For today’s Creativity Friday post, I’m featuring the work of one of the most creative people I know: my husband, Thomas Ross Miller. Tom is an anthropologist, artist, musician, curator, professor, world traveler, and oh-so-much more. Besides all this, he’s a member of Ethnographic Terminalia, a curatorial collective that exhibits anthropological research in collaboration with contemporary art practices.
For their 2014 exhibit, Ethnographic Terminalia is presenting The Bureau of Memories: Archives & Ephemera, December 3-7 at Hierarchy gallery, 1847 Columbia Road NW, Washington, DC. This immersive installation, held jointly with the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, features works by some two dozen artists and anthropologists. Re-imagining and remixing 20th-century media including 16-mm film, short-wave radio, land-line telephones, photogravure and paper documents, the exhibition invites visitors to encounter voices and images from the past in a 21st-century technological space.
More from the press release:
In a time of virtual reality, history haunts the present through the incomplete digital reanimation of traces from the past. Many analog collections built to preserve knowledge are becoming lost in the digital age. The Bureau of Memories considers archives as sites of both official records and broken fragments. The installation draws out anthropology’s uncanny specters, reinterpreting archives not only as repositories of information, but as generators of absence and obscurity. The international array of works on display includes prints, sculpture, textiles, video, and sonic artifacts from wax-cylinder field recordings to classic African radio broadcasts to a 3D-rendered audio spectrogram of the famous 18½-minute gap in the Watergate tapes.
So if you’re in the DC area, I hope you’ll stop by to experience The Bureau of Memories! The exhibit is open to the public. Gallery hours are 12-8 pm Wednesday-Friday, 10 am-6 pm Saturday, 12-6 pm Sunday. Admission is free.
Above image: Craig Campbell, Ethnographic Terminalia
Photographed during a recent visit to Brooklyn’s Green-wood Cemetery using Hipstamatic’s new Tintype lens. A real treat!
Today may be Halloween. But tomorrow is November first, which marks the official start of National Novel Writing Month. For those of you not in the know, National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo for short—challenges writers to churn out a 50,000 word novel in thirty days. And in 2013, over 300,000 people did just this according to the official NaNoWriMo site:
310,095 participants started the month of November as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.
(For the record, 50,000 words would make for a rather short novel. Here’s more information on standard word lengths for various novel genres. Even so, 50,000 words in one month?! How amazing is that?!)
I have a heart-full of gratitude toward NaNoWriMo. After all, my debut novel A GATHERING OF SHADOWS first took form as a NaNo novel in November 2009. Five years and many revisions later, I’m launched into the next phase of my creative life, and am deep at work on the Next Novel. Before NaNo 2009, I thought of myself as an illustrator and nonfiction author. Today, I think of myself as a novelist. Would I have had the courage and craziness to write a novel without NaNoWriMo? Perhaps, but I hadn’t until that fateful November 2009. To state that NaNoWriMi changed my life would not be an understatement.
That said, from my experience you can’t write a finished novel in a month. This makes stating you can “write a novel in a month” seem a bit of a trick. Even if 50,000 words wasn’t too short for most novel genres, the main work of writing a novel comes in the revising and editing of it. This, as I’ve learned too well, can take years. (National Novel Editing Year/s, anyone?)
However, don’t let this harsh slap of reality discourage you from participating in the treat that is NaNoWriMo. Instead, think of these first 50,000 words you’ll write in November as the skeleton draft you’ll flesh out in December and beyond.
Big difference, eh?
So, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, go forth and write—but bear in mind NaNo is only the beginning of a long, wondrous journey. As for myself, I will be over on the NaNo website this month aiming to add 50,000 words to my Next Novel. Come by and say hello!
Want to know more? Here’s other posts on this blog about National Novel Writing Month:
“My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan….”
—opening lines of FINGERSMITH by Sarah Waters
The novels of Sarah Waters came to my attention soon after I finished writing my first draft of A GATHERING OF SHADOWS (aka The Novel Formerly Known as THE LILY MAID). My reading of Waters arrived in an inadvertent manner, as many momentous things do: my literary agent had given me a recommended reading list to aid my transition into writing historical fiction. Sarah Waters was not on her list. Even so, that first reading list spurred me into looking beyond for something I couldn’t quite name yet. And then I happened upon Sarah Waters’ FINGERSMITH—and knew I’d found what I was looking for. Here was a historical novel encompassing stunning language, richly realized characters, an immersive sense of time and place, narrative tension, intense sexuality, and deep sense of humanity. And I haven’t even touched on Waters’ masterful use of plot to propel her novels.
I read the rest of Waters’ five novels soon after in a grateful rush. They offered me a roadmap for what historical fiction could be as literature—for what I wanted to write one day if I worked very very hard at the craft. Since then, I’ve reread Waters’ novels whenever I’m in need of writerly inspiration. The ending of FINGERSMITH still makes me cry no matter how many times I’ve read it.
This is a roundabout way of saying that when I learned Sarah Waters was publishing THE PAYING GUESTS, her first novel in five years, I was beyond excited. I went out of my way to locate an advance copy in Europe, which I read in nearly one fell swoop on the plane back. Even better: Waters was giving a reading in New York City, my home town. Of course I had to be there!
To be honest, I was a bit nervous to meet Sarah Waters in person. I love her novels so much. Authors are only human (hello!), and it’s far too easy to project our own idealizations and insecurities onto them. It’s unfair —cruel even—to expect anyone to live up to this.
To my delight, Waters was even warmer and more charming and intelligent in person than I could have hoped. She was funny, generous, and shockingly modest about her work. She spoke at length about writing her novels, researching historical fiction, lesbians and sexual identity in fiction, and more.
A few highlights, paraphrased from memory and notes:
On whether she plans to write about characters from previous novels: Nope. Waters described herself as a “serial monogamist” when it comes to her characters. She really falls in love with them while she’s writing them. (She said this in particular regarding Frances and Lillian from THE PAYING GUESTS, whom she became very fond of over the five years she was immersed in the novel.) Waters always thinks she can never leave her characters behind, which makes it hard for her to finish a novel. However, once she’s done, she’s shocked how easily the characters leave her consciousness. She imagines them walking off and waving goodbye. So, no desire to revisit characters.
On deciding on point of view in a novel: Waters replied that her plot dictates her choice of point of view. For example, in THE PAYING GUESTS, she chose a third person point of view to increase narrative tension; in THE LITTLE STRANGER, first person. That said, she finds herself second guessing her point of view choice as she writes, hoping she made the right decision.
On the use of houses in her fiction: The “great houses” in Waters’ novels THE LITTLE STRANGER and THE PAYING GUEST pay dominant roles in shaping her plot. She explained that houses enact a moment in human history, and become stranded there as time moves on; what’s interesting to her is how humans adapt them as environments as their needs change.
Her favorite books: Waters loves literary novels that incorporate the tropes of genre fiction, such as cliffhangers. She’s a fan of Victorian sensation novels, including those by Wilkie Collins. Other favorite writers: Willa Cather, Hilary Mantel, and Patrick Hamilton. She mentioned Hamilton’s THE SLAVES OF SOLITUDE as a particular inspiration for THE PAYING GUESTS.
As for me, I asked Waters about a quote of hers that I use as a credo:
“Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.”
I said, “Bearing all this in mind, are you ever surprised by your plot taking an unexpected turn as you write?”
Waters answered that she really does know the plot from the beginning; what takes her the longest is figuring out how her characters feel and act in response to plot. She said that with THE PAYING GUESTS she must have written thirty times as many scenes to what went into the final novel. Another interesting fact about her process: She prints out all her scenes whether she uses them or not. She said that by the time she finished THE PAYING GUESTS, she had about thirty inches of draft in comparison to one inch of finished novel! In her writing log, she admonished herself in big red letters: DO NOT WRITE ANOTHER NOVEL WITHOUT KNOWING THE OUTCOME.
After the reading, Waters signed books for us, and even posed for photographs. I was so excited to meet her that I nearly tripped on the podium after getting my books signed. Not my smoothest moment, alas. But then again, how often does one get to meet a literary goddess like Sarah Waters? I am beyond grateful for my encounter with her.
Further reading about Sarah Waters and THE PAYING GUESTS:
If you visit this blog on a regular basis, you’ve probably noticed the photographs that top most of my posts. These photographs have become important to me. Besides allowing me me to share my daily life on an informal basis, they mark another major change in me since I’ve stopped concentrating on Illustration as a Path of Creative Expression for Storytelling (or IPCES for short): I’ve become obsessed with photography.
Above: Snow in the garden at Blue House. Below: Opera Garnier in Paris
One reason for my newish obsession is that my iPhone makes it incredibly easy to take photographs anywhere I’d like. It’s so small that hardly anyone notices when I’m at work. I carry it with me at all times, sometimes walking with phone in hand in case I see something.
My love for my iPhone is especially ironic because I have an expensive single lens reflex camera with fancy lenses that I barely use. When it comes to making art, sometimes the simplest tool is the right tool.
My favorite model! Above: Japanese restaurant in Paris. Below: In a theater box at the Opera Garnier.
I’m especially enthralled with the Hipstamatic app. I love how it saturates colors and alters images much in the way I would if I was painting. I also appreciate how immediate a photograph is. Unlike a painting, which can take me weeks to get just right, if I don’t like a photograph, I simply take another. This allows me to experiment with different picture compositions and color combinations I’d otherwise avoid to save time.
In other words, I’m able to be at play, a necessary component of inspiration and creativity. And how freeing is that?
Above: Slug in autumn leaves, Kent, England. Below: Marlborough Tower, Le Hameau de la Reine, Versailles.
Photography is also leading me into new territory as a novelist. My protagonist for the Next Novel is a male mid-Victorian era photographer. To aid my research, I plan to take a course on nineteenth century photography techniques at the George Eastman House. Tintypes? Glass negatives? I’m so down.
Ultimately, my love for photography reminds me that, even if I’m no longer spending years illustrating books, I remain a visual artist. Come what may, I’ll always yearn to capture the world’s beauties and complexities.
Above: Subway pillar, South Bank, London.
Photographed recently in Paris. What’s around the bend?
Ever since my return from Europe in early September, I feel like I’ve shifted into a new phase of my life. I suspect this is the aftermath of the main reason for my travels: to inter my mother’s ashes. Those of you who follow this blog and my social media feeds are probably aware my mother died early this year. However, it took my sister and I some months to organize the interment, which allowed us to defer the process of mourning in some ways.
And plan we did: my sister Jennifer and I chose to bring my mother’s ashes home to England, where she was born seventy years ago during the London Blitz. We also chose to inter her ashes in the same church where she had been baptized, and in the same rose garden where I brought my grandmother’s ashes in 2011. We decided to bring my daughter Thea with us, as a representative of the next generation of our family. We were very fortunate to be joined by members of our family who still reside in England, all of whom knew and loved my mother well. The service was as beautiful as can be.
While there were tears, Jennifer and I were also certain to make the trip a joyful experience. After all, it was Thea’s first trip to London, land of Harry Potter, Cadbury chocolate, and all things historic and literary. We followed our time in London with several days in Paris, where we ate pain au chocolate and walked along the Seine under perfect blue skies. I also spent many hours researching the Next Novel, which is set in both London and Paris during the mid-nineteenth century. The trip was exactly as we hoped.
Burying a parent is a definite reminder of the cycle of life: Those who grant life to us will die, just as we will die one day. The finiteness of physical life grants a preciousness to everything we experience. Even so, I’m sensing there’s more at play for me beyond this most primal of leavetakings.
For example, ever since I finished the art for DOOMED QUEENS and began writing THE LILY MAID (which now bears the new-and-improved title of A GATHERING OF SHADOWS on the advice of a renowned editor at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat), I’ve grappled with guilt over no longer yearning to illustrate books as I once did. The truth terrified me: these days, I’m far more creatively engaged as a novelist and writer. Another reason for my disinterest in illustration is that I’ve fulfilled the goals I’ve set*; I don’t possess the same urgent drive to spend countless hours curled over a drawing board painting the thousands of tiny details and decorative flourishes that go into one of my book. Yet it’s hard to leave the past behind, especially when you’ve spent years mastering a set of skills. Hence, the guilt.
And then I had a sudden insight that made it easier to let go: whether I’m writing, illustrating, or designing, my vocation is as a storyteller. It’s all interconnected.
And so this post is a post of goodbyes. Goodbye to my mother, Irene Patricia Prince Cowin, laid to rest in her native soil. May you be at peace. Goodbye to my years as a book illustrator**. I’m grateful for all I’ve learned, and the beauty I was able to create. Goodbye even to my studio betta, Clarimonde, who passed away this week after a happy, coddled life. Goodbye to remorse over my past, and trepidation over what my creative future may hold.
But this post is also a hello to the Next Phase of my artistic life as a storyteller: to finishing up and publishing A GATHERING OF SHADOWS. To immersing myself in the Next Novel. To moving onto new horizons and creative challenges.
I’m so ready for them.
*And how fortunate is that? I’m especially proud of THE BOOK OF GODDESSES and THE LOVER’S PATH.
**Not to say that I won’t illustrate books again one day. Just not right now.