“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.

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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.

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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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Hobgoblins and Inconsistency

Emerson 3(ilovejulia)

Sometimes a writer needs to break the rules — like when she posts for Writer’s Quote Wednesday on Thursday.

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday — Here’s the same quotation, configured differently. Thanks to my daughter Julia for font help in PicMonkey.

In keeping with the Halloween motif, I added a Halloween poem, “Dwelling in His Shadow,” to Poetry Archives. Penned in 1982, the poem was inspired by sleeping outside on Halloween night.  Since I went to college on top of a mountain, it was a quiet evening, far from the cries of trick-or-treaters.

I welcome trick-or-treaters, by the way.  I’ve donned my share of costumes on October 31.  I’ve taken pictures of my children in Halloween costumes for 20 years. But I prefer a kinder, gentler Halloween — if that is not a contradiction in terms.  Even “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” is too dark for my taste, aside from Snoopy’s turn as the WWI flying ace. Carving pumpkins, dressing up, greeting neighbors: that’s my definition of Halloween.  Although I dislike ghouls and ghosts, I will confess that I loved the Halloween songs I learned in elementary school. Sung in a mysterious minor key, “Black and Gold” and “Stirring Her Brew” had a strange appeal. And, as you can see from my son’s Ron Weasley costume, we like Harry Potter and his friends at my house. Inconsistent, right? On with the masks and out with the candy!P1070224 crop P1070214 redeye

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The Dream Reader: For Whom Do I Write?

(Photo by David Fleming)

(Photo by David Fleming)

It is rare for me to sit blankly at a keyboard. Usually, my fingers are flying before my brain knows where it is going, but the fourth assignment of Blogging 101 is difficult: who is the person I most want to read my work? That is a highly personal question, which is daunting for this newbie blogger.

Before I can determine for whom I am writing, I should review why I’m writing:

1)  Without an audience, I won’t edit.

2) Interaction with other bloggers is stimulating.

3) The journalist in me enjoys chronicling my experiences.

Candor forces me to own up to a fourth reason for writing: the cringe-worthy goal of wanting to impress my readers–with my eloquence, my insight, my wit, my relevance.  Despicable but true. Who are the people I’m trying to impress most–my would-be “dream readers”?  Beloved authors, respected teachers, and my parents and siblings come to mind. (My sweet husband needs no impressing.) Old friends aren’t far down the list. I want new acquaintances to think well of me, too (that means you, fellow bloggers).  What about my children: surely I covet their good opinion?

At my sister’s wedding, I accompanied my other sisters on the 2nd movement of J. S. Bach’s “Concerto for Two Violins”  (David Bibeault Photography)

Initially, I enjoy the rush of pleasure that comes with a compliment about my writing. The pleasure is very fleeting, though, and is usually followed by awkwardness, particularly if the compliment is paid in person.  During my college days, I felt the same sense of strained happiness after a solo performance on the piano: I wanted people to applaud my efforts, but, oh, how uncomfortable it was to accept the longed-for praise. I remember well that slightly intoxicated feeling of standing at the reception after a recital, feeling pleased and embarrassed and guilty all at the same time.

Typically, my own impressions of my performance were so blurred that the compliments (or lack thereof) were useful as a way of gauging how the performance had gone. Back then, after the recital hour was over, my piano solos lived only in memory. (Here you can read a poem I wrote in college about the ephemeral nature of music.) Today, the student musician’s experience is vastly different: thanks to camcorders and iPhones, virtually every performance is not only recorded these days but also shared via social media. Two of my performances were recorded on audiocassette; despite my limitations as a pianist, I am glad to have those recordings.  But, in the days before video recording was de rigueur, the audience’s reception of a performance was the sole critique. Audience feedback matters tremendously with writing, too, but an essay–ah, an essay can be re-read and edited endlessly. It can live on indefinitely.

View from the overlook at the small college I attended

View from the overlook at the small college I attended

It can be gratifying to stumble upon something that I wrote years ago and to realize that it was good work. But there is a far better reason for writing than to impress others or even to achieve a sense of satisfaction: to give concrete form to an idea–to give birth to a brainchild, as it were.  When I’m writing something, I become like Jo March of Little Women, scribbling in her garret as “genius” burns. After my thoughts have been transferred lucidly to my laptop,  I feel relief.  Yes, I want to connect with others. Yes, writing has the power to change policy, to change ideas, to change people. But, in the final analysis, the person for whom I truly write is myself. I am my own dream reader.

 

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A side-view of Orchard House and its garret, photographed by my son Samuel

Although Miss Alcott did write her most famous book at Orchard House, she, unlike Jo, did not do her writing in the attic.

Although Miss Alcott wrote her most famous book at Orchard House, she–unlike the fictional Jo–did not confine herself to the attic when writing.

What a cop-out, huh? Back in the nineties, I used to watch “Beverly Hills 90210,” surprising though that may seem. I am reminded of an episode in the fifth season in which Kelly has to choose between traveling with Dylan or marrying Brandon. Kelly chooses–drum roll, please–herself. It was the typical TV resolution-that-is-not-a-resolution-at-all. After nearly a season of dramatic tension, she chose herself? (At least I get to be Jenny Garth in this scenario: I’ve always wondered how it felt to be a blonde.) Fear not: I shall force myself to choose someone–or some group of people–from the categories laid out in my third paragraph and write a post to that person.  A famous writer? a teacher? parents? siblings? Who will it be? Stay tuned.

 

Meet the Author

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Here’s a selfie I took on the day that I wrote my first post. I’m not an avid biker, but there is a great bike trail at Huntington Beach State Park.

Adjectives swim as I reflect on the questions: who am I? why am I here? Graying. Overweight. Disorganized. Optimistic. Rueful. Although I could censor this self-description, I am using the first words that came to mind because they seem honest. But this isn’t how I should present myself to strangers–which raises another question: am I ready to be here, exposing the gritty workings of my mind? Is writing merely a brain dump for me, and, if so, is there a reason for me to be blogging?

This summer, I stumbled upon blogging.  Wanting to follow someone else’s blog, I ended up creating a blog for myself (it helped that we were on vacation at the time). But when the blogger I was following stopped writing, I didn’t stop.  Why not, I wondered?

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A couple of days after setting up my blog, I took this picture of the sun rising at Litchfield By-the-Sea. A metaphor for blogging? Time will tell!

I’ve been writing privately on another website for a couple of years. Despite my sporadic nature, I recently passed the milestone of 100,000 words. Private writing is inherently worthwhile, but is it time for me to put a toe into cyberspace? One drawback to my private posts is that I never edit them; sometimes I pursue a promising line of thought, but the words never leave my sanctum. Although I am continuing to journal privately, an occasional foray into the public eye might be good for me (and for my writing, which has become all too stream-of-consciousness lately).

I’d also like to think that something I have posted could improve or enlighten someone else’s day (in a very small way). During my grad school days, I began to feel that there wasn’t a reason for anyone to write anything, ever again: hasn’t it all been said, over and over? Yet along came J. K. Rowling, boldly presenting the world with a lovable and complex young hero, just when I had thought no one could come up with anything new. Aspects of the Harry Potter series are undoubtedly derivative, but the sum–the sum has touched thousands of readers, old and young alike.

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The last blueberries of last summer on a bush at Craggy Gardens, off the Blue Ridge Parkway

Unlike Rowling, I’m not a writer of fiction, and my pontificating days are mostly over; if I have any profound thoughts, I’ll post them elsewhere. Still, I love traveling, whether it’s a cross-country journey or a day trip to pick blueberries in the mountains. Although I am an uneducated amateur, I also enjoy taking pictures. Rather than cluttering up my Facebook page with another photo album that few will ever view (thanks, Dad!), I will try to chronicle the occasional outing here, to capture the experience for others besides myself.

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Flowers by a fountain at Fearrington House

I don’t plan to post regularly. For that reason, I am unlikely to continue with the Blogging 101 assignments: today I began to contemplate what a month of blogging assignments might do to my daily schedule. Besides managing a home, I am homeschooling a young lad (I should be giving him a piano lesson at this moment). But I’m here, and this first challenge has helped me figure out why.

By way of explanation

The title of this blog is a reference to a standing family joke made by my two brothers. As a teen, I fancied myself to be a poet, and I was prone to gushing about the beauty of the woodland or the perfect purity of the new rose. In 9th grade, I pretentiously composed a collection of poems called “The Winter Wanderer”–an odd choice for an inhabitant of South Arkansas, where we rarely got more than a sprinkling of snow during the winter.

At any rate, my brothers began to say that I was so sappy I could be a tree.  Somehow, this tagline endured. Ironically—and perhaps sadly–I no longer fancy myself to be a poet or even much of a writer. The higher I climbed in academic circles, the lower my self-confidence became. But I do still like trees–in fact, I’d much rather go on a hike in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains near my home than read a poem. Fact. Two summers ago, I was fortunate enough to visit the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, which is named in honor of the writer and poet who died tragically in World War I but left us his famous ode to the many-branched, leafed creations that add so much grace to the landscape (and help us with our breathing). Here is Kilmer‘s famous poem:

Trees

by Joyce Kilmer

My oldest son contemplates the tulip poplars at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

My oldest son contemplates the tulip poplars at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree;

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.