I have no idea why “The Queen and the Solider” by Suzanne Vega is stuck in my head this morning, but please, share it with me. This is lauded as one of her most popular old songs, even though I don’t think it ever had a wide reception. (This particular concert clip has a bonus track afterward of “World Before Columbus.”)
And look, I like Suzanne Vega. A lot. Her music is really enjoyable. I don’t think she has the lyric genius or musical complexity of, say, Ani diFranco, but wow, I will almost never turn down Vega’s music in exchange for something else. It’s fun to listen to, makes an excellent soundtrack for driving across the desert southwest, and even works well as background music. It’s just good stuff.
Opinions on what the main theme of this song is are varied. What do you think it is? Leave your idea in the comments below.
Anyway, this one is stuck in my head. Maybe it’s because I’m finishing up edits on a novel in which a very young queen contends with power dynamics and struggles of agency and sovereignty in her relationships. Maybe it’s because I love Johansen’s Tearling trilogy, and this song reminds me of those books. No idea. But here, enjoy.
Two years ago I did something for myself that was so far outside of my self-care comfort zone it changed me: I attended a writing retreat. That’s right, I left my family for the better part of a week and went to Maine to focus entirely on writing. While I was there, I realized that I hadn’t done anything so expansive to nurture my creative self in…well, way too many years. Definitely not since before I had my own family, and maybe not even then.
Last month, I went back.
The Moss Wood Retreats on Penobscot Bay in Maine are a gift to writers. Run by director and author Patricia McMahon, this experience gives you the chance to escape from whatever nightmarish summer weather you’ve been experiencing and settle in with a handful of other authors and just focus on your craft for several days. Two years ago I attended a workshop led by Gregory Maguire, which was glorious, but this year’s retreat, led by poet Josh Kalscheur and Patricia herself, was really different and completely fulfilling. Patricia has moved to a generative format, which means that the bulk of the group sessions focus on the generation of new material.
So most mornings we would have four writing exercises which included excellent prompts and then writing time, followed by voluntary sharing. In the afternoons we were on our own and could work on the pieces we’d written that morning; in the evenings during our after-dinner salons, we would share what we’d worked on, if we wanted to, as well as other poems that we found meaningful or enlivening. I also found time outside of these, including at night in my room before I went to sleep, to work on my own other projects if I wished. (I’ve been editing one of my novels this summer.)
I can honestly say this year’s retreat might have been the most productive week of writing I’ve had in a really long time. Aside from the novel work I did on my own solitary time, I wrote so much poetry. Possibly eight or ten of the poems I produced that week will turn into something publishable.
One of the fun exercises we did over the course of the week was to produce a collection of centos. At its simplest, a cento is a type of found poem in which all the lines come from other places. So every person at the retreat anonymously contributed a page of their writing, either a poem or a page of prose. We then browsed these pages and harvested from them lines we particularly liked and then fashioned those seemingly random lines into new poems. We shared these on our last evening together, and the centos were all so very different in scope and tone and subject! They were also delightful; I really loved finding out which fragments resonated with everyone. Here is my poem:
Moss Wood Cento Moss Wood Writing Retreat, 2019
Carnivals always start the same way:
three boys, three sharp-rocked beginnings
grabbing clandestine hand-holds;
spirits of slain warriors speaking from open mouths;
a tarantula stabbed with a stick;
the occasional hint of cabaret music.
Between the border of yellow birch and
the far shore of rockbound pine,
the tether of some other-than-temporal sea
pulls and pulls with the urgency of future demands
on the boy-man stashed behind the garage,
dreadful poverty and sadness floating across his face,
a grunt-crank biscuit in one hand and
a two hundred-year-old scroll in the other.
The memory of children’s cotton candied fingers
keeps his brusque demeanor at arm’s length.
He works in the negative, his pattern
a mystery to me, but a crease between the bridge
of his nose and his eyebrows is the absence
of sailboats long since stored for the winter.
Will we learn something by the weight of them?
He and I will never be young enough
again to think that friends don’t die.
You can keep your emptiness;
all I hear is sirens and defiance,
loud as a burst of gunfire through ghosts.
I’ve stopped believing in magic.
We are all dodging death,
scattered, secluded, incidents of light.
The phrase “two hundred-year-old scroll” is from one of my novels, a work in progress, but everything else in this poem came from the other nine people’s fragments. I offer my sincere thanks to all of them for their contributions to my poem.
Late on the last night of the retreat, a bunch of us new friends put on temporary Sherlock tattoos as a lark. (Mine read, “I never guess.”) Then around midnight, when three of us in the upstairs bedrooms were still awake and packing for our departures the next day, some spontaneous slumber party fun broke out. Two of the other ladies decided they wanted to see how long my hair really was and flat-ironed it for me. We squealed like adolescents as we did each other’s hair and helped each other pick out the clothes we would be wearing to travel in the next day — clothes we would wear home to Houston, to Louisiana, to Scotland. We shared pictures of our families from our phones and promised to write. And to write and to write and to write.
If I could, I would attend this retreat every year. It happens in early June, so if it sounds like something you would benefit from, put it on your calendar now. And if you want to hear more about this retreat and its marvelous director, Patricia McMahon, I’ll be interviewing her tonight on the LivingArt show on KPFT; the show begins at 6 p.m. central time.
While you’re waiting for that to happen, please enjoy these lovely photos of the landscape I looked at every day I was there.
Sometimes you read a book that defies some of the more basic “rules” of writing, or one that’s outside your usual category, but it works for you in so many ways that you can’t help but tell people about it. Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, which I just finished reading on vacation last week, embodies both of these for me.
This book follows Novik’s Uprooted in what I hope will become a series of standalone novels. Both these excellent stories take familiar western European fairy tales and then transform them into an uncanny valley version of themselves, blow them up and out into something so original that you might not recognize the source material in it. Whereas Uprooted played fast and loose with “Beauty and the Beast” in a medieval Slavic world with magic, Spinning Silver borrows key elements of “Rumpelstiltskin” and drops them in the middle of…Russia perhaps? At the time of horse-drawn wagons, the Jews as money-lenders in walled communities inside of walled towns, the tsar and the boyars.
And how does this story break conventional wisdom? It’s a multi-POV novel where all POVs are told from the first person, and new perspectives come into the story late in the novel. Yet all the voices are distinctive and clear, and they all enhance the story well. This is a novel where marriages are strategic and the three young women at the center of the story grow and think and create agency within the limits of their world and the situations, magical or mundane, they find themselves in.
Spinning Silver falls squarely in the YA category, which I often enjoy but which is not usually my very first choice. It doesn’t shy away from genuine violence now and then, but those scenes are vital and artfully crafted, and I could easily recommend this book to any sharp reader as young as late middle school. If I could find a way to weave it into the curriculum for one of my high school classes, I would. The writing is gorgeous, and the structure of the novel really lends itself to deconstructive analysis as a model for what works.
And for those of you who like a long book for your money, this one will do — without feeling like its pacing drags. You should also look into Uprooted if you like fairy tales, and if you like alt-history, Novik’s Temeraire series is particularly charming: the Napoleonic Wars fought from the sky on the backs of dragons.
Spinning Silver won the 2019 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel (also in 2019). I am just not remotely surprised.
Over the weekend we started watching the third season of Stranger Things. I love this show; the writing and acting have always been so good. I’m not a fan of horror myself, so this show is definitely the creepiest thing I’ve ever willingly watched on television.
I admit, though, the first episode of S3 felt a little transitional to me, but maybe that’s because the incredible friendship dynamic that feels to me like the foundation of these characters wasn’t solid in episode 1. Adolescence is rough stuff. This is not a show I binge-watch (I almost never binge-watch anything), so I’m hoping things will get better. Please, no spoilers.
But anyway, the 80s are on my mind — 80s music in particular — and this song is now stuck in my head. The video for it is so cringe-worthy, it becomes almost funny while still making me feel a little embarrassed for having gone through that decade in the first place. And now I’m inviting you to share my hilariously melodramatic misery.
What’s your favorite amusing cringey moment from this video? Tell us in the comments!
So this week I branched out and did something new: I joined Instagram. I’ve resisted it for a long time because I wasn’t sure I could keep up with it. It’s hard enough to find time to post anywhere on social media — you, dear blog readers, are no doubt aware of my lack of free time! — but I think I’ve learned enough about how to do it and how to plan to do it that it won’t be onerous. And honestly, even though it’s been just a few days, already I think it’s pretty fun.
So if you’re on IG, pop on over and give us some love. Here I am over there. You may expect to see photos of my cats, my handmade jewelry, and my paintings, as well as whatever else strikes my fancy. Enjoy!
I’ve been a little absent on the blog this past month or so because I’ve been traveling quite a bit for my writing. You’ll hear about some of my trips a bit later because I’m also on book deadline and neck-deep in edits for two projects. Wheee!
Last weekend, though, I attended DFWCon in the Dallas area, which is my favorite writing conference ever. It’s the only one I still make sure to attend every year, and it was recently voted the Best Writing Conference in Texas, so there’s that. (You can already register for next year, by the way, and the super early bird price lasts until July 6th. I recommend it. Just click on register and choose the 2020 option from Eventbrite.)
Aside from pitching to agents and seeing a bunch of my friends who don’t live in Houston and having the chance to network with other people in the writing industry, a good conference gives me the opportunity for professional development. Sometimes this means classes on craft, and sometimes seminars on the business side of writing. (I don’t want to give away too much just yet on projects in the works, but there’s a strong chance you’ll find Instagram and a podcast in my future.)
One of the highlights of the conference this year was meeting and hanging out with this guy, whose blog is one of my very favorites. His books on writing craft are also top-notch fun.
Among the most fun classes I attended there was Liara Tamani’s Poetic Prose, a subject I hold near and dear as a cross-genre writer. She talked about what makes lyrical prose stand out and gave us some exercises on how to create it ourselves. Although this is a subject I already know, I liked having the exercises to jumpstart my creative voice at 8:00 on a Sunday morning. I may be super conversational on the blog in an earworm post, but crafting lyrical prose in my more formal creative work is fun.
On the way home from Dallas, this song came on my iPod, and when Aaron commented on its layers, it occurred to me that some features in it are a pretty good example of this kind of writing. What’s your favorite line in this song? Leave it in the comments!
Also, if you have any favorite Instagram accounts or podcasts, leave those in the comments too. I’m interested.