It’s late, and I’m typing this post on my laptop on a hotel bed in Vegas, trying to pull scattered thoughts together quickly so I can get plenty of sleep before we have to wake up and finish driving home tomorrow. Really, I just want to hit the pillow, but I promised myself I would write a post tonight and schedule it to publish Friday morning. Last week I spaced it (you probably noticed), what with driving and prepping for Christmas and then Christmas itself. I didn’t want to do that two weeks in a row.

Since it’s New Year’s Eve, I’ve got the hymn “Ring Out, Wild Bells” stuck in my head, the haunting minor key of the music so perfect for Tennyson’s words (hit the play button on the link to hear the tune). We only sing three of the stanzas at church, though, so I wasn’t familiar with all eight verses:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

It reads like a prayer, doesn’t it? Like a plea: “Please, please, ring out the false, ring in the true.” Because it seems like even though we want all of this, it’s so hard to make it happen.

It’s hard just to get blog posts up on time, let alone resolving to adhere to “the nobler modes of life.”

I went back and read my post from last New Year’s Eve, and it’s amazing how one little life event — a baby — derailed most of my resolutions for 2010. Heck, it’s amazing how easily being on vacation this last week derailed my resolve to cut down on sugar (curse your tempting plates of cookies, sister!).

What does it take to make our resolves happen?

This may be one of those posts that calls for a follow-up soon, but first tell me what you think. When you follow through on your resolutions, what are the secrets to your success? How do you “ring out the old” and “ring in the new”? What are you resolved about for 2011, and how will you keep yourself resolved?

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10 Writers I’m Thankful For

I’m sure this isn’t an original idea. There are probably plenty of bloggers pursuing this kind of topic for their Thanksgiving-week posts. But I liked the thought of narrowing it down to a list of ten and thinking of how the ten had impacted my thinking and my writing in profound ways.

Of course, the challenge is limiting it to ten. At first I thought about doing ten books, but that would be even more impossible for me. Besides, I don’t want this to end up being a list of favorite books but a list of writers who have somehow changed my worldview. So here goes.

  1. C. S. Lewis — for perspective. Like millions of other people, I grew up reading The Chronicles of Narnia. The first novel I tried to write, as a fifth grader, was a spin-off of those books, with a portal to another world. As an adult, I am blown away by Mere Christianity. “It is no good asking for a simple religion,” he says in one part. “After all, real things are not simple. . . . Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed.” I also read Till We Have Faces as an adult and savored the new perspectives he offered in fictional form about religion and the new angle he gave the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
  2. Megan Whalen Turner — for twists, subtleties, and complexities. Her Queen’s Thief series is one you could read over and over. The twists made me gasp the first time around — and cheer. The subtleties made me fall in love because of the quiet moments where she gives you just a hint of what’s happening, because more than a hint would ruin it, because quiet moments can be that fragile and beautiful. The complexities made me think, like when Eugenides confronts the gods so often with hard questions about why. I learned from Megan Whalen Turner that these are key ingredients for masterpieces of fiction.
  3. Susanna Clarke — for storytelling. Who else do you know who can produce an 800-page novel — in a tiny font size, no less, with footnotes that often take up half a page or more in an even smaller font size — and have it be a bestseller? Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell taught me about storytelling. Each little footnote is a story unto itself, and every one of them is captivating. You have the option, even on the audio tracks, to skip the footnotes, but I don’t, even when listening to that book a second or third time, because the little stories are just as fascinating as the main ones. That, to me, is masterful.
  4. David McCullough — for breathing life into facts. When I was in middle school, we had to read a biography, and oh how I wish I knew about David McCullough then! He hadn’t written John Adams yet, and I have always loved John Adams because I grew up on the musical 1776. So I chose some random biography, and it was boring. Because biographies used to be that way. I could be wrong about giving McCullough all the credit for this, but it seems like he’s the one who brought storytelling to history and decided to tell it with all the uncertainty and tension it deserves.
  5. Billy Collins — for accessible poetry. I’ve always loved poetry in small doses. I started subscribing to The New Yorker just for the two-to-three poems per issue. But Billy Collins wrote the first book of poetry I read from start to finish and couldn’t put down. He solidified my love for it and proved that the modernists didn’t know everything. The Washington Post says it better than I can: “[Collins] takes the mundane thing and shows you its mystery. And he takes the mysterious and strips it naked.”
  6. Marilynne Robinson — for beauty in simplicity. Her books require an unhurried mood, but you get rewarded for that patience by a hundred gems like these in Gilead
    • “Grace has a grand laughter in it.”
    • “Love is holy because it is like grace — the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”
    • “In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable — which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.”
    • “I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years. But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction.”
  7. Yann Martel — for the power of ideas in story. In Life of Pi, when the interviewers refuse to believe Pi’s story, he has so many great responses like this: “I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.” Life of Pi is the opposite. It’s a book that does make you see higher and further and differently, and I love it for that. It’s a story full of insight.
  8. Shannon Hale, Orson Scott Card, and Laini Taylor — for magic. I didn’t consider myself a fan of fantasy until I read The Goose Girl, Enchantment, and Blackbringer. These books converted me to the kind of richness of detail they have in common. They make magic seem like something real because the worlds of their books are so real.
  9. Aaron Sorkin — for passion about intelligence. He makes “smart” look good. He says no to the standard dumbness of television. The West Wing is still our favorite TV drama of all time, and miraculously, I know both republicans and democrats who love it. Somehow, Aaron Sorkin managed to create a successful political drama that captivated audiences thirsty for an intelligent look at the complexities of both sides of politics, avoiding simplistic stereotypes. We loved his brief season of Studio 60, too, which brought the battle of intelligent television right into the show.   
  10. Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, and Kristin Cashore — for page turners that made me fall hard. My sister and I often get asked how we can be fans of Stephenie Meyer as English majors who know what “good writing” is. Well, for me, it’s because I can appreciate all sides of good writing, and these three authors taught me about creating characters that you cling to and pacing that holds you tight. I read Twilight in November 2005 based on my thesis chair’s recommendation. I started it at 7pm and finished at 2am. The Hunger Games and Graceling were similarly all-nighters for me. I had to keep turning every page, and I think there’s a lot to learn from that about what makes a good story.

What about you? What writers are you thankful for? If you’re doing a similar blog post, feel free to put the URL in your comment. I’m excited to hear whose writing has influenced you!

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The Poetry of Snow

I love the overlap of the seasons: a red fall leaf hemmed with lacy snowflakes.

anjou pear

Usually by the time snow comes the leaves are gone and white becomes the dominant feature. But snow in fall feels poetic because the colors share the scene, both more gorgeous for being together.

That’s what poetry does, right? Brings images together to intensify them both.

golden currant

Maybe that’s why these photos I took of the results of our unseasonal storm this week make me want to pull a book of poetry off my shelf and curl up with it by a window.

burning bush

Like Linda Pastan’s poetry. For some reason, these photos remind me of the end of her poem “Prosody 101”:

There was a dark edge around each flower
as if it had been outlined in ink
instead of frost, and the tension I felt
between the expected and actual
was like that time I came to you, ready
to say goodbye for good, for you had been
a cold front yourself lately, and as I walked in
you laughed and lifted me up in your arms
as if I too were lacy with spring
instead of middle aged like the camellias,
and I thought: so this is Poetry!

sugar maple

All this makes me wish I were better at writing poetry! But I’m going to be brave and put one here that I wrote in grad school for a contest. It’s called “She”:

She has draped the mountains in lace again
on a fickle housewife’s whim:
Here today, gone before you blink.
Not long ago, She swapped blossom-floral curtains
for leaf-green, then crinkly textured red.
Outrageous streaks in the blue sky mark the passing fad
of Her love affair with abstract art and return
intermittently like country-style furnishings.

Brown and white are classic now
with a deft touch of yellow—
the persistent tulip peeking through the snow.

How’s the weather where you are? Are there certain seasons or weather patterns that make you feel like reading or writing certain things?

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