The Blue Chair Blog

It's not just about the novel


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Be a poet even in prose

DWJournalI dawdled at Orca Books for a while on Friday before meeting a friend for lunch and, on a whim, I bought a slightly battered little book, Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. A stamp and handwritten note on the flyleaf revealed it had been purchased at Dove Cottage, Grasmere in 1970. At the time, it cost 45 p. I am enchanted  by it, and inspired. The first few pages of Helen Darbishire‘s engaging introduction, written in 1958, have me in tears. What better source for learning how to describe; describe nature, the natural world, and landscape but also people. She could sketch a character or a first impression indelibly in only a few lines. I bought the book without much investigation because it was cheap and because these early journals are close in date to the period I’m writing about — 1798 and 1800 to 1802. Isn’t it lovely to indulge in an inexpensive little whim and have that whim so well-rewarded? Dorothy did not want to be an author. She did not see herself as a poet. As Miss Darbishire wrote, she was a poet in prose:

There is something . . . that imagination does, the simplest thing, the central thing. It pierces through the familiar surface to something nearer to life itself than what we ordinarily see.

There is only one known portrait of Dorothy, a sad one made when she was quite old, and yet she lives. Not only through her own vibrant words, but in her brother William’s poetry — some of which is clearly sourced from her journals — and in Coleridge’s, too. And from the tender regard both men had for her. “[H]is exquisite sister,” Coleridge wrote, and you have to credit his perspicaciousness: “[H]her person is such that if you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her ordinary; if you expected to see an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty!”

William Wordsworth was speaking more generally in the following quotation, but these journals are so beautiful, so captivating, that he could easily have been writing of Dorothy:

Of genius in the fine Arts the only infallible sign is the widening the sphere of human sensibility for the delight, honour, and benefit of human nature.

She was a great walker, along with her brother and Coleridge. In 1818, when she would have been about 46, she climbed Scafell Pike (the highest mountain in England at just over 3,200 feet) with another lady, a maid, and a pair of local guides. She never married. She fell ill from about 1829 and eventually her mind grew frail as well.

As ever, all we have is now.

Dorothy Wordsworth on Wikipedia.

Dorothy Wordsworth on The Poetry Foundation website.


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More writer events than you can shake a stick at

Yes, there are more literary adventures available than you might think down here in the state capital, which is after all a college town times three. Here’s what I’ve been able to take advantage of lately and I’m feeling SO fortunate.

At the end of September, I took up a week-long writing residency at Holly House, which is a retreat center for women “of all creative talents” on Arcadia Point in Mason County. Holly House is maintained by a small jewel of an organization, Hypatia-in-the-Woods. The cottage is a 40-minute drive from my house, but a whole world away. This is a solo operation and nature, nurture, beauty, and peace abound. I wrote, slept, read, walked and came home renewed and full of gratitude for the opportunity.

A few days later, Jess Walter, author of  Beautiful Ruins and some kick-ass short stories, spoke at Saint Martins University in Lacey. An SRO crowd filled the hall and Jess’s long-time friend Jim Lynch introduced him with love and laughter. I continue to be delighted that writers like Jess are showing up — right in my neighborhood! — to charm and inspire readers and writers. One of his messages to writers, echoed by Liz Gilbert (more on her shortly) is that you don’t necessarily need an MFA to be “A Writer” and that starting a writing career with $30,000 in debt is probably not a great idea. This is the second annual talk in SMU’s Les Bailey Writers Series and last year’s speaker Brian Doyle was also terrific.

It’s not a literary event per se, but whether it’s Spring or Fall, Olympia Arts Walk is an unmissable Olympia cultural phenomenon, so I didn’t miss it. There is always plenty of energy, lots to look at, and you are bound to run into someone (or many someones) you know.

Although Seattle is a little beyond local, I did head on up to the big city to see Elizabeth Gilbert in person last week. Her new book Big Magic has so many terrific things to say about creativity and living a big life. I’ve been listening to her practical and encouraging Magic Lessons podcasts for several weeks and got my hands on the book as soon as I got back from Holly House. God love her, she is OUT THERE on a few things but that’s kind of the point. She puts herself out there in a way that convinces you she’s fully alive and that she wants you to take every opportunity to be the same. My goodness, can that woman communicate — novels, podcasts, talks, photos, and her one-of-a-kind, worth-joining-for Facebook page.

The very next night, there was another cool local event, a book signing for my friend Russ Cahill’s novel of ancient Hawaii, Kolea. I never did get to talk to Russ because friends, friends-of-friends, and new fans were all lined up to get books signed. Now he’s off on a research trip to Yosemite for his next book, living the writing life.

Then the following evening (this is three nights in a row, folks), Timberland Regional Library (one of the best regional library systems imaginable) launched its new anthology, Timberland Writes Together, which builds on the success of its program Timberland Reads Together. No, I’m not one of the 15 writers included, but my friend Meagan’s story “Going Without” is in there. You can download or borrow the anthology from the library (of course), or buy it online, and discussions and panels centered on this project are scheduled in Thurston, Mason, Pacific, Grays Harbor, and Lewis Counties. I’m so impressed that TRL has taken this project on and fascinated to learn how much writing has been going on around here. Even more than I had suspected!

According to my calendar, more bookish adventures are waiting. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I got this post written and now it’s back to the WIP.


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Northern light, blue skies

Here are a few photos from around Drøbak and Oslo. Chalkboard signs are ubiquitous in cities and Melkesjokolade is ubiquitious in Norway. I come from berry country; fresh Norwegian strawberries will meet or beat ours. And the waffles I get when I’m in Drøbak can’t be bettered anywhere.

On July 22, I flew to London from Oslo, leaving behind not only family and friends in Drøbak but the pure Norwegian light and lucid blue skies. I miss the people, light, and color still.  A few odds and ends posted for you. Soon, I’ll write about London and Oxford. With photos, of course!


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Modern art in Oslo

I’ve been wanting to visit the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art ever since it moved into it’s new location on Oslo’s waterfront. Between this place and Ekeberg Park, Oslo’s access to modern art is off the charts, especially in proportion to her size.  There was one rainy day during my time in Norway, so off we went.  Besides the impressive permanent collection of modern art, there was an exhibit of works collected by the explorer Erling Kagge’s called Love Story. The Astrup Fearnley’s location on the peninsula of Tjuvholmen is dramatic, and the two museum buildings provide a soaring backdrop for the art. I liked a lot of what I saw, was challenged by some pieces, and thought a few were in the category of you’re-pulling-my-leg. That’s modern art for you, but in particular I am still haunted by Damien Hirst’s Eulogy, constructed with butterfly wings, and to which no picture can do justice.


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Exploring Ekeberg Park

Oslo has long had one of the most impressive sculpture parks in the world in Vigeland Park. In the fall of 2013, the city of Oslo opened Ekeberg Park as a “people’s park,” which is a quintessentially Norwegian way to do things. It is a “sculpture and national heritage park” with a strong international art collection, including works by Rodin, Renoir, Dali, Vigeland, Botero, and Damien Hirst.

Most of the sculptures are figures or representations of women. They are surrounded by beautiful scenery with many spectacular views out over the city and Oslfjord. Traces of some of the oldest settlements in the area, such as petroglyphs and dry stone walls, are also found in this fascinating cultural landscape.

After quite a few visits to Oslo over the last 15 years, it was a deep pleasure to discover something new and inspiring and to spend an afternoon walking through beautiful Ekenberg Park with family. The park is free and always open. There is a nearby campground, too.

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In the wake of a tumultuous week

I’m still reeling, to be honest, from A Week That Was, especially Friday, June 26. I can’t help feeling that the United States at last sat itself down at the same table as other progressive nations when the Supreme Court ruled, in a divided but decisive opinion, for marriage equality. In the same week, many people in this country were reeling from a horrific terrorist act – the murder of nine African-American members of a church in Charleston, South Carolina. I was driving home on I-5 Friday and heard the last part of President Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was not only a pastor of that church, but a state senator — someone who had dedicated his life to serving others. In retrospect, all of these people seem remarkable, their lives thrown into scrutiny and stark relief by their deaths. It just tells you, I think, how remarkable many people are when you look below the surface. We need to be looking at those around us now and not only when they are dead.

The President spoke eloquently and then to my stunned surprise he began to sing Amazing Grace, in a voice that was heartfelt and not completely in tune. My sense is that this was spontaneous. I don’t think it was in the order of service or that the congregation was expecting it, though they soon joined in. I was listening to this live on the radio as I drove, singing along with the President and that stricken congregation and community, and trying unsuccessfully not to cry. For me, it was a transcendent moment. Those healing words are apt after centuries, and incredibly moving.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Behind these stirring and hopeful words from 1779, as many people know, is the story of a man who had the scales fall from his eyes — who had been the captain of a slave ship, became a Christian, an ordained minister, and an abolitionist. I believe some folks have finally had their eyes opened by this hideous event, to the extent that they can now see it is an injurious travesty to fly the Confederate flag over a government building. The original title of Amazing Grace was Faith’s Review and Expectation.

I’m hoping my eyes, too, are more open than they were, that I can become more aware to all the privilege that has been bestowed on me by an accident of birth. There is no beginning and no end. This is part of the fabric of our nation, part of being human in the Twenty First Century. If we don’t do one other thing, we can examine our assumptions, and we can pay attention.

Allow me to leave you, dear reader, with a little quiet beauty.

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Not so secretly, I admire you (repost from NaNoWriMo Blog)

A  few weeks ago, NaNoWriMo solicited folks to write “not-so-secret admirer” notes to people who have inspired them as writers. For my money, writing as part of a community is different, and better, than writing in total isolation. A lot of people and organizations have inspired me from afar and supported me up close, including Kamy Wicoff and Shewrites.com, Russ Cahill, Deborah Harkness, Meagan Macvie and Off Point Writers, Hedgebrook, NaNoWriMo, personal friends who keep low profiles, and at least half of those I follow in my Twitter feed.

First and foremost are the five remarkable women who make up WISH, the Wild and Inspired Sisters of Hedgebrook. Here’s the note I wrote to them, which was published on the NaNoWriMo Blog today:

Dear Colleen, Kay, Niki, Teresa, and Traci,

Yes, my wild, inspired sisters—you are the reason I am able to write, not just reclusively as writers must, but also as part of a small but vibrant writing community. Aren’t I lucky to have this opportunity to write out loud about what a difference you have made in my life! 

How could we have imagined when we first met at Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers in Washington state, that we would still be in almost daily contact over a year later? We were together in a historical fiction master class for only a week, learning from the phenomenal Deborah Harkness and reveling in Whidbey Island’s magic. Although Hedgebrook and its dedicated staff remain close to my heart, you are the gift that keeps on giving. Even now that we are scattered from the West Coast of the US to Germany, thanks to technology we are there for each other almost every day, and sometimes even in the middle of the night.

What we have in common connects us — our obsession with historical fiction, alternating fascination and frustration with the writing process, and a passion for red wine with salt and pepper potato chips. I have seen most of you at least once in the intervening year and I cherish those times, too. Only with true friends can you meet and take up the conversation again without missing a beat. And what conversations! Encouragement, sympathy, understanding, humor — each of you has these things in abundance and shares them unquestioningly.

Thanks for always being there, convincing me I can succeed, and cheering me over all the hurdles. Maybe I could do it alone, but I’m glad I don’t have to try.

Love,

Suzanne

After telling the NaNoWriMo folks about WISH, I was excited to receive an invitation to write the note for publication and absolutely thrilled to wake up this morning and learn that it had been published. The blog’s headline writer got it exactly right. Here’s to writing groups who become true friends!

The original text of my note is here.

Hellebore on the farmhouse table