Beyond Pen

The Writing of Jenny Scott

Monsters

They’re everywhere apparently. On TCM, just yesterday, they showed a host of monster movies and they sound nothing if not fascinating.

Over in Copenhagen, there is Reptillicus, a prehistoric beast that has regenerated itself from a recently discovered tail segment. (Ewwww.)

In The Beast of Hollow Mountain, a Mexican cattleman’s conflict with a rancher is settled by an allosaurus from the local swamp. (What’s with reptiles representing our deepest fears? Satan, you snake.)

Another beast, this one The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, was revived by a North Pole atomic blast. This submerged dinosaur swims to New York and goes to Coney Island. (I wanna know, does he ride The Wonder Wheel, play skeeball, enjoy one of Nathan’s Famous hot dogs?)

The Creature From the Black Lagoon, in the Amazon, is a really unfortunate looking amphibian-man creature, with gills on the side of his head and big red fish lips that look like the wax lips we enjoyed as children. This movie was filmed in 3D, and audiences originally wore those whacky viewers with the gray polarizing filters to view it. In Revenge of the Creature, Florida aquarium workers communicate by cattle prod (of course!) with this same captured creature from the Black Lagoon.

I’m not too scared of any of these freaks. How ’bout you? But there are lots of monsters I am afraid of. Take illness, say. Take disease. Take the lung cancer that killed my dad, the stroke that hurt one of my dearest friends, the cancer that one of my beautiful, talented cousins has right now. Take the delicate little gray bird that just flew up to my window and just as quickly flew away (truly).

Wait! What? What does that little bird have to do with illness and disease?  I’m trying to write an entry about horror, about reptilian deformity  and madness. About monsters and death. Just because it’s a gorgeous sunny day after a slew of cold, grey days doesn’t mean I should suddenly be unafraid. Just because there exists unimaginable beauty on the earth and we get to be here, for however long, to experience it, to see it, doesn’t negate the grief in life. Just because we get to know love in ways that amaze us, envelope us, and turn us inside out… just because we get to create and experience art and culture, because we have voices to protest and sing, because we have irreverent comedy to let us know that the stupid things we do are the stupid things we all do… just because we have governments who keep getting it wrong, but sometimes get little things right…  because we get to travel and eat chocolate and drink wine, because we get to read books, because we get to share our lives with domesticated animals who lay quietly at our feet or in our arms after a stressful day…

Just because of all that should we sometimes forget about the monsters? Should we turn our eyes toward art and little birds? Should we take our cattle prods and communicate to the monsters that they need to step the hell back?

 

 

 

Walking in Batavia

Writing:

I know that gyms are wonderful places to get in shape, but they’re not for me. I love to get my exercise by walking outside. It’s easy, it’s cheap, and I can take my dog. Also, my town of Batavia, Illinois has some marvelous areas to walk: charming old neighborhoods, over 40 miles of Fox River trails, the Fermilab Campus, and a quaint, accessible, historic downtown.

It’s been an unseasonable and welcome spring-like weekend. Even though I love walking in almost any weather, I was eager to take advantage of this warm, crystalline atmosphere to walk, think, and write (in my head).

More so than the benefits of exercise, I appreciate the calm and clarity that walking provides for my writing. And I’m in excellent company. Charles Dickens, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, and Virginia Woolf are just a handful of writers who discovered the advantages of thinking while walking.

The nonfiction writer, Rebecca Solnit, examines the benefits of walking in her excellent 2001 book Wanderlust, A History of Walking.  In it is the thoughtful question: “What exactly is the nature of the transformation in which machines now pump our water, but we go to other machines to engage in the act of pumping, not for the sake of water, but for the sake of our bodies, bodies theoretically liberated by machine technology?”

Solnit laments how few people walk any more, and the fact that our cars have become a kind of prosthetic.

I can be as lazy as the next person, and it’s so darn easy to climb into my heated and air-conditioned prosthetic and drive. Yet, once I actually force myself to get out there and walk, I feel as refreshed, and energetic as if I were in a soap commercial. So, come along on my walk with me.

The above is the Clark Island area on the Fox River. Yes, islands in the midwest. Be jealous.

 

Lovely, sparkling water.

 

The huntress stalks her prey.

 

Worry not. The huntress never catches her prey.

 

Picturesque limestone buildings across the river.

 

Uh-oh. The lab emerges from her den and sees her shadow. This may mean we’re in store for more winter weather.

 

The back of these buildings along Wilson Street remind me of a Norman Rockwell painting. Or, it seems like at any moment Stanley Kowalski might come out and yell, “Hey Stella!”

 

A not great picture of the beautiful Batavia Public Library. Sorry, it was very sunny. Did I mention it was sunny? And springlike? In February?

 

This is Egghead. I love this sculpture by artist Kim Fiebiger. I especially love his little buckle shoes and his obvious love of reading.

 

A sculpture of Mark Twain by artist Gary Price also sits outside the library. Twain often looks lovingly at me like that when I’m next to him.

 

Sometimes, I look lovingly at him, too.

 

Okay, he looks lovingly at anyone who sits next to him.

 

The coolest art gallery/studio in all the land.

 

I love this city.

 

Distractions:

My husband and I spent last week on St. George Island in Florida. We stayed with my delightful and very generous brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Nothing but walking on the beach, eating fresh seafood, laughing, and reading. I didn’t get nearly as much reading done as I’d planned, though. I took six books with me and just barely finished one. I always do this, take too many books. Like I actually thought I would finish SIX books! It’s a sickness. It really is.

 

 

 

Commonplace Books

Writing:

Often, when someone asks me on a Monday how my weekend was, I panic. Weekend? What weekend? Was there a weekend? I frantically wrack my brain trying to remember anything I did two days ago, even yesterday, so I don’t look like a complete and utter moron.

The point of this sad little tale is to let you know my memory can be a little lax. I have a great memory for some things, but when I specifically want to remember something I occasionally find my brain as empty as any bag of M&M’s that was ever sat in front of me.

I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. Books have always been treasures, from the time I used them to stay up later by keeping my mom reading away next to me in bed, until now when I keep myself awake reading deep into the night.

Since I want to hold onto this treasure and the memories of what I read, years ago I started keeping a journal to squirrel away quotes, facts, vocabulary, ridiculosities, poetry, and my thoughts on whatever book I was reading at the time.

I now have eleven of these journals filled with hundreds and hundreds of titles and information I’ve hoarded. Of course I’m not alone in this. Perhaps you do the same. And since at least the early 1700’s, people have kept what are known as commonplace books, a way to compile knowledge, recipes, quotes, poems, etc. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were taught to keep commonplace books at Harvard University. The writers Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mark Twain, and Thomas Hardy also kept these journals.

These books are precious to me. I pore over them often and remember. They make up, in a way, a large volume of my own reading experience, a map of the places my mind has visited over the years. An explanation for what in the bloody blazes I do with so much of my time.

And without them I wouldn’t remember things like this fine quote: I have sought rest everywhere, and have found it nowhere, save in a little corner, with a little book. – Thomas a Kempis

Distractions:

I’m reading “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman for my book club. I’m also reading “A Girl in Winter,” an oldie by Philip Larkin, and “Landscape Painted with Tea,” by Milorad Pavic. This last book is also an older one that I discovered on the sale book shelf at the library. It’s interesting. I wasn’t familiar with this author. He’s compared to Nabokov, Pynchon, Borges, Chandler, Barthes and even the Marx Brothers. The book is playful. It’s weird. So far I’m truly enjoying it, and I’ll write down the following two snippets from it in my current commonplace book:

(This quote is from a point in the book where the protagonist’s son is criticizing him.) “‘On days liked this even snakes that have venom only on Fridays become poisonous,’ Atanas Svilar thought, listening to his son, to the boy who still adored grapes hot from the sun and ripe apricots in which you could almost feel the jam simmering on the branch in the heat.”

And:

“When they set out from Ithaca for the Ionian Islands, he placed a glass of wine on the railing of the ship and held the stem down with his finger so that it would not overturn. The red wine in the glass, out of solidarity with the briny sea, faithfully transmitted every move of the water. In the glass he now had a copy of the waves.”

Liar’s Paradox

Writing:

I’m sure you’ve heard it, the liar’s paradox. In philosophy, it’s the statement of a liar who says, “I am lying.” If the liar really is lying, then he is telling the truth, which means he is lying. Wrap your mind around that.

My brother and I have a podcast. In it, we irreverently laugh at nearly everything we talk about. It’s a great escape from reality, as humor often is. You can get to our podcast on the menu bar above. (Podcast number five will be available soon.) Lately, we’ve talked and joked about – as well as invented – fake news.

As I’m sure you know, “fake news” is an unfortunate new cultural phenomenon. And now we have Kellyanne Conway’s newly coined “alternative facts.”

All this false news, these mysterious facts beg the question, how do we get to the truth?

Years ago, in his paper, Saul Bellow and the Struggle at the Center, Eugene Hollahan focused on the idea that “in the (former) east, ‘truth’ has always been a scarcity, imprisoned, and decreed by the isolated source of dictatorship … to which everyone succumbed but few would listen,” as opposed to the west where there is “an overabundance of ‘truths,’ democratically equal, so much so that nobody cares anymore which truth anyone else speaks.”

In a similar vein, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote, “The masses have been swamped with so much meaning that they have lost all meaning.”

How sad that is.

And I don’t believe it.

Meaning and truth abound in writing, art, music, art and relationships. Yet we have to be on guard. We have to be discerning, and put in the time to sift through all the MURKY GARBAGE out there and fish out what matters. Which thoughts and actions carry with them the most humanity? Which will we be proudest of in the future? Which will make our children want to carry on?

We know. I think deep down inside, we really do know.

 

Distractions:

I’m currently reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s a memoir, but like all good memoirs, all good writing period, it covers so much more than the subject at hand.

On another note, I originally wrote that I was going to post on this blog twice a week. Turns out, “I am lying.” With work, writing, podcasting, searching through all the MURKY GARBAGE for the truth, and just plain general living, I have time to post only once a week, and I will do that on Fridays. However, I have an all-day meeting at work this Friday, so I’ll resume posting the following Friday, and that’s the truth.

 

 

Trump and My Dollhouse

(If you are a subscriber and you can’t see the pictures in this post, please click on the title and it will take you to my blog home.)

 

 

Writing:

My dad built me this dollhouse when I was young, and I could not have loved it more. I still love it. It stands in our family room and I buy tiny things for it every once in a while. It has electric lights and sometimes I switch them on so the miniature people inside can find their way around.

I spent so many hours sitting with my back to the world, moving furniture around and imagining happy and troubling scenarios for the the little family. (Seriously the place was fraught with danger. There were tornados and break-ins, and Grandma got her head mauled by our real, giant, living cat.) I was so focused when I played with it, that everything else disappeared. The only thing that bothered me was there were no doorways between the rooms, so the people had to sort of fly around to the other rooms. This disparity with reality concerned me deeply and I tried to ignore it as much as I could.

The reason I’m thinking of my dollhouse is that I feel a sadness today that only an escape into make-believe could soothe. I didn’t vote for Trump, and his tasteless remarks and defensive texting concern me much more than the missing doors in my dollhouse ever did.

But what concerns me most is the divisiveness between his supporters and non-supporters. I. Hate. Politics. Though I know they’re a necessary evil, the polarization they engender is vastly unsettling. There are people I love so much on both sides of this, and that leaves me feeling torn and woebegone. I have my own strong opinions, but I don’t want to disrespect the feelings of those who differ from me.

I mentioned on here before that I read the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. That book and the media at large have covered the divisiveness and feelings of disenfranchisement rampant in our country. People are hurting, and I hope we can all work to heal them no matter who is president. Conversely, I hope we can all work to heal the people who feel they will be hurt by this election.

The world is a hard place, and just the way we’re built means our backs are always turned toward something, someone. The best we can do to counteract this is continue to turn around – to try and see everyone. To value them. To not dismiss them.

Our prefrontal lobes give us the edge over other species, but just. We have to continue to work on being human, humane. John Lennon asked, “Can’t we all just get along?” Well, it seems we can’t. We don’t all see things the same way and we never will. But perhaps we can do better.

Distractions:

I watched the film Heart of a Dog by Laurie Anderson the other night. It’s a beautiful film about loss in her life, of people and her dog. In it, she says that a Buddhist told her it was fine to feel sad, but don’t be sad. Feel sad, but don’t be sad. Do you understand this? I’m not sure I do, completely, but I think it’s an idea worth wrangling with. I think it has to do with hope.

A Good Idea

Writing:

Ideas are everywhere. They are sometimes fabulous and welcome. Other times they come at us unbidden. For instance, I get new ideas flying at me everyday online – ideas for home, fashion, travel, cooking. I get ideas from Pinterest and other sites, and I don’t even have to sign on daily, as they appear randomly in my inbox. Some of these ideas are wonderful. Some are strange and scary things like, “Jenny, new ways to make origami from dinner rolls!” or “Gluten-free, sugar-free, salt-free, egg-free, dairy-free, chocolate-free chocolate-chip cookies!” (Yum.) Okay, maybe I exaggerate, but not by much.

As a writer, ideas are my bread and butter (and it’s a damn good thing it’s not my job to totally support the family). But how does one tell a good idea from a bad one? Sometimes I’ll get a great idea for a writing project in the middle of the night, and I’ll scratch it into a notebook I keep nearby for catching such fortuitous thoughts. But are they really fortuitous? Sometimes they are just plain useless and rotten. Sometimes, though, they stand the test of daylight and make me happy.

So maybe that’s one way to tell a good idea, if it stands the test of time. If it doesn’t make you want to throw-up on the notebook you wrote it in and quit writing for all time.

Another way I gauge a writing idea is if I think it will resonate with others. Is it something that will make others think? Will it make them appreciate the little and forgotten gems in life? Will it make them uncomfortable? (This can sometimes be a very good thing.) Will it make them laugh? (Sometimes the best thing of all in our often sad world.) Will it move them in any way whatsoever?

Does it move me? As Robert Frost famously wrote, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

And lastly, will it move my dog? If I read something to my yellow lab, Greta, and she just stares at me, I know it’s probably not a good idea. But if she dons a fashionable hat, some beads and a sandal, and begins to dance around the house in an expression of pure joie de vivre, then I know I’ve stumbled upon something big.

Distractions:

I’ve been reading the book, Moshi, Moshi by the Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto. I’ve also been watching the series, A French Village. It’s a good series with fine acting, but I’m binge watching it late at night, and it causes me to go to sleep with disturbing thoughts of war, Petain’s Vichy Government, and Nazis (all bad ideas).

 

 

Magic

Writing:
Why We Should Not Know Exactly What We’re Doing When We Write.

In reading about authors, I’ve noticed a similar theme come up again and again, and that is that writers don’t often know quite what it is that they’re writing. Say whaaaat? One would think that if anybody should know what they’re writing, that it would be perhaps, say, a writer.

Yet, in the introduction to her novel, The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing writes, “The book is alive and potent and fructifying and able to promote thought and discussion only when its plan and shape and intention are not understood, because that moment of seeing the shape and plan and intention is also the moment when there isn’t anything more to be got out of it.”

In a similar vein, Virginia Woolf writes in her journal, “I’m certain that the only meanings that are worth anything in a work of art are those that the artist himself know nothing about. The moment the artist tries to express his ideas and his emotions, he misses the great thing.”

Also, in his book Marcel Proust, Edmund White tells us that “Proust was anti-intellectual and convinced that the domain of art, which is recollected experience, can never be tapped through reasoning or method alone, it must be delivered to us fresh and vivid, through a process beyond the control of the intellect or willpower.”

And from Carson McCullers: “I never understood what I had written until it was done.”

I kind of get all this and I kind of don’t. Of course, writers have to have some idea what they’re doing or they could never begin. Yet I’ve experienced this sort of over-logic, as Stephen King calls it in his book, On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft. King tells us that he loves “that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects.”

I think this is magical, these little secrets we keep from ourselves. And it’s part of what keeps us going as writers, this ambition to see what in the world we’re thinking, what our characters might be thinking. I think we do this in life in general as well … stumble forward while looking for connections with each other and with the world. And when we’re lucky, every once in a while we look back and say, “Ahhh, so that’s what that was all about.”

Distractions:

It’s been a c-c-cold week. Tonight, I’m joining loved ones for dinner at “The Turf Room.” We will surely sit near the fire and order warming cosmopolitans, because at this restaurant the bartenders pour these drinks so full that the liquid actually goes up and over the glass without spilling. This also seems magical, and the term to explain it is called convex meniscus. It’s when the particles in the liquid have a stronger attraction to each other than to the material of the container. Isn’t that romantic?

 

 

Long Winded

Writing:
Art: What the Heck is it?

I’ve been sitting at my desk in this grey day, listening to the wind huff and puff and rush outside, like it actually has someplace to go, something to do besides mess up people’s hair and carry crunchy old leaves from yard to yard. It’s a great writing day, a great day to get nothing productive done, a great day for contemplation. So, I’ve been contemplating writing and art and what the heck it is, and why the heck we do it. It’s such a peculiar thing to do, to sit alone at your desk all day and make stuff up. I read all the time to try and derive meaning from our day-to-day existence, and I guess that’s the whole point of art, the search for meaning. Of course, many have wrestled with this question of what art is, and I want to share a few of their answers with you: (I love quoting from others, not because I can’t think of my own things to write, but because so many splendid things have been said throughout history, that I feel it’s our job to repeat them and keep them alive.)

Art is the promise the artist makes to the community that they will not commit murder.  ~Louise Bourgeois

Art makes that pleasurable, even beautiful, which in life would be painful to observe. ~Lionel Trilling

Paintings are not done to decorate apartments; they are weapons of war. 
~Pablo Picasso (Of course, some paintings are done to decorate apartments. Think dogs playing cards on black velvet. Think of still lifes. Think of florals and hunt scenes – of which I have many on my own non-violent walls.)

Art is Anything You Can Get Away With. ~Marshall Mcluhan
(This last quote is often attributed to Andy Warhol, but was actually the creation ofMcLuhan.)

So think about the above quotes and stay tuned for my Friday post when I explain exactly why writers should have very little idea what they’re doing when they write.

Distractions:

Today I’ve been distracted by our Keurig machine which keeps secretly calling me to the kitchen to make yet another cup of coffee. I’ve also been reading the book “In the Company of Crows and Ravens,” given to me by my good friend, Steve, since he knows I love corvids and their sneaky intelligence. Also, I have salmon fillets marinating in garlic and Tamari for dinner tonight, and plan to make a chocolate cake to celebrate absolutely nothing. I love windy days.

 

 

New Writing Blog!

So what? A new blog. I am a reluctant blogger. In the gushing sea of information that is the internet, who needs one more voice?

That is the self-argument that kept me from starting this blog for YEARS. Yet, I’m coming around to the realization that I only have one chance, one voice. All together, we make a kind of chorus, albeit a discordant one.

I’ll be posting on Tuesdays and Fridays. My blog will involve two sections.   The first, titled “Writing” will be about the joys and frustrations of writing, what I’m working on, what I’m submitting, etc. I’m always interested in the writing habits of others, so I hope this will be of interest to someone. The second, “Distractions,” will be the real meat of the blog, since distractions are what much of life involves. I’ll post some pictures, let you know what I’ve been reading, etc. However, if this were a  physical page, you could spill your oatmeal on it and not be any less wise.

Also, there are samples of my writing at the pages at the top, if you care to take a look.

As I say in my “About Me” page, I hope this blog will provide you with the same thing I get when reading other blogs: contemplation, inspiration, humor, and the knowledge that you’re not alone.

So without further ado…

Writing:
I have a novel with a working title, Vern Underground, with the Chudney Agency in New York. My agent, Steven Chudney is fabulous. I’ve received some rejections, most of which have been positive in nature. (I know, “positive rejection” seems oxymoronic.) However, Steven remains positive, as is his wonderful way. While my novel  is tossed around to various editors, I’ve been working on an essay, as well as submitting some short stories to magazines and literary journals.

Distractions:
Over the last couple of months I’ve read Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (even though I don’t read a lot of science fiction, I loved this – it really makes you appreciate all that we have in our modern world), My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout (saw her speak nearby recently and she seems a wonderful gem of a person), The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante, a powerhouse of a writer, Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue (a well-written book that gives you a realistic glimpse of the immigrant experience), Hillbilly Ellegy, by J.S. Vance (is anyone not reading this book?), and A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit. Solnit is a favorite writer of mine. Her nonfiction books are full of fascinating facts about cultural history, art, politics, the environment, etc. She meanders a bit, but her writing is so good that I would follow her anywhere.

Thanks so much for “tuning in.” I’ll leave you with some holiday snapshots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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