Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Wednesday Culture: Black Swan

Duality is something that has always fascinated me as a writer.  Good and evil, light and dark, trustworthy and treacherous - I suspect an early appetite for fairy tales first turned me on to the interesting complexities of this particular conflict, but Star Wars certainly fanned the flames.  When I dove into NaNoWriMo a few years back and started thinking about what elements of story interested me, my lists invariably included some kind of dual aspect.  In one story, I wrote a pair of twins destined for each other's futures; in another, I pitted best friends against each other in a superhero/villain clash.

Little wonder, then, that "Swan Lake" is one of my favorite ballets.  I had the pleasure of seeing Kaori Nakamura perform the White Swan/Black Swan role a few years ago, and she was stunning.  She captured beautifully the fragility of the White Swan and the raw seductive power of the Black Swan.  I don't have the full video of her performance, but here is a clip from the Pacific Northwest Ballet of four of their Black Swans (Nakamura is no. 3) over the last few years.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Monday Writing: Soundtrack for a Novel

In the grand scheme of things, a writing soundtrack is one of those "nice to have" wants that falls low on the priority list, well below such things as time, a story idea, and writing materials.  Worst case scenario, it can join the ranks of endless outlining and character questionnaires as a tool for procrastination.  (Sooner or later, you have to actually start writing).  But like outlining and questionnaires, if used correctly, a writing soundtrack can springboard you into the mindset of your novel faster than any amount of staring at a blank page.

We know that music is powerfully associated with memory.  Songs from childhood can spark vivid memories of places or people or emotions, and music has been shown to stir memories in Alzheimer's and dementia patients through a similar physiological process.  And it's not just a one-way process - through repetition and learned association, we can develop emotional responses to a particular song or type of music.  After working a retail job I strongly disliked, it took over five years before I could listen to the songs they'd played in-store without a rush of sudden negativity.  By contrast, the Simon & Garfunkel CD my roommate and I listened to while moving into our college dorm is now associated with the excitement and newness of those early days of college.

Creating a writing soundtrack - something you listen to while you plot or think about characters and story arc - can help catapult you into the world of your story even when you're not feeling like writing.  A couple years ago I made a playlist to go along with the superhero NaNoWriMo project I was working on, and today when I hear that music I'm instantly transported back to a rainy November and the gritty city I envisioned for my characters.  With my current sci-fi project, my co-author and I have slowly built a playlist that kicks my brain into gear whenever I listen to it.  Some of the songs are closely associated with particular points in the novel and some are more generalized to the feel of the world we've built, but both get the creative juices flowing.

What music do you listen to while writing or plotting?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday Life: Lemon Pie

Seattle has been warm and sunny lately, and with the heat and blue skies, it's beginning to feel a little like summer. Seattle summers are notoriously unreliable - some years it will be grey and drizzly up through August - but when we get a real summer, they're unbelievably gorgeous. Sunshine, very pleasant temperatures in the seventies, low humidity, and the most incredible views of lakes and mountains you've ever seen. It's as if the weather wants to make up for the rest of the year with three to five months of spectacular beauty.

And what is more summery than lemons? There's something about this weather that has me craving lemon meringue pie (or lemon bars, or lemonade...) and last weekend I finally gave in and tried my hand at a pie. I don't usually keep corn starch or cream of tartar in my cupboards - maybe I should, but I really don't use either that much - so this recipe is without both. It's also without a meringue, as I wasn't feeling in a meringue sort of mood. I just wanted intense lemon flavor with nothing to distract from it, and this pie definitely fit the bill.

Summery Lemon Pie 

1 pie crust or 8-10 ramekins

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups water
3/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice (you can use store-bought, but don't)
3 beaten egg yolks in a small bowl

First, you will need a pie crust. I won't judge you if you want to use store-bought; the whole point of this pie is the filling. Fit the crust into the pan, weight it down with something so it doesn't shrink and puff, and bake it as directed by the box or your pie crust recipe. Then let cool before filling. If you don't have a crust, you will need about 8-10 ramekins instead.

In a medium saucepan, whisk together sugar, flour, salt, water, and lemon juice. (If your lemons squeeze out slightly more or less juice than called for, just increase or decrease your water by the same amount.) Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly, and cook until thick. (My filling thickened right away, but I let it boil about two minutes to make sure there wasn't any residual raw flour taste.)

Remove from heat and stir a spoonful or two of the hot filling into the egg yolks. Do this a couple of times until the egg yolk mixture feels warm to the touch, then pour the egg yolk mixture into the filling and stir well. Bring to a boil (again) at medium heat, still stirring constantly, and let boil for one minute.

If you have a cooled pre-baked pie crust, pour the hot filling into the crust and let sit on the counter about half an hour to cool, then convey to the fridge for another half hour to an hour to set the pie.

For ramekins, fill each ramekin with the lemon filling and let cool on the counter about ten minutes before moving them to the fridge to cool.

Serve with Earl Grey tea (and, for the ramekins, shortbread cookies).

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Wednesday Culture: The Performer or the Audience?

My attention was caught the other day by a quote attributed to American composer John Zorn, who reportedly said, "As far as the audience is concerned, I have nothing to do with them whatsoever when we're performing...I'm concerned with the music itself."

On the face of it, that quote represents to me the biggest problem that I have with new music - namely, the pretentious exclusiveness that claims Art as its defense and dismisses anyone outside the circle as a small mind.  Perhaps it's unfair to paint an entire genre with the same brush - after all, classical music has certainly had its own problems with exclusion - but I will say that it's a perspective that I've observed more among new artists (especially young ones) than anywhere else.  It's an philosophy that elevates the artist above the common folk and makes art (in this case, specifically music) something beyond the reach of the normal human.  It also encourages a profoundly selfish attitude on the part of the artist.  Why bother with an audience?  Who cares what they get from the experience?  Creating art is now a closed loop for the artist and the audience can only hover outside the experience.

Except that art is about creating connections, not alienating each other.  Art certainly requires selfish elements - artists generally do what they do because it brings them joy - but ultimately without an audience there's little point to choosing art as a career.  And in performance art especially (by which I mean music and drama) the audience is a vital part of the experience.  Any performer can tell you that there's a completely different feel onstage depending on whether the house is empty or full, and the receptiveness of the audience will either heighten or flatten the artistic experience for the performer.  The performance is a measure of connection between the artist and the audience.  Rehearsals are fun but in the end, it's the performance that matters.

That's not to say that all art should be created to be universally approved.  On the contrary, art that is shocking or unexpected or just confusing is both valid and important.  But the artist has a responsibility to the art and to the audience to make the art accessible, to some extent.  That doesn't necessarily require long explanations, liner notes, or curtain speeches, but the artist must understand that art doesn't stand in a vacuum; it is shaded by the context of the time and place in which is was created.  (It is for this reason I have little sympathy for the plight of Jonas Tam, who wrote Nazi themes into a piece he composed for the New York Youth Symphony and subsequently had his piece dropped from the performance when the themes were discovered.  Writing the music isn't problematic - it could in fact be a powerful way to begin to redeem that music, or to remember - but Tam's decision to leave the work entirely unexplained put the NYYS in an uncomfortable position.  This situation is precisely one in which views of the art are strongly affected by historical context, and Tam's responsibility for his choices includes being upfront about the themes that he chose.)

I suppose it's bad form to end with a parenthesis, so instead I will direct you to an article related to the quote above regarding the balance between audience and performer at New Music Box.  It delves further into issues of success and the music experience and emerges with some thoughtful points.

Do you believe that art stands alone?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Monday Writing: Seattle Area Conferences & Conventions for Writers

I have a soft spot for conventions, whether directly related to my field or not.  There's something thrilling about the crowds of fans and miles of booths and most of all, the hours of panels and workshops all prepared to teach you something new.  I wrote my very first published story at GenCon a couple years ago, between panels and costume parades and browsing the exhibit floor.  It was the perfect balance of external input and creative output; the stimulation of the surroundings inspired my brain into writing mode, and taking breaks with my computer prevented me from becoming overwhelmed.  Plus, I came off the convention bursting with ideas - it was like a half-week creative retreat for my brain.

Since I'm located in Seattle, conventions are pretty easy to come by.  It seems like every other weekend we're hosting another convention - and since Seattle is rapidly become a writer's city, we have our fair share of writer's conferences as well.  Get your calendars out for the 2015 schedule!

NorWesCon - The Pacific Northwest's Premier Sci-Fi and Fantasy Convention.  Four days of panels, events, awards, exhibits, and gaming.  While not specifically a writer's conference, if you're in genre fiction in the areas of sci-fi and fantasy, you should be attending.  April 2-5, 2015.

Pacific Northwest Writer's Association - This convention exists to connect authors to industry pros.  Looking to publish?  Need some advice?  Looking to pitch?  This is the con for you.  July 16-19, 2015.

Emerald City Writer's Conference - Sponsored by the Greater Seattle Area RWA, this one is for all the romance writers in and around Seattle.  Network, attend panels, and more!  October 16-18, 2015.

GeekGirlCon - A celebration of all things female and geeky.  I've attended this one since its conception and it's one of my favorite cons.  There are usually panels on writing but more importantly, there are lots of panels exploring story in all forms of media that I've found very informative.  October 10-11, 2015.

PAXPrime - PAX is a video game convention but like GeekGirlCon, panels cover a variety of topics and many of them relate to story or writing in some way.  I stopped attending PAX in favor of GGC, as I thought the GGC panels were generally of higher quality, but PAX is fun to check into now and then.  If you want to attend PAX, watch the website like a hawk; badges usually sell out within a matter of hours (like six).  August 29 - September 1, 2015.

Are there any cons you're looking forward to this year?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday Life: Homemade Mac & Cheese

If I had to choose one food to live on for the rest of my life, I would probably starve in short order while trying to decide between chocolate and macaroni and cheese.  Mac & cheese is the ultimate comfort food in my book.  I have eaten a lot of it in my day, from the 35 cent boxes at the cheap grocery story to an upscale version with lobster at a fancy restaurant, but my favorite mac and cheese still remains the homemade recipe my mom makes.  It's relatively quick, pretty easy, and doesn't dirty too many pans - and best of all, it's a snap to double or even triple the recipe if you have company.

Macaroni & Cheese
serves 2

for the sauce
1 Tb butter
1 Tb flour
1 c milk
black pepper (optional; to taste)
1/2 -1 c sharp cheddar cheese (depending on how cheesy you like your sauce)

for the pasta
1 c uncooked macaroni

Begin by grating your cheese, then leave the grated pile in a bowl for now.

We will start by making the roux.  Melt the butter over low heat in a small sauce pan.  When completely melted, add flour, a little bit at a time, and stir thoroughly.  Cook your flour-butter paste about two to three minutes on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally.

Well done!  Let's proceed on to the b├ęchamel.  Stirring constantly, very very slowly add the milk - a splash at a time.  When all the milk has been incorporated, turn up the heat to medium and continue to stir until the sauce thickens - probably 10-20 minutes.  Yep, it's a lot of stirring, but trust me - it's worth it for that creamy sauce you're going to get.  When the sauce thickens, turn down the heat to low and begin adding the cheese a handful at a time.  Make sure each handful melts thoroughly before adding the next to avoid clumping.

Once all the cheese is melted, you can add a little black pepper if you like.

Leave the sauce on low on the stove and boil 4-6 c water in a large pot.  When it is at a rolling boil, add the macaroni.  Let cook 8-12 minutes, or until the pasta is tender but not mushy.  Drain in a colander and pour the steaming noodles into a serving dish.

Add the cheese sauce to the noodles and mix well.  Serve immediately, keep warm in the oven until everyone's ready to eat, or let cool, cover, and refrigerate - then heat up in the oven at 350 degrees until steaming. Mac & cheese is very forgiving.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Wednesday Culture: Orthodox Celts

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, here are a couple of my favorite Irish tunes performed by a Serbian band, the Orthodox Celts.