One of those Weeks
I don’t know what’s going on this week. Things just feel unsettled. As I worked on the piece I shared this week, something just felt… off. The weather was cold and yucky, the topic was difficult to write about. Everything was, and has continued to be, a little bit not-quite-right. So I did what this Great Big Sea song said, and I’ve done a lot of it this week.
Monday’s music was a lot of Celtic-influenced folky stuff like Great Big Sea, Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly. One of the highlights–something I probably listened to three or four times just on Monday was Cosmo Jarvis’s “Gay Pirates.”
And now that I have you thinking about gay pirates, I encourage you to go watch Jessica Kellgren-Fozard’s video Pirates are Really Gay and the Best One was a Woman. I watched her new video today, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s is Really Queer” just a few hours after it came out. She talks about how the story in the book was changed to make it pass the Hays Code–how queer characters were turned straight, how a (heterosexual) love story was added.
She also talks about what Holly’s job really was and about context clues that could indicate to someone who knew that the narrator (known as Paul in the movie) was in fact, queer even if it was never explicitly stated. I find the anthropology of things like that really interesting–things like Polari or the hanky code and other ways that things like sexual orientation and interest are communicated with others without actually saying words like “gay.”
One of the big themes I’ve been thinking about this week is what influences our art. I’ve done so much writing about trauma, and I know that so much of the art I love is influenced by trauma–there have to be people who make art for other reasons though, right? As I pondered that question, I went and watched the movie “Pretty in Pink” which has an incredible soundtrack, including “Bring on the Dancing Horses” by Echo and the Bunnymen, which asks “Where would we be without art?”
Revisiting John Hughes now can highlight a lot of issues. How can we still watch or listen to or read things we know are problematic? What does it mean if we still enjoy them? Can we acknowledge or appreciate the influence they have without looking at the actions or ethics of their creators? It’s a conversation I keep having, time and time again. For now, I try to acknowledge that sometimes I do like things that are problematic, while making sure I’m aware of what those problems are and trying to unpack why I like them.
It’s hard work.
It did allow me to spend time this week watching Schitt’s Creek, which has been applauded for its inclusiveness (which focused a lot on sexuality,) and to really consider how racism affected the show. Rizwan Manji, who played Ray on the show opted to give his character an accent, but the writers and producers never really gave him any storylines or backstory even though they did for other supporting characters. I watched Wayne’s World this week, too–Adam mentioned it recently in a previous Watch/Listen/Read column and I couldn’t get it out of my head. But can I watch it now without considering how Wayne and Garth relate to women in the movie? Or the relationship between Wayne and Cassandra and how Asian culture and heritage became the butt of jokes, and the interracial relationship stuff is basically ignored?
Music without Words
I sometimes wonder if the fact that I end up pondering those sorts of questions and falling into internet rabbit holes is why I often turn to music without lyrics while I’m writing–lyrics are one more distraction, right? It’s also why I go back to the same familiar, and well loved pieces; the music is present enough to cover the scratching of the ADHD squirrels without being distracting. And certainly after two weeks of heavier topics in a row, I needed to break away from the darkness a little. I love the sound of the marimba–I think if my fingers could stand up to playing it, I might want to learn. What do you get when you combine beloved, familiar works like Bach’s Cello Suite 1 in G Major (“that cello piece”) with the marimba? You get this, which made me smile a lot for a few minutes.
And if you’re not a classical music fan or don’t believe that percussion instruments have an underappreciated range, just see what happens here.
Since we’re talking about mixing things up, check out the video of the Button Poetry video contest winners. I’ve watched it at least twice before I even wrote about it to share it with you, and I’m sure I will watch it and listen to it several more times this weekend. The featured poems are really incredible, and I can’t help exploring the different ways that the visual media combines with the words to provide a different experience whether I’m watching the video or just listening to the words.
I read a few more chapters of Neon Gods. Still enjoying it. It was a good contrast to all the things I had been reading about Nazis when I was writing the piece we released Wednesday. My brain needed a little vacation, I guess.
Poetry v. Writer’s Block
I’ve been reading a lot of poetry again–I think it’s part of the Big Questions I’ve been thinking about when it comes to art. Maybe it’s also part of slogging my way through the quicksand in my head that’s been making it hard to write for the last four months; I feel shifts there. This week it’s been a lot of Blythe Baird. In the introduction to a spoken word performance of hers that I watched, she talked about putting poems on Tumblr–I love the idea that Tumblr and Instagram and other social media has made poetry available to so many more people, but then I think of my own poems and I worry about whether they’re good enough to do that.
And separate from the idea of “good enough,” there’s also grappling with the idea that the themes are not okay to write about. But I don’t owe anyone pretty pictures or happiness, and I get to write about the things that matter to me, even if they’re ugly or dark or bloody, right? Blythe Baird does. I have a whole spoken word playlist on YouTube where the title is a line from this poem–I’d be happy to share it with you if you like. Just ask.
Wheel of Time
Ok. I’ve skipped Wheel of Time for a couple of weeks now. For so long that I’m up to Crossroads of Midnight which is in what Wheel of Time fans lovingly or irritably or perhaps even affectionately call “The Slog.”
People who avoid fantasy series (and I guess other series… but I avoid those, too, so I wouldn’t really know) probably are not going to understand this. But you can have someone say with a straight face: “You should really read this series. The first couple books, the learning curve is steep. And Book One has an ending that even the author admitted doesn’t make sense. But then Books Two through Five are amazing. Save it, though, because that’s around when The Slog happens. Books 7-10. But then Book 11 is really good. And that’s when the author died, but the guy who took over did a really good job.”
You’d be well within your rights to say: “Wait… so I’m supposed to read a 14-book series, of which at least 5 of the books are sub-par, and 3 of the books are by a different author?”
“No, the first two books are good, just hard to read the first time because they have a lot of information. And books 7-10 are also really good in their way, they just… there’s a lot of more minor plot points. But the second time through you’ll actually really like those books, sloggy or not.”
“So. Um. You want me to read this series twice?”
“It gets better the second time through.”
“It’s fourteen books. Like 4 or 5 hundred pages per–”
“Let me stop you right there. The shortest of the books is well over six hundred pages. The four longest are just shy of a thousand.”
“Why am I still having this conversation with you? I’m not reading these fucking books.”
So yeah. I get it.
Mind you, based on the fact that I’m on my second read-through, you might imagine that I would find one of these perspectives sensible and the other foolish. But that’s not it at all. You’re well within your rights not to want to read a series that clocks in at almost four-and-a-half million words. Twelve thousand pages (in the paperback). It’s a lot. I can see it from your perspective.
Now try to see it from mine.
Okay so Why are you Reading these Books?
Wheel of Time has actually given me some real perspective on how and why I read. And on how and why I write.
First, I do find myself drawn to works that create a world for me to disappear into. Dune does this (at least the first two novels do… the others? I could not get into them). The Lord of the Rings, for all that people neg it for its old-fashioned prose-style, also does this. The Broken Earth Trilogy of N. K. Jemisin, oddly enough, does not do this, although I think its prose style is as beautiful and as accomplished as anything Frank Herbert or J. R. R. Tolkien ever wrote. Jemisin’s world is expertly designed. And her writing style is quite beautiful. But I find it draws attention to itself in a way the others don’t as much.
What this means is that I’m essentially a middle-brow reader. Ironic, given that I have a PhD in English lit and the books I wrote my dissertation around are anything but middle-brow.
A Contrasting Example or Two
The Faerie Queene was so intense it took me a month to read cover to cover, even when I was studying for my comps and thus basically reading all day. Don’t get me wrong. It’s beautiful and funny in a lot of places. And it’s one of the most imaginatively complex and dense books I’ve ever read. But… as a Wheel of Time fan might say, “it’s a slog.”
Same goes for Paradise Lost and Arcadia and The Blazing World. Paradise Lost is genuinely fun to read but reading it is almost like learning a new dialect of English. Not in the same way as Faerie Queene. Put it this way: to read the Faerie Queene, you need to learn a new vocabulary. To read Paradise Lost, you need to learn a new grammar. I’ll give you one example of each so that those of you unfamiliar with the style can have some point of reference.
Here is the first SENTENCE of Paradise Lost. Keep in mind as you read it that Milton was a musician as well as a poet. And that he was fully blind when he attempted this much. Which means that he formulated ten or twenty lines in his head before reciting them to a secretary.
Paradise Lost, Book 1:
OF Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme.
Weird, right? But beautiful. Now take a deep breath and let’s look at a stanza from Spenser:
The Faerie Queene, Prologue
Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far unfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
Whose prayses having slept in silence long,
Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithful loves shall moralize my song.
Okay, you “Explained” Why you’re Reading One Unbelievably Long Book/Series by Contrasting it with Two Unbelievably Dense Books. As if I’m Reading ANY of that Nonsense. I Still Don’t Get it.
Are they fun to read? It really depends on your definition of fun. You get a bit of a runner’s high from reading them. A sense of accomplishment.
I suppose one gets a sense of accomplishment from reading a series like Wheel of Time. But there it’s easier going from scene to scene. The sentences are written in modern English. Perhaps it’s more difficult to remember all the names of characters. And any Wheel of Time fan worth their salt will admit that Jordan repeats himself far too often.
But what it comes down to in Wheel of Time, no different from Paradise Lost, but alas far different from The Faerie Queene, is that you keep reading because the characters grab you. And the beauty of the author’s imagination grabs you. And one of the characters that grabs me most is Milton himself. If you look at his verse-paragraph on how being blind makes him feel lonely, but strengthens the inner eye of his imagination, you’ll understand what I mean.
The Elephant in the Room
The elephant in the room while I’m saying all of this is neuro-atypicality. I’m not sure why I deliberately make everything hard for myself but my dyslexia sometimes makes it difficult for me to read the old-fashioned English on which my dissertation is based. If you ask: “Then why did you concentrate on those works for your dissertation,” I can only give you the same reason a person gives for driving drunk: It didn’t seem like such a bad idea at the time and then by the time I realized what was happening, it was too late to stop.
Will I ever read The Faerie Queene again? I expect so. But not for a while yet. My mind associates it with the difficulties and frustrations of grad school. Maybe in a year or a decade I’ll get to the point where that (or even my beloved Margaret Cavendish) just feels like literature again. But I’m not there yet so if you think reading Wheel of Time is candy… well… it is. But it’s really, really good candy, like laddoo or those brownies that are flavored with cinnamon and chili and so on, but are still gooey in the middle.
All of which is as much as to say bugger off and let me have my candy.
I can never just do anything in moderation so once again, instead of bringing in the Wheel of Time as part of a normal week of talking about my media diet, I went way overboard and didn’t really leave enough time/effort to write about music or TV/YouTube. That is to say. I could give you another few thousand words about what I learned from rewatching The Magicians or from listening to a bunch of Mozart and early Beethoven but… I guess it’ll have to wait until next week.
Amy, play me off. (Yeah I know this is burying the lede. But I couldn’t not mention her. Amy Beach is the first American woman to have had a symphonic work mounted by an orchestra. Listen now, thank me later.)