Saturday, November 30, 2013


There has been a discussion online about the lack of people of color in the Pixar movie Brave. The movie is set in an imaginary version of medieval Scotland, so I didn't notice the lack. But it would have been easy to fix. Have one of the suitors be mixed race, with a one line explanation. "His mum washed up on shore after a shipwreck." This actually happened in Scotland. A Portuguese ship broke up off shore, and a black woman was rescued. She was taken to the king, who made her a lady of the court and held a tournament in her honor. The story is from Basil Davidson, and it's later than the period of the movie. Still, a ship with PoC could have broken up off Scotland in the middle ages. The suitors are all sort of idiots, but in a broad comedy most of characters are going to be idiots in one way or another.

One problem is Hollywood's need to take up only one issue at a time. The heroine of Brave is a tomboy and a genuine hero, who acts. The movie is focused on a mother-daughter relationship, which I can really relate to. My mother often reminded me of a bear. And the movie passes the Bechdel test: two women talk about something other than a man. It would be asking a lot of Hollywood to add in race. I'm not saying we shouldn't ask, but Hollywood really does have a hard time dealing with more than one issue at a time.

Back in the late 1960s, I wrote a 65 page poem set in the world of Spenser's Faerie Queene, and I set myself a rule. The characters had to be equally female and male. Each time I introduced new character, I checked the list of characters. If I was short females, the new character was female. If I was short males, the new character was male. I also tried to make the good and bad characters equally female and male. I did this to break the habit of making characters male. It had to be this mechanical, because -- having grown up on SF and comics and TV -- men were the default sex. After that, it became easier and more natural to introduce women. Instead, I worked on introducing people of color, with mixed success. Readers have told me that they imagine the human protagonist of A Woman of the Iron People as white. Her name is Li Li-xia, which I would think is a clue.

I guess I'm arguing that one should make an effort to create diverse characters, and in a novel or short story, one may need to hammer in the fact that characters are not white.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

A sunny day. Temp 23 F. My weather widget tells me clouds will be moving in. I exercised yesterday, then stayed home. Did a load of wash and put it away. This may sound minor, but getting the duvet back into the duvet cover is a struggle. Paid all my bills. Ordered some holiday gifts online.

Lay on the couch and thought about a possible story. I have a good title and some ideas that haven't come together yet. Made an unsatisfactory dinner. (I will never get that kind of pasta again.) Watched Wall-E and went to bed.

Today I will cook, while Patrick cleans. Patrick and I spend most Thanksgivings quietly and alone. We will have guests for Christmas, so I am doing a test run on Christmas dinner today.

Hope everyone has a happy holiday.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


I'm thinking, thanks to a conversation on facebook, about how I write. I done very little teaching of writing, and -- as far as I can remember -- I have taken no fiction writing classes. No. That isn't right. I began a YA novel class at The Loft and quit after three weeks. The teacher kept using examples from her own work, which was not good.

In any case, I have learned very little about the theory of writing. Instead, I've read a lot.

People in the facebook conversation talked about the important of plot and motivation. Being contrary, I argued that you can write good fiction without a plot or motivation. The example I gave for good fiction without a plot was Calvino's Invisible Cities. Borges is another example. It's possible to write fiction without characters and therefore without motivation. Some of my favorite fiction is made up of descriptions of imaginary cities, anthropology, history. Angelica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial, Ursula LeGuin's Changing Planes and Always Going Home. Part of AGH has characters and a plot, but I really like the rest: the history and anthropology, folklore, recipes... One of my favorite recipes is from AGH. Maybe I'll make it tonight...

You can write about characters without describing their motivations. Maybe their motivations, if any, remain unknown...

Then I began to think about my writing, since it's the writing I know. I am more aware of plot than I used to be. I used to start stories with the first line. I'd write it down and then see if any more more lines followed. If they did, were they interesting and evocative? I still do a fair amount of this -- feeling my way through the story. When I was younger, many of the stories died. The opening lines went nowhere. Later, I was able to figure out ways to continue. I often write characters from the outside in. I describe what they are doing. Then my writing group says they don't understand the character, so I put in motivation.

Because I write SF, which has a pulp origin, I am aware of the need for action and motivation and plot. So while I am wandering through my story, I periodically have something happen. A monster jumps out of the underbrush. There is a fight. Then the characters go back to what they are doing, often having a conversation. In many ways, my longer fiction is a G. B. Shaw play with monsters.

I don't think I've ever written anything without plot or motivation. But it's often stuck in to make my writing group and editors and readers happy. So what interests me in writing? Language, images, ideas.

I may well decide that all of this is bushwah, and my writing is actually about something different. It depends on the day and my mood. But I spent ten years in my early adulthood writing poetry, and -- in a lot of ways -- my short fiction, when I began to write it, was like lyric poetry. My early novels were all picaresque. Set the characters in motion in an interesting landscape and see what happens.

I haven't gone through my life with motivation. I have some fairly strong interests and dislikes. Given these, everything else just happened. No ruling passion. No driving ambition or emotion. Just bumbling through life.

Looking back (I am old enough to look back), I can see continuities, impose structure and meaning on my life, but mostly it's just a life.

My fiction is like my life. Though I create more interesting settings, and I do throw in a monster now and then, and I talk about ideas...

Post script: I notice that this post is in direct contradiction with my previous post, in which I said I like motivations. Well, I do, especially in a superhero action movie. In a movie full of smash, bang, crash, thud, you need large, strong, simple motivations. Otherwise, they will be lost in the noise. There is nothing wrong with plot, character, motivation. But they are not always necessary. And I don't like rules for writing.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


We watched the first Thor movie again last night. Taken all in all, it is not as good as the Jane Austen movies we've been watching -- or maybe it is simply different. Lots of crashing and smashing and booming and not a lot of character development, except for Loki. Patrick suggests that Loki would be a good candidate for psychotherapy, and it's a pity that there is (apparently) none available in Asgard. All Loki really wants is to be loved.

The movie belongs to Tom Hiddleston as Loki. In part -- good part -- this is due to Hiddleston's acting. The guy can act. But it's also due to the plot. Loki is the character with the real, the terrible problem. He loves his father Odin and wants his approval; he is envious of his brother Thor; and he discovers that he is adopted. He is not an Asgardian, one of the good guys. He is a frost giant, the enemy, a monster. His physical father, his "real" father is Laufey, king of the frost giants.

Early in the movie Odin tells Thor and Loki, "you were both born to be kings." But Loki -- it turns out -- was born to be a king of Jotenheim, the land of the frost giants, which is cold, dark, bleak and ruined. What kind of deal is that? He wants Asgard, which looks like a city of the future out of 1940s science fiction: golden towers like pipe organ pipes and a sky made up of Hubble telescope images.

Thor is a big, strong, good-looking, likable oaf, whose problem is immaturity. He needs to grow up and learn to be a decent human being as well as a god. That done, he is his father's heir. He gets golden Asgard. Loki, who disappears into a black hole at the end of the movie, is left with envy and loss and malice.

He reappears in The Avengers, where he is the villain and badly underused.

As you might have figured out, I like Loki. He's a fascinating character in the Norse myths -- a typical trickster, sometimes good, sometimes bad, ultimately unreliable and dangerous. Thor's comic sidekick and the parent of monsters. The Thor movie gives Loki real motivations. I like real motivations.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Winners and Losers

I posted the following on facebook, then did some thinking.
I really, really liked Tom Hiddleston in Thor, and I expect to like him in Thor 2 and the current BBC version of Shakespeare's history plays. But he has become way too popular.

He's a terrific actor. But extreme popularity makes me uneasy. Don't ask me why.
One of the reasons I draw back from extremely popular actors and writers is my dislike of living in a society of winners (a handful) and losers (the vast majority). I would like fame and money spread more widely, so everyone had enough money and regard.

Society works because many, many people act together to make it work. Only a few are rewarded, and those few are rewarded excessively. I speak with feeling. I think I am a pretty good writer. But I have not ever come close to making a living at writer.

I write too little and too slowly. But I know writers far more disciplined than I am, who write many good books and cannot make a living. In the same way, most aspiring actors, dancers, musicians, artists give up ultimately, because it's too hard to hold a day job and create art in their spare time.

Then there are the people who hold society together -- clean buildings, serve food, do childcare and patient care, work in warehouses and factories and on farms -- and can't make an living wage.

I don't like it. I don't like hero worship, and I don't like celebrities. Instead of daydreaming about famous people and imagining ourselves as billionaires, we should appreciate our own lives and make them livable -- and go to local theaters and concerts, that do not showcase world stars.


We drove down the river yesterday and did not see any large, white, migrating birds. (We had hoped for white pelicans or tundra swans.) We did see a few eagles. The day was mostly overcast, but sunlight broke through now and then, lighting the bluffs and the water. The bluffs were cream white, the oak trees brown, the water steel gray. It's a pretty trip, going down a two-lane on the Wisconsin side, one small town after another. We stopped at the BNOX Gallery in Pepin, where I have been buying jewelry for decades, and I bought a brass bangle by a jeweler whose work I have been buying for decades.

Friday, November 08, 2013


I have a bad habit that dates from childhood. Once I achieve something, I check it off my list and then move on to the next thing on the list, without spending much time at all enjoying my achievement. My childhood is so far away now, that I have no clear idea of what caused this.

In any case, at one point I got interested in gratitude practice. The idea was for two or more people to write about something they were grateful for, and read what they had written aloud. In this way, they focused on the good things in their lives. I saw it as way to slow myself down, so I could see what I had achieved and what my life was really like.

I did this briefly with a friend. The problem was, it became (in my mind) competitive. My friend wasn't trying to compete with me, but I felt I was bragging about my life in describing the things I was grateful for. This made me uncomfortable, and we stopped the gratitude practice.

I think the problem was -- I was being grateful for achievements, and I ended sounding like the dread Christmas letter that tells everything good that has happened to a family in the past year.

A friend of mine on facebook is doing a gratitude practice right now. Today she is grateful for Honeycrisp apples.

So what am I grateful for? My friends. Harelson apples. My relatives. The approaching winter. Writing. My two writing groups. Patrick. Our joint passion for Jane Austen and Jane Austen movies.
The St. Paul Farmers Market. Facebook. Our plan to drive down the Mississippi tomorrow and look for migrating swans and pelicans.

Thursday, November 07, 2013


I like November -- the muted, faded colors, the migrating birds. I like thinking about writing a novel in November and then not doing it. I like snow and the prospect of snow. But the shortening days and overcast skies -- November is the cloudiest month in Minnesota -- are a problem, especially if I forget to turn on my lightbox. However, on the bright side, I turned on my lightbox this morning, and it glared into my eyes for at least half an hour. Maybe I can convince Patrick to drive down the river this weekend to look for migrating swans and pelicans and to stop in the BNOX gallery in Pepin.

Weather Report

We were supposed to get a winter storm two nights ago. There was a little snow on the ground and on the branches of trees when I got up yesterday, but the promised storm apparently passed us by.

However, there was snow on a number of the cars driving past me as I went to the gym. Maybe there was more accumulation in the suburbs. One car had a mixture of snow and leaves. It must have been parked below a tree, I think a maple; and the snow must have been wet and heavy enough to bring down leaves. Rather neat. The driver had cleared the windshield, but not the hood or roof.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Crex Meadows

We finally made it out of town to look at birds yesterday. Our destination was Crex Meadows Wildlife Area, a marsh in Wisconsin 70 miles northeast of the Twin Cities. The day was bright and crisp when we set out, with high clouds coming in that gradually covered the sky. The fall colors were muted, which makes sense in November. A lot of trees have lost their leaves. Others are still green. The oaks are turning, and I was trying to describe their colors to myself as we drove to Wisconsin. Brown, deep red, dull orange, a kind of yellow brown, and a silvery brown. I don't know if the different colors indicate different kinds of oak.

Crex Meadows itself is a mixture of marsh, open water and oak savannah. This time of year the sandhill cranes are migrating through. During the day, they are off at neighboring farms, eating in the harvested corn fields. But we saw over a hundred feeding in in the wildlife area and a fair number of sandhill cranes in flight in small groups.

In addition, we saw two pairs of trumpeter swans and four tundra swans in a group, two adults and two immature birds, a male marsh hawk and three flying birds, too distant to identify for certain, but the way they were flying suggested they were rough-legged hawks. Oh, and an adult bald eagle, which flew up from a tree as we were leaving Crex Meadows.

There were little, black and white birds along the road in the wildlife area, which I had not been able to identify yet.

All in all, a satisfying day, though we were both tired after six hours in the car.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

November Farmers Market

The Farmers Market was sparse today. A lot of venors have stopped for the season. The flowers are gone, except for ornamental kale bouquets and one guy who has a greenhouse. There are still some tomatoes and green peppers, lots of apples, winter squashes, brussel sprouts, eating kale... I got a kale bouquet, baguettes, an apple pie, pasta from the bakery on the Iron Range, spinach and cauliflower.

Being Poor and Buying "Luxuries"

This is an excellent post from Talking Point Memo on why poor people sometimes buy luxuries.

I want to add my reason.

I have not been poor, but I never had a lot of spare money, due to decades of clerical jobs that didn't pay much. When I wasn't working clerical or warehouse jobs, I was working for nonprofits that paid badly. My writing got me pocket change. I once told an editor that writing earned me enough money to go to cons and buy Laura Ashley skirts. (This was back when Laura Ashley fashions were a deal.) Living in a consumer society, surrounded by advertising and stories about rich and famous people gnaws at you, if you don't have enough money for "nice things." It is hard to be 100% prudent and thrifty for your entire life, all of it, cradle to grave. Some people can do it, but it's hard. The desire to splurge builds up; and -- now and then -- you will buy something really nice, something that makes no sense, just because it's a luxury in a life that involves a lot of careful thinking about money.

Post Script: It turns out that the link above gets you to the NASA pumpkin carving contest. Here is the link to the essay. I have left the NASA link, because the video is neat, and because life should have some unexpectedness.