Back on track

Courtesy Transport for London

Good news: My NaNo funk, version 2018, has ended, and I’ve used the last 4 days to push myself past 45K words.

It’s not exactly all downhill from here, but the end is nigh. And by that, I mean the good type of end: the end of this year’s NaNo, the end of this first draft, the end of figuring out where this story is going.

Of course, what comes next is worse, but I’ll save writing about that for a future post.

So, hoist a drink of your choice to all NaNo-ers, around the world. We’re a stubborn crew, devoted to the written word, and to the insanity of reaching that 50K word-count. (FYI, NYC NaNo-ers have written 28.5 million words as of 4 pm today. 45K, or 0.15%, of that total is mine!)

Posted in Am writing, NaNoWriMo | 2 Comments

Who’s big idea was this anyway?

Edward Gorey, “The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel” (1953)

“On November 18th of alternate years Mr Earbrass begins writing ‘his new novel’.”

Did Edward Gorey predict NaNoWriMo? Probably not, but every November I have to reread The Unstrung Harp, to remind myself that every stage of the creative process is well known and documented within this tiny (just 30 pages) book.

I’m now at the stage illustrated above (p. 14). I hate all my characters and would love to put them on a one-way boat to nowhere, and then just curl up with a good book and a box of chocolate. Maybe just one big explosion will take care of them all for me.

But I also know this will pass. Already, my mind is toying with new ways to put my MC into mortal danger before she finally escapes.

Thanks for letting me vent. Happy Thanksgiving to my US readers, and a happy rest of the week to all. Keep reading, keep writing.

Posted in Am procrastinating, Am writing, NaNoWriMo | 4 Comments

NBN Time

NBN = Nothing But NaNoWriMo, and that’s what I’m doing this month.

Although “nothing” isn’t strictly true. I’m still reading like a fiend, still working crossword puzzles (addiction #2), still getting outside to museums (this week to the Armenian exhibit at the Met). But ALL my writing energy is for my current project, a science fiction novel that’s allowing me to vent my anger at the current world situation.

So, after the exciting frenzy of Witch Week, things will quiet down here for a while. You might get a peep or two from me before December, but nothing lengthy.

Happy fall, everyone.

Posted in Am writing, NaNoWriMo, Science fiction | 4 Comments

WITCH WEEK DAY SEVEN: Ending/Beginning

That wraps up Witch Week 2018, and Chris and Lizzie have so enjoyed hosting this. We couldn’t have done it without the help of everyone who participated:

  • Marlyn, of Stuff ‘n’ Nonsense, for her list of Ten Kick-Ass Heroines
  • Tanya, of Tanya Manning-Yarde, PhD, for her beautiful review of Ursula K Le Guin’s poetry collection, Finding My Elegy
  • Piotr and Ola of Re-enchantment of the World, for their discussion of the women in the Witcher stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski
  • Lory, of Emerald City Book Review, who last year retired her Witch Week broom yet found time to review Madeline Miller’s Circe and participate in our discussion of Le Guin’s The Other Wind 
  • people too numerous to mention, who added comments and questions; posted pingbacks, links, and reviews on their own blogs; and Tweeted/Facebooked links to our posts
  • our readers around the world.

For anyone not yet sated, here are the links for the Emerald City Book Review Master Posts from earlier years.

Thanks again to all of you for sharing this event with us, and we hope you’ll join us next year, when our theme will be VILLAINS.

Posted in Witch Week | 7 Comments

WITCH WEEK DAY SIX: The Genius of Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin’s fantasy fans will recognize these few lines from The Creation of Éa, her imagined mythology of Earthsea:

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life;
bright the hawk's flight
on the empty sky.

Some of us know that Le Guin wrote poetry before she wrote fiction, but how many of us have read beyond the fragments in her novels? Today, poet and guest blogger Tanya Manning-Yarde tantalizes us with a taste Le Guin’s poetry.

Tanya Manning-Yarde, Ph.D., is a poet and freelance writer from New York City. A graduate of Rutgers University and University at Albany, she recently worked as a copy editor and contributing writer for Bronze Magazine. She blogs at (Instagram @every_watering_word_author) and is a freelance blogger for the annual Montclair Film Festival in Montclair, NJ. Prior to pursuing a career as a writer, she was a high school English/Language Arts teacher, Assistant Professor, Instructional Coach, and an educational consultant. Her poems have been published at Literary Mama, Memoryhouse and Random Sample Review. Her first poetry collection, Every Watering Word, was published in 2017 (Wasteland Press).

Finding my Elegy: New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), by Ursula K. Le Guin, is a compelling constellation of poems. Spanning fifty years, this collection chronicles selected early writings to contemporary pieces previously unpublished. Although well known for her science fiction writing, Le Guin was also a prolific poet, demonstrating versatility in verse and dexterity in the topics she pondered. This compilation illustrates Le Guin’s agility; her poetry is unfettered, unobligated, reliant neither on topical boundaries nor compliant with poetic structural apparatuses.

Throughout several of Le Guin’s poems is an attentiveness to contrast in which she details observations of an object, concept or location and compares it to something else. In one poem titled “Writers,” Le Guin makes a stark comparison between visual artists and writers, between the art that is physically and sensorially rendered by sculptors and musicians to the revelatory unfolding that writers make readers do. It is this unfolding by the reader that Le Guin contends is the art of a writer.

Le Guin discusses the creating and delivering of written art as not occurring exclusively in the artist’s hands but as transactional; the unraveling and excavation of meaning occurs between writer and reader (“A writer’s work /is with the insubstantial word /the image that can only find /its being in another’s mind”). Writer and reader are collaborative cartographers.

Le Guin also demonstrates dexterity and alacrity in designing interpretive lenses for readers to use in entering her poems. Several of her pieces situate readers as sociologists accompanying her in examination of how nature and humans live and interact within a shared world. In one such poem, “April in San Jose,” Le Guin employs contrasting images of floral aesthetics and abject humanity, illustrating through contrast the experiential disparity between nature and man. Sensory laden descriptions of natural beauty present the experience of nature as abundant and self-affirming (“sweetness of freesias, garlands, wreaths,” “dark fragrance of eucalyptus,” and “glitter and rustle of inordinate palms”). Alongside such images are ones captured of men in conflict, downtrodden and deflated. In contrast to their thriving, colorful and natural counterparts, these men simply endure their existence (“bark wordless pain like dogs, /roar rage in one dark syllable, /or stand and beat an oak tree with their fists”). It is suggested here that the disparate descriptions are assembled by Le Guin to make the case for the reader that the experience of life itself is not absolute. More to the point, she juxtaposes many aspects of an urban setting to make the case for the reader how dissimilar phenomena can, paradoxically, co-exist and co-mingle (“in the valley of ghosts and orchards”).

Evident in Le Guin’s poems is the depiction of nature in service to a larger conversation. She references natural settings not only for their aesthetics but as markers of a larger transcendental journey, a means to consider Nature and our own existence as multi-faceted and multi-dimensional, as shown in this excerpt from “For Gabriela Mistral”:

If I walk south
with the ocean always on my right
and the mountains on my left,
swimming the mouths of the rivers
the estuaries and the great canal,
if I walk from high tide to low tide
and full moon to new moon, south,
and from equinox to solstice, south,
across the equator in a dream of volcanoes, ...

Le Guin provides a litany of natural locations, distances and natural artifacts to punctuate the lengths the narrator will go for his/her voice to be aligned with an original calling, an ethereal language. These descriptions of natural settings serve as markers along a larger journey, both physical and metaphoric.

Le Guin is astute in writing poetry in service to providing social commentary on phenomena characteristic of the human experience, spanning personal experiences such as parenting to collective experiences such as war. Conflict and war particularly are topics that permeate several of Le Guin’s poems. In “The Curse of the Prophetess,” centered on the conflict in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine, Le Guin creates a litany composed of invocations condemning irreverent behaviors humans show one another, and later, a hope for the restoration of recognition by those involved of one another’s humanity.

In “Soldiers,” she creates a space to illustrate the facets of war and its impact on both soldier and society, contrasting images of fallen soldiers and enthusiastic crowds, patriotic celebration and protests of fatalities, in service to a larger question regarding what is gained and lost in war.

Ursula Le Guin has left a legacy of writing that will require many lifetimes to digest. Dexterous and nimble in free verse and quatrain, agile in use of meter and rhyme, willful in refusing to align with any one form of writing, Le Guin evinces possibilities wildly imagined.

And willfully embraced.

Thank you, Tanya, for this thought-provoking post. Looking for an instant Le Guin poetry fix? A few of her poems have been published online here.

Posted in Poetry, Witch Week | Tagged , | 8 Comments

WITCH WEEK DAY FIVE: Discussion of The Other Wind

Chris, Lizzie and Lory approached this discussion of The Other Wind, this year’s readalong book, not as a Q/A session, but rather as responses developing over time and in conversation with each other. Below: the edited version, with sections that match our Feminism+Fantasy theme. For the complete version (17 pages!), click here. And if you’ve read the book, please join the conversation in the Comments.

Chapter I. Mending the Green Pitcher

LIZZIE: I’m glad to see Ged play a part in the action – to hear his reference to Tenar as his wife, and watch him only minimally regretful/angry about the loss of his powers.

CHRIS: Time enough for Ged to be better reconciled to his loss of power and status. He derives a quiet joy from mundane tasks and routines, but it is now Alder who is confused by Ged’s acceptance of a massive change of status and refusal to see Lebannen.

LORY: Ged has made a huge journey through the novels. In A Wizard of Earthsea, we meet him as a proud, insecure, sometimes arrogant young man, eager to acquire and display power. He matured into a wiser man who recognized the importance of balance and restraint. Now, having given away his extraordinary powers to restore balance to the world, he recognizes the value of the mundane and ordinary. It’s where all the magic comes from, after all, and what it should serve.

It makes me think about our own world and the power of simple acts: mending, tending, healing, caring. But I still wonder: Why does Ged refuse to meet the King or his fellow wizards? Is it really shame and regret? Or does he simply not fit into their world any more, would he feel too out of place?

LIZZIE: I’ve wondered about that too, Lory. It could be both of those, and also a desire to step aside and let others have their chance. “He is done with doing,” someone says of Ged much later in the book, and he must know that wherever he goes, everyone will look to him for the answer. He no longer has answers, so why force people to defer to him?

LORY: Yes, I think it’s in that direction. There does seem to be an element of shame at first, in Tehanu when he first returns from his ordeal – but I think he overcomes this during the time he spends alone in that book, herding goats in the mountains. We never know exactly what passes through his soul during that time, but it does seem to bring him to peace, and to an acceptance that he must fundamentally alter his relationship to the powerful men of Earthsea. They can’t yet comprehend the change, so he has to make the break himself.

CHRIS: I’ve just reread the bit in Chapter 2 where Lebannen posits that when Ged had handed over power to the young king he wanted not to appear to be a power behind the throne, that to in any way seem to be an adviser to Lebannen was to limit the young king’s capacity to act. Not a full explanation of Ged’s motives in withdrawing from the world but it seems to be an explanation for Lebannen, that transfer of absolute power. If this is partly true then it’s a typically masculine thing to attribute power-play as the rationale behind actions.

LORY: It makes sense that after bearing such great power for so long, there should be a need for a time of readjustment and re-integration to come to a new wholeness. And this is in fact a “feminine” capacity – the ability to gestate in silence, to allow something to grow inwardly without public display and interference. Showing the value of this process, whether in man or woman, is to me what feminism is about. (And what makes it so discouraging that some readers find it a “punishment” to put Ged through such a process.)

LIZZIE: Le Guin also finds that idea of  “punishment” surprising. She says (2004 interview in The Guardian)¹, “I thought I was rewarding him.” I think the reward has at least 2 parts: one, of course, is the loving relationship with Tenar and Tehanu, but the other is the ability to live a life outside the realms of power, no longer responsible for saving the world. I love your point, Lory, about the time Ged spends alone, coming to understand his new self, as being a feminist approach to change.

LORY: Contemplative practices are the essential counterforce to the extroverted, action-oriented part of our being – which gets a lot of emphasis in our male-dominated Western culture, as in the “old” Earthsea. Ogion already knew this, and some of the other wizards (the Patterner, the Doorkeeper). Yet still, they perpetuated the separation, the division that gave the power of speech to certain parts of society and silenced others. But now the silent feminine side is gaining a voice, a more active presence, something quite new! What will it say?

Chapter II. Palaces

LIZZIE: Everyone seems uncomfortable in this chapter – no one’s “at home” in either of the palaces, not even Lebannen, whose home this is. Either they’re homesick (Tenar, Tehanu, the Karg princess), or troubled (Alder by his dreams, Lebannen by the inconveniences of others’ expectations). Only Tenar seems to be without fear. I count this as a benefit of her age – one of the reliefs of reaching middle age is being able to discard many irritants, because they just don’t matter any more – does this make her a perfect mediator?

CHRIS: I find these very useful points, Lizzie, especially the observations about Tenar: she seems a sort of fulcrum around which everything pivots, the eye of the storm as it were, and her quiet presence and unassuming actions often appear to make a difference. Chapter 2 sees more emphasis on the women. Tenar, the enabler. The as yet unnamed Kargad Princess who starts to be revealed. The promise of a reacquaintance with Irian from Dragonfly. And Tehanu, still the shy enigma but who begins to show her true self and power.

Irian and Tehanu are I think the most perplexing of Le Guin’s characters. If I came across them in our world I would suspect they’d be on the autistic spectrum. Their sense of their own otherness, their solitariness mistaken as aloofness, their capacity to speak only truth as they see it, a lack of guile, different physicality and unique sensitivity – all these and more suggest females on the spectrum, of a different order from that presented by males.

LIZZIE: Autism spectrum aside, Chris, I agree with you about Irian and Tehanu. Their dragon halves/selves are perhaps what makes them solitary and truthful. I’d argue that LeGuin wanted us to understand, by the end of Tehanu, that the initial attack on Tehanu was an attack on her otherness, on her dragon-self.

Chapter III. The Dragon Council

LIZZIE: Near the end of this chapter, Orm Irian reports that Kalessin said (to the dragons after returning from Roke), “in every generation of our people … one of us is born who is also human. Of these one is now living in the Inner Isles. And there is one of them living there now who is a dragon.” Tehanu and Irian, right? If so, that gives us 3 examples of the dragon-human melding (don’t forget the Woman of Kemay), and all of these are female. I’m just sayin’.

LORY: That does seem significant. In archetypal terms, women are the ones who hold the secrets of life and death within their bodies, through their monthly cycle and through motherhood. They are not disconnected from the sources of life. Men don’t have such immediate access to this experience; they must achieve it in another way. That forms a great opportunity for independent consciousness, but is also highly dangerous.

In the first book of the series, we learned that there are wizards with an awareness of equilibrium who are respectful of the balance of the whole, not using power carelessly or thoughtlessly. These seemed like “good” wizards in comparison to the “bad,” selfish ones who grabbed power for themselves.

But now it seems that the very basis of wizardry upset the balance of nature in a fundamental way. How will this disjunction be healed? Can there be a wisdom that respects the feminine, more nature-connected principle – the dragonish part of us that never forgot the language of the Making – rather than seeking to “conquer” and subdue it? It is a fascinating question.

LIZZIE: Lory, can you say more about what you mean by “independent consciousness”? What is the other way that men achieve it? Through wizardry?

LORY: In the context of Earthsea, yes. Wizardry is a metaphor for what I’m talking about. In our world, which is apparently without magic, we achieve independent consciousness by freely grasping the principles that govern and sustain life. Through thinking, you could say.

But this should not be only a dead intellectual thinking that spreads death in its wake – rather, a living thinking that moves and changes, as our living world is constantly evolving. Both men and women can strive towards this goal. But women have an extra help through their bodily experience, and men can benefit from listening to them and understanding the feminine way of being. In fact, I think that’s the only way forward, for all of us.

LIZZIE: Thanks for this, Lory. We haven’t yet made explicit any connection to #MeToo and #TimesUp, but the implications are there, in your points about “independent consciousness” and “thinking that moves and changes”. The moves are nearly impossible and take so much time and conscious effort – Lebannen models reluctance and resistance, Ged models slow acceptance (how many years out on his own?).

LORY: We’re in a time of ferment and change in our own world, for sure. And just as in Earthsea, what initially seems threatening and disastrous can hold the key to future growth. There can be no healing if you won’t even look at the wound, won’t even admit it’s there. But those long-held wounds are hard to look at, at first. The resistance is discouraging, but there are also acts of great courage to see and celebrate. Le Guin shows us a picture of this, in her courageous women (and dragon-women) and the men who listen to and learn from them.

Chapter IV. Dolphin

LIZZIE: Tenar, walking in the palace garden before the Dolphin sails, wonders why men fear women. “Not as individuals, but women when they talked together, worked together, spoke up for one another — then men saw plots, cabals, constraints, traps being laid.” Links vs chains, bonds vs bondage.

CHRIS: This is a key moment for me too. UKLG also talks of the weakness of men wanting to appear strong and independent, suspicious of what they see as threats; she affirms the strength women get from talking and working together.

Tenar comes across as the quiet mover and shaker. Along with Alder (who, like Ged, has voluntarily given up his power), she has sensed where there is unease, disunity, things not right with the world; unlike Alder she is unobtrusively proactive, persuading Tehanu to come out of her shell, advising Lebannen, coaching Seserakh, comforting Alder until he is able to unite with his beloved Lily.

LORY: Links vs chains, bonds vs bondage is indeed the issue. I have to reference this book I’ve been reading, I Don’t Want to Talk About It by Terrence Neal. It’s about the covert depression that many men carry as they are systematically socialized, and often individually traumatized, out of experiencing and valuing the relatedness and connection that every human being, regardless of gender, needs for healthy development.

Of course, bonds can become bondage, there can be emotionally unhealthy dependence and so forth, but what is little recognized is the “passive trauma” caused by the thoughtless neglect and disconnection so rampant in our society, by the raising of boys in particular to be indifferent to their own feelings. Contempt for the so-called “feminine” will inevitably maim and incapacitate a vital part of their own souls. This creates an endless cycle of trauma and abuse, until someone wakes up and decides to break it.

Again, Le Guin has given us so many pictures for this process. Tenar taking in the damaged child feared by others. Ged renouncing his spectacular powers, putting mere knowledge in service of the greater wisdom of love. Seserakh putting aside her veils so that Lebannen can see her and be changed by the encounter. Alder consciously suffering the pain of separation from his wife, a pain wizards avoid by not marrying at all. We have to overcome our fear of enslavement, and connect to one another in freedom, compassion, and love. Then the world may be mended.

Chapter V. Rejoining

LIZZIE: And we’re back to mending the green pitcher – in this case, Earthsea.

CHRIS: During the convocation in the Immanent Grove, Irian has just railed against the men who stole from the dragons. “Irian hesitated, and then said in a much subdued voice, ‘Greed puts out the sun. These are Kalessin’s words.’”

“Greed puts out the sun.”

Published in 2001, TOW was not necessarily prescient but it becomes more and more true, more and more urgent, and the warning may even be too late. We are endangering the world, upsetting the balance. And when I say we I mean specifically men: male politicians, CEOs, rogue nations led by men. UKLG writes of “the power that power had over the minds and hearts of men”. I think she is conscious of the power of words and does indeed mean just one half of the population.

¹You can access the Guardian interview here.

Posted in Fantasy, Feminism+Fantasy, Read-aloud book, Witch Week | Tagged | 4 Comments


Many of you know Lory, of Emerald City Book Review, as the creator of the Witch Week blogging celebration to honor Diana Wynne Jones. Lory announced last year that she was ready to hand over the reins to any interested blogger. We’re lucky (and grateful) that she was willing to be one of our guest bloggers this year.

LORY WIDMER HESS shares her reading journey at Books based on fairy tales and mythology are among her favorite things, along with long walks, knitting, singing, and chocolate. She came up with Witch Week five years ago as a new blogger, and still considers it one of the best ideas ever. For more information about (and images of) the infamous witch of Greek mythology, Lory recommends a read of Madeline Miller’s photo essay.

Circe, Madeline Miller (Little, Brown and Co., 2018)

When I was casting about for a book to review for this year’s Witch Week, I hit upon Madeline Miller’s new novel, Circe, and knew it was the perfect choice. What better character to explore than one of the most ancient and famous witches of them all, with a charming propensity for turning men into pigs?

As in her first novel, The Song of Achilles, Miller takes us on an immersive journey into the past that makes us see the Homeric world with new eyes. Riffing on a brief episode in Homer’s Odyssey, Miller fills out and expands upon her source material to convincingly build a setting and a cast of characters through which we can contemplate the nature of deity and humanity, destiny and freedom, love and fate.

The first-person narrative begins with the childhood of Circe, divine offspring of Helios the sun god and his consort, a daughter of Oceanus the water-god. One might think such a lofty parentage would be of great advantage to the young nymph, but Circe is maligned by her mother for her unpleasant voice and appearance, and toyed with by her callous father. The halls of Helios are not a place of harmony, but of jockeying for power in a harsh world.

When it becomes apparent that Circe and her siblings are a new breed of divinity who practice pharmakia – manipulating the herbs and other products of the earth into drugs and potions, rather than purely manifesting the forces of nature – there is horror in the halls of the gods. What to do with this dangerous, unpredictable new element?

John William Waterhouse, The Sorceress (1911), Private collection

This was one of the most interesting ideas in the novel for me: that witchcraft originated in the divine world as a transgression against natural powers. I was reminded of the story of Cain and Abel, though played out here with divine beings rather than humans. Like Cain, whose sacrifice produced through working the soil is rejected by God, Circe becomes an outcast and exile, a scapegoat carrying off the shadow her bright father can’t bear to face. On the island of Aiaia she lives out her immortal days, haunted by one of her first magical acts, the transformation of the nymph Scylla into a terrible monster.

But the Greek word used here for witchcraft also gave rise to our word “pharmacy,” suggesting that this power can be turned to healing as well as harmful ends. And spurred by an early encounter with Prometheus, who was terribly punished for helping humans, Circe begins to question some of the assumptions under which the gods live, and to develop her own quietly rebellious way of thinking and feeling.

By the time Odysseus arrives on her island, she’s been through a great deal – including the birth of her monstrous nephew, the Minotaur. Her experience of the cruelty of monsters, gods, and human beings leaves her with an understandable tendency to turn men into swine, and to seek vengeance against those who hurt her. Yet unlike her brothers and sister, whose powers are used purely for selfish and evil ends, she tends toward a more compassionate moral stance. In Homer’s intriguing words, she speaks with a human voice – a mere phrase that Miller expands into a whole rationale for her behavior, and for a possible way forward into the future.

Written in a measured, elegant prose, which echoes the past yet has a highly individual voice all its own, Circe’s narrative is a pleasure to read. At times it reads a bit too much like a “greatest hits” of ancient mythology, packing an incredible number of incidents and characters into its pages, but overall it succeeds in weaving together these scattered elements into a coherent, satisfying whole.

Feminist themes are implicit in the story of how Circe comes out of an environment of abuse and disempowerment to become self-determining, emotionally mature, and ethically strong. Educated by the pains and joys of motherhood, matched at last by a worthy partner, she journeys toward life and wholeness. It’s definitely an odyssey worth taking.

Posted in Fantasy, Feminism+Fantasy, Greek mythology, Witch Week | Tagged | 5 Comments