The Influence of One

“Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human soul on another.”
–George Eliot

“We don’t make a photograph just with a camera, we bring to the act of photography all the books we have read, the movies we have seen, the music we have heard, the people we have loved.”

– Ansel Adams

Influence. Who influences us and who do we influence, perhaps unknowingly? A recent blog post by Laurie Buchanan on her Tuesdays with Laurie blog made me ponder these questions.

We’re all influenced by the times in which we live. Perhaps a Neolithic storyteller imagined worlds beyond ours, a place filled with fantastic creatures that swooped down from the sky. It’s possible. But it’s unlikely that he or she imagined televisions or the Internet. Perhaps though that storyteller inspired others to create new tales or paint, or think of worlds beyond. Entirely possible, and a scene I like to imagine. Still, although a rare genius such as Leonardo da Vinci can imagine or predict objects far beyond the imaginations of his or her contemporaries (see for example, his moveable cart, “the world first self-propelled vehicle” ), most of us are constrained by our times and knowledge.

As a historian, I study the past and past influences. In turn, I’m influenced by the words and actions of those who lived long ago. As a writer, I’m influenced by everything around me. But who knows for sure where that creative spark comes from? I have some way of seeing things that others perhaps do not, some odd synaptic firing that allows me to put images into words on a page. But I am still influenced by what I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, music I’ve heard, art I’ve admired. I’m influenced by the sound of the crows outside my window engaged in their “Marco Polo” calls to one other, the sunlight reflected and glimmering on the butterfly bush gently swaying in the faint summer breeze, and the cat sleeping next to me, lost in his feline dreams.

As a writer, I hope that my words influence my readers, and make them think, laugh, or cry. As a human being, a parent, wife, and friend, I also hope that I’ve influenced others, as they’ve influenced me.

Last week all of these various worlds—history, creativity, family, and influence came together in one wonderful example.

Those who read my last post, know that in my house the Mandelbrot cookies I bake are known as “Mommy Cookies,” and that I baked them for my daughter’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Two days after the wedding, while visiting a historic site, my newly married daughter and her wife encountered a historical interpreter portraying an early twentieth-century Jewish immigrant making Mandelbrot in her New England kitchen. My daughter’s reaction was to get a bit teary-eyed (as I did when she told me the story), as she thought of how I make those cookies, our Mommy Cookies. A traditional recipe that I’ve updated became a family tradition that has influenced and affected my daughter and me. The reenactor, however, will never know how her portrayal in that historic site resonated and influenced my daughter.

And now that I’ve told you, the influence of that portrayal has expanded.

 

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5

 

 

 

 

Blog Tour: Tag You’re It, or Hide and Seek?

Marion Beaman of Plain and Fancy graciously invited me to participate in a Blog Tour. Participants are supposed to discuss their own writing and writing techniques and then “tag” others. I am truly honored that Marian asked me, and if you are not familiar with her blog, you should be. Marian is in the midst of writing a memoir, and her blog is filled with wise thoughts, witty and profound quotes, and photos—many of which are from her childhood “Plain” life in Pennsylvania. I’ve never met her offline, but she is kind, gracious, and intelligent, and her blog reflects this. Through her blog, I’ve been recently introduced to the wonderful blogs of Traci Carver, Judy Berman, and Laurie Buchanan.

1. What am I working on now?

I am going to have a busy summer of writing and editing. My current book project is an encyclopedia, The World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia to be published by ABC-CLIO. My deadline is imminent. The book should be out next spring, assuming I survive the process of getting it finished. The project has proven to be much more exhaustive–and exhausting–than I anticipated. As with other encyclopedia projects, rounding up and keeping track of contributors has been a constant problem—even more so than in other projects I’ve worked on for some reason. As a result, I have had to rewrite several entries, and I’m writing many more than I expected to write.

Any second now, I expect to receive the copyedited manuscript for another encyclopedia project that Marian mentioned, a Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast, which should be out in September.

I also work as a freelance test-writer for ETS (Educational Testing Service), and during the summer, I always have more of this work. Then there is this blog—which I consider my “fun writing.”

2. How does my work differ from others in the genre?

For many reference books, and certainly for the encyclopedias, there are formats and guidelines that have to be followed. I think what might make my work different is the subject matter that I covered in several of them—rape, sexuality, women’s roles, and breasts! Most of the reference books I’ve done, I was asked to do by editors at the various presses. The book formats and subject matter were already approved. For my recent History of American Cooking, I was told what topics should be covered, but what I think made it “me” was the touch of humor and pop culture references I included—at least I hope that comes through. My first book, Breaking the Bonds: Marital Discord in Pennsylvania, 1730-1830, was an original work, and I think groundbreaking for its time. When it came out in 1991, historians had not written very much on the subject, and some of the sources I used had not been explored at all.

One has to follow very specific guidelines in writing test items, but there is some flexibility and creativity in the types of situations one can imagine. I always have little scenes in my head—even if it is only for a fill-in-the-blank grammar sentence. I could probably give you the whole back-story on some person mentioned in the sentence. I don’t know if this is typical. Probably not.

3. Why do I write what I do? 

Well, it’s a combination of love and work. Writing academic works is definitely hard work. On good days, it’s a labor of love. On bad days, it’s just work. The same goes for the test writing. Blogging is just fun.At some point, I’d like to work on something else—perhaps a memoir or novel.

4. How does my writing process work?

It’s kind of controlled chaos. I tend to write from notes scribbled on legal pads and sticky notes (yes, backs of envelops, too—hey, if it worked for Lincoln, why not?), and half-outlines that usually change as I go. I keep various folders on my computer desktop, too. And because I’m usually working on multiple projects, there are many notepads, many books, and many folders. But somehow from all that disorder, I usually manage to submit a decent product.

I usually work at my kitchen table with books and papers all over the place. I don’t like to be closed up in a study, and I like to be able to stir a pot of soup or bake something while I work. That’s my idea of multitasking. My workspace usually looks like this:

My Faithful Companion rests on the morning newspaper

My Faithful Companion rests on the morning newspaper

Coffee is a must--usually in a mug with my older daughter's play logo

Coffee is a must–usually in a mug with my older daughter’s play logo

Sometimes this happens.

 

An additional trick--he also pulls bookmarks out of my books.

An additional trick–he also pulls bookmarks out of my books.

 

Now for the rest of the tour. I should have remembered how bad I am at playing tag. I dutifully contacted several people “behind the scenes” to see if they would like to participate, but all were busy or for various reasons declined. Did I mention that not only am I bad at tag, but I also get bored with games? People are hiding, but I don’t feel like seeking. I tend to just go off to do my own thing–probably why I’m at home writing a blog post, right?

So instead of officially “tagging” people, I’m simply going to mention a few blogs I enjoy, and if the bloggers want to pursue the “tour,” they can, and if not, oh well, I guess the tour stops here. But don’t unfasten your seat belt until we come to a full stop. We’re not there yet.

Cynthia Bertelsen’s blog, Gherkins & Tomatoes is filled with exquisite musings on food and history, along with gorgeous photography. She is the author of Mushroom: A Global History, and is now working on a history of cookbooks, which should be amazing. Her posts always make me think about the history of food in new ways. Shanna Koeningsdorf Ward is not working on a writing project, as far as I know, but her blog, Curls and Carrots, is always filled with photos of delicious dishes she has prepared, often with the help of her two adorable children. I am curious how she pulls it all off—constant cooking and baking, photography, and keeping two children amused and photo-ready—perhaps she’ll tell us how she does it.

OK. Now we’re done. I hope you enjoyed the tour.  Watch your step as you exit–you never know when a crazed blogger might jump out to tag you.