"And moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul...the soul that dares and defies."
-Kate Chopin, The Awakening

13 February 2011

"Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul." -Whitman

I write best in the middle of the night.  It's a standard cliche, but when the entire world seems quiet, I can think.  And (true confession time) in the middle of the night I don't feel those small pangs of guilt that tell me I should be doing something more productive with my time.  The very early morning has always seemed to be a time without strictures and expectations, and I can forget about everything else for a while.  At least that was the case last night.  I got a good two hours of writing in, and found a new angle for a character I had been struggling with that inadvertently renewed my deep-love and vigor for Whitman's Song of Myself and Elton John's My Father's Gun.

Here's a quick bit of what I wrote last night, unedited as of yet:

The day after my mother left, I was in the old church.  Callie and Thad were asleep when I woke up, and I hadn’t felt like making breakfast.  I found Jack Wilson inside, sleeping on a back pew.
The Wilsons lived with their mother half a mile down the beach.  They stayed at the beach year-round, and had the weathered look of children who were raised outside.  They didn't wear shoes.   
The beach belonged to Jack Wilson.  We had always known that.  He could always be found along its shores, cleaning any trash that was left behind or leaving messages in bottles for the younger kids to find.  We knew he would grow old with one foot in the salt water, narrating the beach's history. 
Sometimes he carved out notes in the sand with his toes in front of each house in turn.  The notes were usually half-thoughts, bits and pieces of Walt Whitman poems mixed with lyrics from lesser known Elton John songs or lines from yellowed postcards he scoured second-hand stores for.  The morning after my mother left, he had carved out, “Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather…p.s. don’t forget toothpaste.”    
The messages were completed meticulously.  He made sure to find a space large enough to accommodate his words, and one that would have just enough time to be read before being washed away with the rising tide or destroyed by the footprints of children.   
Everyone loved Jack, especially Callie.
He opened his eyes when I came into the church.  He was very tan, and his brown hair was lightened from the sun.  He was the kind of person who seemed to elude belonging to any particular time.  He could very well have been quarantined at Ellis Island or have performed in a masked Greek tragedy.  Callie said he looked like the boys she thought would take Marilyn Monroe out for dinner after a movie premiere. 
“Full moon last night,” he said.  “The summer’s half over.”

As an update on what I've been reading lately: I've been barreling my way through Les Miserables (don't worry, I haven't given up on Ulysses--I usually have three or four books going at once.  I think I'll spend today on To the Lighthouse, another book I've never made it all the way through).  If you know me, you know how obsessed I am with the broadway musical adapted from Hugo's novel, and while I've attempted to read through the book before, I have to admit I've never made it past the first section.   For those of you who aren't familiar with Hugo's style in this novel, it is extremely politically conscious, which means many digressions and commentaries that diverge from the central plot line.

I ordered a copy through abebooks a while back (the most wonderful place to pick up a mountain of books for cheap!), but turns out I had gotten an abridged version.  I know there are many benefits to abridged versions of novels, but I had long ago promised myself that, when the time came to read Hugo's novel, I would read it in its entirety.  And, according to my kindle, I am now 25% through!  I owe much of this to lots of backstage time during the play I'm currently performing in, but I'm hopeful that I'll make it through this time. 

The novel was written originally in French, and it has gotten me thinking about the process of translation, which has gotten me thinking about writing in general in a different way.  I've taken World Lit classes (German Lit being my favorite), and I often questioned whether or not I, as an English reader, was reading the novel (or poem, or short) the author had actually intended to write.  How could I be sure the sentiment of Neruda's love poems was preserved by the translator?  How could I trust the wording and dialogue of the translated version of The Sorrows of Young Werther?

Over the years, I've realized that translation does not need to be an exact copy of the wording and sentiments the author had when first writing the novel, because it is an art form of its own.  Translators can't help but add their own experiences and interpretations into the work, and this adds just more fodder for literary discussion.

Most of the translated version I am reading is made up of short sentences, which I believe is a carry-over from Hugo himself.  Anyone who was in my first writing workshop class can testify to the fact that I am addicted to long, in-depth sentences.  I would pass in stories that were practically unreadable because of their poetic devices and layered wording.  I think it's a mistake a lot of young writers make.  For me, it made me feel smarter; If I could write beautiful prose that seemed to elude meaning, it meant I was a true literary genius.  I failed to realize that my carefully thought-out prose meant my audience had no idea what was going on.  I haven't completely abandoned my writing style from those early days, but I'm learning how to tailor my thoughts until they are artistically concise rather than dripping in sentimental bullshit. 

Hugo's story is one of the most powerful I have come across in my lifetime (which may or may not be due to the affect the musical had on me and my sisters when we were kids, an affect that had us re-enacting scenes from Revolutionary France on the weekends for fun).  Yet, this powerful story is told in short, clipped sentences that spell out exactly what the author is trying to say.  Subconsciously, the audience becomes complicit in the narrator's thought process.

Hugo's plot and characterization can hold their own no matter how wonderful or bereft the translation.  It is a reminder to me that structure and foundations of a novel should come first.  I should worry about the beauty of language once I have the basics in place.  It is a good lesson particularly for me (one not so far from what I discovered when analyzing the work of Jeannette Walls) and one I need to remember every day.  The ideas are there, but I often skew them with superfluous language (I would be the first member of semi-colons anonymous).

Story-telling is about making your audience believe they are a part of this world, that they fit into the neurosis of your characters and the quirks of the society.  Story-telling is a way to make a plot beautiful, but I've come to realize that, without substance, beauty cannot survive.

Are you all reading anything good lately? Let me know!

08 February 2011

Portrait of the Writer as a Young Procrastinator...

Okay,  confession time: It's been almost a week since I've sat down to write.  I've hit a wall that is part confusion and part laziness, mixed with the sinus pressure from a head cold and a bad addiction to netflix live-streaming documentaries.

One of my writing teachers used to tell us that we would never be writers unless we wrote every day.  While I had a fundamental problem with her categorization at that point (and still do, to some extent), I know that writing through blocks is the only way to tear them down.  Lately, I've taken to jotting down single lines, questions, or plot ideas instead of tackling the hurdles I have come to in the writing process.  Rather than take on the tough decisions about narrative and perspective, I've stayed in a sort of comfort zone that allows me to be creative without taking any risks.

Yesterday, the line, "I stayed silent amidst the screams around me," came into my head, so I typed it out.  The day before, I edited one of the first lines of the manuscript to read, "It was the summer never to be forgotten or remembered, and we were swimming in the rain."  I wrote the cryptic notes, "Henry: loses his faith b/c he believes the world is cruel, Callie: loses her faith b/c she is afraid of absorbtion/eternity, Thad: gains his faith b/c he does not want to be left alone…Ed looked so alone…he goes on without his family or anyone else…"  These notes are helpful in that they allow me to continue thinking about writing, but the problem is that, lately, I've been stuck in the thinking stages; I'm not bold enough to plunge myself into the sometimes less-rewarding writing stage.  

While ideas remain in form only, they are hopeful.  They could be that single piece I needed to temper the characterization, the one addition that will spur me towards finishing the manuscript.  But, in practice, they could just as easily become destructive.  

It is times like these I remind myself that writing takes patience.  I need to write through my challenging spots, and be excited to fail.  Who knows? Failure may just as well lead to another idea waiting to be unfurled.       

01 February 2011

Snowstorms, a book review, and James Joyce...(or, the post without an enlightening title)

I don't have the mind-capacity for a full post today (I blame James Joyce and a three-hour bus ride in the snow at 15 miles an hour), but I thought I'd pass along a recommendation for an author with whose work I've recently been re-acquainted.  The post is inspired by going to breakfast with one of my best friends, who feeds my book addiction by always asking me what I'm reading and passing along her recommendations.  Writers are always told books are our best teacher, so I figured reviewing books is just as constructive.  Besides, we're about to get a huge snowstorm, so those of you in the New England area will have plenty of time to catch up on a book or two.

If you haven't read Jeannette Wall's exceptionally entertaining memoir "The Glass Castle," run out to your local Barnes & Noble (or the less cozy Borders, if you're in Boston) or your friendly neighborhood public library or your tech-savvy online e-book store, and buy it.  Right now.

The first time I read this book was years ago, but I still remember falling in love with Walls' story-telling abilities.  The book recounts her youth, depicting the relationship she had with her alcoholic father and mentally unstable mother as well as her three siblings.  The book could have easily fallen into a woe-is-me first-person account of depression and self-pity, but it is anything but.  As a narrator, Walls is upbeat and smart, guiding the reader through this world, and giving them permission to laugh out loud.

Walls' childhood may have been unpredictable and wild, but her wonderful writing keeps the memoir cohesive, and allows the readers to not only sympathize with her, but empathize.  She knows how to keep her readers close enough that they begin to see bits and pieces of their own families coming through the bizarre abnormalities of hers (think a more intimate and heart-warming version of Burrough's Running with Scissors).

It is a generally fast read, but one that I have gone back to again and again because of its many layers.  It's the kind of book that seems to change as you grow older; a book that becomes new whenever you gain a new perspective on life.
Jeannette Walls' new book, this time called "a true life novel," is Half Broke Horses.  She shifts the focus off herself and onto her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, a woman whose independence and high spirits characterize the tone of this novel.  Walls takes on her grandmother's personality wholeheartedly, utilizing a first person point of view that allows Smith's characterization to flow out of each line of narration.  It is Smith's story, and Walls made the right decision in allowing her to tell it, even if she did have to give up the "memoir" standing.

It is the voice of this novel that kept me reading.  The plot lines are not as amazing or thought-provoking as that of The Glass Castle, but the narrator of Half Broke Horses is fearless and wholly honest; it was refreshing to read a character who was so full of determination and heart.  I read most of the book  in one sitting (a long sitting that lasted into the early hours of the morning, but nevertheless...), and it was Smith's gumption (and Walls' skill at personifying it) that kept me reading.  Her voice carries this story along, and welcomes the reader into her world seamlessly.

When I was growing up, my mom kept horses.  I knew how to ride from an early age, and learned a good deal about taking care of horses (mucking stalls included, which I usually complained about to anyone within ear-shot).  Still, I would have been wholly lost in the world of cattle ranching and wild horse breaking were it not for the pace and narration of Walls' novel.   The book is broken up into small vignettes (most only two or three pages, some more) that allow the reader to absorb this world slowly.  Whereas some works of literature are jarring in that they throw the reader straight to the wolves to force them to become acquainted with the world of the protagonist (think the language in A Clockwork Orange or, in a more physical sense, any Beckett play/novel).  While this is a great strategy for establishing the mood Burgess and Beckett were going for (I remember how excited I was when I started picking up on the misplaced terms in Clockwork Orange and finally started feeling comfortable reading), this affect wouldn't have served Walls' narrative in any way.  By establishing the world through tight, well-constructed vignettes, the reader is effortlessly eased into this strange world of ranching, and, without realizing it, begins to think in its terms.

Lily Casey Smith led a life of fearless determination (I would love to teach this book alongside Thoreau as the antithesis of "quiet desperation").  She left home to become a teacher when she was just 15 years old, leaving her family and trekking across the desert by herself, on her horse.  She set goals and didn't give up until she achieved them, learning from her mistakes and finding herself along the way.  In summary, it sounds like a Lifetime movie that I will watch in secret and deny ever having turned on.  But in practice, Walls is able to expand the details of her grandmother's life to include much of the eccentric tone and heart that is ingrained into The Glass Castle.  She is a skilled writer who knows, first and foremost, not to let emotion or wordiness cloud her ability to tell a great story (one of my favorite lines from The Glass Castle says, "One thing about whoring: It put a chicken on the table").

Even though Walls is more revered as  "memoir" writer than a novelist, I believe fiction writers can learn a great deal from her style.  It is refreshing to see a well-crafted story that succeeds so wonderfully without many bells or whistles, and I think that is a reminder to all fiction writers (particularly those in the vein of me, who have days where they become so attached to flowery, superfluous language that they suffocate the storyline).

So, if you've never read Jeannette Walls, put her on your list.  I know, your reading list is too long already, but just squeeze her in there for those days you've been so ambitious in your goal to read Ulysses that your brain is numb...which, for me, is right about now.