Absinthe Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

I’m not sure how many people are familiar with absinthe. It’s not a very popular or common drink these days, especially since it was illegal to produce for most of the 20th century (the ban was lifted in recent years). For those of you who have never heard of it, I will explain.

Absinthe is a spirit made from the herbs anise, fennel and wormwood. It is usually green in color, altho there are clear versions. It has a bitter, black liquorice flavor due to the anise and fennel. It has a very high alcohol content, usually between 60% and 80%, and is diluted with water before drinking. The water is poured over a sugar cube to help combat the bitterness. It was originally created as a health elixir in Switzerland, but became very popular with the art and literary crowd in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was nicknamed “The Green Fairy” and was considered an inspirational muse of sorts. Absinthe was thought to cause hallucinations and was blamed for many cases of insanity, death and violence.

Being the big fan that I am of 19th and early 20th century literature, I was fairly familiar with it. I’ve read about it in books, seen it in period films, found information about it on the internet. A few years ago we were on vacation in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, and I saw it for sale in a liquor store. I very much wanted to try it, but it was expensive and not knowing if I would even like it, I didn’t want to risk spending the money. But, last weekend, we were out there for a weekend getaway, and at one of the restaurants we went to they had absinthe listed on their drink menu. As you can imagine I was thrilled. Not only as a fan of the time period, but as a writer, this is something I’ve waited years, decades even, to get a chance to try.

So the owner of the restaurant, who is an absinthe connoisseur, came over to our table with the glass, the sugar cube, the absinthe spoon (a slotted spoon designed to sit on the rim of the glass) and a small pitcher of ice water. She puts the spoon on the glass and the sugar cube on the spoon and shows me how to dribble the water very slowly over the sugar to dissolve it without using too much water and diluting the absinthe too much. She warned me never to use regular sugar cubes from the grocery store. They’re too hard and take too much water to dissolve. She advised going to a gourmet food store and getting softer sugar cubes imported from Africa. You can also find special “absinthe” sugar cubes at a specialty bar supply or liquor store.

It’s a very aromatic drink. As the water is mixing with it, the scent of the herbs are released and are very pleasant. The flavor is quite unique in comparison to other forms of alcohol. It still does retain some of its bitterness even with the sugar, it’s not sweet at all, but you can definitely taste that black liquorice flavor. Like most spirits with a high alcohol content, you feel the burn as it goes down.

Needless to say, I went to the liquor store and bought the bottle before we went home.

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At Last

So, I finally have my home office set back up. I have it in my oldest son’s old bedroom now that he has moved out. It’s nice to have a space of my own again. All my books are out on their shelves for the first time in over a year. I forgot how many damn books I have. It took me almost twelve hours to sort them and organize them and put them on the shelves. But it was worth it. I was even able to part with alot of books that I know I will never read. They will go to the Salvation Army and hopefully find homes with people who will enjoy them.

I believe that personal space is very important to a person’s emotional well-being. I know that human beings are social animals that need frequent contact with other human beings, but time alone is important too. I spoze its more important for some people than others. I, for example, am happy being alone most of the time. I am perfectly content not seeing or talking to anyone one else for days at a time. My boyfriend, on the other hand, loves socializing and being the center of attention. Talking is like breathing to him. He would die if he stopped.

So for me, having personal space is very important. Someplace I can go and close the door when I can’t handle being in a room with other people anymore. Where all my stuff is, where no one else is allowed to go or touch things. And, hopefully, a place where I can focus on my writing. As Virginia Woolf once said, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction…” I have the room, now I just need the money. Unlike Woolf, I don’t have an inheritance.

Back To Basics

So I’m trying to get back to my writing roots. Pen and paper. No computer or laptop or tablet. I like the physical connection with the page. Its something you don’t get writing on a computer or even a typewriter. It’s a much more organic process when you write by hand. I usually try to avoid writing by hand. I get muscles spasms and cramps in my hands that make it painful and makes my handwriting almost illegible. But I really think it’s the only way I can really write successfully.

Obviously I’ll have to copy it into a computer afterwords for printing and submitting. But writing by computer is just too clinical of a process I guess. I edit too much as I’m writing. It’s too easy to see mistakes and to go back and fix them with a computer. All I do is pick out every little type-o, spelling error, punctuation mistake, missing or extra spaces, and obsess over word choices, and I just edit and edit and edit and get little writing done at all.

So to write by hand I, of course, need writing materials. The pen is non-negotiable. Pentel R.S.V.P. fine point pen with black ink. I’ve used that brand of pen for writing for almost 20 years now. I’ve tried dozens of other brands and styles and I’ve always gone back to that one. A comfortable pen is a writer’s most important tool. Source of paper hasn’t been as important. As long as it has lines to write on. I’ve used spiral bound notebooks, composition notebooks, loose leaf binders, legal pads, writing  journals (alas, no Moleskine). Right now I’m using steno pads. We have tons of them at work so I took one from the supply cabinet. I find them very convenient. Big enough to fit a good amount of writing on a page, small enough to fit in my purse or tote bag, and the added bonus is, since we use them at work, if my boss catches me writing in it she wont realize I’m not working. I don’t advocate slacking off at work, but if my clients are busy and my paperwork is done, why not make constructive use of my time. It beats gossiping or trying not to get caught playing Words With Friends like the rest of my co-workers.

So, so far I’ve filled four pages, which doesn’t sound like much, but considering how little I’ve been able to write lately, Im ecstatic. What I really need to work on tho, is getting some sort of order to my book. I havent been writing it in a linear order, which would be the logical way to do it, from start to finish. I’ve been writing it in scenes and its very scattered and I have no idea of what order the scenes go in. It’s just a hot mess right now.

Insane In The Membrane

Do you have to be crazy to be a great writer? I don’t mean a successful writer. I mean a great writer. There are many successful writers who are certainly not great writers *coughtwilightcough*.

It just seems to me that alot of our most brilliant writers have had mental issues to battle. I was thinking about this the other day, after watching The Hours, a movie based on a book of the same name by Michael Cunningham, in which Nicole Kidman portrays Virginia Woolf.

We all know that Virginia Woolf suffered from mental illness. She had severe headaches, depression and eventually took her own life. Another brilliant writer, Ernest Hemingway, suffered from alcoholism and depression and he took his own life as well. Sylvia Plath was also plagued by mental illness and ultimately died by her own hand. And lets not forget those who were overcome by drug and alcohol addiction, Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London and so many more.

The connection between writers, depression and suicide is so prevalent that the American Suicide Foundation organized a conference called “Wanting to Die: Suicide and American Literature.” And Kay Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, says writers are 10 to 20 times as likely as other people to suffer manic depression or depression, which leads to suicide more often than any other mental disorders.

There’s the old saying, that there’s a fine line between genius and insanity. But maybe they are one in the same. Maybe you need to have at least a little bit of insanity to remove that mental filter that often dams the creative flow. A writer can have no fear. No fear of offending people, of being censored, of going too far. Writers have been persecuted, exiled, committed, imprisoned, tortured and even executed for the words they have written. But the drive to put pen to paper overcomes even the threat of punishment and death. That seems almost a mental illness in itself.

I don’t consider myself a great writer (at least not yet hahaha), but I have dealt with mental health issues most of my life. Depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, low self-esteem, cutting, suicide attempts, substance abuse. I have also found that the harder I struggled with these issues, the more creative I became. The deeper I sank into depression and despair and the more I obsessed over my own death, the easier the words flowed from my pen. Back in the mid 90’s, during that period of time when I could write for days, hardly pausing to eat or sleep, I was in an almost manic suicidal state all the time. If it wasnt for writing I don’t think I would have survived it.

Is it possible to be creative and well-adjusted?

Midnight In Paris

Was there a golden age for artists and writers? Much like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris, I have a highly romanticized idea of 1920’s Paris as a glamorous paradise full of writers and painters and musicians and dancers, gathering in cafes and parlors and clubs, drinking and dancing  and creating from dusk til dawn. I feel like if I could somehow slip back in time and space to that era, I could tap into that same bottomless creative well they all seemed to have access to, and create literary masterpieces.

But I know that in reality it was a time of poor hygiene, little indoor plumbing and electricity, writing by hand with messy ink bottles, where diseases like tuberculosis and syphilis ran rampant thru a population that was promiscuous, addicted to opium and morphine, drank too much, smoked too much, ate poorly, slept little and lived in damp, drafty rooms with little or no heat. Many of them died from illness, substance abuse or suicide far too young.

There was no magic font of creativity that bestowed creative super powers on the people who lived there. There were just alot of already talented people who happened to congregate in a place where they could escape prohibition and censorship.

Even with that logical knowledge, I cant help but sigh nostalgically.

But I would definitely recommend Midnight in Paris if you like Woody Allen movies, or Owen Wilson, or the 1920’s Paris art scene. We watched it last night and it was great. Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway really stole the show. He was like an Old Spice commercial. And Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali was hilarious.

Another movie I like, set in that era in Paris, is Henry and June, about writers Anais Nin and Henry Miller and Henry’s wife June. Taking place during the time that Miller was writing Tropic of Cancer, it centers around his affair with Nin and how it effected their writing, their lives and their marriages. It is rated NC-17 due to its sexuality so be warned if your sensitive to that sort of thing.

And Hemingway’s book, A Moveable Feast! I thought it was endlessly fascinating to read about the way he and his fellow writers and artists lived during that time. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!

So was it a golden age? To us, looking back from our own time, it may seem so. But an age never seems golden when its the present, only when it becomes the past.

Inside Out

The universe inside my head is infinitely larger than the one outside. Sometimes I feel downright overwhelmed by everything going on in there. Being a writer I constantly feel driven to get all these thoughts and ideas out on paper.

This may sound like a groovy way of life. However, I continuously find it frustrating.

I don’t feel like I have the ability to express myself. No matter how much I write and rewrite, my words pale in comparison to the vivid world that I want to share with people. Every sentence I write seems weak and pointless. No matter how many words I know, I never seem to have the vocabulary I need to project my thoughts effectively. I get these ideas, and I get so excited about them that I get restless and have trouble concentrating on anything else, and I get irritable with anyone or anything that distracts me from thinking. But then when I go to write, everything just fizzles out like rain on a fire.

I think the biggest problem is that I don’t think in words, I think in images. I don’t think, “The girl walked down the street.” I see a moving image of a girl walking down a street, as detailed and complete as if I were standing there watching her. I see her face, her hair, her clothes, the street, the houses, the trees, the weeds growing thru the cracks in the sidewalk, I hear her voice and the sound of cars driving by and birds chirping in the trees. My stories don’t form in my head as words. It’s like watching a movie playing in my mind. I just can’t seem to translate the images into words. Do all writers do this? Or is it just me? Or do I just suck that much?

Sometimes I wonder if I should try a more visual medium, like film. But that still requires writing a script, which I know nothing about, and making a film, which I don’t know how to do, or have the means to finance. Or perhaps a graphic novel. I used to draw very well, however I know nothing about creating commercial/graphic arts.

I do know how to write tho. I do. I’ve done it. I’ve written very good stuff. Sometimes I read over what I’ve written and every word seems perfect, every description and piece of dialogue portrays exactly what I want the reader to see and feel. I just feel like those moments are so few and far between. 99% of the time I feel like I’m just banging my head against a brick wall when I sit down to write. When I was younger I would write until I passed out, altho for all the quantity, I dunno if the quality was as good. I think I am a better writer now, even if I can’t write as much.

But sometimes I think I would trade the quality to be able to feel like that again, even for just a few days, to feel that endless, tireless flow of words. I was much less of a perfectionist, the OCD hadn’t taken hold yet. I didn’t agonize over every word. I just wrote, and whatever came out was good enough. I knew I could always go back and edit later. Now it takes me half an hour just to write a status update on Facebook. And, yes, the reason I only post on my blog once a week is because weekends are the only days I have enough time for all the writing and rewriting a do just to create a simple blog post. It’s currently Sunday at 11pm. It took me three hours to write this. I will schedule this to post tomorrow during the day tho, when it will hopefully get more traffic then it will late on a Sunday night.

I spoze some people might read my blog and think, wow, if this is any indication of her writing skill, no wonder she is failing as a writer. But no, what you read here is similar to what you would hear if you were talking to me in person. Altho here I can edit. Unfortunately there is no such ability to filter the things that come out of my mouth sometimes (Saggitarians aren’t exactly known for their tact). My writing is much different. It’s still me, but its different.

Cabin Fever

I dunno about anybody else, but I’m done with winter. Not that its been a particularly cold or snowy winter here in Massachusetts, but it’s still been too cold to enjoy being outside. I can’t tolerate cold due to some chronic health issues, so I’m not a big fan of winter. And I’m tired of being cooped up in this house. Tired of the stagnant air that’s been re-circulating thru my ventilation system all winter. Tired of breathing animal hair and dry dust. I want to open all the widows and doors and let a spring breeze sweep thru the house and blow all the stale air out. I went out and bought some new house plants this weekend. Just to have something fresh and green around me. I used to have some really nice house plants a couple of years ago, but when I went to Texas to visit my grandchildren, a certain person who shall remain nameless *cough*myboyfriend*cough* forgot to water them and they were all dead when I came back.

I love being outside, especially when it comes to reading. I have two places outside my house where I like to sit and read. My boyfriend and his friend built a big deck on the back of our house a couple of years ago and we have a patio table and chairs where I can sit when its nice out. If its raining out I have my front porch with a couple rocking chairs and a coffee table. I cant wait to grab a book and go outside and read with the warmth of the sun on my back to get rid of the chill in my bones that never seems to leave me these days. Unfortunately I can’t tolerate extreme heat any better than the cold so once we get into July and August I’ll be just as miserable as I am now. I get overheated or chilled very easily. My boyfriend says I’m like a lizard. The only way I can warm up or cool down is by going to a warmer or cooler area. I think I may be the world’s only living cold-blooded mammal.

My favorite outdoor place to read, when I can get there, is on the beach. I love to lay on the warm sand with the seagulls crying overhead, and the sound and scent of the sea all around me (score extra points if a fruity rum drink is involved). The ocean is the one place where I feel truly at peace and spiritually recharged. I love books about the sea or that take place on or near the ocean. My two most recent book purchases relating to the sea are Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau and The Outermost House by Henry Beston, both about Cape Cod, which is my favorite place on earth.

Of course now I have Sailing by Christopher Cross stuck in my head.

Another beautiful place to read outdoors is at the top of Mount Greylock. It is located in the north-western corner of Massachusetts and is the highest point in the state. You can see for hundreds of miles, all the way into upstate New York. The air up there is the freshest air I’ve ever breathed. It’s really a spectacular place. I would love to pack a lunch and go up there and spread a blanket out on the mountain top and read all day. Herman Melville had a home near the base of Mount Greylock where he wrote Moby Dick. Nathaniel Hawthorne also lived in the area for a short time and it was there that he wrote The House of Seven Gables.

Unfortunately the coast and the mountains are both several hours drive from my house and not someplace I can go on a regular basis. Closer to home there are a few places I like to go to read outdoors. The closest is in downtown Springfield, in the courtyard of the Quadrangle, where the museums and library are. There is a grassy lawn and benches and in the middle is the Dr. Seuss memorial (for those of you who don’t know, Dr. Seuss was born here in Springfield). Stanley Park in Westfield is also a nice place to go. There are fields and a large garden and a duck pond and woods that offer a variety of settings to settle down for a day of outdoor reading. And there is the Village Commons in South Hadley. A collection of shops and restaurants with brick paved walkways and steps and terraces and fountains and plenty of benches and outdoor cafe tables with umbrellas to sit at and enjoy a book and a drink or a meal. There are also some grassy areas perfect for spreading a blanket. And there’s a nice book store and a used book store/coffee and wine bar there as well.

And I think it goes without saying that all the places I’ve talked about are perfect places to write as well. Unless your me. My writer’s block isn’t picky about location. It tags along and prevents me from writing no matter where I go.

Cuckoo For Classics

Is it that unusual to see somebody reading classic literature these days? I mean without having it forced on them by a teacher or professor? The classics are classics for a reason. Because they have been enjoyed by so many people across decades or centuries or even millennia.

I was at a physical therapy session one afternoon about a year ago, and I brought a book with me to read while I was having the heat and electroshock treatment on my back. So I’m laying there reading (the book was A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway), and the therapist comes in and says, “Oh you must be in college.” I say, “No why?” And she gestures at my book and says, “I figured it must be a school assignment. His writing is so boring.”

Ok, so, ignoring the fact that my taste in books was just insulted, lets look at the fact that a person would think its odd that I would choose to read this book. A classic work is valuable, not only as a work of literature, but as a snapshot of the time in which it was written. You can learn a lot about an era by its books and its authors. A Moveable Feast is interesting as a book, but it also gives you an intimate look into the art and literary community in 1920’s Paris, and the expatriate writers who lived there. A time and place which, by the way, I would love to get ahold of a time machine and move to. As long as I can live in a house with electricity. And a toilet. And a bathtub. With hot water. Would wi-fi be asking too much?

But I do love my classics. I have a fairly good-sized collection of classics with authors ranging from Louisa May Alcott to Edgar Allan Poe to the Marquis de Sade. On my shelves you will find Peter Pan and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dracula and Frankenstein, Delta of Venus and The Story of O.

I’m also constantly floored by the number of people I run into that haven’t even heard of many of the classic authors. There are actually people who exist in the world who are unfamiliar with the names Melville, Brönte, Milton, Woolf, Dumas, Hawthorne. People who see me reading The Fountainhead while I’m waiting for my shift to start and tell me they’ve never heard of it. People who think Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is a completely original work. People who think Dante’s Inferno is just a video game (that I totally want to play). And I’m not talking about immigrants from third world countries, I’m talking about Americans. Grown-up ones.

Interesting fact: If you type Dante’s Inferno into a search engine you will get more websites about the game then about the book. The games sites will even be listed ahead of the book sites. What does that tell you? (Other then that the game is probly really cool.)

Bibliophelia

I love books.

Whats better than just a book? A book about books!

Yes I am that much of a book geek. When I go to Barnes & Noble you can most often find me installed on the floor in the Literary Essay section with precariously stacked piles of books around me as I try to narrow my selection down to one or two out of the dozens I wish to purchase. While everyone else is stampeding around the new releases, salivating over the newest James Patterson novel, I’m hassling the sales lady about the new book I saw on online about the history of western literature that they havent bothered to unpack and shelve yet cuz they know nobody gives a crap.

Except me of course.

A quick digression here: If you ever see a tv listing for a movie called Night of the Dead, avoid it like a zombie plague. It really sucks. My God, do I really pay for these channels??

Ok, anyways.

I also love books written by writers about writing, how they write, why they write, what inspires them to write, what they like to read and just about their lives in general. Stephen King’s On Writing is one such book that is one of my favorites. It’s the perfect combination of autobiography and writing craft. And its by Stephen King so you can’t go wrong. He had such an interesting life that reminds me of how pointless my life is in comparison and is probly why I blow chunks as a writer.

I think writers read books in a different way then non-writers. If you don’t write, you read a book and you either like it or you don’t like it, but you may not be able to pinpoint exactly why a book was good or why it sucked. When a writer reads a book, I think we tend to pick the book apart a little as we read. Not always in a bad way, just in a technical way. We may think, look at the use of dialogue, it gets the characters’ emotions across perfectly. Or, I would have written that differently, they used way too many adjectives (yes you can over describe something, and its very annoying if done repetitively). Or, wow that character is a really predictable stereotype. I don’t think that it takes away from my enjoyment of a book, but being able to recognize poor examples of writing helps me understand why I didn’t enjoy a book and helps me try to prevent making the same mistakes in my own writing.

Of course there are books that are very well written that I just don’t like. And books that are god-aweful that I do like *cough*twilight*cough* But we can’t all have impeccable taste in literature all the time. Sometimes we just like crap. Its like knowing you have a steak in the fridge but going out to McDonald’s instead. Or having Shakespeare on your coffee table and a Playboy under your mattress. Yeah yeah, you read it for the articles. We know.

Exposing Your Prose In Public

I’ve noticed a big trend towards writing in public, specifically coffee shops, cafes and bookstores. Now that all of these places have wi-fi and everyone has a laptop or netbook or tablet, more and more people are taking their computers out to these places. When I go to Barnes & Noble or Starbucks or even Dunkin Donuts, they’re chock full of people tapping away on their keyboards, and I think its safe to guess that at least one or two of them are working on a book or dissertation or some other form of writing. Do these type of environments really help people write? Or do people just think it looks cool to be seen working on some great scholarly masterpiece. Personally, I find it distracting, the noise and people and music. I have the attention span of a six month old child, so its difficult for me to focus in that type of setting.

My creative writing group is held at B&N and I often wish we could gather somewhere quieter and more private. My writing group is one of the few occurrences where I find I am able to write these days, and its very frustrating for me when I can’t concentrate because some kid is playing their Nintendo DS at full volume or some idiot doesn’t understand they’re not in a sound proof phone booth when they’re SCREAMING INTO THEIR CELL PHONE for an hour. And what is it about a group of writers gathered around a table that draws these inconsiderate cretins like moths to a flame????

I think a lot of people like the idea of bein a writer more than they like actually writing. They like the idea of sitting in the corner of some quaint, cozy little cafe on a Saturday morning, wearing a turtleneck sweater, sipping a latte, as they scribble away in their Moleskine journal with a gold monogrammed fountain pen, smiling to themselves as they hear the people around them whisper behind their coffee cups, “oooooh look at that writer over there…”

Like they think they’re goddamn Hemingway in 1920’s Paris.

Ok, hold on I suddenly have the urge to look at Moleskine’s website. They really do make nice stuff…..

Ok I’m back. Where was I?

Oh yeah.

But that’s not what makes you a writer. Not cafes or lattes or leather-bound journals and fountain pens or sitting around letting people see you looking like a writer. Writers write, usually alone. When I do get into that writing groove (which is unfortunately rare these days), I don’t want any contact with the outside world. It kills me to have to stop writing so I can sleep or go to work or clean my house or go grocery shopping so my family doesn’t starve to death. Back when I was single and unemployed I would stay locked inside my apartment with the blinds drawn and do nothing but write for twenty hours a day. I looked like a pasty-skinned, red-eyed, tweaked out junkie. My parents would have to come by once a week to make sure I wasnt dead and being eaten by my cat.

But I guess for some people, that image and aura of mystique is needed to feel like a “real” writer or to feel inspired to write. Maybe they’re an exhibitionist and they need that audience in order to perform. But they just come across as really fake, because while I see them doing a lot of latte sipping and a lot of iPhone checking and a lot of looking around at what other people are doing, I see them doing very little actual writing.