These Stories Run Deep

If Ireland is a thin place, Greece is a deep one. Walking through the labyrinthine streets of the Plaka neighborhood in Athens, you don’t have to know that people have walked here for 7,000 years–you can feel it. Cobblestones worn by millennia of footsteps, the smell of roasting meat, the hot fecund air sticking to your neck. That citadel looming above the city, the Acropolis, icon of Western civilization that millions flock to every year–that was once new. The people who lived here watched that being built.

In fifth grade we studied Greek mythology–and by “studied” I mean we colored pictures from D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths while our teacher read us the stories. The birth of Athena, the tragedy of Orpheus, the downfall of Persephone…I devoured each and every one like pomegranate seeds. When we moved on to the saga of the Iliad (a toned-down, child-friendly version, of course), I couldn’t get enough of the drama, the wit. My parents bought me a copy of D’Aularies’. I read it over and over until the spine cracked and the pages started falling out.

On Santorini, I sat on the black-sand beach and looked out towards the distant island of Anafi, imagined living here thousands of years ago, seeing Athenian sails billowing on the seas. In Crete I swam into the brilliant blue waves, remembering the sirens and Odysseus and his journey through these islands. At the Palace of Knossos I walked the kingdom of Minos, touched the stones, saw how such a place could inspire the Minotaur. I walked a city that saw the fall of Troy, that held contemporaries of Achilles and Helen and Agamemnon.

These stories run through me and here are their roots. You can hear it in the crash of the waves, what these places have heard. A murmur of something unbroken, unchanged–stories that bind us through space and time. If I’m ever able to tell stories with a tenth of that impact, with an infinitesimal fraction of that power, it will just be a continuation of a tradition that started long before me.

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Walk, Read, Write

The way I see it, if I can manage to do these 3 things every day, I’m doing alright:

  1. Walk
  2. Read
  3. Write
The first one clears my head. The second two feed me.

I’m not adding any time limits or stipulations. One thing I figured out from 2015 was to be a little kinder to myself. If I just get in a 10-minute walk, a bus ride of reading, a page of prose…that is so much better than nothing.

Full disclosure: I did not finish the second draft of my book by the end of year, like I had planned. And while I’m a bit disappointed (and mostly like OMG WANT TO FINISH THIS STUPID THING), I’m not beating myself up about it. The ending of the book is…rougher than I had remembered. A lot had to be totally scrapped, a lot written anew. The main point is I’ve been working on it, almost every day.

Austin Kleon has a blog post about how we spend our days. Ultimately, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. It may seem small, but focusing on just three things every day adds up.

Last week I was tired. Eyeball-ache tired. I hadn’t slept well, had a 9am meeting I was stressed out about, slept on my neck funny. I farted away my morning writing time on the internet and really didn’t want to walk the dog. But I pulled on my super-stylish safety vest and headed out.

A small sliver of crescent moon hung above the neighbor’s house. Towards the end of the walk, I noticed that the horizon was turning the most vibrant shade of cerulean blue. Only a week ago, it was still pitch black at that time. The days are slowly creeping longer, and I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d stayed inside.

Walk. Read. Write.

2015 Favorites

It’s not weird to me that 2015 is almost over — what’s weird is that 2016 is next. How is it that we’re suddenly in the future, where self-driving cars and computer watches and hover boards are all actual things that exist? And yet here at home, the height of normality reigns. I sit here in my sweatpants, drinking coffee out of my writer’s mug, while a cat purrs from the desk and a dog stares at me from the floor. These are all good things.

I’m excited for 2016. 2015 was a rough year in some ways, but it was also kind of magical. Restorative. There was a lot of travel, a lot of reading. I curled up into a cocoon and took care of me. And now I’m ready to bust out and say OH HAI to 2016.

But before we move on — a look back, as I do every year. My favorites from the past year — I’ll be eager to hear yours.

Movies

I did NOT want to go see this movie. I typically don’t like full-on action flicks, and one that was basically one long extended car chase…nooooo thank you. But I was cajoled… and five minutes into the movie, I was sitting there with my mouth open.

The visuals, the feminist plot, the crazy pounding music…I was hooked. I’d never seen any of the Mad Max movies before (and still haven’t seen the prior ones), so don’t know how Mad Max: Fury Road compares. But WHOA was it a kick to the nerves.

On the total opposite end of the spectrum: Inside Out. Thank you, Pixar, for creating yet ANOTHER movie that makes everyone in the theater cry.

Books

I just did my 2015 book re-cap, and I suppose all of those could be counted as “best of’s” for the year. But if I had to narrow it down… I’d go with The Sixth ExtinctionCreativity, Inc. and Half of a Yellow Sun. The first two because they kept me thinking long after I’d finished the books. And the last because — while it’s suuuuper depressing — it’s hauntingly beautiful and showed me a story I hadn’t encountered before.

Oh, and one more… I didn’t include this on my re-cap list, because it seemed like a bit of a cheat. But this year I re-read Watership Down, one of my all-time favorites. I read it on my trip to Greece (more on that later, I promise) — and I don’t know if it was the setting, or because it had been so long since I last read it, but I fell head-over-heels-in-love with this book all over again. Sitting overlooking a caldera, reading about the rabbits’ search for a new home, looking out to the endless sea and comparing this to the tale of Odysseus…that’s a memory that’ll stick.

Music

One band dominated the year for me. In April, we flew down to San Francisco to see them play because they didn’t have any upcoming concerts in the Seattle area. And when they DID come to Seattle in August… yup, we went to that show, too.

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And if I’d had the opportunity to see Alabama Shakes a third time this year? You’d better believe I’d be RIGHT THERE. The bands two albums are good — but if you can, go see them live. Brittany Howard is a powerhouse. Watching her play and sing, I got the distinct impression that I was watching someone very, very special…like, one day I’d be looking back and saying, “Yes, you young whipper-snapper, I saw Brittany in her early days. Go ahead, be jealous.”

If I had to pick one favorite song…I can’t. So here’s two.

 

Moments

Man. I hadn’t fully realized until I did that #2015bestnine thing, but 2015 was an epic year.

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Walking along the Cliffs of Moher. Discovering a sunken tree-fern forest at Blarney Castle.

Floating on Lake Washington with my bestie. Sitting at a picnic table at Crystal Mountain in the later summer sun, reading a a book next to my mom. Fly fishing and actually catching fish.

Swimming and snorkeling in the Aegean. Taking shots of raki with a Cretan restaurant owner. Basking in the sunset at the Acropolis.

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Attending the Hedgebrook writing workshop with my friend Val.

Driving through central Oregon with no AC, sinking into the heat like a lizard, reveling in the beauty that is Painted Hills.

I did SO MUCH this year — yet it still felt balanced. I need to strive for that in 2016 as well.

Food

You guys, do you know about taramosalata? It is SO AMAZING and SO NOT AVAILABLE in this country. I ate it every chance I got in Greece and now need to find the ingredients to make it at home. Byron will totally hate its fishy taste…but that just means more for me.

Speaking of fishy taste — Irish smoked salmon. I don’t know why, but it’s different than other smoked salmon. It’s smooth and silky and subtly sweet. It’s like biting into a piece of the ocean. I ate my weight in it and would happily eat it every day if I could.

Other than that…this was admittedly a weird food year for me. I started seeing a naturopath, did some allergy testing, and as a result cut out dairy, eggs and a whole lot of other crap for most of the year. I’m starting to eat them a bit now…but for a lot of the year, I was basically eating vegan.

So when I ate cheese? I REALLY relished it. You guys, cheese is AMAZING. If you can, eat it for every meal, every day.

I also developed a deep appreciation for hot toddies in Ireland that continued through the year. Hot toddies cure what ails you. Hot toddies are a dollop of sunshine on a cold, damp day. Which is a LOT of days in the Pacific Northwest, which means they’re basically the perfect Northwest drink.

What are your favorites from 2015

2015 Reading Recap

In the past, I’ve done seasonal reading recaps — but even if I hadn’t done my blog hiatus, that wouldn’t be possible because this year I read 46 BOOKS. (52 if you include my “tried to read” list).

How you ask? NO CLUE. In 2013, I read 23 books. In 2014, it was 24. I really don’t know what happened this year. It’s not like I read a bunch of short books, either. (Goodreads says my average book length was 297 pages.) Maybe I was just hungry for words.

So this year you’ll get the highlights reel — the books that stood out.

My main reading goal this year was to read diversely. Inspired by a Book Riot video, I made a point of paying attention to the authors I was choosing and ensuring I wasn’t reading all white dudes. How did that shake out?

  • I read 23 books by women authors — so exactly 50% of the total books I read.
  • 9 books were by non-white authors — 19.5% of my total.

That second number definitely could be higher — but here were my numbers before I started “paying attention”:

  • In 2013, 30% of the books I read were by women authors. 1 book was by a person of color (so, 4.3%).
  • In 2014, 50% were written by women. 12.5% were written by a person of color. (I started this diverse reading experiment in October 2014).

So it DOES make a difference. And I have to say — I discovered some authors I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, and absolutely loved. In fact, two of them have made the 2015 highlights reel…

Wait for it…

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

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Let’s start things off on an upbeat note, shall we? The Sixth Extinction lays out the argument that the earth is in the middle of a massive extinction event (there have been five other such events that we know of), and this one is being caused by humans. FUN, HUH? I’m not going to pretend that this is an uplifting read–but it IS an interesting one, and I think an important one. You’ll never look at frogs or bats the same way again, let me tell ya.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer

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This book took me a loooong time to read. Like, a year. BUT. That’s because it’s A) physically large, which means I can’t take it on the bus, and B) DENSE. I would read two pages and then just sit for ten minutes, chewing them over. A guide to writing science fiction and fantasy (or really any type of “imaginative fiction”), Wonderbook is one of the most in-depth writing guides I’ve encountered. Most talk high-level theory — how to find motivation, how to find story ideas, how to “be a writer.” Wonderbook says: “What is a beginning? What should be in the beginning? What about the middle? The end? How do you build your world? How do you flesh out the characters? What info do you hide and what do you reveal?” It’s incredibly in-depth — and for me, came at a pivotal time in my book edits.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson

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I read most of this book on a plane and struggled not to annoy strangers with my awkward snort-laughter noises. Jenny Lawson is The Bloggess, who apparently is a rather famous Internet Person, but I was not aware of this when I picked up Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. I was drawn to the cape-wearing, skull-holding mouse on the cover. And if that weirdness appeals to you, you will most likely enjoy this book. A lot of it focuses on Lawson’s childhood in rural Texas — a childhood which involved baby raccoons wearing homemade jeans, turkeys following children to school, and live bobcats being thrown at boyfriends. What’s not to love?

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

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This is a quiet little book of weird, surreal stories. It is, as the title would indicate, about almost famous women — women who teetered on the brink of long-lived fame but never quite made it, for one reason or another. And these stories are fascinating. Did you know there was a wealthy British heiress who dated Marlene Dietrich and raced speed boats and operated an island in the Caribbean? Or that there was a set of conjoined twins who toured the vaudeville circuit in the 1920’s? When I finished each story, I’d run off to Google to learn more.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull

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I read this book as self-assigned “work homework” — but ended up totally enthralled. Written by one of the founders of Pixar, Creativity, Inc. asks the question: how do you inspire creativity in a corporate environment? But the book is so much more than that. Catmull eloquently yet simply explains his viewpoints on creativity, storytelling, and how we perceive the world and others in it — all of which encouraged me to reevaluate how I tackle those issues. Plus, there are great behind-the-scenes details about the making of the various Pixar movies… and who doesn’t love a Pixar movie?

City of Thieves by David Benioff

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Earlier this year I started dabbling with a historical-fiction story, and a friend loaned me this book as a good example of the genre. I devoured it — a couldn’t-put-down, stay-up-all-night kind of read. It tells the story of Lev Beniov, a young man living in Leningrad during the Nazi siege, and his adventures trying to secure a dozen eggs in a city that is literally starving. It’s a masterfully told tale — made even better by the fact that it’s based on true events. (The author is Lev’s grandson.) And even though some horribly gruesome events take place, the book overall manages to have a lighthearted feel. No clue how Benioff pulled that one off.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

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Like We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, this was a surprising book; it went places I didn’t expect, and I liked it the more for that. This is the story of Alex Woods, a boy who’s struck in the head by a meteorite, and as such has a rather unordinary childhood. He eventually befriends a Vietnam veteran, Mr. Peterson, who shares with Alex his love of classical music and Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t want to tell too many details, as I don’t want to spoil anything. But in a nutshell: this book dealt with some unexpected moral complexities and handled them in a compelling, non-preachy way.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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Book Riot had been preaching this book up and down, so I finally picked it up. At first I was skeptical — I hadn’t realized that the whole thing was written in verse, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get into it. But as it turns out, Woodson is a great writer — you don’t even notice that you’re basically reading one long poem. Brown Girl Dreaming tells the story of Woodson’s family, of her childhood split between South Carolina and Brooklyn, and of her burgeoning love of writing. I think it’s technically considered a children’s book, but don’t let that stop you — this is one everyone can enjoy.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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I read quite a bit of Adichie this year — including Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists — but Half of a Yellow Sun gets the honorable mention for being such a total gut punch. I mean that in the best way possible; this book grips you and won’t put you down until the last page. Set in the 1960s, Half of a Yellow Sun follows several points of view through the Nigerian Civil War (or, as the characters in the book would call it, the Biafran War). Adichie is a freakishly good writer; she creates characters that evoke both love, pity and disgust within the span of a few paragraphs. So, you know, real people. And even though you know how the story will end, you’re placed so solidly in this world that you hope maybe, just maybe, it will end differently.

What books stood out to you in 2015? I’m wondering if I can hit 50 next year…

I Am a Writer

A few weeks ago I attended a “Winter Salon” at Hedgebrook, a literary nonprofit that supports women writers. I went up for the day, took classes, listened and learned.

I keep trying to describe the day to people and keep falling short. It seems no matter what I say, I can’t accurately describe the feeling there. So I’m going to try again and start small. Very small: pomegranate arils.

Hedgebrook practices what they call radical hospitality: “everything you need to nurture your soul and your creativity.” When we arrived for lunch after our morning classes, shaking our heads dry from the driving rain, we found long tables laid out with real silverware and cloth napkins. Each place setting had a winter salad dotted with pomegranate arils. It can’t just be me — there’s something decadent about those little red jewels. Pomegranates are only in season a short while, and their round, lumpy exteriors always seem such a hurtle to getting the fruit inside. But here they were laid out before us, waiting to burst between our teeth. The rest of lunch was a hearty, comforting affair — chicken soup and tomato soup and squash soup and buttery galette and brownies and gingerbread — but when I picture it in my mind’s eye, those arils are the things I see. Their presence said, “You are welcome.”

After lunch, the teachers talked about women writers supporting women writers — how elevating one elevates all. As the conversation unfolded, I looked around the room. There were writers there, like me, scrambling to figure out a path in this weird, wordy world. There were writers who’ve been published many times over. There were white-haired writers who didn’t care an ounce for the career portion of things — they were there for the love of writing.

The feeling you get at Hedgebrook is one of validation. Here is a place that says, “What you do is important, and we are here to support it.”

I’m lucky — so lucky – to have people in my life who take my writing seriously. My husband helps me carve out time and space to write. My parents always ask how the book’s going (usually with a kick-in-the-pants from my dad). My best friend encouraged me to start this blog.

Sometimes I’m not sure I take it seriously. Don’t get me wrong — I work hard. I get up early and write and I participate in writing group and I spend time (and money) to attend workshops. But when people ask me about my work — I stutter. I stammer. I mutter something innocuous and turn the conversation. I don’t feel like a “real” writer because I’ve never had my name in print. It doesn’t pay the bills. It feels like a hobby, something done in secret.

My afternoon class at Hedgebrook was with a writer named Ijeoma Oluo. Something she said has been rolling around my head for the past week and a half:

“It takes a lot for people to call themselves writers. You just can.”

So I’m trying to embrace that.

I am a writer.

To that end–I’m changing the name of this blog, to my name. I’m not hiding behind a nom de plume anymore. You can find it now at ldoxford.com.

I am a writer. These are my stories.

 

Thin Places (Or, the Goat Leg)

Empty your heart of its mortal dream. -William Butler Yeats

Have you heard of “thin places“? It’s originally a Celtic term — the idea that some places on earth are “thin” and therefore closer to “the other side,” whatever that might be.

Ireland is one of those places. Unless you’ve experienced it, it’s a difficult feeling to describe — it’s like you want to enter it, but there’s no “it” to enter. A line I wrote in my travel journal sums it up: “I want to walk away into the mist and leave everything worldly behind.” You feel it walking along the Cliffs of Moher, you feel it watching the ocean break on the coastline, you feel it driving through the bog.

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Admittedly — I totally set myself up to “feel it.” I’ve always been interested in Irish mythology, so I read a lot of Yeats before our trip. In the late 19th century, Yeats collected traditional folk tales about “the gentle folk.” And let me tell you — all in all, the gentle folk aren’t all that gentle.

They steal children, they carry away maidens, they trick and deceive. Basically, if you feel drawn to “walk away into the mist” — NOPE, turn around, it’s probably a fairy trying to trick you. And fairies weren’t the only things to look out for — there were also mermaids (and mermen), banshees, puca (changelings which often took the form of goats). If you saw the color red (the color of magic, according to Yeats), watch out.

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While it’s true that the “old ways” are mostly gone, you still get traces of them here and there. At Blarney Castle, there’s an ancient cave where they claim a witch used to live. And every August, the town of Killorglin in Kerry still celebrates Puck Fair — a festival where they capture a wild goat and name it king of the town for three days.

 

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We passed Killorglin at the start of our Ring of Kerry tour. Kerry is a county in Ireland, and it’s a wild place. Bogs and heath give way to uplands of shale, with sheep grazing wherever they can find vegetation. The predominant color in March: rusty brown shot through with yellow flowering gorse.

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A low mist hung over everything, giving an other-worldly glow — a feeling only heightened when we passed the Eightercua stones.

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Our tour paused at Killarney National Park so we could get out and hike up to Torc waterfall. Now, we’re from the Northwest, which is famed for its greenery. But the hike up to this waterfall — crazy green. Moss covered the trees, the rocks, every possible nook and cranny. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such intense, all-encompassing green. It almost hurt your eyes to look at it.

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Up at the falls, after I’d taken a few photos, Byron said, “I think I see evidence of magic.” He pointed — I saw a red coffee cup sitting next to the trail.

Now, Byron knew I’d been reading all these Yeats books, and he’d been giving me a bit of good-natured teasing. (He’ll probably protest. But I’m calling a spade a spade.) I had told him earlier in the trip about the color red and its association with magic.

“Ha ha,” I said.

“No,” he said. “There.”

I looked. A few feet away from the cup, placed neatly next to the walking path, lay a soggy goat foreleg. If the size hadn’t given it away, the hoof would have. It was unbloodied and, apart from being disembodied, perfectly intact.

“Where did that come from?” I said.

“It must be magic!” Byron said. “I don’t know how else it could have gotten there.”

“Or something ate it,” I said. We’d seen goats wandering the park minutes before.

“But where’s the rest of the body?” Byron said.

It was true — there was no sign of the rest of the goat. And the foreleg was so very neatly cut off — no sign of gnawing or bits of fur lying around. It seemed too clean to be an animal kill. And the way it was lined up next to the path, it did look like someone had placed it there.

“Why would someone put it there?” I said.

“I don’t know. Maybe an offering? It does feel like a magical place.”

I stared at the goat leg for a few moments more, both repulsed and fascinated.

“Are you going to take a picture?” Byron said.

I didn’t take a picture. There is no photographic evidence of the goat leg. I didn’t want the gentle folk to take offense.

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Laura’s New Writing Plan

It’s like Kanye’s plan, but with a lot less crop tops and a lot more word count.

Like I mentioned in last week’s post — I haven’t been writing much lately. I’ve gotten out a few short stories that I feel good about, but what I REALLY need to be doing is editing the 2nd draft of my book. I’ve puttered away at it, but haven’t succeeded at getting down to business.

I know I work better with structure. I need deadlines. But sometimes creating those for yourself… the motivation, it’s lacking.

Last week my friend Jay introduced me to a site called Pacemaker. In a nutshell: you put in your writing goals and deadlines, and Pacemaker spits out a plan. The exact number of words per day you need to write (or edit) in order to hit your goal.

So I thought… what would it look like if I made a goal to finish the 2nd draft by the end of this year?

And you know, it’s not too shabby.

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About 550 words on the weekdays. A little over 1,000 on the weekends. December looks the same. Totally doable. And I’m doing it.

As you can see, I’ve already missed one day–but that’s ok. Not beating myself up over it. I made it up on the weekend, so we’re still on track.

Breaking it down day by day, word by word, makes the goal look much more reasonable. More attainable. 550 words a day doesn’t seem scary. (On a good day, I can get that done in the morning before leaving for work.) The vision of having that 2nd draft printed up and piled up on my desk — it’s taking shape.

You just have to start. One word at a time.