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October 13, 2010

If Persons Without Brains . . .

Margaret Maron

Images Back in the Dark Ages, shortly after books stopped being written on damp clay tablets with Cuniform stamps—in other words back before I had any idea I could write a full-length novel, I was researching a history-based dramatic reading for a county-wide celebration.  Now many writers will say they were inspired to write by reading a novel so bad that they were sure they could do better.

Not me, baby.  Short stories, yes.  Filling up 300 pages? No way, Jose!

Nevertheless, I  had begun to read with a more critical eye and I had begun to dimly suspect that not every published writer deserved a Nobel, nor even for a Pulitzer for that matter, which might leave a little wiggle-room for yet another less-polished writer. 

Then, while doing my historical research, I came across an 1879 book entitled Housekeeping in Old Virgina, an instruction manual for running a well-ordered household, by a lady named Marion Cabell Tyree.  Mrs. Tyree covered everything from how to furnish a kitchen (“It is well for the housekeeper to have the dealer at hand when the stove is put up, to see that it draws well”) to how to freshen old back silk (“Boil one ounce crushed soap bark in one quart water; strain it; sponge the material with the liquid. While wet, place over it a thin piece of colored rice cambric, and iron it very hard with a hot iron.”)

Her no-nonsense/no excuses attitude sets the tone on the very first page when she stresses the importance of mastering the art of bread-making:  “I would say to housewives, be not daunted by one failure, nor by twenty.  Resolve that you will have good bread, and never cease striving after this result till you have effected it.  If persons without brains can accomplish this, why cannot you?”

I had just finished reading a mystery novel so poorly plotted and peopled with such dull characters that the question instantly resonated. IF PERSONS WITHOUT BRAINS CAN ACCOMPLISH THIS, WHY CANNOT YOU?

I copied out that question, pinned it to the bulletin board over my typewriter, and began my first novel then and there.  Every time I got discouraged, I would look up and read Mrs. Tyree’s brisk question and plunge back in.  When I got to the middle-book sag, I didn’t have any yeast but I stirred in some more complications and the pages kept rising (Okay, so I stink at metaphors, bear with me.)

That quote is still on my bulletin board.  It still makes me smile.  28 novels later, it still exhorts me to “never cease striving.”

Of course, there are other bits of inspiration on my bulletin board these days.  I bet I’m not the only   writer who clipped this “Shoe” cartoon by Jeff MacNelly to explain those times when we seem to not be working. ("Typists pound keyboards...writers stare out windows.")


And this New Yorker cartoon keeps me focussed when my agent sends a rather pointed reminder of when the book is due.


So what mottos or cartoons inspire you?  What’s on YOUR bulletin board?






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I have a note from 1992 on my board. It's from a teaching fellow: Reine, always hand your papers in on time even if you think they're shit. We all think our papers are shit. Then we get them back and it turns out they aren't shit. Love, Gabby

Reading sentences like "28 novels later..." That makes me happy. I'd just like to be able to say "four novels later," but still.

Snoopy, on his doghouse, staring at the typewriter and thinking. Woodstock hovers nearby:

Snoopy types out:
"A Tale of Two Cities"
(Woodstock whispers to him)

Snoopy pulls out the paper and rolls in a new one.
"From Russia, With Love"
(Woodstock whispers to him)

Snoopy pulls out the paper and rolls in a third sheet.
"The Great Gatsby"
(Woodstock whispers to him)

Snoopy ponders, "How can you be a World Famous Novelist when all the Good Titles have been taken?!?!"

For some reason, that one makes me laugh out loud every time I see it....

Margaret - I love this. I love Mrs. Tyree, too, and wish she were here to organize my life - and teach me to bake bread.
Persons Without Brains are my benchmark. Ever since my junior high guidance counselor called me an "extreme over achiever" - and not in a good way - I've set out to try to accomplish the most basic tasks that others find easy.
Turns out, I actually am one of those without brain (my IQ is distressingly average.) So it's all the more fun to try. My attitude - what do I have to lose? And when I do learn how to knit/bake bread/write a halfway decent novel, it's very satisfying.
Love the cartoons, too. Great blog!

I have several walls in my office covered in homasote (bulletin board material), and writing-related material is part of the stuff that's up there. Here's a small sample:

* The Foxtrot cartoon in which Roger is about to write a book and wonders "should I try to make my first novel a best-selling commercial smash, or an award-0winning darling of the critics?"

* The Get Fuzzy cartoon in which Bucky figured out "everything that discerning, intelligent readers want in a book:

"It will be called 'Harry Da Vinci's Rings.' It will follow young Harry, a Hogwart's symbologist, as he fights Orcs in the hills of New Zealand."

* From Jonathan Coulton's video for the fake TV show "Monkey Shines," a screencap of Neil Gaiman writing.

* But the inspirational piece is this: a promo bookmark from Lynn Viehl, which she wrote on the back: "This is what happens when you refuse to take NO for an answer."

My first book comes out next month.

One of my all time favorites is from Ethel Watts Mumford "God gives us our relatives; thank God we can choose our friends."

I also have loved Peanuts forever. Charles Schulz had a quote I've also kept posted in my work cube. "Don't worry about the world coming to an end today. It is already tomorrow in Australia."

Since I live in Minnesota, it really helps me stay focused on the here and now.

Sarah, I'm going to put "What Do I Have to Lose?" on my bulletin board.

Congratulations, Bill.

Being a computer geek, my bulletin board is my wallpaper and "My Pictures".
This is my current wallpaper, http://media.smashingmagazine.com/cdn_smash/wp-content/uploads/uploader/images/wallpaper-calendar-september-10/full/note4dad.jpg

It is from http://www.smashingmagazine.com. Each month they post a set of wallpaper.

The cartoon that ends up on each new computer is this one.

My kitchen is one big bulletin board. I have poetry, photos of the kids, phone numbers, inspirational sayings, school calendars & recipes plastered on every surface, every cupboard door, inside and out. Not just the refrigerator. When I put my last house on the market and the realtor came to look around, she nearly fainted. "All this reading material must go!" she cried.

It took about 6 weeks for my new kitchen to look just like my old kitchen. It probably goes without saying that I do most of my writing in the kitchen.

Sarah, I have two words for you: BREAD MACHINE. It's magical! And surprisingly cheap.

Margaret, I'm stealing "persons without brains" for my kitchen wall.

Here's the saying closest to where I'm sitting: "Life is mission. We choose to be sent."

That Shoe cartoon reminds me of the poem by Billy Collins that talks about poets being at their windows. As I gear up for NaNoWriMo, I may just have to employ Mrs. Tyree's words of wisdom.

My refrigerator is covered with my grandsons' pictures.

My favorite motto is:
A Perfect Grandparent

Loves them
Spoils them..
Then sends them

Margaret, I have a book similar to Mrs. Tyree's--The Picayune's Creole Cook Book, Sesquicentennial Edition. It covers all manner of cooking and housekeeping, and it's been a great resource. The best part is the opening line: "The question of a 'good cook' is now becoming a very vexing problem...."

When I hit a writing snag, I think of it as a very vexing problem.

If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it.

Toni Morrison

This is hilarious, Margaret! But I wonder if she ever blushed over this:
"While wet, place over it a thin piece of colored rice cambric, and iron it very hard with a hot iron.”

I got started with the philosophy of, "Somebody's going to be published. It may as well be me!"

Bill, congratulations! Plus, you taught me a new word.

I have on my refrigerator a collage of positive statements created in a "Facing Your Fears" workshop presented by Elizabeth Ellis at a national Storytelling conference. I've added other pieces, including her encouraging words as I dealt with a low point "Good things will come to you because you deserve them." . . . lovely words to live by!

Elizabeth will be a featured teller in the Kansas City Storytelling Celebration the first weekend in November -- come if you can; it will be worth it!!

Great post! I wonder if Mrs. Tyree ever sat down and relaxed with a good book?! Bless her heart; she worked too hard, I can tell. She was probably much too young to be worrying so about that dumb ol' black silk thing. When things get tough I can promise I am never ever going to ask myself "now, what would Mrs. Tyree do?" Hell - she'd have me scrubbing floors, ironing silk, and worrying about the bread not rising! I, on the other hand, would take Marion Tyree out for a glass of wine and help her find a short red dress and a pair of killer stilettos. We'd pick up a loaf of bread at the bakery. And a stack of mysteries at the library.
(hmmmm - i got a tad carried way here, didn't I?).

Kaye! I don't think I ever thanked you for your lovely contributions to our poetry day last week. So I'll thank you here. :)

Bill - Homasote! I couldn't remember the name. I couldn't afford a large piece of cork, so I bought a 4 x 8' sheet of Homasote, nailed it to the wall over the counter behind me, framed it in narrow molding, gave it like 5 coats of white paint till the brown color quit bleeding through and now have a huge BB that cost about $8. And congratulations on not taking NO for an answer! What's the book titled?

Alan - Non Sequitur panels wind up on my BB, too.

Harley and Sarah: bread machines, yes! A friend gives me delicious samples from hers.

All who use their fridges for BB's? I just can't. Visual clutter drives me nuts, so all magnets, shopping lists, etc. are on the side next to the kitchen counter where it's not staring me in the face every time I walk into the kitchen.

Nancy, Nancy, Nancy -- what are we going to do with you? Only you (and possibly Me, Margie) could corrupt the meaning of hard hot iron!

Lol, but you give me too much credit, Margaret! I wasn't even looking at the hard hot iron, but rather at the advice to do it "while wet."

" Just keep swimming."
Dorie, from Finding Nemo.

A favorite cartoon, photocopied and enlarged and grimy from years of being pinned to the bulletin board -- a "Mother Goose & Grimm" with Mother Goose saying, "Grimmy, play dead!" and Grimm replying in an exaggerated actor-pose, "OK, OK, but what's my motivation?"

Congratulations, Bill! And I love your promo bookmark from Lynn Viehl.

Margaret, great idea for a blog... I might actually find some inspiration here.

My husband gave me a Garfield poster from his younger days that says, "Welcome to the insane asylum!" and has Garfield, Odie, and Jon in various states of crazy.

As an early childhood educator it seemed wildly appropriate...

I have a piece of notebook paper on which I once wrote a note to myself. It says...

"Write or your head will explode!"

Doc, I love that.

My former office was, like Harley's kitchen, one ginormous bulletin board and curio case. My major inspiration pieces included: a postcard of my favorite Charles Darwin photo (old and content); pics of my daughter as a young girl; a pic of my daughter showing her killer side kick; a postcard from some art museum or other with a beautiful piece of Chinese calligraphy that means "Wind Shifts"; a small red paving brick that I broke with my bare hand; and a machine-embroidered "PowerPuff Girls" patch that my Mom made me. Also lots of Xena stuff :)

And I still have it all . . .

Not surprisingly, I have tons of things on my bulletin board. But the main items pertain to organ & tissue donation.

First, is an old Mother Goose & Grimm comic. Humpty Dumpty has fallen and cracked, two soldiers are looking on as the horse reads a card and declares "He's and organ donor. Quick! Get him to Denny's!"

The second is a copy of the cover for the 1994 Donorsaurs calendar that was created by Charlie Parker. I still have the calendar, but the cover is the best.

I have a selection of cards featuring "Paco" that my friend, Lisa, to whom I dedicate almost every book, sends me.
Paco will not beg.

Sarah and Kerry, it sounds as if your kitchens will someday be an archeological dig for your kids!

Marie-Reine, I hope so.

Paula, your husband's poster reminds me of my husband. When I wasn't looking one day, he very neatly lettered a semicircle that fit so unobtrusively under the Venetian door knocker to my office door, that it was a week or more before I noticed: "Neidhöhle," which is, of course, the name of the dragon's lair in Wagner's Ring Cycle.

Sarah, now I'm going to have to go see if I can find Paco. Arf!

Kaye, I love it when you go off on a rant!

A friend gave me a bookmark once, engraved with a quote from George Eliot: "It is never too late to be what you might have been."

I think that one will go on the wall.

ON my bulletin board (Soon to be joined by Mrs. Tyree!):
"What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?"

also: "Leap and the net will appear."

There's also a comic strip which I wish I could find the jpeg for. So imagine:

A long table. At it, at one end, a guy with books. In front of him a sign that says: Meet Author.
In front of him: no one.
Next to him at the table, a cute puppy. In front of the puppy, a sign that says: Meet Puppy.
In front of the puppy: a long long line.

Alan, thank you for posting those URLs. I love your desktop wallpaper. The cartoon brought me back to a job I had in college. I worked for a very kind man who took a personal interest in my education by giving me little pop quizzes on European history during my breaks. That seemed more important to him than the small amount of work I did. The day I was leaving for winter break he gave me a Christmas present, an ornament - a little wooden angel. When he handed it to me he had to lean across my work table. I guess that made his sleeve pull back, not sure, but when he stretched out his arm I saw his tatoo. It was the most moving interpersonal moment of my life, and it still makes me cry every time I think of it.

My favorite cartoons are "Momma" (especially the ones about her daughter, Mary Lou) and "Cathy". And of course, everyone's favorite, Peanuts. I don't have any cartoons (etc.) meant to encourage my writing on my vision board. I guess I need to change that. Immediately!

I used to have a little card that said:

God never gives us more than we can handle.

For 2 1/2 yrs, I kept my fridge bare except for a shopping list, baby picture of Zack & a pix of him doing a backflip on his bike.
Then I found my bag'o magnets in the garage and my very favorite cartoon went back up.
Couple is sitting on the sofa. The man is fearfully eying a body outline on the floor and the lady says,"My
last relationship didn't work out."

Rita, that's too funny.

Marie-Reine, what a touching story. Incredible strength involved there.

I'm writing from the university, so am not at my desk at home, but one little quote that showed up nearly 20 years ago (when I was very ill and wondering if I'd recover) has accompanied me through med school and beyond. Clipped from a newspaper article, sadly without attribution, it says something to the effect of:

'Nobody had ever told us that if you have a stronger vision of your past than of your future, you're dying.'

I took great note of that: I had reached some personal and career milestones without continuing to look forward . . . building a vision of my future was part of the way that I recovered my health.

William, a quick hijack here:

At the close of this week's Castle, there was a sweet, brief tribute to Cannell. I think he would have liked it.

Rita, so funny and Laraine, that took real courage to build the vision. As for Castle, I never got into it, but I keep hearing it's worth watching. My guilty pleasure for summer reruns is Burn Notice. Cracks me up the way Fiona keeps wanting to shoot somebody.

Thanks everyone for those entertaining and inspiring quotes. Y'all gave me a few more for my bulletin board.

"Sometimes if there's a book you really want to read, you have to write it yourself." ~ attributed to many different people, in variations

And I love a cartoon found recently on another blog (sorry I can't remember where!) that shows a Tinkerbell-type desktop assistant popping up with "Hello there! It looks like you're writing a novel! Would you like me to turn on automatic wine-drinking?"

Love the 'people without brains' quote...

THANK YOU for that Shoe scan. I remember it from back then, once had it, but not for ages. I've checked Google from time to time and you are the only person to not just recall it, but to have the actual cartoon! I've cloned it with a linkback here:

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