Friday, January 31, 2014

19th Century Writers, Productivity, and Us

photo courtesy
"Prowling about the rooms, sitting down, getting up, stirring the fire, looking out of the window, tearing my hair, sitting down to write, writing nothing, writing something and tearing it up, going out, coming in, a Monster to my family, a dread Phaenomenon to myself..." --Charles Dickens in a letter to a friend, February 19, 1856, while working on Little Dorrit

Does the above quote describe any of your writing sessions of late, even though the new year has barely begun? Take heart. You're in good company!

I came across these words of Dickens in an article from the archives of the New York Times: The More They Write, The More They Write, by Jay Parini, dated July 30, 1989. In it, Parini discussed the productivity of some of the great writers of the 19th century and shared insights into their peculiar habits that helped them sustain their high level of writing output.

He wrote about Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) whose work included 27 novels and a 700 page journal: "The ferociously driven author always had at least two projects in the works at any given time, and...two desktops (which) helped to keep them separate." Two desks? That would be a luxury. Can we also have an extra day in the week?

Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), who wrote numerous books between 1822-1848 (eight books in 1842 alone), drank potent cups of coffee. "To spur himself on," Parini wrote, "Balzac used heavy doses of coffee that he prepared in the Turkish fashion, infusing the grounds in cold water, then heating them; he gradually used less and less water, creating a brew as thick as mud--a caffeine riot." Maybe some chocolate, too?

"Dickens (1812-1870), he added, "had no will to resist taking on new projects. Since his novels sold exceedingly well, publishers were only too willing to get him to sign on the dotted line. At several points in his career, he worked simultaneously on two or three novels while editing a journal and managing the affairs of a vast extended family. His energy level was such that he often took long late-night walks to cool his nerves." Yes, walks. I can identify with that, but not late at night!

Yet, Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), author of over 60 novels, wrote only three hours a day. Trollope was quoted as saying, "All those I think who have lived as literary men will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write." His plan was to write 250 words every quarter of an hour. Three hours sounds reasonable, but 250 words every 15 minutes? Hmmm....

So what can we take from this? A few thoughts:
1. Productivity is a personal thing.
2. Productivity...ahem...takes work.
3. But productivity doesn't always mean driving ourselves to exhaustion.
4. Productivity is a result of balance, being realistic, and discovering our own personal rhythms (and limits)--although the examples of others can be a source of inspiration, including 19th century authors for the 21st century.

Getting an insight into a-day-in-the-life of the famous Charles Dickens makes me want to re-read one of his all time classics, A Tale of Two Cities. The opening line has stayed with me since high school: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

Sort of describes the writing life in general, doesn't it?

Do any writerly idiosyncrasies help keep your words flowing? Unusual patterns or habits? Do you struggle with "Charles Dickens"-type days? Any plans to read a classic this year?

Friday, January 24, 2014

Grandma's Bell, Little House on the Prairie, and Genealogy Stories

Grandma's school bell and quilted pillow

"A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin."--Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie

My grandmother never wrote on the scale of Laura Ingalls Wilder (and of course there would only be one Laura anyway!), but she did write down the story of her childhood. It is recorded in a little 22-page booklet for her descendants to enjoy. Yes, though she was grandma to us, she, too, was once a little girl. In her story she tells of mischievousness (my grandma, really?), escaping the 1913 Marietta flood, loss of loved ones in the 1918 influenza epidemic, and dashed dreams--including the fact that she wanted to be a teacher but, except for Sunday School teacher, never achieved that goal.

My sister collected bells, mostly U.S. state bells, but we also found the little gem featured in the photo above tucked away in her collection. The label affixed on the inside simply reads, "Grandma's Bell." I often wondered about its history. Was it Grandma's inspiration, reminding her that even if she had not attained a teacher's degree she could still be influential? Had it been a gift? Did a one-room schoolhouse teacher who knew of her dreams bequeath it to her?

Two things happened recently that prompted some of my reminiscences. My 5 year-old granddaughter started reading the Little House on the Prairie series (yay, Angelica--another generation to be warmed and inspired by Laura!), and my cousin Amy floated a pretty neat challenge at the first of the year that seems to have exploded. Let me explain.

Amy is a certified genealogist. We have her to thank for the details of our family's genealogical tree on my mother's (and her father's) side. Amy blogs at No Story Too Small, "Life is Made of Stories." In her profile she says she doesn't think she's been to a cemetery she hasn't liked. She is seriously good at what she does.

Well, I have to brag on my younger cousin. Amy proposed a challenge for 2014 to her readers: "52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks." Not only is she posting about her ancestors once a week (some mine, but she writes on both sides of her family), but she's also running a recap each week of those who have accepted the challenge and are posting about their ancestors on their blogs. As of week three, she is up to 242 links! What fascinating reading. Oh, imagine multiplying our own stories by those of each person around us, enlarging the circle, generation after generation. How many Little House on the Prairie series could we collectively write??? Amazing information at No Story Too Small. You can get lost in the links each week.

Amy's first of 52 posts featured, ta-da, our grandmother--along with photos and little details even I didn't know about. She started with Grandma because, as she says, she credits her for instilling in Amy her love of family history and genealogy. Funny, but I've credited our grandmother for instilling the love of writing in me (though I suspect Amy got her writing talent from her, too) since Grandma not only wrote that short history of her childhood but also poetry.

See, Grandma, you were a teacher after all.

And so I share this for all who love stories, history, genealogy, and just plain old inspiration to get out there and do what you love, and love as you go. Along the way collect your stories, pass them on. Who knows, maybe someday someone will say, oh, yes, she was a little girl once and what a neat story she lived to tell.

Love you, Amy--and if you're reading this, watch your mailbox. I think Grandma would want you to have the bell next :-)

Have you traced your family tree? Any stories pop up that you would want to pass on to those who follow after you? Has anyone in your family written about their childhood that gets passed down generation-to-generation?

"And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see--or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read." --Alice Walker

Friday, January 17, 2014

On Looking Out Windows and Joan Walsh Anglund

Robin in winter snow January 2014
"A bird does not sing because he has an answer. He sings because he has a song."
                                                                                                   --Joan Walsh Anglund

I watched the snowfall this morning from an upstairs window. Floating flakes. Thick, blowing flakes. A cloud of swirling particles in silent white motion. How beautiful it all looked. Of course I was content to savor the beauty from a warm perch.

Downstairs hubby was also watching the wintry bluster from the vantage point of our porch room. I know this because I heard him say, "There's nothing sadder than a robin in a snowstorm." Oh dear. Poor thing. I hadn't even noticed.

But at about the same time I glanced at the shelf next to my chair and noticed a thin, almost-forgotten volume tucked away--Memories of the Heart, by Joan Walsh Anglund. I remembered that I had bought it at a library's used book sale a couple of years ago. Opening it up, I realized it's a treasure worth revisiting.

Familiar with Anglund's work? She's author and illustrator of more than 120 books according to her official website (here) maintained by those dedicated to keeping her work alive.

Born in 1926, Anglund lived in Hinsdale IL and Redding CT. She was educated at the American Academy of Art and the Chicago Art Institute. The popularity of her winsome words and illustrations peaked in the 1960s and 70s. Her themes were built on love, friendship and faith. Among her most popular books are A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, What Color is Love, The Brave Cowboy, and Love is a Special Way of Feeling. Later, images of her endearing round-faced characters and beautiful words translated into dolls, stationery, featured mugs and other incidentals. You might have seen such items in gift shops and Hallmark stores.

A sample of Anglund's words from Memories of the Heart:

Thought is the work 
   of the mind
love is the occupation 
   of the Spirit.

Wisdom is 
                                        as the morning light
...a gradual 

What shall we hold 
         the love 
            we gave

Beautiful, huh?

The Anglund book I now want to track down is Look Out the Window. I wonder what I'll find inside those pages? Anything like looking out my window at the snow this morning? Hmmmm.

And the robin? Well, I braved the cold and stepped outside later today hoping to get a picture of him. There he was (although my above photo doesn't do him justice--but you know how long birds stay still!) He wasn't shivering or huddling. He was actually chirping. He was not letting the cold stop him from sharing his song.

Made me kind of wonder.

It's a new year. Maybe I need to do things a bit differently. Like open my eyes and notice things more. Get more of my own words down while enjoying the words of others. And sing.

Are you familiar with Anglund's work? Do you have any favorites from her book list, or novelties? Should we carry some of her themes more in our hearts this year?

Want to take a peek at more of Anglund's sweetness? I found pinterest boards dedicated to her. Here are a couple of links: