Alas, my emerging hyacinths, we hardly knew you.
The things we remember
At the K-8 school I attended as a child, lunchrooms were provided for the younger grades, but grades seven and eight were given off-campus lunch privileges and told to go figure it out on our own. (Were we allowed to use the lunchroom if it rained? I don’t remember; I’m sure we felt ourselves too cool to do so in any case.) My friend group rotated through a series of haunts: two local parks, one of which had a wonderful ravine where we hung a rope swing and occasionally lost our shoes in the mud; the two street corners right by the school, where the variety stores sold pizza slices and penny candy; a local grocery store with a small restaurant inside; and the homes of friends who lived near the school, if their parents would tolerate it. (Also if they didn’t tolerate it, just with more sneaking.)
In grade eight, we discovered the public library.
Not that any of us were unfamiliar with the concept, or even with that particular branch, which was about a ten minute walk from school. I passed it twice a day. But I don’t think any of us had realised that it was open during school hours. This branch’s children’s section took up nearly the entire basement of the building. It had a few computers, and orange carpet, and best of all, a secluded nook with low tables and chairs, where we chewed through our illicit sandwiches and everything the middle grade shelves had to offer: Archie comics, R. L. Stine, Judy Bloom, Lois Lowry, V. C. Andrews… Somewhere along the line, one of us (who?) was the first to discover Diane Duane.
(Aside: I have always been enchanted by the wonderful symmetry of that name. In grade two we used to sneak off to the girls’ bathroom, turn off the lights, and scare ourselves silly chanting BloodyMary BloodyMary BloodyMary into the mirror. Could I summon something with a well-timed DianeDuane DianeDuane DianeDuane? Perhaps I could, in the age of googling oneself. Diane, are you reading this? Sorry for being so weird! End of aside.)
I read The Book of Night with Moon, which concerns a group of wizard cats in NYC; I know this because I cheerfully plagiarized it in a short story I wrote that year. And I remember that story chiefly because my mother used it as an occasion to demonstrate how to use a semicolon to separate place names in a list. Thanks, Mom! What the plot of the book is I couldn’t tell you. Nor could I have given you any details about her Young Wizards series of books, which I assumed I hadn’t read when I started the first one earlier this month. But! I must have read them, because I chanced across this passage in Deep Wizardry (the second book in the series) and immediately recognized it:
I didn’t remember anything about the main characters, the thrust of the plot, the way magic works, or any of the books’ Very Exciting Adventury Stuff: becoming whales, going to Mars, battling the Lone Power in an alternate universe, fighting alongside and against various figures from Irish mythology, etc. etc. etc. None of that stuck. But this specific image, of learning to walk on the ocean — and, later, a short note on how tiring it was, because you had to use muscles that aren’t involved in walking on flat surfaces — for whatever reason, this is the nugget my brain decided to keep. Why? Beats me. But I’m delighted it did, and delighted for the memories it unlocked of those dusty lunch breaks in the far corner of the children’s library, sneaking chips and apples from our bags under the table, and passing around the books that turned out to be shaping us.
John McPhee — two quotes on writing
The writing impulse seeks its own level and isn’t always given a chance to find it. You can’t make up your mind in a Comp Lit class that you’re going to be a Russian novelist. Or even an American novelist. Or a poet. Young writers find out what kind of writers they are by experiment. If they choose from the outset to practice exclusively a form of writing because it is praised in the classroom or otherwise carries appealing prestige, they are vastly increasing the risk inherent in taking up writing in the first place. It is easy to misjudge yourself and get stuck in the wrong genre. You avoid that, early on, by writing in every genre. If you are telling yourself you’re a poet, write poems. Write a lot of poems. If fewer than one work out, throw them all away; you’re not a poet. Maybe you’re a novelist. You won’t know until you have written several novels.John McPhee, “Editors & Publishers,” Draft no. 4, pp. 78-9.
…no two writers are the same, like snowflakes and fingerprints. No one will ever write in just the way you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is nothing more than jealousy and gossip. Writing is strictly a matter of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself. You develop yourself by writing. An editor’s goal is to help writers make the most of the patterns that are unique about them.John McPhee, “Editors & Publishers,” Draft no. 4, p. 82.
Back to reno-land
This house, man.
Is it normal that all of our home renovation projects begin completely accidentally? Twoish years ago, the innocent question of “why is this bathroom fan so loud?” led, step by inevitable step, to a complete gut and rebuild of our entire second floor. You know, as can happen. And this round also began with a simple question, to wit, “how are those ants getting into the den?”
Oh, the ants. We should have known something was up when we moved in and found all of the cans of ant poison and insecticides that the previous owner had left behind in a closet for us. And after three years of setting out bait traps and caulking entry points, we have more or less emerged the victors in this particular struggle. Except. Last summer I kept finding ants in the den, and their trail ran off under a side table and then under the carpet and then… where? Armed with my trusty caulking gun and a foolhardy sense of optimism, I moved some furniture, carefully popped some quarter-round out from under the sliding door, pulled up the carpet and found… the hole.
I mean, it certainly explained how the ants were getting in. Compared to their usual cracks and crannies, this was a super-highway. A hidden, horrible, water-damaged, rotting super-highway. Hurrah.
Long story short, we finally have contractors in this week to put things right. This has involved taking out all of the carpet (good riddance), replacing the sliding door, rebuilding the damaged portion of the floor (pictured more fully below), fixing part of the deck to prevent further water problems, building a new crawlspace access hatch in the linen closet, and finally laying down a completely new floor. We did the carpet removal ourselves; the rest, so far, has gone surprisingly quickly. They’ll finish tomorrow, unless I’ve just jinxed it by writing that down.
I will say that I can think of warmer ways to spend a February day. But we’ve got a lovely new door in now, and the floor is half laid, and only one child has slipped on the sawdust and hit her ribs on a power tool, so things are generally looking up.
And the ants? I trust that getting everything shipshape in this room will finally end the war. But I am also reminded of a children’s book we own, by Robert Quackenbush, called Henry’s Awful Mistake. Henry, an anthromorphic duck, has asked his girlfriend Clara over for dinner, and as he’s in the middle of cooking it, he spots an ant in his kitchen. Through a series of ridiculous escalations as he tries to kill the ant, Henry’s house is eventually washed away in a flood (!). At the end of the book, Henry is in his new house, and Clara is finally coming over for dinner, when he looks over his shoulder and spies… an ant in his living room. Whereupon Henry makes his wisest decision in the entire book:
Reading Round-Up: January 2023
2023 already! Preposterous. I suppose I should be getting used to it given that we’re now into February, but there’s a certain part of me that perpetually expects it to still be 2002, and yet another part that’s sure it’s March 1,129th 2020. Time is, as they say, out of joint… but at least there have been things to read in the meantime. Here’s what I got through last month:
- Tress of the Emerald Sea (Brandon Sanderson)
- The Dutch House (Ann Patchett)
- The Running-Shaped Hole (Robert Earl Stewart)
- Playing Under the Piano (Hugh Bonneville)
- Rattle no. 78 — Poetry Prize Finalists
- Smashwords Style Guide (Mark Coker)
- Persepolis Rising (James S A Corey)
- Tiamat’s Wrath (James S A Corey)
- Leviathan Falls (James S A Corey)
- Miss Ex-Yugoslavia (Sofija Stefanovic)
- Art Matters (Neil Gaiman)
- Boys and Girls Together (William Goldman)
- The Trouble with Goats and Sheep (Joanna Cannon)
I was delighted to start the year with Tress of the Emerald Sea. In early March 2021, Brandon Sanderson announced that over the shutdowns in 2020 he had written a full four novels in secret, in addition to his scheduled output on previously-announced projects. He launched them in a record-setting kickstarter campaign, and I bought in at the ebook tier; Tress was the first of the quarterly book releases. It ties in with his Cosmere novels in a small way, and was also thoroughly delightful as its own thing.
Early in January — or possibly late in December — I listened to an interview with Ann Patchett on the Spark & Fire podcast about writing The Dutch House and I immediately put a library hold on it. It was beautiful and sad and completely engrossing, and I spent a large part of a Saturday morning reading it on the couch. Lovely.
And speaking of engrossing, I finally finished the last three full-length installments of Corey’s “The Expanse” series, which… wow. It wrapped up in a really satisfying way that dealt with some of the big questions raised all the way back at the beginning of the series and felt true to established characterization. These three books took over my life for about a week, as this screenshot from my phone’s screentime report testifies:
On the other end of the enjoyment scale, we find Boys and Girls Together, which was an absolute stinker. The blurb billed it as a coming-of-age story about five friends putting on a play in NYC. It turned out to be 600+ pages of thoroughly unlikeable people behaving incredibly nastily to one another, and the only one worth rooting for (spoiler alert) kills himself in the penultimate chapter. I honestly don’t know why I finished it; I think I was waiting for it to get better, only it never did.
I did get one good thing out of Boys and Girls Together, though — well, sort of. It’s this little excerpt from Goldman’s foreword to the novel:
Anyway, the day I was done I was alone in the house and stared at “the end” when I wrote those blessed words, got up, went outside to the backyard, where we had a child’s swing set up for our daughter Jenny, then all of a year. I sat in it, smoking, and suddenly I had this realization:
I had told all my stories.
I sat there thinking it couldn’t be true, because that would mean the end for me as a writer, then luckily I remembered the story of the mother who dressed her son in her clothes …
No, I’d put that in the novel, given it to Branch.
I went through them all and I’d given them all away. That’s my chief memory of that afternoon, wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. (I did not realize at the time that two years down the line, in that same university town, over Christmas vacation, these two outlaws named Butch and Sundance would ride up from South America to save me.)William Goldman, foreword to Boys and Girls Together
It’s a good reminder not to hoard our best ideas, and to trust the creative process in the hope/knowledge that once they’re spent, there will be new best ideas in their place.
The creative process brings us to Neil Gaiman’s Art Matters, which is a pocket-sized collection of four or five of his most popular essays, charmingly illustrated by Chris Riddell. It took less than ten minutes to read in its entirety, and if I had paid the suggested Canadian list price for such skimpy content — $24.99 as I recall — I would have been pretty annoyed. As it was a library copy, it was fine, but I will note that all of its contents are available separately elsewhere.
I love a good memoir, and last month’s reading featured three: The Running-Shaped Hole, Playing Under the Piano, and Miss Ex-Yugoslavia — all very different and all enjoyable in their own ways. The Running-Shaped Hole had the extra excitement of taking place in a city I know, which always brings out my inner Pointing Rick Dalton:
The Smashwords Style Guide is exactly what it says on the tin: if you want to format a Word file for Smashwords’ automatic conversion to epub format, this will tell you how. I learned some new tricks with MS Word, which is good I guess? Not much to say about this one, or about the latest issue of Rattle, except that it remains one of the best poetry magazines going.
Finally, I closed out January with Joanna Cannon’s wonderful The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. Set during the great UK heatwave of 1976, the residents of a council estate gradually give up their secrets as ten-year-old friends Grace and Tillie try to find out why Mrs Creasy has disappeared, and also, if they can manage it, where God has gotten to. Cannon’s prose is beautiful, if occasionally a little hard to believe in Grace’s first-person chapters, and the whole thing wraps up on an ambiguous note that still has me thinking it over a week later. Excellent stuff.
Until this little project launches:
What is Christian work, and how are we to do it? What does it mean to “do all to the glory of God”? Is there a way to approach work as a Christian, even if you don’t work in an ecclesial profession? Is the necessity of work part of Adam’s curse, or something else? And what does it all have to do with imago Dei, or being “made in the image of God”? Well, I can tell you the answers to all those questions, because I wrote a book about them. Lex Operandi, Lex Credendi: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Theology of Work releases as an ebook tomorrow (!), Feb 1 2023, and is also currently available for pre-order. Click here to see everywhere it’s listed for sale.
This little book began its life as my master’s thesis project, a two-year labour of love. One of the first classes I took for my degree was entitled “Tongued with Fire,” and examined the literary and theological legacies of three writers: Dorothy L. Sayers, C. S. Lewis, and T. S. Eliot. For my final paper I looked at DLS’s theology of work as exemplified by a particular character in one of her plays — and as I put together my research it became very clear that this was a much richer topic than a 10-page paper could ever hope to deal with. It stayed with me, and when it was time to choose my thesis topic, a greater exploration of this theme seemed the obvious choice.
Lex Operandi, Lex Credendi opens with a biographical sketch and evaluation of Sayers’s literary and theological legacy. It then traces the development of her theology of work through several major texts: the novel Gaudy Night, the stage play The Zeal of Thy House, her philisophical-theological book The Mind of the Maker, and a number of essays and radio broadcast addresses. I also draw heavily on her correspondence — she was an engaging and prolific letter-writer — which were edited and collected in four volumes by Dr. Barbara Reynolds. It’s all great stuff (I’m biased, I know — but!) and Sayers’s approach to the question of work is one that I think is useful to Christians and to the Church, solidly rooted in Biblical theology and also intensely practical.
And that is my news! I wrote a book. People can buy it. Ta-daa!