Dear Mr. Dickens: An Open Letter

My dear Mr. Dickens,

I hope you are well and not at all rolling over in your grave. (It is, after all, nearing Christmas and renditions of your famous holiday tale are promenading before audiences who are mostly wondering whether they actually turned off the oven or whether the turkey they pretend to like is burnt positively to a crisp.)

I digress. I hope that you are enjoying some heavenly library and continuing to dream up wonderfully real characters, quirks and all. (Though sadly characters with fewer flaws if you are in some higher home…)

Now that the well wishes are done, I must humbly beg your pardon; I insulted you years ago, though perhaps we can lay the true blame on my mother, who insulted you first. But whether or not insults are hereditary failings, I must ask you to forgive me. I called you “long-winded” and “gold-digging,” for I heard that you were paid per word and perpetuated your propensity for prolific phrases to procure profit. (How’s that for alliteration?)

I was wrong to mock you for a trait that I share (love of words and liking of being paid for them). I also concede that I was incorrect in my accusations. You were not, as it turns out, paid per word, but rather per installment. This is most sensible, as you wrote novels in monthly installments and it seems a shame to only be paid upon the completion when readers were already enjoying your creations. I freely confess that I made these claims without reading anything aside from the aforementioned Christmas tale and even this is dubious as I my only memory of it is from the Muppets’ version. And so, I apologize most sincerely for my unbased bias.

My readers might pause here, thinking that the length of some of your works does lend some credibility to my prejudice. But here is where we must become more thoughtful. Are your books —David Copperfield for instance— actually pedantic in prose and sprawling in size? Or, are our attention spans as readers poorly lacking? Are we even reading these narratives correctly?

Life is so rapid these days and we demand constant simulation. Not only does my phone weigh much less than Copperfield, it promises more laughs and terrors per post.  Modern literary material is the same; young adult novels especially demonstrate this, focusing more often on the fantastic elevating the ordinary instead of finding what is naturally noteworthy  in this ordinary.

It is so easy to be absorbed by rapid-fire adventures and super human characters, but have we lost something? Have we lost an enchantment with our own humanity? Even just a few chapters into David Copperfield, I am rediscovering a love for the quirks of the human race. I am disgusted by characters that are as flawed as I am and cheer for those that cherish the same silly little hopes that I do. I am enraptured once more with the thought that in all my eating or drinking or whatever I do, I am somehow doing something marvelous because I am, as much as and more than any character, a unique human being set within the context of my culture and, above all, creation’s narrative.

But I am getting carried away and I will tell you now, Mr. Dickens, that I intend to write many more blog posts as I live alongside young Copperfield. For that is what it is, after all: living. There is to be no skimming, no rushing through this book; the very length and style do not allow for it! And where once I might have cursed you for this, now I bless you, sir. I am grateful that your writing, at once elegant and snappy, makes me slow down, return to a fascination with the ordinary, and truly live in community with your characters as they develop alongside my own life.

I once more offer my humblest apologies and my deepest thanks.

Your abashed and admiring reader,

Ryanne J. McLaren

 

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Lessons from a Tired Tuesday

This week, I am feeling the burnout of a senior music major. All I want is to curl up with chocolate and cry over old movies. Even on this tired Tuesday, though, the little things continue to remind me that beauty and order endure despite my messy life.

Here are a few; maybe they will help you remember that it is good to be alive and that there are better things ahead (and already here!)

  1. Why walk down the stairs when you can slide on the railing? (I did this and a girl exclaimed, “Guys! She just slide! Did you see how cool that was?” Day. Made.)
  2. Red lipstick makes even the laziest outfit, hair, etc. look intentional.
  3. Take notes. Whatever class, chapel, lecture, etc. Just the act of taking notes sets you up to be engaged and interested in the subject.
  4. Going along with #2, Bert’s Bees makes liquid lipstick and it is absolutely magical.
  5. Fallen leaves on a chilly morning. Go out of your way to step on them. The crunch is so worth it.
  6. Use honey to flavor your latte; it makes you feel healthy, tastes delicious, and won’t cost you that extra syrup charge.
  7. Dance. Maybe it’s because my professor made us watch Bride and Prejudice (Bollywood meets Jane Austen…) but I have been adding little dance steps to my walk and WOW it’s an instant mood boost.
  8. Allow space to create. I began my piano practice this morning by improvising a piece about some flowers I saw on my walk to the conservatory.

If you can find beauty in the little things, you will find beauty beyond your imagining; likewise, if you take care to order the little details, the larger will fall into place.

Method…Writing?

Method acting is a key point in my novel. One of the characters is an actor who has become “stuck” in the role that he last performed. He has lost himself into the character he was contracted to play. There are obviously a MANY problems that arise from this (many dark moments for this poor guy), but there is one lesson to learn for our benefit:

Method Creating.

First of all, to create art, you cannot always consider yourself an “aspiring artist.” If I had stayed in the mindset of “I’ll someday be a pianist” I would not have gone far as a musician. Instead, I learned, over many years of self-doubt that if you want to achieve something, you have to live into that dream now as if it is already reality. In much better words:

You have to live as if you already are what/who you want to be. If you want to be a great pianist, you have to live as if you already are one by practicing hard, humbly listening to both praise and criticism, and making original (even if not at first brilliant) artistic decisions. For too many years I worked my tail off and studied like mad, but was crippled by the thought that I had not yet achieved, that I was not yet the musician I wanted to be. In one sense this is true. I had and still do have far to go and we should NEVER stop pushing ourselves to be better or else our art (and, worse, our very selves as human beings) will stagnate.

However, you have to live and press forward with the conviction that you already are that musician (or artist) that you want to be, letting this motivate you to live up to your future vocation/goal in the present practice.

Oddly enough, I have never had a problem claiming to be a writer. To be fair, I probably should have more qualms about my claims to being a writer, for I am soooooooooo far from where I want to be. I don’t have a doctorate, haven’t published a novel, have not been invited to give guest lectures, etc.

But I am confident that one day I can reach these levels because I have already adopted “writer” as my current role. By living as a “writer” in the present, I am more motivated to actually pursue this goal than I would be had I remained an “aspiring writer” or “someday writer.”

So, I have adopted a sort of role even if it is not brought to total fruition yet, and my approach to my art is made the better for it.

What else can my poor method acting character teach us?

Surround yourself with relics.

My novel includes, to name a few, a Venetian mask, a violin, a huge volume of Sherlock Holmes, Italian postcards, red wine, a portrait, and about a million cappuccinos.

And I have all but the wine sitting beside me as I write. I can feel the characters speaking to me from their favorite curios. I hold in my hand the mask that the actor dons in a pivotal scene. I sniff the pages of the book another character read as a child. I drink the espresso one character conjures.

Through the little souvenirs I have gathered since the conception of this novel idea, I am able to enter into the realm of my story. I have adopted the role of writer, of creator, and, using tokens I have gathered from this world, am able to enter into another of my own making.

Give it a shot, maybe. What title/role would help you pursue excellence and dreams? And what little things can you surround yourself with to foster creativity and insight? Comment and let me know! I’d love to hear how your artistic life, dear reader, is thriving.

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Slight disclaimer: When I say to live into the role of what you want to be, I do not mean to adopt this as your identity. The character I used as the original example suffers this exact downfall and, let me tell you, it does not go well. Our full identity cannot be found in any temporal or merely-human characteristic and any “roles” must be held subject and united to the enduring identity promised in faith. (Indeed, though, this identity too is already given and, at the same time, yet to come, informing our lives in the present by assuring us of the future!)

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Final note: The novel featured in the photo at the top is AMAZING. Yet another reason to be excited about being a writer. 😉

Re-re-re-reading

I just finished reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind for the fourth(?) time, though, honestly, I’ve probably read parts of that book three times, parts of it six. I just can’t seem to stay away from it and end up rereading at least half of it every late spring/early summer. Whatever the exact number, I can say with certainty that there is deep and personal value to rereading a book with this regularity.

Reading #1: I read it mostly for the story and to escape what still was the most stressful semester of my life (though by now I have handled far worse).  Click the link below for my original reaction (minus some of the crying). I actually credit this book with inspiring me to start this blog in the first place!

https://abookishcharm.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/gone-with-the-wind/

Reading #2: Also read mostly for the story, but after my first year of college and living away from home, it felt good to return to something familiar. As soon as I moved back home for the summer, I baked muffins and had to make up some of the ingredients, so I decided I could rebrand them as “Melanie’s Muffins.” (recipe/post at link below)

https://abookishcharm.wordpress.com/2016/06/01/melanies-lemon-berry-muffins/

Reading #3: I was lazy and wrote nothing, but I folded the corners of one in every ten pages because I had a paper idea and was gathering evidence. (Please don’t berate me for abusing my book like this…sometimes an idea strikes and sticky notes are too far away to save the poor top corners.) After now two years of the honors institute at my university, I was reading on a new level and beginning to make connections I still find fascinating to ponder.

Reading #4: Very little reading was done, but I skimmed some of my favorite parts and carried the now-worn paperback around with me for a couple weeks as a shield against end-of-term stress. I did bring it to a pool party, though, where a friend borrowed it and left me to grouchily wish I had not been so generous (below).

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Reading #4.5: I actually read all of it this time. I even caved and bought a Kindle copy so I could read it on the plane to Ireland, justifying the purchase by telling myself that the O’Haras were Irish so it was only fitting. This time, I could not stop thinking of paper ideas… Grad school, I’m coming for you!

Beyond the intriguing literary ideas I unearthed through several re-readings, though, I was interested to see my growth as both a reader and a person reflected in my reading. The first time I read for fun, the second for comfort, the third for insight, the fourth(ish) for development of these ideas. Similarly, as a person I have stepped out of my comfort zone, have found the joy of investigating new ideas and places, and now have the joy of looking back and seeing the development I underwent along the way.

I do not reread many novels, though I know in my literary heart that I should. However, having this one novel to return to over and over again has been wonderful and I know this will not be my last rereading. Just as Scarlet returns to Tara to reconnect with her past and plan for her future, I have been comforted and inspired by this fourth(ish) rereading.

To those of you out there who have never read this book, GO READ IT. And to those of you who have never reread a book, either choose one or find one worth reading once and then again. (Shoot me a message and I’d be happy to help you out!)

Sit

I might just sit here for a bit.

Here, where I am at once everyone

and no one.

Where I can hear men talking,

dog-walking.

Where I can watch mothers and children- ducks, squirrels, human.

Where I can trace the birds’ antiphony from tree to tree.

Where I am just another flower

refreshed by a sweet sunlight hour.

Yes, I might just-

I might just sit here for a bit.

A Thank-You Note to Public School

Aside from social studies, mathematics, English, sciences, fine arts, physical education, and leadership development, one huge thing I learned during my years of schooling is to write thank-you notes. It doesn’t matter if it was a small favor like lending a book or a huge favor like driving me to school every day, it deserves a thank-you note.

In light of the recent teacher walk-outs in my home state, I thought I should write a few  such notes.

First of all, thank you to my parents for putting me in public school and supporting me  through 13 years (K-12) of an education I would not trade for the world. My mom was involved in every parent council there was, making sure that while I was attending larger schools than – say – our living room or a private school, she was present and aware and serving. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for providing constant support to not only me, but the teachers and administrators at my school.

Secondly, thank you to my teachers:

Thank you, kindergarten teacher; I remember you teaching me to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I like to believe that my commitment to responsible citizenship began then.

Thank you to my first and second grade teachers. My memory is a bit fuzzy for those years as I was still little, but I remember you both supporting my love for reading and seeking to challenge me when you saw that I was determined to excel even back then.

Thank you to my third grade teacher, for supporting my desire to become a writer. I still remember that year as the year I made the most progress as a young writer and reader because of your constant encouragement (and your offer of McDonald’s if I broke the reading record.)

Thank you to my fourth and fifth grade teachers, for pushing me to learn study habits. I had never received a B before fifth grade, but that really made me realize that I needed to up my game! I owe my proactive studying to you both.

A special thank you to my sixth grade teacher, who continues to inspire me. Thank you for challenging me, for my knowledge of world history, for amazing memories of school traditions, and for continuing to encourage and challenge me to be a good citizen, caring person, and critical thinker even now.

Thank you to my junior high school teachers. Those were crazy years for all of us and we, your former students, are truly thankful for you tolerating our adolescence. Thank you for preparing us to succeed in high school and continuing to instill a deep sense of responsibility, empowerment, and community within us.

Thank you especially to my eighth grade math teacher. Math had never been my favorite class before, but you made me not only enjoy it, but excel in it.

Thank you to my high school performing arts teachers. My music classes were my refuge in high school. I met my best friends in orchestra and choir and arrived at my college conservatory several levels ahead due to the excellence of the training I received in your classes.

Thank you to my high school English and literature teachers. College papers are a breeze because you trained me to write with precision, organization, and imagination. You renewed my passion for literary analysis and your mentorship to me as a writer and reader were invaluable.

Thank you to my high school economics teacher for training us in financial wisdom and awareness (#TANSTAAFL), to my government teacher for unveiling the mystery of American government, my algebra and geometry teachers for working with me in a subject that does not come as naturally as others, and my history professors for making me aware of the past so that I might be prepared to positively impact the future.

Thank you to the administration of my schools:

Thank you, Mr. C, my elementary school principal. You knew every single student’s name and you always were around to sing us silly songs, ask about our recess games, and make even the loneliest kid feel valued.

Thank you to my junior high principal, who was always caring and supportive, as well as a wonderful neighbor. Thank you to my high school principals who were incredibly supportive of the arts and made every student feel as if they mattered and had the potential to do great things.

Thank you to the teachers’ aides, facilities workers, counselors, bus drivers, parent volunteers, and other administrative staff. I have many memories of your commitment to students and diligence in your work; schools would not be possible without you!

A final thank you to all of my teachers. As a Christian student, I was never discouraged from sharing my views. In fact, I was even commended for my respectful manner of disagreement. Other students from different beliefs and backgrounds were also allowed to speak, for we were taught that considerate dialogue is the best way to present and understand diversity. Through this, I was sharpened in my critical thinking, strengthened in my personal beliefs, and made empathetic to the ideas of others.

It breaks my heart to see Arizona schools empty and I want nothing more than to see teachers paid in proportion to their impact. You all were and are so passionate about your work and I want to just say one more enormous “thank you.” I would not be the person that I am today had I not first been your student.