Monday Motivator: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“Light tomorrow
with today!”

— Elizabeth Barrett Browning

◊ ◊ ◊

On December 10, 1845, Robert Browning wrote a letter Elizabeth Barrett, a well-known poet who had praised the younger writer’s work in print.

The letter opens with Mr. Browning’s gushing praise. “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett — and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write.”

The gushing continues.  “I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart — and I love you too.”

Cheeky!

Writers today might call security over that last line, but the next day, Miss Barrett, who was bedridden with respiratory illness and six years older than Mr. Browning, wrote to a friend, saying Browning’s letter “threw me into ecstasies.”

That’s how England’s greatest literary love affair began and we are all richer for it.  Although Barrett’s tyrannical father refused to allow any of his 12 children to marry, Elizabeth and Robert carried out their romance in secret and eloped four years later.  Her father refused to see her again.

During their secret courtship, Elizabeth wrote “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” which includes the now practically cliched line, “How do I love thee, let me count the ways.”

If you haven’t had the good fortune to read the most famous love poem of all time, here it is.  Enjoy.

Sonnets from the Portuguese, XLII
How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Monday Motivator is a weekly quote posted to encourage, inspire, and motivate writers of all skill levels and across genres.  I’d love suggestions if you have a favorite quote to share.  Click here to see past Monday Motivators.

Resources:  The Brownings,Robert Browning’s letter, Sonnets from the Portuguese (free download all e-book formats), PostADay2011

Opening Credits: The Intrigue of Book Dedications

When British author C.P. Snow received the American edition of his novel, “A Coat of Varnish,” he was surprised and confused by the dedication:

“For Kate Marsh.”

Lord Snow, author of more than 25 books of fiction and non-fiction, didn’t like to dedicate his books to anyone, and he didn’t know anyone named Kate Marsh.

It turns out that the British printers delivered a copy of Snow’s manuscript to his London literary agent with a cover note, “For Kate Marsh,” the agent’s assistant.  The note was not removed before the manuscript was shipped and the American printer assumed it was the dedication.  Once the mystery was solved, everyone involved had a good laugh, but Lord Snow and his wife didn’t find it very funny.

Book dedications always interest me.  If they are included at all, they are right after the title page, and that’s where I turn first when I pick up a new book.  If I don’t see that page, filled mostly with white space and just a line or two of text, I feel disappointed (1) that I don’t get to indulge my voyeuristic bent, and (2) that the author isn’t an appreciative type.  Surely there must be someone who helped, someone who inspired!  No?

I like reading the acknowledgments, too, but I find dedications so much more fascinating and heartfelt.  Acknowledgments can feel like an obligatory listing of thank yous and who’s who.   Of course, it’s important to give credit where it’s due, but book dedications give credit in a different way.

They are often like little mini-stories filled with intrigue or romance.  Sometimes they offer a glimpse into the author’s personality, such as Charles Bukowski’s dedication in his novel “Post Office.”

“This book is presented as a work of fiction and dedicated to nobody.”

That’s so Bukowski.

Other times they are cryptic and mysterious, like the dedication in “Peyton Place” by Grace Metalious.

“To George—for all the reasons he knows so well.”

That inscription was so intriguing it prompted Marlene Wagman-Geller to do some research.  She found out that George was Matalious’ husband, and “the reasons”  were that he was endlessly supportive, not just of her writing, but of her rebellious, non-conformist nature.

After learning that, Wagman-Geller was hooked.  Her research led to “Once Again To Zelda:  The Stories Behind Literature’s Most Intriguing Dedications.

“Once Again To Zelda” isn’t a scholarly study; of the 50 books included, only 11 don’t list Wikipedia as a source.  It sometimes reads like a supermarket tabloid filled with gossip and hearsay, but if you’re a book nerd like me, it’s riveting.

As I work toward the completion of my novel, I’ve already spent time thinking about my dedication. I wonder, my writing friends, how many of you have your dedication written?

This post inspired by: The Daily Post

Flash Fiction: Christmas Past

© Olivia Tejeda

“My great-nephew over in Prescott invited me.”
“Say again?”
“MY GREAT-NEPHEW!”
“Criminy! Irene, what are ya hollerin’ at?”
“Turn up your hearing aid.”
“They’re up, they’re up …  Are you going?”
“Where?”
“To your damn nephew’s house.”
“Land sakes, Bea, your language!  Yes, I’m going.”
“Is he the one with the kids?”
“The screaming kids, the fat wife, and the drunk mother-in-law.”
“You gotta drive all that way for that kind of nonsense?”
“What else am I gonna do?”
“Stay home!”
“By myself?  No how, Mister!  Not on Christmas!”
“My sister-in-law is flying in from Utah.  We’ll have dinner.”
“Oh good, so you’re covered.”
“I’d rather be alone.”
“Oh heavens, Bea! It’s Christmas.  Why would you want to be alone?
“You never met my sister-in-law.”
“But being alone … on Christmas … what could be worse?”
“My sister-in-law.”

Writing this story, I was reminded of one of my favorite songs, Hello in There, performed here by Bette Midler.

Thank you for reading.  To read more flash fiction from a great group of writers, search #fridayflash on Twitter or visit Mad Utopia.


Favorite Novels of 2010

The presents aren’t wrapped yet, I have more shopping to do, and those flippin’ cookies will not be baking themselves, but I’d rather think about books.  In the spirit of the season and in no particular order, here is a list of the best novels I read this year.

“Girls in their Married Bliss” by Edna O’Brien.  A Dublin bookseller recommended this book after we chatted about Irish authors.  I started reading it on the walk back to the hotel and didn’t stop until I finished.  It was written in 1964, and there are some anachronisms, but Baba is so fresh, funny, and irreverent, I loved her immediately.  The novel is the third in a trilogy about Baba and Kate, who grew up together in the Irish countryside and now live in London, both unhappily married.   The two characters take turns as narrator, and despite Baba’s sauciness and all the laughs (and there are many), the story is dark, cynical, and heartbreaking.  This novel is available in the U.S. only as part of “The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue.” I haven’t read the other two stories, or anything else by Edna O’Brien, but her work is on my list for 2011.

“Nemesis” by Philip Roth.  If you know much about me, you probably know Philip Roth is my favorite writer.  Ever.  Period.  It’s not a blind love, though, and his last few books haven’t had the stunning impact on me as “The Human Stain” or “American Pastoral” did.  “Nemesis” is set in 1940s Newark during a polio epidemic.  It is the simple but tragic story of Bucky Cantor, director of the neighborhood playground and ordinary “nice guy.”  The seeming simplicity of the writing and the story put me off at first.  I thought maybe Mr. Roth was phoning it in.  Who could blame him?  This is his 32nd novel and boy, his hand must be tired!  By the end of the book, I knew I’d judged too quickly.  The story might be simple, but it is brilliantly so.  The raging epidemic, the death of neighborhood kids, the life-altering guilt, and where is God in all of this?  Bucky wants to know, so did I.  Weeks after finishing the book, the questions still linger.  That’s powerful writing.

“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen. It took a little self-debate, but I decided to include this book on my list.  It should be here; I did like it, but I don’t understand what all the big noise was (is) about.  Franzen is an excellent writer and this is a well-told story, but the preachiness was a turn-off, and so was its occasional self-importance/ self-awareness.  Enough has already been said by others about “Freedom,” but I just read this piece from the New Yorker Book Bench blog, and I thought I’d share.  It’s pretty funny, as is the author.  The Year in Reading: Tad Friend.   It’s a great light look at a novel that no one is looking at lightly.

“The Ice Age” by Kirsten Reed. This book cover jumped off the shelf to grab my attention, and the first few paragraphs were just as strong, maybe more so.  Think of a cross between “Lolita,” “Catcher in the Rye,” and “On The Road.”  It is the story of a 17 year old girl who starts hitching and is immediately picked up by Gunther, a mysterious, quirky, older man.  Together they vagabond around the country, staying in seedy hotels or crashing with an odd cast of Gunther’s friends and former girlfriends.  The narrator, as 17 year old girls sometimes do, imagines Gunther is a vampire, but she’s also smart enough to know what a silly fantasy it is.  That’s the thing about our narrator, she’s as cool, goofy, and naive as most teens, but she’s also incredibly astute, more so than most of the adults she meets, and her insights add to this book’s poignancy.   Unfortunately, this book is not available in the U.S.  (Why not?!? — would some smart American publisher please pick this up!), but used copies can be found on Amazon, and I still have my copy if anyone wants to borrow it.

“Lost” by Alice Lichtenstein.  Susan, Jeff, and Corey, three very different and distinctive characters come together after Susan’s husband, 12-years her senior and suffering with Alzheimer’s, wanders off on a frigid New England morning. Alzheimer’s stories can get mired in the sentimental, but this novel does not; it’s beautifully and cleanly written.   Jeff, the search and rescue expert, first judges Susan to be a stoic.  As a biology professor she has a scientist’s mind for facts, but she’s more than that.  She’s also deeply caring and in love with her husband.  Jeff deals with his own trauma as his wife, a woman lost in her own way, repeatedly betrays and humiliates him.  Corey, a 12-year-old rendered mute after a family tragedy, has a secret that binds all three of them.  Each character is lost and in need of redemption, but by connecting with each other, the novel ends on a hopeful note.  Ms. Lichtenstein’s writing is spare and poetic, a perfect complement to the story.

“Bastard Out of Carolina” by Dorothy Allison.  This book has been on my list forever, and I’m so glad I finally read it.  It’s not an easy read, but it’s an unforgettable one.  Knowing that most of the trauma is autobiographical made it even more difficult to take in, and I had to put the book down a few times because it was just too disturbing.  The title refers to Ruth Anne, the main character, nicknamed Bone.  Not only does she bear the labels “illegitimate” and “poor white trash,” she must also endure the physical and sexual abuse of her stepfather.  Her large extended family is an assortment of drunks, fighters,  womanizers, and the women who put up with them.  As screwed up as they are, they are fiercely protective of one another and provide Bone with a sense of belonging and home.   Throughout the book I wondered how someone survives this kind of devastation, and I’ve since heard Ms. Allison say in interviews that writing saved her.  Lucky for us, because she tells this story with honesty, resilience, and grace.

“The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Oh, to write like Kazuo Ishiguro, with that much precision, clarity, and meaning.  Stevens, the main character and narrator, is the butler in charge at an English estate.  He is completely devoted to his employer, Lord Darlington, and blindly accepts Darlington’s words and actions, when they are clearly misguided.  In his loyalty, Stevens’ only concern is the mechanics of running a proper English household.  As the novel progresses, we learn there’s more to him than that, but his commitment to propriety prevents him from sharing that part of himself.  This is a quiet and subtle novel about missed opportunities, suppressed emotions, and a life lived in devotion to the wrong master.  Stevens is a remarkable character and this novel is a pristine example of writing that transports you seamlessly into a different time and place.

Now I need some reading recommendations for 2011.  Any suggestions?

Silly Housewife’s 10-Year Effort Produces Pulitzer Prize Winning Classic

Margaret Mitchell started writing “Gone with the Wind” while stuck in bed with a broken ankle.  The story goes that she balanced a typewriter on her knees and got to work.  She wrote on and off for ten years, creating scenes as they came to her.   Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, and Tara came to life in this novel about the Civil War and Reconstruction.

When she was done, the 1,000 page manuscript was typed, handwritten, and scrawled on the back of assorted household lists.  She had it hidden in envelopes scattered throughout the house.

Mitchell wrote for her own amusement and didn’t intended to publish until a friend’s off-hand comment that Mitchell was “too silly” to write a book incensed her enough to give the manuscript to Harold Latham from Macmillan Publishing, who was in town scouting Southern authors.  Insecure about her writing abilities and afraid of public ridicule, she changed her mind a few times, but just before Latham returned to New York, Mitchell gathered up as much of the manuscript as she could find, and stuffed them into a suitcase. She handed the overloaded suitcase to Latham, saying, “Take it before I change my mind.”

By time she got home, she panicked and telegrammed  Latham, “Have changed my mind. Send manuscript back.”  But it was too late, Latham read enough to know it would be a bestseller.

“Gone With the Wind” was published on June 30, 1936, and sold half a million copies in the first six months.   It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, and the blockbuster movie premiered on today’s date, December 15 in 1939, at Loew’s Grand Theatre in Atlanta.  It is one of the most beloved novels of all time, selling more than 30 million copies in 25 languages.  The film became the highest-grossing film in Hollywood history and received a record-breaking ten Academy Awards.

Pretty good for a “silly” housewife.


Now in Print: Best of Friday Flash – Volume One

There aren’t many shopping days until Christmas, so save yourself some trouble and give a gift that will please everyone on your list.

“Best of Friday Flash – Volume One”

What could be better?  This collection gathers sixty-seven of the very best flash fiction from writers around the world.  Mystery, intrigue, romance, sci-fi, horror, slice of life, humor.   Just about every genre is represented and each story comes in a quick hit, flash fiction format — one thousand words or fewer.

Don’t let the short format fool you.  There are some powerful stories here, including mine, “Bottom of the Ninth,” about a nervous preteen whose softball team championship rests in her pudgy little hands.

The flashes were written by members of the Friday Flash community, an online writer’s group that posts stories on their blogs and announces them via the #fridayflash hashtag on Twitter or Facebook.  The variety of styles and the amount of  talent included in this anthology will keep you turning the pages, and wishing for more when you’re done.

“Best of Friday Flash – Volume One” is available in paperback for $7.99, and  ebook for just $2.99.

Don’t wait!  Act now!

 

Curiousity, Responsibility and “The Little Prince”

On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur.  L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.  What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

From “The Little Prince”
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

A few weeks ago on Twitter, the writer Susan Orlean started the topic #booksthatchangedmyworld.   The topic became hugely popular within seconds and is still active.  Mostly fiction titles were mentioned, although non-fiction books, such as, “Toxic Parents,” “The Joy of Cooking,” and “The Joy of Sex” were popular, too.

I added a few of my own, but the titles that came to my mind were children’s or young adult lit:  “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak and “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume.

I could fill a few pages with a list of the books I love or books that affected me in a deep way, but the books that changed my life are mostly books I read when I was  young.

Today, I thought of a book that bridges the gap.  “The Little Prince” by  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is a children’s book that I read as an adult and it changed my life.

It was written as a children’s book, but its ideas of open-mindedness, curiosity, and exploration have a lot to teach adults who might have grown up and away from those child-like traits that keep the world new and exciting.

There are two parts that changed my world and have stayed with me since reading the book for the first time 15 years ago.  One is about our responsibility toward others.  The fox tells the Little Prince, who has fallen in love with a rose:

“Men have forgotten this truth, but you must not forget it. You become responsible for what you have tamed.  You are responsible for your rose.”

The second lesson is the quote at the beginning of this post.  It’s  the fox speaking to the Little Prince again.  “What is essential is invisible to the eye.

Reading that in the simplistic terms, the fox is saying the eye doesn’t see what matters most, it only sees what’s on the surface, but it goes beyond that.  It taught me that it’s important to dig deeper.  By examining, exploring, and questioning, I could learn what is essential to me, what matters most.  That lesson is something that changed my world in incalculable ways.

Happy birthday to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, born June 29, 1900. The link is to his official website, which is in French.  Use Google Translate to translate it into any language. Très facile!

(Where are the) Great Fathers in Literature

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham as Atticus and Scout Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

For Father’s Day, I want to write about great fathers in literature.

The first one who comes to mind is Atticus Finch, from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Great dad. He is honest, ethical, compassionate, and he teaches his children these qualities by example, by his actions and decisions, rather than by rote.

After Atticus Finch, there’s … ummm.  There’s, uh…  Hmm.

Okay, let’s talk about bad dads. There are plenty of those.

  • Bull Meecham from “The Great Santini” by Pat Conroy, is a tyrannical and dangerous father, whose abuse severely damages his family and nearly destroys them all.
  • In Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” the King’s pompous ego and his favoritism of Cordelia over her sisters, leads to her murder and his.
  • Willy Loman from “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, misleads his sons on lessons of life and love.  He is so deluded about his own success and his life, that his death is not a tragedy so much as it is an epic failure.
  • Disney Dads, like those of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Ariel, and Jasmine, are either absent or too hapless to do anything for their daughters.

All right, this isn’t the optimistic sunshiny Father’s Day tribute I had envisioned, and I’m finding it a little depressing that fathers are not very well represented in books.  So, I’m going to wrap this up and go make myself a Father’s Day margarita in honor and in memory of a true classic, Manny Tejeda, my Dad, who was not absent, hapless, deluded, egotistical, or tyrannical.

He taught me by example; he was honest, ethical, kind, generous, and funny-funny-funny.  He was tough, too.  Some of his expectations were more than I could achieve, or so I thought back then, but everything … all of it, was wrapped in knowing, absolutely, that he loved me.  Like all good classics, his influence lives on.

Happy Father’s Day!

Can you help a daughter out?  I’d love to list more good literary fathers, but I can’t think of any and would love some input.  He doesn’t have to be from the classics or popular fiction.  I’ll take anything at this point.  Dads deserve it!

What the Wild Things Started

Max, the king of all wild things
Max, the king of all wild things

My life-long love affair with books began with Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” As I look back now, I realize it wasn’t just the book that drew me in, but the experience that surrounded discovering it.

I was eight years old and attending a new school, a public school, and for the first time ever, I would be attending a school where I wasn’t related to anyone.

Kindergarten through second grade were spent at the heavily Catholic, heavily Italian, Sacred Heart School, which was populated in my class alone by two cousins, and outside my class by one brother, nine other cousins, three aunts who were related and at least four “aunts” who weren’t. My mom was a class mother and even Sister Catherine Michael, my first and second grade teacher, seemed like family since she came to Sunday dinner most weeks.

In that cloistered world, I thought I was related to everyone, and I never imagined that there might be a world away from those many eyes that watched everything I did.

On my own in a new school I was nervous at first, afraid of the strange surroundings. After a day or two, my nervousness settled down, and I started having the tiniest feelings of independence and the freedom that came along with it. As a compliant little Catholic girl whose every move had been monitored, I had no idea what to do with those feelings, and I wondered what Sister Catherine Michael would say.

That’s when I had the chance to explore the school library for the first time. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do there; my old school didn’t have a library, so I just followed the other kids. I walked in and out of aisles and almost over a shelf to “Where the Wild Things Are.”

I saw a classmate leafing through the pages and it looked fascinating to me. I asked God to make her put it down so I could look at it. God answered my prayer that day, even before I started a novena. I said my silent thank you and picked up the book for myself.

The art on the cover drew me in (and still does), and I couldn’t wait to turn each page to see what happened next. Maurice Sendak’s drawings amazed me, they were rich, moody and dark, and they perfectly illustrated the story of Max, the wildly, mischievous boy, who jumps off the pages and shouts, “Let the wild rumpus start.”

Max was exactly what I needed. I was a passive, obedient, timid child, but Max sailed treacherous seas, he swung from high branches and tamed wild beasts. From him, I learned that I didn’t have to be afraid of the world outside my door. I learned that sometimes I could do what I wanted, instead of what someone told me, and that I didn’t have to pray for forgiveness every time I misbehaved.

Throughout my life, I’ve had my Max moments of wild adventure and reckless abandon, but I never quite reached his level of daring. I didn’t need to. What I needed was the lesson Max taught me in the pages of that book, and the thousands of other lessons I’ve learned in the pages of thousands of other books that have pulled, pushed, tugged, roared, and forced me through my own rumpus.

Nearly forty years later, books are still my passion, and I’m still not sated. I’m a reader, a writer and a book-maker, and it all started when Max reached out from that library book and pulled me into his wild world.

Thank you for reading! I’m getting ready to submit this as part of a collection of creative non-fiction. It’s different from the other pieces, and I worry that it might be too sappy or come off as insincere. I’d love some input!

June 16: It’s Bloomsday Yes it is Yes Enjoy Yes

Today is Bloomsday, June 16, the day all the events in James Joyce’s Ulysses take place.

Named for main character Leopold Bloom, Bloomsday is celebrated by Joyce fans around the world, with a huge celebration in Dublin, where the book is set.  Fans spend the day honoring Joyce, reenacting scenes from the novel, and generally having a wild time.

Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife is lusty and seductive, even crude in comparison to Leopold’s more cerebral nature.  Both Blooms have had affairs and at the end of the book they continue to question the value of their marriage.  Yet in Molly’s 24,000 word unpunctuated stream of consciousness soliloquy that ends the novel, it’s hard to deny the joy she finds at the hands of her husband.

In honor of Bloomsday, the final words of Molly’s soliloquy:

… Yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Happy Bloomsday, everyone.  Yes?