Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Woman?

The Arnolfini Portrait. Artist: Jan van Eyck (1434 ). Source: http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk/ Contact: picture.library@nationalgallery.co.uk  Copyright © The National Gallery, London

Some scholars believe that Jan van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Portrait includes a self-portrait of the artist within the mirror.

“Every man’s work . . . is always a portrait of himself.”–Samuel Butler

Not long after I started blogging, I had an eye-opening conversation with my mother. This blog is the first public writing that I’ve done since college, and she was happy to see me exploring a creative outlet.

My mother explained that she sees my blog as a way for my children to know me better — the real “me,” that is, not just the mom who chauffeurs them, or washes their clothes, or makes sure they do their schoolwork. Her next remark took me by surprise: “You may not realize how much of yourself is in your posts.” Hmmm. Now I felt nervous, wondering what I had unknowingly revealed about myself in my newly minted blog.

The point that Samuel Butler makes here — “Every man’s work . . . is always a portrait of himself” — is one of the reasons that I’ve been wary of writing fiction. What if I unwittingly incorporate real people into my fictional world? If my fiction is to be lifelike, can I avoid using people I know for models? And (shudder) what if those people aren’t portrayed in a flattering light? There is a thin line between the world of reality and the world of fiction: I don’t want to be like fellow Ashevillian Thomas Wolfe, unable to go home again. No satirical descriptions of my hometown, past or present, thank you very much.

But, if Butler’s observation is right, fiction isn’t the only medium that could give me away. This very post will betray something about me — about what I value, what I believe, what I fear, what I love. Am I okay with that? Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe I should change this site’s name to The Tentative Blogger? (I suspect that name is not in high demand.) It’s not as if hordes of readers are flocking to my posts, but someone might stumble upon a part of myself that I try to conceal. Have I unintentionally bared my innermost self to the public eye?

Even when we try to play our cards close to our chest, we may give glimpses of a King here or an Ace there. Any creative endeavor will reveal something about the artist’s personality. There are so many nuances and subtle choices behind a photo or a painting, for instance. What color palette did the artist choose for the portrait of his wife, and why? Fiction, with its need for believable characters, still seems dangerous to me: one’s judgments will surely creep into seemingly innocent descriptions. But is prose any safer? How can you write about the life you know without writing about the people you know?

self-portrait 2015In the end, the blog world is no place for the faint of heart. Neither is the world of literature, of course. The semi-autobiographical work for which Victorian writer Samuel Butler is best known, The Way of All Flesh, was not published during his lifetime, by Butler’s own wish. George Orwell praised Butler for his courage, but how courageous was Butler, if he didn’t want his novel published while he was alive? Perhaps Butler was uneasy not only about his criticisms of Victorian society but also about his self-revelations. The older I grow, the less charm I find in mirrors. Should that distaste carry over to the unconscious mirror of my words, spilling heedlessly onto the screen?

This dialogue begs the question, “Why are you afraid to expose your innermost self ?” Fear of criticism? Fear of self-discovery? Reluctance to accept the face that timidly peers back from the mirror? I am not the person that I wish I were, or the person that I hope to be. If I don’t want the world to get a glimpse of the woman behind the facade, I should stop writing blog posts.


This post was written as part of Silver Threading‘s Writer’s Quote Wednesday event. Thank you, Colleen, for continuing to host this event, week after week. I first encountered Butler’s observation in my son’s English language book. After writing this post, I discovered that the quotation had been abridged. The full quotation reads, “Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself, the more clearly will his character appear in spite of him” (Chapter XIV, The Way of All Flesh).

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Tea Time with the Master

Wenham Tea House, March 2014

Wenham Tea House, March 2014 (iPhone 5s, edited in PicMonkey)

“Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” With this qualified statement, Henry James welcomes us to The Portrait of a Lady, an arena in which Old World and New World meet. His first sentence is masterful: to borrow a line from Jerry Maguire, Mr. James had me at “afternoon tea”  (and “agreeable” didn’t hurt). Mr. James lays the groundwork for his plot as he describes the three men sipping tea on the lawn of an English country house — tea drinkers “not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the occasion,” as Mr. James notes wryly.

Isabel Archer, the lady of the title, does not make an entrance until the second chapter, but the young American is enamored of the Tudor house and its trappings from the moment that she walks onto the lawn: “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful as this.” Mr. James’ naively independent heroine does not find European society as agreeable by the end of the book, but that is a spoiler. At this point, the reader is mentally settling into a cushioned wicker chair and — if the reader is an Anglophile — reveling in a scene that includes not only tea but an eligible English aristocrat. By the time we realize that Isabel, like many nineteenth-century heroines, is a victim of her own illusions, Mr. James has caught us in his novel.

Although I glanced at Leon Edel’s introduction and Mr. James’ lengthy preface recently, I haven’t read The Portrait of a Lady in decades. Mr. James began writing the novel in Venice, where the beautiful view from his rooms was so distracting that he complained about it in the preface. It might be interesting to read his carefully crafted novel now as I would read any book, not because I was assigned to read it (which is how I experienced it). Would I read on to the end, or would I put down the book in exasperation as Isabel refuses one good man after another? I tend to finish books, unless I cannot sympathize with any of the characters, and Isabel, caught between her desire for culture and her wish to remain independent, still compels our sympathy, despite her failings.

I re-read enough of the first chapter to renew my appreciation of Mr. James’ abilities as a writer. His novel first appeared in serial form in two magazines, and he had not completed the novel before the first installments were published in 1880. The opening chapters have the crucial job of getting the reader interested enough to buy future magazines. Clearly, Mr. James is skilled in the art of drawing in a certain kind of reader — a reader who, like Isabel herself, is enchanted with the ceremony of afternoon tea.


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My choice of this famous first line for Writer’s Quote Wednesday was inspired by Lucile’s photograph of a glass teapot. I took my photograph of a glass teapot in March, when I had tea with family members at the Wenham Tea House in Wenham, Massachusetts. To his credit, my brother, who is not much of a tea drinker, suggested that we eat there because he thought his sisters would enjoy it. (He was right. Our one sadness was that another sister and my mother were not there to share the experience.)

As always, thanks to Colleen of Silver Threading for hosting this event. To read other submissions, click here and look for the pingbacks at the end of Colleen’s post. Leon Edel’s introduction appears in Riverside Editions’ The Portrait of a Lady (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963). Text of the post and photo copyrighted © 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

“A Humour for Writing”

Jane Austen humour“I am not at all in a humour for writing; I must write on till I am,” wrote Jane Austen in a letter from Godmersham Park to her sister Cassandra on October 26, 1813. Is there any writer among us who has not felt that way at times? For whatever reason — and there are many good ones — writing is the last thing you feel like doing some days.

Maybe it is a grey day, and the clouds seem to have drifted inside, obscuring your flow of thought. Or maybe the sun is streaming through the windows, tempting you to forsake your writing for a long walk. Perhaps the topic has been assigned to you by someone else, and you’re “not feeling it.” Are other people in the room, asking for your input or making just enough noise that you can’t concentrate?

While any number of outside distractions might have contributed to Miss Austen’s disinclination for writing, I take heart from her resolution: “I must write on till I am.” Although Miss Austen initially wrote for her own amusement and to entertain her family and friends, two of her novels — Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813) — had been published by the time she wrote this letter. The modest financial success of these books was probably an incentive for Austen’s pushing herself to write on, despite her mood. With another novel drafted (Lady Susan) and two more in the works, she surely knew that the words would come, sooner or later. Rather than waiting for a moment of inspiration, she presumably picked up her quill and wrote.

How thankful I am that Miss Austen pushed herself to write, regardless of her “humour”! Five of Miss Austen’s completed novels are among the books I have re-read most often. Which gem might we lack today, had she allowed an uncongenial humour to defeat her? Mansfield Park? Emma? Persuasion —  the last novel she finished and possibly my favorite?

Her implicit advice — write yourself into a frame of mind for writing — is worth remembering. Sooner or later, every writer has one of those days. I have found that, once I get some momentum going, the words spill onto the page, almost of their own volition. Do I have to cut more words from the writing than I do on days when I’m pulling out the words rather than the words pushing me along? Undoubtedly. But an imperfect draft is better than no draft at all.


writers-quote-wednesday (2)Note: In the context of Austen’s letter, she was almost certainly referring to letter writing rather than to novel writing when she made this statement. Because I have personal experience with writing as a means of getting past a block, it seems legitimate to apply Austen’s quotation to all writing.

Many thanks to Colleen at Silver Threading for hosting the Writer’s Quote Wednesday event. In deference to Miss Austen’s nationality, I have used the British spelling of “humour” in this post. Text and photos copyrighted © 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

When Men and Mountains Meet

Great things are done when men and mountains meet.

This is not done by jostling in the street.

— William Blake, Gnomic Verses

Who doesn’t love a view? Few sights surpass blue mountains stretching across the horizon beneath an endless sky. In my part of the United States, you can easily see such a view by pulling off at an overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile scenic road that begins in Virginia and winds its way down through North Carolina.

Sadly, I take this view of undulating blue hills for granted. In fact, my original plan for Photography 101’s Landscape theme was to drive out to Max Patch, a bald mountain on the Appalachian Trail. Situated on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, Max Patch offers an amazing 360-degree view of the surrounding mountain groups: the Bald Mountains, the Great Smokies, the Unakas, the Black Mountains, and the Great Balsams. You need a video camera to capture the astonishing scenery at Max Patch.

June 2011:  A partial glimpse of the 360-degree view at Max Patch

June 2011: A partial glimpse of the 360-degree view at Max Patch. Click here for my unsteady video of the view.

My son checks out an exhibit in the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. (iPhone 5s)

My son checks out an exhibit in the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. (iPhone 5s)

IMG_3197 cropLife interfered with my plans for a panoramic photo at Max Patch, so I chose an easy — and obvious — option for a landscape picture: the Haw Creek Valley Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. En route to the overlook, my son and I made an unscheduled pit stop at the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. This was my first time inside the Visitor Center, where several hands-on exhibits caught my son’s eye. Meanwhile, my eyes were drawn to William Blake’s words — “Great things are done when men and mountains meet” — emblazoned across a photograph near the entrance.

In this context, Blake’s statement is lauding the Blue Ridge Parkway as a “great thing” achieved by the conjunction of men and mountains. Construction of the Parkway began in 1935 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal and was finally completed in 1987. In every subsequent year since 1946, the Parkway has been America’s most visited national site. As the longest linear park in the United States, the Parkway annually gives millions of visitors access to campsites and hikes, vistas and waterfalls, wildflowers and trees. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a remarkable achievement.

Like most visionary projects, the Blue Ridge Parkway was not without casualties. Browsing through a bookstore in August, I came across When the Parkway Came, a children’s book written by Anne Mitchell Whisnant and David E. Whisnant. The Whisnants’ book looks at the building of the Parkway through the eyes of Jess, a boy whose family’s farm lies in the path of the proposed highway. While Jess is fictional, the book is based on a letter written to President Roosevelt in 1937 by S. A. Miller, owner of a small farm in North Carolina. Miller’s objections to the low offer made for his land were eventually rewarded with a better price. Although the book does not shy away from the Parkway’s darker repercussions, the Whisnants end on a note of optimistic reflection:

“I wish this land was still ours, Papa Jess,” I said. Papa Jess was quiet for a while. Then he looked up and smiled. “It is, Ginny,” he said. “It still is. Yours, mine, and everybody’s. And it is still so beautiful.”

As someone who benefits from the Blue Ridge Parkway, I am torn between sympathy for the mountain farmers whose property rights were overruled and gratitude for the engineers and CCC workers who made the mountains accessible to everyone. Because farmers like Miller sacrificed their land, the mountains bordering the Parkway are now a place for refuge and reflection – a beautiful place that provides recreational opportunities and inspires artists and writers.

In my reading of Blake’s epigram, he was not thinking of a specific “great” achievement when he wrote, “Great things are done when men and mountains meet. /  This is not done by jostling in the street.” A Romantic poet who hated the ugliness of industrialization and wrote of England’s “dark Satanic mills,” Blake is speaking here of that sense of wonder and awe that descends upon us when we gaze on a landscape too large for our circumscribed minds to comprehend.  Blake lived in London all his life — amidst the jostling of nineteenth-century London’s dirty, crowded streets.The great thing for Blake would have been solace for his soul and freedom for his thoughts as he gazed upon mountains.

Does the creation of a public treasure like the Blue Ridge Parkway justify the high price paid by Miller and many others? Thinking of the countless visitors who have gazed in wonder at views along the Parkway, I would answer, “Yes” – but, then, it wasn’t my land.

Haw Creek Valley Overlook (iPhone 5s)

Haw Creek Valley Overlook (iPhone 5s)


Thanks to Colleen at Silver Threading for hosting the weekly Writer’s Quote Wednesday event.

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All photographs were taken by Sandra Fleming in November 2014, with the exception of the Max Patch picture, which was taken in 2011. An iPhone 5s was used for the panoramic photos and overlook sign, while a Panasonic Lumix was used for all other photos. Text and photos copyrighted 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

A Nation of Writers

Downtown skyline

“Because of computers, we’re suddenly a nation of writers.” — Patricia T. O’Conner

Computers have done for writing what Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press did for reading. Just as the printing press made it cheaper and easier to print books and disseminate information throughout Europe, the computer has made it cheaper and easier for writers to produce their works and share them with the world.

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Architect Douglas Ellington’s S & W Cafeteria, built in 1929, is an Art Deco masterpiece. (iPhone 5s photo)

This is not to slight typewriters, which got me through college (except on the rare occasions when I had access to my dad’s Apple 2e). Typewriters made writing more efficient, but I remember all too well the downside of typewriters: carbon paper, whiteout, fading ribbons, and sticking keys. Aside from an occasional electronic failure, computers enable writers to not only write and revise speedily but also to publish their work immediately. Press one button, and your writing could be read by someone else within seconds.

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Photo taken with a Panasonic Lumix

As a WordPress blogger, I am invariably startled when I read a post via the Reader, go to “like” it, and then discover that the post was published less than five minutes before I read it. I have to fight a reluctance to comment on a post so recently released that I can sense the author’s lingering breath. Blogging as a subset of writing owes its existence to the omnipresence of computers: anyone who knows how to use a keyboard, connect to the internet, and set up a site can become the author of a blog. Computers are the great egalitarian factor in writing.

Without computers, would so many people be dedicated to writing a novel in the month of November? According to the NaNoWriMo site, in 2013 more than 300,000 participants set themselves the goal of writing a 50,000-word draft of a novel in November. Many writers use computers as tools in getting their novels or other works published, whether by a company or through self-publishing. But for countless writers who don’t entertain thoughts of official publication but who nonetheless have something to say, the computer offers a way to share writing with friends and relations, with acquaintances, and with strangers in different hemispheres gazing at their computers.

Before I had a computer, I wrote in notebooks. As time passed, I wrote more sporadically. It is entirely due to computers that I have experienced a renaissance in my own writing. In 2012, my daughter told me about 750words.com, a site for online writing that was free (at the time). I kept my writing private, and I printed my entries, because I felt that I needed a physical copy of the words I was pouring into virtual Neverland. Thanks to the site’s challenges and badges, I began writing for the first time in 20 years. Are my daily “750 words” worthy of sharing? No, but, after two years of writing privately, I started writing publicly on a blog.

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Built in 1926, Asheville City Hall was also designed by Ellington. (Photo taken with Panasonic Lumix)

I am amazed at how many of us are secretly writers — and grateful that the computer is no snob when it comes to who is a writer and who is not. Am I as careful when I write on a computer as I was with pen and paper? If not, I should exercise more caution: someone is far more likely to stumble onto the words that I type here than in any of the spiral-bound notebooks lurking in an upstairs cabinet. One of the pitfalls of writing on a computer is the very ease of writing — and of sharing. With one click, that hasty or erroneous post is out there. Another drawback to writing online is increased vulnerability to piracy of writing or images. The information divulged in a blog could also give clues to the writer’s financial identity. Writing with computers has its hazards.

But I am thankful for an invention that has streamlined the act of writing, increased the exchange of information, and facilitated the dialogue between writers and readers. O’Conner’s quote refers to a “nation of writers,” but blogging has shown me that a veritable global community of writers exists. Despite this international frenzy of writing, I suspect that the ratio of great writers to everyday, ordinary writers is much the same as it has always been: most of us are not Fitzgeralds or Austens, and maybe not even Samuel Pepys with his famous diary. Still we write, for writing lets us take what is inside our heads and share that with someone else. Writing with computers makes the sharing exponentially greater.

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Ellington’s S & W Cafeteria and Asheville City Hall are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Panasonic Lumix photo)

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Asheville City Hall (Panasonic Lumix photo)


O’Conner’s statement appears on page 1 of Writers INC (Wilmington, MA: Great Source, 2001). Patricia T. O’Conner co-authors the blog Grammarphobia.

Note: One way in which computers are not egalitarian is that it costs far more to buy a computer than it does to buy a pen and paper. Economic inequality is not the topic at hand, however.


writers-quote-wednesday (1)Thanks to Colleen at Silver Threading for hosting Writer’s Quote Wednesday (and for being patient with those of us who habitually miss posting on Wednesday). Since I’m also behind on Photo 101, I have used pictures from the Architecture assignment throughout this post. All photos were taken in November 2014 by Sandra Fleming. Text and photos copyrighted 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

Looking for Loneliness

Carl Sandburg 3We should all be as fortunate as Carl Sandburg in choosing a place to live out our final years. At the age of 67, Sandburg, who had spent much of his life in the Midwest, moved with his wife Lilian and their grown children to Connemara, a rural estate in North Carolina. At Connemara, Sandburg was surrounded by books, his wife’s prize-winning goats, and 264 acres of land — pastures, forests, and mountains. Sandburg would often take his chair outside, onto the rocky outcropping shown in the photo above. There he would sit to read, write, or think. He spent the last 22 years of his life at Connemara, where he produced a third of his total writing output.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the time in my life when I wrote poetry was also a time when I took long walks by myself. I often walked to a quiet neighborhood not far from my college, stopping to sit and think at an empty lot where a house had burned down years before. There was a lovely view of the valley beyond the low stone wall that had survived the fire. I loved to sit by that wall, thinking, praying, scribbling in my journal.

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My photo of the sign in front of Sandburg’s solitary retreat at Connemara.  I have never seen a chair on the rocky outcropping where Sandburg like to sit, but I found a photo of Sandburg’s chair on a hiking blog.

Looking back, I wonder if I was too fond of solitude in those days. But I wrote a lot of poetry. Now I usually walk with family members, so taking a recent hike by myself at the Carl Sandburg Home was quite an event. I wish I could say that I had discovered Sandburg’s quotation all by myself. The truth is, Sandburg’s observation, which he made in a letter to a friend, appears on the front of the National Park Service’s brochure and in a sign near the famous rock: “It is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and to ask of himself, ‘Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?'”

For Sandburg, finding a quiet place to reflect was as easy as walking out his side-door. For those of us not living in the country, it may be more difficult to find the place or even the time for sitting and thinking outside. But Sandburg is right: from time to time, self-imposed solitude is good for the soul, particularly beneath the swaying branches of hemlocks and pines.

November 2014

November 2014

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This is my fourth post about the Carl Sandburg Home, which is a fascinating and beautiful place. This photo shows Sandburg’s idyll (minus the chair).

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Many thanks to Colleen at Silver Threading for hosting the Writer’s Quote Wednesday event.

Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Reflection

Andy Rooney 3One of my favorite things about blogging is that it is not school: I am free to write what I want, when I want, and how I want. Not only do I get to choose what to write about, but I can write in any genre that suits my whim. I can use photographs, with or without words. I can use words, with or without pictures. I decide how many words to write. Whether or not anyone reads my posts will probably be affected by these choices, but the decisions are mine to make.

Given how much I like the idea of being absolute monarch of my blogging realm, it strikes me as ironic that I keep signing up for blogging classes, thereby limiting my own authority. First, I took on Blogging 101, although it seems to have bested me, since I completed only half the assignments. I am writing this post for a Photography 101 assignment (Day 3: water). In fact, my last three posts have been on subjects not of my choosing: home, street, and now, water.

A vertical cropping of the same pond (I prefer the horizontal photo myself)

Here’s a vertical orientation, but I prefer the horizontal.  The reflective water mirrors the tree while creating the illusion of a tree. Writing also reflects life but can create a parallel world.  (Panasonic Lumix)

Choosing Andy Rooney‘s statement — “I don’t pick subjects as much as they pick me” — for Writer’s Quote Wednesday may seem odd, since I have written recently on subjects that someone else dictated. Home, street, and water did not “pick me,” I assure you. Because I am feeling little enthusiasm for photographing or writing about arbitrary topics, Mr. Rooney’s quote refreshed me like a cupful of cool water in an arid desert. When something cries out to be addressed, forces itself on my attention repeatedly, haunts me as I drive from place to place, then I sit down at the computer and become deaf to the people around me until I have poured out myself in words.

I had the experience of a subject picking me last Tuesday evening. My husband, daughter, and son had all left the house after dinner, and I was planning to use my time productively: sorting through catalogs, putting away laundry, or exercising.  As I brought dirty dishes into the kitchen, I passed my aging laptop. Suddenly, my fingers were at the keyboard, typing feverishly about an idea that had been forming for the past few days. I don’t know exactly what Andy Rooney meant by saying that subjects pick him, rather than the other way around, but I can guess. I feel his pain — or pleasure.

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