The Joys

and Hazards

of Pantsing

I learned a new word this week, “pantsing.” Before I tell you what it means, let me share a horror story.

I heard it twenty years ago, during my new-hire teacher orientation (I taught high school science for eleven years). The workshop leader was a veteran math teacher who exuded authority and experience. She went over the do’s and don’ts of teaching – do call parents early with concerns, don’t buy shopping cart fulls of beer in town. She was heavy-handed on the “high ethical standards” required for the job. This was the rural south, after all.

Mostly, she gave tips for classroom management – ways to keep the wild wolf pack from eating you alive. At the time, I didn’t know just how much I’d need her advice. This is what she said happened during her first year of teaching:

“I was standing at the overhead projector in front of the class, wearing a wrap skirt, low heels, and a blouse. You need to dress professionally; it helps gain student respect.” She eyed us meaningfully – high standards, ya’ll.

“I wrote a math equation on the transparency sheet, then I turned around to face the class. Somehow, my skirt got caught on the projector, and as I spun, my whole skirt just came right off. I was standing there, in front of my class, in my underwear, and there was not a thing I could do about it. I never got that class back.”

I was too green to know what she meant by “I never got that class back,” but it stuck in my mind; it’s there still. The way she said it, it sounded like the worst thing that could possibly happen to a teacher. She lost her leader lady composure for a moment, just talking about it so many years later.

We prospective teachers lost our composure, too. It was hilarious; we all laughed. That’ll never happen to me!

Except, it did.

I was demonstrating a yoga move. I was a recent yoga covert, and a student had asked about downward-facing dog. I said I’d do it for a second at the end of class if they finished their work – stir up some yoga awareness and appreciation.

I, too, was wearing a blouse. An untucked blouse, loose-fitting and flowy, with nothing underneath but a bra. I failed to take that into consideration. That shirt flew up over my head, and they all saw me in my underwear. I never got that class back. It’s just as horrifying as Mrs. Math made it sound.

This week, I’m participating in Fantasy Writer’s Week at ProWritingAid. I like to write magical realism (they’re calling it curio fiction, which sounds very British) – reality with a hint of magic or supernatural elements as opposed to full-on dragon quests and fairy realms (but those are cool, too).

The workshop is unexpectedly informative and enjoyable. It’s unexpected because it’s free. Rarely is something free so worthwhile. I especially enjoyed an interview with the author of The Poppy War, R. F. Kuang.

And I learned the term “pantsing.” It’s not when someone sneaks up behind you and pulls your pants down. Well, it is, but it’s also when you write “by the seat of your pants,” without much outlining or other plotting and planning.

I’m a pantser. I get an idea and just start writing, continuing on until I run out of the idea. Often, I get a ways in then have to stop, scrap what I wrote, and start again. This may happen many times. The final product is still a mess, but now it’s a long mess that I’m emotionally invested in and don’t want to change.

If nothing else, this workshop is leading me to believe that it may be time to think ahead – check that my shirt is tucked in before I flip upside down for an audience, put a knot in my wrap skirt before twirling in circles.

You know, so I don’t get pantsed again.



I’m sleeping with the enemy.

I’m a tree-hugger, and my husband builds roads. I’ve been looking for the smoking gun online – some article or data that identifies road construction as the #1 cause of deforestation, but all I can find is this quote:

“The best thing you could do for the Amazon is to bomb all the roads.” Dr. Eneas Salati, Technical Director, Brazilian Institute for Sustainable Development

Sounds like some Monkey Wrench Gang -type sabotage to me.

My friend Suzanne recently pointed out that roads are tree graveyards and asked this pernicious question: “What if trees could come back and haunt those who cut them down?”

I think I found member #2 of my monkey wrench gang.

Now, I don’t want trees haunting my husband, but there’s something about sentient plants that captures the imagination.

Certainly, the nicest of all must be The Giving Tree (don’t cry). All the other plant people are real jerks in comparison.

There’s Audrey II, from the Little Shop of Horrors. She’s no Giving Tree. But she wasn’t vengeful, just hungry. “Feed me, Seymour!”

There’s the Ents (thus the name of this post), from the Lord of the Rings, who definitely were out for revenge. Did you see what they did to Saruman? The Ents’ job was to protect the other trees – guardians of the forest.

Which is different from the Guardians of the Galaxy, who also have an alien supertree – Groot. He can only say “I am Groot,” but he can transform from potted plant to fighting giant at a moment’s notice. What wouldn’t I give to fling a potted plant at my enemies and have it turn into a superhero?

In Little, Big, a novel I read for the fifth or so time recently, one character turns into a tree at the end – he becomes so slow, so rooted in his landscape, so indifferent and chill, that he just leafs right out and never moves again. We’ve all been there.

Another good book with woodland mythology is Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, a fantasy novel set in a forest inhabited by mythological creatures. It won the World Fantasy Award (like Little, Big ) in 1985.

There’s the Green Man (rarely do you see tree women), legendary symbol of spring rebirth from multiple cultures, gracer of garden gates and old churches, leaves in his hair and mouth pouring water.

And there’s the Wild Man or woodwose/wodewose/wodwo. He’s hairy, like Bigfoot, reverting to nature with vines in his hair, dirt under his nails. As in the poem “Going Wodwo” by Neil Gaiman, in his story collection Fragile Things that I’m reading right now. Here’s an excerpt (because I’m not sure if I’m allowed to share more):

“I’ll leave the way of words to walk the wood
I’ll be the forest’s man, and greet the sun,
And feel the silence blossom on my tongue
like language.”

The other day, I was sitting quietly at the park with my kids and found myself admiring a well-shaped juniper tree. I thought, she has really nice hair.

And so it begins.

My Favorite Book

Those are big words. Can you really have just one favorite book? Maybe not, but John Crowley’s Little, Big has been my favorite for the longest – since I was about sixteen, when an aunt gifted it to me with unnatural intuition as to what I’d enjoy.

I decided to read it again, with attention as to why I like so much. The book’s so well-worn, I figured this read, I’d sink in the final dagger and mark it up – underling and bracketing sentences and passages I especially like (and want to emulate).

There’s lots of words I don’t know in this book, despite multiple readings. That probably doesn’t speak well for my powers of perception or follow-through. I’m circling every word I don’t know; I’m on page 75 and up to 20 words: amanuensis, biomorphic, cafe royale, campagna, chesterfield, corpuscular, gymnosophists, inexorably ( I kinda knew this one), infundibular, intaglie, maquerau, mullioned, phthisically, plangency, plinths, prolegomena, rustication, sclerotic, stringcourses, tattersall. Feel free to weigh in on how many of those you know, smarty-pants.

On page 8, there’s a sentence 260 words long. It’s a list; to break it into smaller parts would have broken the momentum and its meaning.. The more I pay attention to the fiction I’m reading, the more I think that, perhaps, the rules of grammar are made to be broken; the only ones who follow them are the uninitiated. How else can all of these authors be getting away with it?

Little, Big is an example of magical realism. It won the World Fantasy Award in 1982, the year I was born. But it’s not the dragon-and-fairy kind of fantasy, with heroes and villains. It’s set in the real world, with occasional visits from another, smaller, bigger fantastical world: “I mean by this that the other world is composed of a series of concentric rings, which as one penetrates deeper into the other world, grow larger. The further in you go, the bigger it gets. Each perimeter of this series of concentricities encloses a larger world within, until, at the center point, it is infinite.”

I found science to be like that, which is one thing I liked about it (my degree is in Biology). You could learn a list of all the mammals (the outer ring), then their anatomies (going in makes it more complex), and if you take it to the cellular level, that’s a huge amount of detail. Start talking atoms, sub-atomic particles, and energy, and you’ve hit the infinite.

Little, Big plays with these layers in a fantastical way. I like my facts spiced with fiction – heavier on the fiction side, really, like a carrot cake; we all know it’s mostly cake. But tell me it’s good for me; tell me a story.

“He knew he would have to believe in order to go where she had been; knew that, if he believed, he could go there even if it didn’t exist, if it was make-believe.” Isn’t that what reading is?

What books have remained your favorites for years (decades?), never loosing their charm from one read to the next? Tell me a story I’ll want to believe.

Here Be Dragons

Here Be Dragons

Dragons make everything better. Fairy tales, New Year’s celebrations, yoga. Real dragons, of course, would be a major downer, but dragons aren’t real (are they?) They’re fire-breathing, treasure-hoarding, flying magical creatures of our imagination. They might consume a fair maiden or two, but look what they give in return – great stories.

My son and I are reading Michael Hague’s Book of Dragons right now. Most of the stories are familiar – Smaug from The Hobbit, Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawntreader, St. George and the Dragon. If you’ve never seen Michael Hague’s illustrations, look him up – the pictures alone make one of his books worth reading.

It’s a good time for dragons. The Chinese New Year, on January 22nd, features dragon dances for good luck. And I’ll be doing my own dragon dance this Thursday.

I teach gentle yoga every Tuesday, but I also substitute in other classes. This week, I get to teach a Vinyasa Flow class, which I haven’t taught in awhile. I’m pretty excited, and I’m going with my favorite yoga sequence of all time: the dragon sequence.

You can find several variations online, but I like the one my first teacher used. That was ten years ago, and I’m likely misremembering it, so the version below is an amalgamation of her sequence and my preferences. Once you get the hang it, it’s a full-body stretch, workout, moving meditation, and the only yoga flow I know that tells a story.

Here’s how my version goes:

  • The dragon sleeps (chair pose with prayer hands)
  • The dragon awakes (mountain pose)
  • The dragon crouches (lizard pose)
  • The dragon looks out its cave (lizard pose with bent elbows, look to sides)
  • The dragon stretches its wing (twist with arm up)
  • The dragon breathes fire (high lunge with cactus arms and lion’s breath)
  • The dragon flies (Warrior III)
  • The dragon waves its tail (3-legged dog and scorpion dog)
  • The dragon shows its belly (wild thing)
  • The dragon flies around the world (move through goddess pose to frame opposite foot)
  • The dragon sleeps (chair pose with prayer hands)

Here’s a video, totally different than what I described

You can then cry mercy or move through the whole sequence again in reverse, landing back asleep in your cave. It’s a challenging sequence, but I love imagining myself as a yoga dragon.

What are your favorite dragons tails?

Holocaust Books

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” ~ George R.R. Martin

Thanks, Game of Thrones. I can almost hear the TV show’s theme song playing in my head right now.

The experience of walking in another person’s shoes is one of the primary appeals of reading (or writing). You can be a circus performer, a detective, a Navy SEAL – anything at all. And in doing so, you develop empathy for those characters.

I just finished a holocaust book. That’s my broad term for historical fiction set in the 1940s and concerned with WWII. Since I read a lot of historical fiction, and WWII is one of the most popular settings for this genre, I’ve read quite a few holocaust books.

I try to limit myself to one or two a year, though I usually end up going over. I’ll pick up a book, think this looks good, then be surprised later to realize it’s set during WWII. Again. They sneak onto my bookshelf like they’re targeting me.

So why fight it?

Because these books are, inevitably, depressing. Even the more light-hearted ones, with romance and happy endings, can’t lipstick the pig. The truth of the Holocaust is ugly. And every WWII book takes me back, mentally, to the Holocaust.

Which is hard, but it’s also complex, interesting, and deeply moving. The one I just finished, The Women in the Castle, is a good example. It follows the intersecting lives of several women in post-WWII Germany and asks the question: When do you stand up for what’s right, and when do you stay silent?

One character finds the greatest regret of her life in staying silent while children are taken away to be killed. Another finds her greatest regret in speaking out against her friend’s ex-Nazi fiancee, thereby ruining her friend’s chance at happiness. In both cases, speaking out or staying silent would probably not have made a difference. But in a quote from the book: “It doesn’t matter that the outcome would have been the same. It would have made a difference to her.”

The author, Jessica Shattuck, has a hand with metaphors. I wish I had a list of every one she wrote in this book. Here’s one example: “If she had taught her boys one thing, it was silence – they could navigate its shoals and currents like born sailors. And in its open waters they met one another – three ships blinking across the darkness, communicating without language, enough to say, I know you, we come from the same country.”

Here are two other WWII novel recommendations I recently gave to a librarian (excuse me, circulation technician, and yes – I’m obnoxious enough to offer reading suggestions to librarians).

Try walking in someone else’s shoes, such as the ones in the picture above, taken from Jewish children entering the Aushwitz concentration camp. Warning: they will be uncomfortable.

Photo by William Warby on Unsplash

If you are of a literary bent

If you are of a literary bent…

Which I’m not.

I mean, I like to read. A lot. An unnatural and unhealthy amount.

But literary? No.

Nerdy. Bookish. Dorky.

Something more like that.

Which is why it’s no big surprise that I’ve never read a literary journal. Until now.

The feature article in this month’s Main Street Rag, a literary magazine out of my native NC, sums it up nicely – if you want to succeed as a writer, it helps to help other writers. Or, in more cliched terms, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Social networking; rubbing elbows. You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours. Put your money where you mouth is.

Which is why I bought my first literary journal, to put my money where my mouth is. If I want to be included in such publications, I should read one.

The good thing about a collection of poems and short stories is that if you don’t like the one you’re reading, there will be another coming up in a few pages you’ll like better. Kind of like phases in young children: the throwing-food phase replaced by the showing-food phase. It’s always changing.

As it applies to this literary journal, it was all the good-table-manners phase (please, let that be a phase).

My favorite poem was Absence Makes the Heart Grow by Jeanne Julian, about all the things you do when your significant other leaves and you have the house ALL TO YOURSELF.

The best of the prose, if you ask me, is Robert Perchan’s pieces on run-ins with the law. I’d read whatever else he feels like writing. And it’s his quote that titles this blog post, “…if you are of a literary bent.” Are you?