Another defense of children’s fantasy.

I was at the public library some weeks ago, as is my wont, when I stumbled upon an intriguing volume in the juvenile nonfiction. (Don’t knock juvenile nonfiction. Rhoda Blumberg’s Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun is the best account of the Opening of Japan I’ve ever read.) It was called The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy, compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus, and featured interviews with such luminaries of children’s fantasy as Brian Jacques, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Pullman, and Jane Yolen.

As the interviews in the book are organized by the subject’s last name, the first one I read was with Lloyd Alexander (who passed away in 2007, the year after The Wand in the Word was published). Everything he said resonated with me, and I found myself wanting to know more about his writings. I don’t know how I missed him in my childhood reading. I loved fantasy, especially C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the works of Roald Dahl, The Phantom Tollbooth, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Ella Enchanted, Artemis Fowl… and yet somehow I got through my entire childhood and adolescence without having so much as heard of Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. So last week I made sure to pick up The Book of Three, the first in the series, when I visited the public library again.

I’m only about halfway through, but I love everything about it. Un-self-conscious, pure, classic children’s fantasy, without any of the “modern twists” or ironic wink-wink-nudge-nudges that I find in a lot of contemporary children’s fantasy.* Kids these days are too cool for taking fantasy worlds seriously, I guess.

From the author’s note prefacing The Book of Three:

The chronicle of Prydain is a fantasy. Such things never happen in real life. Or do they? Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we believe we can do. Our capabilities seldom match our aspirations, and we are often woefully unprepared. To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers at heart.

Aren’t I just. More to come.

*One notable exception that comes to mind: Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Oh, and another: Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver. There are more, but I can’t think of them at the moment.


Out of my depth?

Last week I was out of town, and this week I was dealing with a packed schedule and a beast of a 10-page paper for school, so a late post this week.

For as little work as I’ve been able to do, ideas for the sequel to UNBoaTCfAFHV have been flying fast and loose in my brain lately. I’ve jotted most of them down, but there’s always that fear that once I try to flesh them out they’ll reveal themselves as the melodramatic, hackneyed things they are. Like when you wake up from a dream you think was beautiful and emotionally gripping and then you get your morning coffee and start your morning commute and realize… no. It was weird and didn’t make a whole lot of sense on any level.

I’m fending off the notion that this novel I’m in over my head. What do I know about the stuff I’m writing, anyway? And yet, I know that if I don’t push through and finish the dang thing, I’ll be more miserable than if I’d at least given it my best shot.

Relevant, from author Shannon Hale’s blog in November 2011, when she was writing what would become the excellent Princess Academy: Palace of Stone:

The rewrites are a struggle right now. Sometimes I wish writing a book could just be easy for me at last. But when I think about it practically, I am glad it’s a struggle. I am (as usual) attempting to write a book that’s too hard for me. I’m telling a story I’m not smart enough to tell. The risk of failure is huge. But I prefer it this way. I’m forced to learn, forced to smarten myself up, forced to wrestle. And if it works, then I’ll have written something that is better than I am.

“Write what you know” is for sissies.

Into the holidays.

I spent a lot of this past week getting ready for things this week, so I didn’t accomplish much last week in terms of my creative endeavors. Probably won’t this week either, Thanksgiving being a family-time holiday and all.

As the end of the year draws closer I’ve been reflecting on how this whole “blogging once a week to keep myself accountable about my creative aspirations” thing has worked out. And while it’s been good to see a written record of my progress… no one reads it. This is not a complaint, mind you. I’m well aware how I’ve spurned principles of SEO and the “social” aspect of WordPress because I’d rather get good at the things I want to get good at before I start attracting attention to myself.

All the same, I may reevaluate how I’m doing things come next year.

A harp lesson.

Yesterday I drove almost two hours for a four-hour beginning harp lesson, which for the price was a relative bargain. The biggest appeals for me were (1) the presence of an actual teacher, and (2) the opportunity to play lots of different kinds of lever harps.

In the classroom there were about ten people in attendance and twelve harps set up, which we traded off every hour. I got to play some really gorgeous instruments, but interestingly enough my favorite ended up being a handcrafted harp by an independent builder, not a major manufacturer. It had a rich, mellow sound, and charming hand-painted details on the soundboard.

Pretty much everything the class covered was stuff I already knew from YouTube tutorials and Bruner’s book. But here was the important thing: I was in a class, and my usual getting bored after two minutes and just start plucking out Zelda songs was a definite no-go. I had to practice lifting my thumbs, holding my elbows out, and placing my fingers on the strings before playing them. Stuff that I don’t do when I get bored and start plucking out Zelda songs. And hearing ten harps playing together is heavenly, even if it’s just a round of “Frère Jacques.”

I talked to the (fantastic) teacher after class about my situation and she gave me some great advice. Wish I could take regular lessons from her, but two hours on Bay Area freeways both ways is a bit too much of a commute for me. Still, she was a great inspiration. It’s hard to be disciplined when you’re going it alone.

More accordionventures with Kass.

After getting home from work on Halloween I picked up my accordion, decided forget it all; I’m just gonna play a B7 where I think it’s supposed to be Bdim and plowed forward with trying to figure out Kass’s theme. Turns out B7 is an acceptable substitute.

Saturday I decided to start record myself practicing certain songs just to document my progress. The recordings from that day are legitimately painful to listen to, but I’m hoping that just means the only way to go is up.

Of princesses, ponies, and tension.

I spent most of Saturday working on my Halloween costume: Princess Pinecone from Kate Beaton’s excellent children’s picture book The Princess and the Pony. With the exception of a couple hours lost to trying to figure out what was making my bobbin stitches so loose and at the same time making the bobbin thread show on the top side of the fabric, it went pretty well. The fact that the dress is basically a long sleeveless tunic made it a lot easier than the cosplay tunic I made a couple weeks ago.

Having dedicated projects like this really helps my mental state. It’s a great opportunity to experience what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow” (also known as “the zone,” according to Wikipedia), which keeps me off a lot of the self-destructive psychological paths I often find myself heading down.

As for that unidentified fear I wrote about last week, I’m still not sure what that is. Perhaps I had such a good time with this particular Halloween costume because I work with little kids who are just gonna be happy to see someone dressed up as a character from their favorite book about cute flatulent ponies.

On maintaining cosplay motivation.

I was reading an article about self-control the other day, and one commenter noted that self-control is connected with the ability to tolerate ambivalence. The range of creative endeavors I’m interested in has recently widened and I think the ambivalence got to me last week, because while on Sunday and Monday I lost a collected four hours of sleep working on that friggin’ cosplay, by Wednesday I was spending my evenings watching TV, and not doing much else. When I tried to muster the enthusiasm I’d had over the weekend, I could only obsess over my discovery that the fabric is slightly the wrong color. I am under no illusions that my cosplay will be the Most Accurate and Perfectly Detailed Ever, so a teensy thing like that shouldn’t topple the whole project. It’s not like someone’s going to run up to me at Fanime and be like, “Hey, wait a minute! That’s the wrong shade! *gasp* You’re not really [character x]! …But [the papier-mâchéd exercise ball] looks like the real deal.”

But boy was it easy to pinpoint my lack of enthusiasm on that one thing.

I reluctantly texted my friends Saturday morning to ask if they wanted to get together to work on cosplay things, feeling pretty “now or never” about the whole deal, and thankfully having three other people work on the same kind of thing in the same room did help me get motivated again. Plus, as my friend pointed out, the fabric is the highlight shade of the clothing I’m copying… I just need to stand in sunlight the whole time and it’s accurate again. That helped me feel a bit better. Also, we played with EVA foam and a heat gun while watching YouTube tutorials on how to craft fake armor that way, which was fun.

I’m just not sure what I’m afraid of.

Sewing while sheltering-in-place.

And then the whole North Bay caught on fire.

It’s been a rough week for pretty much everyone in the Bay Area, more so for those who were evacuated and even more so for those who lost homes and/or loved ones. By the grace of God the fire never got close enough to where I live to be evacuated, but I live next to hills covered in very flammable dry brush, and I slept with one eye open.

Work was canceled Thursday and Friday because the smoke made the air quality too hazardous, so I spent both days indoors. Trying to keep fear at bay, I hauled out my sewing equipment and made excellent progress on my cosplay. The 8 hours I would have spent working on Thursday were spent trying to draft, cut, and insert a single sleeve. (That’s the thing about sewing… you can work on it for hours and have made no visible progress, but you will have learned a lot. You will also end up with a lot of thread scraps and tiny holes in your garment from ripping out the seams of every unsuccessful attempt.)

Rain in the forecast for Thursday and Friday. I’ve never looked forward to wet weather so much.

Adventures with sewing patterns.

Much of Saturday was spent with my friends diving into the cosplays we were excitedly brainstorming on the way home from the anime convention Labor Day weekend. (And we did papier-mâché an exercise ball. It turned out better than we expected, but we’re gonna need a couple more rolls of kraft tape and like a bucket of Mod Podge.)

I’ve made my own cosplays before, but they weren’t terribly ambitious—mostly cut-up T-shirts. Adequate for my purposes, though maybe not the prettiest. But this time, I’m making a tunic, and I need something a little better than a butchered Hanes Beefy-T. I need a pattern. And not just any pattern—I need one I make myself.

Thankfully one of my friends is experienced with making her own patterns and helped me out step by step. I started by tracing a tank top, then enlarging it by 2 inches on every side, and then taking careful measurements of me front and back to make sure it would fit around me. I was so excited that after finishing the patterns for the front and back pieces, I quickly pinned both them to the fabric, cut them out, sewed them together about 3/4 inch from the edge, tried putting the semi-finished tunic on and… couldn’t put my arms down. I had to have two people squeeze me into it, and then one person cut me out of it with a seam ripper. So this week’s takeaway lesson is you can never have too much seam allowance.

Still need to put sleeves on it, and hem it, and decorate it, and fix up the collar, but I’m still excited. And committed. (Which means everything else kinda fell by the wayside this week. But I’m trying to enjoy my hobbies, not feel like I have to be slavishly devoted to them.)


Accordion and other dilemmas.

I am quite enjoying the Celtic music sessions, which I attend as often as I can. I’m getting much better at the bass buttons (and physically remembering the distance from B to C—5 rows!). I need to work on the right hand, though. Mine is a lady’s piano accordion, so the keys are smaller, but my hands aren’t exactly dainty. My fingers get tangled up in each other.

And with this new accordion activity my willingness to part with it for repairs has somewhat diminished. Sure the bellows are leaky, the straps are uncomfortable, and the keyboard is uneven, but… I’m having so much fun. And I’m afraid of what the ultimate cost will be. (Perhaps I should look into getting a new one… but my current one has sentimental value.)

I need to dedicate time to practicing outside the session, though—but finding the time and motivation to has been challenging. Now that I’m back into Japanese, my attention is even more divided. Add to that the fact that a couple weeks ago a friend who reviewed the third draft of UNBoaTCfAFHV emailed me some chapters from her own book looking for feedback. Outside of all this I still have my full-time job (and I may be seeking extra employment soon) and grad school (online), and… ugh. I’m getting tired just thinking about it all.