Friday, April 24, 2015

Knowing What They Want From You

How many of us are asked to look something over and give an opinion?  In general, not limited to professional requests?  Most of us, right?  From the child who comes up to you in an outfit he put together himself and asks ‘how do I look?’ to the acquaintance who comes shyly up to you and asks if you would mind looking at his ‘story’ and telling him what you think. 

It’s a part of living, people asking for your thoughts.  To a great degree, that is what underlies a great deal of modern business.  Consulting, diagnosing, advising (financial, editorial, culinary, medical)…it is everywhere.  Say, can I ask you what you think of this? 

Years ago a friend, who posted regularly on a board I used to frequent, began a very small photography business. She was in a home situation where she really needed to make a little money to make ends meet. And since she had some ability, she hired herself out to take photos of children’s birthday parties, pets, horsey events, all on a small scale in a rural area of the United States. She shared some of her photo scrapbooks with the board and asked how we liked them.   They were good, for a beginning professional. In fact, I’d have described her work as that of a ‘talented amateur’. She needed polish and practice and the opportunity to rub shoulders with other professional photographers, but the eye was there, and improvement was inevitable.  

Most of the people oohed and aahed over the pet photos, said nice things, were supportive. But one person responded differently. "These are terrible," she said in her post. "Look at that cat photo and then go to Chanan Photography's website and look at his photos. You aren't in the same league." Nothing helpful was said, no specific criticism, just the overall, scornful thumbs-down. And she said she was being helpful to a friend. 

I’m often asked to try something a friend cooked and let him know if it’s all right.  Someone has found a new favorite type of music.  Someone is considering getting a certain type of car.  Someone wants me to read something he or she has written, whether a manuscript or a published book or a sheaf of poems. What do I think? 

I think a lot of things.  I have a decent eye for art (can’t draw at all, myself), enjoy music, know how to cook to suit myself, and I write.  The important question is this:  What is the asker looking for? 

That person standing with a happy smile and a manila folder with papers in it, the friend who emailed me with a .mobi attachment, the friend who calls me up in excitement because she has the most fabulous idea for a story and she’s just so excited!  What do they want?  Do they want me to give my unvarnished, sincere assessment of a piece of work?  Like a line-edit or a beta-read?  Where they want me to be completely factual?   

I can do that, and I can be thorough about it.  I can say, “You know, a strong man wearing a lion skin and fighting a twelve-headed dragon-like monster has been handled many times.  It’s old hat now, unless you can put a good spin on it.” To a good friend I can say, “You just told me you’ve got a deadline breathing down your neck right now: are you making excuses to fail, or has this truly grabbed you?”  Or I can say, “A new spin on Heracles and the Hydra?  That could be fun to write…  How would you have it set?  Modern times?  Magical realism? Or dystopian where the old gods and monsters of mythology return?  Hmmm…” (Note that none of these are destructive.) 

I was in an advanced Poetry class, my senior year in college.  As in writing poetry.  I’ve inflicted enough of my verse on readers of this blog, so won’t give examples. 

A delightful older woman, a part-time student, was drinking coffee with me one day after class.  She liked what I wrote and thought I might like to see her daughter’s work.  Would I mind?  I told her that if her daughter did not object, I’d be happy to. 

I saw her at the next class, and she put a folder full of handwritten sheets into my hands, beamed, and left.  I returned to my dorm room, sat down and put my feet up, and began to read. 

The poems were scraps of self-conscious emotion.  The words had no flow.  It was like listening to the disjointed exclamations of someone on the phone after a major event.  They were, for me, truly terrible.  Not at all to my taste,  nothing that I would ever want to purchase or read.  I gathered the pages, tapped them into alignment, put them in their folder, and sat back to think. 

I saw the mother at the next class, and handed the folder to her with a smile.  She returned my smile with a delighted one of her own and sat down beside me.  “Did-did you read them?” she asked. 

“I did,” I said. 

The smile widened.  “Well?  What did you think?” 

“Your daughter writes with pure emotion,” I said, and watched her smile soften.  “It is as though her pen is catching her feelings and putting them on the page.  As though I am sitting there with her as she feels things and expresses them.” 

Now she was beaming. “Yes!” she said, holding the folder against her chest.  “She is so…so spontaneous.  I knew you’d see it!” 

“It was generous of her to share them with me,” I said. “I sense that she is very private, and it probably took her a struggle to agree to it.” 

The mother smiled and put the poems away.  “She is.  I’m proud of her.” We continued friendly until I left the university to graduate. 

I could have given a critique of the poetry.  I could have told her just what I didn’t like about her daughter’s poetry.  I could have told her to check the poetry of (name any one of hundreds) and see where she fell short.  I could have given suggestions for change.  The reason I did not is that it struck me, as I was thumbing through these very emotional, very private writings, that my friend only wanted someone she thought was a good writer to look at her daughter’s work and say, “Isn’t that wonderful?”  That’s all.  Everything I said was true.  And, looking back after twenty years, I suspect her daughter grew and evolved and harnessed that emotional power into something pretty good.  You never know. 

My point is that when we are asked our opinion of another’s work or idea, we need to be certain what is being asked of us, and to moderate our response accordingly.  If a line edit is not requested, don’t give one.  Or else say, “If I run into a typo or something, do you want me to mark it?  It’ll interrupt the flow, but I’d be happy to do it.” 
…and if a friend in financial difficulties places her efforts at photography before me to look at, I can say, “You’ve got talent.  That’s a good shot.  Are you taking lessons or working with another photographer?” 

The best critics do that, and it’s always the truth. 

And this brings me to the April 24 edition of the Celebrating the Small Things blog hop, started by VikLit and now run by Lexa Cain, our fearless new leader and her two wonderful co-hosts L.G. Keltner @ Writing Off The Edge
Katie @ TheCyborgMom

Today I am celebrating two things.  First, I have so enjoyed remembering my co-student and reflecting on how very proud she was of her daughter.  I am certain her daughter knew it, too.

And this weekend I'm driving south to see my mother and speak with her, at her request about living facilitites that will enable her to be independent and still have lots of people around, and be confortable.  She's a stubborn one, but I have great hopes.

So what are you  celebrating?  (And have a wonderful weekend!)

Friday, April 17, 2015

Celebrations 17 April, 2014

Welcome to the Celebrating the Small Things blog hop, started by VikLit and now run by Lexa Cain, our fearless new leader and her two wonderful co-hosts L.G. Keltner @ Writing Off The Edge and Katie @ TheCyborgMom.

This wonderful hop has generated many smiles, made me count blessings, helped me encounter some wonderful people, and given me a chance to catch my breath and reflect on how truly fortunate I am.

Today I am celebrating one of those items peculiar to me: finishing a chapter that had been giving me some trouble.  The two characters are major players in the story.  One is a elderly prostitute who had been a dancer before she broke her ankle and had no choice but to go on the street.  In France of that era, prostitutes were not criminals, provided that they checked in with the authorities on a regular basis.  This one is a skilled nurse.

The other is the main character of the trilogy, a police officer with an unusual past.  She saved his life when he was badly wounded in the revolution of 1830, and he has been trying to get her to come off the streets.  What happens after she agrees is a pivotal moment in the story.  (It is not in this section.) It's good to finish it:

  "It was a pleasure," Malet said. "In return, Fanny, let me ask a favor."
  Fanny looked up at him through a blooming smile that softened the fatigued lines of her face and made her seem pretty.  "Anything," she said.
  "Come in off the streets," Malet said. "Now."
  "Off the streets?" said Fanny.
  "You heard me," said Malet. "You're too old for this. People here have changed. You've been coming in with black eyes and bruises, and it's only going to get worse. I've done what I can for you, but my influence extends only over the Police, the Army and, to a degree, the criminal world. I can't control half-crazy, randy-drunk students!"
  She looked up at him.  "What else can I do? Prostitution's the only thing I know."
   "Who told you that and why in God's name did you believe him?" Malet demanded. "The scoundrel who blacked your eyes?  Who would credit such a villain?  My God, Fanny! I owe you my life from the rioting in '30 when I was shot through the lungs! You can work for the Prefecture as a nurse. Sonnier thinks you're a finer physician than he is! It would be an honorable retirement. Haven't you earned it?"
     Tears welled from her swollen eyes and slid down her cheeks. "This is the only thing I know," she repeated.
     Malet took her slender hand in his. "That is a lie and you know it."  He raised his eyes to hers. "I can't imagine what possible crime you may have committed to make you convinced that you are fated for such a dwindling life and squalid death."
  Her eyes filled with tears.
  He lowered his eyes, withdrew his handkerchief and gave it to her.  He was silent as she blotted her eyes and then handed it back.  "Fanny," he said. "I am begging you: if you love me, come off the streets."
  She was weeping now.  "Oh you're a devil!" she said. "You got no call to talk to me like that! I never tried to solicit you—you're not for the likes of me and I know it!"
  "You are my dear friend, Fanny. God knows I love you! I mean what I say: get off the streets. Please! I don't want to have to investigate your murder."
  Fanny dabbed at her face. "It's too late for me," she said.
  "It is not!" Malet looked down into her tear-drenched eyes and gathered her hands again. "Listen to me," he said more quietly. "You are not doomed to a lonely and wretched old age. There are many here who love you. You saved my life. Please: won't you allow me to save yours? It would give me joy!  You can step off the streets, away from all those who mock you and use you. You can be the healer you always have been, and you can go into an honorable and well-loved old age. We will care for you. You have earned it. And it will give happiness to all of us."
  He could see that she was wavering. "Come with me now," he said.
That is not the entire scene, but it is the part that troubled me, that was difficult to put into words.  No doubt I'll tweak it more.

What are you celebrating?  why not celebrate the vast array of creativity, humor, beauty and wisdom of the A to Z challenge?  I will be!

Click here to Go to the A to Z Challenge

(and have a good weekend!)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

M = Marginalia

Today's letter for the A to Z challenge (link below this post)  is 'M', and in the spirit of the literary alphabet, I am discussing a term for illuminated manuscripts I had not heard before:  Marginalia.

Wikipedia, gives this definition:
Marginalia or apostil) are scribbles, comments and illuminations in the margins of a book.
Another way of describing Marginalia is that they are sketches, notations, doodles, scribbles and paintings that are found in the margins of a medieval text or document, generally having very little to do with the main text itself.

They can be fanciful scenes, like this knight jousting against a snail.  This is a little work of art, from the colors of the flowers behind the knight to the curve of the branch and the blue tendril twining downward.  (And note the shadow of the writing on the other side of the vellum

Or a peasant riding his noble steed, a duck, webbed feet and all.  I see that the saddle is exactly like those used by knights, with a high back, and it is equipped with stirrups.  The position of the saddle and the rider's legs would make it hard for the duck to fly.  I'd be curious to see how well the bit works.

Musical deer would be fun to watch.  this one has a rather Christmas-y feel to him.  I do think he's reading a book of music, and I've seen medieval music manuscripts that were identifiable as sheet music, though rather more decorative than the ones we're used to.
       This fellow is beautifully done, from the execution of the folds of his pink robe to the glittering blue flower to the right of the doodle...

To the left, we have another man doing battle with a snail.  He is wielding a sword and carrying a shield.  Surely there are better ways to exterminate snails, but I may be thinking out of period.  I always thought them pests, and in the age before pesticides and whatever else you use to get rid of snails, I could see that they might be viewed as a terrible evil.  I love the colored flowers in among the tendrils, and the gilding on the shield and the snail's shell.  The scarlet lining of the man's long blue sleeves is also attractive paired with the spring green hose, shoes and sleeves.

Speaking seriously, I do need to caution readers here, especially if children are hovering by the monitor: these are the amusing and pretty ones that I was able to find.  It took a while.  I warn those who see these and grab their keyboards, thinking, "Gosh, how charming!  I must rush out and have a look myself!" that the marginalia brought up by a google image search are notable for their crude raunchiness.  I had to work very hard to find ones that were G-rated.  In fact, I had to delete one just now that I had planned to use because I noticed, for the first time, a distinctly scatological bent in one of the characters which seemed, on closer scrutiny, to be a monkey. 

And the next time I watch a movie set in medieval-type times, and they have a line of trumpeters blowing a fanfare on their long trumpets with the banners attached, I will probably give in to a fit of mirth that has nothing to do with the sound of the music but only the way that I saw the trumpets being blown in the marginalia. It will ruin the fight scene in the castle between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn.

No, I won't get into detail, but simply say that from my reading of The Canterbury Tales, I would not be at all surprised to know that Geoffrey Chaucer probably consulted some of the more...vigorous depictions for ideas for his stories.  Consider yourself warned. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Celebrating the letter 'I', for 'Inhabited Initial'

Welcome to the April 10 edition of the Celebrating the Small Things blog hop, started by VikLit and now run by Lexa Cain, our fearless new leader and her two wonderful co-hosts L.G. Keltner @ Writing Off The Edge
Katie @ TheCyborgMom

I am combining this post with a series of alphabet posts I've been making for the past week or so.  If you are familiar with the blogosphere, you will know that the A to Z Blog Hop is in full swing.  I bowed out, more or less, because I'm racing toward a self-set deadline and just don't have the time to fully immerse myself.  But I can go along, post when I can, and direct folks to the hop (see the very bottom of this post).  So why am I celebrating this?  Well, just look around at the various posters and themes.  Such a wealth of creativity, of effort and enjoyment!  Do go look.

Meanwhile, combining my alphabet with this celebration, I've been celebrating illuminated manuscripts.  Luscious, splendidly colored, a joy to find details.  And today's offering speaks of Inhabited Initials: 

According to the Oxford Reference, an Inhabited Initial is...

an enlarged initial letter decorated with a figure or figures. The figures  may be purely decorative  or only  loosely related to the text,  whereas  historiated  initials contain  scenes  directly illustrating it

This 'B' has, in no particular order, gremlins (to the left) weird faces (lower opening of the B, the circular elements on the R, top and bottom, human-headed critters (between the top and bottom) bluish animals, top and bottom, that could be either be blue dogs or some sort of sea serpent with ears.  Below, we have a letter 'S' with a bird and a deer...

...And at the bottom of this page we have clerks singing in the center of  a small-case 'A'.

                                                                 Doodling?  Or for a purpose?  My conclusion was that they may have started as doodles, but the whimsical quality of these letters caught the imaginations of the scribes, and they were put in to make the manuscript beautiful.

What better way to deepen thought than to allow the mind to linger on luscious shape and vibrant color?

Mouse and cat?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

H = Historiated Initial

The Good Shepherd 
Continuing with the discussion of Medieval Manuscripts and their 'Initials' today we speak of the 'Historiated' Initial.

A Historiated Initial is an initial (enlarged letter that starts the first word of a passage) containing a scene from the work. It could be an episode from the subject, a portrait of the author, or landscape from the text.

In this scene (to the right) we have a manuscript from Dante showing a scene, found in the story, of a sailing ship.

And below we have King David playing his harp, above, and, as a young man, facing Goliath (lower register)


I can't resist putting in one of my favorite Historiated Initials.  Well...if it is a book on wine-making, or the evils of drink...


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

G = Grisaille

'Grisaille' is the term for scenes in illuminated manuscripts where the scenes are executed in shades of gray ('gris' in French) or brown.  The backgrounds are often brightly colored or gilded.  The effect is almost the same as looking at a statue or a carved frieze.

While this technique has been found in some English manuscripts, most of this style of painting is found in manuscripts from the continent.

How did It come about?  Who thought of it?  It seems to me, looking at the calm, almost monumental, scenes executed in this fashion, that the artist-scribes had to be thinking of the shimmer of light over  polished marble.  The touches of color, like the golden ray descending in the painting to the left, and the heavenly blue sky, lend a richness to the images.

The jewel-like decorations bordering the illustration of John the Baptist, right, would be lovely sandwiched between clear sheets of rock crystal, framed in gold, and hung from a chain.  (Notice that he is wearing animal skins...)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

F = Flyting

Flyting is a sort of contest involving an exchange of insults.  In Germanic tales, it usually occurred between two warriors, each of whom is trying to show that he is bigger and braver and knows more words.

Here are some instances from literature:

(from Troilus and Cressida, by Shakespeare)
Ajax: Thou bitch-wolf's son, canst thou not hear? Feel then.
Thersites: The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!

But soft!  I have here a reenactment of such an exchange:

Does it sound like Rap?  Flyting is thought to be one of the origins of Rap.  If I had more time, I would expand on this.  Instead, here is a Flyting session staged between a Scot and Margaret Thatcher (if you suspend your disbelief...)