Name Change

So, you might be wondering, who is this Lura McCartney, and what has she done to Lura Slowinski? (Or not. I mean, it’s okay if you’re not.) McCartney is my maiden name, and after several months of wishing I’d decided to publish as McCartney from the start it occurred to me that it wasn’t quite too late. I could make this change, but if I was going to do it at all, it had to be now. So, here we are. Still the same me, just with a different name.

It’s not because I regret taking my husband’s name when I married, because I don’t really, though if it came up now I’d consider it a lot longer and harder than I did at the time. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of keeping my old name around somehow as well. I also like having one name for the Public Author Persona, and another for just plain old me hanging out with friends and family and the like.

So that’s that. Hopefully I’ll be a little more active on the blogging front going forward than I was all of last year. I’ll need something to keep me sane as I somehow edit my 155,000 word novel down to something resembling publishable length. I made the mistake of Googling word counts of famous books earlier today, and what seemed like a manageable problem only a few hours ago suddenly seems mountainous. Still, there’s only one way up a mountain — step by step. Onward we go…


Everything’s All Right

Sometimes I wish I was a more adventurous sort of person.

It usually happens after I read something about that sort of person — someone a little wild, a little raw around the edges, someone whose life seems to burn brighter and hotter than my own. In this case, the novel was All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry, which is about a couple of girls in the punk rock scene in 1990s Seattle (I think it’s Seattle, though the city is unnamed). There’s sex and some drugs and a lot of drinking, late nights out at raucous parties, excess so extreme that it takes a hellish toll. Not exactly appealing, is it? (Though the book is excellent!) It’s not so much that I want any of those things, because I don’t, but I do envy their ability to ignore or throw aside any sense of repercussions. I’m too naturally sensible to get rid of any inhibitions I have, so, inhibited, I live a quiet, staid life.

Which is fine, most of the time. But it’s possible to be too quiet and too staid, to inhibit yourself almost to a sort of death. Sometimes you have to be able to take a risk, to gamble that things will work out all right. Sometimes you even have to stop and redefine what “all right” might even mean. If you’re like me — exceedingly sensible — then at first glance all right means a steady job with a comprehensive health package and a 401k, a car and an apartment and a future in a suburb somewhere, with the requisite 2.5 children, the dog, the cat, the white picket fence. All right means enough money leftover for buying books and taking the occasional trip, always planned well in advance, never spontaneous and never stretching the budget. All right means everything is lined up, your ducks in a row, steady gains and nothing risked.

But “all right” might not be all right. I left the nine to five job with the benefits package a little over a year ago, because I was not actually all right. I was miserable. I hated my job. That almost seemed to be the sensible thing, hating the office job — the thing that made me just like everyone else. And, sensibly enough, I stuck with it for a long time, until suddenly I couldn’t anymore, and I quit almost spontaneously, in a weird week that caught me so off guard I wasn’t myself anymore.

Things could have gone badly from there, definitely. I was the breadwinner of our little family — me, my husband, and our cat Reesie — so my quitting was a major deal, to say the least. But that was just the first in a rapid-fire chain of events, because during my very last week at the old job my husband was offered a job in the Boston area. He took it; we moved; and here we are a year later, both of us working again, the cat well-fed, us well-fed, our financial situation maybe not as good as it once was but not so bad, either. We’ve got friends here. I belong to a local writing group and I’m a member of two book clubs with a third starting up next month. I’ve attended Readercon twice now, and have seen some of my favorite authors in person at bookstores throughout the area. I can’t afford to buy every single book I want to own, but now that I’m frequenting the library I’m picking up books I never would have otherwise, and loving them.

In other words, I’m all right. But maybe I wouldn’t have any of this if I hadn’t done the stupid thing and quit that sensible job in the first place. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a time and a place for sensibility, definitely. But having the occasional, sensible adventure is important too. To me that means going out when I might have preferred staying in, or splurging on a day trip to Salem, or teaching myself how to bake bread and cook new foods. It means reaching out to that writing group, taking the Readercon plunge, diving headlong into a new draft even when the little doubts suggest otherwise. They’re little adventures, maybe, but I don’t need big thrills. The little ones are enough. As Theodora Goss says in this excellent blog post, “I am the adventure: all of the things I do could be ordinary, but my imagination transforms them.”

I’ve got imagination. I think I can handle that.

And as for being the quiet, staid one? Well, anytime I start thinking it’d be great to be wild, I can go back and read “The Quiet Girls,” a poem by Catherine Pierce. “Still we float like spores, aloft and away.” We skirt the big dangers, have our quiet little adventures, take the sensible risks, and even if floating isn’t quite like flying, at least it’s not falling. We’re still aloft and airborne, just at a pace more suitable to us.

And the view is pretty good, too.

Dear Media: Stop Conflating Shyness and Introversion, Please

This is definitely a “this is making me irrationally angry” moment, but still: The Atlantic, a magazine and website I generally respect (though don’t always agree with), posted a brief, silly, throwaway article called “Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School.” Possibly the most offensive thing about it is how ridiculous and uninformed it is, considering the author can’t be bothered to understand the differences between shyness, social anxiety, and introversion. What’s entirely missing, in this discussion, is the difference between choosing not to say something and being afraid of saying something. The author assumes introversion is the latter. Probably not coincidentally, the author identifies as an extrovert.

I was shy as a kid, so I get the anxiety thing. In general I dislike public speaking and don’t like being the center of attention. But when I say I’m introverted that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the fact that I spend my evenings not in a bar but at home with a book, that I like being alone for extended periods of time, that I like writing more than speaking because it gives me time to formulate my thoughts better. When I say that large gatherings — even of families — are exhausting, I don’t mean I’m afraid everyone in the room is negatively judging me. I just mean they suck energy out of me. It’s really as simple as that.

The reason this misunderstanding bothers me so much is that as a kid I began to think it was wrong to be quiet, wrong to not say anything if I didn’t have anything to say. Certainly, all through high school I tried to chase an ideal of the extroverted super-involved type A personality peer leader — even as I became more aware of my desire to just be left alone a lot of the time. It led to some dissonance, a sense that I was doing things wrong. I always felt guilty about craving alone time, as if that was synonymous with being antisocial.

So I resent articles like these that mix up shyness and social anxiety with introversion, even though they don’t necessarily all walk hand in hand, a dubious trifecta of social imperfections. Shyness is a problem, but introversion isn’t.

One sentence in the article is particularly telling: “Or I can ask them to open their mouths, turn on their brains, and share their ideas with the rest of the class.” That is exactly what people like me dislike most about this discussion. Why on earth should we open our mouths before we’ve turned on our brains? It’s that kind of verbal diarrhea that drives us most insane! And I find I do resent the implication that because we aren’t speaking we somehow aren’t thinking. Our thoughts are often vibrant and lively enough that we don’t need validation from peers, and don’t always need to share them. We can spend hours alone not because it means we don’t need to think but because it means we can think freely, without someone nagging us to say something.

So I find articles like this to be too facile, presenting introversion as a problem with a simple, almost stupidly obvious solution: Just start talking, silly! But the article betrays more ignorance than groundbreaking thought. Authors like this one — who is a teacher — would make more headway if they first accepted that sometimes silence is a choice, not a prison. Stop trying to cure us, extroverts. We’re not broken. We’re doing perfectly fine.

Music for Halloween

Music has always been an integral part of my life. I majored in music in college (consider that a warning for any extreme musical nerdiness in this post or others), and though my parents swear they don’t know where my “musical talent” comes from, anyone who visits their house is sure to see the massive CD collection featured prominently in the living room. They have a little bit of everything, from soundtracks to Zydeco and Motown to Folk Revival. So, thanks to Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, I knew right where to go for my Halloween music fix.

But many of the songs on that CD are the songs that end up on every playlist dedicated to Halloween music, and there’s a good chance you’ve heard them before. So I thought I’d highlight some other pieces from the “Classical” canon that don’t get nearly the attention of Night on Bald Mountain or In the Hall of the Mountain King.

So, without further ado, here’s a collection of spooky, dark, eerie music perfect for those dark, moonlit nights when the ghouls are on the move…

Danse Macabre, Op. 40 in G minor — Camille Saint-Saëns

Okay, I’ve cheated, as this one appears on almost all the Halloween playlists. But Saint-Saëns was directly inspired by a poem when he composed this piece, so how could I not include it? The poem, originally in French, describes a “Dance of Death,” — or, in French, a danse macabre.

“Zig, zig, zig,
Death in cadence,
Striking a tomb with his heel,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zag, on his violin.
The winter wind blows,
and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
White skeletons pass through the gloom,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.”

(Full text available here.)

But the cool doesn’t stop there. The violin you hear in the opening is incorrectly tuned in order to create an interval (basically, two notes playing together, sort of like a partial chord) commonly known as the Devil’s Tritone. This interval is particularly dissonant and was, until the 19th Century, not commonly used in any musical works of any kind. (Also fun: the two notes of the tritone are three whole steps apart, thus the tri- part of tritone, which also fits into the devil thing. Isn’t music theory cool?)

In addition to the violin solo, which is a clear reference to the text, Saint-Saëns uses a xylophone to evoke the clatter of bones that’s referenced later in the poem, and at the end has the oboe stand in as a rooster crowing. Here and there throughout the piece I hear rising and falling passages suggestive of the moans in the trees, and I love the frenetic, darkly humorous energy to this piece.

Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 Mvt. 5: Dreams of the Witch’s Sabbath — Hector Berlioz

The subtitle for this symphony is “An Episode in the Life of the Artist.” The entire symphony is programmatic (meaning it has a theme or meaning, as opposed to absolute music which stands alone without any outside meaning or representation attached). In the first movement, the artist (Berlioz, one presumes) falls in love and becomes sort of obsessed. In the second he attends a ball and has a grand time, except that whenever he sees his beloved he’s thrown into a tumult of emotion. In the third, he convinces himself that she has betrayed him. Heartbroken, he takes opium for the fourth movement (obviously what we all do in such cases), and dreams that he’s being marched to the hangman’s scaffold while his beloved looks on mockingly. At the end of the fourth movement, he dies…and in the fifth he wakes up in Hell, watching as witches dance around him, including — of course — his beloved, transformed into a hideous creature represented by the awful, strained carousing of the Eb clarinet.

During this movement, the heavy, pounding “Dies Irae” (a medieval melody often quoted in later works; its name is Latin for “The Day of Wrath”) is juxtaposed with a darkly jaunty dance tune, itself a variation on the theme of the beloved throughout the entire symphony — and running throughout and behind all this is the chiming of bells, sounding Berlioz’s doomsday. The result is gloriously evil, and I can’t help being glad Berlioz “the artist” took opium and had this nightmare.

(More info about the symphony here, if you’re interested.)

Totentanz, S. 126 — Franz Liszt

This piece (which also translates into English as “Dance of Death”) begins with a theme, based on the same Dies Irae used by Berlioz, which then runs through several variations. Sometimes the Dies Irae is a pounding, demonic base line, other times a wandering piano cadenza in a high register. Sometimes it’s even light and happy sounding — but in the end it comes back to a dark, menacing rendition similar to that of the beginning.

According to Wikipedia, Liszt was obsessed with death. I don’t remember learning that in my music history class, but it may well be true (don’t have my textbooks with me, otherwise I’d check!). But I do remember one interesting tidbit: Franz Liszt wasn’t just famous, he was idolized like a modern rock star — complete with women fainting in his presence. I mean, Beatlemania? Liszt totally got there first: 1841 was the year of Lisztomania.

The Banshee — Henry Cowell

This is rather more avant garde than the previous two — but it’s not meaningless like a lot of avant garde stuff. Cowell was a Twentieth Century composer credited with creating several common modern music techniques, including the tone cluster (not a chord but a jumble of notes similar to what happens when a toddler starts banging their fist against a keyboard). He also pioneered the use of the “string piano,” whereby the pianist opens the piano and reaches in to strike, strum, or stroke the strings inside (source).

That’s what makes the awful, creepy, haunting wail of the banshee in this particular piece. So yes, every sound you hear in this track was created by one pianist at one piano. Personally I think this is awesome, but I’m not sure I’ve met anyone else who agrees with me.

Fog Tropes – Ingram Marshall

Ingram Marshall is a contemporary composer whose works often incorporate both live and synthesized instruments — evidently, this is called electroacoustic music. He is influenced by the minimalist movement, which is just what it sounds like — an artistic movement focusing on simplicity and repetition rather than complex counterpoint and harmonies. (One minimalist piece is basically just a C chord for ten minutes. It’s kind of strange.)

This piece is unsettling because it seems to lack a tone center and any sort of rhythm. It works a lot like a soupy fog, with brass instruments coming in here and there, sounding almost random above a thick, heavy droning bass line. There’s also a creepy, repeating line that sounds like an eerie, high-pitched voice — a ghost calling out from the depths of the fog, perhaps? A siren calling sailors to their deaths? Either way, don’t listen to this alone in the dark, unless you want to be disturbed.

Do you use music when writing? I do, of course; the right music can help me stay focused on what I’m trying to achieve with any particular scene or even a novel as a whole. I love that different art forms connect and relate to each other so powerfully — that no matter the medium, an artist is an artist. We can overcome or face or even just accept the horror of death by writing a poem or taking a picture or composing a few ominous lines of music; and somehow, even though the results are so different, they’re also somehow very much the same.

But that could (maybe will) be an entirely different post. Do you use music to evoke feelings or seasons? Got any favorites? And if you listened to any of the playlist, what did you think?

New Website

So, funny story behind this new website: Back when I was thinking about starting a blog, I ended up on by accident. The words server and hosting were more than a little prevalent on those pages, so I fled back to Blogger, stupidly unaware of the dot-com version that I needed to be looking at.

But, after seven or so months of trying to find ways to make my Blogger blog look like a WordPress blog, I’ve made the switch. It’s been real, Blogger, but this feels like a step up.

Which I guess is what this is about. Paying for a domain name, switching to the slightly-more-professional-looking WordPress — it’s my way of taking myself a little more seriously. Not that I didn’t take myself seriously before, but there’s a difference between taking oneself seriously and publicly taking oneself seriously.

Also, WordPress allows real em dashes. That little formatting benefit cannot be overstated.

In all seriousness, I’m weirdly excited. I’m excited about the new website, the new year, the books I’m planning to read, the exercising I’m seriously going to do, the queries I’m going to send, the books I’m going to write. It’s a weird feeling, but a good one.

And, since this post is really without substance, here’s some music to make up for it:

Don’t Forget to Smell the Flowers

For some reason when we start talking about photography–particularly the amateur, the point-and-shooter–we use some not-so-classy words: You take a picture, capture an image, snap a shot. They point to the quickness of a camera, yes, but they also inform the way we think about photography to begin with. Photography is not something that we, the average person, create; instead it’s something we take from a particular location or experience, and in this digital age where everyone is a photographer, that taking is ubiquitous.But what are we taking? Not so long ago I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, trying to admire one of the displays of medieval armor. A kid walked up to the glass nearby, raised his phone, snapped a shot, and walked away. I saw the same thing in a gallery of French paintings, from people much older and with much better photography equipment: point, shoot, walk away.

I wanted to ask what they thought they’d just captured. Not an experience, certainly. And not even a piece of art: just a sub-par, grainy, crooked photo to keep on their phones until they need the space and summarily delete it. Even supposing they remove it onto their computers, what will they see when it flashes up on their screensaver? They hardly looked at it when it was inches in front of their face, when they could clearly see the cracks or textures in the paint, the vastness or smallness of its size.Have events become excuses for “photo opps”? What happens when moments belong to Kodak and not to us?

We miss something, is what. We lose out. Thumb through the photos of your most recent vacation, and then ask yourself if you can remember anything outside the things you “captured.” Can you recall what it was like to stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon? Was it windy, hot, dry? Were people next to you or were you alone? What did you hear? How much of your view of the Grand Canyon arrived through the screen of your camera?

We (I am hardly exempt) take the pictures because we want something to bring home with us, to help us remember. But photos don’t help us remember much but the photos, so that our impressions of this place we’ve been is boxed up in little 4×6 frames. The best way to ensure you remember something is to experience it entirely, to look around and tell yourself you’re going to remember this moment, and remember it very well. Suddenly you’ll notice everything: the slight, hardly noticeable breeze; the flash of shadows on the valley below from the bird of prey circling overhead; the looks on the faces of the people around you. And once you notice everything you become a part of everything: thus, you have an experience.

Stand in front of a work of art and really see it.

Turn off all other distractions and put on a piece of music and hear it.

Go for a hike and immerse yourself in the world around you. Talk a walk downtown and see the people, the store fronts, the items for sale in the windows.

All this experience is also inspiration for your own work. Writers, like all other artists, are observers first and creators second, and we can’t create anything beautiful if we don’t take the time to wonder appreciate life first. Certainly I can’t. And all that aside there’s nothing like the serenity of such a moment, such complete immersion in something so thrilling and exciting and new.

Personally, I’m still holding out hope that I’ll one day be able to afford a digital SLR camera with a high megapixel capacity and fancy gadgets whose names I don’t yet know. But I want it because my point-and-shoot does only that: points and shoots. It’s a taker, a snapshotter (and even that it doesn’t do very well). Good photography isn’t taken, it’s created. Good photography is an experience all to itself, and requires you to see the world and find the little things no one else saw, the angles and views and shafts of falling light that others might have missed. I’m no great photographer, but I like the idea of trying to create it anyway, for the same reasons that I hack around at a piano keyboard within the safety of my headphones, and that I’d like to someday dabble in watercolors again. Even, in a way, the same reasons that I turn to the computer and sit down to write.

I’ve had all these experiences, you see. And they can’t wait to be transformed into something new.

P.S. This post was inspired in part by a couple of recent articles that are also worth a look.

How to Start a Blog

1. Compile list of no less than 75 topics you are frothing at the mouth to write about. All of them are brilliant. You are a god among writers blogging about writing. You are even a god among writers blogging about blogging about writing.

2. Hem and haw a long time before choosing one–no wait! Choose that one! No no no actually the other one right there! Or…maybe that one?

3. Write write write

4. Delete delete delete

5. Write write write

6. Delete delete delete

7. Sulk. Consolatory coffee and chocolate ensue.

8. Daydream about the brilliant things you will say that no one has said before, in a format no one else has used. Using words no one else has used. Ever.

9. Write write–#$&*%*!!

10. *Bang hands on keyboard*

11. Regret your newbie mistakes.

12. Of course you are, in fact, a newbie.

13. Write a post that is in fact a list because that’s what all those other people do, and it seems to work for them, and you’re just a newbie trying to fumble your way into an already-crowded blogosphere, right? Also if you don’t stop gnawing on your fingernails soon you won’t have any left.

14. Post said list on your fancy-schmancy new blog. YOU MADE IT YOURSELF YOU’RE SO PROUD.

15. Mortification ensues. Weep in the corner. Possibly rock back and forth a bit, if you’re feeling inspired.

16. Go back to computer, open up MS Word, and get back to that novel you’ve been neglecting while trying to write your first blog post.