And Now for Something Completely English

I’ve been in a terrible funk this week for a variety of reasons.  When I start feeling overwhelmed by major circumstances that seem outside of my control, I tend to freeze up, get panicky, get angry at myself that I can’t stop the panic, get upset that I’m angry at myself, and just completely melt down, which means crying too much, sleeping too much, and generally wandering around in a helpless fog, hoping someone or something will rescue me from myself.

But invariably I am left to my own devices, and if I don’t pull myself up out of it, no one else in the world will.  So instead of letting myself get to the point of total failure, these days, I try a variety of tricks to distract myself, reinforce my faith in the world, and set myself on a course that doesn’t involve quite so much personal melodrama.

Sometimes I’ll just read a good book.  I’ll get completely lost in a story, in some world where everyone has real problems – and real, concrete solutions: where everything turns out tidy and final in the end, and everyone gets what they deserve.  It’s comforting, even if it’s fictional, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought to myself, “okay, but what would [fictional character] do in this situation?”  I can’t tell you how many times it’s helped.

However, I’m trying to write my own book at the moment, and that makes reading very difficult for me.  In addition to being unable to drag myself out of an author’s world for a while, long enough to tend to my own, I often get shamefully competitive and also somewhat derivative if I read while I write – unconsciously, but it happens – and I’m not one of those people for whom the advice “read as much as you can so you learn how to write” is really useful at this point in my budding literary career.  But that’s a different topic all together.

So what do I do when I need a story?  Well, television, of course.  It’s not my medium, and it’s a completely different type of narrative, so I don’t feel any pressure to be just as good if not better, and it has the added benefit of visual stimulation that does help take me out of my own head in a way books have yet to fully manage.

The point is that I finally allowed myself to watch Downton Abbey.  Two seasons in two days, because I don’t really have much else to do besides work on a large crochet project for a friend, and I can’t watch TV without doing something with my hands, so that works.

It was great.  It’s stunningly beautiful – the costume department deserves every award there is – and quite well-balanced for an ensemble production trying to bridge two different worlds.  It handles the history interestingly, if not entirely thoroughly (the scenes in the trenches were powerful and gripping, however), and the characters are mostly well-drawn. It’s sort of an odd show: it’s not over-the-top enough to be a true soap opera, but the drama and sudden twists and turns are just a bit too unbelievable to be a serious portrait of family life.

The one real complaint I have is that it just sort of sets people up with each other by telling you they’re madly in love, instead of showing the evolution of the relationship in a way that seems believable.  Yearning glances are all very well in their own way, but if there’s no action to back them up, and then suddenly people are swearing their eternal allegiance to each other, it does seem rather odd.

In any case, it was a lovely break from my own troubles, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone as late to the party as I am.  I was hoping it would give me a little injection of inspiration when it came to The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun, which is turning out to be an ensemble production of its own, and I think it certainly has.

So not a waste of time, I hope.  A little bit of turn-of-the-century British stiff upper lip doesn’t hurt, and I certainly did a lot of crocheting.  Once again I’m going to try to do a hard reboot of my mentality, and try to muddle through.  We’ll see how it goes.

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Diseased Imaginings

I was thinking about the types of books I read when I was a girl, trying to examine the vector that led me to the sorts of things I enjoy reading and writing today.  Everyone knows that the books termed “middle grade” and “young adult” in today’s lingo constitute some of the most formative input you’re likely to receive in your lifetime, so it’s interesting to look back and see just what exactly I was shoveling into my innocent little head.

I realized, as I was doing this, that the ones that really stood out were mostly about, or written in, the 19th century.  Little Women, Little House on the Prairie, the American Girl books (my favorite ones, at least) – even the abridged versions of things like Les Mis and Great Expectations, thanks to the Great Illustrated Classics series, which I will certainly buy for my own kids someday.  That’s not to mention the years I spent studying the Civil War in grade school.

I realized that the parts of all these narratives that stuck in my head the most had to do with some terrible disease striking one of the characters, usually women, who then either wasted away or was left to live with some daunting handicap.  One of the first stories I ever wrote was a project for school about Sam the Drummer Boy who got his legs shot off with a cannon ball.  Poor Sam.

Don’t tell me you’re not jealous of my totally sweet pioneer girl Halloween costume, though.

On one hand, that’s perfectly fine.  I mean, in actual history, that happened all the time (the disease; not necessarily the cannon balls).  It’s a very realistic feature to put in a book if you’re trying to explain what life was like back in the day, and it provides a very convenient amount of drama for the author.

But it left me thinking an awful lot about things like cholera and typhus and the influenza, as an 8 or 10 year old, at an age when most little girls are still being princesses or, heavens forbid, starting to get interested in makeup and clothes and boys.

Most kids were afraid of the monster in their closet: I was legitimately terrified of getting scarlet fever and going blind.

And while I’m certainly glad that I was exposed to some great works of Western literature at such a tender age, and that they instilled in me certain values that I wouldn’t trade for anything, there was a lot that was very frightening about that world: so much was completely out of people’s control, and death could strike without warning or hope of survival.  That’s a scary thing for a kid, especially as sensitive a child as I was, and it’s something that’s stayed with me since.

You might be thinking, “good gracious, what kind of parents would let their child read such violent and horrible stuff?”  But to be honest, it wasn’t half as bad as the stuff that’s marketed to kids these days, and at least it was historically accurate.  Also, they read this blog, so be nice.

You might also be wondering why, if my childhood diet was almost exclusively historical fiction, don’t I work in that

The fact that this seemed to be a typical outfit during my youth surely had nothing to do with my old-fashioned sensibilities. Also, that’s a coin bank, you guys. It was the best thing in the universe.

genre?  That’s because I read The Hobbit in third grade and never looked back.  But that’s another post.  Besides, even though there’s violence and death in fantasy all the time, it rarely comes at the hands of something as ignoble as severe gastrointestinal distress.

I think it’s fascinating how such little things can shape the person you’ll become.

Would I have majored in something useful if I hadn’t been so enthralled with Laura Ingalls?  Or would I have failed to gain the passion, skill, and imagination to speak and write as competently as I do today?  Maybe both, and I’d be an accountant.  Okay, when I put it that way, it doesn’t sound so bad.  At least I’d have job security.  But I wouldn’t be me, and even with all my copious faults, I kind of like that part of being me.

So go pick up a boxed set of Little House on the Prairie for the girls in your life, although don’t get the cookbook and try to make molasses candy in a pan of snow, because we could never get that one to work.  You’ve been warned.