Novel Approaches

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.

Miracle on 40-Second Street

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Writing again

November 24th, 2009

In which the author, now an elected official, returns to her love of writing

Mark the day, Nov. 24, 2009. I find myself with thoughts and time to collect and even record them.

Fiction Daily has for two years been my constant writing companion as have you, dear readers. Since running for office I have neglected writing beyond my professional articles and the speeches and whatnot one must, and should, be able to offer when seeking to serve.

Indeed, campaign obligations made me a much better candidate, and today, official. Preparation for the many forums, interviews and presentations forced me to dig deep into laws, ordinances and budgets to talk about them somewhat intelligently. I feel a much better elected one for it.

In the meantime, WordPress has updated and the new dashboard is unfamiliar! I have thousands of spam comments! But how nice to be back in Fiction Dailyland.

For those coming late to the blog, I am a writer in Greenville, N.C., where I earlier this month was elected to serve as a representative on our City Council for District 3. I should take office on Dec. 7.

In the meantime, I work as a project manager, write articles and create marketing for clients. I am grateful to make a living as a writer.

For the past seven and a half years I’ve been writing a novel, as well. It started out as a short story, with this opening sentence:

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.

That sentence opened a door I knew would take more than 5,000 words to walk through. Since writing that sentence in 2002, I have worked on and off. I’ve done character sketches, dwelt on names for my characters, outlined plots and chapters.

I sit to write and sometimes they come, but often these people remain shadows and cutouts, unable or unwilling to reach out with their true selves to me.

Nevertheless I have several hundred pages (most of which I’ll probably toss one day). I have several characters; a homeplace; a town; a villain; a love triangle; great tragedy.

Though ready to serve, no longer campaigning, I hope now to return to my novel, my life.

The working title is The Curing Season or A Cure for August.

A special shout-out to my friend Gene, who has been my constant friend and editorial rock, and whom I look forward to working with again on our various fiction (and fictional) pursuits.

So, to fiction!

Campaign Update

September 26th, 2009

Greetings from the Campaign Trail. My run for Greenville City Council, District 3, is going very well, with lots of good wishes and support throughout the district. It has been such a great pleasure to meet so many of my neighbors in the district.

In many conversations with you, we have talked about large issues such as crime and economic growth, as well as smaller matters such as parking, garbage and overgrown lots. Each of these topics is important.

Indeed, city government has more of an effect on our daily lives than any other level of government. It is your City Council that makes decisions with often immediate, and personal, effects — what is built beside your home, what happens with your garbage and recycling, how your property taxes are spent.

That’s what motivates me to run, and I hope, to serve. It is very important to have reasonable, level-minded and impartial leadership. I am forward thinking, but I also know some of our old, Eastern North Carolina ways are good ones. Honesty, hard work and integrity are our hallmarks.

I invite you to get in touch with my by email or phone if you have any questions about me or the issues.

From the campaign trail 2009

PS – I have just learned from my email-pal, filmmaker Curt Worden, that his delightful film about Jack Kerouac, “One Fast Move or I’m Gone,” has been picked up by Atlantic Records for distribution. It will be screened in several U.S. theaters starting October 20.

This film is a very sensitive look at those nightmarish days Kerouac spent at Big Sur, so artfully captured in his novel of the same name. If you have read and enjoyed Kerouac, this book is an insightful self-examination — showing how success and fame, poisoned by alcohol, can eat away at even the greatest talent.

A Book, Two Dogs & Thee…

September 3rd, 2009

In Which the Writer Takes a Vacation

Greetings from the top secret vacation spot of yours truly. I had no idea how great it would be to get away with the dogs … and spend a few days looking out a window at the ocean.

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Yesterday I purchased a fresh new First Edition of Thomas Pynchon’s just-released novel, “Inherent Vice.” What a dreamy read, so far. This reclusive writer knows how to craft a sentence.

Here’s an example

Doc took the freeway out. The eastbound lanes teemed with VW buses in jittering paisleys, primer-coated street hemis, woodies of authentic Dearborn pine, TV-star-piloted Porches, Cadillacs carrying dentists to extramarital trysts, windowless vans with lurid teen dramas in progress inside, pickups with mattresses full of country cousins from the San Joaquin, all wheeling along together down into these great horizonless fields of housing, under the power transmission lines, everybody’s radios lasing on the same couple of AM stations, under a sky like watered milk, and the whilte bombardment of a sun smogged into only a smear of probability, out in whose light you began to wonder if anything you’d call psychedelic could ever happen, or if — bummer! — all this time it had really been going on up north.

He sparingly drops in those sentences — perfectly wrapped creations — so they stand out in eye-popping wonder. Other, shorter, sentences ring sonorous with far more melody than they hold in meaning or plot.

Will keep you posted in Fiction Dailyland … and wishing all a Happy Labor Day.

PS
… My step dad, Sim Wilde, retired academic dean, essayist and fiction writer, has begun a blog. You can check it out here. Expect his personal flavor of salt-of-the-earth stories, poems and reflections.