I believe

28 September 2009 | 5 Comments

This is cheating a bit (in blog terms) because I posted this quote over at Sterling Editing last week. But not everyone may visit there; and the SE blog is very much focused on helping or inspiring writers. It focuses out. Here in my little personal corner of the internet, it can just be about me if I like…

… and today I do.

Here’s what Robert McKee has to say about the love it takes to write well. It speaks to me because I think it speaks about me. I recognize myself.

The love of story — the belief that your vision can be expressed only through story, that characters can be more “real” than people, that the fictional world is more profound than the concrete. The love of the dramatic — a fascination with the sudden surprises and revelations that bring sea-changes in life. The love of truth — the belief that lies cripple the artist, that every truth in life must be questioned, down to one’s own secret motives. The love of humanity — a willingness to empathize with suffering souls, to crawl inside their skins and see the world through their eyes. The love of sensation — the desire to indulge not only the physical but the inner senses. The love of dreaming — the pleasure in taking leisurely rides on your imagination just to see where it leads. The love of humor — a joy in the saving grace that restores the balance of life. The love of language — the delight in sound and sense, syntax and semantics. The love of duality — a feel for life’s hidden contradictions, a healthy suspicion that things are not what they seem. The love of perfection — the passion to write and rewrite in pursuit of the perfect moment. The love of uniqueness — the thrill of audacity and a stone-faced calm when it is met by ridicule. The love of beauty — an innate sense that treasures good writing, hates bad writing, and knows the difference. The love of self — a strength that doesn’t need to be constantly reassured, that never doubts that you are indeed a writer. You must love to write and bear the loneliness.
But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.
– Robert McKee, from Story

Reading these sentences makes me feel like a little girl again, wide-eyed in a dark movie theatre on a hot Florida summer afternoon, clapping my hands until they hurt so that Tinkerbelle wouldn’t die: calling out I believe, I believe! And still I am calling. I believe in the heightened life of the imagination, and I believe in bringing as much of that same joy as I can to my everyday life; to this moment as I write about love and story with the taste of tea in my mouth and outside the wind blowing, autumn clouds racing across they sky so it turns blue to gray to blue again, and the rowan tree sags with red berries and little puffball birds, and it’s just beautiful, you know? It’s so beautiful.

It’s beautiful that way inside my head too, in that other life where the only one in the theatre is me, where all the stories are powerful, strong, strange, wild. They roll through me like autumn clouds. The wind blows.

Get happy

19 June 2009 | 3 Comments

If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have paradise in a few years. – Bertrand Russell

This seems so true to me in so many different ways right now.

It’s easy to see all the ways in which people seem to desire the unhappiness of others, and to actively work toward it. We all, whatever our politics or religion or particular beef with the world, have our litany of things that other people shouldn’t be, shouldn’t do, don’t deserve, and ought to be ashamed of.

And it’s easy to see all the ways in which our culture discourages us from actively seeking our own happiness. It’s selfish to put our own needs ahead of others’. It’s wrong to enjoy things that other people cannot have. It’s better to go along with the party, the church, the family, the crowd, and squeeze ourselves into little one-size-ought-to-be-enough-for-all boxes so that we do not make others uncomfortable. It’s good to make other people happy.

But what about making ourselves happy? When are we taught that our own happiness is fucking essential not just for our survival, but for the survival of others?

I believe that love and fear are the two most powerful forces in the universe. I believe I can trace every choice I make, large or small, back to one or the other. Sometimes the love is the kind that compels me to put my own needs aside; sometimes it’s just the general “golden rule” sort, the social-compact default. Sometimes the fear is the very sensible Run away from the person with the knife kind; but other times, it is fear of difference or risk or having to look too hard at myself, and it disguises itself as common sense, as necessity, or (gods help us) as maturity and duty.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the ways in which parenting is often focused on making the child feel special and “a winner” whether they have done anything worth noting or not. There are certainly a lot of folks who seemingly grow up feeling entitled to praise no matter what; they need it to be “happy,” and we all “deserve to be happy.” Bleh. That’s just a different way of being afraid, a different way of defining our own happiness as something we expect — or demand — from other people. It’s not a very big a step from that to seeking the unhappiness of others when we don’t like their choices, or when they don’t give us the validation that we want.

When we make choices out of that kind of fear — when we demand our happiness from others, or think the only way to win is to prevent their happiness — we die. A little or all the way, in our heart or soul or body. But I want to live. So I’m figuring out these days that my biggest duty is to adjust my own oxygen mask. And I find that the more I focus on making myself happy, the easier it is to share that wealth with others. It turns out that a big part of acting from fear is wanting to make other people feel afraid too; but when I make myself happy, then I’m more ready to help other people make themselves happy as well.

Perhaps that seems obvious or naive to some folks. Oh well. For me, like most simple truths, it turns out to be much deeper on the inside than the outside.

Helen MacInnes

7 January 2009 | 14 Comments

I began reading Helen MacInnes when I was a teenager — many happy hours curled up in a leather armchair in my school’s library with one HM book or another. Recently, she’s made a resurgence in our household, and I am having enormous fun rediscovering her work and remembering why I have enjoyed it so much over the years.

Her books are suspense/spy thrillers, many of them set during WWII, so there’s lots of action and people running down dark alleys and such. They’re brilliantly written, with characters who are interesting and believable people even in unbelievable situations — although MacInnes was an astute observer of political conflict on both the macro and micro-level, and her plotting shows it. Her work focuses always on the human consequences of politics. And, like John D. MacDonald, she had many things to say about being human in general, and she wasn’t afraid to let her characters say them every once in a while.

He ought to have come alone. But it had been easy to be persuaded, for the selfish reason, quite apart from the more practical one that this mission must seem a holiday as usual, that he would have been miserable without her. He lay and thought of the way in which two people, each with their own definite personality, could build up a third personality, a greater and more exciting one, to share between them.
– from Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes, 1942

If you don’t know MacInnes’ work, seriously, go get some. (Edited to add: Thanks, Mark, for this additional link to information about MacInnes as a person and a writer.) Libraries everywhere are bound to have her — she was enormously popular in her day, and I agree with Julia Buckley that it’s a damn shame HM doesn’t get more love now. She’s ten thousand times a better writer than Robert Ludlum or Alistair MacLean.

They all made such businesslike gestures, thought Richard irritably. Did it really prove greater efficiency to walk with a resounding tread, to open doors by practically throwing them off their hinges, to shut an insignificant notebook with an imitation thunder clap? Probably not at all, but — and here was the value of it — it made you look, and therefore feel, more efficient. The appearance of efficiency could terrify others into thinking you were dynamic and powerful. But strip you of all the melodrama of uniforms and gestures, of detailed régime worked out to the nth degree, of supervision and parrot phrases and party clichés, and then real efficiency could be properly judged. It would be judged by your self-discipline, your individual intelligence, your mental and emotional balance, your grasp of the true essentials based on your breadth of mind and depth of thought.
– from Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes, 1942

The grasp, the breadth, the depth, are things that I aspire to as a writer and a person. Helen MacInnes certainly had them as a writer, and I imagine she was a fantastic person to drink and eat and talk with. Another person on the long list of if only.

The trees of life

18 October 2008 | 9 Comments

I must share with you again something from Henry Beard’s Poetry for Cats: The Definitive Anthology of Distinguished Feline Verse.

I love the prodigious imagination at work in this little book: the exuberant love of both poetry and cats, and the way that Beard is able to evoke the original poem while making it something utterly… well, cat-like.

It’s a cool thing about people. We just love to put things together in new and interesting ways. We like to create resonances between things we love, whether it’s parties with friends or pop culture references in books. We like to look at the clouds and say, I see a bunny. We like to dance with strangers at rock concerts. And some of us like to read hommages written ostensibly by poets’ cats.

Don’t ask me to explain it. It’s a cat-lovin’ poetry-readin’ human Saturday kind of thing, and that’s all there it to it.

by Joyce Kilmer’s Cat
I think that I shall never see
A poem nifty as a tree.
A tree whose rugged trunk seems meant
To speed a happy cat’s ascent;
A tree that laughs at dogs all day
And serves up baby birds for prey;
A tree whose limbs are in the sky
Where clandestinely I can spy;
Until it does upon me dawn
It is a mile down to the lawn.
Poems are made by cats like me,
But only you can get me off this goddam stupid tree.
– from Poetry For Cats by Henry Beard.

And you know what else I like about people? That we’ll help each other down from the goddam stupid tree every once in a while. It’s one of the great human things.

The Haunting of Hill House

12 October 2008 | 8 Comments

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

* * * *

Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old… The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends. This was owing largely to the eleven years she had spent caring for her invalid mother, which had left her with some proficiency as a nurse and an inability to face strong sunlight without blinking. She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair.

* * * *

It was the first genuinely shining day of summer, a time of year which brought Eleanor always to aching memories of her early childhood, when it had seemed to be summer all the time; she could not remember a winter before her father’s death on a cold wet day. She had taken to wondering lately, during these swift-counted years, what had been done with all those wasted summer days; how could she have spent them so wantonly? I am foolish, she told herself early every summer, I am very foolish; I am grown up now and know the values of things. Nothing is ever really wasted, she believed sensibly, even one’s childhood, and then each year, one summer morning, the warm wind would come down the city street where she walked and she would be touched with the little cold thought: I have let more time go by. Yet this morning, driving the little car which she and her sister owned together, apprehensive lest they might still realize that she had come after all and just taken it away, going docilely along the street, following the lines of traffic, stopping when she was bidden and turning when she could, she smiled out at the sunlight slanting along the street and thought, I am going, I am going, I have finally taken a step.
from The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Eleanor is going to Hill House. What do you suppose will happen when she gets there?

If you have not read this book then I envy you, as I do anyone experiencing a good story for the first time. Read it. It’s short and powerful, frightening not with blood or gore but only through the slow revelations of the fears and madness that people carry inside.

And do see the fabulous 1963 movie The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Harris as Eleanor. But do not see the stinky terrible deeply stupid horrible bad 1999 remake, ick ick ick.

I’ve always loved Jackson’s work; she was an awesome writer, spare and specific and very good at capturing the superficial interactions of people with all the tar bubbling underneath. She’s a writer that new writers can learn from — about economy, how to report things about a character without stooping to the dreaded “telling,” how to show the nuances of sexual tension or fear or rebellion without pounding it into the reader’s head.

So I was delighted back in 1998 to be invited by Ellen Datlow, fiction editor of OMNI, to take part in a round robin story with Graham Joyce, Ed Bryant and Kathe Koja. The conceit of round robin is that each writer takes a turn with the story, writing a short entry (500 -700 words) as quickly as possible, then passing it along to the next person.

We decided our story should be an hommage to Shirley Jackson, and that’s how we started it, although I think it drifted fairly quickly (grin). It was a fascinating experience working with these folks. I enjoyed coming home from my work at Wizards of the Coast, grabbing a beer on my way downstairs to my basement office, turning on the computer, reading whatever entry had been handed off to me, and then…. just beginning. Exhilarating stuff. Here it is, if you’d like to read it. But, straight up, Jackson is better (grin).

I am going, I am going, I have finally taken a step — who among us does not know that feeling? It’s a pull like leaning over the roof edge of a very tall building. It’s the thrill when everything you know disappears in the rearview mirror and you are clean and new, you could be anyone, and nothing you’ve left behind can touch you. It’s only what’s ahead that will shape you now. Or at least, that’s what we want so badly to believe. Jackson knows better; and Eleanor will find out that we always bring ourselves on these journeys.


6 October 2008 | 8 Comments

Another in an occasional series of posts about being human.

I am large, I contain multitudes. – Walt Whitman, from “Song of Myself”

Having many selves is one of the most human things people do, and one of the most fascinating. I was reminded again of this by a quotation that Karina posted a while back. Here’s a part of it:

A self is deciduous, it leafs out as one grows, changes with one’s seasons, yet somehow stays briskly the same. The brain composes a self-portrait from a confetti of facts and sensations, and as pieces are added or removed the likeness changes, though the sense of unity remains, thanks to well-furnished illusions. We need illusion to feel true. A medley of different selves accompanies us everywhere. Some are lovable, some weird, some disapproving of each other, some childish or adult. Unless the selves drift too far apart, that solo ensemble works fine and copes well with novel events. As the psychoanalyst Philip M. Bromberg writes in Standing in the Spaces: “health is not integration. Health is the ability to stand in the spaces between realities without losing any of them. This is what I believe self-acceptance means and what creativity is really all about — the capacity to feel like one self while being many.”
Diane Ackerman, from An Alchemy of Mind

So many doors fling themselves open in my mind and spirit when I read that. The book is here on my desk, waiting to be read in whole, and I can only imagine what treasures await me!

But in the meantime, here is what Ackerman and Bromberg are talking about: from the Aubrey/Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian. These are beautiful books, stuffed full of humanity. I think O’Brian is possibly the best writer I’ve ever read at expressing the inner multitudes of characters. This series of 21 books traces a decades-long friendship between Jack Aubrey, sea captain in the 18th-century British Navy, and Stephen Maturin, physician and British spy. They’ve spent more time together at sea than they have with their wives and families. They talk often, deeply, intimately together throughout these books. And it’s one of their long-standing customs to play the violin together at every opportunity. Music is also a daily conversation between them.

Jack and Stephen are men by every measure of their time — they are mainstream in gender presentation and sexual expression, culturally entitled, unafraid of physical hardship and stoic about bodily suffering, fully engaged with their culture’s notions of honor and bravery that “real men” were assumed to embrace without question. And at the same time O’Brian gives us two people who deeply love each other, who share the secrets of their hearts with trust, who are unafraid of the sentimentality that occasionally rises between them. It’s a magnificent demonstration of how to write gendered characters without assuming that gender limits their ability to be human, to feel and yearn and wonder and love as humans do.

In one of the earlier books, Stephen is tortured and his hands are badly damaged. In this scene, many books and many years later, Stephen is visiting Jack at his estate.

Stephen had been put to sleep in his usual room, far from children and noise, away in that corner of the house which looked down to the orchard and the bowling-green, and in spite of his long absence it was so familiar to him that when he woke about three he made his way to the window almost as quickly as if dawn had already broken, opened it and walked out on to the balcony. The moon had set: there was barely a star to be seen. The still air was delightfully fresh with falling dew, and a late nightingale, in indifferent voice, was uttering a routine jug-jug far down in Jack’s plantation; closer at hand, and more agreeable by far, nightjars churred in the orchard, two of them, or perhaps three, the sound rising and falling, intertwining so that the source could not be made out for sure. There were few birds he preferred to nightjars, but it was not they that had brought him out of bed: he stood leaning on the balcony rail and presently Jack Aubrey, in a summer-house by the bowling-green, began again, playing very gently in the darkness, improvising wholly for himself, dreaming away on his violin with a mastery that Stephen had never heard equalled, though they had played together for years and years.
Like many other sailors Jack Aubrey had long dreamed of lying in his warm bed all night long; yet although he could now do so with a clear conscience he often rose at unChristian hours, particularly if he were moved by strong emotion, and crept from his bedroom in a watch-coat, to walk about the house or into the stables or to pace the bowling-green. Sometimes he took his fiddle with him. He was in fact a better player than Stephen, and now that he was using his precious Guarnieri rather than a robust sea-going fiddle the difference was still more evident: but the Guarnieri did not account for the whole of it, nor anything like. Jack certainly concealed his excellence when they were playing together, keeping to Stephen’s mediocre level: this had become perfectly clear when Stephen’s hands were at last recovered from the thumbscrews and other implements applied by French counterintelligence officers in Minorca; but on reflexion Stephen thought it had been the case much earlier, since quite apart from his delicacy at that period, Jack hated showing away.
Now, in the warm night, there was no one to be comforted, kept in countenance, no one who could scorn him for virtuosity, and he could let himself go entirely; and as the grave and subtle music wound on and on, Stephen once more contemplated on the apparent contradiction between the big, cheerful, florid sea-officer whom most people liked on sight but who would never have been described as subtle or capable of subtlety by any one of them (except perhaps his surviving opponents in battle) and the intricate, reflective music he was now creating.
– from The Commodore by Patrick O’Brian (Book 17 of the Aubrey/Maturin series)

I hope someday that I can say so much about this essential human thing, this multiplicity of self that we all manage every day, sometimes with grace and wit, sometimes with struggle and bitterness, sometimes with confusion, sometimes with joy… I hope someday that I can so simply and so elegantly write of this as O’Brian has here.

Six minutes? Picnic!

15 September 2008 | 9 Comments


I’m working on a class page for my high school physics students, and came across this quote. It made me think of you and Nicola…and your passion for life and writing.

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’™t brood. I’™d type a little faster. –ISAAC ASIMOV, Life, Jan. 1984


Hi Janine,

Thanks for thinking of us (grin).

There are some days where I just might keep typing. Maybe. If I was right at the end of the Best Kelley Eskridge Writing Ever. Otherwise, I would go find my sweetie and spend the six minutes with her.

And today, if we get the six-minute warning, we may very well be on a picnic. We both have much to do today, many responsibilities and goals and blah de fucking blah. But the weather forecast shows that today and tomorrow may very well be the last two days of summer in Seattle… and we decided that we don’t want to miss them.

So today, instead of doing everything I am supposed to, I will be cooking potato salad and ginger-lemon scones, buying fried chicken and paté, chilling champagne, and spreading a blanket out in the back yard. Where I sincerely hope to be spending more than six minutes (grin).

I hope you enjoy your day as much as I hope to enjoy mine!

Get busy

3 September 2008 | 4 Comments

The best novella I know is “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King. It was made into a brilliant movie, but the novella is even better.

It’s about hope. I talk a lot about hope, mostly in ambivalent ways. But perhaps I am coming to some conclusions. Perhaps there are different kinds of hope, like mushrooms, some that are truffles and some that will kill you dead.

“Shawshank” is the most comprehensive, brutal, joyful examination I’ve ever read of the different kinds of hope. The hope like a rattlesnake you keep insisting makes a really good pet until it bites you hard and then coils away looking for its next meal. The hope that is indistinguishable from fear. The hope that relies on magical thinking, if only… And there is the hope that is the first cousin of will, that sees you to the end of a long hard road.

When I was learning to swim, the instructor would step back ten feet from where I clung to the edge of the pool, and hold out his arms, and smile: swim to me, he would say, and I would throw myself out and gasp and thrash and paddle like hell, and he would step back and back and back, and I had to keep going. But he was always there at the end. That is perhaps the only hope that has ever really done me any good, the hope that makes me willing to keep swimming because there will be something at the end that is risk rewarded, that is safety and triumph and relief and a new kind of knowledge of myself and the world. Not if only, but rather if I do

Dear Red,
If you’re reading this, then you’re out. One way or another, you’re out. And if you’ve followed along this far, you might be willing to come a little further. I think you remember the name of the town, don’t you? I could use a good man to help me get my project on wheels. Meanwhile, have a drink on me — and do think it over. I will be keeping an eye out for you. Remember that hope is a good thing, Red, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well.

I didn’t read that letter in the field [... ] I went back to my room and read it there, with the smell of old men’s dinners drifting up the stairwell to me — Beefaroni, Rice-a-Roni, Noodle Roni. You can be that whatever the old folks of America, the ones on fixed incomes, are eating tonight, it almost certainly ends in roni.
I opened the envelope and read the letter and then I put my head in my arms and cried. With the letter there were twenty new fifty-dollar bills.
And here I am in the Brewster Hotel, technically a fugitive from justice again — parole violation is my crime. No one’s going to throw up any roadblocks to catch a criminal wanted on that charge, I guess — wondering what I should do now.
I have this manuscript. I have a small piece of luggage about the size of a doctor’s bag that holds everything I own. I have nineteen fifties, four tens, a five, three ones, and assorted change. I broke one of the fifties to buy this tablet of paper and a deck of smokes.
Wondering what I should do.
But there’s really no question. It always comes down to just two choices. Get busy living or get busy dying.
–from “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King

Poetry for cats

30 August 2008 | 2 Comments

Here’s a little literary fun for a holiday weekend. This is from Poetry for Cats: Tthe Definitive Anthology of Distinguished Feline Verse, by Henry Beard. It’s a lovely, clever collection of poems, ostensibly written by famous poets’ cats, which is brilliant both as hommage and as a study of feline psychology.

Here’s a taste. Enjoy.

To A Vase
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Cat


How do I break thee? Let me count the ways.
I break thee if thou art at any height
My paw can reach, when, smarting from some slight,
I sulk, or have one of my crazy days.
I break thee with an accidental graze
Or twitch of tail, if I should take a fright.
I break thee out of pure and simple spite
The way I broke the jar of mayonnaise.
I break thee if a bug upon thee sits.
I break thee if I’m in a playful mood,
And then I wrestle with the shiny bits.
I break thee if I do not like my food.
And if someone thy shards together fits,
I’ll break thee once again when thou art glued.


– from Poetry for Cats by Henry Beard

Le destin, c’est moi

23 August 2008 | 2 Comments

Nous tissons notre destin, nous le tirons de nous comme l’araignée sa toile. – Francois Muriac
We weave our destiny, we draw it from ourselves like the spider spins its web.

I don’t believe in fate. I don’t subscribe to the notion of a higher being with a plan for me. But I know life is not random, either, although there are times when the random delights or damages us for a moment or forever.

In my philosophy, the four most powerful things in the universe are love, joy, fear and choice. History is made from their stew. People live and die for them, from them. We stand tall or twist ourselves out of true by the choices we make from love and joy and fear. Most of those are small daily choices about whether to do, how to respond, what to let in and keep out. And from those things we weave ourselves. My life is the web of my choices.

Destiny is a funny word. I don’t believe in destiny spelled out in a Big Book somewhere, as if the universe was simply some giant cosmic puppet theatre. I choose not to see myself and my life reduced to that. So I do not think there is A Path I Am Meant To Walk, and yet it is clear to me when I’m doing things that… hmm. That fit with the essential core of me, the soul, the spirit, whatever you choose to call it. I know when I feel aligned and when I don’t. I know when I am out of true.

As I get older, I trust more and more my own instincts about these choices. I trust my sense of whether things are right or wrong for me, my sense of when to act and when to stand still. I trust that I can be hurt and survive, and so I no longer always need to blindly defend myself against the possibility of pain. I trust that I can be joyful without the other shoe dropping on me, and so I no longer always need to “deserve” happiness. I trust that I can live with complexity, and so I am no longer so afraid to feel whatever it is that I feel.

And even when the random intervenes, even when things happen that I did not choose, it is still my choice how to respond.

And so I make my choices and my life weaves itself around me. And many of those choices the last couple of years have been big ones, the kind that alter the patterns forever. I am not who I expected to be. And yet I am totally myself. I’m creating daily a destiny that can only be mine, because it is made of my choices, my love, my fear, my joy.

And just in case I’m sounding a little too far inside my own navel, I hasten to add that the Muriac quote from which spring all these musings comes from one of my favorite t-shirts:

Pense Pas Bête t-shirt from threadless.com
Pense Pas Bête t-shirt from threadless.com

You can find all the quotes and translations here. Perhaps they’ll make you muse too, or perhaps they’ll just make you want to find a baguette and the nearest bottle of wine. Happy Saturday, either way.

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