Archive for the ‘On writing’ Category

Heroic Women

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Or, A strong fictional woman is hard to find

Tech Thursday

An interesting query this morning that comes via a Facebook friend. We’re charged with finding a photo of a fictional character we believe best represents our character. Naturally, she had already my choice, which was Scarlett O’Hara.

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I racked my brain, then, thinking of fictional characters that I identified with. Jane Eyre? Yes, a strong woman but … waiting for Mr. Right. The second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca? Yes, but … mousy and without self-direction.

I scraped my mind and came up with the narrator of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and thought, That’s just way too obscure for a superficial Facebook gesture.

Anna Karenina, suicide. Madame Bovary, suicide. Lara in Dr. Zhivago, a woman defined by Yuri Zhivago.

I thought about using Dr. Zhivago himself, since that’s the fictional character I most identify with, but refused to subvert the need for it to at least be female!

So I’m left with the Lady of the Lake … just mysterious enough to be fun, and significant enough in her own right. A giver of power.

In the end, the fictional character I most associate with is the one in my mind: Delia LaGrace, the narrator of the novel I’m working on.

Now that would be an obscure reference.

Anne Frank’s protector dies

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Miep Gies preserved the famous diary of that horrible time

The news this morning opened with a reflection on a great legacy of humanity, and the lady who saved it from destruction.

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Dick Coersen / EPA File

Miep Gies has died at 100 years old, after a brief illness, in Amsterdam. She was an office secretary, a modest occupation, but she was a giant in heart and bravery. Along with her husband, Jan, a resistance fighter during Nazi occupation, she shielded the Frank family, bringing Anne reading materials and keeping the family fed and safe. (Read the Associated Press article here.)

After the war, she safely delivered Anne’s diary to her father. In the years since its publication as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” it has become beloved around the world for its message of hope and tolerance.

News reports say she did not consider herself a hero; on the contrary, she said her actions should be considered normal, that we should look after each other as an ordinary action.

When Otto Frank returned to their house after the Liberation, he learned of his daughter’s death in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen of typhus (it’s in the north of Germany).

As a personal note, I have never read the Diary of Anne Frank. I was never required to in school and have not done so on my own. It is too unbearable for me, I admit. I can’t accept that humanity allowed the Holocaust or that today, we continue to allow such destruction of human lives and souls as in Sudan.

Perhaps it is wrong of me to avoid the hardship of reading her diary, but she is in my heart just the same, a hopeful teenager who can’t understand war, violence and hatred, looking forward to a better day.

Not So Simple

Monday, January 4th, 2010

It’s a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains.
— From the movie Bull Durham

A friend asked about writing and editing, wondering if writers like Kerouac, who has a reputation for spontaneous narrative, struggled.

I don’t think any writer, anywhere, doesn’t struggle. Now, the question becomes, does the writer enjoy the struggle? For some writers, I suspect, it doesn’t seem like a struggle, this act of creating. It is akin to cooking, which some folks just adore. I do not.

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Blossoming Almond Tree, 1890, Saint-Remy by Vincent Van Gogh

Process is how we do things. Otherwise, really, we are like babies wailing or children playing. It has a place, and it feels good at the moment, but it’s not creation.

Looking then at a writer like Kerouac, whose “On the Road,” legend has it, was written in three weeks on a single scroll of paper. It’s true. That novel came whole cloth from Kerouac’s mind. Yet prior to that, for years he wrote character and episode sketches. In his mind, he rehearsed the writing, again and again.

Going even further back, it’s important to remember that Kerouac’s mind was prodigious; he was known as “Memory Babe” because of his ability to remember things. He ran an entire major league baseball season in his mind with stats for every team and player. So for him to have a novel roosting up there isn’t hard to imagine.

Charles Bukoski comes to mind, too, as a somewhat spontaneous writer. Yet if you look at his total body of work — several novels, 13 short story collections, and more than two dozen short story collections including “Love is a Dog from Hell,” it’s clear he worked at it. Although his gravestone reads, “Don’t try,” his advice in a poem to those who asked how to write.

It always comes down to Scott Fitzgerald, who said, “Writing is rewriting.” (Or was that E.B. White?)

I also found this quote by Vladimir Nabokov, “I have rewritten–often several times–every word I have ever written. My pencils outlast their erasers.”

When I read Vincent Van Gogh’s “Letters to Theo,” what struck me most about the painter was his hard work, sketching, studying, doing and redoing. Yet regarding his canvases, we see light, energy, life — not overworked or too studied, the confident hand of someone for whom painting is breathing.

Looking at the year ahead, it means hours and days writing and rewriting. If I do my job, that is. That’s because the struggle is the meaning.

Novel House-Work

Friday, January 1st, 2010

New Year’s Day 2010

Looking out on the gray morning, the titmice, cardinals, juncos and sparrows breakfasting in the yard, the year ahead, too, appears before me, now empty but for a few birds of thought. The steps and turns, the hopeful dreams.

With new obligations of work and City Council, I wonder how I’ll make progress on the novel. A friend in theater shared with me her own story of how, when she was in college, and had a leading role in a play, she’d make dean’s list, too. With all the demands, she excelled at balancing; with no room for slouching, she focused with greater intent.

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Hugh Laurie as the good doctor House

Her story made an impression on me. It reminded me that no matter our obligations, we can make good use of our time, use it in meaningful ways. And still have time to loaf around watching House, M.D.

It’s a matter of centering on what’s important. Not losing time procrastinating. Working with direction, and if possible, delight in creating.

Thinking through the novel as I often do, I’m imagining a quicker pace, more intensity, and a regular schedule of writing.

Mostly I’m thinking about the whole coalescing in my mind, all the parts together, with meaningful episodes taking shape from the large currents of plot.

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).

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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.

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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.

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.