The Power of Words, Part IV: Temperature

In a manuscript workshop I recently conducted, a participant submitted a story in which the antagonist chose the dark side after being forced by his government captors to watch his daughter’s burning at the stake. The scene had lots of sweating, lots of writhing, fingernails clawing dirt, and underneath it all, the frantic drumbeat of a heart.  The father’s, not the daughter’s. The scene was written from the father’s point of view.

So? What’s wrong with that?  Of course that’s what would happen. That’s how any father would feel.

Except its effect is to make an observer of the reader. The reader wants to be present as participant.  The reader reads to have emotional adventures for which he will never have to pay the price.

Here’s Chekhov speaking to the subject:

When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder — that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly. Whereas in your story the characters cry and you sigh. Yes, be more cold. … The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.
- Anton Chekhov to Lydia Avilova, March 19, 1892 & April 29, 1892

Be objective, Chekhov says. Your point-of-view character is your subject, not the object. The object is what he’s watching. The object is his daughter. Describe the burning. Describe it coldly, Chekhov says. Does that mean put out the fire? Not at all. The fire’s burning hot. It’s licking at her hem. She’s pulled her feet up on the stake, to keep them from the flames. Tell me how the fire smells. What fabric is her gown? Do you know the smell of burning wood, burning rope, and burning wool? How thick is the smoke? Who is in the audience. How does a burning woman sound? She’s in terror but not keening yet. Does she speak? Does he?  He’s seen that look in her eyes before, when she was frightened as a child, the night her mother died. What does he remember of that night? Does he think about the days to come? How it will feel to be without her in the world? Who does he hate on her account? At this point I feel his muscles flex. You might let him chafe at his restraints. But keep in mind:  For a scene this dramatic, you want to keep it cold. Let the reader see it, feel it for himself, with concrete sensory detail.

Here’s an example, extracted from Irving Shaw’s The Young Lions.  In this scene France has been occupied by the Germans in World War II.  Now, the Americans have arrived and the Frenchmen is grateful to welcome an American officer (Pavone) and the driver of his jeep (Michael), both of whom share a plural point-of-view.

“When the first American planes flew over, even though they dropped bombs on us, I stood up on my roof and waved.  And now you are here, in person.  I also understand,” he said delicately, “why you took so long in coming.”

“Thank you,” said Pavone again.

“A war is not a matter of minutes, no matter what some people say.  And each war takes longer than the one before it.  It is the simple arithmetic of history.”  The Frenchman nodded vigorously in emphasis.  “I do not deny it was not pleasant waiting.  You have no idea what the Germans are like, to live under day after day.” The Frenchman whipped out an old, tattered leather wallet and flipped it open.  “All during the occupation, from the first day, I carried this.”  He showed the wallet to Pavone and Michael bent forward to look at it.  There was a waded piece of tricolor bunting from a penny flag under the yellow celluloid cover in the wallet.  “If they had found it on me,” the Frenchman said, regarding the sleazy muslin, “they would have killed me.  But I carried it, four years.”

He sighed, and put the wallet away. 

“I have just come back from the front,” he announced.  “Someone told me, on the bridge across the river, in the middle, between the British and the Germans, there is an old woman lying.  Go and see if it is your wife.  I went and looked.”  He paused and stared up at the damaged church steeple.  “It was my wife.”

 He stood in silence, stroking the jeep.  Neither Pavone nor Michael said anything.  “Forty years,” the Frenchman said.  “We were married forty years.  We had our ups and downs.  We lived on the other side of the river.  I suppose she forgot a parrot or a hen and decided she must go look for it and the Germans machine-gunned her.  Machine gun for a sixty-year-old woman. They are inconceivable the Germans.  She is lying there, with her dress up over her legs and her head down.  The Canadians wouldn’t let me go out to get her.  I will have to wait until the battle is over, they told me.  She has on her good dress.”  He began to cry.  The tears ran into his moustache, and he swallowed them wetly.  “Forty years.  I saw her a half hour ago.”  He took out his wallet again, crying.  “Even so,” he said fiercely, “even so . . .”  He opened the wallet and kissed the tricolor bunting under its cellulous cover, kissed it passionately, insanely.  “Even so.” 

He shook his head and put the wallet away.  He patted the jeep once more.  He moved off down the street vaguely, past the torn iron of the shopfronts and the carelessly piled stones, moved off without saluting or saying good-bye. 

Michael looked after him, feeling his face rigid and aching. 

Pavone sighed and started the jeep.  They drove slowly toward the outskirts of town. 

Not until the end of the Frenchman’s tale–a heart-rending story of one horror of war–do we get any reaction from them.  Michael feels the muscles of his face.  Pavone sighs and starts the jeep.  Both are understated responses.  They leave the feeling to the reader.

Time out for me to rave at Shaw’s details:  Note that the Frenchman strokes the jeep–a perfect gesture.  And when finally he cries?  (He’s the object in this story.  He gets to do what he does.)  Note the detail that breaks him up–that she was wearing her good dress–strikes me as exactly the moment he would break open.  Because isn’t it the irrelevant, but touching detail that opens the steely surface to the cataclysm beneath?  The moment of  the deceased loved ones handwriting surfacing on a recipe card or of seeing that his watch has stopped?

Shaw wrote it cold.  Chekhov’s head is nodding.

 

 

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The Power of Words, Part III: Sound

I have two close friends who are super tasters. They have more taste buds than Harry, Sally, or Nancy. They taste–I don’t know what–flavors I don’t dream are there. Last night, one said she liked the pasta I served at a lunch 18 years ago. “Really good,” she said, brow furrowed as if there still were noodles in her mouth.
I recalled the gathering, but not the food. I said, “How do you remember that?”
“I never forget a meal.”

What?

The tasters are often also tortured by their sense of smell. As my Southern super taster friend would say, Bless their hearts.

My husband is not a taster, but a smeller, nonetheless. “What’s that smell?” he asks and looks suspiciously at Mia. “It smells like dog.”
I say, “She is a dog.”
On folks like him the shampooch industry got built.

With some it’s touch. My brother Tom was one of those. The things I learned to give him—a scarf, a throw, a pair of leather gloves—were notably soft and never wool. Wool can’t be near these peoples’ skin. They fuss about the seams in socks.

What?

My painter friend—canvasses, not walls—is hyper-sensitive to color. “There’s that blue shadow!” she said one day, so excitedly I thought to see a looming asteroid. “I don’t see that color other places.” I have to ask what shadow she is speaking of. She points to a line cast at sunset by the catwalk railing on our Florida condo building wall.

What?

For me, (and for my brother—you aren’t limited to one), it’s sound. I hear rhythm, pitch, cadence, tone. Static drives me nuts. Those little noise machines? Exhaust and ceiling fans? I walk around the house and turn them off. In them I hear overtones, tortured women grieving for their one lost love.  I notice subtle changes in their song.  Go on alert.  Think something’s wrong.

Loud is intolerable to me. “You’d hate it, Mom,” one son says when I ask if he enjoyed some new restaurant. “It’s loud.” A favorite restaurant moved to a different building. The food’s the same. The acoustics are not. We never go there anymore.

My painter friend, (see above), proposed going to a club she loves. Music was blaring out the door. “No,” I said. “That’s too much noise.”
She said, “Don’t listen.”

What?

I’m that woman who wears earplugs to bed, the problem being then I have to listen to the beating of my heart: bah-BOO, bah-BOO.  No one need explain to me iambic is the natural cadence. I’ve been listening from the womb.

Words are sounds. If you listen, magic happens.

Consider this: What’s in a name?  Open up a phone book. Read the names. A man named Willard is a different person from a man named Sam. Add a second name or two and a person will emerge.     Mix and match until you get a name that resonates for you. Arnie Hunsacker, for example, gender aside, can’t be confused with Michelle Price. Arnie is an alcoholic lumberjack. He’s missing several digits on his left hand, though he has an admirable vegetable garden. Michele? She’s effortlessly thin, which means other women cannot trust her. She’s in her moisture-wicking jogging clothes when it’s time for lunch. Food? She can’t be bothered much. She opens up the fridge and pulls up a chair, eats from the yogurt carton with a silver spoon. Yes, the spoon is silver. I can see the pattern on the handle.

All that from sound?
If you listen to it.

Words can build a world, then put people in it.

 

 

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The Power of Words, Part II: Things

–Say it, no ideas but in things–
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident–
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained–
secret–into the body of the light!

from Paterson: Book I

That’s William Carlos Williams saying it. He’s the imagist poet most famously known for his frequently-anthologized poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  His phrase “No ideas but in things” serves as a guidepost when I’m tempted to tell the reader what to think. So, how does that work, generating ideas in the reader’s mind by my enumerating things? What things?

Consider an example excerpted here, from the title story of Sandra Cisneros’ collection, The House on Mango Street:

We had to leave the flat on Loomis quick. The water pipes broke and the landlord wouldn’t fix them because the house was too old. We had to leave fast. We were using the washroom next door and carrying water over in empty milk gallons. That’s why Mama and Papa looked for a house, and that’s why we moved into the house on Mango Street, far away, on the other side of town.

They always told us that one day we would move into a house, a real house that would be ours for always so we wouldn’t have to move each year. And our house would have running water and pipes that worked. And inside it would have real stairs, not hallway stairs, but stairs inside like the houses on T.V. And we’d have a basement and at least three washrooms so when we took a bath we wouldn’t have to tell everybody. Our house would be white with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence. . . . .

But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen you have to push hard to get in. There is no front yard, only four little elms the city planted by the curb, and a small yard that looks smaller between the two buildings on either side. There are stairs in our house, but they’re ordinary hallways stairs, and the house has only one washroom. Everybody has to share a bedroom—. . . .

(Quoted, with extractions, from Cisneros, Sandra. “The House on Mango Street.” The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1991. 3-5. Print.)

There’s much to admire there, but to the point of ideas sprouting from a list of things, consider all the nouns that describe things:  flat, Loomis [a street name] water pipes, washroom, empty milk gallons, running water, stairs, bricks, front door, etc.  So much emerges from this compilation of things. We know the narrator is a child, from the voice, yes, but also from the things that she chooses to describe and her attitude about them. [Think how an adult narrator, male or female, might have described these houses?]

Note the word choose.

I once had a manuscript consult with Amy Bloom on an early draft of my novel, Shadow Dancing.
Not for the rubber-kneed, learning from Ms. Bloom. She took a red pen and with what felt to me like vicious blows, slashed through my details. “What are we learning from this?” she asked, slash slash. “That you are incredibly observant? So what?”

As a teacher, I would have made her point another, gentler way—but that would be my choice.  (I have never used a red pen since that day.)  The point Ms. Bloom was making, which still slashes at my mind after many years, is that by the objects you choose, you form a contract with the reader—showing where the story is and creating reader expectations. We know from all the things what the child narrator wants and begin rooting for her to get it.  Cisneros never has to say, I hated being poor. I didn’t want to be poor forever.  No.  We get that from the things.

What are the things in your world? I suspect, if your desk is as cluttered up as mine, there are far too many things to paint an accurate picture of yourself. So choose. Which ones tell me who you are? Do this exercise: Choose one object (to become a metaphor) to describe each member of your family. I’ve done this exercise myself. My mother’s object is her mangle iron. Mother didn’t cook—my father did—but her laundry skills made old things new.  My most olfactory mother memory is walking in the door on Tuesdays after school and smelling laundry starch and the faintest scorch.  Yes, she was seated at the mangle.  Along the open stairway molding hung the hangers with my father’s ironed shirts. (It was not just sheets she could iron on the mangle. Shirt collars, yokes, sleeves, and button bands were perfectly flat.)  I hear rhythm:  Clunk of knee pedal that dropped the muslin-covered roller onto the heated metal plate. Whirr when the roller spun around. She ironed everything from dishcloths to pajamas.

It took me years after she died to give away the mangle.

Have I written about my mother ironing? I have one poem—I’m not a schooled-and-practiced poet (read:  not good enough) so I won’t include it here.  But in it I am begging her to let me sleep in unironed pajamas, as if those creases meant I had to dream inside the lines. But, was that the end of it? My criticizing her?
One day, I did a free write—asking my subconscious mind what my character named Sam would do when his still-loved, ex-wife took custody of their daughter, Hannah. Add many drafts, and it was published as a story in Dos Passos Review:

A Small Ritual

Ideas unlocked in my head:  Knowing what the laundry meant to Sam, first before, then after, the day of the story, did I even know what Mother was really doing?  It’s not for me to say, of course, what it meant to her (acknowledging that people don’t always know).  But might I, at the very least stop deconstructing what I had judged as the mindless work she allowed to eat her time?  Why did she continue after I was old enough to iron for myself? What if, for example, via Tom’s shirts, my blouses, ironing was her way of touching us after we thought ourselves as too grown up to allow it?

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The Power of Words, Part I

Words are keeping me awake–the words of a friend I last saw when I was eighteen.  From the sky into my inbox, the words exploded in a world I hadn’t conjured in a long, long time. We played remember when, and as the days (and nights) since then have passed, the pictures in my mind appear in more and more detail, like those Polaroids that seemed miraculous in my youth.  The ones spit out from the camera–a bit of fog at first, details gradually emerging until, perhaps fifteen minutes later, the scene appeared.

If my images were initially fuzzy, they came complete with sound–I met this friend at a music camp that also offered dance.  So there’s music yes, particularly the faculty tenor ‘s voice as he sang the Bach “Bist du bie mir” every night as we went up to bed.  On top of the fullness of his oboe tones and the lied’s haunting melody, runs the sound of the younger campers’ chatter as on Saturday, we led them in groups of four, on a mountain climb.  I, being there to teach ballet, was assigned to group one, the assumption being that a dancer should surely make it to the mountain top.  But those kids!  It seemed they never could get winded, however fast I set the pace.  (Burke Mountain was the easiest.  We walked up a road.  On Mt. Mansfield, Mt. Garfield, Mt. Washington, we were climbing rocks.  There was a path.  Don’t think ropes and carabiners.)  The descent was harder.  The children talked while my knees had turned to rubber, not knowing when to bend and when to lock.

As the details come more clear, scents come back.  The dusty, varnish smell of the performance barn.  That whiff of mountain air in early morning.  And later in the day, new-mown hay, accompanied by the hum of mowers, the clack of tedders, rakes, and balers.   Aroma of New England food served up in the dining room, foreign to my childhood.  Salmon P. Wiggle.  Red Flannel Hash.  (The magenta color still puts me off.  What is in that stuff?)  Milk from a cafeteria dispenser we called The Cow.

Campers and faculty alike lived at Burklyn Manor.  Circular driveway with a carriage house connected by a portico.  Ceilings with relief designs in plaster,  flocked wall paper–faded, but not falling down.  Worn carpet on the stairs.  Hardwood floors we dust mopped every morning after breakfast.  Out every window, mountains.  Blue, not purple.  Slate blue.

There are tactile memories, too.  The crisp brown paper tied up with string wrapped round our laundry sent out by truck and returned, once a week.   The driver’s shoulder pressed into mine when we crowded into cars to go to church–our choir sang every Sunday morning–or on the weekly trip to town.  The melt of maple walnut ice cream on my tongue.  (I can’t yet see the ice cream store.  A drugstore, perhaps?  With a soda fountain?  Did it double as the bus station in that little town?  I think there was a bandstand, too.  A hotel with rockers on the porch?  Or was that Lyndonville?)

All this conjured from the fog, by a few words on a page.

I wonder at the miracle of language.  Darwin was unable to explain it.  You put a few acknowledged symbols on a page and up pops a world, in this case one I’d lived in, but that part doesn’t matter.  If the world is made complete–with concrete sensory detail, it exists.

Quite like God we writers get to be.

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On Longing, Unfulfilled

My mother, Phyllis Carson Johnson Troth, wrote travelogues, loose-leaf notebooks fat with descriptions of the trips she’d taken with my father. She read them to us sometimes. “Read me from your journal,” Dad would say, after dinner, and so, instead of watching tv, she’d get one out.  Then for half an hour, we’d relive a trip or two.  Mom was funny, and the more delightful because she didn’t know. She made up kooky nicknames for everyone, made up songs for children’s chores–like taking nasty liquid vitamins shoveled at us on a spoon, or picking up our toys—so  she wouldn’t have to nag.  She simply sang the song.

Once she went to NYC with my father on a business trip. Before she left, she wrote down all the words to the songs for the sitter. The sitter’s name was Mrs. Marthen.

Mrs. Marthen didn’t sing.

There was another journal, too.  One I didn’t know about until she died.  I found it in her desk and with trepidation opened it.  I’ve never read my brother Tom’s. He was an artist, a musician, who died at 35. I keep his journal sealed up in a box in the basement now—as if he’s the bedrock I need to live on top. I hear him speaking from the grave when I’m afraid, like with the writing thing, that today it won’t click in, it won’t start to sing. I hear him say oh-so-familiar words: “Erda (a nickname out of Wagner), if something happened once, it can happen again.”  He meant good things. Like inspiration.

But Tom, I argue back, to the box down on his shelf. It’s not just good things that repeat. Bad things happen, too. People die. You did. Then Dad. Mom waited longer, before she closed the door. What about our sister Anne? All my conscious life she’s lived in a box, down the basement on a shelf.  But I was grown before I found that box. It had no label—unusual for Mom. (Picture spices lined up in their little metal cans, like a bookshelf A to Zed.)  One day, unwittingly, I opened it.  Mom was standing there, but seemed to have forgotten.  There she was.  My sister Anne in many different baby poses. Thank you, Olan Mills.

Except for all the years I’d longed to meet her, in my mind she looked like me.  In the box was someone else.  Someone I didn’t know.

In Mom’s other journal–the one hidden in her desk—she obsessed.  On brother Tom.  Page after page, there it was, Tom did this, Tom did that.  She’d write about some episode, and then would come the pain of non-acknowledgement. He had trouble, I recall, learning to subtract. One day at noon as we were eating lunch, Mom explained that the difference between the bottom number and ten could be subtracted from the bottom number to get the answer. [17-9= 8; 10-9=1; 9-1=8] Tom was thrilled.  So, back to school he went, with an apple for the teacher.  More poignant was her memory of a day his piano teacher picked him up. They were off to play piano in a concerto contest. Mom described her anguish as she watched him disappearing into his teacher’s car without turning round to wave good-bye.

Mom longed for validation.

Did I always wave good-bye?  I was such a good girl, always looking after Mom.  My reward was to be journal-worthy of a single anecdote. Mom had gone to some class (she went to lots of classes) where the teacher asked what other person each student would most like to be.  When Mom asked me that, I wonder that I didn’t name Margot Fonteyn or Carla Fracci, my favorite ballerinas.  Instead, I named a certain friend my age.  She’s happy with herself, I said. She doesn’t always need that something out of reach.

Years have passed, and I have not become that friend.  I still long for things I can’t have.   Then when they come (because that happens sometimes too)—say publication of a certain story—why can’t I look? I put it on the coffee table. Walk around it. Scan the cover. But the story? I can’t look. I can’t change it now. I can’t fix unseen mistakes.  I don’t want to know that the printed story doesn’t measure up to the vision in my head.

Would I stop living if I got the things I think I want?  Perhaps it’s dread of something unexpected popping up.  I think of how I cried each night the month before my second book came out. “I thought you wanted this,” my husband soothed. “I do,” I said. “But I feel so exposed. Why not just take off all my clothes?”  That book is fiction, mind you.  My children are my husband’s.  I have never bought a nun’s bed, stolen a dog, or risked rape by a juvenile delinquent.  I’m not Catholic, am anti-gun, and have never met a crazy shaman.

So, where’s the risk?

Every fiction writer (and biographer and journalist) makes choices all the time–what to include, what to leave out.  Those choices form a map of the writer’s psyche.  Why did Rosie, Everett, and Valley come to live in my mind?  Jung theorized that every person in your dream is you.  And what is fiction but a waking dream?

Publication of that book felt different than I’d thought.  I longed for validation.  Instead I felt undressed.

So much longing, unfulfilled.

What do you long for? (And to the point of fiction writing, the subject of this blog—what about your characters?  Will their longings be fulfilled?  Will what they get be what they thought they wanted?)

Think of this:  If fulfilled, that longing, what might you lose? Some ideal, that still needs to BE, untouched by the world?

Perhaps its name is hope?  Or maybe heaven?

So says my head.  My heart I can’t control.

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Where to Go When You Don’t Know Where to Go

You don’t know what happens next. You believe you need to know. Not knowing makes you feel out of control, and you’re the author, after all. If you don’t know, who will? That’s another question you can’t answer. You stop writing.  You tell yourself that when eureka strikes, you will start again. But the longer you aren’t writing, the less you think about your story, and the likelihood that your subconscious mind will sort it out is lessened. There’s a tickle at the back of your mind, a discomfort, a voice that says writers write, and, well, you are not. And whoever thought it was a good idea, anyway?

Oh. You did.

So, sit down in your writing chair and open your story file.  Next, tell yourself a lie.  Tell yourself that if nothing is happening in 15 minutes—you set the oven timer to prove you mean it—you can excite yourself with folding laundry. Or walking the dog. Bill paying can sound enticing if you’re really scared.

Begin to read. Reengage with your story people. Tell yourself that this is important. Try not to beat yourself up. Beaten, bloody people don’t write.  Not well, at least.

Give yourself choices.

I. Ask your protagonist a question and free write the answer in his/her voice. (The question doesn’t matter greatly—What will you do about this? will do.)

A free write is usually written by hand, according to these rules, enumerated by Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones. There’s some science to suggest that the mind/hand connection is important to this process. Some writers find, however, that turning off the computer screen and writing blind works well.

1) Don’t think.
2) Keep your hand moving across the page. If you draw a blank, rewrite the original question you asked your protagonist until something comes.
3) Don’t edit. Don’t stop to correct spelling. Don’t go back to re-read what you wrote.
4) If emotion begins to rise in you, write toward it. Yes, you are scared. You are about to learn something you perhaps don’t want to know. Don’t back off.
5) Lose control.

The paradox of losing control to get back into control (produce what’s next) is one of the mysteries of writing. It’s what you mean when you say you are writing to find out what you think. You’ve been telling yourself it’s the other way round—that you had to know what you thought before you could write it.

This is not true.

II. Write down everything you do know about your character in this situation, about his/her choices. Remember , as in life, every decision you make in a story, limits the choices you can make after that. (So, if you set your story in Florida, you will have trouble convincing yourself that your character earns a living as a ski instructor.)  Your character’s choices are informed by who s/he is and the world you’ve built.   If your protagonist is a present-day, free-wheeling, East Coast potter who has taken many lovers, the choices will be different than if she’s a ’50′s, pearl-wearing Methodist from the Midwest.  Picture a fork in the road. Then consider her values. Will she violate them? What would it mean if she did? In making her decision, she may need a mentor. Protagonists cannot readily solve their problems because they don’t yet have the tools—see Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story for elaboration on this point. Who is your character’s mentor? It can be a person or an experience. It can be an intrusive voice from the past.

III. Sometimes the problem is you. You need regeneration. Take inventory of how you’ve spent your days.  Do you need enrichment?  Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way suggests you write three pages every morning—of whatever is on the top of your head. Then, every week, plan an artist’s date with yourself. A walk in the woods, a trip to a museum, wandering the farmer’s market—whatever feeds your spirit.

IV. Sign up for a writing class. If you’re a clutch hitter (or have ever been a journalist) you may need deadlines to produce the work. Or you may find help in being surrounded by a community of people who want to do the same thing. A class will provide both.  Remember the time you were so reticent to tackle the task of writing your novel’s climax, you signed up for the same course you were teaching at the time, but taught by the other instructor.

V. Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird suggests you give yourself permission to write badly. If you’ve been feeling glum, write intentionally badly.  Write the worst stuff you can imagine.  Put your mind at play.  Why?  Because you can’t make it better if it isn’t on the page. A book of writing prompts can help. Try Judy Reeves’ A Writer’s Book of Days. Or Naming the World, edited by Brett Anthony Johnston.

VI. Write something else. A poem. A personal essay. A blog post. A different form from the one you’re working in.  Write about what happened in your life that drowned out your story.  Come on.  You know what it is.  The words in your head switched topic.  Something made that happen.

This is hardly an exhaustive list. The ways to find your way back in are likely as numerous as the writers who invent them. Choose one or invent your own.

What do you do when you’re stuck?

 

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How Does One Begin Again?

I’ve been silent for awhile.  I’m not dead.  I’ve changed course.

The Einstein material is on hold while I return to the novel I wrote about Darwin’s family, set in the year prior to the publication of On the Origin of the Species.   That novel was submitted to sixty agents in a year’s time and was read by seven.  Rejection followed, one that was very useful.  I’m grateful to that agent, Kathleen Anderson, who sent a two-page, single-spaced letter describing what exactly was wrong.  In essence she said, This “falls between two stools,” not having the authority of biography or the imaginative content of fiction.  

Of course, no writer of a 400 page manuscript wants to start again. But what about The Paris Wife (Paula McLain)? this writer asked. And more recently, the accurate tracking of biographical material in novels like Z (Theresa Anne Fowler) and Beautiful Fools (R. Clifton Spargo)?  Didn’t those authors do what I had done?

Not exactly.  Z and The Paris Wife were written in first person, both protagonists being the famous icon’s wife.  My manuscript was written in third person, omniscient, with three protagonists.  Beautiful Fools is written in third person with Scott and Zelda each getting a point of view.  On that basis, I might have stuck to my guns and defended my work.  If I wanted to leave it to live in a drawer, that is.

No one said these decisions would be easy.   And I had to admit, that within the pertinent love stories, Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, there is a natural plot arch, the blossoming love gathering momentum until a specific event disrupts that relationship, followed by a burgeoning dissolution of one kind or the other.

Could I find that in my work?  There was drama in the Darwin story–the deaths of children, the upending of Charles’ work by Alfred Russell Wallace–but, hmmm.  Not the same.

It’s hard to start again, to reconceptualize the story.  What it came down to was this:  I would be writing something.  Did it matter what? And if I was to pursue the path I was on, writing fictional biographies of well-known figures, would I repeat my mistakes or learn what that first manuscript had to teach?

I now have a single, first-person narrator and have added a fictional character and a significant plot arch.

How did I get there?  With help from others.  My writing group, a well-published mentor, my loving husband and sons, and good friends.

At the Sorbonne in 1910, Teddy Roosevelt delivered a speech some called “The Man in the Arena” that spurs me on my course:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly . . . .”   (as quoted in Brene Brown, DARING GREATLY, 1)

Can you stand to begin again?

Paris Wife   Z   Beautiful Fools   Theodore Roosevelt

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The Secret of Einstein’s Ability to Adapt to Failure

As part of my attempt to embrace the complexity of Albert Einstein, I’m exploring a chapter in Lewis Pyenson’s book The Young Einstein:  The Advent of Relativity.  Pyenson begins by enumerating the failures Einstein overcame prior to being awarded the most prestigious physics chair in the world.  He failed to complete his degree at the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich–the equivalent of a high school diploma.  He failed to pass the entrance exam at the Zurich Polytechnic at age 16.  Upon eventually graduating from the Polytechnic, he failed to be hired for a graduate assistantship–the usual course for the school’s graduates.  He failed to obtain a teaching post in Switzerland.  His first doctoral thesis was refused.  His first marriage was a failure as was his attempt to win others to pacifism in World War I.  Little came from his diplomacy in the 1920′s and when he moved to the United States, he was unable to make any lasting impact in his field.  His quest for a unifed field theory was never realized.

Pyenson suggests that Einstein was able to tolerate these failures and persevere because at every turn, they were the consequence of his own choices, choices made by one whom Pyenson says was not exactly the bohemian he claimed to be, nor the rebel his secretary, Helen Dukas, designated him,  because Einstein was bound by traditional fundamentals in both his personal and scientific life.  For example, due to the opposition of his mother, Einstein was unable to marry his Serbian sweetheart until his father summoned him to his deathbed and gave permission. In the text Albert co-authored with Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics, he resists any description of physics that is not orderly and cumulative.  When acausality in quantum mechanics was the fashion, Einstein cited a high authority and built on traditional principles of causality.

Rather, Pyenson suggests, Einstein was a stranger in the sense originally described by Jewish German sociologist Georg Simmel.  A stranger, according to Simmel, is one “who lives in a culture but finds himself, by virtue of his previous experience, spiritually or temperamentally removed from it.  The stranger’s internal values keep him apart from other people.  He is remote, even in his most intimate relationships.  . . . because of separate status, the stranger brings abstractness and generality to his perceptions and judgments. . . .  He surveys the world from a privileged vantage point.” (Pyenson, 61-62)

Genius aside, there are obviously things about Einstein I relate to–or I wouldn’t be writing about him–and one is this insistence on order and causality in my conception of the universe and a leaning on traditional principles in my decision making.  And, without taking anything away from the difficulties of minorities who live in a second culture, I wonder if writers in general don’t understand what it is to be a stranger.  That’s hard to say, of course, being stuck in my own point of view, but I often feel a sense of being outside the mainstream, perceptually.

As I’m writing this, I’m reminded of a quote by Dallas Willard  I recently wrote down , because, like most writers, I learn what I’m thinking by writing about it.  It’s one way the work gives back to the author.   The quote is this:  “The sense of having some degree of control over things is now recognized as a vital factor in mental and physical health and can make the difference between life and death in those who are seriously ill.   . . . having a place of rule goes to the very heart of who we are, of our integrity, strength, and competence.”

This seems to be an answer to how I might deal with a recent situation of failure that I’ve found emotionally debilitating.  I need to do something to restore a sense of control over my process.

How do you deal with failure?

images.jpg Lewis Pyenson’s THE YOUNG EINSTEIN Dallas Willard

Posted in Dallas Willard, dealing with failure, Einstein, Helen Dukas, Lewis Pyenson, making art, point of view, reading, writing | Leave a comment

That Mysterious Natural Image

After writing clinically about mystery in my last post, I got thinking about how it enters the text.  First, I checked Dictionary.com and came up with these two appropriate definitions:

  • anything that is kept secret or remains unexplained or unknown: the mysteries of nature.
  • any truth that is unknowable except by divine revelation.

It’s interesting that nature should come up, for I had already started thinking about how images of nature resonate for me.  The end of Amy Hempel’s story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” came to mind–about a young woman who fails her dying best friend in the end.  Early on in the story, the narrator tells her dying friend about a chimp who was taught sign language, then used it to sign a lie.

After the narrator’s best friend has died, the story ends this way:

In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.

Baby, drink milk.

Baby, play ball.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.

(Quoted from Hempel, Amy.  “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” at  http://www.fictionaut.com/stories/amy-hempel/in-the-cemetery-where-al-jolson-is-buried .)

I read that and have nothing to say.  I’m filled with fear, that I will never find so perfect an ending to any story I write.

Then I open Alyson Richman’s The Lost Wife, a novel about a Jewish couple who meet in Prague but then are separated by the Nazi invasion.  The novel is about their lifelong effort to extricate themselves from the trauma, the husband from a distance, while guiltily knowing what happened to so many, and the wife from her interment in the camps.  Early on in the text, I find this passage in the wife’s POV:

 When the Vltava freezes, it turns the color of an oyster shell.  As a child, I watched men rescue swans trapped within its frozen current, cutting them out with ice picks to free their webbed feet.

(Quoted from Richman, Alyson.  The Lost Wife.  New York:  Berkley Books, p. 6.)

I stop reading, stunned by the perfection of that image.  It sets up the writer/reader contract, but more than that, it connects me with a larger cruelty–one of the most graceful of birds caught unaware in a flash freeze, thereby needing rescue by man-made methods as crude and hazardous as the entrapping ice.

And yes, I think of Darwin, of his inability to connect a loving God with the cruelty of nature.

Both authors point to mystery, that which remains unexplained, unknown, except by divine revelation.  Who otherwise can explain the premature death of a young woman or the agony of the holocaust?

Amy Hempel THE LOST WIFE Alyson Richman

 

Posted in Alyson Richman, Amy Hempel, Charles Darwin, Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact, historical fiction, mystery, reading, THE LOST WIFE | Leave a comment

Ambiguity, Complexity, and Mystery

I just returned from two days spent at the Ohio University Literary Festival, where lectures were delivered by writers Amy Hempel (if you don’t know her story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” read it without passing Go), Richard Rodriguez (whom I will stalk in print for the rest of my days),  and 2010 NBA award winning poet, Terrance Hayes.  It was Hayes who brought up the topic I’m thinking about this morning; specifically, the difference between the terms in the title.  Until the conference, I wasn’t making distinctions between these terms.  To be honest, I didn’t think about them in the same sentence.

Terrance Hayes changed that.

Ambiguity is a lack of clarity that results in a question being unanswerable because the question itself is not clear.  Ambiguity, in writing, is a flaw.

Complexity is the result of the intersection of two disparate emotions or ideas.  It results from the character who acts against his own priorities and values, because, well, we all have internal conflicts that don’t make logical sense.  My March 20 post on internal conflict elaborates on this topic. Complexity, in writing, is necessary.

Mystery is the result of a clearly stated question that has no definitive answer.  It opens the work to the larger questions like, what makes life meaningful? or how is justice served? It enlarges what it touches by exposing the gray edges of certainty.  It is what I, as a writer, mean to poke in my work in such a way that the reader enters a larger sphere of questions than the ones s/he is already asking.

Clarify ambiguity, develop complexity, embrace mystery.

Amy Hempel Richard Rodriguez Terrance Hayes

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