Creativity Friday: The Little Library that Could (Or, How to Transform a Community One Book at a Time)
I love to take long walks—I consider them part of my daily creative “work”, if you will. Besides serving as exercise, these several mile long walks clear my mind of clutter so I can better concentrate on whatever I’m working on. I first became enamored of long daily walks during the year I lived on the moors of Devon. While Ditmas Park (aka my corner of Brooklyn) may not be as overtly scenic as Dartmoor, it nevertheless possesses numerous charms.
Such as this.
Which I found planted oh-so-matter-of-factly several blocks from my house during my daily walk.
Yes, the box is what it looks to be: a free lending library placed smack-dab in the middle of Brooklyn. It’s hosted by my neighbor Jennifer Wilenta and her family.
Upon closer examination, I discovered the library box contained mostly picture books for children and several novels. Once I returned home, I followed the url listed on the box, which lead me to this. Turns out that Little Free Library is an organization that sponsors community-based libraries to bring literature to the streets. Best of all, their website offers instructions on how to steward a free lending library of your own: everything from building plans to registration materials. Here’s a New York Times article about them.
While I love my local public library, I adore the grassroots intimacy of this. A little library box is something an individual would easily do on their own without dealing with large organizations or bureaucracies. All it would take is a weekend and some books to share.
Imagine if there was a library box on every block, each filled with their owner’s personal book favorites and recommendations. What a way to transform a community one book at a time!
Now that I’m back in the studio after a brief break, I’ve been wondering if are there rules for embarking on a new book or creative project—a subject brought to mind after a writer on Facebook mentioned his set of rules. After mulling a bit, I realized that I do some. Though my rules no doubt differ from others, they’ve proven fairly consistent over time.
Rule 1: I shouldn’t be bored. I should be able to fall in love with the book completely and desperately. Both of these qualities are essential since I may be spending years living with it. (Though DOOMED QUEENS took me just over a year to create, THE LOVER’S PATH entailed almost a decade of on-and-off work. That’s a hefty chunk of time.)
Rule 2: The process of creating the book, or its subject matter, should scare me a little. Or a lot. I look upon the presence of fear as a sign that I’m growing as an artist. Sometimes my fear may be in an “oh my god this project is going to challenge me. I’m not sure if my skills are up to it.” (I definitely felt this way when I began writing THE LILY MAID. Thank goodness for National Novel Writing Month, which pushed me beyond my initial “I don’t know how to write a novel” resistance.) Or my fear might be due to the subject matter. For example, when I first thought of the concept for DOOMED QUEENS, it scared me to death: a humorous book about how royal women were disempowered throughout history? Who would want to read this? Would people be offended? Fortunately, my literary agent pushed me to embrace the darkness amid the light. Voila, DOOMED QUEENS was born and went on to became one of my most critically praised books.
Rule 3: Finally, I need to have fun while working. If it’s not fun, what’s the point?
So, my creative rules for choosing to work on a book come down to:
- no boredom
- embracing the fear
- having fun
That’s my formula. However, I haven’t included my biggest rule of all: to produce the best publication I possibly can, using all of the artistic knowledge and skills I possess.
What about you? Do you have any rules for choosing your creative projects?
Above photograph: Craft project by Thea for her clubhouse.
Anyone who knows me well knows I’m a bit (ahem) obsessed with AMC’s Mad Men. When a Mad Men season is underway, I’ll gladly spend hours deconstructing character motivation, plot points, whether Don Draper is a sociopath*, and the delights of a well-placed Roger Sterling bon mot with my husband and friends. Beyond the obvious pleasures of well-written dialogue and fully developed characters, I also adore the gorgeous 1960s clothes that seem to tell a story of their own.
Fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo agree: their Mad Style recaps are wonders of semiotic insight. Generously annotated with screen captures from each week’s episode, each Mad Style post takes Mad Men viewing to a sublimely detailed level. TLo, as their fans call them, claim that Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant deploys clothing in the same way a literary novelist consciously uses symbolism, subtext, and foreshadowing. Nothing is by accident.
Sound crazy? Spend some time reading Mad Style and you’ll agree. Three of TLo’s particularly brilliant observations:
- Joan often wears rose-patterned clothing to signify her fluxuating romantic state.
- Don associates the color red as a call back to his troubled childhood in a whorehouse.
- Peggy is often outfitted in Peter Pan collars and plaids, revealing her Catholic upbringing and lack of fashion acumen.
After mulling Mad Style for some time, I realized I used clothing in a similar manner in THE LILY MAID. Which makes sense—after all, my novel is set during Victorian England’s Aesthetic movement, an era when the rational dress movement faced off against the padded pleasures of the bustle.
For example, my protagonist Elizabeth becomes uneasy when she’s confronted with the costume she’s to wear while modeling:
Dulac handed me a long gown sewn of a softly mottled cream-colored linen with pale green ribbons along the shoulders and waist.
I said, “So the Lady of Shalott’s dress was white after all.”
“As far as I could tell. This will do until a better idea comes along.”
… Before I could get too involved with my examination, Mrs. Dulac led me to a windowless antechamber tucked into a corner. She shut the door behind me. “Let me know if you need help with the lacing, Miss Sirini. I fear you’ll need to remove your stays for the gown to drape properly.”
I had not expected this—I’d worn some form of corset since I was twelve. Somehow the costume seemed emblematic of the Dulacs and their easy, bohemian ways. But I refused to be caught short. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll be fine, Mrs. Dulac.”
Beyond fashion signifying class, I also used color: Elizabeth wears grey half-mourning throughout the book until a crucial turning point. Another character dresses in green, the color of absinthe, to signify his decadence. And so on. Though I’m not nearly accomplished a wardrobe stylist as Janie Bryant, I do have one advantage: since I’m writing fiction, my clothing budget is unlimited.
*After last week’s disturbing Fifty Shades of Grey Flannel episode, I think he is. Don Draper: dark, handsome, and eminently messed up.
Last week, my writer-artist friend Lucy Raubertas convinced me to attend a dance with her. But not just any dance—an 1880-themed ballroom dance given by the New York Nineteenth Century Society. While wearing my Aesthetic Reform-style Victorian tea gown. In public.
You might be wondering what the New York Nineteenth Century Society does—I know I did when I first learned of them. First off, the society aims to unite historians, scholars, artists, philosophers, dreamers, and impresarios inspired by the nineteenth century. Secondly, they promote the study and understanding of life in 19th-century New York City through participatory workshops and lectures open to the public. And balls in period costume.
“We must go to this,” Lucy e-mailed. “Lucy,” I protested. “I’m an HSP introvert. I hide in my studio and gather in gardens. I read and write books. I don’t ballroom dance while wearing a Victorian tea gown.” “Nonsense,” Lucy replied in her graceful soft-spoken way. “It’s the Nineteenth Century Society. It’s 1880-themed, just like in THE LILY MAID. These are your peeps. It will inspired your new novel.”
Those who attended the dance came from a variety of backgrounds; the urban anthropologist in me found their reasons for participation fascinating. I’d estimate about one-third of the costumes were steampunk-inspired. Their wearers considered their adventures in ballroom dancing an expansion on their love of all things Victorian. Others were interested in the historical aspects. One woman’s obsession with sewing period clothing led her into taking nineteenth century dance lessons. However, some were drawn to period dancing through more surprising routes. One dapper gentleman, dressed in a bright green early nineteenth century-style tailcoat, found his way to dance through his involvement with science fiction conferences. Go figure.
While many of the ball attendees were clearly ringers, others (such as myself and Lucy) were decidedly not. Fortunately, the evening began with an hour-long lesson given by period dancing instructor extraordinaire Susan de Guardiola, who gathered all us wallflowers to her with soothing words and precise directions. By the end of Susan’s lesson, we knew how to dance the waltz, polka, and Scottische in various degrees of aptitude.
Or ineptitude. At one point, I fell on my derriere when my skirt tangled about my feet. (Lesson learned: a tea gown with a train is not the best choice for waltzing. Next time, wear a bustle.) Later, we danced various line dances which reminded me of something from Pride and Prejudice sans Mr. Darcy. And I actually had a good time.
So, would I do this again? Perhaps in time.
Over at LitWrap there’s a lovely article about my studio space written by my friend (and Sackett Street Writing Workshop buddy) Emily Kramer.
I had the pleasure seeing Kris’ room for myself when I went over to her house for one of our WiWriDis which I think means Wine Write or Die* but now I can’t even remember. This is when the four or five members of Heather O’Neill’s Sackett Street Writers class of two years ago get together at one of our homes and kill about four or five bottles of wine**. Then we share things like the format of our morning pages journals, the writing books we use with success and in Kris’ case, our writing rooms and how exactly the space is organized and why.
Oh, and this Sunday begins something new: Historical Snippet Sunday! A six sentence snippet from THE LILY MAID will be posted Sunday morning on this blog, linking to other historical authors who will be doing the same. I hope you’ll check back.
*It’s WriWiDi, which stands for Writing, Wine, and Dining. We share our writing, drink wine, and cook dinner. Very fun and convivial.
**Not quite four or five bottles of wine. Usually only two. Well, maybe three once….