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Do you ever tell people about your writing? I hope so. You’ll have a hard time building an audience if you don’t. Even more important, do you tell people about your work in a way that slights or insults yourself? “Oh, it’s just a hobby of mine.” “I’m not very good at it.” “It’s a little poem/song/story I wrote. Really bad, isn’t it?” If any of these phrases sound familiar, you’re a victim of the evil dragon Self-Minimization.

I often hear other writers minimize themselves. Sometimes men, but more often women. Our culture has this thing where we teach men to stand up and speak for themselves while women are taught to sit down and be quiet. But, as writers, we simply can’t afford to sit quietly.

Naturally, we all have moments of doubt. The competition is intense and rejection hurts. Minimizing ourselves can be a way of deflecting pain. It can also be a chain that holds us back. If your spouse said to you, “Why are you wasting your time with this?” you’d be pretty upset. You’d probably defend yourself. But when it’s your own voice saying, “You’ll never sell anything,” self-defense is that much harder.

Yet, it’s because the competition is so intense that we must slay this dragon. No one ever sold a story without submitting it first. Self-minimizing can be as much a habit as a reaction to stress. Begin to train your brain for the battle. “Yes, I’ve been writing for ten years.” “I’m getting pretty good at this.” “It’s a poem/song/story I wrote. Isn’t it great?”

Funny thing is, most people will take you at your word. If you say you’re a poet or author, they’ll believe you. Once you fight off that self-minimizing dragon, you’ll see how high you can fly.

Another “inner dragon” we writers often battle is our tendency to become obsessed with things we can’t control. This can mean editorial rejections, sales figures, negative reviews, or the length of time it takes an agent to answer your query. Even worse, writers sometimes make resolutions like “publish five stories this year.”

All of these are things we can’t control, but I have several friends who consistently work themselves into a tizzy, swear to quit writing, then apologize to everyone who got worried about them.

Let’s just look at these logically. We have no way of knowing, when we query or submit a story, how many other queries and submissions come in the same day. We don’t know what else is going on in the editor’s or agent’s life. We have no way of knowing what past experience readers bring that affects how our work appears to them.

A more productive approach is to focus on things that we can control. We can’t make purchasing decisions — but we can set a goal to write five stories and submit them. We can’t make people buy our books — but if we self-publish, we can choose enticing covers and work our social networks to increase sales. We can’t make agents represent us — but we can gather data and present it in a way an agent will look upon favorably. To attract friendly reviews, we might give a few favorable reviews ourselves.

To quote that one song, we just have to “let it go” on things that are not ours to decide — and do the rest just as well as we can.

P. S.
I have another blog. This one is about gardening. Once a week, I’ll be musing on gardening and life. If you’re interested in gardening, take a look at Lazy Daisy’s Garden Gazette.

Inner Dragons

We writers often do battle against doubts, fears, writing blocks, etc. Call them inner dragons. If we aren’t careful, we can sabotage ourselves with negative self-talk.

One common Inner Dragon is to treat writing like a competitive sport. Say you struggled for an hour to finish a single page, 250 measly words. Then on Facebook an author friend brags about their wonderful 2,500-word day. It’s all too easy to compare word counts and conclude that you’re a slacker because you didn’t get as much done.

Or when your publisher is a small press and only pays royalties, you might hear publicity of another author’s six-figure deal. That might make you think you’re a failure because your deal isn’t as rich.

This, to me, depends on a backward definition of success. You’re looking at the end of the process while still at the beginning.

Every page you write is a battle. Life is so hectic, anything you complete is a victory. A single page, a stanza of a poem, a chapter of a novel — they all build to something larger.

One of my favorite writing quotes is from SF author Jay Lake. “If you write one page every day, you will have completed a novel in a year.”

Believe this, and go slay that dragon!

Dragonflies are very noticeable in any environment where they live. They’re big compared to other bugs. They’re fast and acrobatic flyers. So it’s no surprised that dragonflies are a part of legend and myth. Even the name, dragonfly, is a reference to their ferocity as predators.

All over Northern Europe, people believed dragonflies were associated with the supernatural. They were called Teufelsnadel in Germany, L’aiguille du Diable in France (both of which mean “Devil’s needle”), and Devil’s darning needle in England. In Wales, the name was Snake Doctor, in the belief that if a snake was injured the dragonfly would fly over and sew it up. Clearly all of these refer to the dragonfly’s long, thin shape.

In Sweden, people thought dragonflies looked like a scale, and believed the Devil used them to weigh people’s souls. If a dragonfly flew around your head, that was bad luck because the Devil might be coming to get you!

People in Northern Europe also believed that dragonflies were a hazard to the eyes. Thus some dragonflies were called Blindsticka (Sweden), Oyenstikker (Norway) or Augenstecker (Germany). The Norwegian Orsnildra is harder to translate but appears to involve poking holes in one’s eardrums.

More charming is the folk belief that dragonflies could act as steeds for fairies and similar creatures. So we have the Spanish Caballito del Diablo (Devil’s horse), Swedish Trollslanda (Hobgoblin fly) and German Hollenrosse (Goddess’s horse).

Cultures in Asia also have legends about dragonflies. In Japan, the famous samurai warriors took these insects as symbols of agility and power in battle. When they saw dragonflies, they took is as an omen of victory. Dragonflies, or Tonbo, are most visible during summer and fall in Japan. They are an artistic and visual representation of those seasons, in much the same way Americans might use sunflowers or autumn leaves.

In China, meanwhile, Quingting (dragonflies) were thought to foretell harmony, prosperity, and good luck. This makes sense if you consider that dragonflies can’t live without water, a substance that’s also crucial to people, livestock and crops. If there was enough water for dragonflies, everyone would be thriving.

Possibly for similar reasons, there were Native American tribes that believed dragonflies foretold freedom, happiness and purity. Perhaps they couldn’t see that the dragonflies were hunting tiny insects, for they believed the dragonflies fed on the wind. Other tribes thought dragonflies had powers of illusion. Lakota warriors might call upon the spirit of Tannicala Tusweca (Dragonfly) to trick their enemies during a battle.

Because dragonflies, like all insects, go through a metamorphosis, dream reading and other modern spiritual teaching holds them as emblems of change, growth, and the shedding of illusions.

Personally, I like dragonflies because they look cool and they’re exciting to watch. My home is several miles from the nearest river, but every once in a while I get dragonflies cruising through my vegetable garden. I’m thrilled when I see them because I know my garden is healthy and productive for all kinds of life. Besides, how often do you see a dragon on the wing?

Dragonflies

Dragonflies are surely some of the most recognizable insects living today. They have an elegant body shape and sometimes vibrant colors. Many of them are large, and stand out among lesser bugs. They are fast and aggressive hunters. Those of us who are especially tasty to mosquitoes appreciate that!

Dragonflies need water to complete their life cycle. They begin as eggs laid in or near water. Upon hatching, they enter the water as larvae, or nymphs. Nymphs are voracious predators, attacking other insect larvae and even small tadpoles or fish. Depending on the species, they remain in this stage for a few months up to a few years. Eventually they emerge on reeds or similar vegetation. Being in the air causes them to start breathing. They split their skins and spread their wings as adult dragonflies. Mature dragonflies live only a few months before they mate, lay eggs, and begin the cycle again.

Dragonflies are an ancient breed. Fossils show that very large dragonflies lived in the Carboniferous Period, 300 million years ago. One of these is Meganeura, a giant dragonfly with a wing span of 65 centimeters (that’s just over 2 feet wide). Because we know dragonflies need water to survive, scientists infer that the Carboniferous was a wet or swampy period in Earth’s history.

Entomologists have debated why Meganeura and its relatives were able to grow so large. Some say the thick vegetation, which became our modern coal deposits, added more oxygen to the air. A higher oxygen content may have given dragonfly wings added lift. However, a similar-sized relative persisted into the Permian, when oxygen levels were lower. Another theory is that there were no birds or other aerial predators, and so the dragonflies were able to grow larger without becoming prey.

Dragonflies living today are not nearly so impressive, but they are still very noticeable. Cultures all over the world have folklore about dragonflies. I’ll talk about some of those legends next time.

Lamia, Part 2

In John Keats’s epic poem, Lamia, he presented a very different picture of the drakaina than ever had been done before. Rather than a vicious predator who preyed upon unsuspecting men, Lamia is a love-lorn heroine. While trapped in the form of a serpent, she magically watches Lycias and longs for his company. This may seem kind of stalkerish, but Lamia truly loves him.

When the god Hermes restores Lamia to human form, her first action is to seek Lycias out. She uses her magic to create a luxurious home and tries to make a life among humans. When the tragic ending unfolds, it’s not due to Lamia’s evil nature. She remains true to her love. Instead, it’s Apollonius, Lycias’s mentor, who sees through Lamia’s disguise and assumes the worst. Though perhaps he hopes to save Lycias, in the end he dooms them both.

Do any of these themes sound familiar to you? They should. A sympathetic monster is common in Urban Fantasy these days. Not to mention the “red wedding.” Bet you thought George R. R. Martin came up with that. Yet Keats foreshadowed these current trends by hundreds of years.

If you’d like to enjoy the complete text of Keats’s Lamia, it’s right here.

Last time I mentioned Drakaina, dragon-like beings of Greek lore who are part woman and part snake. Possibly the most famous drakaina of legend is Lamia, the star of a lengthy poem by John Keats.

Lamia’s tale is a little bit complicated. The original character was one of Zeus’s lovers who had the misfortune to fall into Hera’s clutches. In some variations, Hera killed Lamia’s children. Lamia went mad and became a cannibal who preyed upon children. In other versions of the tale, Hera cursed Lamia into the form of a monstrous snake with a woman’s head, and Lamia devoured her own children. Also as part of this curse, Lamia was unable to close her eyes. She could never have rest, and this contributed to her madness.

These legends were passed down through Roman and into Medieval times. Lamia became a class of creature rather than an individual. Mothers told their children a lamia would get them if they didn’t behave, just as they might have said a witch or a goblin.

However, Lamia’s torment was not entirely forgotten. During the 1800s, in the Neoclassical and Regency periods, her tale was often repeated in paintings, poetry and drama. Of all these, the most influential edition was by John Keats, whose epic poem, “Lamia,” was written in 1819 and published in 1820.

Keats’s style is very different from what we consider good poetry nowadays. He’s lush and florid, giving so many details that it slows the narrative pace and in many places forcing his rhyme. Here’s an example, from Book I of “Lamia.”

She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv’d, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries—
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.

In Keats’s telling, the god Hermes is roaming on Crete in search of a gorgeous wood nymph when he hears Lamia bewailing her cursed state. Lamia may originally have been some sort of nymph herself, for she has magical and prophetic powers. Indeed, she foresaw that Hermes would come to Crete and waited there for him. Lamia offers to tell Hermes where the nymph is — if he will restore her to her original form. Hermes does so and goes off to dally with the nymph.

After writhing in agony, Lamia finds herself once again a lovely woman. She goes to find a man named Lycias, who she has watched with her magical powers for many years. Lycias immediately falls in love and takes Lamia to his home town, Corinth. Lamia uses her magic to construct a lavish palace, where the two live happily. They plan to marry, but alas, Lycias has a mentor named Apollonius who sees Lamia as she truly is. Lamia, foreseeing doom, wants to cancel the wedding, but Lycias persuades her of his love. Apollonius reveals Lamia at the wedding. Lamia vanishes with a shriek and Lycias falls dead, apparently of a broken heart.

This rendition was widely acclaimed. It influenced the work of Edgar Alan Poe and many others. Even into modern times, Lamia appears as a character in books like Rick Riordan’s Olympian series and the Neil Gaiman comic, Sandman. The original D&D game included lamia as a type of monster that charms and devours unsuspecting men.

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