Thursday, December 31, 2015

Favorite Films, 2015


An international film star looking for inspiration, a young girl whose village is ravaged by AIDS, a 40-year-old ox living out his last days in the Korean countryside--these are just a few of the characters I found memorable in movies I saw this year. I'm happy to share with you my favorite films of the past twelve months. As always, the list can include movies from any year. Although my top ten are mostly non-2015 releases, I did watch many reasonably good movies released this year (Sicario, Mad Max, Room, Brooklyn, The Martian, The Big Short, etc., etc.). All worth a view but missing that special subjective something that would land them on my list. Probably my favorite end-of-year watch was Spotlight, which was entertaining throughout with some great performances. My most-anticipated for December was Youth, and so probably, the most disappointing although it had many good points. And I retain high hopes for 45 Years and Anomalisa, both of which haven't made it down to our neck of the woods yet. But here are the films I did watch, and love, in 2015:

Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)

The tragic love story of Elise and Didier, one of the best I've ever seen. Also, great bluegrass music throughout.

 


A Simple Life (2011)

When a family's faithful servant of sixty years falls ill, a bachelor son decides to take care of her. A poignant drama about relationships and responsibility, and the bonds between all of us.

 



Amy (2015)

The intriguing and ultimately, tragic story of Amy Winehouse. An intimate, unapologetic look at a remarkable talent.

 



Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

The mind-twisty story of an aging actress who sees herself in a current role. A clever play on art in life starring Juliette Binoche, whom I could probably watch eat cheese.

 



Seraphine (2008)

The incredible story of the French painter, Séraphine de Senlis, and a film in one of my favorite genres: tortured, misunderstood artist.

 


Life, Above All (2010)

12-year-old Chanda fights to keep her family intact after the death of her baby sister. Set in modern South Africa, this film is an intense and unforgettable experience.

 


About Elly (2009)

An award-winning film from Iran that finally got its US release this year. A thriller about a missing kindergarten teacher that I watched from the edge of my seat. Literally.

 


Ex Machina (2015)

This provocative drama about man's evolving relationship with technology succeeds in many ways Her didn't. It took a silly turn at the end, but I didn't care.

 


Old Partner (2008)

A story about an elderly farmer and his wife, and the ox that's been in their family for 40 years. Contemplative and unforgettable.

 


Spy (2015)

The most I laughed in a theater this year, and that has to count for something. In the right hands, Melissa McCarthy is hysterical; she is here.

 


As always, I'd love to hear your movie recommendation and comments! What were your favorites?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Favorite Reads, 2015



I really enjoy the process of looking over the past year’s reads, especially when I have the chance to pass on something that perhaps evaded your radar. In 2015, I read a total of seventy books, which is a high number for me; for many months, I was avoiding writing the novel I finally began in November. Or maybe because it was such a good year of reading, I just couldn’t stop myself. I have 17 favorite reads to share with you: 10 novels, 6 short story collections and 1 book of essays. Short stories continue to play an important role in my regular reading and interestingly enough, three of the novels on my list straddle that genre line between novel and short story. As always, my list includes books released in any year, because it's all about me here on my blog. Here they are:
The novels:

We the Animals (2011) by Justin Torres

A searing, immediate portrayal of a family, through the eyes of three brothers. In stark, honest prose, it’s a coming-of-age story, a psychological inquiry and the best type of reading: a fully immersive experience that leaves your senses reeling. People always say this but truly, it's a book you’ll have a hard time putting down.


We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson

The suspenseful tale of the Blackwood family, as told by one of the remaining survivors, 18-year-old Mary Katherine “Merricat.” An unreliable narrator in the best sense, Merricat lives in the family’s large, creepy house with her sister, who hasn’t left the grounds for six years, and her uncle, whose mind and health are failing. An amazing tale that should be required reading for anyone who fancies writing a novel.
 
See How Small (2015) by Scott Blackwood
One of the books that straddles the line between short story and novel (in fact, I mistakenly included this book in my mid-year round-up of short stories). The chapters in Blackwood’s novels read like independent stories. Inspired by a true crime—the rape and murder of four teenagers—the novel explores the reverberations in a fictional small town. With a cast of damaged characters trying to keep going, and an innovative form that feels like a fresh start.
 
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) by Thornton Wilder

I can’t believe I hadn’t read this classic before (or maybe I had?). Another story of people linked by a tragedy; several interrelated people perish when a rope bridge collapses in Peru. A friar who saw the accident makes inquiries about each victim, trying to make sense of the random event. Amazing this was written so long ago; it felt modern in every way. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, deservedly so. A truly great book.

The Night Guest (2014) by Fiona McFarlane
A novel I chose randomly in a local independent store, primarily because of its striking cover. A hypnotic story about a lonely woman, Ruth, who lives in an isolated beach house and decides to let in danger either knowingly or unknowingly, in the form of a brusque government worker, Frida. This absorbing story reads like a mystery, and it is one, but it’s also a heart-wrenching exploration of so much more.


The Unraveling of Mercy Louis (2015) by Keija Parssinen
Another psychological suspense tale, this one is set in a southeast Texas refinery town, where the teen girls are falling victim to a mysterious illness and the town begins to implode. The originality of the story and prose stayed with me long after reading; a modern gothic I reviewed in detail for LitChat here.

A Tale for the Time Being (2013) by Ruth Ozeki
This story goes back and forth between the perspectives of Nao, a suicidal sixteen-year-old in Tokyo, and Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox put to sea by Nao. As she works her way through the lunchbox’s contents, Ruth learns about the girl and her life. A story about big ideas—history, quantum physics, and fitting in—and the path we all trod towards home. I loved this inventive novel.

Our Souls at Night (2015) BY Kent Haruf

A short tale about two elderly neighbors falling in love, written as he was dying by my favorite author, Kent Haruf. A beautiful novel, perhaps not perfect but because of who wrote it, heads above most anything else you can pick up this year or any year.

The Snow Child (2012) by Eowyn Ivey
Set in the harsh landscape of Alaska in the 1920s, the story follows the lives of two homesteaders. This childless couple build a snow child and the next day, it’s gone but they spot a young girl in the forest. This magical tale follows the relationship between these three and is touching and resonates like a folktale. A truly enchanting read.

Did You Ever Have a Family (2015) by Bill Clegg
Well, this is my third favorite read that is about a tragic event and the aftermath amongst a group of people. Clegg’s tale is part short-stories, part novel; each chapter tells about a character and his/her connection to a house fire that killed four people the day before a wedding. Beautiful writing, and the construction and pace of the novel is exquisite. Seeped with regret and the ache of loss, with a tiny spark underneath. Also reviewed for LitChat here.

The short stories:
 
Praying Drunk (2014) by Kyle Minor

Literally the first book I read in 2015, and a tough act to follow. Minor’s lonely characters struggle for footing in a sometimes dark, always visceral world. These interconnected stories are unique in form and build one from the next, like a series of calculated punches.


The News from Spain (2012) by Joan Wickersham
Seven love stories that all relate to the phrase “the news from Spain.” The stories vary greatly in theme and execution, and it was entertaining to see how the title would play out in each piece. Wickersham has much to say about human folly and faith, and the role each plays in the game of love.

The Secret Lives of People in Love (2010) by Simon Van Booy
The eighteen very short stories in this collection are like bright, smooth stones in a pond. Each creates a moment (or moments) you can imagine into a full life; each story seems to hold enough potential for a novel. That Van Booy can say and imply so much so concisely is awe-inspiring.

Collected Stories (1998 edition) by Carson McCullers

It’s Carson McCullers, readers. If you haven’t, you should. I had read several of the pieces included here before, but many were new to me. All were spectacularly McCullers. I wrote about this collection by one of my favorite authors here.

Stay Up With Me (2014) by Tom Barbash
An assortment of lonely folks, living under a perpetually gray sky. Yet like so many situations reeking of tragedy, we can’t look away. Barbash’s characters flounder a bit in what we might call “first world problems,” but empathy and the appeal of his wonderful prose will make you want to persevere and stay up with them anyway.


Someone to Watch Over Me (1999) by Richard Bausch

The first story in this collection, “Not Quite Final,” knocked me off my feet. Really, I think it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read. The rest are outstanding too. Bausch is a writer who evokes the complexities of relationships through the light touch of simple prose; within his masterful sentences, true life pulses. My first reading of this wonderful writer, another one who might go some distance in filling the Haruf-sized hole in my heart.

Essays:

The Empathy Exams (2014) by Leslie Jamison
A critical examination of our connection with others: How deep are they? Can true understanding exist? Each essay succeeds on its own terms. Sewing together bit of philosophy, memoir, science, history and cultural examination into a study that will make you think deeply and more critically about your interactions and place in the world. And Jamison has the prose chops of a novelist, making this a read that will please fine fiction connoisseurs. A stimulating and important book, especially in these times.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

My NaNoWriMo Results: Deadlines, Diversions and Determination


Somebody needs to tell the NaNoWriMo organizers that Thanksgiving week is in November. Do they know that? Children are home from school and food must be cooked and/or ordered, eaten, packed up, unpacked and eaten again. There’s unavoidable socializing and the naps caused by it, afterwards, the inevitable food coma and/or trudging through the local mall. These last two do not go well together, I can tell you.

The thing is, I started off very strongly. I posted about my first week here, and I was shamelessly proud of myself. After months (years!) of thinking about a certain novel, I was finally out of the gate. The first chapters spilled out almost effortlessly. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to get 1500-2000 (or more!) words down each day. It was almost embarrassing, like when you procrastinate something like shaving your legs and then afterwards, can’t believe how long you let it go. I had missed the process of writing every day, the single-mindedness of it, the intensity. I cruised right through the second week. I had a hard time reading fiction during this time. By the end of the day, I couldn’t focus on anything beyond silly television shows or non-fiction magazine reading so I gave up. The third week was tougher still. I was now into the second part of a planned three parts, new terrain that I had outlined but hadn’t deeply contemplated. I kept writing, day after day, but it felt less inspired. And then I had a previously-planned three-day trip with a girlfriend to eat, shop and hit the spa. I was not unhappy to go. After that, Thanksgiving week bore down. I haven’t written since November 19th.

What I’ve learned: there is a definite benefit to immersing yourself in that single-mindedness. Elements of your writing cross-reference themselves nicely, effortlessly. The growing word count is ego-enhancing. But the experience is all-consuming, at least for me, and I'm not sure I could have kept it up. Perhaps without the real life distractions, I would have, or maybe I’m the type of writer who would’ve needed to come up for air. For certain, it became easier, day after day, NOT to write.

The good news: I wrote over 33,000 words in basically, eighteen days. This week, I’ve been reading through what I have so far and it’s not entirely terrible. So that’s good news too. I think the best part of the experience for me this year is the relief of finally beginning the story, for better or worse. And I’m not giving up. I’ve set a new deadline for mid-January, by which time I hope to have the first draft done, or at least, about 60%. There are the holidays to think about, after all.
 

Monday, November 9, 2015

NaNoWriMo First Week: Observations


Lots of writers are participating in the National Novel Writing Month this November (NaNoWriMo for short). It’s the second time I’ve done it; the first was in 2013, when I was finishing another novel that had been progressing, off and on, for ten years. This time, I’m working on a novel that’s only been bouncing around in my mind for a few years; only recently, I started to work on an outline. An outline that I didn’t finish because I just wasn’t sure where that last 1/3 would go. But it was a good start, and so I figured that for once, I could just dive right in, using the chapter outline as a guide.

I began on Monday, November 2 because really, I can’t get anything done on the weekends. For four days, I plugged right along. That opening scene was one I had contemplated for a long time, so it spilled right out once I sat down. I finished working on Thursday the 5th with 8725 words, averaging over 2000 a day, more than what the NaNoWriMo website recommends for a target total of 50K at the end of the month.

Things I noticed during those first four days:

1)      Writing is fun. I really missed being immersed in a world of my own making. It felt like the beginning of something (which it was, of course), but similar to when you open the first page of someone else’s book and it really feels like it could go almost anywhere. It’s exciting.

2)      It was relatively easy to fit in the necessary writing time, even with the interruptions of everyday life. Really, the actual writing of this amount a day would probably only take 3-4 hours but then, of course, you have distractions like research and re-reading earlier chapters. I watched a twenty minute video about the glass-making process one day, for example.

3)      The NaNoWriMo framework is great, because it makes you feel that you’re reporting to someone—the website where you keep your stats, your writing buddies, etc.

And then Friday happened. I actually had a clear schedule that day. I had factored in a morning run but still figured I’d have no problem getting in at least 1600 or so words. I could probably even get to those errands in the afternoon, I thought. But then I looked at the outline. The next section was a very pivotal one. It would reveal a big discovery but also had to convey something fundamental about the main character. And it was Friday. And I was distracted. And I didn’t know how I wanted to go about the section yet; I needed time to think about it. Mostly, I didn’t feel like writing.

True hardcore NaNoWriMos may have gone to a less-demanding section, perhaps, or worked on character sketches or some such thing. Mostly, I took the day off. I wrote about 500 uninspired words. Then, I took the weekend off too. I saw a movie, watched my kids’ games, drove to LA for a dance show. At first, I felt some pressure, a little guilt. But I had three days to think about that pivotal chapter and now I’m ready to dive back in. I know how to approach it now.

The important thing about NaNoWriMo, I would say, is to increase your numbers, whatever they are. To think about your writing routine and how it can be improved. You have to stay true to your own process too, though. It’s quite possible I may still make that goal, if I work some overtime or really get on a roll. Maybe I won’t. One thing is for sure, though. I’ll have much more of this story committed to page than before November 1st came around. And that feels like a big relief, and an affirmation too.
 

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Thing About Carson McCullers

 

So I’ve been thinking about Carson McCullers, as I do from time to time. I’d be interested to take a poll of writers working in the United States today, and ask if they’d been influenced by the work of this insightful author. I’ve written about her before in this space, here, about The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, her novel that I’d place in my top five favorite books. But I want to tell you about her stories. Recently, I read this collection and while some stories struck familiar chords, most were entirely new to me. I picked up the book mostly because I’d been wanting to re-read ”The Member of the Wedding,” which is included in this edition along with “The Ballad of the Sad Café.” And there are nineteen of McCullers’s shorter stories, each a vivid, encompassing world, each worth your reading time.

Critics talk about the themes of McCullers’s work and certainly, you’ll find tropes if you read straight through her work. Wounded adolescence, lonely relationships, longing, thwarted dreams, etc. If you read her in school, you heard much about her portrayal of the American South, about McCullers as a agent of the grotesque and southern Gothic. Certainly, all of these things give her writing the distinct flavor that remains long after putting down the pages. But I’ve been thinking a lot about her writing and it seems to me that what really defines her work (and, actually, any great work of fiction) is her gift with writing characters.

We meet people a variety of ways, don’t we? Sometimes we come upon a new person, entirely unexpected, say, at a party. We are thrown together, perhaps at the appetizer table, and our impressions of this new human are precisely that—what we take in with our senses from the moment we gain proximity. Appearance, gestures, the sound of their voice. The things they communicate, with words and otherwise. Then we filter their declarations through our own judgment.

Sometimes we are given a bit of an introduction from someone else. You’ll love her, your friend tells you. She’s so funny and generous, a real character. And so you have a bit of a head start, as far as impressions go, because now you’re prejudiced, one way or the other, by what your friend has said. You come to the meeting armed with some preconceptions, not only because of what your friend has told you, but because of all the interactions of your life up to that point. Prior relationships, situations that were similar, people you may have known in the past who come to mind when you meet this new someone. And the interesting thing about meeting, and knowing people, is that sometimes our preconceptions are right and very often, they turn out to be wrong or incomplete. Most importantly, if we’re lucky (and/or skilled at doing so), we’ll experience some empathy in each interaction with another person.

A truly great writer will give the reader the space to experience a character on their own terms, much like when you meet someone in person. The reading experience should mimic life in this way. In each of the stories in this collection, the thing that pulls you in and keeps you engaged, the overwhelming strength of each piece, is the feeling that you are reading about real people, people who can frustrate and surprise our expectations, or go ahead and do what we knew they’d do all along.

Usually, the beginning of a McCullers story is very straightforward, such as this opening to “The Jockey”:

“The jockey came to the doorway of the dining room, then after a moment stepped to one side and stood motionless, with his back to the wall.”

Right away, expertly and simplistically, we are drawn in. Who is the jockey? Why a jockey? Why does he hesitate?

Occasionally, McCullers will open with some description, but almost always it is simple and evocative of something larger, as in this first sentence of “Art and Mr. Mahoney”:

“He was a large man, a contractor, and he was the husband of the small, sharp Mrs. Mahoney who was so active in club and cultural affairs.”

Doesn’t your mind begin to work with that short description? Already we can picture the practical, lumbering husband, the vocal, well-dressed wife. Some sort of conflict is certain to follow.

“The Haunted Boy” starts with a very simple opening:

“Hugh looked for his mother at the corner, but she was not in the yard.”

 A seemingly innocuous start, and yet the story builds from this simple premise—a boy missing his mother—and we follow this character as he becomes more and more anxious, and the reasons for his fear are slowly revealed. In hindsight, this simple first sentence sets the scene for the entire piece.

And for a final example that many of us can relate to, the start of her story “Who Has Seen the Wind?”:

All afternoon Ken Harris had been sitting before a blank page of the typewriter.”

Although we may make assumptions about this pitiable character based on what we know about blocked writers, the story holds many surprises.

And what to say about “The Member of the Wedding,” the story that may have some of the most memorable characters of all time? The obsequious youngster John Henry West, the prophetic housekeeper Berenice, and of course, the most unlovable character that I’ve ever fiercely loved, twelve-year-old Frankie. Anyone wanting to know anything about how to write characters should start with this story. And like all of McCullers’s characters, these folks will reward and frustrate you in equal measure. As people do.

I imagine that writers far and wide will continue to be influenced by the work of Carson McCullers. I have returned to her work, time and again, for many years, and always find something new, some inspiration. Which is about all you can ask of a writer, I’d say.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

My Love/Hate Relationship with Writing Guides Continues

How are you with museums? Avoid them? Love them? I happen to love the idea of museums very much, and I do enjoy going to them and wish I went more often. But I have a definite time limit where they’re concerned. Maybe an hour-and-half to two hours, that’s it. I go in with all receptors primed but by the end of that time frame, I usually hit a wall, when I can’t see/read/hear any more. Just can’t take it in. Sensory overload, I guess. I have a similar threshold where socializing is concerned, but that’s beside the point.
 
I was an English major in college, which means that I read and wrote about fiction. As opposed to a creative writing degree, which seems to have its own benefits. I learned to write by reading. From time to time, I do like to pick up a book about writing, in the interests of gathering information. I’d like to think I’ll remain open to learning, no matter how curmudgeonly and resolute in my ways I become. This week, I read Into the Woods by John Yorke. I’ve no idea how this book came to be on my shelf; I’m assuming I read about it someplace. It’s a writing guide aimed towards screenwriters and most of the references are film ones, but that was okay with me because a good amount of my personal references are film ones as well. The original subtitle of Yorke’s book was A Five-Act Journey into Story, and I can only assume the publisher issued the alternate subtitle How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them after it became clear that a) the book was appealing to writers of things other than scripts and b) there is some division between the 3-act camp and 5-act camp, and no reason to alienate either one from buying the book.

So. I have to share that the cover, as you can see, couldn’t be more awful. I mean, I get that we’re in textbook mode here, but aside from the look of it, it also has a strangely plastic feel and the black ends up with scratches, marks and smears. It’s the book equivalent of those black pants you never wear because they attract every piece of lint and hair in the room. My favorite Amazon review of the book, titled “A five act journey into utter tedium!” agrees with me on this point: “Oh, and the paperback has a horrible plain black cover that is faintly repellent to the touch.” Very true.
 
If you’re starting to think that the rambling nature of this review is an early indicator of my engagement style with writing guides, you’d be right. Now, what was I saying? Oh, yes, the actual text. I started out as I do in museums, totally engaged, neurons firing. I had a pen and was underlining things. Here are a few I like:
 
“What an archetypal story does is introduce you to a central character—the protagonist—and invite you to identify with them; effectively they become your avatar in the drama.”
 
(I like that bit about the avatar.)
 
“Niceness tends to kill characters. Much more interesting are the rough edges, the darkness.”
 
“Three-dimensional characters have both a want and a need, and they are not necessarily the same thing.”
 
There were more, but you’ll have to get the book. Yorke talks about early forms of story, and how the overall structure has generally stayed the same over centuries. There are refreshers on Aristotle and Campbell, which I liked. He differentiates between the three-act structure and the five-act structure (spoiler: they’re sort of the same!), and gives examples along the way. I will say that some examples seemed more shoehorned into the structure than others; it started to seem like a diagram you could argue anything into. But I enjoyed the early sections, the more historical and theoretical parts.
 
The middle section of the book really gets down to details. The chapters had names like Exposition, Subtext, and Character Individuation. If I had been at a museum, this would have been when I started to think about lunch/dinner/nap. There were charts and figures.
 
By the last section, the charts became more complex and I was fully in skim mode. There were lengthy breakdowns of particular films, and long examples of dialogue. There are all sorts of people in the world, and I’m sure some would really enjoy the specifics given, the many, many pages of Notes at the end. But I was already out that museum door.
 
Was the book a loss? Definitely not! I took away some new knowledge, some reminders of things I’ve read before, and several things to think about. I still hope to keep learning new things about writing as I go along, and it’s never a bad idea to break up your routine. I’ll keep this book on my shelf and perhaps refer back to a few sections. After I finished, I had an overwhelming urge to pick up something written by one of my idols, and I can’t help but think that in the end, it will be more inspirational. That’s the way I learned to write, after all, and it would seem I can’t really be retrained.
 

Monday, September 14, 2015

White Space

 
Remember that Bob Seger classic, Against the Wind? It’s all about youth and “living to run and running to live,” existing in the moment, not worrying about paying or how much you owe, “breaking all of the rules that would bend.” But then Mr. Seger has to grow up, doesn’t he? He finds himself “further and further from his home,” “searching for shelter” against that wind he used to love so much. And then, this pivotal verse:
 
Well those drifters days are past me now
I've got so much more to think about
Deadlines and commitments
What to leave in, what to leave out
 
and it occurs to me that this is just like writing and then, later, editing your work. Right? No worries when you’re writing. Just get the thing out, everyone will tell you. Break rules, don’t worry about it. Lose yourself in that heady wind of creativity.
 
Editing is a bit different, isn’t it? It’s your grown-up self, making some tough decisions. Maybe you have a deadline; maybe you’ve got commitments to yourself, your outline, your intentions. It’s all about deciding what to leave in and especially, what to leave out.
 
It’s been likened to sculpting, to whittling away until you have only the best bits left. Ernest Hemingway famously called this process “The Theory of Omission.” He talked about an iceberg and the underwater, supporting parts that often should remain hidden.
 
In a recent New Yorker, John McPhee put it like this:
 
Be that as it might not be, Ernest Hemingway’s Theory of Omission seems to me to be saying to writers, “Back off. Let the reader do the creating.” To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.
 
You can read the rest of the essay here, and it's well worth your while.
 
It was a timely read for me, as I’ve been doing the grown-up work of editing lately. It’s a puzzle of sorts, deciding how much to show and how much to keep close to the vest. From the other side, as a reader, I’m often annoyed when a writer tells too much, doesn’t trust my ability to figure things out, doesn’t allow me the pleasure of filling in certain blanks. That elbow room that McPhee talks about, the “white space.” And that’s, basically, what’s on a page anyway, isn’t it? Some sort of balance between black and white, and it’s our job to make it a balance that feels right.
 
 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Editing: Time Travel, Telekinesis and Leaning

 
 
I’ve been editing something this week. Not a close, line by line edit; I’ve already done that to this particular thing recently. This was the kind of edit where you try to step back and see it as a whole. Structurally, looking at construction and flow. But you still have to read it, right? For me, the way to do it is to read quickly, with maybe half your attention, not allowing yourself to get sucked into the celebration of a particular word, line or feeling. And at the end, start again at the beginning. Round and round. The effect is not unlike one of those fair rides. (Also, both will make you sick if you do it for too long.)
 
In this dizzying process, I’ve noticed a few things about my characters.
1.      They have the ability to speed up time. The scene starts and they have, perhaps, opened a bottle of wine. A few sentences later, they’re ready for a second glass. There was no talk of gulping or chugging and yet, inexplicably, they’ve finished. I think this happens because the writing of the scene takes so long it seems like they should be done. Either that, or writing makes you want to drink.
 
2.      They can telekinetically move objects through space. One of my characters took her sweater off when she arrived at a house party, then had the sweater later, then somehow lost it again by the end of the night and the host had to retrieve it. Why she was so obsessed with that stupid sweater is another whole issue.
 
3.       They say “Oh” a lot. And “well,” and “all right” (although I still think it should be “alright”). Don’t get me wrong—I think real people say these things in conversation all the time (also: “okay,” “you know,” and “literally,”) but that doesn’t mean anyone wants to see them in a book.
 
4.      They lean a lot. This is usually when they’re talking to someone. They lean on countertops and across tables to make a point. They lean against walls and cars, and sometimes, they lean into another person when they’re feeling romantic. I started to wonder about all of this leaning, and whether I had a bunch of fatigued characters on my hands.
 
To be honest, I felt myself wanting to lean against something by the time I was finished. It’s exhausting, trying to get these people in line. And now that I’m done, I feel like you do after that spinning ride at the fair—exhilarated, disoriented, and ready for a corn dog.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Author Don't Preach: Making Characters, Not Messages


 
As the mother of four teenagers, I can tell you that one thing they really enjoy is when you sit them down for a lecture on an abstract concept. Like responsibility. Or the importance of work ethic, or something like that. Boy, do they love to be taught things! You will find, when you start speaking, that a sort of calm comes over them; their eyes will never leave your face. It’s truly a joy to watch the process of comprehension. Oh, and make sure you tell stories from your own life; they love that. Also, throw in platitudes and maxims whenever possible. Watch the lights go on. At the end, they may even thank you for sharing your decades of wisdom. Right?

Recently, I read a couple of books, well-received novels (no, I will not name them) that addressed some timely themes and had well-constructed plots, dramatic turns, wonderful historical and/or cultural information, very competent writing and even some moments of brilliance. And never for one moment did I believe that the characters were actual people. I was aware all along, for example, that this one was intended to show that, and this other one was a symbol for something else, and this last one would be bearer of a lesson for the others. Sometimes other alarms sounded: a manner of speaking that didn’t seem to fit, an inconsistency, a flaw or action too exaggerated. Plot points came along when expected; each character marched along, doing what was required, not quite cardboard but certainly lacking spark and hovering just outside the sphere of believability.

Everything was there; each novel was a success in terms of craft, I suppose. Certainly, my opinions of these novels don’t jibe with the general public’s. But during my reading of each, I started to have very stubborn, adolescent-type feelings. I may have rolled my eyes a few times. I get it, I wanted to say to the authors. I get the point you’re trying to make, the statements you’re making about modern life, the lessons you’re preaching, the feelings you want me to have. And although, as a writer, I could appreciate and respect the craft of these books, they could never be loved by me, the reader. Primarily because of the characters and the way they lacked life.

I don’t know what that special something is, why some characters walk right out of books and into your heart and why others remain on the page. I do know that teenagers and readers alike don’t always appreciate a lecture, but they will listen to a story about someone they can relate to, every time.

“I am less interested in setting, really, than a lot of writers. For me, the landscape is often interior, the place is the psyche.” –Richard Bausch

For a master class on characterization, read anything by Richard Bausch but especially “Not Quite Over,” a short story I re-read this week for inspiration. His characters are immediately vivid, achingly real. For real.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Readings: Shirley Jackson on Memory, Fans and Garlic


Earlier this month, Random House released a collection of previously unpublished work by Shirley Jackson. It's called Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings and I eagerly anticipate the arrival of my copy any day now. Also this month, The New Yorker ran a three-part series, to whet your appetite for these new pieces by Jackson, and it's one of the best things I read this month. How could I not be affected, when she talks about her home life with four adolescents?

"My situation is peculiarly poignant. Not, perhaps, as sad as that of an orphan child condemned to sweep chimneys, but sadder than almost anything else. I am a writer who, due to a series of innocent and ignorant faults of judgment, finds herself with a family of four children and a husband, an eighteen-room house and no help, and two Great Danes and four cats, and—if he has survived this long—a hamster. There may also be a goldfish somewhere. Anyway, what this means is that I have at most a few hours a day to spend at the typewriter, and about sixteen—assuming that I indulge myself with a few hours of sleep—to spend wondering what to have for dinner tonight that we didn’t have last night, and letting the dogs in and letting the dogs out, and trying to get the living room looking decent without actually cleaning it..."

 And--

"Actually, if you’re a writer, the only good thing about adolescent children is that they’re so easily offended. You can drive one of them out of the room with any kind of simple word or phrase—such as “Why don’t you pick up your room?”—and get a little peace to write in. They go storming upstairs and don’t come down again until dinner, which usually gives me plenty of time in which to write a short story."
 
These excerpts are packed with practical writing advice too. The first relays the convoluted process we writers sometimes have; the third deals with symbol in fiction and speaks absolute truths about the short story form. Here are a few quotes:
 
"A writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing..."
 
"Far and away the greatest menace to the writer—any writer, beginning or otherwise—is the reader. The reader is, after all, a kind of silent partner in this whole business of writing, and a work of fiction is surely incomplete if it is never read. The reader is, in fact, the writer’s only unrelenting, genuine enemy."
 
"Here is one of the greatest pitfalls for beginning or inexperienced writers: Their stories are, far too often, just simply not very interesting."
 
 "It seems to me that in our present great drive—fiction-wise—toward the spare, clean, direct kind of story, we are somehow leaving behind the most useful tools of the writer, the small devices that separate fiction from reporting, the work of the imagination from the everyday account."
 
So get a cup of something hot and clear some time for these three wonderful pieces:
 
 
 
 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Colorshare, Times Three


 
I love color. It's the first thing I think about whenever we move to a new home (I wrote about that here), and I tend to think about colors in terms of moods, textures and smells, and to have strong feelings about them.

I was very inspired by this article, The Keeper: 39 Paints, in the latest New York magazine. It’s all about color and has practical elements--advice about the proper paintbrushes, lighting, coordination, etc.--but the parts I really liked were the shiny streaks of color, with a designer’s brief comments about what that shade does for him/her. These people with their thoughtful impressions about hues felt like kindred spirits. And each blurb seemed to have a complete story ensconced within. I was so inspired that I sat right down and wrote a new short piece, titled “Resonant Blue.”
 
On the subject of blue, there’s an exhibit running through January 2016 at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena: A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and their Impact on French Artists. At the beginning of the 18th century, “Prussian blue” was accidentally discovered in an alchemist’s laboratory, and this new pigment had an irrevocable effect on the artists painting in France and throughout the world. Who’s with me for a visit to the Norton Simon?

Lastly, don’t miss the blue moon tomorrow, Friday, July 31. Here’s a scientific take on this fleeting phenomenon: Blue Moon, but you’re free to hold tight to the more imaginative and artistic interpretations.
 
Wishing you a weekend full of color!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

New Look, New Direction (sort of...)




Change is natural. Change is good. Change is what happens when you’re making other plans—is that it? When I was a kid, I used to rearrange my bedroom a lot. I liked the fresh perspective it gave me, a way of being a new you in the same place. So. You may have noticed this blog’s new clean and stream-lined look. I started typing away in this space five years ago and I’ve really enjoyed it, not only as a way to join the dialogue about books and writing, but as a practice field for my skills, a place to work out thought processes and flesh out ideas. I’ve written book reviews, contemplations about the writing process and the publishing business, film reviews, short fiction, and lots of posts that can only be filed under the subheading: Other. And for the past year, I’ve been sharing a “Poem for the Weekend” each Friday, a practice which accomplished what I had hoped: it got me reading more poetry. A bonus: the exchanges I had with readers about poems they love. So although I’ll be discontinuing the Poem for the Weekend feature, I remain open to hearing about poems you’ve found and I might still share one myself from time to time.

So what’s the new direction, you ask? The thing is, I’ve got this novel to write. Anyone who's undertaken this foolish task will tell you it doesn’t leave much creative juice for anything else. I will still be blogging (no fear!), but maybe my posts will be more brief, less fleshed out. And because I’ll be deeply immersed in fiction, I anticipate that the offerings will lean towards topics involving inspiration and creativity and of course, the routine and practice of writing. I may share something I saw that galvanized me; I may point you to something I read regarding the nuts and bolts of the process. And I will always feel obligated to point you to an amazing novel or film. Often, I may just pop up for air and to say hello.  

I’ll still be writing an occasional book review or musing for the LitChat blog (as long as they’ll have me), like this one about which readers YOU should be writing for: Writing in the Round.
 
Meanwhile, there are more changes afoot! Keep an eye on my author site, maryvenselwhite.com, in the coming months for more new stuff and possibly, some book news. And of course, I’ll be hanging around Twitter and Facebook if you’d like to connect there. Thanks, as always, for staying with me.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Robert Creeley

 

I've been away on vacation and so, did not have a poem prepared for this week. I decided to Google one, maybe something about summer, but noticed that the first thing that popped up when I typed the single word, "poems" was "poems about rain." So although the weather is entirely southern-California perfect here today, I give you a poem about rain. Because apparently, it's the sort of weather that gets people thinking about poetry. If you're wondering what the second Google prompt was, it was "poems about love," another topic that figures into Robert Creeley's rain poem. You can read about the author here.
 

The Rain

by Robert Creeley (1926-2005)
 
All night the sound had   
come back again,
and again falls
this quiet, persistent rain.

 

What am I to myself
that must be remembered,   
insisted upon
so often? Is it

that never the ease,   
even the hardness,   
of rain falling
will have for me

something other than this,   
something not so insistent—
am I to be locked in this
final uneasiness.

Love, if you love me,   
lie next to me.
Be for me, like rain,   
the getting out

of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-
lust of intentional indifference.
Be wet
with a decent happiness.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Kobayashi Issa

Kobayashi Issa is one of Japan's most prolific poets; he left in his journals over twenty thousand "one-breath poems"—we know them as haiku. You can find a timeline of his life here, and at this site, you can search a database of ten thousand Issa haiku by entering a keyword, such as summer.

A haiku

by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

from the treetop
gliding into midsummer...
bright moon

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Mid-Year Short Story Collection Round-Up


 
Two years ago, I was working on a new writing project, something undertaken just for fun and which was rapidly turning into a story collection of sorts. And I realized that for some reason, I had stopped reading short stories. So I made a conscious effort to stop that. I pointed out some of my early favorites on that new, improved reading path here.

What a great decision it has been. Now, I can’t imagine a reading diet lacking stories and I’m always on the lookout for something I may have missed in those years I was inexplicably remiss, or for something new on the publishing horizon.  

Three story collections made my 2014 Favorite Reads list, and as I finished another collection today, it seemed to me that I’ve read many more good ones so far this year. And so I checked. Of the forty books I’ve read in the first half of 2015, eight were story collections (that’s 20% for you math fanatics). I keep track of my reading on Goodreads (find me here), and I discovered that of the twelve books I’ve rated five stars this year, five are story collections. So yes, it’s been a good year for me and my lucky choices. And here are those five stellar collections:


Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor (2014)
 
My first read of the year, this started 2015 off with a bang. Minor’s lonely characters struggle for footing in a sometimes dark, always visceral world. These interconnected stories are unique in form and build one from the next, like a series of calculated punches.

 
 

The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham (2012)

These seven love stories, however different in theme and execution, all relate in some way to the phrase “the news from Spain.” Although it was entertaining to see how this would play out in each piece, this was no parlor trick. These stories are strong and touching, reveling in human folly and faith. “A love story,”one of Wickersham’s characters explains, “can never be accurately reported, only imagined. It is all dreams and invention.”

 
See How Small by Scott Blackwood (2015)

Blackwood’s stories are told in different ways, through different perspectives, linked by the experience of a horrific event. Inspired by a true crime—the rape and murder of four teenagers—these stories explore the reverberations remaining in Blackwood’s fictional town. It reminded me of Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, but its innovative form is something new altogether.

 

Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash (2013)

Another collection of lonely folks, living under what is perhaps a perpetually gray sky. Yet like so many situations that reek of tragedy, we can’t look away. Barbash’s characters flounder a bit in what we might call “first world problems” and yet, empathy and the appeal of his wonderful prose will make you want to persevere and stay up with them anyway.



The Secret Lives of People in Love by Simon Van Booy (2010)
 
The eighteen very short stories in Van Booy’s collection are like bright, smooth stones in a pond. Vivid and immediate, each creates a moment (or moments) you can imagine into a full life; each story seems to hold enough potential for a novel. Touching and masterful writing.

 

"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