hemingway-and-gelhornI’m a little excited about this serendipitous turn of events at my local library tonight. I took a box of books to donate. Since I haven’t been able to write creatively for months, I thought I better clear away some distracting clutter. This includes donating old clothes to Good Will, a 1986 Volvo to Maine Public Radio’s Car Talk program and a bunch of books to the local library.  While there, I wandered over to glance at the summer book sale that they were just beginning to sort. Genres mixed together, a real free-for-all. I was the sole patron and started to talk with the librarian as she sorted. All my recent obsessive fantasies about Hemingway and Gellhorn came out, the film, how I’d hunted down a copy of a collection of his short stories including, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which he wrote while he was in love with Martha Gellhorn, etc. She was a war correspondent and travel writer, well-known and well-respected in her heyday. While I’m gabbing away about the 10 year relationship between Hemingway and Gellhorn, I ran my fingers over the spines of various books, looking up at the librarian. She asked me something, I stopped and fingered the cover of one vintage book, a dark cover, without a book jacket or image. It did not have the title on the front. I opened the book to the dedication page:

“This book is for Martha Gellhorn.”

I picked it up (!) and turned it over in my hands. It’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Hemingway, 1940.  It is said that Martha Gellhorn inspired For Whom the Bell Tolls.  The librarian thought it was “spooky” since it was the only Hemingway book in the whole library, to her knowledge, and I happened upon it at the moment I mentioned Martha Gellhorn. I can’t tell what edition it is, if it’s a first edition, or second, but it just has the 1940 date, which is when it was first published. This sort of thing has happened to me before. I once found a 1955 first edition of Rachel Carson’s “The Edge of the Sea” at the edge of a dump in Southwest Harbor and I salvaged it. It inspired me to take some dramatic action at the time. I take these sorts of things very personally as signs or omens the way some people interpret bird droppings. There is a John Donne quote on the opposite page facing pg. 1 of Chapter 1 starting with, “No man is an island…” which is one of my favorite lines of all time. Here is the John Donne quote that appears at the start of Hemingway’s novel:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

In finding this 1940 edition, I feel like I have a new crush, an infatuation with their words, an old story…their love story, their exchange of ideas, letters, writings and the energy between Hemingway, a Cancerian man, and Gellhorn, the war journalist and writer, a Scorpio, over the ten years they were together (as lovers and during their short marriage). It’s been a while since I’ve had a crush like this. It makes me happy and I feel inspired, too. Energized. I’m on a deadline, so I am pretty focused on the newsletter right now….but this happenstance puts a little more pep in my step!  If you’ve found a rare gem of a images-1vintage book, and it’s inspired you, leave a comment.

Everybody loves Raymond(s). Or at least, I love the writing advice they give.

Ray Bradbury said: “Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.”

Raymond Carver: “Get in. Get out. Don’t linger.”

And Raymond Chandler: “The more you reason, the less you create.”

I love visiting the Poets & Writers Magazine website. It’s turned me onto many useful Tools for Writers. Even though there is an excellent searchable database for literary agents, I wish there was a better match-making service online for pairing writers and agents, writers with publishers and even writers with editors. It’s like online dating for writers without the romance or personal stuff, unless that is, your genre-of-choice is a bodice-ripping memoir. I belong to an online writers forum called She Writes, which has some fantastic resources for women writers. But it still lacks this kind of match-making system that I’m talking about. The challenge I often face is that my writing is usually a cross-hybrid, e.g. natural history-memoir, or humor/parody/sci-fi/creative nonfiction. It makes it difficult to check off 1 box on a searchable database and find an agent, publisher or editor who works with such mixes of genres. Same goes for the Writer’s Market reference guide, another favorite resource.

An online writing profile might offer these things:

Name: Leah S.
Years Actively Writing: 30+ (started with a tape-recorder when I was 5)
First publication: Short piece in Wiscasset newspaper, circa 1983 (on wanting to be a journalist)
Genre(s): (List predominant genres as well as those tossing around in the back of the dryer) Creative nonfiction, poetry, environmental science & nature writing, technical, children’s fiction, short fiction, novelette, screenwriting, blogging

Describe writing: My fiction is a hot mess with a chip on her shoulder and a fascination with the absurd, e.g. surfers and the sharks who become them; sexual predators devoured by invasive fish. Creative nonfiction is my practical side. Keepin’ it real. Poetry–Mainiacal. Yes, spelled with two Is and a capital M. That means “from Maine” and “of or related to mania, or a maniac.” 

My writing has been compared to: Kerouac, Millay.
No Regrets: Don’t mention Muppets.
Current obsession: hybrid genres
Editors say: Leashless energy, arresting imagery – essentially stop-go-stop-go traffic patterns
Biggest Hurdles: Dysfunctional computer and printer; oppressively red walls in writing room
Favorite writers: Shirley Jackson, Terry Tempest Williams*, Annie Dillard and other chain-smokers
(Note: *Williams is not a chain-smoker to my knowledge)

Fern Gully in early spring

A few years ago, I bought a cottage on a small lot of land near a pond. It looked like a good place to live and write. I was 32 and writing about wetlands for a nonprofit organization. During my first few months, a rainy Maine summer, I fell deeply in love with my new environment. Ferns unfurled, like fingers from clenched fists, and everything gave sway to the unrelenting rains. My little four-acre refuge soaked up the water without flooding my basement. It did a job: the land, freckled with ferny wetlands—a seep, a vernal pool and a perennial stream flowed into the pond, all diverting the floodwaters. Sunlight reflected off the pond in the mornings, bouncing through the trees and in through my windows. Rays off the pond showered mirrors and walls with shapes of light like sunfish swimming from one room to another. This seemed magical to me since I didn’t have a water view or access to the pond from my property directly, but the water still made its way to me. From my upstairs windows, I looked down into a woodsy glen, a bird-haunted haven for deer, fox and porcupine. Though I’ve never been much of a fan of amphibians, I became intimately connected with the daily lives of endangered wood frogs, crawling out of the vernal pool in my woods each spring, passing by the gang of poisonous toads that lived under my deck. Their transformative life cycles and dark-throated hunger for resilience impressed me—I became obsessed and passionate about their survival. I also swam with loons here—on a regular basis, to the point where I became known as a “loon lady” in the neighborhood. I discovered rare butterflies and hummingbirds also thrived here—as would I.

Virginia Woolf’s line, “Five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate…a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself,” resonates with me. I come from a long line of women’s suffrage and a firm belief in female empowerment.  Many of my literary heroines, Virginia Woolf and Beatrix Potter, for example, wrote at a time when women were not encouraged to think for themselves, let alone express their ideas in writing.  I grew up in a Victorian family a century after-the-fact; I came of age in Victorian homes, and quite literally, one of my childhood bedrooms was in a tower. My perception of what I could do and could not do as a girl was not metaphorical; I sometimes locked myself in a walk-in closet for some privacy to write in my journal and there was nothing proverbial about having a tower bedroom as a pre-teen girl with long blond hair. A locket of my grandmother’s, that I wear around my neck, her initials dented into the back of it, reminds me of my ancestry, my heritage. I was born into the oldest women’s organization in the country: the Female Charitable Society provided education funds to young women. (I’m also a descendant of Erastus Foote, Maine’s first attorney general, born 200 years before me, and I grew up in his house, the Wood-Foote House in Wiscasset, where the FCS formed its first chapter and held its meetings at my grandmother’s house.)

The Wood-Foote House belonged to my family for 200 years

In my thirties, I mentored young women, twenty-somethings who wanted to go to college. I designed a college transitions class and inspired “success stories” among my students, helping them to build self-confidence and to see their own potential. I think I inherited that trait—to help others come out of their shell—from my grandmother.

The power to think for oneself strengthens a woman’s ability to listen to her own voice, her intuition and to trust that her memory is valid. It takes courage to see the truth and relevance in one’s own perception without constantly having to temper that narrative in a socially correct way based on outside influences—parents, employers, teachers and authority figures. For me, the power to think for oneself drives the ambition to command my voice, rather than to quiet it. This power to think for myself is a motivating force, a true north by which I navigate with an inner compass and conquer private fears of getting lost in a wilderness of my own making.

Nixie’s Vale

Working on a new essay. The assignment? What writing means to me. I still struggle with this type of assignment. Taking a stab…here are bits.

Sheepscot R. Maine Natural Heritage photo

Estuarine life, and my love of writing, spawned at the mouth of the Sheepscot River. From a young age, I participated in writing groups. Over thirty years of writing, I have grown accustomed to recognizing new and seasoned writers. New writers like to talk about writing as a process, what writing means to them and their identity as a writer—flexing and focused on it like a newly-muscled limb on a lithe and growing body. These writers flush pink at the mention of their love for the craft. Seasoned writers dive off the deep end of the writers’ group: they read or share their pieces without preamble. They cut to the chase, as if following Raymond Carver’s rule for writing: “Get in, get out, don’t linger.”

I found my voice early. Long before I learned how to write with a pen or pencil, I understood how to record and narrate. I lugged a heavy tape recorder around the house when I was little. I found a quiet room, plugged it into an outlet and pressed the chunky “play” and “record” buttons together. The blank tape hummed, an insect buzzing as the tape wound ‘round in the radio. I talked into the microphone, a bull’s eye that saw and heard my stories.

For a seasoned writer, the writing process is a solitary act, for the most part. I belong to two writers groups (one in-person, one online).  Writers foster a creative and supportive community with one another but the act itself, I’ve always observed, is best to do in private. Writing is right up there with installing obnoxious curtain hardware or eating sandwiches too big for one’s mouth, dripping with caramelized onions. There’s always the off-chance that I might have a witness, but the writing process is not performance art. That would be the most awful—and embarrassing—act to sit through. Scene: Writer is lying face-down on the living room carpet surrounded by pages, presumably doing “nothing.” Audience reads program and it says, “Revision.” Revising can look like a very bad hair day when things are going well. I like to work at my writing desk, an antique trestle table built by my great grandfather. The dented, dark mahogany wood grain is as soft as blotting paper and smooth as driftwood.

Jackson

One of my favorite authors, Shirley Jackson, is considered “a writer’s writer.” That means she appeals to writers rather than readers of other vocations. When I read Jackson, I feel like she’s sharing an inside joke with me—and I get it. I understand because we both walk the path of the writer. Sometimes this is a solitary, unpopular path; other times, we’re suddenly the popular girl at the party with the best stories. I look to Jackson’s writing as a set of teachings. Her novelette, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, for example, reads like a creepy fictionalized (and maniacal) version of my childhood, complete with children’s taunting of an eerie, imaginative narrator. It’s a brilliant plot twist.

Wading into eel grass, I trudged into tidal waters off my favorite swimming rock, where no one else but my hardy grandmother liked to swim. I came of age skimming a rocky bottom, strewn with sea glass and broken beer bottles.  I parted the itchy blades, sharp as steak knives, and numbed my skin to the frigid temperature of the river. Kicking against the current, I tread water under trestle bridges and soaked my senses with that saltwater. It seeped into me, semi-permeably. I write to channel that energy, the teachings of my spirit guides and favorite writers, and the passionate impulses of my imagination. I don’t write because I want to be a writer. I am compelled to write because there’s always material.

Leah

Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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