"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!


  1. You're right about translations not being exact. It's the nature of language, and English in particular, that it can't be done. I've a friend who is a simultaneous translator (he speaks 5 languages) and he says English has more choices because there's so many synonyms.

    I have to say, you're a braver soul than I. I've read Les Miserables--sort of. Motivated by the musical version (I too love it), I started with a longer abridged version but realized I was missing out on too much and got the unabridged from the library. If I ever need to know all about Waterloo, I'll go back and read it in detail, but I admit to skipping most of that. Still interesting though because it was written from a contemporary viewpoint.

    And the sample of your writing is lovely. Looks like you're a budding wordsmith.

  2. Suzie,

    Thanks for the comment! I'm right in the midst of the section on Waterloo in Les Mis. It's slow going, but I think it helps that I'm familiar with the musical--I know all the great things that are coming up!

    Thanks so much for following,