Sunday, August 29, 2010

Owls by Danica Davidson

Danica Davidson is a writer who likes to write on all different topics and in all different fields.  She also enjoys changing her writing style to fit with whatever she's working on at the moment.  To date she's sold a few hundred articles for places such as Booklist, Publishers Weekly and the nature journal Whisper in the Woods, which is where this article on owl folklore was originally published.  She's also written the English version of Japanese books for an American audience.

Danica wants her next step to be into the realm of fiction.  She's currently looking to sell her YA novel, which is a sort of "mythology meets high school" tale.  Please visit her website at 

by Danica Davidson

In folklore, owls are images of wisdom or symbols of doom, along with everything in-between.  With their peculiar looks and nocturnal habits, there is an air of mystery about them that lends to all sorts of legends.

The symbol of owls as intelligent, while seen in various cultures, is most famous thanks to Greece.  In ancient Greece owls were often perched around Athena, goddess of wisdom.  To the Greeks the sight of an owl could mean good luck, a sign Athena was watching over them.  As time went on her sacred animal continued to be used for concepts of smartness, giving way to the Western World’s notion of the Wise Old Owl.

In Native American beliefs, these birds run the gamut from being respected to feared.  According to the Sioux, a mystical owl named Hin-Han stands guard at the Milky Way.  Spirits must pass him in order to reach the blissful afterlife, but before this happens they are judged.  If they do not have the proper tattoo for entrance, they’re cast into an abyss.

From the Iroquois comes a tale of Owl’s creation.  A god called Raweno was creating animals and Owl, still not formed, continued to pester him and show great arrogance.  In anger Raweno grabbed him, pushing down Owl’s head and yanking at his ears.  Owl’s eyes went big with terror, all this leading to his present condition.  Raweno then banished Owl into the night.

According to one Passamaquoddy tale, the Owl isn’t easily good or bad, but a clever trickster who gets what he wants.  Using shapeshifting, precocious plotting and even a magic flute, he’s able to marry a human girl.  At first the girl resists, only to succumb.

These days connotations with owls are usually positive.  They’re seen as beautiful, enchanting birds and mascots for students.  But they’ll always retain their mysterious side, and because of this they’ll continue to captivate our imaginations.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hats Off to the Eccentrics by Michele Young-Stone

Michele Young-Stone is the author of the debut novel The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors (Shaye Areheart/Crown, 2010).  A fan of the underdog, her characters have been described as “endearing losers,” “complicated, nuanced and sympathetic.”  Publisher’s Weekly listed The Handbook… as one of the top ten fiction debuts of the season, and The Boston Globe called it, “an exceptionally rich and sure-handed debut, full of complex characters, brilliantly described...”

Michele earned her MFA in fiction writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Currently at work on a new book, Michele resides in Richmond, VA with her husband, her son, a sweet dog, some hermit crabs and a showy fish.  A very long time ago, Michele was struck by lightning and survived.

You can learn more about The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors at 

Hats Off to the Eccentrics
by Michele Young-Stone

“I’ve got a feeling…” that I watch and read too much entertainment news because that Black-Eyed Peas song is running through my head.  Really, it’s the fault of my step-aerobics class to which I am freakishly addicted.

I like nothing better than jumping up and down on this riser to loud hip-hop music, spinning and improvising, dripping sweat all over the floor while the instructor Nicole calls out, “Repeater ham,” which means three hamstring moves in a row, or “L Step” or “V Step.”  Since she’s taught us variations with all of these moves, I’m bopping all over the place.  “I’ve got a feeling that tonight’s going to be a good night,…”  It’s nuts, and I love it.  I think it’s partly all the counting.  There are 4, 8, 12 and 16 beats in the steps.

When I was a kid, I would count the syllables in words whenever people spoke.  It was one way to make sense of the world.  This ritual grew into making sure that the bed is daily made, for order, which grew into making sure that the rug is daily vacuumed.

Potentially-long story short:  It seems much healthier to dance on top of a riser and break a sweat to hip-hop than counting syllables.

When I was growing up, I worried a lot about nuclear war, whales being harpooned, and dolphins being killed in tuna nets.  My parents were sure that I was going to grow up to be a dysfunctional bag lady.  Possible scenario:  Empathetic hyper-sensitive girl turns bag lady.  Another possibility:  Empathetic hypersensitive girl turns novelist.  I like the latter much better.

I like the oddballs in society.  They make life interesting.  I like the eccentrics and the folks who aren’t afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves.  It took me until I was thirty-years old to realize the gravity of choosing my friends.  For some reason, I was attracted to people who weren’t always empathetic to my quirkiness.  They perceived sensitivity as weakness. Nowadays, I choose my friends more wisely.  I pick the scattered artistic unruly.  I choose the freethinkers.  I choose the sensitive and intelligent, the inhibited and the uninhibited.  I choose the dancers and the wallflowers, the crybabies and the tattle-tales.  I choose lovers of nature.  The folks who want to nurture and build up.  I choose animal lovers and baby lovers.  Women and men who bound fearless and crawl fearful into the day.  The outspoken and the soft-spoken.  Bottom line: the big-hearted; the givers and not the takers.  “Fill up my cup/ Mazel Tov…  I’ve got a feeling…”

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Show up. Sit down. Do the Work. By Erica Jamieson

Erica Jamieson writes short fiction and creative non-fiction. She is working on finishing her first novel among other projects. Her work has appeared in Self Magazine,, and in small press literary magazines. She is a contributor to the monthly Isaian Magazine and oversees a blog for her monthly writing group,  She also sporadically updates her own blog about weight and food at  But above all else she is a reader. Erica moderates book groups with the goal of experiencing the intention of the author rather than focusing on what is good, what is bad. Her favorite is her daughter’s seventh grade book group that meets monthly out of school.  There are new avid generations of readers abounding in this wildly webbed world and it is wonderful.

Show up. Sit Down. Do the work.
By Erica Jameison

I have this recurring day dream.  In an eclectic coffee shop, I am hunched over my Macbook, espresso cooling on the table, toe tapping in rhythm to fingers typing at warp speed.  Suddenly, there is a person, could be man, could be woman, it matters little.  We talk about my work.  By the end of the next cup of coffee I have a patron, champion for my craft.  A heroic angel who facilitates my every artistic need. I am given a key to a wooded hideaway where I can work uninterrupted. The fridge is always stocked full with sparkling water and plates of sliced cucumbers.  Somewhere in this day dream (recurring mostly at about three p.m. weekdays) my carpooling and lunch making responsibilities wane.  I no longer have to grocery shop.  And then, my work, like well fertilized rosemary, blossoms and grows wildly.

It is so much easier to imagine the work already done than to sit down and actually do the work.  I know.  I am queen of resistance.  I can sit down at my desk only to remember that dirty fork in the sink, and well, I certainly can’t work with a messy house.

Part of my resistance comes from bad planning, lack of keeping to a schedule, allowing the world at large to take precedence over my work.  Hence the need for a patron, someone other than me who believes I am a writer. Left to my own devices, I have my doubts.

Because the other piece of my resistance is the answer to the question what do you do?  It took me twenty years to say I write.  And yet, I still qualify that by saying I am an emerging writer. Emerging?  What does that mean? To materialize.  Develop.  Arrive.  Oh, to arrive as fully developed writer, now wouldn’t that be truly something?

But does a writer ever really arrive?  I have files of story ideas, conception ideas, novel starts and stops.  Is it simply because I am still awaiting some sort of gilded credential to the professional writer’s club that keeps me from finishing?

Zoe Klein, who had her first novel, Drawing in the Dust, published last summer always wanted to be a writer but it was her father who helped her define the term.  He is a sculptor and a teacher.  Some students beguile themselves with an image of being an artiste, he might tell his daughter, while others show up everyday to work at their craft.  Zoe Klein understood this disparity and despite, or because of, her insane schedule, (head rabbi of a reform temple in Los Angeles, mother of three), she showed up everyday to do the work, to write.

In The War on Art by Steven Pressfield the ideal professional writer is described not by the ability to support oneself from writing but by showing up each day, taking oneself serious, doing the work regularly. Like your neighborly insurance agent, or the man who bags your groceries or the bank teller.  They don’t wake to a dirty fork in the sink, or feel the rain in their bones, or get dissuaded by compromised confidence.  Instead they leave the fork, grab an umbrella and head to the office.  It’s the only way the work gets done.  Pressfield says a professional writer must do the same thing.  Show up, sit down, do the work.

For me that was an enlightening message.  To digest the fact that there is no spatial moment of arriving.  There is only the work.

In the midst of my cleaning frenzy, I finally paused long enough to ask if a writer writes than what was I doing standing at the doorway to my office staring at an empty desk holding a basketful full of folded whites.

Instead of more excuses, I showed up at the four corners of my computer screen.  I allowed my lack of confidence, my emerging sensibilities to dictate rewrite after rewrite.  I coerced myself to stay and write.  To do the work.  Slowly this essay came into being.  I guess you could say it emerged from simply showing up.

And then a thought began to take root.  I am my own angelic champion, patron of my writing because I am not an emerging writer.  I am simply emerging.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Self-Care by Karen Monroy

Dr. Karen Monroy is a spiritual psychotherapist, economist, author, CEO, wife and mother. She is passionate about teaching Sustainable Prosperity, the Spiritual Principles everyone needs to live fulfilled, joyful and prosperous.

Her book, the 30 day Money Master Mind Make-Over has won a National INDIE Excellence award and her new book for Children, “mommy what is rich?” is nominated for several awards.

Most people are not very good at self-care. We spend wasteful hours trying to figure out why. I want you to know the reason “why” doesn’t matter.

What does matter?  You see the loop of reciprocity between your ability to live joyfully, productively, and with equanimity to self-care. It would also greatly serve you to recognize whether it is the art of motherhood, or the art of writing or painting, there is indeed a correlation between self-care and the demonstration of your art. 

Obvious objections may be Van Gogh and his famous ear incident or Ernest Hemingway’s life and suicide.  Clearly, unhappy artists can do great work. I’ve sloughed through hundreds of studies asking, among other questions, “Is writing a dangerous profession to your health?” and “Are artist’s happy?” Not one study has posed the question:  how much better could the writer or artist have been if they were able to sustain happiness? This phenomena happens everywhere: think of Daryl Strawberry, Babe Ruth, and Mickey Mantel –yes, they were terrific baseball players, but you know the drugs, booze and partying held them back.

Let me ask you this: do your negative emotions and bad habits hold you back? 

I rest my case.

Furthermore, it’s unfortunate that self-care is often confused with excessive, narcissistic tendencies. While preferences in meaningful self-care are to be expected, you don’t have to leave your family, fly to a private resort, or spend money to practice self-care.

Artists and writers as a whole tend to avoid practicing self-care. All artists will experience the ebb and flow of creativity, some even experience severe blockage. I’ve also noticed a direct correlation between the duration of a blockage and the ebb and flow of creativity to their ability to administer self-care.

I teach Spiritual Principles. While form appears different in life for each of us, Spiritual Principles are universal. The Spiritual Principle of Awareness is a requirement for a sustainable, joyful life and the maximum demonstration of your art, regardless of its expression.

Most of the time when I begin to speak with artists about awareness, they think I mean introspection. Introspection is a perceptual organizational tool employed by artists. It’s a way of immersing ourselves deep within life in order to discern the discrete components. The kind of introspection used to describe an experience in detail is not the same awareness that assists us in being able to navigate our experience.

I’ll say that again: description doesn’t lead to navigation. Introspection and Awareness are not equals.

It’s our conditioning, training, and habituations that would have us naively believe we can easily navigate life (and its stories) simply by knowing the content of the life.

Have you noticed the natural inclination toward introspection when you are titling toward misery as opposed to joy? We question our misery, but never question our joy. It’s a paradoxical element of human beings that joy is self-evident but misery is not.

Do you ever wonder why you do not stop for introspection when you are joyful? Why does this feel good? Why do I even think this is good? What do I think this means?

A practice of awareness (quiet mind, meditation, prayer—whatever name you would like to call it) recognizes the differentiating aspects of content and our judgments of “good” and “bad” about the content. Awareness recognizes how little we know about the bad, but even less about the good.   Awareness further distinguishes what you know about the good and the bad has nothing to do with navigation of it.

Our limited awareness of the full spectrum of emotions—the good and the bad—is blockage to good self-care.  All emotions are sacred. We are given all of them as a means to navigate through life. Emotions contain vital life affirming information about the alignment we are in (or not in) with regard to our purpose. All emotions are necessary to create our masterpiece to the fullest expression of our glory.
It simply isn’t true that consulting the jury of thoughts manifesting as your miseries, accusers and rebukers is more helpful to express your art and navigate the content of life. 

Authentic self-care fosters loving, kind, joyful consultations. It breaks the false beliefs that suffering is required to create. Until we practice awareness and learn to harness the full spectrum of emotions, we’ll never know how great an artist we truly are.  

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rat-a-tat-tat by E. Victoria Flynn

(Find Victoria at and

A regular man ordered a regular coffee. He watched my arm as I collected his money and returned the change. “I've always wanted a tattoo,” he said. I flushed, my arm band was talking again. I asked why he hadn't gotten one. “I've always thought a person's body is like a map,” he said. “ All its scars, and marks, and tattoos show where you've been. I haven't found the right one yet.”

I think about his comment and consider my body—a thing that heals, lets me walk around, feel, taste, see, experience—a thing I take for granted. He was talking about skin, what we see after we see shape, and the marks we wear whether by chance or intent.

Some of us, either through long, drawn-out deliberation or a sudden gasp of instant life, remove our inhibitions, plant our feet on the white hot coals of disregard and take a breath. Then we bleed.

We give to get—blood for ink.

It's impossible to know why any one person chooses to map themselves—an act of rebellion, self-possession, a need to scream-out, to cover or uncover, a dream, a commitment, a loss, a birth. It's a human moment if nothing else, a desire to be one's own self.

My tattoos are faded after 14 years in the sun. They never had any color and are now the dark weather-worn gray of time distilled. I hold no regrets. My daughters, still very young, trace the lines around my arm and the raised knotwork on my neck where the artist went too deep. They know what a tattoo is and wear their own mock ink up and down their little bodies.

Unlike my daughters' arrivals brimming with hope and softness, my tattoos were born with a coarse need to speak my youth and independence. Both ink stained spots of skin are a marked point in a personal history, a weighted stand against what I believed to be a mundane crash into adulthood as much as a marriage to the creative spirit.

At the age of 35 I am again being pulled to the buzz and draw of the tattoo gun, to another moment marked. There are no saviors in the ink, but the resounding hum melding with the intensity of physical sensation creates a euphoric reality that will not be dismissed. Some say there is an addiction in tattooing.

Maybe there is.

I can't remember the name of the man in the coffee shop, but his thoughts poured into my mind a unique perspective on body art, that of a living map, a visual memory, one moment made physical.

Are you a proponent of body art or do you prefer the body be left unmarred by physical decoration? Do you find yourself guarding against or drawn to certain people in regard to their tattoos? What is your perspective on body mapping?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Literary Soul Stuck in a Box: Lisa Lickel

Lisa Lickel and her husband live in eastern Wisconsin in a 150-year-old Great Lakes ship captain’s house filled with books and dragons. She writes mysteries and romances, but alas, not literature. Her latest novel, Meander Scar, is set near Madison, Wisconsin. She also writes for FreeQuincy Radio Theater, and local newspaper feature articles. Her website is:; she’s a regular at, and at Look for her on Facebook, Goodreads and Author’s Den, as well as She Writes.

Literary Soul Stuck in a Box
By Lisa Lickel

Jane Hamilton drew a small but intense crowd a few years back when she visited my local book store. She shared one of the reasons why she likes indie booksellers: They understand me and don’t ask questions like “Where shall I shelve your book?” Jane said she didn’t always know how to answer. “I suppose they wanted to know if I’ve written a dog book, or a soccer mom story,” she said.

Genre. Such a beautiful word for a cage. As soon as someone demands a label for your soul, your offspring, the outpouring of your heart, you tell a lie or risk losing potential readers. If an intense middle-aged woman asks you about your book, you say it’s a love story. If your father-in-law asks you, you say it’s about a man who has to deal with life’s left curves. If your pastor asks, you tell her it’s about the struggle for truth.

You turn your first book over. There, above the bar code is reality. The publisher forced you into a vapid pool of love schmuck to make a buck. Commercialism vs. Art.

You want to be remembered for all time, the coming of age story, the overcoming a national tragedy story, the issue story. Literature. Big juicy Scrabblicious words, poignant unapologetic purple prose, universal issues, mind-bending, gut-wrenching situations.

Trouble is, literature isn’t so much read as collected. It’s given Pulitzers. Sometimes movie makers interpret it. The multi-lettered authors are revered, but truthfully, the works are not as commercially successful as a rocking vampire story. Book clubs choose literature and only a few members show up for the discussion. WPR will read them on air at 12:30 if Jim Fleming likes them.

Formula romance is reserved for a mindless weekend bender when I come home from the library with movies I’m not going to watch and an armful of thin little novelettes I gobble like hors d’oeuvres. I read in the bathtub until the candles burn down and the hot water tank is empty. I take the books back Monday morning having already forgotten what I read. One of them might have been about a soccer mom.

I turn my latest book over and look at the cover. What do I tell people about my book? This one’s about a woman who decides to live again when a younger man from her past offers to help put her long-missing husband’s ghost to rest. Until she discovers the truth.

Oh, the salesperson says. So, you write…um, what again? Mysteries? Suspense? Romance?

I smile and say, Well, the one before it was about a dying man asking a woman with a special gift if she’ll die for him. And my next one? That’s about the ethical use of stem cell treatments on a woman who didn’t want to face the relapse of her cancer – the ultimate dysfunctional family.

I watch the salesperson flip some pages. Yes, there are some big words in my books. Sure there’s a little romance going on. Uh huh, some danger. Check the reviews.

Some over the top egos, mine included.

“But where do I shelve them?” I’m asked.

I smile and point. “Why, right next to Jane Hamilton, ma’am. And be sure to call me for your next book club.”

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Spaces in Between by Rose Deniz

Rose Deniz is an artist and writer living outside of Istanbul, Turkey. She can be found knee-deep in quilting fabric and illustrating curiosities of daily life abroad while revising her first young adult novel.,

The Spaces in Between: Creative Fodder in Daily Life
by Rose Deniz (Find Rose at

Creativity happens between the pages of a notebook, or when a brush of paint touches the canvas, right? As a guest speaker on the topic of cultivating a creative life to expat women, I’ve had businesswomen, stay at home moms, lawyers and teachers all agree with that idea. It’s hard to break down one’s ingrained notions of what is creative and what is not.

So what do most people consider to be creative?
Collage and scrapbooking
Singing and making music

What could be creative that doesn’t always get recognized as such?

What do most people think is not creative?
Raising children

What else could you add to these lists from your own experience?

As a painter and writer, I used to subscribe to these stereotypes myself. In art school we were told real artists continued making paintings and sculptures after graduation. Serious artists got jobs like teaching art to pass the time until they could make money off the selling of their art. Any other pursuits were seen as distractions or side projects. The pressure to be represented by a gallery, compounded by the belief that to be an artist meant 99% alone time with 1% left to eat, sleep, maybe fall in love and only if you’re male, start a family, could destroy creativity.

Non-artists, or for clarification purposes, people not in the business of living off of art-making, talk about not being able to be creative in their jobs. Even though companies are starting to realize they can’t get by without right-brained thinkers, people still feel pressured to apply left-brained techniques even when they dream up more creative solutions. At home, tired and convinced they don’t have time for creativity, or think that they don’t have the creative gene, the belief gets perpetuated that art is something only others with a) more time, b) financial freedom, or c) artistic instinct can do.

Imagine, then, the discovery that the very thin line between creative and non-creative has to do with perception and not action.

Perception. How you interpret something. How you become aware of something. I know first hand from teaching students from age 14 to 60 that everyone can draw. I’m also convinced that you don’t have to draw or make art of any sort to be creative, but you do have to teach yourself to see.

Christina Katz explains that her own writing career didn’t kick into high gear until she had a child. My own perception shift happened soon after I moved to Turkey. I wanted to maintain an art and writing practice and I wanted to work from home while raising my children. To date, I’ve designed handbags, facilitated micro loans, taught English, done freelance illustration, wrote curricula, started a business, moderated dialogues, and started writing a novel. By art school standards, I failed because I wasn’t making money exclusively by my paintings. If art was only what hung on the wall, I had a pretty narrow and limited career path to look forward to.

It was while home with my two children that I realized that everything I did, from morning to night, had the potential to be creative. And with that feeling was the amazing sensation of freedom. If I just looked at it from a different angle, creativity was popping up everywhere.

So where is creativity lurking that it hasn’t been before?

To me, creativity is in a quiet moment on the balcony taking in the day, making the first cup of coffee of the day, talking to a friend on the phone and unraveling life mysteries. It is in creating a personal manifesto. It is being present to my thoughts and my life, to looking at piles of laundry and laughing, in the spark of connection that can happen online as much as in person, it is in letting go of self-doubt and resentment, it is formulating ideas and sharing them eagerly, it is being gracious to life’s gifts and humble to their ability to transform. It’s writing a blog post that connects people instead of divides them. It’s getting paid to do research and work on new and varied projects. It means not having to do the same thing twice.

If creativity happens when life is happening, and not just when we sit down to compose a sonnet, daily life become a glorious, bell-clanging over the top riot of color and sensation. In other words, life becomes art.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Again by Robin Antalek

Robin Antalek is the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins 2010), chosen as a Target Breakout Book.  Visit her website at
She also blogs at and You can find her on Facebook, too.

By Robin Antalek

I thought it would be easy.  Well, perhaps easy is the wrong choice of words.  Maybe a different kind of easy. After all I managed to get a book published.  Pretty awesome reviews.  Target Breakout Book.  Book Clubs can’t get enough.  Close to eight months after publication I’m still getting interview requests and book club visit requests and showing up at bookstores for signings.

Still. There is that nagging voice of self-doubt.

Will I be able to do it again?

It wasn’t like The Summer We Fell Apart was the first novel I had ever written.  I got my wonderful agent Julie with a book that we both really loved – but didn’t end up selling.  Before Julie, I had written three other novels and a short story collection.  The stories had won a prize and publication by a regional publisher.  I had written PR and grants and radio scripts – anything to keep me in printer ink.  So writing really wasn’t the problem.

So I thought.

When I was nine, my parents’ gave up our very traditional life in Manhattan to move to a slip of a town on the west coast of Florida near the Everglades. This was 1970 and the landscape was akin to the Wild West.  My dad, an engineer, who had a hand in designing the mini cars that would become Matchbox, decided to give it all up to run a pool company.  Yes, I am very familiar with the smell of chlorine and what it takes to get garden snakes and the occasional rattler out of a pool filter.

Ten years later I left the Everglades to go north to school and really never looked back.  Twenty years after I did my parents eventually migrated back to a bedroom community within a train ride distance to Manhattan.

But those ten years stayed with me.  The stories and the people and atmosphere of old Florida is in my blood.  I have attempted two novels since The Summer We Fell Apart.  Both about this Florida – my Florida.  Both were disastrous.  I knew something was wrong with each of these books – but I couldn’t see it.  This is a world I know so well – maybe too well and that was part of my problem.

I took the best parts of the first manuscript and wrote the second.  Still, something wasn’t right.  I didn’t have that magical voice that grabbed me, compelled me to tell a story.  I had half a voice.  It was a whisper.  But it was something.

So I had a conversation with my agent.  A long, wonderful, winding conversation between friends.  Wonderful Julie listened while I rambled and all of a sudden IT was there.  The story I wanted to tell.  The whisper grew louder and louder until I could no longer ignore it.  It’s a beginning.  The bare bones of a beginning.  Day by day, hour by hour, the story is taking shape, the voice I was straining to hear is practically screaming.  It’s time to get back to work.  And it feels so good.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Charlotte Holmes on Virginia Woolf

Please help me in welcoming the wonderful, talented, supportive (yes, I was lucky: she was my former Fiction Professor!) Charlotte Holmes. Charlotte has had stories in many literary journals, among them the New Yorker, Epoch, and New Letters. She has a story collection out, too: Gifts and Other Stories, available everywhere. Charlotte teaches creative writing at Penn State University in State College. I am greatly indebted to this amazing woman because she taught me everything I know about writing and always pushed me to keep going, even when the going was rough and the sentences were even rougher. You can find Charlotte at:

Yes, Virginia.
By Charlotte Holmes

In an exam in an undergraduate course on the modern novel at LSU, my professor gave us an essay question:  Which is more profound, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent or Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse?

I wasn’t completely sure what he meant by “profound,” but I knew that To the Lighthouse—the first Woolf novel I’d read—was my favorite of the two, so I wrote in its defense.  Lord knows what I said—this was thirty-three years ago—but it must have met with the professor’s approval, because I made an A on the exam.  When he gave back our blue books, though, he remarked that every one of us had argued for Woolf’s book.  “You’re all wrong, of course,” he said.  “Conrad’s book is more profound, because it encompasses the lives of both men and women.”

Re-reading To the Lighthouse recently—something I do every couple of years—I thought about Professor W.’s assertion that Woolf’s book sympathized only with the lives of women.  While it’s true that Mr. Ramsay is a difficult character, he is by no means unsympathetic.  The reader sees what his children cannot:  his dependence on, and devotion to, his wife, who treats him with respect and with the same tolerance she shows her children.  Mrs. Ramsay, in her wisdom and tolerance and grace, is mother to them all.  As dear Lily Briscoe thinks, “She was frightening.  She was irresistible.  Always she got her own way in the end. .  .She put a spell on them all.”

And if she puts them all in a spell, then they are the beguiled, who believe she will always be there to sort things out, to smooth over the rough patches, to salve the wounds.

I believe that in this beguiling lies Woolf’s true sympathy for the men in the novel.  Mr. Ramsay, after his wife’s parenthetical death, is devastated beyond measure.  Who among us, leaving our loved ones behind, would want to see them in such a wretched state?

About Lily Briscoe visiting the summer house after Mrs. Ramsay is gone, we’re told, “the war had drawn the sting of her femininity.  Poor devils, one thought, poor devils of both sexes.”  Lily ponders “what a power was in the human soul!”  What Lily understands is that Mrs. Ramsay extended herself for others, constantly, but in doing so wove a strong web of dependence.

“She was frightening,” Lily thinks, because she was so successful.  She was the hub around which the entire universe spun.

Far from being evil or unlikable characters, both Ramsays are drawn fairly with Woolf’s discerning pen—faulty, human characters who have their moments of grace and their moments of vanity, their weaknesses and strengths.

When I’m having difficulty writing a character, it’s often Virginia Woolf I go back to, not only for the illustrations of complexity that are made possible in her novels and stories, but for her own complexity that emerges in the journals and letters.  One of the century’s greatest writers, and celebrated in her lifetime, she often thought of herself as a “failure,” unable to achieve what she aimed for in both her art and life.

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."