“It is pity that he liveth”: Authors and Their Characters

“What?” seyde Sir Launcelot, “is he a theff and a knyght and a ravyssher of women? He doth shame unto the order of knyghthode, and contrary unto his oth. Hit is pyté that he lyvyth.”

— Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur

800px-Lancelot_Chapel_of_the_Holy-Grail_(1896)A while back, a certain mystery writer caused a minor furor online with an article in which she suggested that J.K. Rowling shouldn’t publish any more books for adults under her own name, because she’s too famous, and her easy success makes things harder for everyone who is less famous. Now, as loads of people all over the Internet were quick to point out, this is all kinds of ridiculous. There’s just one aspect of it that I want to address.

When I read the article, I happened to be halfway through Rowling’s latest book, her mystery The Cuckoo’s Calling. It’s great fun, and it’s clearly set up to begin a series; it introduces two really delightful protagonists whose continuing adventures I can’t wait to read. The idea that somehow, for the good of humanity, these sequels should never see the light of day, I took almost as a personal affront. It seemed like somebody suggesting that I should never have met a couple of good friends, or that they should avoid me in future so that I can get to know other people, or something. What kind of a misanthrope would make an argument like that? Of course, the author of the article admits that she has never read any of Rowling’s books, so she didn’t really know what she was advocating, which doesn’t make it better. But the reason this writer wants Rowling to retire from adult fiction (she doesn’t care about fiction for young readers, by her own admission) is because she thinks hits like The Cuckoo’s Calling draw attention away from the work of struggling writers in the mystery genre. In other words, she wants me to read her books instead of J.K. Rowling’s. Of course this makes me not want to, ever, on principle. And I found myself thinking: well, surely this woman’s books would be full of small-minded, uncharitable, sour-grape-sucking characters who hate children’s literature. Why would I want to read about them?

But that doesn’t make any sense, and that’s where the quote from Malory comes in. Let me give you some backstory.

Sir Thomas Malory is known to us today as the author of the great Arthurian compendium, Le Morte Darthur. He was known to the authorities in the fifteenth century, when he lived, as trouble. We don’t know exactly what he did or didn’t do, because he was never brought to trial, but he was accused of an alarming list of crimes including rape (two counts involving the same married woman), church robbery, vandalism of a deer park, and an attempted assassination. It’s pretty clear that the charges were politically motivated to some degree, that he had made a powerful enemy—the man he allegedly tried to assassinate—and the fact that he was never brought to trial suggests that his accusers, who had gone to some lengths to assemble a long list of charges all at once, were afraid they wouldn’t stick. But the number of witnesses, conspirators, and victims supposedly involved also suggests that the charges weren’t all fiction. In the event, Malory was held in various prisons for almost a decade, awaiting a trial that kept getting put off on the same flimsy pretext. There was a regime change (this was during the War of the Roses), he was released and pardoned, and then seems to have got himself in trouble later with the opposite side and been imprisoned a second time. We don’t know what he was accused of this time, if anything, but it was apparently during this later period of imprisonment, which lasted almost until the end of his life, that he wrote the Morte Darthur.

Malory was a knight; he tells us this at several points in his work, as well as reminding us of his imprisonment and asking for our prayers. The Morte Darthur, which is the only thing we know he wrote, positively coruscates with knightliness. Its author seems heavily invested in showing us an ideal of chivalry, and that ideal is embodied in the character of Sir Launcelot. Sir Thomas obviously loved Launcelot. He could afford to, in a way, because he didn’t invent him—he didn’t invent very much in the Morte Darthur. But he had a definite idea of how he wanted us to perceive his hero, and he does what he can to present him in the best possible light, without departing too radically from his sources. Sir Launcelot emerges as a flawed but magnificent character, impossible not to admire, whose failure in the Grail Quest is more moving than his son’s ultimate success.

It’s early in the Morte Darthur, long before the Grail and the revelations of adultery and the destruction of the Round Table, that Launcelot hears of a knight who “distresses all ladies and gentlewoman,” either by robbery or by rape, and asks indignantly, “Is he a thief and a knight and a ravisher of women?” He could (allegedly) be describing the author. “He doth shame unto the order of knighthood,” Launcelot declares, “and contrary unto his oath. It is pity that he liveth!” Tellingly, this is a passage not found in Malory’s sources.

Chaucer’s venal Pardoner declares, “though myself be a ful vicious man, / A moral tale yet I yow telle kan.” With Sir Launcelot, Malory seems to go even one step further, creating a character who, though flawed and ultimately tragic, embodies an ideal of which the author himself fell short, and allowing him to point this fact out within the text.

Of course, I may be reading too much into this. It’s quite possible that Malory didn’t think of himself as doing “shame unto the order of knyghthode.” It’s possible that he was falsely accused; the rape charges are particularly suspect, actually, because they were brought by the woman’s husband, which may mean (by a quirk of fifteenth-century law) that the act in question was consensual adultery, in other words the same thing Sir Launcelot himself is guilty of. But breathing life into characters who are better than ourselves is what all authors surely want to do. I like the idea that Sir Thomas might have been wryly conscious that this was what he was doing with Launcelot.

So it would be perfectly possible for a writer who expresses uncharitable opinions in real life to write books full of great-souled, magnanimous characters. Alas, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to seek out the works of the author whose article I mentioned. I suppose if I’d lived in fifteenth-century Warwickshire and knew Thomas Malory only as that thug who robbed abbeys and extorted money from monks, I might not have wanted to read Le Morte Darthur either. Which is sad, but also kind of logical.

Going Indie: My Journey

Walking to Lindisfarne in the summer of 2011. Photo by Rachel Kessler.It started, I suppose, nearly two years ago when I went into the local BMV bookstore with my friend Victoria, and we browsed through the Writing section and found a book called The Indie Author Guide. I think it was the cover picture that really drew me in: it shows a laptop on a sidewalk table outside an apparently empty, turquoise-painted, bohemian-looking café. The only way the picture could be more appealing to me would be if there were a big mug of Earl Grey or a London Fog sitting next to the computer (which, by the way, when you look at it closely, is clearly a MacBook). And maybe a chocolate croissant or something. The title was intriguing, too. “Indie”? What does that mean, for an author? Turns out, it means self-publishing. I bought the book, though at the time I didn’t think I was seriously interested in self-publishing. But maybe I can learn something, I thought.

The Indie Author Guide was published in 2010, so it is now significantly out of date, but it was eye-opening for me. It introduced me to the concept of print on demand, the process which makes it possible to become a print publisher of without investing thousands of dollars in inventory and filling your basement with books that you have to try to convince local bookstores to stock on consignment. Of course, the other pieces of the puzzle that make indie authorship feasible are ebooks and the online publishing platforms offered through Amazon, Kobo, and other retailers. The paradigm is so different that it does seem to warrant a different name. Old-school self-publishing could be profitable if you had books that fit a specific niche and knew how to market to it: for instance, local history guidebooks which you plan to sell through museums and historical sites; or textbooks on sheep brain physiology which you know you can market to psychology professors. And this is still a good model for striking out on your own. The more you know about who would be interested in your books, the better you can tailor your efforts to reach them. But today’s indie author only has to worry about getting the word out, not distributing the books themselves; print-on-demand technology and ebooks take care of all that.

It took me a long time to come around to the idea that this was the right path for me. I discovered Joanna Penn’s Creative Penn podcast in the winter of 2012, when I was spending a lot of time in my basement making notebooks as Christmas presents for my friends, and wanted something to listen to. She had over 100 episodes in her backlist, and I started listening in reverse chronological order and getting more and more interested. I’ve found an email that I wrote to her in January of 2013, which describes where I was in my thinking at that point:

When I found your podcast, I was thinking about self-publishing as a possibility for my novel-in-progress; now I’m genuinely excited about it. … After listening to you talk to so many diverse and interesting writers, I feel that, should I choose the self-publishing path, I will be in very good company.

The novel was From All False Doctrine, which I finished at the end of April, 2013. By that time, I think I had almost completely made up my mind to go indie. Why was it a difficult decision? Well, as I said in my last post, I’d been writing for a long time without publishing anything to speak of. In fact, I hadn’t submitted very much; I sent out a few queries for things, but I never really went through that process that veteran authors talk about where you amass stacks of rejection letters from agents and editors and magazines. I have a few in a file somewhere, but not enough to paper my bathroom or anything. But my definition of writerly success remained connected to publishers. If I short-circuited that whole process, would I miss a crucial rite de passage? Would I feel as if I weren’t legitimate, hadn’t been validated as a writer? And then, of course, would I risk sending a half-baked, shoddy piece of writing out to a deserved oblivion? Well, I didn’t think so—but then, nobody ever does, right?

But gradually I was getting more and more excited about the advantages of indie publishing. Greater control over the details of your book and its release ranks high on the list. Traditionally, authors often have little or no control over cover design, and books can take a long time to come to market; when you’re doing everything yourself, you have control over both of these things, though of course you also have to shoulder the responsibility, and the cost. Indies can keep their books in print as long as they like, can set their own prices to entice readers, and make a higher percentage per book than authors working with publishers and agents. I heard repeatedly about people who were building solid, rewarding careers as novelists without blockbuster successes, by working steadily and intelligently. It sounded very appealing. Lindsay Buroker, for instance, talks about this on an episode of Joanna Penn’s podcast, and on her blog. She’s made this work in particular with her fantasy series, The Emperor’s Edge—which I’ve recently started reading, and I have to say is really addictive.

Still I wasn’t sure. I read more, on the net and in books, and turned over different possibilities. I learned a lot of details about the process that I didn’t really need to know yet. Sometimes I felt like I was definitely going to do this; sometimes I thought I was crazy for contemplating it.

Catherine Ryan Howard, in her book Self-Printed, suggests that the way to determine if you’re ready to self-publish is to do the rounds with queries; when you get back encouraging, “We wish we could publish this” rejections, you’ll know you’re ready. I see the logic in this, but ultimately I didn’t do it myself. I guess I realized I wanted to make an actual decision, not arrive at one through a process of elimination. So I haven’t sent out a single query for From All False Doctrine.

For a while I was excited about the idea of a writers’ collective, which seemed halfway between a publisher and the straight-up self-publishing route. I still think that’s a great idea, and some authors have made it work: the Triskele group is the one I have read the most about. Turns out, though, for all intents and purposes they really are self-publishing; they just use the Triskele name in their publicity efforts. I’m not sure how other collectives work; part of the reason I lost interest in this idea was that it was hard to find specific models to follow, particularly for how to organize the financial side of such a collaboration.

IMG_1115At this point I lose track of the sequence of events somewhat. I finished the draft of False Doctrine. It took me almost exactly two years from starting to write to finishing. I did a thorough edit. I’m the kind of writer who edits a lot in the process of writing, so this stage didn’t take very long. My thinking began to shift from nebulous ideas about writers’ collectives to more concrete notions of self-publishing. I even had a name in mind. I’d opened an Etsy shop to sell my handmade notebooks, and called it Sexton’s Cottage Books. I thought that would make a pretty good publisher name as well.

At some point I made a list in one of my notebooks, headed “Why Self-Publish.” Here’s a slightly edited version of what I wrote:

  1. Because I know my own foibles, and I know I’m more likely to succeed when I can do all the work myself, and don’t have to ask people for things (which I put off).
  2. Because I’ve been writing for a long time without publishing and want to get something out there now.
  3. Because I know this is a pretty niche book that would take a while to find a publisher, and probably only find a home at a small press, and that’s not a whole lot of advantage over self-publishing (not to take anything away from small presses, but they understandably have limited reach).
  4. Because having an agent (though no doubt very helpful) isn’t an important part of my idea of writerly success.
  5. Because the time is right; self-publishing seems a really interesting opportunity right now.
  6. Because the stuff I would get to do seems (mostly) fun. I like the idea of the design and marketing control that would come with this path.
  7. Because it’s a family tradition.

Remember the example I used above of a textbook on sheep brains? That’s my dad, who started a company to publish the textbooks he produced with one of his colleagues, beginning in the year I was born. They’re still going strong! I can’t underestimate what a difference it made to know that if I chose to go indie, my family would think it was cool. My parents raised me to place great value on independent thought and not to care what other people think about what I do—but they were never able to convince me not to care what they think. I’m really blessed, because I know that other people who have chosen self-publishing sometimes have a hard time convincing those they care about that they’re making a smart decision and not “giving up on their careers” or doing something weird.

All the while I was mulling over this decision, I was discussing things with my wonderful writer friend Victoria, who was querying her own recently finished novel at the time. She’d been interested in the writers’ collective idea when I was formulating that, and eventually she started talking about self-publishing too. By this time I had read a lot about it and amassed a fair bit of technical information, and I made up a huge diagram of all the steps involved, which I sent to her.

Finally, the last piece fell into place somewhat unexpectedly. I had sent my completed draft to an editor whom I know from church, after she generously offered to take a look at it. In my first conversation with her, I couldn’t work up the courage to say I was thinking of self-publishing until she mentioned it herself—the first time I had heard anyone not on the Internet confirm that it was becoming a respectable option. In February of this year we met to talk about the manuscript. Afterward I wrote to Victoria that I felt I’d reached some kind of watershed. Hearing Pat take the book seriously gave me that vote of confidence I needed to feel that I could make the decision to publish on my own. Of course it helped that she said nice things about the novel, too, and that she was willing to help me polish it. She also agreed that it would be hard to interest a publisher in this one. But I realized the thing I had been lacking was that last piece of validation, the kind of thing I could have got from querying publishers and hearing “This is great but just not for us.” I hadn’t realized that was what I was waiting for.

IMG_1129That was February. In April, Victoria, leapfrogging me, published the first of her short stories, “Scheherezade,” and shortly after wrote this lovely post on her blog, luxuriating in the thrill and satisfaction of seeing that someone had bought a copy. That was me! I was her first customer! It totally made my day.

I think Victoria was probably the first person to buy “The Tenants of 7C” when I published it, but it’s hard to say for sure, because three dear friends snapped it up as soon as I let them know it was out. Again, I am totally blessed.

Change & News

I find it easy to fall into the trap of thinking that I’ll never be able to change the set patterns and habits of my life, even if I want to. It’s just not true, and a cursory review of events from my life proves it. I used to be single, for a long time, and now I’m married; I used to be a sporadic churchgoer at best, and now my life seems to revolve around church; it used to feel like I would never finish graduate school, and then I came out the other side with a PhD… and so on. I’ve been writing stories constantly since elementary school, but haven’t published anything except a handful of poems, years ago as an undergraduate. It was easy to feel that this was another pattern that might endure, even though I didn’t want it to.

Last year, I put the finishing touches on a novel that I’m proud of, that I feel expresses in a mature way many things I want to say. I’m actually glad, in retrospect, that I didn’t send much of anything else out into the world before this, because I can see now how much I have learned and grown as a writer. But there’s still the question of publication. It used to be that this was not really within an author’s control; you didn’t just decide to publish, you could only decide to try to publish. But as I was finishing From All False Doctrine, a sea-change was happening that has made it possible for writers to approach publication in a new way. The timing couldn’t be better for me. The confidence I’ve gained from decades of writing for a small audience of friends makes me feel ready to take on the challenge of putting my work out on my own. Gradually I began to make up my mind to do it.

The novel will come out later this summer, but in the meantime, I’m revisiting a series of stories that I had set aside a few years ago. At the time I didn’t know what to do with them: too long and interconnected for most short-story markets, they were not yet numerous enough to combine into a collection, which would be difficult to sell to a publisher anyway. Ebooks, which hadn’t hit the scene when I began writing this series, offer the perfect distribution method. As I looked into options for False Doctrine, I began to get excited about the potential for revisiting my unfinished series.

The stories are urban fantasies set in Toronto, centring on a group of misfit otherworldly characters who live above a bakery in Kensington Market. The series is called Heaven & Earth, after the name of the bakery. The first story, “The Tenants of 7C,” introduces the setting and the characters, and you can now find it for sale on Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords. I plan to make the sequel available in a few weeks. It’s the beginning of a new era for me; I’m starting small, but I’m very excited!


The Work of Our Hands

The Altar of Repose on Maundy Thursday

This is a long overdue stab at distilling my thoughts from Maundy Thursday, when my lace handiwork was put to use. The picture above shows the Altar of Repose before the service, when I was able to surreptitiously bring my phone into the church to photograph it. You have to imagine the candlelight!

Somewhere toward the top of the last repeat of the lace pattern, I made a mistake. I never succeeded in figuring out quite what went wrong; it might have been two or three things at once. Instead of ripping anything out, which would be a risky proposition in a loose lace pattern like this, I knit a row that wasn’t quite correct, but that got things back on track. When the fabric was blocked, I could see where this mistake and correction happened: a little wobble in the shape of the “candle flames” across the top row that is different from the other rows. Not a big deal (I can’t even make it out in the picture).

I was scheduled to serve as crucifer on  Maundy Thursday. One of the things the crucifer does is keep the first watch at the Altar of Repose, staying down in the baptistry while everyone else returns to the sanctuary for the stripping of the altar, kneeling at a prayer desk while the lights go off in the church.

I kept telling people that when I was keeping watch, to avoid gloating over my finished handiwork, I was going to stare at that slightly irregular row in the pattern. (Well, I didn’t tell them what I was going to stare at, just that there was a mistake that only I could see. Heh. Pride.) But you know what? When it came to the point, I didn’t do that. I started to, but the whisper I heard was that this would not be worshipful. Instead I did what I’ve always assumed you are supposed to do in the beautiful bower of candles and flowers created for this occasion, which is sort of prayerfully soak in the loveliness of it all. As the lights went off in the nave, all the little beads in the frontal caught the candlelight, and it was as if that put the finishing touch on my work, and it came into its own.

After the service, as people came quietly into the baptistry to pray, it occurred to me that I was also part of this scene. While the other acolytes had stripped out and covered up the finery in the sanctuary, I was part of the tableau in the baptistry, still decked out in the sumptuous white tunicle, picturesquely kneeling amid the flowers. I felt somehow equivalent to my piece of knitted lace.

I spent many hours working on that altar frontal; but those weren’t really hours spent prayerfully. I watched a lot of unedifying television, in fact. I thought about trying to do something more religious while I was working on it, but I wasn’t sure what that could be, and if I’d held myself to that aspiration I don’t know if I would have finished the work. So the finished object doesn’t represent hours and hours of prayer or worship; it just is what it is. It is dedicated to the glory of God and to that particular service in Holy Week, and now it is stored somewhere in the basement or the vault (I’m not sure where), and my own prayer, my own worship, is a different matter, ongoing.

Liturgical Knitting: Maundy Thursday Altar Frontal


The bundle of finished knitting (wrong side showing). It’s been off the needles for a couple of weeks while I considered exactly what to do with it next. Maundy Thursday is fast approaching…


This gives you some idea of the size (unblocked) and of how excited I am at this point.


It took me a little under a year to knit this!


Okay, what am I about to do to it now??


Pour water all over it! Then roll it into a sausage! Did I mention that I spent almost a year knitting this? It took me all afternoon to psyche myself up to do this. But once I had gone this far, it was surprisingly easy to proceed to the next step…


All right, this looks worse that it actually is. It is indeed in a cooking pot on the stove, but the burner is not on, and the water is only tepid at this point. The cloudiness is caused by starch! Yes! This is the old-school way of doing this. I believe modern people buy spray-starch in a bottle or something. Whatever. This method was actually quite easy.


Starting to stretch it out on two large sheets of foam-core taped together… It is sopping wet at this point, and the beads make fun clacking noises as I’m spreading it out. Side note: I had originally planned to do this in the basement, with the sheets of foam-core propped against a table, but I quickly had to switch to Plan B (flat on the living-room floor) when I realized just how wet the fabric was, and how heavy! It would have stretched completely out of shape, and the pins at the top wouldn’t have been able to hold it up. Fortunately, I no longer live in a bachelor apartment! (Remind me to tell you the one about how I cut out the skirt of my wedding dress, back when I still did live in a bachelor apartment.)


This part was fun initially, though it became less so as the wet fabric became cold and clammy, and the novelty of crawling around on the floor readjusting pins began to wear off.


To give you an idea of the scale again. On the coffee table (along with other clutter) you can see a test swatch I did before beginning the full-size project.


And this is how it looks all pinned out! It will have a dark green background, so it will look quite different in situ.


As it dries, the colour is lightening considerably.

For the full effect, come to St. Thomas’s, Huron St., Toronto, on Thursday night at 8:00! This will be on the Altar of Repose in the Baptistry.

Evil in the Story

The other day I listened to a podcast in which several writers discuss death in fiction—or, more specifically, “killing” their characters. This reminded me of something I have thought about in the past, and it’s this:

Writers introduce all kinds of evil into their stories. They do this because they are imitating the real world, which contains all kinds of evil, and because they are part of the world, and sinful—and so they enjoy some types of evil, too (we all do). But the aim of any artist must be to make the creation good; sometimes that involves introducing evil. That’s kind of odd, but it’s true. It’s a fact, for instance, that stories would be uninteresting without conflict, without characters being unable to get what they want, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, without at least some small problem that can’t immediately be solved. They wouldn’t even really be stories; they would lack the shape that is necessary to make a story. Sometimes the good shape of a story does demand that a character die tragically. In this respect the artist is godlike in relation to her work; she can seen the shape of the whole, and how parts that are ugly in themselves contribute to the beauty of that shape.

It’s easy to come up with examples of tragedies where suffering and death produce a satisfyingly shaped story. I’m generally a fan of happy endings, but Hamlet has always been my favourite Shakespeare play. Even a well constructed murder mystery—especially the kind where the detective tracks down the murderer and then wishes he hadn’t—can have some of this quality. It’s also easy to think of examples of stories where the writer doesn’t pull this off, and instead ends up looking like a despotic and arbitrary god in relation to his created world. (I felt Tess of the D’Urbervilles was a prime example of this when I read it years ago.) Mostly I think this comes about because the author’s idea of a good shape is just different from yours. Or the author’s aim might be to communicate, through harsh and arbitrary events, the message that life is harsh and arbitrary. You can write a formless story deliberately, and you can do so as a deliberate reflection of a life that looks formless and without meaning. But if you do, it is likely that most people—whatever they believe about the shape of our actual story and the existence or benevolence of its Author—will hate it. People tend to like stories with a satisfying shape, because we can’t see the shape of our own; well, you wouldn’t expect one of the characters in the story to be able to.

Except of course that sometimes they do. That’s another great thing about fiction: not only can you see the shape of the whole from the outside, but the individual parts can have an awareness of that whole too. Historical characters can reflect presciently on their legacy or the importance of their actions; tragic characters can be resigned to their fates. And, in fact, there have been lots of real people who have lived with such an apparently clear sense of their own role and purpose that they have been able to risk and endure things that the average person would do anything to avoid.

The Seven Deadly Sins & Why You Haven’t Finished That Thing*

Seven Deadly SinsPride wants it to be perfect, because you should be producing brilliance, and you should be ashamed not to be producing brilliance. So you don’t work on it, because so far it is neither perfect nor brilliant.

Envy is too busy worrying about whether other people have already done it better, and how you can possibly measure up, to let you do any work.

Covetousness is more interested in the trappings of work than in the work itself. It wants new tools, new materials, and for you to do nothing until you have all the stuff. (You can never have all the stuff, so you do nothing.)

Wrath comes to your aid to lacerate you for your failure, and to blame other people for taking up your time with other things. It doesn’t help.

Gluttony is a distraction, and so is Lust (lust for all kinds of things), diverting your attention to your own comfort and pleasure. When work is in any way hard, temptations beckon you away.

Sloth looks like the main problem, but it may only be the servant of all the others. (Who cares? It doesn’t matter… Blehh…) It’s the simple desire not to work, even with the work is good. It’s senseless, brainless, sluggish; there is no joy in it. Should you fight it first or last—or both?

* And by “you” I mean “I.”

Whether Angels Knit

Since childhood I have had a collection of angel Christmas ornaments, and I think that’s part of the reason why I have always had a minor fascination with different depictions of angels. And I have written before about my fondness for lace knitting. So you can imagine that my interest was piqued when I saw these two things combined in the form of a book about knitted lace angels. (Take a look; it’s actually really cool.)

I came across this book while searching the library catalogue for something else, and clicked Place Hold instantly. The book arrived at the library, and it was delightful, full of dainty, ingeniously designed knitted sculptures. But what I hadn’t noticed in the thumbnail picture in the library catalogue is what that angel on the front cover is doing. That’s not just a knitted angel; it’s a knitting angel. The book in fact features angels doing various forms of needlework: knitting, crocheting, embroidering, spinning, etc. It’s all very adorable, but it raises what is honestly something of a theological question for me: Do angels do that kind of thing? Or, to be more accurate about the way the matter presented itself to me: Why do I feel that angels don’t do that kind of thing?

Now, this turns out to be less a question about angels, and more a question about the status and use of different human endeavours. I suppose part of the problem is that it’s hard to know why an angel would need or want a scarf or an afghan or a cross-stitch sampler. But that won’t quite do; if they are beautiful objects, why shouldn’t they glorify God as much as music, which we all know to be an important angelic activity?

Is this a gender thing? Well, depressingly, maybe. I do tend to think of angels as more or less masculine, and needlework as feminine, and I’m not immune to the general miserable tendency to devalue traditionally feminine activities and blah blah blah. (I’d like to pretend that this isn’t a thing, but I’ve realized that nothing is served by that kind of denial, so yeah. Sorry.)

But I also tend to think that a knitting angel gives me pause because for me, knitting isn’t a purely creative activity, or doesn’t approach as closely as possible to “baking from scratch” or creating from whole cloth. As I’ve already mentioned here, for me, needlework is largely a process of following the instructions, often to the letter, rather than of freely inventing, and that doesn’t somehow seem very angelic. But maybe it is? Maybe angels are not particularly creative; they are not the creatures made in the image of the Creator, after all. And they are portrayed as obedient servants; maybe they like following directions?

Gabriel, crocheting

It’s sheer coincidence that the yarn matches the orphreys on my costume so well. (Photo by Katherine Belyea)

I’ve also realized that there is documentary proof of my hypocrisy on this subject. In my defense, I’m not in character in this picture, just in costume. I’m backstage during a production of our parish’s medieval nativity play, crocheting a granny square (one of many I finished during the course of rehearsals).

I do remember feeling that what I was doing was funny, but not especially apt. So I don’t know… what do you think? Could your idea of angels include needlework?

How to Make a Giant Calendar


I love practical how-to posts, so I thought I would share how I made something useful recently. I want to emphasize that word, “useful,” because Martha Stewart this ain’t.

Last year I found a really interesting calendar at Hanji, my favourite paper shop. It showed the entire year printed on a single large page, with boxes that were actually big enough to write in. It was made in Korea and embellished with cute animals and things. (I think there were also some instructions on the back about how to use it, in Korean, but really, the concept was straightforward.) I bought it halfway through the year, and actually didn’t end up using it much. However, in December, wanting to follow some advice from Joanna Penn’s excellent writing podcast and set some goals for the upcoming year, I went back to Hanji to pick up a 2013 calendar, only to discover that the company no longer produces them. This threw my goal-setting plans into complete disarray. How could I make plans for the year if I couldn’t plot them on a giant poster with cute Korean animals on it?? (Yes, this is a silly problem. Just take my word for it that it was a problem for me, okay?)

Well, what I ended up doing was drawing a giant calendar myself, on a sheet of packing paper. It’s not beautiful (the paper was a bit wrinkled to start with), but it has colourful stickers, and I have found it helpful to see the whole year laid out and to plot goals on it (in pencil, because I know what I’m like). If you invested a little bit of money in a nice sheet of paper, you could make it look really lovely.photo

Here’s what you need to do:

  • You’ll want a piece of paper that is at least 77 cm by 45 cm. Mine, as you can see, was bigger than it needed to be. (I figured I might want to write things in the margins, so I didn’t trim it.) You’ll also need quite a long ruler, or straight edge of some kind. If you had a T-square, you could do a much better job of this than I did.
  • Rule out a grid of 12 rows and 36 columns, making each row 3.5 cm tall, and each column 2 cm wide. I did it first in pencil, then went over it again with black pencil crayon. You could of course use ink. (See how I’m assuming you are going to create this beautiful thing? I’m so excited for you!)
  • Label the rows with the names of the months. I numbered them with some stickers I happened to have, but wrote in the names underneath.
  • Label the columns as follows: Starting with a Sunday, mark off 5 weeks + 1 extra Sunday. If for some reason you prefer to start your week on a Monday, mark off 5 weeks + 1 extra Monday, i.e. end on the same day you began on. Now, you may note that I didn’t do this; I added an extra Sunday and Monday at the end, but it turns out I didn’t need the extra Monday. Once again, your calendar is going to be better than mine.
  • Write in all the dates! This is the fun part. 2013 started on a Tuesday. Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November; all the rest have 31, except for February, which has 28 this year, but you knew that. And that’s all you need to know; everything else should fall into place.
  • Now write in some lofty goals, and then try not to panic because things coming up next month look like they’re due next week when your year is laid out like this! But that can be good motivation. 😉

Outdated Writing Advice: Geoffrey de Vinsauf on Beginnings

Geoffrey de Vinsauf was a fan of plotting. He begins his Poetria Nova with a famous analogy between architecture and poetry: Just as the architect envisions the whole building before the first foundation stone is laid, he says, so the poet must spend time contemplating the shape of the finished poem before writing its first words. Good advice, if you ask me, even when applied to the novel, a form which Geoffrey, writing in the early years of the thirteenth century, did not have in mind. I wondered if any of his other advice might be of interest to the novelist.

After his introductory remarks, Geoffrey discusses the ordering of the story material. (I say “story” rather than “poetry” at this point, because that is really what he is talking about. Although he envisions the narrative being written in verse rather than prose, the remarks in this section apply equally well to either.) There are two basic ways to order your material, but Geoffrey likes one of them better than the other, because it branches off into divisions and subdivisions, and he can really go to town on these. Here is my diagram of how it all plays out:

Order: Nature vs. Art

I don’t know whether any of the extant MSS of the Poetria Nova provide a diagram like this.

As you can see, he doesn’t have much to say about the “natural” option for ordering your story material. This is the one that begins, prosaically, at the beginning, with nothing more ingenious than “once upon a time,” and carries on from there. Much more interesting to Geoffrey are the various branches of “Art”: beginning at the end, beginning in the middle, or beginning with a proverb or exemplum (an illustrative image) appropriate to the beginning, the middle, or the end of the story.

Geoffrey offers his own examples of all eight options, eight different ways to begin the same story. They are a little dated, and I won’t repeat them here. In an effort to find some novelistic examples, I conducted an unscientific study involving a nearby bookshelf. Here’s what I found:

The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse. (Charles Williams, War in Heaven)

Martha Macnamara stood at the Pacific, her toes digging into the froth. She had come the length of the country in a day’s flight, and she had trouble believing that this was a different ocean. (R.A. MacAvoy, Tea with the Black Dragon)

It was a dark and stormy night.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground. (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)

In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark Bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in. (Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend)

Do any of these examples bear any relation to Geoffrey’s categories? Well, in a way they do. I would say that these are all beginning at the beginning, although that point is debatable. Martha Macnamara, for instance, has been summoned to California by her daughter as a result of events that we don’t learn about until later, and the man under the desk at the beginning of War in Heaven didn’t die of natural causes. But all four begin in different ways with a visual image, which may be as close as you’ll get in a novel to Geoffrey’s category of exempla. Not quite the same thing, admittedly, but some allowance must be made for changing times. More generally, they all do something with the beginning that can reasonably be classified as “Art.”

Here’s another one:

While I would not go so far, perhaps, as to describe the heart as actually leaden, I must confess that on the eve of starting to do my bit of time at Deverill Hall I was definitely short on chirpiness. I shrank from the prospect of being decanted into a household on chummy terms with a thug like my Aunt Agatha, weakened as I already was by having had her son Thomas, one of our most prominent fiends in human shape, on my hands for three days.

But half a jiffy. I’m forgetting that you haven’t the foggiest what all this is about. (P.G. Wodehouse, The Mating Season)

This is of course beginning in the middle, used self-consciously for the sake of comedy. It’s cute. But you wouldn’t want to do it often.

The other two novels I pulled from my shelf were mysteries, and both open somewhere near the end of the story, in one sense, because the murder in each case has already been committed, and the whole book will be devoted to unravelling what happened prior to the opening scene. P.D. James’ Unnatural Causes opens with a description of a corpse floating in a dinghy; Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison begins later still, in the courtroom where the judge is about to address the jury at the end of the murder trial. In another sense, of course, the beginning of each book is also the beginning of the story, because this where the detective comes into it, and the events of the investigation will change the lives of the characters involved. It’s interesting to note, too, that beginning at the end isn’t the only option for mysteries; they can also begin much closer to the beginning, and take a while to set the scene and introduce characters before presenting the central problem of the crime.

There are novels that begin with proverbs, too, or at least with pithy phrases that have a similar effect. The opening of Pride and Prejudice is a good example that comes to mind; A Tale of Two Cities would be another. Even something like this basically fits the category:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes. (Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle)

The natural beginning also has its place, as for example in most of Austen’s novels other than Pride and Prejudice, which begin with an account of the family history of the central characters. This style of beginning does sound somewhat old-fashioned today, but it can be very effective in novels that evoke something of a fairytale atmosphere, as for example in the opening of Patricia McKillip’s Forgotten Beasts of Eld. It would seem that you can in fact go far by adhering to this advice from the thirteenth century.

Geoffrey allows that there are other techniques for beginning a story besides proverbs and exempla, but he declines to teach them: “The others are of less worth and more recent appearance; the sanction of time favours the two forms mentioned.”¹ I pass it along for what it’s worth.


1. Geoffrey de Vinsauf, Poetria Nova, trans. Margaret F. Nims. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1967.)