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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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Books

So, it should come as no surprise that I dream about books…..

……because I love reading and have more books on my To Be Read shelf than I’ll ever be able to finish.  I dream mostly about books I’ve already read, but on some occasions, I’ll dream of titles I’d seen, but never really intrigued me enough to actually pick up.  When those books show up in my dream, I go out and get them – either from the library or the bookstore.

There is no such thing as too many books.

Case in point – years ago, I dreamt that I was driving along a highway that merged into another highway.  Underneath the overpass was a dry-docked tall ship – it was in perfect condition, but abandoned.  Somehow, I was able to park my car and climb inside the ship, which I took my own sweet time exploring (because, really, who wouldn’t?).  In the captain’s cabin, I found two books – Outlander and Voyager.  I recognized them immediately, since a friend worked in a bookstore and I’d seen them on the shelves.

I immediately picked up those two titles (first and third, respectively), as well as the other two titles that were available at the time.  I read them in about a month (yes, I know they’re bricks, but I read IT by Stephen King in three days, so…….) and was wiped out with the breadth and depth of the characters.  Although there have since been several more titles (and a TV series) released, I stopped at book four.

I guess I got what I needed out of them, although to this day, I’m still not sure what it was I’d been looking for in those books.

Most recently, I’d dreamt about Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz.  I’d read a number of Koontz’s books over the years, but I’ve always preferred Stephen King.  No disrespect intended – I just don’t mesh with Koontz’s style in the way I do with King’s.  That said, my subconscious chose that title to communicate with me about something in my waking life.

How I came upon the book in my dream was interesting – I was as I am in the Here and Now, in an antique store.  A friend whom I grew up with was also in the dream, only he resembled his high school age self, with some of his intellectual and emotional growth as an adult.  The shop did not carry books, not even used ones, but on one shelf was a row of books, all brand new and I pulled out Odd Thomas.  I remember thinking I could get it used at my local used book store, but it seemed imperative that I get the book immediately.

So I did.

And, in case you were wondering, I did indeed pick up the book a few days later.

Used.  From my local used book store.

And I’m pretty sure I know what my subconscious mind was telling me.

Dreams and books are like that.

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Evening Thoughts (1)

1. It is the ultimate form of abuse to tell someone who has finally found their voice and courage to speak up and say “No more!” to being disrespected, abused and bullied that they need therapy.

2. If you can’t speak up for yourself, you will never be able to speak up for others.

General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).
Credit: Pacify Mind

3. Carrie Fisher is my rebel patron saint of No Fucks to Give.

4. I am feeling a tremendous amount of pure energy in my heart and soul. Yesterday, I could hardly sit still – I wanted to move hills and reshape valleys and redirect rivers. For lack of a better word, I will call it the Force.

5. I am one with the Force, the Force is one with me.

6. I know the difference between someone making a naughty joke and someone who is deadly fucking serious.

7. I am enough.

8. The actions, feelings and words of others are not my problem – do not attempt to make it so.

9. A woman who knows her own power and claims it is not to be trifled with.

10. I am surrounded by books. I may have to send up the white flag and surrender.

So, I had my first solo book reading a few days ago…..

……and I learned a few things from that experience.

  1. I could have had more material prepared to read. [1]
  2. Given that it was a hot day, I could have brought some refreshments. [2]
  3. It was suggested I stream it live on Facebook for others who weren’t able to attend to share in the experience. [3]
  4. I now have a better sense of timing it. [4]
  5. Confidence is key.

Those five things are my immediate takeaways from the experience.  I had a lovely crowd of 11 and I sold one book.  Successful turnout?  I’d say so.  This was, as I’ve indicated, my first solo book reading.  I’d been a part of a couple of book readings before, including one at a writers conference.  That event involved multiple authors – in both cases, the only ones in the audience to hear me read were the other authors. [5]

The biggest takeaway for me was being confident in my own work.  It’s easy to hide oneself in a crowd of like-minded and talented writers.  But here, I was exposed to the public, vulnerable, easily seen.  I couldn’t hide.

Still, I did it.  And that takes a bit of courage.

So now, for the next book reading I prepare, I have a better sense of what to do.

And that, you can be sure, I’m looking forward to. 🙂

[1] It took a combined total of maybe 10 minutes to read the two pieces I had selected.

[2] Lemonade and water would have been my first choice, obviously, but the location was in the conference room at the local library, so that’s a possibility I need to check on for next time.

[3] I hate to admit it, but I’m not sure how to work the streaming feature on Facebook, though I’m sure someone might have been able to figure that out. Next time!

[4] I had created an event page and blocked out two hours.  In reality, it took just under an hour. Now I know.

[5] The other authors read amazing excerpts from their works – the only negative was that none of us made any sales.  And we should have.

So, I’m learning French on my own…..

……..thanks to this little app on my phone called Duolingo. I started out with Spanish, then added French and then, in honor of my trip to Ireland, Gaelic.

Let me say, right now, that my Gaelic sucks. I can’t even figure it out in context. That’s okay – I’d never heard it before, so…..I’ll cut myself some slack on that one. I didn’t delete it – it’s still there, waiting for me to come back to it.

And I will.

I fared a lot better with Spanish, mainly because I live in California and am surrounded by the Spanish history and influence. I have a couple of Agatha Christie and Stephen King titles in Spanish, which will be helpful in bettering my comprehension of the language. Years ago, I suspected that if reading helps us with comprehending our native tongue, then surely it would have the same effect when learning a foreign one.

If I already knew the story, I thought, then my main struggle would be in understanding it in a language I’m not fluent in.

I stumbled across that idea when I was taking Spanish in college, lo, these many years ago. I read the Spanish translation of Pablo Neruda’s poetry to my tutor. In a few weeks time, she commented that my pronunciation and comprehension improving. And I was pleased.

So, imagine my surprise when, upon beginning my French lessons on the app, that it came to me far more easily than Spanish did. I’ve progressed further in the French than I have in the Spanish – indeed, I don’t think I’ve gone back to Spanish or Gaelic in over a year.

I’m not worried about that, because my goal is to learn more than one language and some far more complicated than French or Spanish (1). The better I get at French, the easier it will be to switch over to Spanish. Like Italian, French and Spanish derive from the Latin, which explains why they are similar in structure. Even particular words resemble each other.

I’m not exactly sure why I’m feeling determined to learn French right at this moment, but I’m willing to follow my instincts and see where it leads.

Sometimes, that’s what you need to do.

 

(1) Complicated in that I would also be learning an alphabet made up of letters that I won’t recognize, like Japanese.

Clockwise from bottom: Eso (IT); Ventana Secreta, Jardin Secreto (Secret Window, Secret Garden); Orguillo Y Prejuicio (Pride & Prejudice); Matar es Facil (Murder is Easy); Telon (Curtain); Une Poignee de Seigle (A Pocketful of Rye); Le Retour D'Hercule Poirot (The Return of Hercule Poirot).
Clockwise from bottom (Spanish to French):    Eso (IT); Ventana Secreta, Jardin Secreto (Secret Window, Secret Garden); Orguillo Y Prejuicio (Pride & Prejudice); Matar es Facil (Murder is Easy); Telon (Curtain); Une Poignee de Seigle (A Pocketful of Rye); Le Retour D’Hercule Poirot (The Return of Hercule Poirot).

So, I just wanted to point out……

……that I’m aware that a few of my posts regarding women transforming their lives are primarily white. I intend to correct that – I’ve read several books by women of color, like Alice Walker, Amy Tan and Maya Angelou, but it’s been awhile. I also plan to read and share more about men of color, like Sherman Alexie and Richard Wright.

I believe that strength comes from diversity and that representation matters, but I can’t espouse that and not show it. So, with your patience, I will be presenting posts that hopefully will be more diverse and representative of the world.

I would love it if you were to offer suggestions on writers and artists that you feel need more attention and their work showcased.

Thank you!

 

Recommended*:
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
Native Son by Richard Wright
The Color Purple by Alice Walker

*To be updated.

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So, when I was seven years old…….

……….my dad took me and my brother to see a movie. This was not an unusual thing – he would take us to see a lot of movies as we grew up (most notably, JAWS 2 when I was 8 and my brother was 5).

This movie was different. I remember asking my dad, “Why is it called Star Wars?”

He replied, “Because it’s about a war in the stars.”

I didn’t understand that (I was 7), but I loved that movie with all my little girl heart. I loved it so much, I wanted to be in it.

So I made up stories to amuse myself. And I added myself into those adventures of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and Leia Organa. I was Leia’s best friend and Han’s little sister (whether by blood or in spirit, I don’t remember).

I got two of every Leia action figure available at the time, so that my character could be on the same worlds as the others. I wrote myself into the movies and had side adventures where they joined me and my Wookie co-pilot.

Star Wars is why I started writing. Leia Organa is the template of all my female leads and the friendships they form.

Sherlock Holmes may be my first love, but Carrie Fisher was my first hero, with intelligence, wit, humor, kindness and no fucks to give.

Recommended:
Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher
Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

Credit: Pacify Mind
Photo Credit: Pacify Mind

So, one of the most unsettling writers of the 20th Century…..

……would have celebrated her centennial birthday last week, on December 14, had she not passed away in 1965. Cited as an important influence by Stephen King, Joanne Harris, Neil Gaiman and many others, Shirley Jackson wrote story upon story that left her readers unsettled and haunted with the ambiguity within her words.

I’ve been reading her work from an early age, most notably The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which ranks as my personal favorite of her fiction, topping We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), The Lottery (1948), and Hangsaman (1951). Her non-fiction, Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages recounts life at home, her children and the various ‘adventures’ they encounter. Her deliciously dark wit and humor are in full display in those tomes, and I highly recommend reading them.

Reading her fiction is a fascinating experience – for me, I start to notice a physiological reaction to her prose. In reading Hangsaman, I felt a low level anxiety in following Natalie’s thoughts and interactions as she left home for college. There was also that sense of foreboding, the shadow of unknown dynamics at play, and feeling suffocated by Natalie’s fellow students. There is the sense that she is at the bottom of the totem pole in the social hierarchy.

Every time I read The Haunting of Hill House, I root for Eleanor to overcome her insecurities, to let go of her guilt and to embrace her newfound freedom, both from her family and from Hill House itself. I feel her anxieties and hurts and indignations as if they were my own. But the story never changes, no matter how many times I read it and wish otherwise – Eleanor’s fate is already written and acted out, before one even picks up the book.

Shirley Jackson knew how to invite one in to her stories, knew exactly how to hook and keep you in it until the last word. She allowed the story to envelope you, insinuate itself into your imagination, haunting you long after you had shut the book and put it down. Her prose is quiet and engaging, simple, yet complex.

She is, for me, one of the writers I wish most to emulate, using my own voice and skills to strike that same haunting and sparse tone.

On the year of her one hundredth birthday, I join the ranks of writers who find inspiration in her work. I continually marvel at her ability to bring the darkness of every day life into the light and the suffocating spiral of ambiguity and uncertainty infused in her characters.

 

Opening paragraph to The Haunting of Hill House (1959).
Opening paragraph to The Haunting of Hill House (1959).

Recommended:
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Lottery & Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

So, I have a deep passion for language……

……and as a writer, it would be seriously detrimental to my craft to not only not love language, but to not have a deep and abiding passion for it as well. In fact, I have such a passion for words and language, that I actually have a dictionary collection (my favorite is The International Dictionary of Theatre Language).

But I also love foreign languages and have numerous foreign language dictionaries. I am in the (very) slow process of learning French. To help with comprehension, I also have a couple of novels in French, titles that I’ve read in their original English. This way, I’m familiar with the plot and, instead of struggling to learn both the story and the language, I can focus simply on the language itself, searching for words I recognize to establish context.

To hear the language in spoken form, I have a couple of films in which French is the primary language. If possible, find books in the language you hope to learn in audio format – the more you listen, the more you can pick up how words sound and pronunciation. This is helpful, but not absolute – like English, there regional dialects and colloquialisms to take in to account, and some words may have a different meaning.

I did something similar while taking a Spanish class i college many years ago. I found poetry by Pablo Neruda that had his work in Spanish on one page and the English translation on the next page. By reading the Spanish translations out-loud to my tutor, my pronunciation and comprehension of the Spanish language grew.

Of course, I’m a little rusty, but the thing about learning something, even a little bit, is that you don’t really forget it. With practice, you can awaken that muscle and get it back in shape in no time. The thought that kept me going in learning a foreign language by reading a novel I already knew was this – if reading can help us with comprehension and pronunciation in our native language, then surely it can apply to learning a foreign one.

 

A small portion of my foreign language dictionary collection.
A small portion of my foreign language dictionary collection.

Recommended:
The Essential Neruda by Pablo Neruda
Le Crime de L’Orient Express (Murder on the Orient Express – French translation) by Agatha Christie
Ca (IT) (French translation audio) by Stephen King

So, I was reading my favorite Shirley Jackson novel…..

…….the terrifying, subversive ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House, while waiting for a friend at my local wine bar. I was finishing up my dinner and was completely engrossed with Jackson’s prose.

“Hello!” came a voice at my elbow and I jumped with a yell, that immediately turned to giggles from both of us. I love scary stories, but don’t often get spooked by them.

This startled reaction was a first for me, as any and all who know me know that I am a lover of horror and supernatural fiction and non-fiction. It also reminded me of how Robert Wise had a similar action while reading the book.

In the audio commentary of the The Haunting (1963), Wise recounts how he was reading the book in his office. He had just gotten to a particularly tense scene when writer Nelson Gidding (who was working in the office next door) burst into the room. Robert Wise “jumped about three feet off the chair” (1) and realized that if the book could inspire such a reaction, then it should make a fine picture.

True horror doesn’t come from gross out imagery that is shoved into our faces – granted, it makes for a squeamish, shocking effect, but it’s also desensitizing. Horror comes from fear of the unknown, that which hides in the shadows and cannot be fully seen. What we can’t see is far more frightening than what is seen.

Shirley Jackson knew this – in reading The Haunting of Hill House, one is never entirely sure if the house is actually haunted or if it is Eleanor who is the haunting. This ambiguity is what lingers in our minds, why we can’t let go of it and why it haunts us. It’s also why some stories, like Jackson’s novel, take on a life of their own and become part of our language.

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(1) quote from the audio commentary by Robert Wise

Recommended Reading:

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
A Head Full of Ghosts – Peter Tremblay
‘Salem’s Lot – Stephen King
Hell House – Richard Matheson
Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

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