Tuesday Thoughts: Writing (And Not Thinking Much)

Give it up to free stock photography websites.

I don’t have any terribly groundbreaking thoughts for this week. I’ve been writing a lot, which always makes for a rather odd frame of mind, and I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out with writers and their families. I’ve been enjoying the freedom of my borrowed bicycle (a beautiful Trek 750) and the wonderful gaudiness of a hot-pink mani/pedi. I’m finally getting around to watching Series 3 of Sherlock on Netflix.

Last Friday was Independence Day and Chautauquans celebrated by wearing patriotic outfits and lighting flares along the circumference of Chautauqua Lake. The next day, many Chautauquans attended a Brescia performance of Madame Butterfly, which was one of the most scathing commentaries of American imperialism I’ve ever seen. It was an interesting juxtaposition.

But anyway. I’m off to finish the novel chapter I started last year that somehow keeps turning out like a half-baked version of The Island of Doctor Moreau.

See you Friday.

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Tuesday Thoughts: Margaret Atwood and A New Definition of Speculative Fiction

Margaret Atwood and Roger Rosenblatt

Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of listening to Margaret Atwood have a conversation with Roger Rosenblatt at Chautauqua Institution. I enjoyed their witty repartee (Rosenblatt: Would you listen to me for a moment? Atwood: Do I have a choice?), as well as Atwood’s style of succinct, humorous storytelling. I also enjoyed Atwood’s reading, which included her singing the Mole Day Song, a hymn honoring mole-kind that she wrote for her novel The Year of the Flood.

At one point in the conversation, Rosenblatt brought up a comment Atwood made previously about speculative fiction. As I figured this would be a hot topic, I took notes during her speech and did my record it verbatim; any errors are, of course, mine.

According to Atwood:

Speculative fiction is an annoying issue, and one I never should have brought up. It’s the difference between Star Wars and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Everything in the Handmaid’s Tale has happened somewhere. Jules Verne was appalled by H.G. Wells because of The Time Machine. Verne said, “He made that up!” Dragons can’t be done, either, because they were definitively done by Ursula Le Guin. She gets the top dragon award. [Crowed cheers] Thank you, dragon fans.

Atwood went on to explain that while she enjoys Star Wars, it isn’t something that could ever happen, so it was pure science fiction, not speculative. Speculative fiction, by Atwood’s definition, is limited to cautionary tales, like near-future dystopias with already-existing sociopolitical aspects. While much of the audience at Chautauqua was not concerned about this classification, I think this is something worthy of debate, especially among people who consider themselves speculative fiction writers.

What do you think? Is Margaret Atwood’s definition of speculative fiction as stories that could possibly happen in the near future better than using speculative fiction as an umbrella term for fantasy, science fiction, slipstream, magical realism, and all the other facets of the non-realistic writing?

Tuesday Thoughts: “Truth Seekers.”

Truth Seekers.

I live in an old building.

The first floor looks much the same as it might have a hundred years ago, with wooden furniture, lace curtains, and newspapers from the 1890s. Most of walls in the outer rooms are decorated with cloth banners of the graduating classes of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. The banners are a labor of love; most are sewn, some were quilted, a few are embroidered. The 2011 banner has a painting of the Chautauqua clock tower. 1955’s has a message about God opening windows when he closes doors in block lettering and a gold fringe at the bottom. 1941’s is a plain pale blue with gold letters, all cut carefully from felt. The earliest banners, from the early 1880s, have been recreated and the originals retired to climate-controlled storage in the Archives.

The building was renovated a few years ago, and the grand staircase at the back of the building that had fallen into disrepair was replaced with public restrooms, new stairs, and an elevator. The second floor, now home to the Writers’ Center, where I work, is full of classrooms, an office, and a small, secret library and balcony. The third floor, where I live, is closed to the public, and holds dorms and apartments for visiting writers, the building manager, the housekeeper, and the intern (me).

At the foot of the stairs leading up to the third floor, a wooden sign proclaims “Truth Seekers.” Period. A declarative sentence. I like to think that it means the people who stay on the third floor. I like the idea of writers being seekers of truth, even if not the literal. Even (perhaps especially) in speculative fiction, truth still has to be the goal, the driving force of writing– the truth of people, of interactions, of choices to make when the truth is much too difficult to bear. The truth of concealment, of motives, of love and loss. It’s good to remember that even when writing about things strange and different and with a strong dragon presence.

So, I like it. We are truth seekers, and this is our banner.