Today’s Entry

I am currently working my way through Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking:

So far, it’s very, very worth reading.  Reading about someone else creating, and struggling to create, has me doing creating of my own, and that, alone, makes reading this book a good decision.  But it’s also a good decision for other reasons.  You should read it.


Today’s Entry

Amanda keeps coming back to this concept: “On a good night, you couldn’t tell who was giving what to whom” (Palmer, 104). She writes it specifically about flowers. Flowers she gives as a thank you for dollars in her hat as the Bride, flowers at Dresden Dolls shows. She’s writing about the back and forth appreciation between artist and patron; and recycling that love: giving the flower to a third party, someone in need of that rose, or petunia, or daisy.

My senior year of college my American Literature professor, an extraordinary Polish woman with whom I am still in awe, invited a writer she knows to come speak at our school, a woman named Suzanne Strempek Shea. As with everything at my college, it was a small gathering. My professor suggested (in the same manner my mother “suggests”) I stick around afterward and speak with her since she is a writer and that’s what I wanted to do.

We had been assigned one of Suzanne’s books the previous semester. I’d read it in the way I “read” many books in college: read the first fifty to one hundred pages, skimmed some, paid close attention during discussions in class (can you believe I have a degree in English?). I felt weird about speaking to an author (one with actual published novels), let alone one for whom I hadn’t had the decency to finish the one book of hers I’d encountered.

But I had won one of her novels in a raffle that afternoon so I could use asking her to sign the damn book as an introduction. I cannot tell you what we talked about. I remember we both had somewhere else to be. She was very gracious in telling me I could email her whenever I wanted. Her email was on her website, she said.

Right. Like I’d ever have the confidence to do that.

About a year later I was working as a teacher in a seasonal outdoor school program. Which meant, amongst other things, that I was unemployed half the year. One of those bouts of unemployment occurred from Thanksgiving to Easter. I spent that first winter out of college drifting around my parents’ house while harrowing, frozen gales wailed without (I don’t like winter). To occupy myself I began writing a modernized version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion set in America with the full expectation it was going to be terrible.

At some point I thought maybe my story could go somewhere and I panicked about some of the concepts and language I was using and, dear gawd, what if my mother read it one day… or my grandmother? Gawd, what then?

That’s when I remembered something Suzanne had said at Caz. She said, as a writer, you can’t let what someone else might think hold you back. You’ve got to write it anyway. It’s your story, your voice, your authenticity. Forget about what would please your mother or your grandmother and just write. I was so overwhelmed remembering that piece of advice that I immediately, at one in the morning, looked up Suzanne’s email and wrote her to tell her my exact epiphany as it had happened.

She’d tossed a flower into the crowd that afternoon in New York, and I was handing the one I’d caught back to her to show my appreciation.

Little did I know just how much.

Some time later Suzanne’s book Sunday’s In America came out. I’d known of the project. Either she had mentioned it at my school, or else I’d read about it on her website (or both), I knew the book was out and that she was doing readings in the area. My sister, K, had heard NPR’s interview with Suzanne about the book. I mentioned to K wanting to figure out if I could get myself to one of the readings.

Excited, K was on board.

The only one we could both attend before I had to return to my teaching job in the woods was in an area of south central Massachusetts where no one goes unless they live there. In reality, it was probably only a little over an hour’s drive. It felt like K and I were driving forever. We eventually found the combination library/town clerk’s office/auxiliary firehouse/town municipal building, parked, and filtered into the library.

There were, maybe, twenty people there. Thirty, tops. K and I were clearly outsiders. All the (mostly older) ladies seemed to know each other. Many seemed to know Suzanne. But, as she grew up in the next town over and still lived there, it wasn’t surprising.

I don’t remember any of the reading.

Afterward, we were invited out into the hallway that ran the center of the municipal building where we could meet Suzanne, buy her book, and have it signed. When it was our turn, which was almost immediate — I think the nice town ladies were being polite giving the out-of-towners the chance to go first — I, very nervously, reminded Suzanne that we had met before, that her friend was my professor, that I had emailed her a few months back.

That’s when she said: “Rebecca?”

She stood and came around the table. I remember her being very tall. I don’t know how tall she is, but she felt tall; and I felt young. Very young. And insignificant. There was no reason for a locally known, published author to remember a recent college graduate/aspiring writer with severely limited Life Experience who was, at that moment, on a day trip with her Big Sister.

“I’ve been meaning to thank you for your email.”

What the fish?

She went on to tell me, when she received my email, she’d been struggling with the exact same thing. She was working on Sundays In America and was having trouble. She’d gotten stuck worrying what Other People would think of what she was writing. Then she read my email that parroted back the words I’d heard from her only a year previous.

“I printed out your email. It’s taped up over my writing desk. I look at it whenever I start to doubt myself.”1

At this point I was completely speechless.

Suzanne hugged me, repeated her thanks. I left amazed that my small, seemingly insignificant action, one done impulsively and spontaneously, had a very large, very real impact. My email, in part, gave a woman back the state of mind she needed to finish working on her book.

The one we were there to purchase and hear her read.

The flower was back in my hands.

That summer I finished my story. Not awesome. But finished. For me, that alone, was cause for celebration. And while that particular story has gone nowhere (it’s been on a bottom shelf for six years), the lesson I learned while writing it made the act itself worthwhile: The smallest act (poking a child’s nose, mailing a card, handing a stranger a flower) can do volumes of good.

It was a good night.


1My recollection of her words are approximate, but I am confident they capture the spirit of what she said to me that day.


Now that I’ve read it: I do not like this version of ‘Emma’


It is with a heavy heart that I announce: I do not like this version of 'Emma'

This is not shocking to most who enjoy the works of Jane Austen and critique the film adaptations, but it must be noted that this version of Emma, with Gweneth Paltrow as the title character and Jeremy Northam as the gallant ‘Mr. Knightley’, was actually my introduction to Jane Austen.  In theaters on the heels of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, the modernized adaptation of Austen’s novel, both films were a great favorite in our household.  (Never ask my sisters and I if we know any quotations from either movie, rest assured we have both memorized.)  And we relished in the elegance and humor of both movies.

When I was in high school, someone or other, probably my mother, suggested I read Pride and Prejudice.  I loved it.  I’ve read it many times hence.  I sort of enjoy the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth BBC teleplay; and I took arbitrary pleasure at seeing the Kiera Knightly version in theaters whilst actually in Enlgand.  Some time later, I read Mansfield Park in Google Books and was somewhat shocked at the liberties filmmakers had taken in the 1999 Frances O’Connor/Jonny Lee Miller version of said film (Billie Piper and Blake Ritson’s 2007 portrayal on the BBC is so very much better than the former).  Northanger Abbey I read sometime later (and thoroughly enjoyed Felicity Jones and JJ Fields as Catherine and Mr. Tilney); then later still I read Persuasion after seeing an extremely boring TV production starring Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones.  I could not, in good faith, believe one of Austen’s novels to be as boring as that.  So I read it.  And was correct.

The only, of the six, novel that I actively did not watch a film version of before reading the novel was Sense and Sensibility.  My only knowledge of it was that it is a story of two sisters, in a 1995 attempt on the screen, played by Emma Thompson (whom I have loved ever since I first saw Much Ado About Nothing on Masterpiece Theater) and Kate Winslet (who’s Titanic fame never much warmed her to me).  I was resolved to not let any movie adaptation color my opinion of the story as had happened with Emma and Persuasion.  I have since read Sense and Sensibility, just last winter, in fact, and found it to be supremely charming (actually I hated it for a while, then I started to appreciate it — go here and read all about it).

I have a few times endeavored to read Emma, always assuming since I already am familiar with the story that it would be nothing.  But every time I have been frustrated and found I must put the book down.  Why?  I cannot be sure.  Sunday, December 1st, I was feeling amazingly grumpy about many things.  A chance post on Tumblr of Neil Gaiman reading a short story he wrote about December happened to pull me out of my mood.  Recently I have been enjoying this particular gentleman reading his works from the album “An Evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer” and desirous of hearing a story, rather than half listening to a movie or TV show, while I cleaned, I searched the Internet for audiobooks.

Free audiobooks are interesting hard to come by on the Internet.

But I landed on LibriVox.  No Neil to be found, as LibriVox only caters to works within Public Domain, but I did find old Classics that I either hold dear, or have been meaning to read.  I was going to put on Melville’s Moby Dick, but I thought better of it and discovered Austen’s Emma.  It took a few tries to find a voice that was not objectionable, but find one I did (I recommend version 5, read by Moira Fogarty).  And now, after two days’ listening, I can reasonably say that I have, indeed, read all of Jane Austen’s novels (although, now I do want to attempt actually reading Emma).

Upon ‘reading’ Emma, I have, now, a much greater understanding and appreciation of Jane Fairfax – why film adaptations gloss over her, as they seem to do, is quite silly – and I feel as though I have a better understanding of Emma herself.  Generally her character is to be captured in adaptations, but I find that neither Gweneth, nor Kate Beckinsale really did her justice (although I’ve heard Ramola Garai is lovely).  I now feel as though I understand the complexities of the story – it is more than your garden variety love story about a man who feels more and a girl who realizes almost too late.  No, no, Emma is much more than that: it is a story about relations.  The relationship between men and women, women and women, friends, neighbors, and family members.  It is very much a delightful commentary on how we treat, and how we ought to treat, our neighbors and our friends.  Also, strangers.  Lest we forget Robert Martin.  Emma shows us how, essentially, to be a good person.

I rewatched the 1996 version of Emma after finishing listening to the audiobook – and it was a letdown.  I hated it.  Most of it, anyway.  Everything from how quick the pace of the story is, to Gweneth’s fake British accent (odd she played so many English women in her career).  The most best parts of the movie remain the scene outside the ball when Emma and Mr. Knightly are talking, and when he’s just returned from London and runs into Emma in the lane.  Because, I think, those two scenes retained the most of the original dialogue and sentiment from the novel.  Mr. Knightly says to Emma things actually written out in the novel, and Jeremy Northam, I think captured Mr. Knightly, if not very well, then mostly (much better than whatshisface opposite the Beckinsale – although he’s supposed to be excellent in other things).  But, my point being, I am saddened that I now find my introduction to Jane Austen so disappointing.  It’s a shame really.  The thing that gave me a taste, a thing so beloved and cherished for so long, is now an afterthought.

It is my own fault, I probably shouldn’t have watched it immediately after finishing the audiobook.  I will, one day, watch it again and find it sweet and feel nostalgic, but not so close to reading the novel, I should think.

200 years ago…

if someone had asked Jane Austen if she thought her little story about the Bennet sisters would still be relevant she probably would have said something like this:

Shit, son, I’m stoked y’alls be buyin’ it now!

Ok, probably not.  She probably would have said something very eloquent and sophisticated and wouldn’t have sounded anything like Snoop Dogg or even Anne Hathaway (the current actress not Billy S’s little woman) using a fake British accent.  But I am convinced she didn’t think her novels would last any longer than the popular novels of her lifetime.  Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels and The Monk, for example; you know, the ones she wrote about in her own works; the ones most people only know because of Northanger Abbey.

They are, however, still relevant.  This is certain because today, 28 January, is the 200th anniversary of the first printing of Pride and Prejudice.  The first novel Austen tried to have published, I believe, under a different, more thematically revealing title of “First Impressions”.  (In my defense I was more of an airhead in High School than I am now and that little tidbit about first impressions not always being accurate was mostly lost on me the first time I read Pride and Prejudice.)  This story has been told, retold, revamped, and devoured in it’s original form so many times since the beginning of the 20th century it’s a little embarrassing.  But I think it’s safe to say that the modern woman absolutely finds this story relevant.

Today, thanks to Book Riot and Dr. B, I abandoned writing my own fiction and let the better part of the rest of my day be consumed with “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries”.  This webseries is an eerily relevant, modernized adaptation of Pride in Prejudice that is amazingly witty and super delightful in a way that I believe Miss Austen would whole-heartedly approve of were she not six feet under these past 195 years.

That being said: “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” is amazingly relevant not only to the narrow population of people aged 22 to 27 trying to get jobs in “New Media”, but most people (most people I know) between the ages of 22 and 32 trying to get out there and create a life for themselves (not all of us are very good at that) while wallowing in student loans and the uncomfortable question of: What do I want to do with my life?

Lizzie, luckily, has a passion that she is pursuing.  Her issue has more to do with taking those first steps to making it happen (something many of us are familiar with).  This dilemma is common within the generation that was told, repeatedly, by everyone from our parents to teachers to Sesame Street that we can be anything, do anything, find your passion and make it your life.  (Thanks guys, this Bachelor of Arts in English is super awesome and my specialized skill set is totes useful in nailing down a career — ew, I just wrote “totes”; I feel dirty.)  For many of us: figuring out that passion is pretty tough; but taking that “next step” and “making it happen” is proving to be just as difficult as figuring out our “passion” in the first place.

The drama of the Bennet sisters is told chiefly through Lizzie’s eyes in the form of a Video Blog (or Vlog) maintained by Lizzie, often with the help of her best friend and fellow new media grad student, Charlotte Lu.  The videos also regularly guest star her sisters: Jane and Lydia, both as themselves and other people.  The few deviations from the original story that have been made are pretty wonderful and in keeping with how a modern, American family would function.  (Although, a wealthy med student, along with his sister and his best friend, randomly moving to a small, college town for a while is a little weird — that bit feels less thought through than the rest of the tweaks.)  Mr. Collins is no longer a cousin, but an annoying childhood friend working in roughly the same field as Lizzie and Charlotte; Wickham is a sexy athletic coach; Darcy appears to be a giant hipster, Jane takes a promotion with a transfer after her break up with Bing; Pemberly is some sort of technology company; Mary is reassigned to a cousin; and Kitty has become Lydia’s cat.  As someone who approves of adaptations and modernizations (and has even tried her own hand at adapting an Austen novel) I enjoy and love this retelling.

The series appears to be the brain child of Hank Green and Bernie Su and bears the markings of a Green brother whenever Lizzie STARTS RANTING IN ITALICIZED, ALL CAPS FOR EMPHASIS (seriously, though, both Hank and John seem to do this in their videos… often).  Where it stemmed from and why is was originally created, I do not care.  The result is something wonderful and something I think my life would be worse off if it were never experienced.  This series is like tattoos, or heroin, once you’re hooked: you. are. doomed.  DOOMED.

Also: these girls playing the Bennet sisters are amazing.  Ashley Clements (who looks weirdly familiar) has nailed it as Lizzie Bennet.  Laura Spencer plays the most life-like Jane I’ve ever seen (seriously Susannah Harker and Rosamund Pike’s ‘Jane’s are pulse-less china dolls, are they not?).  Mary Kate Wiles is a pip.  (There’s really no other term to describe her ‘Lydia’.)

Needless to say: I recommend watching this series.  I sincerely do.  But, be warned: it will ruin your life.