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What We Keep

The bedridden heroine

Being bedridden in Victorian fiction always sounds so lovely – sitting piled against lovely pillows in a lovely lacy bedjacket while people bring you cups of tea and soft boiled eggs and sit at your feet for advice on how they should conduct their lives. I could get into that. It is definitely not the same as being in bed because you are too sick to get up and stagger around. The Victorian heroine has a small fluffy dog with a pink ribbon to keep her company. I have three pugs who all snore and hog the pillows. The cats arrive too, in the hope that you have a fever and are warmer than usual.

The bedridden heroine is a variant of the woman known as “the angel in the house” who was just too good to be true, and whose little dog didn’t snore. She has her origins in a mid-nineteenth century poem by Coventry Patmore about the ideal woman whose only wish is to please her husband. As Virginia Woolf later said of her, she “was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it...”

Children’s Literature scholars know her as Katy in What Katy Did, or Pollyanna who when her legs are paralyzed is cheerful that they are at least still there. And then there’s Beth in Little Women. We all wept over Beth and promised to grow up to be just as good and kind as she was, if at all possible, which it wasn’t.

An incentive to get up and out of bed. If I turned into her my husband would assume that goblins had taken me and left a changeling.
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Present tense irregular

I have always thought that a mad aunt locked in the attic gave a household that certain je ne sais quoi that lent a literary feel to the whole establishment. Now we have the next best thing, a mad grandfather clock. It’s really more a great-grandfather clock, that being who it belonged to, and apparently it has lost its ability to count, perhaps the first sign on the road to clock dementia.

Keeping it running has always required regular house calls from the Clock Man, a mad genius whose idea of fun in his off hours is reassembling clockworks. Occasionally it gets grumpy and stops chiming, and he came out so many times to fix it that he taught my husband how to reset the chimes. Apparently it doesn’t like being fooled with by amateurs. It has started chiming again but in an odd pattern. Mostly, it chimes one, two and three quite adequately, then starts with one again at four o’clock, two at five, and so on until it gets to nine, at which point it chimes seven, then gets on the spot with ten at ten and good for eleven and twelve.

It requires interesting math to keep time by it. It’s striking four so it must be seven. Time to get up. Unless it really is four. Is it dark outside? No. It must be seven. You can’t quite trust it. It may really be four or it may just be sulking.

We had high hopes that it was actually self-correcting for a while when it started chiming eight at nine, but last night the hour hand began dangling at six no matter what time it actually is, and this morning the minute hand fell off and is wedged somewhere in the bottom of the case.

We have called the clock psychologist.
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A fall meditation for the classroom

My first fall class meets tonight. It’s not a writing class but I keep thinking anyway about a poem I read last month in The Sun, by Ellery Akers. In it she mentions the professor who wrote “crap” on her first poem for his class. Disconsolate, she decided that it must be crap. Obviously she didn’t take it entirely to heart since she has published regularly. But I’d like to find that professor and ask him how many other writers he imagines he did destroy. The ones not as thick of skin, not as resilient. The ones who decided that their work was crap. And who does he think he is, I would like to inquire in my imagined conversation, to decide what is crap anyway? Most of us aren’t very good at the beginning. Most of us regularly aren’t very good now, and only with considerable biting and chipping and tearing of hair and revision after revision do we approach good. Sometimes we approach and it takes off into the bushes.

The idea that writers need to toughen up in order to survive rejection is true if you don’t want to spend all your time as a puddle. But it is not the job of your teachers to do it for you by browbeating you. Being able to withstand bullying does not make you a better writer, as I once heard a well-known writer insist that it did – he was going to cull the sheep from the goats among his students by sheer meanness in the guise of critique. Sheep who fled baa’ing weren’t meant to be writers after all and didn’t deserve to be. I imagine the goats who stuck it out might have become pretty good writers, or at least thick-skinned ones, but I hate to think what their marriages are like if they took his approach to heart.

Personally, I’ve found that kindness and useful suggestions go a lot farther. You owe them truth, of course, but the package it comes in matters a lot.
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Next summer at Hollins

Already in planning mode for next summer at Hollins! The wonderful Han Nolan will be returning as Writer in Residence.

Han is the winner of the National Book Award for her young adult novel Dancing on the Edge, and author of other acclaimed novels for young adults, including Send Me Down a Miracle (a National Book Award nominee), If I Should Die Before I Wake, A Face in Every Window, Born Blue, When We Were Saints, A Summer of Kings, Crazy, and Pregnant Pause. She’ll meet individually with students to read their manuscripts and give feedback and critique.

We will also have a Scholar in Residence again this year. The equally wonderful Lisa Rowe Fraustino, wearing her scholarly persona (as opposed to her novelist alter ego) will meet with students, read their scholarly papers and give advice on turning those into polished conference or journal submissions.

Lisa is associate professor of English at Eastern Connecticut State University and has a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Her newest book, the middle-grade novel The Hole in the Wall, won the 2010 Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature. She is a past president of the Children’s Literature Association, and is also the author of I Walk in Dread: The Diary of Deliverance Trembley, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials; The Hickory Chair; and Ash. As Lisa Meunier she is the author of the poetry chapbook Hitching to Istanbul.
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