Ranée

Favorite(s)

I’m a lifelong lover of books and music, having been massively influenced by both since I was a child, so this post contains a list of my seven favorite books and—as an homage to one of them—my top five all-time favorite recording artists.

Favorite Books

Listed in chronological order according to when I read them.

The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe (whom my father claims is some distant family relative of ours) is one of the first authors with whom I became enamored; he is also responsible for getting me hooked on supernatural literature. As a teenager, I devoured his stories of horror: “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and others. I also repeatedly read a number of Poe’s grimmer poems. What I admired most about his work was the artful way he generated suspense, the shocking turns he incorporated, and his lyrical style. Poe, to me, wasn’t just a master of the horrific but also rhythm, rhyme, and repetition of sounds (both assonance and alliteration). He will forever occupy a significant portion of my rather morbid heart.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

This book about a pathetic record store owner and self-described arsehole obsessed with making top-five lists, penned by a music-loving writer and critic has been among my all-time faves since I first read it back in college. Hornby’s debut novel reads like an Elvis Costello song (note: the title is an Elvis Costello song and Mr. Declan McManus also happens to be one of my favorite recording artists). I’ve never been able to find out whether or not Hornby purposely chose the title because of the song or whether, just being the music writer and lover that he is, he decided (like Costello) that the double meaning of the term high fidelity was incredibly appropriate (and clever) for his debut novel. Maybe it was a little of both. If I ever get the chance to interview or chat with Hornby, I’ll be sure to ask him. What makes this book one of my favorites, however, isn’t just its references to music or the fact that it was obviously written by a music lover who’d seen more than his share of know-it-all music snobs, but because Hornby is so frank about the awkwardness and absurdity so often inherent in relationships, his flawed and quirky characters are entirely believable, and his chronicle of Rob’s ridiculous romantic entanglements is really funny.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I treasure this tale of magic and the sacred feminine based on the Arthurian legends. Morgaine is without a doubt one of my favorite literary heroines, right alongside Lisbeth Salander (two very different but equally strong women, in my view). When I read this book, Avalon also represented something that I’d sorely lacked for most of my youth—a community of genuinely supportive women. This beautifully woven tale gave me hope that I’d eventually find my own place within one.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

I know I probably shouldn’t list this book among my favorites without also including Bram Stoker’s Dracula on that list, but, well, King’s updated version of the Dracula story is frankly scarier than the original. In fact, it’s the scariest book I’ve ever read. I like my vampires creepy and terrifying and, like his predecessor and obvious influence, Count Orlok, the original film version of Kurt Barlow certainly fits the criteria.

The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

When I was introduced to Duffy’s poems in an Irish lit class in graduate school, it was love at first read. By turns, bawdy, brash, and beautiful, Duffy’s style is one that I admire above many others. Her words, imagery, and subject matter felt so raw and real to me, and when I read The World’s Wife, a collection of poems about famous literary, mythical, and historical women (reimagined and written from their points of view), I identified with so many of them. Duffy herself is one of my favorite writers.

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

Mama Day is another book I discovered in grad school, this one thanks to my advisor (and one of my real-life heroes) Teresa Washington. I suppose that aside from African American lit, this book also falls into the genre of “magical realism.” It’s also something of a love story. Those elements of the book along with its incorporation of the sacred feminine are certainly partly why I love it so. Another reason is Naylor’s brilliant storytelling and creative narrative choices. Parts of the story are told from the points of view of two of the main characters, Coco and George, and written in first person as they talk to/about one other and their relationship. Some elements are a beautiful lesson in history and culture. Other sections are a third-person narrative focusing on the title character of Miranda “Mama” Day and other residents of Willow Springs, which, like its most famous denizen, Sapphira Wade, belongs to no one but itself and its people. This is one book that I will never tire of re-reading because of its richness, and I laugh and cry every time I enter the world of Willow Springs.

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

This book is on my list because of how much it has meant in terms of my personal and spiritual growth. Reading this book awakened something that had been buried and brutalized within my soul, and it inspired me to reclaim and nurture that part of myself—to heal so that I might become whole.

Favorite Recording Artists

My favorite musicians

In true High Fidelity fashion, here are my desert-island, all-time, top favorite recording artists, in alphabetical order:

  • Tori Amos
  • David Bowie
  • Elvis Costello
  • Queen
  • Lou Reed (and The Velvet Underground sans Nico)

Satisfyingly soulful and strange, Tori Amos was a big part of my formative years and although Sarah McLachlan, U2, and Garbage were just as much so, it’s Tori’s music that’s stood the test of time for me. Most of the music that I loved by those other singers and bands were their earlier songs and records, whereas I’d rank albums like 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk and 2017’s Native Invader right up there alongside Tori’s first three. Quite a number of her songs have inspired post titles on this blog.

Elvis Costello, aka Declan McManus, aka Napoleon Dynamite, is the only one of my top five I’ve actually seen in concert (I didn’t really get out much when I was younger, OK?). He’s a masterful, witty lyricist and wordsmith, sharp with a turn of phrase, genius with his use of the double entendre, and fantastic on guitar. I’m a bigger fan of his earlier, grittier work on albums like My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces, but I’m also impressed with his ability to effortlessly shift between music genres, particularly stuff that I wouldn’t have thought a fit for him (see albums like Secret, Profane, & Sugarcane and his work with Burt Bacharach). I appreciate genre-shattering musicians just as much as I do authors.

I suppose the other three on my list are sort of a testament to my love affair with glam rock, which began in earnest when I saw Todd Haynes’ film Velvet Goldmine, but I don’t just love those guys because of their glam records and personae. I love them because they’re weird and wonderful.

Lou Reed was the primary songwriter behind The Velvet Underground, one of the most influential bands in modern rock. To me, he was also its heart. I think one of the reasons I so love Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry is that it reminds me of Lou Reed’s songwriting. He was a poet too, a fellow freak and survivor, and a damn fine guitar player.

Speaking of freaks . . . yes, I loved the oft alien, always androgynous David Bowie for his weirdness too. But, like my other favorites, I also adored him for his musical talents, especially the risks that he took musically and his production work.

Bowie certainly had style and flair but so did Freddie Mercury, who is one of the main reasons that Queen makes my list. I called him “The Voice” because I was simply in awe of that man’s vocal range and talent. To me, he is far and away the most amazing vocalist in all of rock; no one else even comes close. I also couldn’t help but dig the fact that he was often so in-your-face and over-the-top when performing. Freddie isn’t the only reason I love Queen, though. I’m also a huge fan of Brian May’s guitar playing and the band was brilliant in the way that they melded genres and pulled off stuff that I’m sure the people working behind the scenes with them thought would never work.

Hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know a little more about me. I know you have your own favorite books, writers, and music-makers and I’d love for you to share them in the comments.

On Writing

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

Anxiety and focus issues are some serious super creeps known to plague writers. If you’re haunted by such ghouls, then you may find yourself spending a lot of time staring at the horror that is a blank page or screen or over-preparing for the battle instead of heeding the call to action (i.e., getting caught up in things like researching, outlining, or character sketches instead of writing the actual story). You might sit down to write and have every intention of doing so, but some nasty little troll has other ideas and you end up chasing it in an endless time loop of distractions like checking social media, texting a friend, surfing the web, or drawing pictures that have nothing to do with your writing project. If any of that sounds familiar, then I empathize, fellow ink-slinger, because, unfortunately, I know all too well what’s it like to battle those Big Bads. Here are a few tips I’ve collated from my own experience in the fight.

Break It Up

If you struggle to stay focused (and I wouldn’t be shocked if the majority of people do given that the average attention span is a matter of seconds), then try building in more shorter writing intervals with breaks in between instead of fewer extended sessions.  If your goal is to write a certain number of words or pages per day, you certainly don’t have to write them all in one go.  Breaks will allow your brain to hit the reset button and hopefully you’ll be able to approach a project with renewed focus. If your brain is rested, it can also come up with fresh ideas.

Go Dark

If you’ve been staring at a blank page or screen, then try going dark. Turn off the computer screen and type away, even if you’re just banging out a string of nonsense letters, or close your eyes, pick up your pen, and do some automatic writing (ie, writing whatever comes into your mind). This is a fantastic way of unlocking your subconscious mind and letting it roam free as well as experimenting with letting go period. I realize that for someone with anxiety, that may sound terrifying; you need structure, you have to have a plan! There’s nothing wrong with an outline or plan, but you have to allow at least some room for flexibility because the creative process is by its very nature free-flowing. Start by trying just a few minutes of being like water; see how it goes. You might be surprised by what comes up when you do. I’ve found that this tactic often leads to some of my best ideas/work.

Daydream

If you’re losing interest in what you’re working on, then instead of forcing yourself to plow away at it, why not embrace the boredom? Boredom actually sparks creativity, so go ahead: imagine a place or that you’re some other person and let your mind wander, do a “what if?” exercise, or write in your journal. Sometimes distraction can actually be a good thing.

Get Reacquainted With Your Muse

Maybe you’re stuck for ideas because you’ve lost sight of your purpose. What was it that inspired you to write this project in the first place? Thinking about that, reminding yourself how you feel about that person/place/thing and why you wanted to write about it might be just the thing to spark renewed interest.

Work on Something Else

If you’re stuck sorting things out with a particular project or have lost interest, then work on something else for a while. It’s OK to take a break (as long as it’s not permanent or you don’t completely trash what you’ve been working on). Working on something different will get your creativity going again and might just help you figure out where to pick up the thread with your other project.

These are just a few ideas to try if you get stuck. Ultimately, you’ll need to explore what’s driving your anxiety or focus issues in the first place. What’s the root cause? Once you figure that out, you have a responsibility to yourself to take the necessary steps to manage it. If you can’t do that on your own, that’s OK; Buffy was the Slayer and she had a Watcher (well, two at one point) and the Scooby Gang helping her fight the Big Bad every week. We’re not superheroes, so we’ll likely need a lot more back-up to win the fight.

Ranée

Heroes

As a girl, all of my heroes were make-believe ones.  I idolized them for things like strength, courage, independence, leadership, kindness, empathy, their sense of right and wrong.

One of my favorite superheroes has always been Rogue for a number of reasons.  She was one of the strongest of all the X-Men.  She had the ability to absorb the energy of others, but she was unable to control that power.  If she touched someone or held onto them for too long, she could take their very life force and put them in a coma (à la how she took Ms. Marvel’s powers).  This led to her being somewhat of a loner; she suffered much emotional pain and pushed others away because she feared she would hurt them. Despite that, Rogue managed to find love with fellow X-Man Gambit and eventually learned to control her powers, not the reverse.  That growth, I think, was her real strength.

My biggest girlhood hero was without a doubt Princess Leia.  From the time I first discovered Star Wars, I wanted to be like her.  She was fiercely independent, stood up for a cause she believed in, was able to lead and inspire others, was brave in the face of danger, but she was also kind.  The moment of the Star Wars saga that most impressed me about Leia was not when she showed some skill with the Force or fought off stormtroopers, but when she suffered her greatest loss.  When Tarkin blows up her home planet, killing everyone she loves in an instant, he does it because he wants to cause her pain, but she refuses to react to the incident and instead shows the utmost fortitude.  That must have been the worst moment of her life, but she didn’t let him see her cry or rage; that takes some serious guts.  I imagine that when she allowed herself to grieve later in private, it was immense, but there was no way she was going to give Tarkin and Vader the satisfaction.

In grad school, I discovered what has come to be my favorite poem, Carol Ann Duffy’s “Little Red-Cap.”  It’s a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale where Red ultimately saves herself from the Wolf, becoming her own hero in a sense. She initially believes that the Wolf has all the answers, that she can only have access to poetry through him, but it’s when she is alone that she finds true poetry.  She realizes that she doesn’t need the wolf, that what she sought was within her all along.  The poem ends with the beautiful line “Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone.”  That brave, triumphant girl was also my hero for she was a survivor who would write her own story.

As I’ve gotten older, it’s become easier for me to find things that I admire in the women that I actually know and to see them as heroes as well.  So far, my biggest real-life hero has been my advisor and mentor from my grad school days at Kent, Professor Teresa N. Washington.  She displayed some of the same traits that I saw in my make-believe heroes of old, traits that I still admire in others and that I now strive to emulate.

When Teresa came to campus to interview for a position in the English program, she gave a presentation and Q&A about her work, which I attended.  One of the other professors in the department was incredibly disrespectful and insulting in her criticism.  I was appalled by this other woman’s negative comments and behavior and couldn’t help noting the contrast between her and Teresa who sat calmly, keeping her cool, projecting a quiet strength, while someone else attacked not only her work but her beliefs.  How easy it would’ve been for her to snipe back at her, but I never saw even a twinge of annoyance in her face.  She amazed me.

She showed that same strength when the racism in the course that I took with her reached its peak.  She, the professor, was the only African American person in that classroom and she was trying to open some ignorant people’s eyes and they didn’t like it.  The negative atmosphere in the classroom built over the course of the semester until it became a terribly palpable force.  I could feel the hatred around me so much it made me literally sick to my stomach.  I felt my skin crawling and prickling from the force of all that negative energy and I wanted to run from the room.  It was one of the ugliest things I’ve ever felt and I knew instinctively that it was coming from the people around me and that it was directed at Teresa.  If it made me feel that way, I thought, then what must she, its target, have felt?  God, the strength of composure that woman possessed!  She didn’t react, didn’t raise her voice or break down.  She just looked at us and said, “I’m not going to talk today,” and instead said she was going to let us watch a video that we could talk about if we wished, answer some questions afterward that we would hand in, then she turned on a movie and left the room. What happened next was a free-for-all slamming of her and as we watched a beautifully moving scene of an African American man walking on water, I heard a guy to my right say, “Why are we watching this?” and the woman next to me, who had said she wanted to teach African American literature, say in reply, “They always like to show stuff like this.”

The words set me off.  I couldn’t sit there and let those people say such rotten things about a woman for whom I had great respect and who didn’t deserve that sort of treatment and I did not possess the grace of my mentor.  For the life of me, I cannot remember what I said that day, but whatever it was, I was shaking afterward and the woman who’d made the ignorant comment in the first place came to my office the next day to apologize because I had been so upset by the conversation.  All I said to her was, “I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.”

Teresa ended up scrapping her lesson for The Salt Eaters that semester as well, just gave up, didn’t teach anything.  I was disappointed, but understood why she’d done it.  When I met with her for one of my advisory sessions after the semester had ended, she told me that the night before the class, the author’s spirit had spoken to her, told her that she shouldn’t do it because “they don’t deserve it.”  Add wisdom to her list of admirable traits.

Teresa showed something else that I greatly admired and that is forgiveness.  She told me that some of the students from the class had later come to her to apologize and she, being the figure of grace that she was, didn’t throw anything back at them or shun them, but instead chose to help them find another way to be. She said she was grateful for their willingness to change.  Another “wow” moment for me because when someone has disrespected me or injured me, I have wanted more than anything to tell them to fuck off.  And I have done that many times.  But it’s much harder and takes far more strength and composure not to react but instead to realize that whatever rotten thing someone did or said to you isn’t really about you at all, but about them.  Maybe they’re hurting just like you were, so while I’m a proponent of calling people on their meanness, I don’t think we need to be mean to them in return.  When we do, I guess we’re kind of like Rogue, holding onto Ms. Marvel for too long and taking all of their stuff into ourselves.

Lately, I’ve realized something.  All those stories of heroic women I’ve loved so much and all the ones that I’ve been trying to write for years about strong women who are able to get themselves out of bad situations and take back their lives are my own.  Like Little Red-Cap, I was lost in the woods for a very long time, living through and for others, allowing them to guide me because I didn’t believe in myself or my dreams, and I became tangled in the thorns of depression and anxiety as a result, so much so that I couldn’t find a way out.  It takes years to find the courage to slay those wolves, but I did it.  Now my goal is to be like the heroes that I’ve known, to be strong like them, yes, but more importantly, to grow and learn like they did, to help others, and to demonstrate grace.  By doing so, I hope to become something that I never thought I would be—my own hero.