Category Archives: Essay

Great (F.) Scott!

Sooo…this is going to be one of my nerdier posts. I’ve been a creative writer since I was a kid, but it really wasn’t until recent years that I devoted substantial time and effort to it. Before I was writing novels, I was writing essays, and sure enough I think the latter is a big obstacle I’ve been working through in order to improve at the former.

I had a professor once in grad school who’d given me an A on my biographical essay on Henry James. But he’d written something to the effect of, “You are a good writer. You could be a great one if you loosened your writing a little.” So no surprise that among initial feedback on a super-early draft of novel manuscript #1 was that its language was very “erudite” and needed relaxing to appeal more to readers. My writing has also been described as “dense” where one of my short stories is concerned—not necessarily meant in a bad way, but, well, I wasn’t really sure how to take it. My years in academia and business certainly did nothing to help my writing take a chill pill, so every new story I write, every revision I make (in my or others’ work) has been an exercise in smoothing and tightening my wording—which I’ve finally learned is not dumbing it down.

Anyway, with Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby out now, I’ve been reminiscing about the ol’ days as a student and teacher. Having approached this particular novel from both sides, it’s long been on my Top 5 list of favorite books; the pages of my paperback copy are covered in my chicken-scratchings, the well-creased binding falling readily open to certain scenes.

So needless to say, I was prepared to be critical of the film. (I viewed it in the apt setting of Notting Hill’s Electric Cinema, an opulent and crazy-cozy experience on the Portobello Road—I’m talking leather chairs with ottomans and a bar in the back. I could have fallen asleep from wine and comfort if I weren’t so dazzled by the film.) I’d seen early reviews disappointed in Gatsby as yet another miss in trying to bring the story to the big screen, but I have to say that, for what I personally take away from the book, I was satisfied. My vote is that Luhrmann captured its essence–including beating you over the head with its symbolism just like Fitzgerald does (hence, why it’s such a good book to teach in high school!). I even forgive the diversions it makes. Film is a different medium that requires different approaches, for one, and just because a film can’t be perceived as the definitive interpretation of a great story doesn’t mean it can’t be appreciated as an interpretation. And I adore the timelessness it evokes in blurring past with present, akin to Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which is yet another of my faves.

So what does this have to do with my stodgy academic writing? Well, after watching the film and mouthing along to lines I knew by heart, I went digging through my archives and found an essay I’d written about Gatsby in grad school. It compares Fitzgerald’s themes and characterization to another American novel, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! And providing the thematic framework for this analysis is a third book we’d read that quarter: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. O’Brien when he did a reading as part of the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” initiative. I also got rather intimate with Willa Cather for a literary research class, spending many hours curled up with her primary documents—many personal letters written and received—at Chicago’s Newberry Library. So for all these reasons, even ten years later, this essay still holds a special place in my heart.

Allow me, then, to share this Ghost of Writing Past with you. Below is only the intro paragraph, but the complete essay can be found at this page: http://wp.me/PLJnP-Ys

The Things Men Carry Inside

“It was very sad…The things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do.”—The Things They Carried (TTTC), p. 25

The above quotation from Tim O’Brien’s novel about the Vietnam war, The Things They Carried, provides a philosophical commentary on the inner struggles of mankind that transcends the war context. Addressing the universality of the human condition, O’Brien’s tales depict soldiers who, while facing a different physical landscape than that encountered by the characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, nonetheless map out an emotional frontier tread upon by their Western pioneer and Eastern society counterparts. Specifically, Emil Bergson and Jay Gatsby embody all the hope and ambition characteristic of the American spirit, yet also the fear and despair that can accompany fleeting ideals in the face of unrelenting reality. Such dreams prove the torment of not only their beholders, however, but of the other men upon whose lives they encroach. Frank Shabata, Tom Buchanan, and George Wilson likewise grapple with their own vulnerabilities, and, when they are crossed with Emil and Gatsby’s parallel romantic aspirations, primal instinct conquers civilized decency. As these five men do what they feel they must in order to achieve or thwart their dreams and fears, they become a study in what brings happiness and value to one’s life. [Read more…]

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Revisal of the Shittest

“I believe imagination is like a Darwinian system.”

sock monkey image from cthulhufhtagn.deviantart.com

In the above quotation from the novel Sophie’s World (which I finally got through a week ago), Alberto Knox—the story’s philosopher—discusses with Sophie the nature of creativity and how it follows the natural selection of Darwinism:

“Thought-mutants occur in the consciousness one after the other, at least if we refrain from censoring ourselves too much.  But only some of these thoughts can be used.  Here, reason comes into its own.  It, too, has a vital function.  When the day’s catch is laid on the table we must not forget to be selective.”

Oh, that Alberto and his way with analogies…sorry, can’t help being sarcastic toward this book. Disregarding the tremendous education on philosophy it provides (which in itself is good reason to read the novel, and I’m glad that I did), it’s the fictional aspect of the plot that pricked into my skin like so many fleas in my fur. An interesting attempt to provide an entertaining means of digesting large concepts and history, the fictitious story line that distinguishes this as a “novel” versus “textbook” fell a little flat for me. The dialogue was unbelievably forced (most of Sophie’s comments/questions simply served as breaks or segues in the long lectures), and though it takes an interesting twist mid-way through, the characters and thin plot just didn’t endear themselves. Quite frankly, I found Sophie to be a precocious little twit. But I digress…

In any case, what he’s getting at here is that imagination generates the ideas, but reason weeds out the “mutants” and selects the best ones to carry on.  The plot twist in the book also ushered in some self-reflexive commentary on writing and the manipulative power the writer has over those ideas, settings, and characters in his/her charge. As far as the creative process in general, Alberto continues to say (with another analogy in practically the same breath as the first…):

“Maybe the imagination creates what is new, but the imagination does not make the actual selection.  The imagination does not ‘compose.’ A composition—and every work of art is one—is created in a wondrous interplay between imagination and reason, or between mind and reflection.  For there will always be an element of chance in the creative process.  You have to turn the sheep loose before you can start to herd them.”

This “wondrous interplay” is what laboriously polishes our inspired first drafts into final manuscripts. It’s what also keeps us in check so we don’t overly pillage our paragraphs of the words and thoughts that breathe soul into them; all too often, reason defeats imagination when there should instead be a balance of power.

Unlike the negligent Dr. Frankenstein, however, we do need to be mindful of what we bring into being. Our stories inspire us, they speak to us, they surprise us, yes, but they also rely on us to nurture and shape them, to help find a suitable place in the world for them. It’s still essential to follow the writing rules so we don’t feed our stories after midnight or get them wet, thereby leaving the sweet Mogwais of our imagination to metamorphose into Gremlins of loose redundancy and holes. That said, I don’t mean to be harsh on our uncensored minds, and perhaps my title isn’t fair in calling our first drafts “shit”…but far be it from me to pass up a good rhyme, and, anyways, sometimes they just really are ;).  (I think Sophie’s World, for example, might’ve benefited from another read-through…)

Serendipitously, at the same time as I’d read the chapter quoted here and mulled over this intellectual tightrope, Tahlia (author of Lethal Inheritance who blogs on the site of same name) posted “Do we write a story or uncover it?“—here, she asks how much we write using our rational intellect versus not thinking and just going with the flow.  It seems we universally tread this fine line, leaving us with this:  To think or not to think…that is the question when it comes to the evolution of our story.


If Truth Be Told…


Halfway through Sophie’s World, and it keeps prompting new thoughts.  Well, more accurately, the history of philosophy that it shares does.

Though dear Sophie and I have already progressed to the 18th century, Plato’s ancient allegory of the cave continues to flicker in my mind like the flame casting shadows onto the back of the cave wall.  If you aren’t familiar with the story, the basic idea is this: 

Visualize a cave with people seated with their backs to its opening.  They are therefore only able to see the back of the cave wall, which is dancing with the shadows of objects held behind the people and in front a fire.  The people are unable to turn around, thus only know the world from these vague shadows of what’s transpiring beyond them outside of the cave.  

In this myth, the actual objects (which would be seen in clearer detail if the people turned around to look at them directly) represent the world of ideas, whereas the shadows are only our perception of the material world.  Plato believed that true knowledge could not be gained through our senses, but, rather, our reason.  Thus, the enlightened ones who try to see beyond their physical world into the realm of ideas will see with clarity and truth.

So why do most of us keep our backs to the cave opening, staring into the darkness and shadows?  Is it because we choose not to see or aren’t able to?  When I think of this myth literally, I pretend that I’m the one to stand up and look around at what is creating the shadows.  My eyes having been adjusted to the dark all this time, I’d think they’d be pierced by the bright fire/daylight.  This then makes me think of the Emily Dickinson poem:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Methinks Miss Dickinson and Colonel Jessep share something in common—though Emily might agree we ordinary folk are entitled to the truth, neither believes we can handle it.  For that matter, how would everyone else in my cave respond if I suddenly told them what I saw?  Would they believe me?  Be shocked by it?  Deny it?

Me-then thinks perhaps stories are a way we writers try to help the medicine go down.  Hey, Plato’s allegory is a case in point, is it not?  Stories help us to better understand truths through visualization and creative “slant”—no, not lies, just not necessarily the facts either when it comes to fiction.  And I shouldn’t imply that it’s “sugar-coating”; indeed, stories well-told will intensify rather than dilute, expressed in engaging, vivid ways that make a reader receptive to even the grittier stuff.

Years ago, I attended a lecture  by Tim O’Brien in which he discussed his novel The Things They Carried.  Written in the first person and narrated by a character whose name was also Tim and who also fought in Vietnam, the book reads like it’s the author’s memoir.  O’Brien clarified, however, that while much of the novel is based on his real life, it is a novel.  Flip to the inside cover and see that it is denoted as a work of fiction (there are many semi-autobiographical narratives that are, which many don’t realize until Oprah exposes it mercilessly on her show…*ahem* A Million Little Pieces *cough*…Night is arguably another—and oh, hey, just look whose book club it’s in…).

Basically, O’Brien said he had to stray from writing the factual truth in order to tell the absolute Truth.  He likened it to catching your first fish; sure, it might be scrawny, but your excitement is massive.  In order to get someone else as excited about your catch as you are, you might stretch your hands further apart from the few inches of, “It was this big,” to the two-foot length of, “It was THIS BIG!!”  Describing a tiny bluegill as a giant catfish isn’t factually true, but your friend’s commensurate reaction is the Truth of what you actually felt.  Likewise, O’Brien believed that for anyone who didn’t experience Vietnam to feel remotely the way he felt when he was there, he needed to tell it differently.

So my question for YOU is this:  what Truths do you write or read about?  Which of your stories (or those you’ve read) do you think do a particularly effective job of helping the reader “handle the truth” and why?


What Happens in a Meadow at Dusk?

“[L]ong before the child learns to talk properly—and long before it learns to think philosophically—the world will have become a habit.  A pity, if you ask me.”  – Sophie’s World

I’m currently reading a book that I’ve had sitting on my bookshelf for years.  I literally moved it across an ocean two years ago, and still it had sat mutely, patiently, until I finally plucked it out and cracked it open a few days ago:  Sophie’s World.  I’m only a quarter of the way through it, so will withhold offering a critique, but so far I’m enjoying the questions it raises—it’s essentially taking your own correspondence course in philosophy, without getting graded 🙂    Less than twenty pages in, I was struck by the above quotation…I hadn’t really reflected on how the world becomes a “habit” as we age:

“The world itself becomes a habit in no time at all.  It seems as if in the process of growing up we lose the ability to wonder about the world.  And in doing so, we lose something central—something philosophers try to restore.  For somewhere inside ourselves, something tells us that life is a huge mystery.  This is something we once experienced, long before we learned to think the thought.”

At this point, the “philosopher” instructing our protagonist, Sophie, has been pointing out how infants and young children look about at everything surrounding them with wonder, getting excited about even the little things we adults come to take for granted through familiarity.

I’m not going to wax philosophical on this, but what it did make me think about is how writers seem to be blessed with the ability to behold the world with that same wonder we did as children.  We have to, really, in order to continue creating our own little worlds. 

The writer is someone for whom a bus ride is not merely from Point A to Point B; rather, it’s an exercise in character study as we little voyeurs observe those in such close proximity that it almost seems weirder to pretend that they’re not there (as the masses do on the London Underground…the eye aversion is almost unbearable – and on sidewalks, too!  This Chi-town gal misses eye-contact *sigh*).  Anyways, we watch these people, speculate on where they’re going, where they’re coming from, what their whole backstory might be.  We get ideas in our noggins as to the perfect character to insert into our current tales or on which to base a whole new novel…all thanks to paying some attention to the real people right under our noses.

We notice subtleties, the body language that suggests insecurities or the butterfly that carries so many metaphors aloft the breezes of its wings.  We notice with a painter’s eye that the clouds aren’t just white and that the sofa is illuminated differently when the sun shines in from that late-afternoon angle.  We notice the people who smile to themselves when they think no one’s looking and that a tree can look sad, hopeful, or maternal.  We notice what a gust of fresh air feels like in our lungs, through our hair, and the new story ideas that the sensation can conjure.

We can describe what happens in a meadow at dusk.

We behold the world with wonder, and the beauty is that not only are we richer for it, but we have the calling that compels us to write it down so that others might experience the world through our eyes and look at it as though for the first time through their own.  There is not always beauty in this awareness; in fact, we may reveal the darker sides of humanity and tell gritty, disturbing stories without that happy ending.  But what there will always be is Truth – I’m talking the capital ‘T’ truth so long as we write, to the best of our abilities, what it is we wonder at through our genuine voices.  That is what makes a story authentic and universal, for something has told us that “life is a huge mystery,” and now that we can think the thought, we can write it.


The Shotgun-Shack Story: Nowhere to Hide

The-Breakfast-Club-movies-21223076-1558-800

I’ve been sitting on a topic for a while that a recent blog post on Lethal Inheritance  has spurred me to finally write.  In Tahlia’s post, “Is writing the second novel easier than the first?“, she discusses how she has started writing her second book while her first manuscript awaits publishing.  She mentions ways in which this second story line differs from the first:

“[I]t takes place almost entirely in one set of adjoining suites in a castle, whereas Lethal Inheritance’s scenery is always changing. Thirdly, it’s character, relationship and emotion driven, rather than action driven. For me, that’s a harder brief, and that’s why I’m not sure at this stage if I can make it work.”

To which I responded:

“What I’ve been working on to date falls in that [same] category; there are not dramatic changes in setting or adrenaline-rushing action as it’s very concentrated on the psychological/emotional variations in my protagonist as she questions identity and her perceptions of reality.”

I proceeded to say that, though this is the type of story I’m personally drawn to, I realize it doesn’t necessarily have the mass-market appeal that would get it snatched up for publication.  And that’s okay—I am definitely writing the story I want to write; I started rereading it from the beginning yesterday and am all the more convinced of that.

So, today I’m dedicating this post to those incredible stories out there that capture our attention without catering to the modern-day ADD bred by MTV-esque rapid editing and car chases and explosions.  I’m not saying I’m not likewise entertained by the action-packed tales, just that they are not the only ones capable of, in fact, entertaining.

I attended a writing seminar last year in which a panel of agents, publishers, and authors spoke on the craft of writing in conjunction with getting published.  Someone in the audience had asked about commercial versus literary fiction, and an author responded that “commercial” fiction is story-driven whereas “literary” fiction prioritizes language and ideas—it is read for the beauty of the words and provocation of thought.  She attested that many authors try to combine both.

This got me thinking, then, about the more character-driven stories that I enjoy.  Where films go, I noticed a trend in my collection of one-setting movies; indeed, some partake in just one room.  Think about that!  One room.  If a film or novel can captivate you all the way through by virtue of situation and dialogue without having to change settings, that is a brilliantly written manuscript, in my opinion.

Don’t believe me?  Try watching Rear Window, 12 Angry Men, Rope, or, hey, even The Breakfast Club—all of which take place in a single room (with the exception of maybe a minute or two outside)—and tell me that you aren’t entertained.  These are carried by characterization and dialogue, just like other favorites of mine:  Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset (which both admittedly change settings, but the respective cities of Vienna and Paris are just backdrops to the characters’ ongoing conversation), The Anniversary Party (an ensemble cast in a Hollywood couple’s home), and Gosford Park (in the vein of the Agatha Christie books I loved as a kid that transpire in a single setting—a mansion in And Then There Were None and a train in Murder on the Orient Express).  And it doesn’t take dramatic, in-your-face action and cutting from setting to setting to get the blood rushing, as not only evidenced by these mysteries and the two aforementioned Hitchcock films (Rear Window and Rope), but in haunting thrillers like Dead Calm and The Others as well…which coincidentally both star Nicole Kidman, the first taking place on a sailboat and the second in yet another old English mansion.

In speaking on setting, the visual examples of this most readily come to my mind through film, but the success in capturing even a viewer’s attention in this case comes down to the writing.  The writer scripts the dialogue and envisions the setting and behavior of the characters—in film, the director then works to capture this audiovisually.  Yet in a novel, it is all on the writer to convey these elements entirely in words.

Stripping away the attractive actors, elaborate sets, and soundtracks does not render mere words dull, nor is a single/minimal-setting book a bore.  If that were the case, where would that leave the classic works of authors like Austen or Bronte, whose stories don’t deviate far from the character’s homes.  Think of the chill sent down the spine by novellas like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw or Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (houses), the adrenaline and fury aboard Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (boat), or the intimate existential conversation in Salinger’s Franny & Zoe (the entire second part moves only from the bathroom to the living room) or Boethius’s 6th-century The Consolation of Philosophy (a prisoner speaks with Fortune in his cell).

What is it about the single-setting that so fascinates me?  I suppose it’s in part the appreciation I feel for the effectiveness of story-telling that doesn’t rely on bells and whistles.  And it’s the great experiment of what happens when you isolate people in a room—throw in a dash of tension, stir, and bring to a boil.  It becomes a study of humanity when characters aren’t able to escape each other or even themselves:

There is much heart, soul-seeking, and thrill to be had within four walls.  A writer can most certainly pull it off, though the impact can only be as strong as the writing itself in bringing it from the corners of a room to the corners of the mind.

How about you, readers and writers—do you gravitate toward the story-driven or character-driven?  What are some examples that successfully combine both?


The Fear Factor


The Prompt:

I love how Bonni Goldberg relates writing to medicine when it comes to protecting us against our fears:

“You take small doses of your fears in combination with written words and they create a kind of antibody: a cathartic human experience that authenticates your strength and fragility.”

Page 42 of Room to Write, then, asks us to write a list of our fears and describe one in more specific detail.

Response:

Some things I fear:

– geese

– clowns

– confined spaces

– death (mine, but mostly loved ones)

– being in any way “too late” for anything by the time I move back home

– losing my sight or hearing

– the debilitating effects of aging

– having children

– lack of purpose

– never finishing my book

– rejection

– regret

Okay, I think that’ll do.  Now, to pick just one…it’s tempting to go the route of writing-related fears, but I think I devote enough of this blog to that!  How about the “too late” factor, as I feel it’s one needing more explaining:

The fact that my aging parents continue to age in my absence while living abroad positively terrifies me.  I know many will find that irrational and say that I have to live my own life, but I will never, never forgive myself if something happens to either of them while I am an ocean away.  Just writing this right now is bringing me to tears.  It is something I really, truly cannot stand to fathom.  And I don’t want to miss out on my nieces’ and nephews’ milestones, nor do I want the littlest ones to not know their Auntie.  I am not the person who realizes what they have only when it is “too late”; I’m the person who has always known perhaps too clearly, which is why I would have never left in the first place if it were only up to me.  I don’t think of it as something holding me back; being with my family is actually part and parcel of my life’s ambitions, so anyone who thinks I should feel otherwise can suck it 🙂

My own aging has started to frighten me as well.  I don’t consider myself to be old, but my husband and I have agreed to wait until we return home to our support network before starting a family, at which time I will most definitely be at the infamous cut-off age that younger mommies love to throw out there as the danger zone of higher risks and mandatory tests.  Gee, thanks for making me feel geriatric.  Sorry my last decade has been pleasurable and focused on my needs and catering to my own identity before I give it over so fully to a little person of my making.  I genuinely hope I didn’t just offend any mothers reading this—I think parenting is the most noble occupation for one to assume, but it’s not my fault that I didn’t get married until after my friends were already popping out kids and that other life changes have thrown me for a loop such that there’s a lot I need to get sorted before I feel I could do a remotely good job of it myself.  So I’ll put off applying for that particular position a bit longer; yes, I know, at my own risk.  *eyes rolling*

Returning to find that my old job (for which I was only 1 year away from getting tenure) is not remotely available to me anymore is scary.  I moved the very week that the economy tanked, and what I’d considered a recession-proof job has still managed many layoffs since then, and some departments have frozen their hiring.  Barring that, even if I can vie for a position, perhaps I’ll be judged negatively for my time away from teaching; the powers that be may frown upon my rationale, not find value in how I’ve chosen to apply myself since then.  Even worse, what if I fear teaching itself?  After such a long hiatus, I’m no longer riding the momentum of consecutive years ramping up in the profession.  The flexibility (and sleeping in!) of my present days will be lost, and never doubt the intimidation of staring down 125+ teenagers a day and, even worse, their parents who will too quickly point the finger at you for the consequences of their own lack of parenting at home.  Then again, if I end up not having kids of my own, teaching is a great way to play surrogate.

I think what is overall frightening me is the realization that my life at home did not simply freeze once I took off on that plane, preserved in its tableau of near-perfection while I have my fun and then return to reinsert myself seamlessly back into it.  I will not be entirely the same person either, after all; current experiences are carving me from a square to an octagon-shaped peg.  So I fear the transition that will be repatriation, after expatriation was already so difficult.  I fear feeling out of place in my own home and possibly acknowledging a discontent that wouldn’t have otherwise been there.

But, you know, so be it.  Rejoining my family, starting a family, returning to teaching…I cannot think of three things more worth facing that fear.

Reflection:

First of all, allow me to apologize.  Addressing personal fear just automatically lends itself to a whiny rambling of self-pity, so thank you for bearing with me through it if you’ve made it this far 🙂  I don’t think this activity has brought out any special writing, per se…the fears are plain, so embellishment didn’t come naturally—the way I wrote it is not creative or revelatory.  It didn’t make me realize anything new about myself.

Maybe selecting a different fear or writing in another frame of mind would have made all the difference, but the one thing I can take away from this exercise is the fact that Goldberg was right!  When I started writing about this, as I said, it made me cry—it thrust me into my fear and made me tremble in the face of it.  And yet the more I wrote, the easier it was to pull out of this vulnerable state; putting it in writing made it very plain to see that, while my fears may be justified, they really aren’t as big of a deal as I sometimes let them be.  The more I wrote, the more my heart quieted and the more my mind said, “Poor you with the wonderful family and profession and wonderful period of creative flexibility and travel that you have in-between.  To have had it as long as you did is a gift, and you still might get your cake back to eat it too—or even be okay if you don’t.  So in the meantime, buck up.  Deal.”

In short, facing my fears was embracing my blessings.

And you, brave readers of mine?  What are you so afraid of? And how might your fears impact your writing?


Speak and Spell

I’m presently hosting cousins who are in town visiting, and we attended the evensong service at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  I confess that I usually tune out during church readings and sermons—really, when anyone has been talking too long—and it’s that much harder to keep focus when my eye has a massive dome and intricate mosaics, sculptures, and paintings to wander about.  A surreal kind of solitude even in a room filled with people.

In any case, because I’m visual and we had a program containing the readings and songs, I did catch this passage:

“If [the flute or the harp] do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played?  And if the bugle give an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?  So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said?  For you will be speaking into the air.  There are doubtless many different kinds of sounds in the world, and nothing is without sound.  If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.”  – from 1 Corinthians 14

Now, the context of this passage regards speaking in “tongues”—i.e., spreading God’s message in different languages that people may not understand without interpretation.  Yet it got me thinking about language in general and the way people communicate with each other even within the same language that they all understand.  This transports me back to the first days of school explaining to students why taking an English class is necessary—not as in learning the language itself, but, rather, learning all the possibilities of how to use that language.  I told them that they could have the most brilliant ideas in the world, but it won’t mean anything if they can’t communicate them clearly.

For students, the technical ways to communicate are the starting point.  [DISCLAIMER:  My criticism is limited to those who butcher their first language only.  My hats off to those who speak another language at any level, as it’s more than I’ve achieved.]

I could go on and on about how many times I caught text-message-ease infiltrating formal essays (yes, “u” instead of “you” appeared countless times) and how proof-reading is a lost art thanks to Spell-Check being taken for granted (need I mention the infamous “there”/”their”/”they’re” problem)?  Maybe I’m just a stickler—after all, I’m not immune to such errors when I’m writing quickly, and naturally leave it to a teenage wisenheimer to bring to my attention the Cambridge study on spelling—but it becomes increasingly alarming to me when I catch more and more typos on menus, signs, and other messages in print.  I don’t know if any of you WordPress users had the same issue, but I couldn’t get into my blog the other day because “Writes to access this site have been disabled.”  Really?

But this isn’t what I mean to harp on (and I don’t want everyone whose stuff I read to fear my teacher’s red pen :)), so I digress…

What I really want to address relates at least in part to Cities of Mind‘s comment on my earlier post:

“I decided that maybe what you do is write the book you want to write, in a way people want to read it.”

This lingered in my mind, and, while the ways in which people want to read a story may encompass several factors (e.g., engaging through suspense or pacing), I thought about how important a story’s overall readability is in the first place—i.e., the ease with which readers can comprehend what is written without having to read through a sentence three times before understanding what it’s getting at.   This ended up echoed in my own sister’s words during her recent local TV interview (which I had to see on her blog before that modest little stinker even showed it to me!).  Starting out in that oh-so soulful world of Finance like myself, when asked how she shifted gears from “boring” financial writing to creative writing, she responded that the former actually helped:

“One thing that was always pounded into me was, ‘This needs to be understandable to the clients,’ so [business writing helped me] for getting the message across and understandable to the reader.  So as far as the passion and the creativity of the story, that part was kind of easy to just have, but to get it written down so that someone else would read it and feel and see the characters the same way that I wanted them to, [I go through a lot of editing] to just think of it from the reader’s point of view.”

I suppose that’s mostly what the “rules” are all about, ensuring that the vivid images and concepts in our minds are translated into words that recreate the thoughts in the reader’s own mind.  This is the fundamental principle of communication, whereby the Sender relays a Message to the Receiver.  If the Receiver does not understand the Message, the Sender has failed to communicate effectively.  And, as Cities of the Mind puts it, we should relay our messages in a way the reader would best welcome them.

The English language is extremely word-rich, so we must take advantage of its possibilities, appreciate the options for syntax and structure, the varying degrees of meaning conveyed by carefully choosing among synonyms like “pretty,” “beautiful,” and “gorgeous,” and not speak into the air in haughtily intellectual or overly abstract ways (mind you, this does not mean dumbing it down either).  A story is meant to be shared, so keep it clear, keep it accessible, and—just as importantly—keep it honest.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity” – George Orwell


Writer Rules. I mean, Writers Rule!

I recently read a post on the Here Be Dragons blog entitled, “Are We Having Fun Yet?” in which the author, Agatha, shares a refreshing, honest rant over the agony that can be refining a manuscript into its final draft.  She references Stephen King’s book On Writing (which many keep recommending and my slack-ass has yet to read) and specifically addresses a few writing rules that are compounding her frustration, such as how to approach that infamous first chapter (i.e., beginning at the beginning of the action to hook the reader rather than leading in with too much description of setting) and the debatable requirement that there be tension on every single page.

This got me thinking about all the RULES we new writers are trying so diligently to follow to not only write that novel, but also craft it into something marketable so it has a shot at getting published.  We scour the blogosphere for the sage wisdom of literary agents and published authors, and we look to our most beloved books for guidance.  It goes without saying that the pressure this places on us is tremendous, especially when we look back to the precious first drafts we wrote from our hearts and realize they are violating rules left and right…

Suddenly the Adverb becomes our arch nemesis, and we’re playing Whack-a-Mole against any dialogue tags other than Said.

A few months back, The Guardian (inspired by Elmore Leonard’s The 10 Rules of Writing) published the article “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” in which they surveyed 29 renowned authors for their own list of dos and don’ts.  This was a fascinating read for me.  At first, it overwhelmed me, because of course as I scanned down the screen I was tripping over everything that I apparently do wrong…and yet, the more author lists that I read, the more I noticed how varied their perspectives were.  For being a list of “rules,” it if anything taught me there is no consistent formula set in stone.

While there are no doubt sound universal suggestions out there we should adhere to, I think we also need to find solace in the fact that there couldn’t possibly be a one-size-fits all approach to writing a good book.  We are all unique and have something different to bring to the table, and that’s something that should be celebrated in our writing as well.  I particularly like how Ollin Morales (Courage 2 Create blog) phrased it in his comment on Agatha’s post:

“I’d rather write a book that I love and everybody hates, than one that everybody loves and I hate.”

True dat.  And I also commend the truth Corra McFeydon just shared in her A Lit Major’s Notebook blog, a post appropriately titled, “The Truth.”  It is here that Corra, also in the process of writing a novel, admits that she does not desire to be a professional writer because, right now at least, it’s killing her spirit in what she loved about writing in the first place.  Seeking to break free from the rules and schedules that constrict her, she asserts:

“That’s why my novel will be written when the spirit hits me — as a product of my intensity, my laughter, and my free spirit — even though apparently that’s not how to be successful.”

I began this project for me, and if it remains just for myself after I’ve at least given it a shot at going elsewhere, so be it if I’m happy with the end product.  But even abiding by our own expectations entails discipline as we make time for our writing and edit it until it becomes the best version of itself.  I think most of the rules I’m opting to follow these days are self-imposed based on my own standards (which are quite high—I’m an English teacher after all, and grade myself constantly ;)).

That being said, one external rule I’m trying to stick to is the advised first-time-author word count of 100,000—not in my first draft that I’m wrapping up presently, but when I go back through to polish up.  Yet another blog post I recently read that I really appreciate for its straightforward guidance on how to cut, let’s say, 19,000 words for a final manuscript is, well, “How to Cut 19,000 Words” from the ‘Lethal Inheritance’ blog—Tahlia Newland tells us how she did just that when her agent asked her trim down her YA fantasy novel of same name.  I was at first absolutely psyched out that cutting words meant cutting entire paragraphs and chapters—and sometimes it does and perhaps will, but it’s reassuring to know that it can be achieved on a sentence/word level as well, an edit so subtle you’d hardly miss a thing.

I’m curious:  Which writing rules do YOU swear by?  And which rules do you think are totally bogus?

Argh.  Can you even imagine Jane Austen sweating it out like this?  I can’t imagine she was slapped in the face by rules at every turn, as we are at every page we flip and link we click.  But then again…


The Levity of Brevity

[Time to kick it old school…yeeeah boyee!] Just found out my first attempt at writing a Nanoism is scheduled to publish in July.  A Nanoism is microfiction based on Twitter-length stories—that’s right, up to 140 characters.  Microfiction is a trend relatively new to me, but one that writer Milo James Fowler (In Media Res blog), utilizes as a means of keeping his creativity flowing during and between writing stories—one of his submissions (75-words only) was recently published at Paragraph Planet.  And now I’m appreciating it as a tool for practicing how to pare down.

I can dash off a 10-20 page essay with relative ease, but it was back in grad school when I was asked to write only 2-3 pages comparing/contrasting 3 works of fiction that I suffered my first true writer’s block.  The notes I’d taken in preparation weren’t even that succinct, so just when I felt my extensive planning would make the writing a cinch, trying to pull it all together within that parameter had me seriously contemplating just dropping out of a $1,500 class (non-refundable by that time, of course. Ouch.).

“Brevity is a great charm of eloquence.”  – Cicero

Conciseness is an art.  Truly.  Go figure that it was probably my first career in business that ultimately saw me through that essay—though it sucked the creative soul out of writing, it taught me a thing or two about keeping it brief and direct, and…well…any of you who read my stuff here will see that that particular skill has by now gone to the wayside…gah, I recently sent off a guest post weighing in at just under 2,000 words (scheduled for Real Bloggers United on July 17th), which has me contemplating the value of getting to the point faster.

“Let thy speech be short, comprehending much in few words.”
–  Bible, Ecclesiasticus

“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
– Thomas Jefferson

Admittedly, one of the factors that initially delayed me in writing my manuscript’s ending was word count.  At 90,000, I’d estimated I was about three-quarters through when a concerned author told me that’s the length my entire work should be as a newbie.  So thinking about both the tremendous hacking I was going to have to do in addition to still writing said ending sent me into panic, which I’ve only just recently released.  Basically, I’ve adopted the mindset that I need to just let myself carry the story out freely and deal with the editing afterwards, which has helped, though the inevitable still hovers over my head like the guillotine blade I’ll need to use on my text, the executioner of my own words 😦

This all being said, what I have trimmed out so far has clearly strengthened the story, just as my sage advisers always said it would, so I do trust in that.  And as I look at bits I’ve scribbled along the way and always assumed would have a place in my book, I understand now that if they didn’t meld in naturally by this point, to attempt to include them now would be about as thrilling to me as gouging a funnel down a duck’s neck to make myself foie gras.  I think instead I’ll measure out those grains for a less fatty entree or side dish in future meals…

So.  I’ve lapsed on updating this blog until today because I have indeed been cranking on my ending as well as going back to the beginning to ensure there’s balance—and, in doing so, I can see how my writing has evolved over the course of this long project…how my sentences were much longer and more complex, my descriptions more frequent…it seems I’ve since learned a wee bit more about the art of condensing, so may need to retroactively apply that to those opening chapters so the overall work can shed that fat and really flex its muscles.

“It is with words as with sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.”  – Robert Southey

Huh.  I thought I’d be brief with this post.  Oh, the irony.


The Natural State

“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”    – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The Prompt:

Today I’m skipping to page 26 of Room to Write, which asks us to write about Nature—we can discuss it in terms of either the outdoors or our human nature.  Or, as a third alternative, write about both and connect them together.

Response:

Life finding a way.

Nature peeks in at my window from the flower box, offering a contrasting visual to the street traffic that I hear below.  The roof that I otherwise view out our flat’s front windows is gradually becoming obscured by the tree buds that are cracking open to unfurl their vibrant sources of shade.  While Autumn will always reign as my favorite season, there’s no question that Spring is the one that consistently unleashes the euphoria…in Chicago, it meant the cessation of the bitter cold with no more fear of a surprise snowstorm to dig your car out of as you curse into the winds; here in London, it means more gaps between the oppressive cloud-cover that has given me mole-eyes with extreme sensitivity to this golden, natural light we’re delighting in now.  As opposed to the droning hum of fluorescent lighting that dulls our pallor to that of corpses, the sunshine has slurped up the puddles for the time being and is grinning at all the people glad to scurry about in lighter jackets and exposed toenails.

But I don’t mean to make this about the weather, just the effect that it has on the human psyche, making us feel an urge to interact with it, be a part of it.  Nature expands our lungs, colors our cheeks, infuses us with a sparkle that we risk losing when all we may come into contact with day-to-day is the plastic of pens, kettle handles, or keyboards pushing against our fingertips along with the cool metal of doorknobs and pocket change.  Even the natural grain of our wooden furniture’s once living existence is separated from our skin with a layer of varnish, the embalming fluid of trees.

I once attended a series of debates at St. Paul’s Cathedral during which theologians and scientists discussed the nature of the soul (if interested, you can read the full transcript here).  While they went on to distinguish the soul from the spirit, one panel member (Keith Ward, Emeritus Regius Professor of Divinity, Oxford University) had this to say of both:

“[A]ll living things—all animals, even vegetables, potatoes and tomatoes—have souls.  They all have living principles.  So having a soul, for the Bible, isn’t what makes human beings special.”

“Every living thing has the breath of life, which is the spirit.”

Regardless of anyone’s religious beliefs—that is what made these debates so fascinating after all, as panel members across the series represented Christianity, Judaism, Agnosticism, and Atheism, and found more common ground than disparate, as far as I perceived—I think the above captures a sense that people can share universally.  It is that “living principle,” that “breath of life” that we share with Nature, and this is what binds us together no matter how much we try to distinguish ourselves by our intellect and emotion.  If this is a way that we humans are not special, that means we can commune with Nature as our brethren, giving and receiving energy from one another in much the same way we breath the oxygen plants give off only to expel the carbon dioxide they need to photosynthesize in return.

When I stand on a mountain or swim in the sea, there is something so gorgeous about the vision and experience of it that I could cry, for it taps into my own primal nature that remains embedded in my core, nonmalleable to societal influences that may otherwise shape me for better or worse.  Nature vs. Nurture is a whole other tangent on which I could take this topic, but I shall hold off on that other than to say I personally believe both factors are at play when it comes to who we are and who we become.  Our nature, however, is akin to that persistent vine that finds its way through the cracks of a stone wall; aspects of who we are at our roots are likewise things to be nourished so that they can flourish or perhaps be plucked like weeds when we recognize the bad that could come of them (the very duality addressed in my “Mad Me?” post and your comments).  Think about it; we constantly address ourselves in terms of vegetation:  early or late bloomers, budding, blossoming, being planted, rooted/uprooted, fertile, and so on.  This metaphorical language doesn’t come from nowhere; we draw comparisons of ourselves to images we somehow intuitively understand, and, in doing so, better understand ourselves.

Reflection:

On looking back at this entry, I see that I automatically addressed the gentler side of Nature.  This is the hopeful, inspiring aspect of the outdoors that we can embrace for a healthier mind, body, and soul.  Yet I would be remiss not to footnote here that I stand in awe of Nature in a fearful way as well.  It has a tremendous force that humbles us through what we term “natural disaster”:  earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, tornado, and most recently, volcanic eruption.  I literally just jumped out of my chair to look outside at the first sound of an airplane I’ve heard in days—sure enough, I just watched it fly past.  It’s been an experience directly observing the impact of the ash, leaving people stranded in a way that didn’t occur 200 years ago when Iceland’s volcano last erupted (and did so for a year!).  We take our air travel for granted and have felt practically paralyzed at being sent back to an earlier time when such was not an option.  Of course, though, our next escape routes became our trains, cars, and boats.

But envision if we did peel back the layers of technological innovation and retreated to our more basic, natural selves:

“If we assume man has been corrupted by an artificial civilization, what is the natural state?  The state of nature from which he has been removed?  Imagine wandering up and down the forest, without industry, without speech and without home.”    – Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men

What are your thoughts on Nature (in any of its respects), and how do you think such contemplation impacts what and how we write?


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