what I’m playing: North & South

I discovered the BBC miniseries North and South (adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the same name) on Netflix’s recommended-for-you list. I’d just finished watching several film adaptations of Austen books, my husband was away for a few nights, and I needed something to while away my lonely evenings (okay, so I was avoiding writing). And, wow! North and South has catapulted to the top of my list of favorite classic adaptations, eclipsing even the Jennifer Ehle-Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. You can keep your Mr. Darcy; Richard Armitage as John Thornton is much more interesting (and better-looking!) hero.

Gaskell’s stories are a different breed from Austen’s. Austen’s character studies are incisive, but her world is small and her focus tight. Gaskell, on the other hand, is a more passionate writer and willing to take on the larger issues of the Victorian era. In North & South, she depicts the differences between the industrialized North (of England) and the more rural South in the clash between “master” John Thornton and newcomer Margaret Hale, a former rector’s daughter who sympathizes with the workers. Gaskell highlights the problems of industrialization–low wages, poor working conditions, chronic health problems–which drive the workers into a protracted strike, a “war” against the mill owners. The strike creates its own issues for workers and owners alike, however, and Gaskell meets them head on.

This is also a fish out of water story, a theme I very much enjoy. Daniela Denby-Ashe’s Margaret is level-headed and capable, yet grieves the loss of her rustic home deeply. It’s a shock to her to coem from the sunshine, fields and slow ways of the South to the grey, grim, dirty and crowded North. Unused to the ways of the North, she bungles her initial social interactions, but is quick to admit fault and make amends–mostly. She takes Mr. Thornton in deep dislike right from the beginning (a la Elizabeth Bennet) and it takes most of the book for her to come to see his value. Indeed, it takes her most of the book to see the value in his industrial town, the fictional Milton. It’s a long, heartbreaking journey (there is some melodrama in the story, but I don’t mind it).

One of my favorite scenes of the series is this one, depicting Margaret at her lowest point, seeing Milton in the worst light:

http://youtu.be/F0tq_Qmc0_Q

Thornton, a self-made businessman, epitomizes the dynamism and industry of the North. He’s blunt and forceful, but Richard Armitage imbues his character with passion and integrity also. I like that Thornton works for a living, that he’s worked hard to get where he’s at, instead of being born into it and spending his time on an endless round of house parties.

The soundtrack is beautiful and haunting, but unfortunately BBC has released neither a CD nor the score for it. After hunting around on the Internet (and YouTube) for a bit, I found an arrangement for a piano version of this:

And that’s what I’ve been playing recently.

a day in the life

What? I need a reason?

At the outlet mall yesterday:

Me: And after the kitchen store, we can hit the bookstore!

D: *eyes suspiciously* Do you NEED anything from the bookstore?

Me: Noooooo

D: Then why go in?

Me: Because it’s there, of course! (Silly!)

D: Not buying that. Get thee to a clothing store and buy yourself some jeans.

So, like a good little girl, I trotted off to the clothing stores. It only took me ten or so tries to find a pair of jeans that were neither too loose nor too long.

D.  thinks I should shop in the Juniors section. I told him that, as an almost-thirty-year-old woman with three kids, I have a moral opposition to doing that.

However, the next day…

I went to Borders with a 40% off coupon, and went on a book-buying binge. Ha!

Developmental Milestones, the Trampoline Version

The Baron: *butt-scoots over to the trampoline* *pulls up on it*

Me: Awww, good going, baby!

Baron: *clambers on to the trampoline” *sits there, bouncing gently*

Me: Erm… Not quite what I expected you to do.

Baron: *scoots across the trampoline to the window* *pulls up on sill* *stands there, peering over the sill, bouncing gently* I’m King of the World!

Me: All right, Your Majesty. Your moment of living dangerously ends now.

The Little Dictator

D: *does something Baron doesn’t like*

Baron: *FUSS fussfussFUSS*

D: *stops doing whatever it was that Baron doesn’t like*

Sir I: Baron rules Daddy with an iron fist.

No, really. The almost-five-year-old actually said that. And no, I don’t know where he came up with it.

The Difference Between Boys and Girls

When Sir I. was a preschooler, he would build towers and knock them down, have his dinosaur do things like, “Stomp, stomp! Eat people!”, and send his lego planes zooming and crashing all over the place.

When Miss M. builds lego planes, she builds a Daddy Plane, a Mommy Plane and a Baby Plane. Baby Plane gets a ride on Mommy Plane because “he can’t not know how to fly yet”.

and, bad practice techniques

I, um, did something to my right arm by playing too much piano. It had limited movement all day yesterday, but the twinges are almost gone now. Lesson learned. Check for proper posture and position *before* playing for a long time.

How’s your weekend?

about writing

Yes, I know this is a boring title, but it’s hard to come up with something witty and pithy for a serious subject. I’d like to point you to Glenda Larke’s post on what defines a successful writer, which came on the heels of a long dry season in my writing life. This drought lasted all summer, maybe even stretched back to the beginning of the year. I’ve had some uplifting writing moments so far this year–I wrote a short story I really liked, submitted to places that gave me reassuring rejections, even saw two stories published. But those were small oases that I had to leave, and the water they supplied me with did not last long enough (yeah, I’m really stretching that desert analogy here!).

What it all came down to was this: my twin desires to write and to be published were at war with one another. The drive to achieve one was strangling my love for the other. I pored over magazine and agent’s guidelines, and forced myself to work on projects that were the most marketable or near-enough complete so I could get them out faster (hint to self: don’t do that again. It doesn’t work. Any love you have for that project will fizzle out under such pressure).

At about the same time I persuaded D. that we should get a piano–for the kids! It took me a while to get someone out to tune it, but once it was in playable condition no one in my family could keep their mitts off of it. We even had minor arguments about who could play it when. I got a piano book (because that’s the kind of linear, orderly, rule-oriented person I am) and started working my way through it. Hit a brick wall and decided to find a piano teacher. Sir I. went along to that first lesson and was game to learn the piano, so now we’re both playing. And enjoying it.

When I play the piano, I play it for me. For my pleasure, not the pleasure of my family, my piano teacher, or my neighbors. I have no need to perform for others. It’s enough for me that I can train my fingers to move over the keys–confident, assured–and create music. Wow.

Totally different from how I’ve felt about writing.

It’s taken me time away, freewriting, mindmapping, angsting and conversation with a good writing buddy, to come back to the point where I can say, yet again, that writing is important to me. That creating compelling characters, twisty plots, gorgeous prose and bizarre worlds is what I enjoy doing. That I still love writing stories even if I’m not getting published often enough and fast to suit me. The desire for publication is still there, but it’s been put in its place as subordinate to the desire to just write for its own sake–for my own sake.

I ditched the marketable projects–abandoned a short story and a quarter-done novel revision–to work on the story that was really tugging at my heartstrings. I’m building up my writing muscles, aiming for 500 words a night, five times a week. And no beating myself up if I skip a night.

Writing is fun. And that’s how I want to keep it.

piano and writing

I haven’t talked recently about playing the piano, but let me reassure you that it is still happening. Sir I. and I started taking lessons over a month ago, and we both enjoy them, including the time we share together driving to and from lessons. Our teacher lives way out in the country–about half the route is on dirt roads–and we like to point out to each other the place we once saw foxes(!) crossing the street and the Hallway of Trees and the farm with the flagpole and pond. It’s good mother-son bonding time.

Oh, and I like playing the piano, too. Still. *wink*

Playing piano complements writing really well for me. I can’t write while the kids are around; I can’t play piano while they’re sleeping. Writing is hard mental work; playing is–well, I just sit down and make my fingers stumble over the keys in the hopes that I can build up the skill and strength and muscle memory it takes to play decently. And honestly, these days I feel more of a sense of accomplishment playing through a short piece of music than working on my writing. Maybe it’s because I’m a complete beginner at piano, so any progress feels like a huge leap to me.  My learning curve for writing, on the other hand, is currently a plateau. I’ve reached a certain level of competence and I’m stuck there. I can *see* where published work is better than what I’m writing, but not sure how to go about getting my stories across that invisible line.

And so, it’s just easier to go play the same measures of Sea Mist for the umpteenth time.

But, lest you think this is an entirely gloomy post, I have every confidence that once the weather cools down and we get into fall, my story-writing neurons will get all fired up to write. It’s weird, but cold weather makes a writer out of me. It’s as if I have a silicon brain, like the Discworld trolls.

How are your creative endeavors?

muscle memory

It’s been six days since I started teaching myself to play the piano. At first, I was completely flabbergasted by what I was working towards: You mean I have to know what notes all the keys are, which fingers to play them with, read music and keep time, and eventually have both hands doing their own thing at the same time?? Riiiiiight.

Muscle memory is a wonderful thing. Twenty minutes in the morning after breakfast, thirty minutes after dinner, every day, and I’m already doing things that I wouldn’t have believed possible for musically-challenged me. I hunker down, concentrate on a snippet of music, play the same notes over and over again, until my fingers are doing it on their own. Like crocheting, beginning is the hardest part; figuring out the pattern, the several false starts, the forehead-furrowing eyes-narrowing concentration, and then, suddenly my fingers are no longer tangling all over themselves, but sure, confident, strong. It’s like running, or flying. I don’t have to think about it. I just do it.

There’s not much muscle memory involved in writing fiction (unless you count typing or handwriting, which I don’t). It’s much more of a cerebral activity. Yes, there is inspiration, and yes, I have written as if my fingers were on fire, but it’s not quite the same thing. Crocheting, gardening, piano playing–they’re all things I do to rest my mind, to let it coast, in a way that I can’t while writing.

To think that I was concerned that the piano would sit around unused when we got it. The husband, Sir I. and I have been jockeying for piano-playing privileges. The husband flips pages in the piano book until he finds something he’d like to plunk out. Sir I. plays falling snowflakes and thunderstorms in Michigan. Me, I’m the one methodically working my way through the book (page 16. hooray!). Which, I suppose, tells you a lot about the kind of person I am. I’m thinking of splurging on lessons for myself, to undo all the bad habits I’m undoubtedly teaching myself.

Heh. Piano. About the last instrument I would’ve picked for myself. It was always the violin or the flute that I regarded in a romantic rose-colored haze.

Now, do you think the baby will grow up to have perfect pitch? He certainly spends a lot of time under the piano bench while I practise.