reading & writing

“Miss Emily”

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Nuala O’Connor’s Miss Emily is the first book that’s caused me to miss my bedtime since I was a girl – which reminded me how much I used to love to read novels! When I was young I always had my nose in a book, and often read through the night. I felt like a kid again, sitting propped in bed reading into the wee hours, tired but unable to close the cover. How fun and perfect!

Miss Emily is historic fiction, set in the home of Emily Dickinson. Emily figures prominently but young Irish immigrant Ada Concannon, the Dickinson family’s maid, is the true protagonist. Both of the characters and the story are compelling, and the writing is flawless.

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For me, Miss Emily was not only entertaining, it was also a cautionary tale.

Hello, Agoraphobes!

Emily DickinsonAs a self-employed artist who has worked from a home studio for more than two decades, I took a particular interest in Emily Dickinson’s fear of leaving her house.

“But how can I explain that each time I get to the threshold, my need for seclusion stops me? The quarantine of my room—its peace and the words I conjure there—call me back from the doorway.” (p 52)

Let’s just say, I get it.

“There is a poem forming in my gut, and in order to release it, I must be alone.” (p 14)

Artists need solitude as much as they need air, but isolation erodes social skills—which, for a naturally shy and overly sensitive Fragile Flower like myself, feeds social fears. When a social interaction go awry, the bad experience haunts me, chasing away creativity, so social encounters are especially risky.

I sympathize when Emily refuses to come out, even when coaxed repeatedly by her only friend Susan, who is married to her brother and lives right next door.

“I do not wish to wound Susan, but one as sociable as she perhaps cannot fully understand why strangers discombobulate me so much. I simply do not feel comfortable in a throng; my head gets addled and I long for peace. And Sue may not comprehend either the writer’s absolute need for quiet and retreat, the solace of it. I am so entirely happy in my own company that I rarely feel the need for anyone else, and when I do, I like to choose my companions wisely.” (p 30)

Chapters written from Emily’s point of view are sandwiched between Ada’s chapters, a pattern that highlights the contrasting personalities of the unlikely friends. Although she is kind and exhibits courage when it counts, Emily lives an austere, fairy-tale life, not only confined to the family house but also very much inside her own head. By contrast, Ada LIVES LIFE in a very real way. She has to be courageous on a daily basis, because she’s out there in the world. And the world can be dangerous.

My personality definitely leans in Emily’s direction. I overthink everything, I live in my head, and I have a massive fear of making plans. Social anxieties are partly to blame, but my inability to predict my work schedule—which can get very hairy at the drop of a hat—is the biggest culprit. Reading Miss Emily made me wonder if my free-lance lifestyle has turned me into an agoraphobe. Thankfully, Tim Ferriss’s recent TED Talk about Stoicism and facing fears arrived in my e-mail inbox and saved the day. If you are self-employed and fear taking time off to enjoy your life—or if fear is holding you back from anything at all—you might find it helpful, too! Click here to watch.

Thankfully I’m not 100% Emily. There is some Ada in me, too. I love to travel and—like Ada—I moved across an ocean to begin a new life. I have a husband, a son, and responsibilities that force me out of the house, so I couldn’t give in to the agoraphobic life even if I wanted to. 🙂

Hello, Writers!

Nuala O’Connor’s decision to tell the story from Emily’s and Ada’s points of view in alternating chapters shines a light on her mastery of VOICE. In Emily’s chapters, we enter her mind and experience her worldview—not only her thoughts, emotions, and reactions to circumstances, but also her motives. The same is true for Ada’s chapters. Ms. O’Connor makes this look effortless. If you’re new to writing, like me, you know that this is no small feat.

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Check out this beautiful snippet from one of Ada’s chapters. If this doesn’t compel you to read Miss Emily, I don’t know what will:

“I clear the table and run my finger across the place where his mouth met the rim of the cup. I put my lips to that same place and drink back the lukewarm dregs of his tea.” (p 106)

Delicious!

 

reading & writing

“A Wrinkle in Time”

 

 

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To aid me in my quest to read more/write better, I looked up the top 100 YA (Young Adult) novels. My plan is to read my way through, more or less. There are various lists, and they all seem to include A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, which won a Newberry medal in 1962. I requested it from my local library and just finished the final chapter.

Between the Newberry and the book’s fifty-five-year top-100 ranking, I don’t feel the need to act as a saleswoman for A Wrinkle in Time, or even to write a review. Instead I’d like to share a little of what I appreciate about the way Madeline L’Engle wrote this story, and some things about writing that I learned from reading it.

Fantasy meets Spirituality

A Wrinkle in Time is the fantastic story of one family’s fight against Darkness. The Good vs. Evil theme is not uncommon in the fantasy genre; however, Madeline L’Engle wrote in very biblical terms—which surprised me!

In musical theater, characters break into song when emotions soar beyond the reach of a typical conversation.  In A Wrinkle in Time, when situations call for more than mere words, Scripture is spoken. There are no citations. A reader unfamiliar with the bible probably wouldn’t even make the connection. I found Madeline L’Engle’s use of Scripture fascinating, and I admire her technique in weaving it into the story.

The resonant voice rose and the words seemed to be all around them so that Meg felt that she could almost reach out and touch them: “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the far end of the earth…” (A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle, p 81)

In Chapter 5, famous soldiers of the Good Fight are named: Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Pasteur, Madame Curie, Einstein, Schweitzer, Ghandi, Buddah, Rembrandt, St. Francis, Euclid, and Copernicus.

“All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.”

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This warms my heart.

I read that Madeline L’Engle’s all-inclusive theology got her into trouble with conservative Christians, while other groups found her books too religious. I hope she didn’t let her detractors get her down. Most of all I hope the hullaballoo over the author’s religious views didn’t keep A Wrinkle in Time out of the hands of too many children. It’s a wonderful story with a great message, no matter a reader’s personal theology.

Seeing Through Meg’s Eyes

A Wrinkle in Time is told through the experience and voice of the protagonist, Meg Murry. Madeline L’Engle’s third-person narrative is, in my humble opinion, brilliant. Meg goes through some rather spectacular events, including “tessering”—A Wrinkle in Time‘s spectacular namesake method of inter-dimensional travel.

One of  Donald Ray Pollock’s five tips for writer is, “Type out other people’s stuff.” (Click here to read Pollock’s Five Tips for Writers, written for Publisher’s Weekly.) In the spirit of learning to write better, enjoy this sample of Madeline L’Engle’s third-person narrative, typed out by Yours Truly:

She had lost the protection of Calvin’s hand. Charles was nowhere, either to save or to turn to. She was alone in a fragment of nothingness. No light, no sound, no feeling. Where was her body? She tried to move in her panic, but there was nothing to move. Just as light and sound had vanished, she was gone, too. The corporeal Meg simply was not.

Then she felt her limbs again. Her legs and arms were tingling faintly, as though they had been asleep. She blinked her eyes rapidly, but though she herself was somehow back, nothing else was. It was not as simple as darkness, or absence of light. Darkness has a tangible quality; it can be moved through and felt; in darkness you can bark your shins; the world of things still exists around you. She was lost in a horrifying void. (A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle, p 68)

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