Friday, February 8

If you haven't seen the BBC miniseries Wives and Daughters, based on the unfinished novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, I heartily recommend it. I found the story more accessible than Austen's works, perhaps because the social faux pas are more evident to a modern reader. I often feel I'm missing something when I read Austen--the manners so central to the comedy are a bit too removed from our own day.

The acting is really first rate. All the characters come across as full-orbed. The heroine, Molly, is virtuous but outspoken, trustworthy to a fault and perhaps a bit too attached to her father. The stepmother who enters the story is an interesting riff on the stereotype: she's a bit self-absorbed and small-minded, but she's more weak than anything else and never cruel. She fumbles at asserting her role as mistress of the house, coming across as a pitiable character. Along with the stepmother comes a daughter, Cynthia, who is also quite a mixed bag. She's beautiful, charming, free spirited and careless. Though she and Molly become fast friends, her charm and carelessness get her into sticky situations from which Molly loyally tries to rescue her. The hardest part of the story is when Molly crucifies her desires, standing back as the man she loves falls for Cynthia, who neither cherishes nor deserves his love.

The hero and main love interest, Roger, is also pretty unusual. Instead of a rakish, dashing fellow, or a romantic artist or poet, he's a naturalist. He spends his hours outdoors collecting insects and pond scum, then brings his finds inside to draw or examine under a microscope. He seems a far more iteresting hero than most men you'll find in women's literature. He's the guy Gilbert Blythe (Anne of Green Gables series) could be if L.M. Montgomery were better at writing men.

There's a strong undercurrent involving class issues. Most of the romances take place across class boundaries. Those who oppose the matches are often humbled later for their opinion. At one point, Molly repirmands the daughter of the most fabulously wealthy family in town, Lady Harriet, a young woman about 5-7 years her senior. Lady Harriet had confided that she's been invited the home of two middle class spinster sisters who she considers "quite ridiculous," and Molly chides her to not go if you're only going to gawk and laugh, adding that she dislikes hearing her class spoken of that way. Lady Harriet takes the rebuke in stride and her admiration for Molly grows to the point that she takes great pains to help her "protege" ever after. Lady Harriet's brother likewise admires Roger's first-class brain and becomes his benefactor. It was refreshing to see noblesse oblige working properly.

Most of all, I think Wives and Daughters is a fascinating character study in the effects of different parenting. Molly loses her mother at a young age, yet matures into a loyal, soft-hearted girl. Her foil and stepsister, Cynthia, loses her father at a young age. Yet Cynthia matures into a woman who is unable to feel deeply or make meaningful connections with people.

One would expect the motherless girl to fare worse, but Molly is more fully human. Gaskell’s point is that a child needs loving care, regardless of the sex of the parent who gives it.

Cynthia’s living mother treats her as a burden from the beginning of widowhood, sending Cynthia off to boarding school at age 4. Every school vacation, Cynthia is left in the care of strangers while her mother travels with the great families that employ her as governess.

The net effect of this continued neglect is a vanity and manipulativeness, someone who cannot ever turn off the charm for fear of rejection. Yet Cynthia is apt to reject others, three suitors in all in the course of the novel. She admits that she’s not really capable of love or deep feeling for others. Today I think Cynthia would be said to suffer from an attachment disorder.

Molly, on the other hand, is blessed to be educated at home by a loving governess. She lives in a community where the women watch out for her, take an interest in her growth, strive to keep up a relationship with her. Though her father is a busy country doctor in the age of nothing but house calls, he works to be as available as he can. Theirs is a relationship of nurture and friendship. Gaskell paints their intimacy by showing father and daughter kneeling at the fireside, making toasted cheese sandwiches and amiably talking about the day’s events.

When Molly’s father marries Cynthia’s mother, thinking it will help is “poor motherless girl,” Gaskell makes it clear that it’s far too late for Molly to be helped by a stepmother. Her good character is well formed by age 17, as is Cynthia’s weak character. A great tension of the story is whether either girl will be swayed by the new family circumstances so late in “childhood.”

What literary classics have you most enjoyed? What have you learned from them?
Friday, February 08, 2019 Laurel Garver
If you haven't seen the BBC miniseries Wives and Daughters, based on the unfinished novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, I heartily recommend it. I found the story more accessible than Austen's works, perhaps because the social faux pas are more evident to a modern reader. I often feel I'm missing something when I read Austen--the manners so central to the comedy are a bit too removed from our own day.

The acting is really first rate. All the characters come across as full-orbed. The heroine, Molly, is virtuous but outspoken, trustworthy to a fault and perhaps a bit too attached to her father. The stepmother who enters the story is an interesting riff on the stereotype: she's a bit self-absorbed and small-minded, but she's more weak than anything else and never cruel. She fumbles at asserting her role as mistress of the house, coming across as a pitiable character. Along with the stepmother comes a daughter, Cynthia, who is also quite a mixed bag. She's beautiful, charming, free spirited and careless. Though she and Molly become fast friends, her charm and carelessness get her into sticky situations from which Molly loyally tries to rescue her. The hardest part of the story is when Molly crucifies her desires, standing back as the man she loves falls for Cynthia, who neither cherishes nor deserves his love.

The hero and main love interest, Roger, is also pretty unusual. Instead of a rakish, dashing fellow, or a romantic artist or poet, he's a naturalist. He spends his hours outdoors collecting insects and pond scum, then brings his finds inside to draw or examine under a microscope. He seems a far more iteresting hero than most men you'll find in women's literature. He's the guy Gilbert Blythe (Anne of Green Gables series) could be if L.M. Montgomery were better at writing men.

There's a strong undercurrent involving class issues. Most of the romances take place across class boundaries. Those who oppose the matches are often humbled later for their opinion. At one point, Molly repirmands the daughter of the most fabulously wealthy family in town, Lady Harriet, a young woman about 5-7 years her senior. Lady Harriet had confided that she's been invited the home of two middle class spinster sisters who she considers "quite ridiculous," and Molly chides her to not go if you're only going to gawk and laugh, adding that she dislikes hearing her class spoken of that way. Lady Harriet takes the rebuke in stride and her admiration for Molly grows to the point that she takes great pains to help her "protege" ever after. Lady Harriet's brother likewise admires Roger's first-class brain and becomes his benefactor. It was refreshing to see noblesse oblige working properly.

Most of all, I think Wives and Daughters is a fascinating character study in the effects of different parenting. Molly loses her mother at a young age, yet matures into a loyal, soft-hearted girl. Her foil and stepsister, Cynthia, loses her father at a young age. Yet Cynthia matures into a woman who is unable to feel deeply or make meaningful connections with people.

One would expect the motherless girl to fare worse, but Molly is more fully human. Gaskell’s point is that a child needs loving care, regardless of the sex of the parent who gives it.

Cynthia’s living mother treats her as a burden from the beginning of widowhood, sending Cynthia off to boarding school at age 4. Every school vacation, Cynthia is left in the care of strangers while her mother travels with the great families that employ her as governess.

The net effect of this continued neglect is a vanity and manipulativeness, someone who cannot ever turn off the charm for fear of rejection. Yet Cynthia is apt to reject others, three suitors in all in the course of the novel. She admits that she’s not really capable of love or deep feeling for others. Today I think Cynthia would be said to suffer from an attachment disorder.

Molly, on the other hand, is blessed to be educated at home by a loving governess. She lives in a community where the women watch out for her, take an interest in her growth, strive to keep up a relationship with her. Though her father is a busy country doctor in the age of nothing but house calls, he works to be as available as he can. Theirs is a relationship of nurture and friendship. Gaskell paints their intimacy by showing father and daughter kneeling at the fireside, making toasted cheese sandwiches and amiably talking about the day’s events.

When Molly’s father marries Cynthia’s mother, thinking it will help is “poor motherless girl,” Gaskell makes it clear that it’s far too late for Molly to be helped by a stepmother. Her good character is well formed by age 17, as is Cynthia’s weak character. A great tension of the story is whether either girl will be swayed by the new family circumstances so late in “childhood.”

What literary classics have you most enjoyed? What have you learned from them?

Thursday, January 24

I confess I wasn't much of a reader in my childhood. From age 4 to almost 9, I lived on a 100-acre farm (most of it forested), where I spent many happy afternoons imagining adventures with a host of imaginary friends, a few barn cats at my heels. Being cooped up inside looking at paper was the stuff of school, the stuff of have-to, must, and you'd better.... Out among the trees was the stuff of color, texture, and life of all kinds. The worlds my imagination built were more real to me than Dick and Jane, cursive, and George Washington.

I suspect this concerned my parents a bit. They were both big readers who filled our house with books and magazines. They often read to me at bedtime, and on long car trips, Mom or one of my sibs would read aloud to us. Several books of the Narnia series got us through the insanely long drive from Pennsylvania to my grandparents' house in western Montana.

My parents rarely, if ever, watched TV. In fact, my oldest siblings grew up without one in the house. I was, according to them, lucky to even have a TV. It was black-and-white in an era when absolutely everyone else had color, and we got only four channels out in the sticks--the three major networks and PBS. The 70s weren't known for realistic programming--aside from the Bionic Man, Wonder Woman,  and Fantasy Island, were the distant luxury worlds of The Love Boat, and the sanitized "Old West" of Little House on the Prairie. These shows, plus The Wonderful World of Disney, and some Saturday cartoons made up my entertainment diet, which was quite time-limited. When I complained about my meager TV time, "Go play," was the usual response. So I did.

We ended up having to sell the farm because my father had a mental health crisis. My ability to get lost in my imaginary world saved me, I think. Out in the woods, I could process my anxieties. Nature soothed me and brought joy in a very dark time for our family.

Our new home was a more manageable three acres, part of it wooded with a creek, so the adventures--and my source of nature therapy--continued there. Through a school friend, I soon got caught up in an obsession with horses. Her family had kept them sporadically, and she took riding lessons from a stable near her house. Many a Saturday, I trailed her around the barn, soaking up knowledge about how to care for these amazing creatures.

My seventh-grade reading teacher somehow caught onto the fact that I didn't really read for pleasure, though I had no struggles other than a lack of interest. One day during study hall, she called me over to her closet at the back of the classroom. "I hear you like horses," she whispered conspiratorially. "Check this out." She handed me a book with a gorgeous bay mare on the cover. "You want to borrow it?" Boy, did I ever.

I read every horse book Mrs. Brooks had. Over the next two years, I read nearly every horse story my public library had, and there were quite a few. When I finished those, I read other books written for middle schoolers, most notably Madeleine L'Engle's work.

During the same period, I was placed in the gifted program, and our advisor got us playing Dungeons and Dragons as a problem-solving and creativity-building exercise. D&D draws on historic and fantastical lore from many, many sources, which opened up even more avenues for reading for me. And the storytelling aspect of role play also captured my imagination.

Soon I was writing my own stories. Not just short works, but the beginnings of full novels with large casts of characters. The itch to create worlds with words was a natural outflow of many, many hours spent in creative play early on. My writing only grew from there, and my love of reading continued to flourish into an English degree and a career in publishing.

So if you have a reluctant reader in your house, take heart.  Not every writer starts out bookish. Model good reading habits. Keep your home full of books that are cool to look at. Read aloud to this child and as a whole family, enjoying and discussing a book together. Limit TV and computer time. Give lots of outdoor playtime in nature. Be patient for the right opportunity to let your child follow their passions in pleasure reading.

Have you seen other reluctant readers go on to become writers? What encouragement would you give to parents of reluctant readers?
Thursday, January 24, 2019 Laurel Garver
I confess I wasn't much of a reader in my childhood. From age 4 to almost 9, I lived on a 100-acre farm (most of it forested), where I spent many happy afternoons imagining adventures with a host of imaginary friends, a few barn cats at my heels. Being cooped up inside looking at paper was the stuff of school, the stuff of have-to, must, and you'd better.... Out among the trees was the stuff of color, texture, and life of all kinds. The worlds my imagination built were more real to me than Dick and Jane, cursive, and George Washington.

I suspect this concerned my parents a bit. They were both big readers who filled our house with books and magazines. They often read to me at bedtime, and on long car trips, Mom or one of my sibs would read aloud to us. Several books of the Narnia series got us through the insanely long drive from Pennsylvania to my grandparents' house in western Montana.

My parents rarely, if ever, watched TV. In fact, my oldest siblings grew up without one in the house. I was, according to them, lucky to even have a TV. It was black-and-white in an era when absolutely everyone else had color, and we got only four channels out in the sticks--the three major networks and PBS. The 70s weren't known for realistic programming--aside from the Bionic Man, Wonder Woman,  and Fantasy Island, were the distant luxury worlds of The Love Boat, and the sanitized "Old West" of Little House on the Prairie. These shows, plus The Wonderful World of Disney, and some Saturday cartoons made up my entertainment diet, which was quite time-limited. When I complained about my meager TV time, "Go play," was the usual response. So I did.

We ended up having to sell the farm because my father had a mental health crisis. My ability to get lost in my imaginary world saved me, I think. Out in the woods, I could process my anxieties. Nature soothed me and brought joy in a very dark time for our family.

Our new home was a more manageable three acres, part of it wooded with a creek, so the adventures--and my source of nature therapy--continued there. Through a school friend, I soon got caught up in an obsession with horses. Her family had kept them sporadically, and she took riding lessons from a stable near her house. Many a Saturday, I trailed her around the barn, soaking up knowledge about how to care for these amazing creatures.

My seventh-grade reading teacher somehow caught onto the fact that I didn't really read for pleasure, though I had no struggles other than a lack of interest. One day during study hall, she called me over to her closet at the back of the classroom. "I hear you like horses," she whispered conspiratorially. "Check this out." She handed me a book with a gorgeous bay mare on the cover. "You want to borrow it?" Boy, did I ever.

I read every horse book Mrs. Brooks had. Over the next two years, I read nearly every horse story my public library had, and there were quite a few. When I finished those, I read other books written for middle schoolers, most notably Madeleine L'Engle's work.

During the same period, I was placed in the gifted program, and our advisor got us playing Dungeons and Dragons as a problem-solving and creativity-building exercise. D&D draws on historic and fantastical lore from many, many sources, which opened up even more avenues for reading for me. And the storytelling aspect of role play also captured my imagination.

Soon I was writing my own stories. Not just short works, but the beginnings of full novels with large casts of characters. The itch to create worlds with words was a natural outflow of many, many hours spent in creative play early on. My writing only grew from there, and my love of reading continued to flourish into an English degree and a career in publishing.

So if you have a reluctant reader in your house, take heart.  Not every writer starts out bookish. Model good reading habits. Keep your home full of books that are cool to look at. Read aloud to this child and as a whole family, enjoying and discussing a book together. Limit TV and computer time. Give lots of outdoor playtime in nature. Be patient for the right opportunity to let your child follow their passions in pleasure reading.

Have you seen other reluctant readers go on to become writers? What encouragement would you give to parents of reluctant readers?

Thursday, January 17

One surprisingly helpful class from my undergrad days was a theatre course I took called "Basic Movement." In it, we learned some of the tools of the trade of acting--stances, carriage, gestures, playing to the audience, and of course, choreographed violence.

An ongoing assignment throughout the semester was keeping a "movement journal," in which we recorded observations about how certain body types move, motions unique to certain activities, and how people express emotion through movement. The goal of all this analysis was to build up our own repertoires of motion, so that we could embody various roles.

I've at times joked here about "stalking" students who remind me of my characters. These motion studies are particularly what I try to do. Once I've found the right body type, I've got the perfect model from which to get the data I need. I observe his stride--smooth, bouncy, swaggering, trudging? What's his usual posture? Is he apt to smile at strangers, or have a more closed expression? How does he hold objects? Ham-fisted? Gently by his fingertips? Loose and relaxed? Precise and uptight?

Emotional exchanges go on all the time on the college campus where I work. Because of that movement class, I now watch for the postures and gestures that make up the physical expression of those emotions. You don't even need to be in eavesdropping range to discern the kind of emotions people are expressing. Their bodies shout them.

A particularly powerful lesson from that class was our focus on the body rather than the face as an expressive vehicle. We had to wear dance unitards to every class, and did most of our in-class exercises and performances wearing masks. In many classes we did charades-like exercises: a pair would act certain emotions toward one another without speaking and in masks, and our classmates would have to guess what we were expressing. Those who'd put in the time researching for their journals usually won big time.

If you struggle with "talking head" dialogue, I recommend spending some time people watching and gathering data on how they move. Watch not only faces, but necks, shoulders, spines, hands, legs and feet. An acting class can be surprisingly horizon broadening, too.

Because this kind of research has borne so much fruit for me, I created a tool to help you create your own movement journal and keep those observations organized, to use in any fiction project, no matter what genre: Emotions in the Wild: A Writer's Observation Journal.

This pocket-sized paperback is easy to tote with you and turn waiting in the doctor's office, carpool line, or checkout lane into rich research time.

Get it here: Amazon (US) / Amazon (UK) / Barnes and Noble / Book Depository (free shipping worldwide)



How might a "movement journal" help your writing?
Thursday, January 17, 2019 Laurel Garver
One surprisingly helpful class from my undergrad days was a theatre course I took called "Basic Movement." In it, we learned some of the tools of the trade of acting--stances, carriage, gestures, playing to the audience, and of course, choreographed violence.

An ongoing assignment throughout the semester was keeping a "movement journal," in which we recorded observations about how certain body types move, motions unique to certain activities, and how people express emotion through movement. The goal of all this analysis was to build up our own repertoires of motion, so that we could embody various roles.

I've at times joked here about "stalking" students who remind me of my characters. These motion studies are particularly what I try to do. Once I've found the right body type, I've got the perfect model from which to get the data I need. I observe his stride--smooth, bouncy, swaggering, trudging? What's his usual posture? Is he apt to smile at strangers, or have a more closed expression? How does he hold objects? Ham-fisted? Gently by his fingertips? Loose and relaxed? Precise and uptight?

Emotional exchanges go on all the time on the college campus where I work. Because of that movement class, I now watch for the postures and gestures that make up the physical expression of those emotions. You don't even need to be in eavesdropping range to discern the kind of emotions people are expressing. Their bodies shout them.

A particularly powerful lesson from that class was our focus on the body rather than the face as an expressive vehicle. We had to wear dance unitards to every class, and did most of our in-class exercises and performances wearing masks. In many classes we did charades-like exercises: a pair would act certain emotions toward one another without speaking and in masks, and our classmates would have to guess what we were expressing. Those who'd put in the time researching for their journals usually won big time.

If you struggle with "talking head" dialogue, I recommend spending some time people watching and gathering data on how they move. Watch not only faces, but necks, shoulders, spines, hands, legs and feet. An acting class can be surprisingly horizon broadening, too.

Because this kind of research has borne so much fruit for me, I created a tool to help you create your own movement journal and keep those observations organized, to use in any fiction project, no matter what genre: Emotions in the Wild: A Writer's Observation Journal.

This pocket-sized paperback is easy to tote with you and turn waiting in the doctor's office, carpool line, or checkout lane into rich research time.

Get it here: Amazon (US) / Amazon (UK) / Barnes and Noble / Book Depository (free shipping worldwide)



How might a "movement journal" help your writing?

Thursday, January 10

Hello, friends. It's a new year, and high time I return to my neglected blog. To help me get over my inertia, I thought I'd respond to questions I've been asked that are writing process-oriented rather than editing-related, and offer some online writing coaching.

Dear Coach Laurel,

I'm looking to write a mini history of growing up. Something to keep memories alive and to share with my mom.  But I can't seem to get started. Any tips or techniques?

Sincerely,
Forget-me-not

---

That sounds cool, and I applaud you. Not many ever take the time, and their life stories are thus forever lost.

I completely understand being daunted by the task. Many people get discouraged about writing, thinking there has to be some secret technique. But beginning an informal memoir project like this is really quite simple. 

Start by considering your most powerful memories--the ones you most want your loved ones to know--and make a list of them. I'd recommend using the jot technique, putting a sentence or two on an index card. You can later sort the cards into chronological order or thematic categories. 

(If you find yourself getting stuck after the first dozen ideas, consider working with prompts like "59 memoir ideas," "drawing from a well of experience," "NYT 500 prompts for narrative and personal writng.")

Next, begin to work your way through your jot-prompts, writing out that memory. Start with whichever memory floods back the most fully when you view your jotted note. Keep in mind that we all gravitate toward problem-oriented stories--what went horribly wrong and how that hardship was coped with.

Tell the story as if you had a kid on your knee, or an old friend across the table, eager to hear about what you did, and what happened next. You absolutely should do that quite literally and record yourself, if that's easiest. Then transcribe your recording. Or just imagine that audience of one as you write, to help you make decisions about what details would appeal most to that person. 

This draft doesn't have to be perfect or even terribly coherent. It's better to write a lot and sloppily than be cramped up with fear about doing it perfectly. My mantra is "You can always fix it later!" Be brave enough to write a super rough draft, let it cool off, then come back to it at a later point and revise. 

Once you have a lot of material, then decide how you want to shape it. Strict chronology is perfectly fine as an organizing principle, though consider grouping material thematically. 

If your goal is simply to preserve family stories for the next generation, don't worry too much about creating a very literary or very sensational manuscript to hook a publisher. (They're mostly interested in celebrities anyway.) Simply tell your experiences as you remember them, with as much detail, humor or wisdom as you can. 

Thanks to print-on-demand technology, it's easy to turn your musings and memories into an attractive book your can pass along to loved ones. 

Q4U: What are some of your favorite memoirs? What might motivate you to preserve your life stories?

Thursday, January 10, 2019 Laurel Garver
Hello, friends. It's a new year, and high time I return to my neglected blog. To help me get over my inertia, I thought I'd respond to questions I've been asked that are writing process-oriented rather than editing-related, and offer some online writing coaching.

Dear Coach Laurel,

I'm looking to write a mini history of growing up. Something to keep memories alive and to share with my mom.  But I can't seem to get started. Any tips or techniques?

Sincerely,
Forget-me-not

---

That sounds cool, and I applaud you. Not many ever take the time, and their life stories are thus forever lost.

I completely understand being daunted by the task. Many people get discouraged about writing, thinking there has to be some secret technique. But beginning an informal memoir project like this is really quite simple. 

Start by considering your most powerful memories--the ones you most want your loved ones to know--and make a list of them. I'd recommend using the jot technique, putting a sentence or two on an index card. You can later sort the cards into chronological order or thematic categories. 

(If you find yourself getting stuck after the first dozen ideas, consider working with prompts like "59 memoir ideas," "drawing from a well of experience," "NYT 500 prompts for narrative and personal writng.")

Next, begin to work your way through your jot-prompts, writing out that memory. Start with whichever memory floods back the most fully when you view your jotted note. Keep in mind that we all gravitate toward problem-oriented stories--what went horribly wrong and how that hardship was coped with.

Tell the story as if you had a kid on your knee, or an old friend across the table, eager to hear about what you did, and what happened next. You absolutely should do that quite literally and record yourself, if that's easiest. Then transcribe your recording. Or just imagine that audience of one as you write, to help you make decisions about what details would appeal most to that person. 

This draft doesn't have to be perfect or even terribly coherent. It's better to write a lot and sloppily than be cramped up with fear about doing it perfectly. My mantra is "You can always fix it later!" Be brave enough to write a super rough draft, let it cool off, then come back to it at a later point and revise. 

Once you have a lot of material, then decide how you want to shape it. Strict chronology is perfectly fine as an organizing principle, though consider grouping material thematically. 

If your goal is simply to preserve family stories for the next generation, don't worry too much about creating a very literary or very sensational manuscript to hook a publisher. (They're mostly interested in celebrities anyway.) Simply tell your experiences as you remember them, with as much detail, humor or wisdom as you can. 

Thanks to print-on-demand technology, it's easy to turn your musings and memories into an attractive book your can pass along to loved ones. 

Q4U: What are some of your favorite memoirs? What might motivate you to preserve your life stories?