Saturday, June 30, 2012

Stepping into a Story

For those of you following our adventures via social media, you know that my son Teagan and I just returned from a mini-vacation to Austin. We stayed in and around the city and got a pretty good overview of the place. Texas has a flavor all its own. Everywhere you look, there are symbols of the state: the longhorns, symbolizing the ranching history but also the local college team, the flag, displayed at every street corner six inches below the US flag (a bragged concession) and wherever they can manage it, a five-pointed star, the symbol of this Lone Star State. And all of it implies shared identity, and this identity stems from story. The story of the great state of Texas: the settling of the vast land, its brief period as a sovereign nation, the Alamo, the annexation into the United States (recast as Texas’s triumph), the state’s continuing riches. You can’t go anywhere without being reminded, almost constantly, of this story. Symbols are everywhere to guide you back. The surroundings are steeped in the past and I’m not sure I’ve ever been anyplace where this was so obviously the case.

And it reminded me of novels. This is what we hope for as writers, that our readers will feel as though they have stepped right into a story, become immersed in it. We have only to set up the symbols to jog memory, to light the path with reminders. Metaphor, theme, trope: these are our signposts. Wherever you go within the novel, it all leads back to the same place, the central story, and it’s the shared imagination that gives it lasting power.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On Reviewing, Part Deux

Have you ever owned a box fan? You know the type—looks like a big box with a fan housed inside. You can prop it inside a window frame to drag in fresh, cooler air or you can sit directly in front of one and hear your voice vibrate.

Seems like a pretty simple contraption. Plug goes into the wall and starts a motor, which gets the fan blades rotating. The blades push air quickly forward.

What if you own a box fan and notice that the fan blades are covered with dirt and what if, one afternoon, you decide to take apart the fan (how hard could it be?), clean the grime off, and put the thing back together? All you need is a screwdriver and the sense that you’re the type of person who gets things done, a handy, problem-solver who likes clean belongings.

The first part is easy. You unplug the fan and lay it on its side. Two screws hold the front plastic screen in place. Once that’s off, you realize you could probably clean the blades now (easily, quickly!) but you decide to remove them for a proper soaking in the sink. The dirt is greasy and really stuck on. As it turns out, the blades are actually one big piece and there are a few more screws and some round thing involved with getting it off, and then it doesn’t exactly fit in the sink so you spray it with hot water over the sink and use dishwashing soap to loosen the grime.

It goes back together easily enough, but when you’re finished, you’ve forgotten the round thing and so you have to unscrew everything again and after the second time, the fan blades seem to sit crookedly and in their current position will probably scrape into the plastic screen. Your back is hurting now from leaning over. The plastic screen is also dirty, you notice, each tiny rectangle with a tiny strip of dust. Back to the sink and the sprayer. Also, you notice there’s a screw left over, a larger, gray-tipped one you don’t remember taking off.

For me, reviewing books is like taking the fan apart and writing books is like putting one together. With both you understand, in general, how the machine works and you are able to identify the parts. But when you assemble a fan (or a bookshelf, or a radio, or a child’s electronic toy, or a book, etc.), unforeseen complications arise. Things do not go according to plan. You may have to go back to the beginning or read the directions more carefully. Sometimes you have to take a break to avoid frustration. There are missing parts and occasionally, parts you don’t need. It is always, always more complicated than you think it will be. Sometimes you may wonder why you started at all. And even after the blades are cleaned and lined up and every piece has been discarded or accounted for, even then you're not sure whether the thing will run when you plug it in. You may have to take it apart again. And again.

Friday, June 8, 2012

On Reviewing

The year was 1996. I was working in an office and attending graduate school at night. My job was the less demanding sort and I read a lot of books. In fact, if I discovered an author, either in or out of school, I had the time and inclination to seek out other works—everything they’d written, sometimes.

Like most of America, I had loved The Color Purple, and it propelled me to read many of Alice Walker’s other novels and short story collections: The Third Life of Grange Copeland, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, Meridian (my favorite), You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down: Stories, The Temple of My Familiar, and Possessing the Secret of Joy. I did not read any of her poetry collections, but I did have her first book of non-fiction: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, a comprehensive set of essays covering a myriad of topics from the Civil Rights Movement to her artistic predecessors, to searching for your own artist’s soul.

As for the fiction, I will admit a certain straying in regards to the last two: Temple and Possessing. I didn’t enjoy them as much, but wasn’t sure if it was merely because they seemed to veer from previous work or because I tend to be squeamish about disturbing subject matter. But I did like those novels.

By 1996, I had also seen the movie version of The Color Purple (again, like most of America) and it is not taking away from the book to say that it was one of the few cases where the movie, for me, surpassed the book. But they are both excellent.

And so, it was with much anticipation that I purchased the hardcover (very expensive for any time, but especially for two students) of Ms. Walker’s newest non-fiction offering: The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult. And for some reason, it really set me off. True, the book was presented as a collection of impressions from the filming of the movie, a scrapbook of sorts, but I think I was expecting something more like the essays I had enjoyed. Deep, full of contemplation, etc. This book had silly diary entries, copies of letters, and at times, a school-girl-like gushy quality. The shallowness of it, the vanity of it—really incensed me for some reason. In hindsight, I think it was like the failing of a personal god and of course, I was disappointed that I had blown $20+ on it. So I decided to write a review. Where I thought I would send this review, I don’t know. I pulled it out this morning to have a look and although it was longish (9 pages!), it was pretty entertaining, however pointless. On a similar note, when I was about ten, I wrote a report on Czechoslovakia, just for fun. Laugh if you will.

My point now??? I have realized that part of the reason I studied books for so long in school is because I like that type of writing, reviewing and commenting on books. I was actually going to write this post about the differences between the two types of writing: reviewing and creating fiction, but because I have gotten sidetracked, I’ll save that for next week.

If you’ve made it through this and want to take a look at my recent review of Claire McMillan’s Gilded Age, a modern re-telling of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, click here. And while you’re there, read about the novel soon to be released by the blog’s creator, David Abrams. It’s called Fobbit and if you haven’t heard about it already, you will soon enough.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Writing Your Age

When I began The Qualities of Wood, my first published novel, I was in my late twenties and the main characters were similarly aged. Like Vivian, my protagonist, I was married for a few years and exploring new surroundings. The similarities end there, in terms of externals. But I did relate to many of Vivian’s contemplations about age, having children, art, and finding your purpose in life. There were older characters in the book—Vivian’s parents, a self-possessed, funny neighbor, and of course, the brooding gentleman who liked to canvas the woods and sneak up on people. I didn’t give much thought to writing characters who were older and more experienced, perhaps, than I was. Over time, they seemed like people I knew and I just wrote down what they said and did.

As many of you may be aware, I am not still in my late twenties. That is to say, I have finally published this first novel some years after I began writing it. And one interesting aspect of this time gap for me was when I started reading and editing the book at a, well, at a more mature age, I found I related much more to the middle-aged characters. Katherine, the neighbor who relays local gossip and a balanced attitude that stems from experience. Even Margery, Vivian’s emotionally distant mother, was more understandable to me. She had work to do, after all, and couldn’t be coddling Vivian every moment of the day!

Fortress for One,” a novel I recently finished, is about Gina: middle-aged, slave to routine, guard of secrets. She has worked many years at her job and is beginning to develop a certain understanding about family and relationships that only time can germinate. I suppose it could be said that I am near Gina’s age; however, we seem to have nothing else in common. So I can’t say whether having the same amount of temporal life experience helped me “write” her or not.

When an idea for my next project occurred to me, at first I rejected it. Too hard. Too much research, perhaps. Too painful. Because this new character is a young adult, probably a teenager, and my own youthful days were full of heady highs and dramatic lows. As most are, I suppose. And I’ve been wondering what some of the difficulties would be in channeling the perspective of youth: the hope, the drive, the singular moments. The sparks, the darkness. The world a wide, fresh vista that feels at times, utterly inaccessible. The self doubt. The energy. The obsessions. The hormones! Actually, that part I may be able to manage.

Is it possible to write characters in different phases of life when the author has passed the phase, or has yet to reach it? I think about books with a main character who is young but seems too wise, too worldly. The author’s perspective seeping in. Is it possible to avoid this, or should we even try? It would seem that I'll find out, because this story and these characters are my new go-to mental diversion. And when I spend time with them, I feel very, very young.
"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