throwing stones at the stars

My book is out of my hands for the next couple of weeks, being read by people whose opinions I admire. Let me tell you, that has been a nerve-wrecking (more wrecking than wracking) experience. The first round of feedback was the worst. It was almost unanimously positive, and I still wanted to vomit when I opened every email.

I’m pretty sure that much adrenaline is no good for the body. It certainly confuses it enough, and my poor body had no idea what to tell my brain about the state of my emotions. So it settled on “Wants to vomit”.

While I wait for feedback, I’ve been delving into two new activities:

1) writing a business plan. I find this impossibly, horribly confronting. Mostly because I’m the kind of perfectionist who always got top marks at school. My poor brain doesn’t know what to tell my body, because it can’t write something perfectly that it doesn’t know how to write. It mostly settles on, “Have irresistible urge to check twitter. Again.”

2) starting research for my next book. This is fun. Too much fun, actually. How do you put a time limit on research when history is so relentlessly fascinating?

As I read, I occasionally become conscious of the pompousness of telling history. I can’t help imagining reading in that same voice, “They were greatly consumed with ‘being connected’ and would spend hours every day on what was referred to as ‘social media’. By the early 21st century the laptop computer had become a common household item, and the average household had as many computers as people.”

It’s a sham, always, to try and tell the lives of people by the shrapnel they left behind. A delicious, fun sham, though, otherwise I wouldn’t do what I do.

I’m currently researching the history of deafness. I came across a transcription of the first deaf teacher of the deaf, Jean Massieu, being interviewed. The interviewees were often obsessed with abstract concepts – not being able to conceive, themselves, how a person “without language” would understand them.

It seems that once, when his mother was ill, he used to go out every evening and pray to a particular star, which he had selected for its beauty, entreating it to bring about her recovery. Finding that she became worse, however, he was enraged and threw stones at the star.

– Were you cursing the sky?

– Yes.

– Why?

– Because I thought that I could not get at it to give it a thrashing, to kill it for causing all those disasters and for not healing my sick relatives.

– Weren’t you afraid of provoking it and being punished?

– I didn’t know that it was merely the sky. It was only after a year of education that I was afraid of being punished by it.

From When the mind hears by Harlan Lane.

Comments 4 Responses

  1. Cheryl Nekvapil

    Life is such an intense form of being when we are human beings at the same time! Our farm dogs would simply bark at and ‘chase’ flying birds, without any remorse from what I could see. Hang in there Annii, you’re taking your bearing from a star, a vision, an aspiration which is a star, and you’re right on course — because you’ve got your eye on that star. Someone once told me that when a sailor is taking his bearings from the stars, his boat is 90% of the time off course; the important thing is that he keeps reorientating in the direction of the star.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I loved that interview because a star seems such a wonderful thing to focus on. Less overwhelming than the sun (even though in reality it’s probably a couple of hundred times bigger than the sun) and more personal, because you get to pick it out from the millions.

  2. Catherine

    Have you ever seen Tom Stoppard’s play ‘Arcadia’? It’s set in two different times, and scenes alternate between the action of the people living in the 18th-19th century and those of the 20th century historians trying to piece together their lives 200 years later. I was majoring in history when I saw this, and there’s a scene where the heroine quietly burns a letter that is, in fact, the key to what was happening that struck me to the core.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      that sounds amazing – I’ll have to look it up! I read Possession for the first time last year, and I was disappointed that it did actually dip into the wife’s POV from the earlier period. It was like giving that letter up to the reader – when it should have been burned.

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