Wednesday, May 25, 2011

To the Woods

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

--Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I spent some time at the Oregon/Washington border last weekend, a beautiful area called the Columbia River Gorge.  I'd forgotten how it feels to be submerged in nature, green shoots above and around, teeming life underfoot.  Blue sky, crystalline air, every shade of green.  Cities have their own feel--concrete, scurrying humanity, shiny surfaces, laughter and food smells seeping from warm rooms. 

In my novel The Qualities of Wood, the sense of place was important to me.  The characters were displaced from their normal urban surrounds and forced to confront nature, their natures.  I wanted it to feel as if the line of trees behind their country house, the looming woods, was another character in the story, with its own transient mood, its own opinions and observations.

If you're a creator of does your environment inspire you?  Does it shape your work? 

Monday, May 16, 2011

On Orphans in Literature

Recently, I read two novels that had as their main character an orphan.  Both were set in modern times; neither was an adventure or fantasy book.  In both cases, the parents were lost in automobile accidents and the main characters were sent to live with eccentric and emotionally unstable relatives.  And I found myself thinking about my own upbringing in modern times and how few true orphans seemed to exist.  Advances in medicine have pretty much eliminated plagues in developed countries and unless you’re in a war-torn area, your chances of losing both parents in childhood are probably slim.  And it got me thinking about all the famous orphans of literature—Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Huck Finn, Harry Potter, et. al.—and why this is such a popular choice for writers.
Wikipedia, as it always does, had an answer:

“The lack of parents leaves the characters to pursue more interesting and adventurous lives, by freeing them from familial obligations and controls, and depriving them of more prosaic lives.  It creates characters that are self-contained and introspective and who strive for affection.”

Who writes this stuff?  In the case of one of the books I recently read, I felt that the main character’s orphaned status served as an excuse, a crutch.  The character was unable to have any type of “normal” life.  The writer used the fact of her orphaning as a device to allow the character to act in totally irresponsible and atypical ways.  This particular character could not properly relate to any other person; she was a social misfit, a pariah from the rest of the world (a characterization, by the way, I might take offense to if I was an orphan).  And it struck me as sort of a lazy characterization ploy, this removing of the parents.  Because what’s more difficult, more multi-faceted, more abundant with opportunities for excavation, than the parent-child relationship?

Again, our expert at Wikipedia:

“Parents, furthermore, can be irrelevant to the theme a writer is trying to develop, and orphaning the character frees the writer from the necessity to depict such an irrelevant relationship.”

“Irrelevant relationship?”  I’m no psychologist, but I think this Wikipedia contributor may need to explore his relationship with his parents, in therapy.

I’d be interested to hear from writers who have written an orphaned main character and what your reasoning was, what freedoms it gave you in the writing, what drawbacks.  Maybe I’ve spent too much time in my books dealing with the ripples of childhood, the influence of parents, and that is why so many of my characters are depressed!

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Symmetry...does it exist in the world as a natural happenstance?  Or is it man-made, created by our minds in a desperate attempt to make sense of our fleeting world?

A friend forwarded this video and it came at a good time.  I am in the middle of a writing project, another novel and well, I've stalled out a bit.  I'm probably about sixty percent through, at a pivotal moment in the story, at the crease dividing the start of the story from the end, at the point where perhaps things should start gettin' all symmetrical.

Aristotle explained it thus:

Now, according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.

(Those inclined to do so, review Poetics here.)

We all know the feeling, when a book starts "tying up loose ends."  There's a pleasant association, some orderly part of ourselves, as readers, that nods in approval.  "Oh yes," we think, "of course she needs to break off the relationship"...or, bringing in our 20th-century psych awareness:  "She needs closure with her mother before this story can end."

But isn't there something mildly exciting about peanut butter without jelly, about a lock without a key?  Can't we gain a unique satisfaction (perhaps a volt to a different part of the brain) from a main character who does something to confound, disappoint or startle?

Thinking about these things and many more as I contemplate the path for my main character, and I'm remembering other literary characters whose choices and situations were unexpected but rewarding, sensible yet provocative. 

"Life is short. From here to that old car you know so well there is a stretch of twenty, twenty-five paces. It is a very short walk. Make those twenty-five steps. Now. Right now. Come just as you are. And we shall live happily ever after."
                                                                                   --Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita)
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka