Monday, April 30, 2012
“What do you like about her?” Bonnie asked.
I explained that I like those times when I strongly suspect the character is clinically insane, but also suspect, just as strongly, that she may be God, himself. Something she says or does suggests a kind of wild love, and a profound knowing that gives me shivers.
Bonnie observed, “You like thin places.”
And I thought , “Of course. Don’t we all?”
You know what thin places are, right? The ancient Celts used the term to describe places that were both one thing and another, and neither. The slope between the plane and the mountain is not mountain or plane, and it is both. The shore between the land and the sea. The age between childhood and adulthood. It was thought that these locations and times were holy places, where the veil between the physical and the spiritual was so thin, you could touch hand to hand with God through the cloth. I’ve always wanted to touch hand to hand.
And after talking to Bonnie, it came to me that yes, this was exactly why I read. The books I love are full of thin places, and the ones I don’t love… well, they aren’t.
Christian Mythmakers by Roland Hein, that puts a name to this kind of writing. The name - you may have guessed – is “Myth,” and the definition Hein gives to myths is “stories which confront us with something transcendent and eternal.” Thin places, those stories that offer, as J.R.R. Tolkien said in On Fairy Stories, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the Walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
Joy poignant as grief. Couldn’t you spend a week thinking on that one?
One definition my dictionary gives for the word, “poignant” is “Keenly distressing to the mind or feelings.” I’ll admit, it’s the second definition, the first being simply, “arousing affect,” with little or no negative implications. But the kind of stories I like arouse a kind of joy that is heart-breakingly close to grief. I think that’s why I like the faith aspects of novels to stray into the unexpected. We expect God to peek out through the eyes of Father Flanagan. But when he reaches through the hands of the mentally ill, he touches me in the places of my own neuroses. When he descends on a cloud, that’s impressive, but when he calls through the voice of a broken minister (see Leaving Ruin, by Jeff Berryman), my own broken shards become puzzle pieces, with at least a hope of wholeness.
It’s why crazyness and brokenness are so vital to a story. As GK Chesterton put it, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
We are all children in the inner layers, and we all have our dragons.
The new testament tells us of a devil defanged, defeated already, no matter what he tries. Oh Hell, where is your victory? Resist him and he will flee from you.
It’s like the story about Martin Luther – which may or may not have happened: Luther awakes to find the devil himself seated on the end of his bed. He springs upright, prepared to scramble, till he takes a good look and says, “Oh, it’s only you,” and goes back to sleep.
What a story that is! Even if it isn't factual, it's true.
Just as thin places are true. We touch our hand to the veil, and another touches back.
What books are thin places for you? What about the story places your hand on the veil?
Do tell. We love to read what you have to say.
Friday, April 27, 2012
That's exactly what fiction is all about -- the (hopefully) vivid imagination of the author beckoning to the reader to take a giant step over the threshold, because as readers of fiction, we aren't, or shouldn't be, observers, but participants.
When I open a novel, especially one I'm excited to read (which, sadly, isn't always the case), it becomes a three-dimensional experience. I don't stand at arm's length as with non-fiction. As Steve Grove pointed out, "A novel allows you to enter into an experience like nothing else." Rather, I do indeed step over the threshold into the author's fictional world and become a participant.
I quickly develop an affinity with one of the characters, and experience the story as he or she experiences it. And unlike in real life, in fiction there needs to be a lot to experience, particularly in the way of trials and tribulations. We want to go through the crucible with a character so that victory, when it comes, is all the more sweet. Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing, says, "... because touchy subjects arouse emotion, they are especially useful for the writer who knows that arousing the emotions of his audience is the test of his skill" (pg. 74). So don't be afraid to bring controversy to your story. Controversy is your friend, and it comes in many forms. You're bound to find what's exactly right for your characters and your audience.
That's what creates a lasting story. Consider Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Nothing but trouble at every turn. It doesn't matter that this classic was written as a children's book, it's become a part of our collective consciousness. We still quote from it nearly 150 years after it was written. Who wouldn't love to maintain that kind of influence and staying power?
While entering the dream world is entertaining for the reader, it's pure magic for the writer. I'm still amazed that when I allow my thoughts to play make-believe, I find a character waiting to play along. The latest is a 12-year-old girl whose story is unlike any I've attempted so far. But it's not a story I've imposed on her, it's her revealing her story to me, one layer at a time. I love each and every rendezvous that has deepened my knowledge of her until I now feel I know enough to put pen to paper. I don't know it all, not by a longshot, but I know enough to look forward to the discovery of the rest.
I recently had a funny conversation with my husband after seeing Dolly Parton interviewed. Perhaps one of the most prolific songwriters of our time, she made the statement that for her, "everything's a song." I said to Rick, "I so relate to what she's saying. I'm not a songwriter, but I have these people living inside me with all these stories to tell, and this one girl has shouldered her way to the forefront, saying, "Me first!" Hers isn't the story I thought I would write next, but I find I must. Does that ever happen to you?" I asked. He looked at me as if I'd grown a third eye. "No," he said, "I can't say it does." And we both had to laugh, because therein lies the difference between a writer and a non-writer. After all our years together he's become accepting of my creative quirks, but he sure doesn't understand them.
What about you? What entices you to cross the threshold into the dream world, as a reader and as a writer?
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Ninety years packs a lot of memories. During the time I was able to spend with her, I realized that some of her clearest memories are also the oldest. She showed me a faded blanket that a boy (not my dad) in the Civilian Conservation Corps won for her at a carnival. She hid it from her mother at the time. The CCCs were part of President Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s. The boys of the CCC had Sundays off and went to church to meet girls. My father and his friend walked my mom and my aunt home on Sundays until grandpa drove up beside them and told the girls to 'get in.'
Let's say I created a character based on my mom. Her life history would mold her desires, disappointments and perspective, and would change over the course of her life, at least in part, based on her experiences. It would be inevitable. She has lived through the Depression, World War II, the Korean war, the Cold war, the Vietnam war, the Iraq war, the Cuban missile crisis and Watergate. She saw two new states added to the Union. She listened to 'The Shadow' on the radio, played Sinatra on a hi-fi, watched Ed Sullivan on a black and white RCA, saw Star Wars on the big screen and Martha Stewart on a flatscreen. The Berlin wall went up and came back down. Hemlines went up - and up - and came back down. Natural disasters, man-made disasters, massacres and nuclear accidents both moved and frightened her. The race to conquer space ended in a draw.
Technology moves her forward, but as John Maynard Keynes points out, "The ideas of people in current leadership positions are always those they took in during their youth." Both her past and her future influence how she sees the world and her responses to it. What seems noble and good at one point in her life may lose its meaning or substance later. She may hold to the values of her youth or see things differently. Or she may stray and return to them.
When we create a character, we consider her circumstances, but also the mindset she may have had when she experienced them. For example, a multi-cultural neighborhood in a book set in the 60s would have different issues than one set in the 80s or again in 2012. Also, what may be viewed as an entitlement in one decade may seem wrong in another.
On the everyday side of a contemporary setting, she might punch the number into a phone instead of dialing, order chai instead of coffee, purchase only organic food and take her own grocery bags with her to the store. She would definitely pump her own gas. She might only pay by debit card, but she might also have trouble remembering her pin number. If a story has an aging character -of whatever age - even though it is a contemporary story, the character's past will be reflected in his or her responses, choices and interpretations.
Do you have a character who has lived long enough to put a different spin on an event or problem? We'd like to hear.
Monday, April 23, 2012
He's too humble to point it out, so let us urge you to go to his site (after you've read and commented here, let's not be in too much of a hurry), subscribe, comment, and enjoy his insight, poetry, and wisdom. John will be joining us in the comment section of the blog as well.
John Blase (rhymes with maize) is a husband of one, father of three, poet, writer, editor, and part-time saint. He lives along Colorado’s Front Range with his family. His recent work includes two co-writing projects - All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir with Brennan Manning, and No Matter the Cost: Igniting a Life of Strength and Honor with Vance Brown. His own name graces the cover of Touching Wonder: Recapturing the Awe of Christmas. He enjoys dark coffee, red wine, faded denim, and red wine.
Novels. Why do some of us keep writing them and some of us keep reading them? Its quite late really in the life of the genre, so why? Drumroll, por favor. I believe the novel makes you more human. And of all the plows you’d want to put your hand to in this life, like becoming a professional bull rider or a sommelier or a poet, the plow of becoming more human may very well be the best one.
D.H. Lawrence talks about the purpose of a novel being to extend the reader's sympathy. I like that. For example, a lower middle class poet (me) can read about a man dying of ALS (Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth) or about two sisters being raised in Fingerbone, Idaho (Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping) or about the lifelong friendships of two married couples (Wallace Stegner’s Crossing To Safety) and to some extent I become a better person for it because I’ve entered into these lives that I have never lived and might not want to lead but nevertheless it stirs, I think, the sense of possibilities within life. The range of ways to live in part explains a novel's value, seeing how deep and wide humanity truly is. Its like meeting people at a cookout that you’ve never met and you wouldn't have gone out of your way to meet, but there they are passing you the dill pickles and they suddenly become real to you. You understand to some extent their lives, plus your own a little more, and to a greater degree this mystical incarnation we call life. Its quite beautiful, really, this becoming more sympathetic or human. It entails becoming more compassionate and friendly and sensitive. I like that.
As you might guess, the inverse here is true, as in avoiding novels tends to constrict one’s sympathy, or make you less than human. For example, I once knew a man who avoided novels his entire life and he wound up a bitter old ninnyhammer with no one to talk to but a canary and she hung around only because of the cage. The winter of his years could have been vastly different if only he’d been willing to lose himself in Kent Meyer’s The Work of Wolves or Bonnie Grove’s Talking To The Dead. The choice, of course, is up to each of us: more human or less human. But I’d hate to see you end up like that.
I must add that this same phenomenon does frequently occur via poetry, which is somewhat like a sister to the novel, a radically younger sister, you know the one who came along after you were in high school that both intrigues and terrifies you. So I conclude here with a poem of my own to extend your sympathy for me because we’ve probably never met and chances are good you wouldn’t go out of your way to meet me, but voila! here I am passing you the potato salad. Enjoy.
Friday, April 20, 2012
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Many nonwriters assume that publication is a thunderously joyous event in the writer's life...They believe that if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo. Entire paragraphs and manscripts of disappointment and rejection and lack of faith would be wiped out by one push of a psychic delete button and replaced by a quiet, tender sense of worth and belonging. Then they could wrap the world in flame.--Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
All that I know about the relationship between publication and mental health was summed up in one line of the movie Cool Runnings..."If you're not enough before the gold medal, you won't be enough with it."
Monday, April 16, 2012
The novel has always mattered to me.
As a child, I climbed the Swiss Alps with Heidi and discovered England in The Secret Garden. I tied my braids with red ribbon like Spanish girls in picture books, or wrapped them in a crown like the heroine in Kirsten Saves the Day. With no television or computer games, my sisters and I rode bikes on the driveway and pretended to go to Bethlehem- the only foreign city I was sure of, thanks to our Bible storybook.
s raised me in a tidy Kansas town, north of Wichita and miles from anywhere significant. Long afternoons gazing at wheat fields made me conscious of my smallness and I hoped someday to escape, to soar over those prairies and find newfangled things.
On Sundays I sat with my friends near the front of the sanctuary, hands folded but eyes glazing as I found pictures in the wood grain of the pulpit- exotic things like donkeys and camels and palm trees. After school I devoured The Diary of Anne Frank with my peanut butter and jelly, went to sleep to the tune of waves off The Island of Blue Dolphins.
My earliest dreams sprouted from books and a rare airport trip, where my stomach ached w
ith longing as stewardesses clicked past, pulling their rolling bags.
Someday, I would be a stewardess and pull a bag with wheels.
I read more and my dream changed: I would be a detective like Nancy Drew. Later I combined Cherry Ames, Jungle Nurse with Little Women and altered my dream again. This one stuck and all through my teens, I wanted to be a journalist in Africa.
Then reality hit, with a thud like a Twain in our library drop-box. Detective? Journalist? Those weren’t career paths for Plain girls. I could be a teacher, a nurse, or a homemaker.
led the seed-dream, but seedlings die hard.
I followed the acceptable path: taught school, married young. My husband had no interest in travel but I swaggered through France with The Count of Monte Cristo and toured London with David Copperfield.
Every time a jet flew over, I wished I was on it and every time I walked through an airport, my stomach hurt like it did as a child. But now I knew better. Girls like me didn’t go places. They put down roots like cottonwoods and learned to bend without breaking like wheat on the plains.
Then one startling day my husband mentioned mission work. Our church needed volunteers for its humanitarian program; maybe we should give some time to help ot
hers. It happened so slowly I scarcely realized it- here a comment, there a question- and when we submitted our application, I was as stunned as anyone.
Suddenly my wheat field exploded into fireworks.
But the mission board would probably send us to a local post, supervising hurricane clean up or a guesthouse.
They would, probably.
They sent us to Romania, within reach of the galaxy that was Europe. Other missionaries prepared for foreign service by getting shots and learning to cut hair but I read every library book that mentioned this new country of ours.
And then I climbed on that jet and glided away.
I soaked Romania in, walked the streets, spent evenings on our balcony and afternoons in the park. We explored from the brooding forests of Dracula, to the banks of the Blue Danube, to the quiet hometown of Elie Wiesel, and the quaint, overlooked country wedged in our hearts.
But that was not all. Oh no, it was not all.
Hungary and Ukraine became old friends and Anna Karenina and The Singing Tree grew real. There were other trips - a layover in James Joyce’s Ireland, a drive through Sherlock Holmes’ Bavaria, a glimpse of The Scarlet Pimpernel’s France.
Then we crossed the Adriatic by ferry and I blinked back tears as the lights of Italy approached. Kansas seemed far away but the girl with braids did a victory dance under the cottonwood.
Italy meant Venice and gondolas. It meant the Coliseum, a million crooked streets, and a new pasta dish every day. It meant The Voice in the Wind and The Last Days of Pompeii.
It meant everything.
And now, I truly believe there will be more. Once a book plants a seed, it grows, and once you come unstuck, there’s no tying you. My wheat field is a runway and the brown-haired girl pulls a suitcase with wheels.
Friday, April 13, 2012
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
I loved Debbie's post on Friday. Loved the old photo, which could be such an inspiration for a novel, as several of you pointed out. Imagination is such an amazing thing. There's no end to the things that inspire our imaginations, which are truly a gift from our creative God. A few weeks ago, Katy made the comment that writing is very close to dreaming. While I don't dream a lot -- or if I do, I don't remember the dreams -- that time just before sleep is the time my imagination is most engaged, particularly when I'm in the thick of writing a novel. It's a very creative time for me. I look forward to it as though it's the dessert to the end of my day.
Debbie's post got me thinking about writing exercises, like taking a photo and writing an opening paragraph for the story it inspires. Or perhaps writing an entire synopsis. Warm-up exercises are an important part to any number of endeavors. Athletes do them before they run that big race, or play that big game. Musicians do them to limber their fingers. Singers do them to prepare their vocal chords. And many writers do them as well to get the creative juices flowing.
I admit I often skip the exercises at the end of the chapters in the writing books I read, even my favorite ones, like Jim Scott Bell's Plot & Structure, which is a great resource and has some fine writing exercises to drive home the lessons he teaches. The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield is another good resource. It too has good exercises at the end of the chapters. So why do I skip them? True confession: It's a combination of laziness and a desire to move on to the next chapter.
But some exercises can be fun, even turned into a game if you approach it the right way. For example, Dragon Writing Prompts, a blog for fantasy and science fiction writers, has this prompt: "...drop a letter from a book, movie, play song, TV show to come up with a new title. Then add on a short plot summary that is, preferably, related in a twisted way to the original." They give some examples: "The Velveteen Rabbi, Huckleberry Inn, Little Omen, Planet of the Aps." You get the idea.
Another terrific resource for writing prompts is found at writersdigest.com. There are exercises like The Tooth Fairy is a Thief, The Ghost of Your Grandmother, Note Behind the Picture. Are you up for the challenge? Can you give us a creative title by dropping or adding a letter to an existing title, then writing a brief plot for the story? Or will you go so far as to write an opening sentence/paragraph for one of the Writers Digest prompts? How do you feel about writing exercises? Do you skip them, or do you enjoy the opportunity to stretch your brain? Where do your best ideas for your creative writing come from?
Monday, April 9, 2012
Friday, April 6, 2012
I would like to wish everyone a Happy Easter, and since it's Good Friday, I wanted to share an Easter photo I found in a shoebox full of black and white Kodak prints during a recent family reunion.
These lovelies are my sweet sisters and this photo was apparently taken on Easter morning (otherwise, I doubt the bunnies would still be in tact). I find the composition of this photo interesting in an almost Tim Burton-esque way. Their solemn faces, the sepia tones, the dust-bowl look of the place, and the fact that they're sitting in a dirt field with their Easter baskets so far from the house intrigues me. They are large, the house is small. The crazy thing is that this was not taken in the dustbowl but in a verdant, oak-covered stretch of Maryland where the humidity will curl your hair on a summer's morning and you can practically smell the breeze off the bay. The festive bunnies against the stark surroundings could suggest a contrast between extravagance and want, or for hope found in unlikely places. Luckily, their (our) experience fell somewhere comfortably in-between extravagance and want, and hope was not a stranger in our home.
It's the kind of thing that could spark a great story idea - or at least a creative caption. It wouldn't be the first photo to jumpstart a novel. Ideas, anyone?
I so appreciated Patti's post from Monday on 'Standing on the Shoulders' of women writers who paved the way for others. I remember discussing Anne Bradstreet in my American Literature class. Born in England in the early 1600s, she lived a hard life in one of the first Puritan colonies, was a mother of eight, the wife of a governor and considered to be the first American poet. Her writing, which was accomplished in the late hours after all her work was done and family was asleep (sound familiar?) was by necessity kept private and not intended for publication. One of her best friends was banished from her community for airing her personal views. Anne's brother-in-law secretly copied her book of poetry and had it published without her knowledge. She later wrote a poem about how it felt to see it in print and the changes she wished she could have made (again, familiar?).
I leave you with a look into her deeply spiritual life:
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
We want to thank everyone who participated in our Why the Novel Matters essay contest. You gave us some wonderful entries to read and judge. Congratulations to our top three winners:
Vila Gingerich ~ winner of the Kindle Touch.
Susie Finkbeiner ~ winner of Sally Stuart's 2012 Christian Writer's Market Guide and our Novel Tips on Rice recipe book.
Cherry Odelberg ~ winner of Sally Stuart's 2012 Christian Writer's Market Guide.
~ ~ ~
After Patti’s excellent, stimulating post on Monday, I have a confession to make. Two confessions, in fact.
One is, that I have not given up ambitions (though circumstances should certainly be leading me in that direction, some might observe.) In fact, Patti’s post caused me to put into words a new ambition. And writing it for everyone to see is the height of self-exposure.
So here it is. I want to be able to successfully write and publish in the way that Joyce Carol Oates does. She writes meaningful fiction and nonfiction. She dares to write in many genres – literary, suspense, gothic, young adult, children; short stories, novellas, essays, books and more. She’s a playwright, poet, literary critic, professor, and editor. She is disciplined and prolific in her writing output. And she takes risks with her writing, and does so with great success. (And she’s 73, which gives me hope for continued productivity.)
My first exposure to her terse style came when I listened to an audiobook presentation of Black Water, a novella that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. (By the way, a New York times reviewer once said that this was “the best audio book ever recorded.”)
In this book, Oates uses a literary device we’ve all been told to avoid: She uses the same phrase over and over again. (Haven’t you always been told that you should vary your vocabulary so the reader won’t get bored?)
The phrase Oates repeats is this: “. . .as the black water filled her lungs, and she died."
She uses this repetition as prolepsis, which is a word whose root refers to anticipation. In rhetoric, prolepsis involves the anticipation of, and pre-emptive response to, objections that the listener might have.
In literature, and in Black Water, it involves the foreshadowing of an event as if it had already happened. An familiar example of this as metaphor is when a prisoner on his way to execution is called "dead man walking."
By Oates repeating, “as the black water filled her lungs, and she died," the reader knows that the character will drown, and yet Oates fills the narrative with so many details of hope that it is not possible to accept the death, just as the character cannot accept her own coming death, until it is inevitable. The dramatic tension in this novella is excruciating.
Do you know of other authors who have successfully used repetition or prolepsis (or both)?
Monday, April 2, 2012
We are wired as humans to be open to the world instead of enclosed in a fortified, defensive mentality. What your giving can do is help your readers be brave, be better than they are, be open to the world again.--Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird