01 July 2008

"Three cheers for Miss Shirley, winner of the Avery!"

I grew up on Anne of Green Gables. Literally, it's one of my first memories. I used to act out scenes in my living room. I had almost the entire movie memorized before I reached the second grade. Anne wasn't just my "bosom friend", she was a part of me.

I'm rather defensive of her. I very selfishly believe that no one on earth understands her and relates to her more than I do. We are like one person and no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise. And it isn't even just being alike in personality - our lives have mirrored in very funny and interesting ways.

If you want a full list, I can give it to you but here is the most obvious one:

A few months ago I submitted (without a ton of hope) a piece I've been working on to a creative writing contest for undergraduate students offered by BYU. It was a piece I've been working on for a while but was somewhat frustrated with because it didn't really have a "home". But I thought it had merit so I submitted it thinking that I didn't have anything to lose.

So for those Anne-fans out there - I have just won my Avery. That's right. I am now Miss Newman, winner of the Kagel and Blessing scholarship - $1875 worth of tuition for two semesters. If you could jump through your computer screen and into mine you would see a massive amount of jumping up and down and screaming.

So, for those of you who are interested, posted below are portions of my prize winning essay. The full piece is 9 pages long and too big for a blog, so if you want to read the full thing, send me your email and I'll send it on to you. And I promise my next post will be less of an add for my amazing writing skills and more analysis-oriented. I already have plans. Enjoy!

The Mostly-Imagined Real Wanderings of a Kindred Soul Abroad

In which I become an impressionist.

I was sitting on a bench in a park near our hostel in Keswick with my new drawing pencils out. It was a stupid buy but I had to do it. In my head, I had decided that my England experience wouldn’t be complete until I’d drawn something. Every other girl on the trip was drawing like mad in their journals and it looked so artistic and why wasn’t I doing it? So I spent a half an hour in the store searching for exactly the right kind of pencils even though whatever I drew with them would inevitably be horrible because I am an artistic cripple. And they were all utter rubbish. I was right, which is fairly irritating. In my head, real travelers are the ones who are able to draw the places they’ve been to, not just snap a photo like a tourist and move on. It doesn’t take much time or talent to operate most digital cameras.

After the trip was over that box of very expensive colored pencils joined the rest of my over priced art supplies in a box under my bed. I will probably never use them again. But I have such a weak spot for art supplies! They look so alluring in their tubes and boxes. They are my Achilles heel. Or one of them, at least. I have many heels.

Actually, it isn’t even just art supplies I have a weakness for. Office supply stores are the death of me because new pens and blank notebooks are like Christmas. I love blank sheets of paper waiting to be written on. There’s something really exciting about watching a piece of notebook paper fill with words or a canvas with dabs of paint. If only my canvases would look more like art and less like a prize for the refrigerator of a merciful mother who will pity my attempts at greatness.

I think part of my subconscious associates good art with good tools that come from shiny metal boxes. That if I continue to buy these very cool professional pencils, then my less than mediocre sketching skills will suddenly improve, because I don’t have the patience to wait for them to get better. And what was my excuse that time? I had imagined that maybe being in Europe would suddenly fuel the senses between my mind and my fingertips with extra romance and artistic talent. It seemed appropriate. Europe and art. They go together, right? I had needed some kind of justification for how much they cost.

The idea that purchasing professional drawing pencils will turn me into an artist is as illogical as believing that running at a real vault will transform me into a gymnast (though I have entertained that idea as well). I took several art classes in high school and in all of them I was more than usually horrible at drawing. I hate it because being able to draw seems like such a romantic and appropriate accomplishment. Something Jane Austen’s stock of men would approve of. Except Darcy. Darcy’s the kind of hero who would only approve of a certain kind of art if it was done well and I don’t think our tastes would match. Darcy and I don’t get along. Not that I don’t think he’s amazing in his own broody way, but I’m not about to fall at his fictional feet any time soon. Though, now that I think of it, putting on this display of false accomplishments is rather like something Mary Bennett would do. I never aspired to be Elizabeth, but I didn’t aspire to be Mary either. Well. That’s rather disturbing. I’d rather be Elizabeth and get the broody rich hero with the nice house than be Mary and annoy the heck out of everyone and end up pining for Mr. Collins the rest of my life. That would be a fate worse than having the chorus of “Yellow Submarine” play in my head for eternity.

For the first week after I bought the pencils at the shop in Keswick, I used them almost every day in my journal at the risk of feeling guilty spending so much money on something I won’t use later. During that week, they turned into multi-colored swords slowly massacring the mountains that I decided to draw. They did a pretty clean job of it, too. Every stroke on the pages of my journal made the land bleed in agony. No depth? Check. Horrible blending? Check, check. Not recognizable as a mountain? I fail. F minus minus. The details got progressively worse as I moved from hill to hill through the pages because my patience in sketching exactly what I saw wore thin quickly. No matter how hard I tried I simply could not take those very real mountains and make them seem like anything more than a muddled bunch of colors on my paper. The hill on the farthest right of the page in Keswick, for example, is mostly a blob of scratchy frustrated greenish brown with a dash of yellow for good measure. If anyone ever looks through my journal and sees the drawings I will tell them that I was going for some kind of impressionist interpretation with an allusion to a child-like view of . . . never mind. I’ll just tell them I found some kid on the side of the road and asked them to draw in my pretty book. Then they’ll think it’s cute instead of embarrassing. I’ll call the kid Neville. I will tell them that Neville sat and talked to me for a half an hour and thought I was brilliant and that before he left we were the greatest of friends. I’ll tell them that Neville even broke the rules of British conduct and voluntarily gave me a hug. In public.

Of course, in the middle of my despair at being such a wretched artist, I managed to work up another story for myself. It helped me feel better. Because I was drawing I decided to imagine that I was an art student. Bottom of my class, no doubt, but with the proper amount of visual deliberation over what I was drawing I could pretend that I was Renoir. Only female. And English. Fortunately, I am much better at acting than I am at drawing. I looked up at the mountain. I squinted and deliberated for an appropriate amount of time. I looked down at my box of shiny pencils and select a darkish green one. I tenderly removed it from the box. I looked at the mountain for more squinting deliberation. I carefully picked a spot on the paper and then drew something resembling a line. I looked from the page to the mountain and back several times. All artists do this. Pretending to be an artist is exactly the same as someone taking a notebook to a café to write. You don’t actually have to do anything, just look like you are and the other patrons will appreciate the atmosphere, and you’ll go home feeling as though you’ve accomplished something for society. You have preserved part of that wonderful tradition of making café’s an arty, cultured place to be. I know several people who only go to café’s for this reason. They buy their designer coffee and sit in a corner listening to the jazzy-generic music for hours discussing really important theoretical things like . . . global warming or the state of the economy in relatively loud voices so that everyone else in the room can admire their intelligence and culture.

I know because I’ve done it.

In which I blend into the sky.

I don’t know what I imagined Tennyson Downs looking like before we hiked there. I’d never even heard of them before. I guessed that they would have to be nice because they were associated with Tennyson, but I’d never seen a ‘down’ before, so going to Tennyson Downs that night was a completely new experience. It’s only about a mile from where we were staying that night – not very far at all. Our leader John had said that it was a beautiful place to watch the sunset, and I trusted him and his expertise from leading the program before. Besides - anything that’s good enough for Tennyson is good enough for me. John was right, though. That wide, quiet place is beautiful. The Downs are an open stretch of grass overlooking the water on the top of a hill. Put that way it sounds so simple, but the Downs are simple. You hike up through some trees and then suddenly the trees stop and you just see an open stretch of land like a plateau and a gigantic Celtic cross marking the land in Tennyson’s honor. A blank canvas with Tennyson’s seal of approval on it.

The wind felt like it was blowing right through me. As though I was something slightly more than ghost but less than human and I could feel the air inside me, not just around me. I was part of the air and surrounded by it at the same time.

My hands were freezing. It made my handwriting turn into an even clumsier scrawl because I had to put on my gloves to keep out the cold. I’d moved away from the rest of the group because I wanted to be alone. The wind blocked out the noise of everything but Brooke’s didgeridoo, lambs bleating in the distance, and a few birds soaring above the ocean to the left of where I was sitting. I wanted to dream for a bit. I can’t dream on nights like that one when there is too much going on.

In the distance I could see the lights of the town starting to flicker, breaking through the black ground and coming through the mist like stars. I imagined that I was sitting on a patch of grass in the middle of space, surrounded on all sides by stars. I imagined that the old legend is true, and that the night sky is a blanket with pinprick holes in it so that the light of heaven can shine down on people while they sleep.

I kept getting distracted by reality. The sound of the ocean drew my thoughts like a magnet. The sea was a deep steel-colored grey meeting with the sky. The farther to the left I looked, the harder it was to see the distinction between air and water. It was as though someone had taken their thumb to the canvass and smudged the difference so that the sky and the water blended together into one flesh. It was beautiful. I tried to take a picture of it but it wasn’t any good. Sunsets can’t be captured on film. Moments like that one just have to be experienced. You have to pay attention.

That’s why I moved away from the others. Over my shoulder I could see them starting to huddle in groups to talk or watch the stars come out. With the wind running through my ears the sounds were diminished and I was free to think. My mind has more room to wander without other bodies and other thoughts getting in the way. I put my journal in my bag after it got too cold to write and lay down onto the grass to look up at the stars. It’s a strange feeling, being alone in such a wide space with the stars towering above you. I felt like everything and nothing all at the same time. I thought about falling asleep there. I thought about curling up with my bag as a pillow to watch for the little pin pricks of heaven coming through.

In which I swallow the world.

I have decided that there are different kinds of air in Tintagel. There is the air that is cold and sharp and it bolts down through your throat giving you the same kind of feeling you get after a long run. Then there is the air that is cold, but calm and almost sleepy. It flows through your body like the waves of the tide coming in and out. Maybe the air depends on the time of day. My second night in Tintagel, I ventured outside to watch the sunset. The air was brisk but calm. It lulled me into a feeling of comfort in spite of the chill. I started to imagine that my feet were growing roots into the ground so that I could stay there forever.

Our hostel was located near the edge of a cliff on the southern coast. Wildflowers grew in clumps around the slanted rocks and the water changed from deep blue to white as it beat rhythmically against the land. The sun was starting to set in the west, casting orange light against the cliffs to the left, turning them to what would probably be called red, though that is only part of the way true.

I wish I could write colors as honestly as I see them. I take pictures of the land, but I don’t know that it could ever do justice to what I see. How can I explain what it looks like? Words don’t go far enough. It’s like one of the lines from the song Candlelight Carol by Robert Shaw; “How do you capture the wind on the water?” How do I describe this place when the only words that come to mind are ‘hill’ and ‘cliff’ when where I was sitting wasn’t quite either? How do I write down the colors I saw and the contrasts between the blues and the oranges and the greens and browns and whites and grays? I’ve decided that it was one of those times that just had to be lived deliberately. I finished my entry and put my journal down in the grass. I can’t write in moments like that one. I’m afraid if I spend time writing I will get so caught up in words that I will miss something important, some other lesson that the wind and the flowers want to teach.

Looking at the cliffs and hearing the ocean made me imagine that I was back on Prince Edward Island where the cliffs near the sea also burn a bright red. Next to England, PEI is my favorite place on earth. It is my safe place. It is where my mind dreams of when I want to feel completely uninhibited. Before I’d even seen the beaches and fields and trees it was a haven of comfort to me when I felt like people were being critical of me. I went there with my mother and a family friend with her two daughters. The island is located just off the coast of Nova Scotia and is a popular pilgrimage for fans of the Anne of Green Gables series because the books are set there. Every year the population of the Island triples between the end of June and mid-August. Fortunately, we went at the beginning of June and had Cavendish Beach and the rest of the island all to ourselves for a week. We would walk from our cottage every day (and night) to explore and sit and talk. I would usually migrate away from my mom and the others after a while. I would find a spot to write. Then I would close my eyes and smell the sea and listen to the symphony of natural sound around me in utter contentment. I remember sitting alone one night at my favorite spot on the beach with my journal out and my hair down, thinking about how horrid and ruined the beauty of the spot would seem if it was crowded with women in skimpy bikinis or dogs playing Frisbee with their owners. People who thought they knew and understood Anne or her creator better than I do. People who assumed that they understood real beauty. While I was there, my beach was a temple to the part of me that lives and breathes two separate ways, each running along side each other between a dream and reality. I am both sense and sensibility. I am realistic and romantic.

The sound of the waves pulled me back to England. I looked away from the cliffs and back at the sky and my thoughts shifted to an old myth from India about a young boy god who had to go live with a herd of cows because of a jealous uncle who wanted to kill him. The uncle was afraid that his nephew would try to take over heaven. The boy looked exactly like everyone else on the outside, but if you looked down his throat you would be able to see the whole universe somehow.

I wish I could be like that boy. Not because I want to have my uncle plotting my murder, but because I want to capture places and moments. I want to find a way to take these places with me because pictures and words are so dead and empty compared to all the life embodied in this place. Maybe if I were to purse my lips and suck in my breath the universe would funnel into my mouth and lodge itself in my throat for safekeeping. Then whenever I want to I can pick Tintagel or Tennyson Downs or the moors out of my mouth and fly myself back.

I lay down on the ground, imagining instead that my body would absorb the dirt and the grass and the wildflowers and the air through osmosis until the dirt was imbedded in my skin and the wildflowers in my heart and the air in my blood.


Rachel EM said...

"Well, aren't you a great one for secrets?"

Awesome, Joni. I haven't read it yet, but HOLY MONEY BATMAN! I'm so proud of you! I'm hip for celebration(s) in your behalf. Congrats! I'd run over with a crowd of people and hoist you into the air on our shoulders, but I think under my crutching circumstances that is a bad idea. Still.... three cheers for Joni Newman, winner of the K & B Scholarship!

Ben said...

Hurrah! That's so awesome, Joni -- congratulations! Way to go. :)

Jukebox said...

I finished reading it this morning, and I'm a fan. Your experiences - and the way you share them - have awakened in me the same feelings. I long to travel abroad again or maybe pretend I'm a stranger to Provo (add huge guffaw) just so I can write those stunning entries one only creates when feasting on foreign scenery for the first time. You inspire me to write more and give in more to my Anne Shirley-esque qualities. You rock!!

Karin said...

Sadly, I grew up on the Anne of Green Gables movies, but not the books. I did, however, read the first one a couple of months ago. I LOVED it! Yes, I totally think you have a lot in common with Anne. Congrats on winning the contest!!! Holy cow, that's a lot of money!

I laughed when you wrote about loving office supplies and new pens and paper. I was literally in Office Max today, all excited at the sight of all the fresh paper! I've always loved that, too. That was always the best part of starting a new school year--buying school supplies!

Evelyn said...

Can't believe it took me this long to read something so beautiful.

"While I was there, my beach was a temple to the part of me that lives and breathes two separate ways, each running along side each other between a dream and reality. I am both sense and sensibility. I am realistic and romantic."

You've really captured yourself there and it's gorgeous!

Thanks Joni!