Sunday, February 28, 2010


Ruth's diary is the new novel by Fiona Robyn, called Thaw. She has decided to blog the novel in its entirety over the next few months, so you can read it for free.

Ruth's first entry is below, and you can continue reading tomorrow here.


These hands are ninety-three years old. They belong to Charlotte Marie Bradley Miller. She was so frail that her grand-daughter had to carry her onto the set to take this photo. It's a close-up. Her emaciated arms emerge from the top corners of the photo and the background is black, maybe velvet, as if we're being protected from seeing the strings. One wrist rests on the other, and her fingers hang loose, close together, a pair of folded wings. And you can see her insides.

The bones of her knuckles bulge out of the skin, which sags like plastic that has melted in the sun and is dripping off her, wrinkling and folding. Her veins look as though they're stuck to the outside of her hands. They're a colour that's difficult to describe: blue, but also silver, green; her blood runs through them, close to the surface. The book says she died shortly after they took this picture. Did she even get to see it? Maybe it was the last beautiful thing she left in the world.

I'm trying to decide whether or not I want to carry on living. I'm giving myself three months of this journal to decide. You might think that sounds melodramatic, but I don't think I'm alone in wondering whether it's all worth it. I've seen the look in people's eyes. Stiff suits travelling to work, morning after morning, on the cramped and humid tube. Tarted-up girls and gangs of boys reeking of aftershave, reeling on the pavements on a Friday night, trying to mop up the dreariness of their week with one desperate, fake-happy night. I've heard the weary grief in my dad's voice.

So where do I start with all this? What do you want to know about me? I'm Ruth White, thirty-two years old, going on a hundred. I live alone with no boyfriend and no cat in a tiny flat in central London. In fact, I had a non-relationship with a man at work, Dan, for seven years. I'm sitting in my bedroom-cum-living room right now, looking up every so often at the thin rain slanting across a flat grey sky. I work in a city hospital lab as a microbiologist. My dad is an accountant and lives with his sensible second wife Julie, in a sensible second home. Mother finished dying when I was fourteen, three years after her first diagnosis. What else? What else is there?

Charlotte Marie Bradley Miller. I looked at her hands for twelve minutes. It was odd describing what I was seeing in words. Usually the picture just sits inside my head and I swish it around like tasting wine. I have huge books all over my flat; books you have to take in both hands to lift. I've had the photo habit for years. Mother bought me my first book, black and white landscapes by Ansel Adams. When she got really ill, I used to take it to bed with me and look at it for hours, concentrating on the huge trees, the still water, the never-ending skies. I suppose it helped me think about something other than what was happening. I learned to focus on one photo at a time rather than flicking from scene to scene in search of something to hold me. If I concentrate, then everything stands still. Although I use them to escape the world, I also think they bring me closer to it. I've still got that book. When I take it out, I handle the pages as though they might flake into dust.

Mother used to write a journal. When I was small, I sat by her bed in the early mornings on a hard chair and looked at her face as her pen spat out sentences in short bursts. I imagined what she might have been writing about; princesses dressed in star-patterned silk, talking horses, adventures with pirates. More likely she was writing about what she was going to cook for dinner and how irritating Dad's snoring was.

I've always wanted to write my own journal, and this is my chance. Maybe my last chance. The idea is that every night for three months, I'll take one of these heavy sheets of pure white paper, rough under my fingertips, and fill it up on both sides. If my suicide note is nearly a hundred pages long, then no-one can accuse me of not thinking it through. No-one can say; 'It makes no sense; she was a polite, cheerful girl, had everything to live for', before adding that I did keep myself to myself. It'll all be here. I'm using a silver fountain pen with purple ink. A bit flamboyant for me, I know. I need these idiosyncratic rituals; they hold things in place. Like the way I make tea, squeezing the tea-bag three times, the exact amount of milk, seven stirs. My writing is small and neat; I'm striping the paper. I'm near the bottom of the page now. Only ninety-one more days to go before I'm allowed to make my decision. That's it for today. It's begun.

Continue reading tomorrow here...

Friday, February 26, 2010

Those Timeless Greeks

I can't review this book (Greek by Theo Dorgan) since I haven't read it yet, but I can say that it appears to be worth reading, given these two poems reprinted today by Poetry Daily, in which Artemis, talking on her cell phone, "stalks past, imperious and aloof, / radiant in her first flush of immortality."

What is it about the Greek myths that is so endlessly fascinating to so many of us? I think it's the fact that they were (correct me if I'm wrong) the last Western pagans - at least the last Western pagans who left an extensive enough written record that we can revisit them and their myths and stories again and again. Their deities were so human in their divinity, so petty and powerful and imperfect. That's why I like them, anyway.

When I was in grad school, I wrote my fair share of Greek-myth-inspired poems. One of my advisors said, "Why is everyone writing about Persephone now?" I won't try to psychoanalyze my generation of writers. All I know is that, as a writer who grew up hearing those myths, they are a starting place, a framework, a location where we can hang meaning. A theme with endless possible variations.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fail Better

Writers always need reminders and encouragement to keep going through the challenges, vagaries, and doubt that is an inevitable part of creating and also of sharing one's work. This is why so many of us have encouraging quotes taped to the walls near our desks or bed or mirrors or anywhere else we frequent while lost in thought, why so many of us benefit from supportive peer groups.

In this essay, author Rebecca Brown makes another thoughtful contribution to the body of literature addressing the need to keep going despite difficulties.

Brown begins: "I often need to remind myself that I need to hear failure out, because by failing at doing an easy thing, a groupthink thing, a thing one has been taught to do for one's career, one might be encouraged to make or do or be something more original and true. Because failing as an artist is a necessary thing, a thing I wish I could more easily accept."

Brown is a scholar well attuned to the world, and in this essay she doesn't stop with encouraging individual artists & writers to follow our dreams but also reminds us that the point of creating something beautiful or useful is to "give it away" to our community. This service aspect of art can widen our view of the context of our work, and provide deeper motivation for us to work through our own fears, insecurities, and failures.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Reinventing Publishing Again

Some thoughts on the new and evolving world of online & Internet-influenced publishing, a topic that came up when I recently signed up to be part of a "blogsplash." What's that, you ask? Well, check back on March 1.

In the meantime, I read this recent essay by Ted Genoways of the Virginia Quarterly Review about the supposed death of literary fiction. Similar to essays about the death of poetry that seem to crop up every few years, this one was in a way a justifiable lament, but on the other hand was limited by the author's point of view.

The fact that some publishers and literary journals are moving to a nonprofit model is intriguing. And I think it could make sense to ask people to "pay" for their literature after they read it, by making a donation. I almost never buy new books - they're just not in my budget. I get books from the library, and if I like them and can justify their taking up space on my bookshelf, then I buy them.

Narrative Magazine seems to have come up with one solution to the changing (virtual) landscape of publishing. Their magazine is free to read but they charge a fee for submissions and for special access to certain content. This could addresses the issue described by Ted Genoways of over-worked editors drowning in "navel-gazing" submissions.

Small Beer Press, publisher of "good, weird, interesting" books, has this to say about making books available online for free: "We love books. We want to keep on publishing good books... If everyone downloads books straight to the Kindlenub in their head, we might be in trouble. But if there are still people who like to read books on paper, maybe some of them will read some of these downloads and then decide they would like the actual books... In other words: as with any book, if you want to read it for free, you can. We’ve just made it easier for this book to reach the 6 billion readers out there!"