Archive for December, 2009

Novel Approaches, Part 2

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Last night many thoughts kept my mind turning, among them, the ongoing soup of how to get back to the novel. My last approach worked only in part; I had big ambitions but struggled with the day-to-day events of the book.

After reading Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, I am rethinking that approach, as I wrote in Monday’s entry.

Rebecca reads almost like a short story. While it moves forward powerfully, it is not a “page turner,” those novels that force me to turn the pages too fast to enjoy (The Firm comes to mind).

kramskoi-neizvestnaia
Anna Karenina likeness by Ivan Kramskoi. “Portrait of a Woman,” 1883

No, Rebecca moves through episodes steadily. It opens with the young narrator retelling a dream she’s had about visiting a place called Manderly. Then she gradually takes us to the vacation in Monte Carlo, where she is the paid companion of a fussy older lady, and meets the mysterious Maxim de Winter.

Page after page takes us into her romance, marriage and the crisis that defines the book. No detail is scrapped, yet we keep moving.

I compare that approach with the Russians I love so much, for instance, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. If he had written Rebecca, we would have known all about her childhood, all about the family life of Mrs. Van Hopper, the lady she works for. We would have Maxim’s childhood, and probably the childhood of his parents and grandparents, all the way back through several czars and even tribal rulers of the steppes. While Tolstoy is incredible reading, is it my voice?

Another observation about du Maurier and Tolstoy: No doubt Mr. Tolstoy would have given us amble judgment about the characters along the way, just enough to feel authentic, but not enough to keep us from reading (or to keep him from writing about them, either).

Du Maurier is a woman’s voice, a voice that’s unfortunately been overlooked in recent letters.

Looking at my own work at hand, though it is narrated by a woman it is filled with many other characters, living, dead, men, women, children, good and evil. I hope I can get all their voices right.

It is also important to have enough detail, but not too much. Maybe it will be neither Anna Karenina nor Rebecca, but some hybrid or new approach that will allow me to get everything in my mind down in words.

Novel Approaches

Monday, December 28th, 2009

I climbed onto the couch (with our 95-pound Walker, Mayberry) to read, and found myself racing to the end of Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. It was a day of little activity, as we largely recovered from the merriment of the holidays and a visit with the ‘rents in my hometown including a day with my niece, who’s 5.

Rebecca has long been a personal classic. I read it quite young, about 8 years old (I know) then read it again and again throughout grammar school just to experience those moments of fear, joy and mystery, each reading offering more revelations to my still immature eyes. Whether it was growing up in the isolated country, or just my young, romantic bent, that book and its twin, Jane Eyre, formed the bedrock of my grammar school reading.

Rebecca-789406

Reading Rebecca as an adult gave me new hope for completing my own novel. Having read so many Russian writers in the past few years — Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pasternak — I envisioned the novel as a long, exhaustive summary of every detail in a character’s life, every turn of plot, every sunrise and winter storm.

Likewise, my own novel, “The Curing Season,” grew in my mind, became more complex, with plot tendrils reaching into every dark place of mind and character. When I sat to update an outline last year, I found that for all its big intentions, there was very little to move it forward. Few moments between characters, little accounting for day-to-day episodes.

Rebecca showed me how to write a great book in a manageable form. It is complex, dramatic, rich — but also moves forward at every turn, seamlessly.

Reading this novel again showed me how one finds stepping stones through a great book. Given infinite ability, one can spent infinite time getting across the river. Given finite ability, as I suspect is true for me, I will spot the big rocks and step forward on them, hoping to capture some of the foamy, roiling river beneath me.

Miracle on 40-Second Street

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Launching into the routine this morning of warming the kettle, dishing the coffee and the fairly tedious act of filling the coffee maker without spilling water all over the counter and myself, I waited for the reassuring sound of coffee brewing.

Hildegarde the cat was meowing (and it’s quite a lot of racket). I’m scooping food into three tiny cat bowls, pouring oats into another one for me, and I peer up at the counter, listening for the popping, steaming and dripping, the coffee miracle.

That sound did not come. I don’t know what would be worse, going without coffee, or driving in Christmas traffic to a retail store to buy a new one. The blank shelves, stripped of their contents, the half-opened boxes and shelf models all that remain. The sheer panic of seeing all the strangers that emerge from their hiding places at Christmas, that remind me the South is still a bizarre and Gothic place.

Fortunately, we have a press pot on hand for times like these that needs no filter or electricity. In the end, it’s the fail-safe option for coffee.

Never one to give up, I unplugged the coffeemaker for a few minutes, then tried again — after I’d had coffee from the press pot — and waited, my hand on the hotplate, for warmth. And got it! Yes, the coffeemaker seemed to come back to life.

Of all the Christmas wonders, this one may top the list this year. A working coffeemaker!

Santa, you’re too good.

Narrative as Life

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

In which the writer describes her change of heart

Writing a short story seemed a most ridiculously difficult endeavor when I first tried way back in 1994. It was humiliating. This, I told myself, is where I will focus as a writer. I will work on the hardest task I can imagine. I wrote my first real story in 1994, sitting in my living room, about a blues player I’d seen in a club.

I had no idea that story would unleash a river of them. By New Year’s 1995, I was applying to graduate schools in creative writing and by fall of that year, I was living in Prague, among a community of ex-pats and writers. Finding my voice.

I left for Prague with these words, “I’m going to write a novel.”

During my time in Prague, I became enamored of non-linear writing — and declared in my Manifesto of Prague Writers, that traditional narrative,

… that moving from point A to point B — must be demolished. For centuries, the greater masters have told stories, and told them well. They have pulled characters through events with skill and compassion, but that route has been thoroughly explored. For us to write as they did is to treat our characters and their experiences like performing circus animals, telling them to sleep, eat or walk; laugh or cry; or kill themselves over a miserable life we created for them. Instead, we must provoke our readers to find themselves in new ways through our works ….

I would not write traditional fiction, I claimed! I would find a new way!

Then I read the Russians — Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekov. I softened inside. I moved back to the states; I fell in love. I adopted dogs.

The novel I thought I was going to write didn’t happen, but in 2002 as I sat to write a new short story, a line emerged I knew was more than a story; it held a novel.

August came as usual that year, but the tobacco trucks — with their tall mounds of honey-brown sheaves, the lingering sweet trails and the bumpity wheels of rickety old trucks going to the warehouses — did not.

Today I believe in narrative more than any other form of literature. Narrative is meaning; narrative is hope. Story is all we have, with the other pillar of human expression, poetry and song.

Each breath is a story; each time we walk across the room to get a cup of coffee, we tell a story.

And when our world collapses around us, we draw from stories to keep going. Who can read of Dr. Zhivago, his many losses during the Russian Revolution, even losing his great love, Lara, and not feel moved? Who can read Jane Eyre’s story and lose faith in love, which comes through in the end?

For these reasons I am fully committed to narrative, just as to my next breath.

Bee-lines

Friday, December 11th, 2009

In which the writer rambles through the dictionary joyfully

Photo by Greg Eans

Photo by Greg Eans

Lately I’ve been laughing a lot about bees, and that’s thanks to comedian and actor Eddie Izzard, a British stand-up comedian known for his Emmy-winning turn in “Dress to Kill.”

He does a bit about finding oneself covered in bees that brings me to my … well, knees … and with that, today Figuratively Speaking looks at Bs, bees, Aunt Beas and all things B.

My trusty Oxford American Dictionary describes B as the second letter of the alphabet. I’m also painfully familiar with it as the second highest class of academic mark. As in, Too bad I didn’t get an A. Though my freshman year in college, I deeply appreciated them.

Bees, or honey bees, are a large group of insects from the family Apidea. Bees are both solitary and social. The poet Sylvia Plath’s father researched bee movements, or dances, and we now know those dances hold remarkable value in guiding bees to pollen and back to the hive. Aunt Bea, played by Frances Baviar, kept Andy Griffith grounded back in Mayberry, N.C.

“Bee in the bonnet” means an obsession; having a scheme or plan. The “bees knees” is an outstandingly good person or thing, though in Britain it once meant the opposite, as something small or insignificant.

My query started when I wrote the term “beeline” and became curious about its meaning and origin.

Beeline refers to a straight line between tow places, and it originated in the early 1800s, supposedly because of the instinctive line bees took to return to the hive.

Of course we have busy as bees and bees’ nest, which refers to a messy situation. Beeswax, which is the substance secreted by bees in their hive, also refers to someone’s business, as in “That’s none of yer beeswax.”

A beehive is a hairdo, or a place where lots of activity is taking place. It’s also the name of a star cluster, also known as Praesepe.

Now to digress a bit, we have an entire class of words starting with “be-” as a prefix which transforms words in these ways:
— all over, all around: Bespatter
— thoroughly, excessively: Bewilder
— when added to intransitive words, makes them transitive: Bemoan
— when added to adjectives, makes them transitive: Befriend
— when added to nouns, makes them … transitive!: Befog

… and a few others, too.

So when one day I found myself using the word “bespoke,” I wondered where does a word like that get its flavor?

I’m improvising here because I use it to mean something that’s been mentioned before, as in “the bespoke bees.” My dictionary says “bespoke” is a term used by those in the clothing industry to refer to something made to order.

So while I figure out the best way to bespeak of these things, I will make sure I avoid finding myself covered in bees, which I wouldn’t dare to call bebeed.

Dreaming in Russian

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Never underestimate the power of overcast skies and short days.

It is the day after my swearing in as a City Council member. The sky is low and gray, the day nearly spent. My writing obligations done, I have a couple of unstructured hours to write.

On a sunny day, would I settle for sitting here to dream? Probably not. It’s easy to feel you’ve got to go out and conquer, or at least tackle, something on a sunny day, even if it’s only the dandelions.

And from the land of snow, few daylight hours, cold weather and inverted winter skies that allow no fresh air to circulate, we have some of the greatest literature ever written.

The Russians gave us Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, The Master and Margarita. These are living works, with characters as real as the desk holding me upright. More real — while the desk is vinyl on compressed chips, Anna and Vronsky attend horse races, balls and share afternoon trysts; Karamazov gives us a trial without match; and the Master is a Chagall painting come alive.

During my years in the Czech Republic I saw first hand the benefits of short, gray days. I turned inward, and stayed there. I wrote and wrote. I churned out dreamy pieces with wandering narrators who were lost in their own ephemeral universes.

Seven years ago I started The Curing Season, my novel. It’s always this time of year I pick it back up, laying out all those thousands of words, hundreds of pages, and dozens of characters patiently waiting for me to give them a few more pages of life.

I write and write all December and January, carving out daily events for them, bringing them closer to the big events that drive the novel, just as big events drive the minutia of our days.

Then life charges in and the novel gets pushed aside a few months before I return to it, maybe on a blazing sunny day when I can’t take a breath outside, or maybe on a rainy, swampy afternoon that goes on forever.

Still nothing suits writing like overcast days with only hours only vaguely resembling daylight. For these are Russian days, when like those great writers, we can retreat into the rich tapestry of dreams and wonder.

World AIDS Day 09

Friday, December 4th, 2009

Angels Among Us

On Tuesday, I stepped out after dark to attend the annual candlelight vigil for World AIDS Day. Usually there’s a vigil here in Greenville, and I found one on the ECU campus. It was a small affair, compared to my first World AIDS Day back in 1992.

I was the junior reporter (even at my ripe old age of 31, thanks to my winding career path). So I was given the catch-all assignments. Weekend cops, Elvis postage stamp.

World AIDS Day.

It was freezing and I was running late, and got to the march, where I was met by a joyful, laughing crowd of young men and women. We walked to the Town Common, where we stood around during remarks.

It grew colder every minute and I was trying hard to write, and interview people, and do all the things a hustling reporter should. I was about to crack with the strain of the cold, numb hands, the big crowd, not really knowing what World AIDS Day was or what I would write about it.

A quite attractive young man drew near and allowed me to warm my hands on his candle. He spoke in gentle phrases and seemed to have a glow.

Soon he was walking to the center of the crowd, introducing himself as a person with AIDS. I almost cried at his story. After contracting the disease (which he openly admitted came by not having safe sex), he was spending his final months speaking at schools and to any group that invited him.

This charismatic young man told his story again and again. He was dear and open and nonjudgmental, and I’m sure those young people felt the immediate bond that I did with him. He was inherently likeable.

His name was David Waggoner.

When I found out a couple of years later that he died, I wrote a column about him. His kindness in standing there with a candle while I warmed my hands, his candor about his disease.

Every year on Dec. 1, I remember David, just as I did on Tuesday. If there is an afterlife of some kind, whether in heaven, or through reincarnation, I know David is in a special place of honor. He spoke out about AIDS to rob it of stigma; he gave me a warm human face in place of a fearful acronym.

He no doubt helped hundreds of young people understand that they didn’t need to feel ashamed for anything, for any reason — because we are all the same, human beings, in a big confusing world and we need each other. That it doesn’t matter if we have red or black hair, different skin shades or some kind of disease; and it certainly doesn’t matter who we love.

That was his message to me, and now mine to the world.

On Basketball

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

On Sunday, Greg & I went to Chapel Hill to see my beloved ‘Heels play their seventh game of the season.

Now you may be thinking, The sports blog. Please spare me.

Let me say that I love the ECU Pirates on the field and in just about every other way.

UNC Hoops

UNC Hoops


Photo by Greg Eans

But when it comes to basketball, it’s all blue. A particular pale, and not dark, blue. I’ve been watching basketball since I was a little girl when, growing up deep in isolated, rural Edgecombe County where all we had to do was play outside, read and watch an occasional TV program at night. Often sports.

I remember the glory days NBA stars like Kareem and Larry Bird, and of course the Olympic game between the US and the USSR. Naturally I remember N.C. State winning the National Championship in 1974.

In college I was far too busy with my studies to actually attend UNC games, played by the likes of … well … James Worthy, Sam Perkins and a moderately decent guy named Michael Jordan. Nope. Just too busy to wait in line for tickets. In the 1980s I started watching with friends, learning the rules about blocking and charging. Though I’ve never, ever, been able to catch an “offensive screen” call.

These days basketball is much more. It is a metaphor for life. It is the hopeful look at mankind’s ability to persevere. It is character and attainment.

Many times during my campaign for City Council, I’d feel beaten down by the forums and press questions; the rumors; the feeling that I was engaged in a strange public endeavor that I might fail at. That no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get out my positive message; everyone wanted to focus on gossip.

I’d feel like I wanted to give up.

Then I’d remind myself of why I ran for office, sort of simple things like wanting to serve the community, hoping to help usher the City into a more positive future; looking out for the voiceless and powerless; making Greenville a more walkable, bikable place with greenways and parks.

I’d think, What does Carolina do when they’re down by 20 at the half?

They come out shooting. Eventually, the ball goes in the right place. And they close the gap and many times, build up a lead to win.

So I’d gather my forces and come out shooting.

That is why basketball is so important. No matter your team, basketball’s crazy running-jumping-passing motif gives us a paragon of hustle.

And if you can hustle, most of the time you’ll succeed.