Ivy and Nellie

I haven’t been working this week because of a bad cold. Since Jeremy just changed jobs, our health insurance doesn’t kick in until the end of the month. I am very susceptible to bronchitis, so I’m being more cautious about exposing myself to germs than I would ordinarily be. Yesterday I started feeling better, so I started organizing my craft armoire, and then realized mid-job that making something with the craft supplies is a lot more fun than organizing them. Sometimes my life feels like an ongoing episode of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I started itching to make a doll version of Ivy, one of the protagonists in my just-completed novel Good Medicine. Jeremy and I went to the craft store for polymer clay. When I got home, I tried to sculpt it into my vision, and that didn’t go well at all. So I went online for help and discovered this handy mold here:

Yesterday I decided to try making a doll with the mold. I had mixed results. You have to fill these little cavities, which are silicone, and malleable, meaning that if you aren’t careful, you can squash the shape trying to pry the clay out of the hole.

Then you have to assemble the body parts. (Straight pins don’t work as well as paper clips for connections.) Bake the clay at 275F for 15 minutes, let cool, paint, and dress.

I did Ivy first.

She is a sixth-generation plant healer in Western North Carolina, who is none to pleased when John, a city doctor, arrives in town and doesn’t hold with her folk remedies.

John is also none to pleased that someone without formal medical training is brewing any old plant in boiling water and calling it a cure.

As you might imagine, this is not a love at first sight situation.

John describes Ivy like this:

“Out of the firelight and shadows, Ivy had lost much of her luster… Her sunburned face and thin frame hinted at the hard life she’d led. Her dress, so deep and green in the Whitaker’s cabin, was drab and wash worn. The fabric was threadbare at the elbows. The skirt was many times patched. Her hair, that had seemed so vibrant and alive in the firelight, was a dull ruddy chestnut in the daylight, and her eyes were now a flat and unremarkable green.”

This is Ivy.

Behind her is one of many images of the destruction wrought by the 1916 Flood.

I was stoked by how close the doll is to the one I imagined in my head. I’ve never tried making clay polymer dolls like this before, and for a first attempt, this is pretty awesome, even if I do say so myself.

I sent the image to Jeremy at work. His response was “That’s amazing! Are you going to do Nellie next?” This is one of nine bazillion reasons why I love that man. He always encourages more creativity. Always.

I figured, why not? So I repeated the process again. The second attempt went much more smoothly.

Nellie is Jeremy’s favorite character in Good Medicine, and many of my Beta readers have been surprisingly invested in her story. She is the nine year old daughter of Ivy’s best friend, and when the story begins, we learn that her mother, Eliza, recently passed away in childbirth.

Just as a side note, some of the characters in Good Medicine are completely fictional. Ivy and John, for example, were born in my head.

Nellie, however, is based on the life of my great-grandmother’s sister, Hattie. Hattie was much younger than my great-grandmother, Ida. Ida was married with kids of her own, living in a different community, when her mother died. Hattie was about nine at the time, with a baby sister to care for. She took over all the domestic chores–cooking, cleaning, etc. and the day-to-day care for her baby sister (who sadly passed away of illness some years later in childhood). Her appreciative father went to the cobbler and bought her a pair of sturdy shoes meant for adults because he said she worked as hard as any adult woman. When a new school was built in the area, Hattie wanted to go, but didn’t think she could because she had to care for her sister. The school teacher told her to bring her sister along, she wouldn’t bother anyone. That is how Aunt Hattie was able to get her education.

(Second side note, Hattie lived into her 90s and I knew her and visited her fairly often as a child. Some of her recollections are part of the research I did for this book.)

In my novel, John and Nellie develop a deep friendship.

This is John’s first description of her.

“He turned to find a little girl standing there watching him, every inch the queen of the wood. She wore a long muslin dress, and her long chestnut hair was unbound, falling around her shoulders like ermine. Around her head was a woven crown of red clover. In her hands, an empty wooden bucket. She looked like an illustration from a fairy tale.”

And Ivy says this about Nellie:

Maggie and Nellie had the look of the Wall women on them. Wide open, intelligent faces. Almond shaped eyes the color of crisp winter sky. The same sourwood honey-colored hair. The same wandering sideways part. The same tumble of unruly curls.”

I had a lot of fun with the details on her.

Nellie’s basket filled with creasy greens and a paper boat.
Her unbound hair and red clover crown.
Eyes like a crisp winter sky. Sourwood-honey colored hair. A wandering sideways part.

So, I said my life was like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, right? Well, now that I’ve made an Ivy doll, I feel like she needs a Hickory Nut to go with her. Hickory Nut is her little brown feist.

And then I need to make a John. But he comes with a dog and a horse.

And Nellie needs her sister, Mourning (which is a name I did not pull out of thin air. It’s actually a family name, passed through many generations of one line of my family).

And so on…and so on…

These characters feel like family to me now.

Don’t be surprised if by the time all is said and done, I end up with a doll for each character and a full scale mountain cabin for them to hang out in. 😉

Book Club With Mom

When I decided to become a full time substitute teacher, it was all about the shortened workday and ability to be home in the afternoons with my boys. I wasn’t able to imagine all of the other side benefits I would get out of it. Chief among them is stories. Every day is an adventure. I am full of stories about what goes on every day in schools. Part of that is seeing what school is like for my boys, and better understanding them and their academic experiences.

My youngest son, John ,is not a fan of most stories, and he would read the first 20 minutes into a book, and decide he hated it. Rinse and repeat for years. The teachers never pushed him to read more, because he did what he was asked to do, and read for 20 minutes a day. But to my way of thinking, timed reading discourages kids from really sinking their teeth into a story and (I know, this is crazy talk) actually finishing it.

So John decided he hated books and reading. I bit my tongue until this year when he started 6th grade. Watching him whine and moan his way through language arts was more than I could bear. John might be an engineer someday but he’ll have to get through high school and college English to get there. He needed to learn a different way to read. And as is often the case, I decided that if I wanted things to change, I’d have to take matters into my own hands. And so Book Club With Mom was born.

John’s been very interested in politics and government lately, and often wants to know why things happen the way they do. He’s also been interested in WW2 for years. So, in looking for a book we could read together, I looked for something short(ish), with simple language, a straightforward story, and maybe, most importantly, a book that would give John a sense of accomplishment after he read it. I picked Animal Farm.

There was much whining about it. But I explained to John that this was not a kid book in any way, shape, or form. This was a book for adults and if he listened very carefully, he would come to discover that’s it’s an extended metaphor for the Russian Revolution.

So we started reading the book together.

I found the audio book on spotify and bought us each a paper copy. We take time every day to listen to a chapter together. Using colored pencils, we highlight parts green for setting, circle the characters’ names, and important parts of the plot are orange. After we go through the chapter, we go back over the chapter to re-read the important parts. John asks questions, I point out things I want John to think about and ask him why Orwell might’ve used certain words or certain descriptions to say certain things. We talk about the narrator (who is surprisingly very opinionated for a narrator), and the different characters and what they might represent. For example, today we talked about the fact that Moses the raven reminds John of a minister, and the Sugarcandy Mountain he talks about sounds like heaven. John said “Oh, he’s named Moses, like in the Bible, too.” I told John that that is a clue that his inferences are correct and we talked about who Moses was and what he did in the bible, which also seemed to mirror his character in the book.

For the first time ever, John is really engaged with his reading and seems to enjoy the book a lot. He asked me today if we could play the chapter all the way through without stopping one time and then go back and listen one more time for the highlighting part, because he’s getting into the story and doesn’t like the starting and stopping. Whoohoo! Mission accomplished!

John doesn’t know it yet, but when we get to the end of the book, he’s going to write an essay with me on the theme of the book. I’m going to show him how to use his highlighting to help make his literary argument. More than anything I want him to be a confident reader and writer. He doesn’t have to love it. I just want him to get through it with a minimal amount of aggravation.

This goes along with something a friend posted on Facebook, too. It was about executive dysfunction and ADHD. The article posited that part of the reason that students with ADHD often have trouble completing a task is because they lack the ability to visualize what the task completed would look like. I think that is part of John’s problem (but I imagine it’s true for many other students as well). I’m showing him (I hope) what it looks like to read a book critically, and then to use that critical thinking to write about it. I’m going to show him what a completed critical essay looks like and go through all the different parts with him so that he feels confident doing it himself.

At first I thought this would be a one book thing, but it’s going so well that I’d like it to become a regular part of our routine. Maybe we’ll try The Metamorphosis next.

Conversation With My Muse

Muse: Pssssst! Brittany! Are you awake? I have an idea.

Me: It’s 5 am. Can this wait?

Muse: (in an obnoxious sing song voice) It’s a great idea! Get out of bed sleepyhead! You’re gonna miss it!

Me: Can’t you just come back later?

Muse: Nope. Limited time offer. I’m going to give you all the words. All. The. Words. But you’d better wake up and write them down.

Me: But, you had me up past midnight! Way past midnight! I have to go to work today. I can’t be writing now.

Muse: Do you remember what happened the last time you sent me away? You’ve re-written that paragraph sixteen times, and it’s never even come close to the perfection I gave you. Ready or not, here they come! *Unfurls the words*

Me: Oh for god’s sake! Let me get my phone.

(leaves a note for myself on google keep)

Me: Are you done yet? Can’t I go back to sleep now?

Muse: Yep.

Me: Do you plan to hang around today?

Muse: Nope. You’re on you own. Until maybe 10 o’clock. Then I’ll come back.

Me: In the morning?

Muse: At night, silly!

Me: (grumbling) We need to have a talk about standard business hours.

Muse: We need to have a conversation about the word your character used on page 137. You should change it. In fact, you should change the word and then write an entire paragraph about stars.

Me: It’s 5am! I was going to go back to sleep.

Muse: Oh? Would you like help with your next chapter, or no?

Me: I hate you.

Muse: You love me, too.

Me: Fine.

Muse: Fine.

A Slight Detour

Back when I started this blog, I had every intention of writing several more posts about our Harry Potter wedding and all the things I made for it. But then, as is wont to happen, I got distracted. Usually, this isn’t a good thing, but in this case, the thing that distracted me was writing a book.

I have a truly weird relationship with writing. On the one hand, I do it pretty compulsively. Writing is integral to Brittany-ness. But much like my only-child play was centered around what was going on in my own little head, writing isn’t really what I do for anybody else. Yes, I write a blog, and yes, I’m a frequent poster on Facebook, but I write as much or more for myself than anyone else. I certainly don’t do it for attention, or for dreams of worldwide fame. I don’t much enjoy being the center of attention, actually. And while I do like the idea of being published, it’s more in an I-want-my-books-available-if-anyone-is-interested kind of way. This half-assed attitude probably isn’t the way to get a Man Booker prize, but whatever…

The thing is, I realize that it’s a half-assed attitude, and that if I stopped pulling an Emily Dickinson, I might actually reach more people who would get enjoyment out of my writing. The part of me that is a reader says that the more reading options there are in the world, the better. To get over myself, and put myself out there. So I do, or more honestly, have started to. But I grumble the whole time, because it just feels so weird to say “Look at me! Pay attention to me! I’ve got something important to say!” Just writing the words here makes me feel all cringey.

But anyway, I got sidetracked this winter because I wrote a book. A weird book, too, if I do say so myself. Deliciously weird. How often does someone open their diary to you and say “Have at. Go nuts.” It’s pretty no holds barred, and for the voyeurs among us, a really good time. It’s called Courtesan (you can find it here at Amazon ). It’s a diary told through poetry that’s raw and blunt and basically me trying to make sense of my life after my 13 year marriage imploded and I had to start over again. It’s also the story about falling in love again, despite my best efforts not to.

I wrote all about it here at Studio Mothers.

And while that is happening, I’m also still chugging along on the novel I began in 2008 when John was an infant. John just turned 11. And I’m all kinds of annoyed about that. Where has the time gone? How have I gotten so old? Working on a novel for 11 years? Maybe I should just cut my Sisiphusian losses, and taking up knitting? (Oh wait… I did that.)

This is also not the way to get a Booker Man prize… I want to be done before the end of the summer but it’s going to be a challenge. I keep telling myself that I’m closer to being finished right now than I’ve ever been before.

I’ll keep you posted.