Prunes and Prism

RULES FOR YOUNG LADIES: Some arch advice on snagging a husband. Exercising the mouth into a pretty shape through repetition of certain words seems to have been an indoor sport for young nineteenth-century girls; in Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens' overly bred girl repeats, "papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism." (

Friday, December 09, 2005

Nothing New Under the Sun

I began this blog when I failed to write a novel during National Novel-Writing Month. I thought 50,000 words in 30 days would be a good way to keep expectations low while pulling myself out of the Slough of Despond I've been in lately. I've never written fiction consistently and in fact stopped thinking of myself as a fiction writer a long time ago (which is where the low expectations come in). But it seemed like the right thing at the right time, and of course I couldn't be satisfied until my cousin agreed to do it, too. (And now she's done with hers, by the way, which is the difference between those who Do Things and those who sit, paralyzed, while fruit cup dribbles from their chin(s).)

But the morning before November 1, I woke up from a dream in which I was shelving books in the library as part of a work-release program. (I'm not sure whether I know this because we were wearing orange jumpsuits, or because it was just a given, as sometimes happens in dreams.) I kept pulling one big, complicated volume or another off the shelves and thinking I really should get around to reading this, but (shoving it back in place) I'm just too tired. And then, on one of the lower shelves close to the Periodicals section, I found a little heap of stale doughnut holes, just for me.

Feeling shame and good fortune in equal measure, I popped one in my mouth after the other, and though it was like eating cinnamon toast made from particle board, I don't think food has ever made me happier. Then the whistle blew, signaling the end of our shift; my colleagues finished their work and filed out, on the way to vocational school (and this was definitely one of those dream-dictated givens), where they would learn general secretarial skills. I felt so forlorn, because my stale doughnuts were gone, and because I felt like Cinderella being left at the hearth.

And when I woke up, I had to ask myself, how did I get so low that I mourned being cast out of the earthly paradise of vo-tech? And why was I making do with not even stale doughnuts but holes -- the little scrap pieces of dough that had been cast out of actual, actualized doughnuts?

I realized that I had been down so long, down did indeed worry me. Could National Novel-Writing Month save me?

We'll never know, because that night, when I ostensibly could have started the novel that would have restored me from hole to whole, I watched The Four Seasons (with Alan Alda and Carol Burnett, who I so wish were married in real life) while I made a pot of Weight Watchers 0-POINTS soup and drank brandy out of a tiny, tiny teacup.

After this had gone on for a few nights (with varying movies and pots of food, but consistent tiny brandies), I realized that this wouldn't be the month when I wrote a novel. And after begging my cousin's forgiveness, I promised I would start a blog.

This was easier said than done, because to have a blog I needed to name it, and gentle reader, you would not believe how many people are out there on Blogger blogging away with domain names that should have been mine. After a while, I stopped trying to find a name and just began randomly entering text ( just to see if someone had thought of it, and most of the time someone had.

A random sample:

Unreliable Narrator
Reliable Narrator
Humble Narrator
Jolie Laide
Sotto Voce
Nota Bene
Mirabile Dictu
Rosetta Stone
Wage Slave
Family Album
At Sea
Sea Legs
Tall Cotton
Odessa File
Water Water Everywhere
Stockholm Syndrome
Puppet Master
Girl Detective
Letters Home
Dear Diary
Slim Pickings
Nothing New Under the Sun

Whatever you may be sure of, be sure of this: That you are dreadfully like other people. ~James Russell Lowell, "Democracy Address," Birmingham, England, 6 October 1884

When I found the Dickens quote "Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism, are all very good words for the lips," I was kind of enchanted by "Prunes and Prism" but rejected it because I believe most Americans, including this one, associate prunes with laxatives. Then it occurred to me that since I'd been walking around calling myself "spiritually constipated," prunes might be somehow fitting. (And I hope, though I cannot promise, that that is the only scatalogical reference you will ever encounter in these pages.)

Finally, I came across the reference to "prunes and prism" that you see underneath the blog's title, on the entertaining and informative site Merrycoz (and I would like to thank its proprietress for allowing me to quote her). I've never read Little Dorrit, and when I saw "prunes and prism" in context, it just rang like a bell that this should be the name -- because this blog, like those young ladies' exercises, is a hopeful and probably misguided attempt at self-improvement, and also because we all so earnestly believe that we can reshape ourselves through words.


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