inlooking #002: Words have a way of connecting

20210311 : silk, swans, clouds

Good news, good books, and quandaries over great books, that’s what this past month has brought for me. Or, by the numbers, it looks like this…

  1. $100,000

  2. Witchmark

  3. Writing while ADHD

  4. Teaching Snow Crash, or other books

  5. inlooking: Dawn, mulberries, Silk

  6. Connections

Something amazing happened at the Writers Grotto last month: We received a $100,000 gift from Margaret and Will Hearst. This is a huge development for the Grotto, and will make some exciting things possible this year. The Hearsts are part of a family that has helped shape journalism in California for more than a century, and we’re quite proud and grateful to become part of that history. In my conversation with Will Hearst we talked about the Grotto’s focus on the power of literature and journalism to build community, so I am looking forward to putting those funds to work in support of that idea.

One of the things we’ve been doing at the Grotto lately is a series in which we bring writers and publishing types from outside the Grotto in to chat with Grotto members over (virtual) lunch. We may make these talks public at some point, but for now you’ll have to be satisfied with hearing me crow about the occasional guest—including the fantasy writer we’re having in March, C.L. Polk. I just read their debut novel, Witchmark, and I highly recommend it. It’s a genre-queer fantasy-mystery-romance set in an alternate London-like that’s a bit steampunk-with-witches but they’re also slaves to each other so there are classist / racist themes and hot gay love scenes and swords and demigods and people getting married or not married and the weather is important. SO. MUCH. FUN. And follow them on Twitter, as well. Here are a couple of highlights from their terrific thread on writing while ADHD but also the concepting and worldbuilding process of writing fantasy at all:

The pile starts to sort itself out. That sounds familiar.

Teaching books

I haven’t taught at the Grotto in about a year, more or less since I started as executive director there. I want to do more teaching, but I don’t want to run a whole workshop right now. So I am thinking of teaching a book. I want to spend 4-6 weeks reading a single book with a group of people (students? student-peers?), and extracting from it as many craft lessons and related pieces of insight as we can. This would obviously need to be a book I know well, and one that I love. I would like it also to be a book that has something to say about our current moment, if at all possible (at least in some distant way). It should be something that’s “classic” enough to attract students, but not so classic as to have been done to death already. (Animal Farm comes to mind in the latter category; thank you, Davin.) The problem is, I can’t decide on a book. I have a bunch of ideas, but none that have grabbed me and thrown me down on the bed and cried, “Take me, you fool!”

Here are a couple of front-runners, including two genre choices and a nonfiction:

  • The Underground Railroad and/or The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead. Whitehead is a terrific writer and comes at issues of race from a really interesting direction.

  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers: This is an amazing novel, and dear to my heart. But it is wrenching, and so graphic in its violence that it could make for a challenging read. And a bit long.

  • Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson. This vision of the “metaverse” (a Stephenson coinage) will be twenty years old next year. As a piece of genre literature, it’s great fun, and it’s really interesting to see what Stephenson got right (and what he got close) at a point when the World Wide Web was still in its infancy. (I like the idea of doing this book in part because it builds on my years covering virtual worlds and online games.) This book might be in the lead right now, although handicapped by its being by a white guy.

  • The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder: This is a master class in narrative nonfiction that also happens to capture the dawn of a new age. (Strangely, this is a kind of coming-of-age book, for me, since I came of age more or less when this was happening, and got to see and touch a lot of it myself, in formative ways.)

  • The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien: I’d probably need a good excuse to do this one, but I think it could be really interesting to take apart this book, as it is in many senses a mess, and yet still manages to be a great story. The plot meanders all over the place, no attention is paid to tension or suspense nor much to character development, stylistically it’s pretty bland. And yet it continues to be one of the greatest of modern fantasies (I re-read it with my daughters last year).

I may share more of a list in the next edition of this newsletter (I never really know what I’m going to write here), but in the meantime, I’m curious to hear from you, my (miniscule) reading public. Is there a novel or book of narrative nonfiction that you’d be interested to read in a (virtual) classroom / book club setting, as part of a guided group of readers looking at questions of craft and context, in various ways? Let me know by replying or…

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(I have no idea how that works, I just wanted to drop a button in here…)

inlooking: Pulling threads

Sometimes, the thread of a word touches so much that it’s hard to make sense of. I was left with this feeling recently after I gave the name Alba to a character in the fantasy novel I’m working on. I initially chose the word more for the sound than anything else, but what I found behind the word itself was so perfectly apposite that I suspect there was more at work.

Alba means “dawn” in Spanish, which seemed not a bad idea to associate with the stern but loving queen who sends her daughters out into the world on their first adventuring. But the more I explored the word itself (I love the online etymological dictionary), the more fascinating it became.

Alba comes from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “white” (think albino), and gave various historical languages their words for things like swans and clouds. It has come to have related meanings in modern languages, and a few unrelated. In the Occitan language of southern France, for instance, it denotes a type of poetry. It is the name of the white-flowered shrub rose Rosa x alba, as well as the root of the English word “album,” where it connotes blankness. It also gives us the white church vestment known as the “alb,” and has homonyms in many other languages, including Scottish Gaelic, in which it is apparently the name for Scotland. It also provides a poetical name for Britain: Albion. (And according to the Urban Dictionary, it denotes the kind of person you just want to have in your life because they are remarkable in many ways, which certainly applies to this queen.)

But the use of the word that most interested me was one I discovered only after the name came to me (or, to the queen), and after I had fleshed out her character a bit: It is part of the name of a tree, the morus alba, or white mulberry tree. Alba the queen, you see, is a great weaver of tapestries. Tapestries were commonly made from threads of wool and silk. The raw material that is spun into silk threads comes from the silkworm cocoon, each of which is made of a single strand that can be up to a mile long. (Check out this great very old-school site about silkworms.) And silkworms grow best in white mulberry trees.

The mulberry tree itself has a rich history in many cultures (including a dramatic appearance in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!), and the process by which we get to silk from mulberries (or from mulberry leaves) is fascinating too. The excellently named UK silk company Biddle Sawyer Silks has a good description on its site. There are many corners of this process to dive into, and great nomenclature such as “spinning mules” and “little piecers” and more.

There’s much more, of course (I’ve just picked up Alessandro Baricco’s novel, Silk, for instance), but I fear I’m growing windy. None of this background makes it into the text of the book. But somewhere back behind the words, a lot of things are being woven together by these long white strands. (There’s a lot of whiteness to the word, I realize, but it seems a non-toxic variety, to me, though I’m interested to hear other perspectives.)

One of themes of the novel is the power of stories to shape who we are and how we see the world. What’s nice about all this for me is that none of it was planned. I didn’t know anything about silkworms when I named the queen Alba or gave her tapestries to weave. (I wasn’t even sure, for some reason, that silkworms were responsible for silk.) I didn’t know what a powerful image the mulberry tree could be when I dropped a few of its leaves at key junctures in the book. But all these threads came together in a really satisfying way. Words have a way of connecting, of weaving things together. And “alba” has done that here.

Til next time,

Wallace