Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Writer's Holy Days

November is National Novel Writing Month or, for those in the know, NaNoWriMo. The month-long challenge that began in 1999 with 21 novelists has evolved to a much larger production; lots and lots of writers log in and attempt to finish a complete novel (or at least, 50,000 words) during November. At the NaNoWriMo site (, you can sign up and update your word count, socialize and commiserate with other writers, even read samples of what everyone else is doing.

But what I like best about this month of writer-mania is that whether you’re participating or not, everyone is talking about it. Which means, everyone is talking about writing. And for thirty days, it’s like the best club ever. Or it’s like Ramadan, or Lent, this group undertaking. And like those religious periods, it permeates your life whether you’re doing what you think you should be doing, or what you’d like to be doing, or not. Maybe you’ve jumped in with both feet, notebooks and outlines primed, ready to belt out that complete novel. Maybe you’re working on something, but can only manage 15,000 words over the course of the month. Maybe you’re not writing right now at all, but you’re thinking about it. Hearing other writer’s stories, challenges, and triumphs can only be encouraging. I like to hear about what everyone is writing and how they’re doing along the way. I like to remind myself that so many writers are out there, quietly plugging away, usually without notice.

I have participated in past years, and will be this year, sort of. Autumn tends to be a productive time for me anyway, so I’ve been working on that story collection, the one I keep saying I’m almost finished with. Well, I really am almost finished now, aiming for the end of October. In November, I’d like to get started on notes for the next thing, a novel of BIG IDEAS I’ve been ruminating over in a very dark corner of my mind. So I may not, technically, be writing in November (according to the NaNoWriMo requirements), but I’ll be in it with everyone who is. Rooting you on, feeling your joy and pain.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why I Blame the Irish for Halloween

I was feeling badly about feeling badly about this time of year. Specifically: Autumn, and even more specifically, what has become the month-long build-up to everyone’s second favorite holiday, Halloween. Because I’ve never been a big fan of Halloween. Sure, when I was a kid we had a great carnival at my school, complete with games where you could win cheap toys, a booth for face-painting, and a haunted house manned by the upper grades. It’s the costume part that bothered me. After we graduated past the plastic mask and gown phase of our very young years, during which I was often whatever my brother had been the year before (case in point: Speed Racer), we were left to our own devices when it came to Halloween costumes. You had to find something around the house. There were the standards—hobo, witch, “lady” (which basically involved a dress, socks for breasts and makeup)—and if you were more creative, maybe a cat or a cowgirl. I never really liked donning another identity, though, always found it more embarrassing than fun or liberating. I did enjoy the pillowcase full of candy which, back then, we were allowed to eat however quickly we wanted.

Fast forward: adulthood and then my own parenthood. You’d think that perhaps my heart would have warmed for the holiday but really, it hasn’t. I have found many of our own kids’ costumes, especially when they were very little, completely adorable, and yet, the parties and trick-or-treating with all the sweets and parading around—I don’t know, just not my thing. As they grew older, our kids would start discussing and often, stressing about their costumes way in advance of the date. And it's California--it's almost always too warm for whatever costume they've chosen. Afterwards, there are negotiations and downright sabotage (on my part) in regards to the obscene amount of candy they obtain. Because people nowadays hand out insane portions, not the bite-size candy bars we used to get. But that’s another rant.

I did some reading about the history of Halloween, hoping it might get me in the mood. I had the general gist of it: ancient harvest celebrations merged with Christianity’s All Souls’ Day. This is true. The origins of the holiday date back to a Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in). About 2000 years ago, in the area that is modern-day Ireland. The celebration was for the new year, which began November 1, and to mark the transition from summer to winter. They believed that during this transition, ghosts returned to earth and it was a good time for the Celtic priests to divine the future.  Costumes were worn for protection from ghosts, and pranks and games were played.

And then yes, Christianity came and blended in. In 1000 A.D., All Souls’ Day was moved to November 2 in what is widely believed to be a Christian coup to replace the Celtic traditions with church-sanctioned ones.

Halloween made the jump from old world to new but by the middle of the 19th century, it wasn’t widely celebrated in America. Not until the immigrant infusion of the late part of the century, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the potato famine, did Halloween become an American institution. Again, the Irish. Any parent with school-age children knows that now, ghouls and monsters have been replaced with superheroes and celebrities, that trick-or-treating is all about the treating and not really the tricking. Borrowing from European practices, things like superstitions and the wearing of costumes have been appropriated and made into the huge consumer spectacle we have today. 

So do I like Halloween more, having read about its origins? Not really. But here’s a nice little video to get you in the mood, in case you do. The history of Halloween, in a minute:

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka