Reflections on the First Year of Blogging

With the publication of this entry, I’ll have completed my first year of blogging.  It takes at least twelve months to build any credibility with these things and this is what I’ve learned so far:

First, blogging requires steady work and commitment and I can’t predict who will stick to it.  I knew about the commitment going in and I wasn’t sure if I could keep up with that.  More than 150 columns later I’m still not sure, but in that time I’ve watched some would-be bloggers give up and others stick it out.  To create the possibility of eventually succeeding, the writer has to consistently post coherent, interesting work even when no one is reading it.  Hey, that’s the deal: blogs are or should be a pleasure to read and since people equate this pleasure with leisure time, bloggers get read at leisure, a division of time that gets steadily smaller. If there are times when your best beloveds skip reading your post, it’s because they  have lives of their own.  In the end, I don’t think bloggers do this for praise or the money; we do it to put ideas into the universe.

Second, it’s impossible to tell which post will resound with readers or who may give you a pat on the back.  Early on I wrote about a book that probably affected the kids I grew up with.  I wasn’t sure if those who “knew me when” were affected by the work because we never discussed the book but I must have got something right in that post; people I hadn’t heard from in years wrote to me about their memories of that time and story. I’m glad I got that post right.  Also, twice in this last year, the author of a published work has contacted me and thanked me for my review of their book. Their generous messages were the encouragement I needed.  My column has been republished three times in two different places and although I didn’t earn a dime, each re-print felt like a bonus.  Times like that balance out days when I wrote heart-aching essays that seemed to be ignored.

Now, the blog helps keep my life in balance; it steadies me in a way.  When an agent was looking at my book and I was living in an euphoric haze, I still needed to post here, twice a week.  After the manuscript was turned down and no one else wanted to see it, the blog was still here, with its twice-a-week feeding and the stats showed me someone, somewhere was reading it.  You’ve got to love something that reliable and I do.  I also love the people who take the time to read this.  Saying “thanks” isn’t really enough. I’ve got kind of a present for you.

Starting next Tuesday and continuing through November, I’m sending you a story. I think the best one I’ve ever written,  It will appear here in segments, with photos to illustrate some scenes, and I hope you like it.  Consider it my thanks for reading this blog.  I appreciate you more than I can say.

Fighting Over The Grave(yard Book)

My sis and I fought over everything when we were kids.  Books, records, pizza, you name it, both of us wanted the better, bigger share.  We thought we’d grown out of most of that habit until we  started discussing books to talk about on this blog.  Barb insisted she wanted to write on Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.  I wasn’t willing to give that one to her.  Mom & Dad, wherever you are, this is our attempt to share…

BG: First, I think you have to discuss how this  is related to The Jungle Book. How this says maybe the dead are nothing to fear.

LG: Well, it is an homage to the Kipling classic.  In Kipling’s book, Mowgli is raised by wild beasts of the Jungle, which was surely a strange, fearful place for Victorian Europeans. In The Graveyard Book, Nobody (Bod) Owens is protected and nurtured by the ghosts in an English Cemetery and death is a fearful unknown state for us.  In both books, the child learns valuable information from beings he would normally be taught to fear.  It could be both authors are trying to say the “unknown” doesn’t always mean “bad.”

BG: It’s more than that.  In The Graveyard Book, the living people are the cruel and scary ones.

LG: Are you sure the Jacks are living men?

BG: Don’t talk about them.

LG: Why not?

BG: Because it’s Halloween and this book is frightening already! It’s hard to recommend a book that starts out with a triple murder.

LG: But that’s one thing I like about the book, how it breaks so many rules.  This book is aimed at a younger audience, people we try to shield from violent crime.  But because the crime is a necessary part of the story, the author includes it in a way that doesn’t frighten the readers.  It happens off-stage and the reader doesn’t see the results, only the baby making an unknowing escape.  This book upends a lot of conventions.

BG: I also think the message of independence is strong here.  Gaiman’s story says “Don’t 
waste your potential, your life. The good and the bad things that happen to you help create the person you become and even though you have a “cushion of supporters” it is really you, in the end it is you that makes the decisions and brings you to your goals. It’s YOUR life. You face it with all it’s faults and pleasures and you realize that life needs to be accepted (the good and bad) and it needs to be lived fully.
LG: Absolutely. I think that’s tied to the author’s appreciation of existence.  He says the world has much good as well as evil in it and it’s important to recognize and celebrate the good, in all of its manifestations, as well as fight the evil.  Unlike other writers, Gaiman doesn’t say “The World is Good” or “The World is Bad”.   He says it’s incredible.

BG: Anything else?

LG: Well, just the usual things. There’s humor, like where Bod has trouble in school because the ghosts tell him what really happened at historical events instead of what his books say. It’s a great book to read out loud. And I find Bod’s enigmatic guardian, Silas, intriguing.

BG: You would!

LG: And I want to know what happens next.  There are characters living at the end of the book and I really want to know what happens to them after that.  

BG: To me, that’s one of the real tests of a book.  When you get to the end of the story but you want to know more.

LG: Exactly.  You’re a teacher, what age group would you give this book to?

BG: Well the Newbery Award classified it as a YA (Young Adult) book but I think some younger readers than this could handle it.  I’m not sure it’s a little kid’s book.

LG: But I do think Gaiman writes for the child inside all of us. On that level, it’s a also book for adults.

BG: Oh yes, it’s a book for any adult with an imagination.

LG: So, are you visiting any graveyards this Halloween?

BG: Probably not!  But if I do, I’ll have The Graveyard Book with me.  It will remind me the dead can’t hurt me.

LG: And we accept whatever comes with bravery.   Yup, that’s a good attitude 

to have.

Why do we scare ourselves?

My mother tried to raise kids who didn’t know fear.  I think she must have experienced some very bad moments in her own childhood because she understood the nature of childhood terrors and did her best to keep me and my sister from everything scary.  Our TV shows were monitored, our movie choices screened and Mom made sure that the books we read could never frighten or intimidate us.  All of this careful planning had a funny result: we grew up scared of a lot of things and although my sis recovered fairly quickly, (she’s far braver than I am)  it takes me some extra work to get past the terror on the screen and in fiction. I work at this because I don’t want to miss something good, just because it is disturbing but sometimes I have to ask (as my Mom must have before every Halloween and roller-coaster), “Why do we like to be scared?”

The wish to be frightened is part of Halloween tradition but this goes back a lot further than a “Haunted-House-for-Charity” (think about this: these days, we get startled out of our wits in order to give money to a worthy cause.  Must we be terrorized into generosity?)  Authors have been scaring us for a living for centuries.  So, did scary stories like The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho become popular in the 1700’s because printing presses were available to print them or had our lives become so civilized by then that we needed a frisson of fright in order to stay interested in life?

A friend of mine thinks it has something to do with endorphins.  Terror involves a kind of excitement and surviving a scare often creates a mild euphoria so riding the roller coaster or paging through a tense thriller makes you feel good, especially when the hero/heroine triumphs instead of dies.  Because the reader is never actually in danger, he or she gets the benefit of the endorphin rush without the trauma of the actual experience. 

 (One reason I love the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan thrillers is that the author, Val McDermid, never discounts the trauma.  Her heroes face grave dangers and usually prevail but each experience leaves its own scars and trauma.  Nobody battles monsters and comes away untouched.)  I think endorphins may play a role but I think there is something more.

We live in a fearsome world, where atrocities are perpetrated that defy explanation.  Sometimes, just examining these disasters is more than we can bear or understand. Nevertheless we still need, emotionally, to examine and understand these acts in order to put them in perspective. So we write and read horror stories where the monsters often have a background story that allows us to comprehend their motives and, eventually, overcome the antagonist.  Monsters seldom prevail in these stores.  Someone else gains control and the “bad guy: is subdued.  Scary stories, frightening as they are, tell us things will ultimately come out all right.  The monster will be stopped. Some hero will take control. A version of life will go on.  These are comforting thoughts.  Maybe we read scary stories to tell ourselves that terror is transitory and life will (eventually) be okay. Ultimately, control will be re-established.

Whether it’s for the feeling of excitement or a sense of control, we continue to read and create scary stories.  If you like them, this is the time to celebrate them.  If not, find a nice copy of something comforting and hide out for the next week or so.  Different stories will come along.  Everything will be OK.

That Terrible, Really-Bad, House

It’s Halloween Season again and TV channels, movies, radio and much of the internet are paying tribute to this time by retelling the stories that entertain and scare us.  The traditional cast of characters are all on display: witches, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, zombies and other deadundead players that make things go bump in the night.  I like most of these but they don’t terrify me.  Haunted homes come closer to the mark since the atavistic part of my brain gives credence to these tales.  It’s easy to believe homes absorb the emotions of the residents they protect and impressions of the events they witnessed. Still, because this type of haunting make sense, in the end they really don’t really frighten me either. These are traumatized buildings with PTSD and it’s obvious they need therapy. However, there is a sub-group of the haunted house that doesn’t follow this pattern. These are the houses that go bad without reason or rhyme. These sentient, “born bad” buildings prey on inhabitants for their own malevolent reasons.  There aren’t many novels that fit in this category but one of the greatest is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.  It can make you distrust your own house.

The story starts simply enough.  Eleanor Vance is a single woman in the twentieth century who has never had a life of her own.  After childhood, she cared for a dying mother until her parent died; then she moved into her sister’s home.  Eleanor has never had a job, or friends, and her family barely tolerates her.  Because of a strange phenomena Eleanor experienced as a child, she’s been invited for a short stay at Hill House, an uninhabited country home.  Dr. Montague, the man behind the invitation, thinks she can have an effect on the house.
An odd group of people have answered Dr. Montague’s invitation to stay, but Hill House is even odder.  Everything in the house is off kilter, from the angle of the interior walls to the shades of color in each of the rooms. Because the wall angles are all distorted, the house isn’t laid out in a traditional way.  Some rooms can only be accessed through other rooms, upper rooms don’t sit squarely over the lower ones and doors seem to close by themselves. Things disappear too easily in Hill House and voices come from unaccountable places but once there, Eleanor doesn’t want to leave – frightening as it is, Hill House is the first place where she’s given respect or kindness and she is loath to relinquish that treatment or her feeling of independence.  Eventually, Eleanor has to choose between returning to her unhappy life of sanity or keeping an illusion of freedom by remaining in the hellish Hill House.

Hill House succeeds because it exploits our love of hearth and home to create its underlying horror. Home is our port of refuge, our shelter against the world.  Whether it’s an apartment, a cottage or a sixty-room mansion, “home” is the place we can shed our defenses and simply be ourselves, vulnerable inside these constructed shells.  This is why we describe houses in nurturing terms, the way we would describe caring parents.  In this metaphor, the mortise and bricks of Hill House carry the DNA of a psychopath for as its author stated,

“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.”

We expect our homes to be well constructed and quiet; we fantasize they are sentient and kind.  In other words, we think of our homes the way we’d like to be thought of ourselves. That’s why homelessness is more than a financial calamity; it erodes identity and peace of mind. After you enjoy  the Halloween festivities this year, think of how safe you feel in your home and say a prayer for those less fortunate.  They walk among us every day, looking for shelter, love and respect. In their eagerness to find a home, some will disregard the obvious warning signs and enter distorted, unsafe spaces.  When that happens, the spirit of Hill House will claim yet another victim, then continue to walk on alone.

Reading in Foolish Ways and Places

There’s nothing like cleaning up a seldom-used room for turning up forgotten photographs.  A small pile of candid shots were dislodged as I was re-shelving some books  and drifted toward the rug. My husband picked up this one and handed it back to me with a smile saying, “Is there a reason I never see you read while you’re sitting in a chair?  No, there probably isn’t  except that after thirty years of marriage, he should know that reading isn’t a chair-limited activity to me.  In fact, some of my best reading is in unlikely places.

I am grateful no photos exist of me reading in the tub but that’s not from lack of opportunity.  Tub-reading has always seemed like the height of luxury to me, since it combines words with relaxing in water.  Of course it requires skill to keep the water-soluble print from the H2O (especially if shampoo is involved) but this is one I hone with regular practice.  Outside of this, the only difficulty with tub-reading depends on the hot water supply.  In a good scene, there is never enough.

I have been known to read in the car although never as a driver while the vehicle was in motion.  (That’s my story, Officer, and I’m sticking to it.)  As a passenger, reading a traditional format book over the bumps and turns usually gave me motion sickness and I avoided car-reading for years.  E-readers have solved that problem, although I couldn’t say why, and audiobooks are a blessing but there are times when a traditional book must be read and a car is the only option.  Once was the 16th of July, 2005, the night Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published.  Like so many, I had fallen in love with J. K. Rowling’s creation and set aside my phobia of crowds to pick up the novel at its midnight release.  Once the bells rang at midnight, the bunch of us surged to purchase our books and then out in the parking-lot, green and purple volumes clutched to our chests.  Parents boosted over-excited and tired children into car-seats, fastened seat belts and peeled out of the parking lot. Exhausted book-sellers closed up the store.  Everyone was eager to get back to comfort, except me.  I sat in my Jeep with the windows rolled down and the interior light on, reading the first chapter while I slapped at marauding mosquitoes.  Only after I knew how the story began could I drive the twenty miles towards home.

In the end, the need to find a place to read is more about word-addiction than site.  To plow through a 250 page story on a smart phone screen that only shows 32 words at a time shows the same demented focus as reading during a migraine with a hand clapped over one eye – the damn fool reader doesn’t know when or how to put the book down.  Well, that’s me, guilty on both counts.  So if you see some dare-devil risking his or her life with their face stuck in a book, feel a little compassion.  That’s not a risk-taker enjoying the setting, just one more fool addicted to words.