Tag Archives: writing

Post #129: The Seeker

For the first time I’ve been reading Irving Stone’s biographical novel Lust for Life, about the life and artistic pursuits, and general unwavering obsessions and fanaticism, of the great Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, whose work is so known and admired it’s almost a cliché. Van Gogh was an artist who suffered a great deal, more even than I’d ever realized, even though many of his worst wounds were self-inflicted. He eschewed paying work and jobs that would monetarily support his efforts, instead relying solely upon the charity of his brother, Theo, and others, which was barely enough to live on. Better to live in poverty with moth-eaten clothes, a writhing hungry belly, and early wrinkles upon his battered face than to compromise even an inch. In short, Van Gogh was single-minded and epically stubborn, and once he dedicated his life to producing drawings and paintings, he was unshakeable in that pursuit. It should also be said that it’s pretty likely that Van Gogh suffered from some undiagnosed mental illness and that were he alive now, he’d be popping Prozac like Tic Tacs.

Despite some early encouragement, many of those who’d originally supported Vincent’s art, eventually turned against him and tried to talk him out of this pursuit.  This included his cousin by marriage Anton Mauve, who was one of many who disputed Van Gogh’s claim even to be an artist and tried vehemently to dissuade him from pursuing his craft. Now, before we wholly demonize this un-supportive enclave, it should be said that Van Gogh was a bit of a leech. He borrowed money he never paid back. He was socially awkward, frequently inappropriate, and ignorant to the sorts of daily social norms that lubricate the vast majority of our interactions, which are constantly suffused with the suppression of true feelings in exchange for being liked and getting along. Van Gogh possessed no such filter. He showed up at people’s houses. He said weird, creepy things that would have found him the odd man out at every party he attended. It’s likely that he would have been very difficult to be around and remain friends with. So while I found myself angry at Mauve and others, there’s context to their frustration with Vincent and their eventual rejection of him.

I’m only about halfway through the book, but I was struck by the following exchange, in which Van Gogh bumps into Mauve weeks after they’ve had a terrible quarrel that has driven a perhaps irreversible wedge into their relationship. Van Gogh tries to apologize to Mauve and invites him to visit his studio to assess his most recent work, even though Mauve (who regularly loaned Van Gogh money and initially supported his work) has grown frequently, even cruelly, dismissive of Vincent’s efforts. After assuring Vincent he will do no such thing, Mauve asks:

“Do you call yourself an artist?”

“Yes.”

“How absurd. You never sold a picture in your life.”

(Here is where my ears perked up and my nervous system began to murmur. I have been writing constantly for nearly twenty years and have made little to no money from my writing in that entire time. I’ve often felt embarrassed over that fact, even though I know the same is true of so many writers, many far more talented than I. It’s Van Gogh’s response to Mauve that has continued to resonate and whisper. He says…)

“Is that what being an artist means–selling? I thought it meant one who was always seeking without absolutely finding. I thought it means the contrary from ‘I know it, I have found it.’ When I say I am an artist, I only mean ‘I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.'”

I’m not personally sure what an artist is, and in spite of being one most of my life, I’ve spent little to no time thinking about what it means, let alone having such a clear understanding in my mind as Van Gogh expresses here and elsewhere. Is that bad? I always feel a little awkward when someone calls me, or I call myself, an artist. The word has never seemed to properly indicate what I do, what I feel, why I sit and write. But this idea of seeking, or striving, even in the absence of monetary, or other brands of external reward? That felt just about right.

 

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Post #128: Some Thoughts on Ann Patchett

9780062049810_custom-7ad2bd2af04c0ac867ab2c601a045a0fd85fd7b2-s99-c85            In Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder, she demonstrates how a writer can, and should, manipulate time to inform a reader’s experience and focus her attention. In a rudimentary sense, time = importance. By skipping briskly through time, for instance, a reader subconsciously infers that the story’s most urgent action is not currently happening, but coming, perhaps concealed just around the next corner/chapter. Conversely, such as in a long scene in the first chapter of State of Wonder, Patchett slows the story clock down to a crawl in order to draw the reader’s attention to the story weight the moment carries. In part, she does this in unsurprising ways, using description, conflict, and dialogue. What is surprising, though, and worthy of a closer examination, is how Patchett also uses repetition to quietly deepen our sense of who the characters are and how they will behave later in the story.

The scene opens in a suburban neighborhood where Marina Singh, the novel’s protagonist, along with her boss and (secret) lover, the aptly named Mr. Fox (think perhaps he’s devious?), have arrived at the home of Karen Eckman to deliver the awful news that Karen’s husband, Anders, is dead. And not only dead, but dead through suspicious circumstances in a remote section of the Amazon. Though the scene is quite early in the novel, for the seven pages Marina and Mr. Fox are in the Eckman’s household, time slows to a crawl. As they drive up, we get a long description of the Eckman’s neighborhood, as well as Marina’s internal wonderings about the finances involved in living there and how different her own life as a single woman is from her married colleague, a father of two. Then, after Karen Eckman opens the door and sees her husband’s colleagues standing there, clearly unnerved when she says “now this is a surprise,” Patchett withholds the reveal, building tension. We meet the family dog Pickles, who becomes a metaphor for the dead husband by scene’s end, and are treated to long descriptions of both the house itself, as well as the weather outside (it’s winter). We also glimpse a jungle gym through the window, a reminder that not only has Karen lost a husband, but two boys have lost a father. They just don’t know it yet.

When Karen asks if they’d like coffee, “Marina turned to put the question to Mr. Fox and found that he was standing directly behind her.” Meaning, of course, that Mr. Fox wants Marina to do the talking. At first we don’t make too much of this. But later down the page, Patchett repeats this character detail. “She {Marina} glanced back at Mr. Fox again…but Mr. Fox had turned towards the refrigerator now.” The repetition of the notion that Mr. Fox, who is not only the dead Anders’s boss, but the replacement male in this scene, shrinking back, thereby making Marina do the tougher, braver work, does two things. It tells us that Mr. Fox is perhaps cowardly, or at least deferential to a fault. It also tells us that Marina is, or will have to be, strong. It’s this latter character detail that Patchett gets the most use out of, for as State of Wonder progresses, Marina will over and over again have to dip into reservoirs of strength, bravery, and resilience she didn’t even know were there. Often, too, she has to do because Mr. Fox is (symbolically) hiding behind her.

Patchett continues to mine this tension through repetition as the scene develops. When Karen finally stops rambling and tending to the dog and says, “this isn’t good news, right?” Marina thinks to herself, “this was the moment for Mr. Fox to tell the story, to explain it in a way that Marina herself did not fully understand, but nothing came…Mr. Fox had his back to the two women.” A page, though perhaps only moments, later, Marina thinks “surely it was Mr. Fox’s part to give Karen the letter {in which she and Mr. Fox had learned of Anders’s death}…but then with a fresh wave of grief, Marina remembered that the letter was in her pocket.” Patchett is shrewd here. The main character is thinking one thing, that she’s doing what Mr. Fox should be doing, but Patchett’s goal is to both transfer power and responsibility, but also to prove Marina as a strong person who will rise to an occasion, demonstrated through this letter, an object Patchett uses to great effect here by placing it in Marina’s path.

Once Karen Eckman has absorbed the horrible news and read the aforementioned letter, again we are reminded of Mr. Fox’s lack of ability to engage in this most urgent moment. “The two of them were alone in this,” Marina thinks regarding she and Karen. The reason? “Mr. Fox had been driven from the room by the sound, the keening of Karen Eckman’s despair.” The repetition has built towards his very removal, enforcing the twin notions of female strength/companionship and absent men, which will both play central roles in State of Wonder.

Towards the end of the scene, after Marina has left Karen briefly to try to figure out what to do, who to call to support her and how to tell the Eckman boys, she returns to the kitchen to find Mr. Fox has finally stepped in and is “petting Karen’s head with a slow and rhythmical assurance” trying to put her at ease. He’s too late, though. The damage is done. And as Marina and Mr. Fox are driving away from the house, Marina thinks about how “she certainly blamed him {Mr. Fox} for leaving her alone to tell Karen.” She then wonders a heavier, more damning thing: “Did she blame him for sending Anders to his death in Brazil?”

By the time you’ve read State of Wonder in its entirety, this long, held moment early in the novel only grows in importance. Patchett slows down time and uses a range of craft elements, repetition most dynamically, to build character and introduce conflicts that will surface through the book, making this early moment a microcosm of who these characters are and how they will respond to difficult situations. Finally, it’s worth noting that Patchett’s use of repetition also achieves a great sense of contrast, for the focusing on Mr. Fox, important as it seems about him as a character, actually reveals even more about Marina, the novel’s heroine and most sympathetic and deeply developed character. In fact, the closer you look at this scene, the more you’ll wonder: how does Patchett do so many things so well at the same time? Writers of all stripes would be wise to study Patchett’s use of slowed time and repetition and try to borrow a bit of her craft mojo in their own work.

 

Post #125: From the Files of the Wonderful and Utterly Unexpected

So, here’s a strange one. I won an award. For my writing. That’s never happened before. It wasn’t a major award or anything, and I suppose it’s obnoxious to gush, but I can’t deny it feels good to know some people out there noticed.

It’s a piece you may have seen before, as I featured its publication on the blog. It’s an essay I wrote about my father entitled “On Becoming–and Not Becoming–My Dad” and it was featured in Kids Vermont in June, 2013. If you haven’t read it, you can link to the essay here.

But about the award. There’s this thing you’ve never heard of called the Parenting Media Association. They host an annual Conference in Philadelphia where they honor contributions to journalistic efforts related to parenting, looking at publications all over the East Coast. There’s a personal essay category in which, unbeknownst to me, my essay was a candidate, and ended up winning Silver (2nd place, if you don’t follow Olympic parlance). Until I heard from the editor a couple weeks ago, I had no idea this was even a possibility.

There’s no money or anything, but I do understand a certificate of some sort will be forthcoming, and I have nice spot on the fridge picked out.

It’s the little things in life, friends. It has to be.

Post #122: Andrea Barrett

A recent book that blew my mind was Andrea Barrett’s collection of stories called Servants of the Map. It was one of those books that, while reading, I could feel burrowing into my writer’s subconscious, re-arranging the wiring for what’s possible and what I want to be able to do in fiction. Here’s some thoughts on Point of View in a story from that collection, ‘The Forest.”

“The Forest” contains an astonishing twenty-four changes in point of view in only twenty-five pages of text. It’s a remarkably fluid and almost basketball like passing of perspectives back and forth between its two main characters, Bianca and Krzysztof. In the story’s early going, the changes in perspective—initially indicated by white space—seem geared to help us witness a party (and its guests), at which our two main characters find themselves, from different perspectives. That it does. Yet, by the story’s end, when Bianca and Krzysztof sneak away from the party and begin sharing details of their pasts, Barrett’s intention for such fluid, frequent (though risky) changes in POV grows more deeply linked to experiencing not just the story’s action from different perspectives, but its profound themes as well.

We open in the POV of aging and well-regarded scientist Krzysztof Wojciechowicz, who has just arrived at an esteemed colleague’s party at which many celebrated scientists are present. Krzysztof feels out of place. So too does Bianca, the young woman who helped chauffer Krzysztof to the party and is bitterly transitioning away from the world of science and academia. In the opening sections, the point of view shifts back and forth between them, trading off every couple pages.

On the micro level, when Krzysztof and Bianca meet, we’re in Krzysztof’s POV where we learn he “could not help noticing that she had lovely breasts.” A few pages later, now in Bianca’s POV and learning how she fits—or decidedly doesn’t fit—into this party dynamic, she stops to consider the strange elder scientist, noting “had it not been for the lizardike graze of his eyes across her chest, she might have felt sorry for him.” It’s a subtle moment—in fact, it could easily be played for comedy in another story—but Barrett seizes on it as a way to develop character and make the most of these new eyes through which we’re seeing the action. What do we learn? Krzysztof, though elderly, still can’t help a peek at a young woman’s chest. He wonders: “How was it he still felt these impulses?” This question raises the stakes of his indiscretion, and the fact of his looking matters even more when we learn that Bianca has not only noticed, but been miffed by the unwanted glance. Without the shifting POV, this moment can’t happen.

Similarly, in the first Krzysztof section, Bianca comes off as brash, agitated, and dismissive of Krzysztof. In the very next section, in Bianca’s POV, she sneaks to an upstairs bedroom and smokes a joint. Directly after this, back in Krzysztof’s POV, he awakes from an accidental nap to find Bianca “cross-legged on the grass, watching over him.” Something’s changed in her; he can feel it. “She seemed happy now; what had he missed?” Krzysztof doesn’t know she’s high, but he doesn’t need to. Here Barrett uses the shifting POV not just for character development and tension, but for dramatic irony as well, and to establish a gradually building closeness between them.

The macro benefits unfold more gradually as Krzysztof and Bianca’s perception of one another becomes more sympathetic and round. More human. For instance, Krzysztof recognizes that Bianca has spirit and he seems intrigued by Bianca’s complex relationship with her sister, Rose. Bianca’s sense of Krzysztof changes even more dramatically when he invites her to share some rare vodka he’s brought from overseas, and, buoyed by his kindness, and several shots of bison vodka, she finds that “…this man, whom at first she’d felt saddled with and longed to escape, was some sort of magician.” Barrett consistently justifies the change in perspective by showing us such powerful and revealing character insights.

Mid-way through the story, as Krzysztof and Bianca grow friendlier, and as their conversation shifts from the party to their pasts, especially their mothers, Barrett stops tipping her hand with white space and begins changing POV both more fluidly and more often. For instance, at one point we are in Krzysztof’s POV and he’s telling Bianca a long story about his mother, who helped keep the bison population alive in Europe, yet in the middle of his story, “Bianca interrupted him—he seemed old again, he was wandering. And crossing and uncrossing his legs like a little boy who had to pee.” When Bianca interrupts, the perspective shifts, yet the action continues without interruption. It’s this seamless story movement that keeps the increasingly shifting POV from growing cumbersome.

And yet, the “head hopping” that Barrett engages in walks a fine line and might, in lesser hands, detract from the story. In The Power of Point of View, Alicia Rasley writes that “the indiscriminate shifting from one character’s POV to another’s” is “like being trapped in a car with a driver who keeps changing lanes every ten seconds.” Good advice for those of us still learning how to use and harness point of view. What keeps this feeling at bay in “The Forest” though is both Barrett’s control and purpose for the shifting POV, and also the fact that she only shifts between two characters. If she changed perspectives as frequently with, say, four or five characters, or across more settings, the effect might be whiplash and harder to sustain or justify.

In the end, the characters end up witnessing the same climactic moment—a cluster of deer who come each day to feed in a patch of nearby forest—but end up focused on different things. Her time with Krzysztof has sent Bianca thinking of her mother and of the complex relationship she has with her sister. Krzysztof, though clearly affected by remembrances of his mother and the early part of his life, still seems more physically in the present. On their way back to the party, Krzysztof invites small talk and Bianca asks him about the bison his mother helped protect. “How pleasing that after all she’d paid attention to his stories,” he thinks. Though affected by the deer and his thoughts, he’s still very aware of this lovely young girl he’s ended up sharing the afternoon with.

Their connection to their past, and to their mothers, informs why they end up connecting in the present. Barrett’s shifting POV makes the context of their relationship richer and more deeply felt. It also helps deepen one of the story’s central themes, the sense of longing for and deep consideration of a past that has influenced the present. The story takes a darkly comic turn when Krzysztof hurts himself on their brief sojourn and Bianca has to bring him back to the party with braces on his legs. Rather than face the music, though, Bianca peels out of the driveway with the esteemed guests looking on, incredulous and worried. And yet, this ends up being a profound shared moment. “Back, Krzysztof thought” as they’re driving away, “back across the ocean and Europe toward home; back to the groves of Bialowieza, where his mother might once have crossed paths with Bianca’s grandfather.” In this moment for him, their lives have become joined both in the present drama and in the lingering past, uniting them more deeply. And yet, Barrett gives us one final shift in POV to show the ways in which their shared experience has affected them differently. “He thought back but Bianca, her foot heavy on the accelerator, thought away. From Rose, their mother, their entire past.”

It’s rather amazing what Barrett achieves in “The Forest.” On first reading, I felt aware of frequent shifts in POV and was impressed at how seamless it felt. On closer examination, finding just how often she changes POV and what she’s able to achieve as a result—just the simple fact that she pulls it off—I feel excited to explore how shifts in POV can deepen and broaden my own stories.

 

Post #110: The Beginning of the End (I hope)

Dear Charles,

Today, I begin what I hope will be the final stage in the editing and re-writing of my novel in progress Returning. That is, until I decide I need to, or am asked to, re-write it again.

The summer has seen far more massive structural and character changes to the book than I would have anticipated. I’m about to re-read the whole thing to see how those changes hold up. I’m predicting that, for the most part, they will. The last time I wrote you, I was editing God and atheism out of the novel and from Chick Myers’s character arc. Turns out I found an ever so small way to include them after all. After I re-wrote the third set, I re-wrote the fourth, and yes, the fifth. The novel begins and ends in the same place and mostly the same way as it has all along, but the roads travelled have been re-directed and filled in with fresh blacktop, and shiny new places to eat.

If you count research and prep time, I’ve been laboring on Returning for over three years and in all that time and all the many hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written and deleted, nobody’s seen a word of it but me. This is a thrilling and scary proposition. When you write a book, you build a protective bubble around yourself and the book so you can keep it, and you, sane and safe during the writing; however, you build this bubble knowing that in the end, you’ll have to pop it and let in all the air that’s been amassing outside.

That moment is coming for me, and for Returning. Soon I’ll begin digging through my desk drawer, looking for my sharpest pin.

As ever, I’m grateful for your friendship and support and will keep you posted.

Best to Martha and the girls,

Benjamin

 

Post #107: Saying Goodbye to God

Clouds-in-the-sky-and-god-rays-wallpaper_4428Dear Charles,

Sorry I haven’t been in touch in quite some time, but it was great to hear from you recently. Funny you should ask about Returning, my novel in progress, because after a very busy teaching year this past year, during which my brain was simply stretched in too many directions to focus properly on the novel, I’m buckled down (locked in? plug cliche in here) and revising, editing, and re-writing the novel at a furious rate. Well, work on a novel is rarely fast moving, let alone furious, even when it is graced with occasional wind sprints, but I’m fully immersed in the book at this point. That’s plenty.

Two days ago, I was, once again, at loggerheads with the themes of God and Atheism in the book. As you know, one of the main characters, aging tennis icon Chick Myers, is an atheist, and the extended section in which we spend a lot of time with his character for the first time, centers around this fact, via a “Rally to Save Chick” that a religious organization has sponsored for him, even in spite of his atheist standing. The rally was a buffet of cultural dissection.

For two years, I’ve loved and been attached to many parts of this section, the third “Set” in the five set novel. But in re-reading it a few days ago, in preparation for what I assumed was some minor tweaking, the God stuff just wasn’t feeling right. It was reading well. Reading great, in fact. Energetic writing and some nice scenes and dialogue, but I couldn’t escape  a nagging feeling that I’ve had in the back of my mind for quite some time, which is that the presence of God, atheism, and a debate about these topics, just wasn’t earning its keep in the novel as a whole.

I originally was inspired to make atheism and God an aspect of Chick’s character by the the life of the late Christopher Hitchens, who famously debated about God even while dying of cancer. Hitchens was a highly spirited atheist. Many people wondered whether an avowed atheist would have second thoughts about God while dying, whether he would change his song and slowly acquiesce to piety. Hitchens, famously, did not. I found this very interesting indeed, and used it in part as a way to help understand the character of Chick Myers. The theme came early in the drafting and has been there all along, for some two years now.

But, like I said, the other day, some quietly lingering doubts came roaring up from the surface and started screaming at me, urging me to re-consider. Asking me: is God and atheism earning its keep? Meaning, are the themes, heavy ones not to be deployed casually, explored with enough care and thought to justify their presence? Though it was painful, I had to say no. So, for them to earn their keep, so to speak, it would entail deepening their place in the book and in the characters’ lives.

This decision had major implications. If I opted to keep the section as is, and to keep atheism and God as major themes in the novel, then the novel had to shift its weight further in that direction. If I abandoned the themes and re-cast Chick’s character minus these big themes, well, then I’d have a shit ton of re-writing to do. Essentially, I’d have to scrap the entire 100 page Third Set and pretty much start that section over. What to do?

So, to clear my head, I took a walk. Walks are great. They have a clarifying, reductive power that’s marvelous. I walked for almost an hour, and about half way through the walk it hit me. God had to go.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t finding the theme, and its effect on the characters, worth pursuing further. It was the realization that deepening that conversation would push the book into terrain where I simply didn’t want it to spend quite as much of its time. The book is primarily about tennis, reality TV, and the trappings of fame. God and atheism had always felt like a natural fit, but I had to admit that I didn’t feel committed to it. Not only that, I wasn’t sure it’s what I wanted my book to be about. I was justifying because I didn’t want to scrap what I’d written. I liked it, even if it wasn’t serving the whole novel well.

But sometimes you have to kill your darlings, right?

So I did. I started over.

Of course, now that I’m halfway through re-writing the Third Set, which I think will still fill out at about 100 pages, there’s always the risk that I’ll screw it up and have to re-write it again someday after a similarly hard won realization.

But, like you’re always saying, Charles, one thing at a time.

So, that’s the update for now. I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for being such a good friend. I’ll try to be in better touch.

Love to Martha and the girls,

Benjamin

 

Post #100: Steinbeck Saw All

east-of-edenI’m reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden for the first time. It’s really great, by the way. And though he’s not normally a writer, like, say, Ray Bradbury, that makes you think he had the power to predict the future, or whose writing was even meant to evoke or imagine the future, a passage I read earlier felt so modern, so of our time, that I went back and read it several times, then decided I had to share it with you.

Keep in mind this a guy writing in the mid 20th century about events that take place in the early 20th century.

The scene in question transpires at a train station, mid day, where Adam Trask, along with his son Cal and his house man Lee, await the return of Cal’s twin brother Aron home from college.

“Train schedules are a matter of pride and of apprehension to nearly everyone. When, far up the track, the block signal snapped from red to green and the long, stabbing probe of the headlight sheered the bend and blared on the station, men looked at their watches and said, ‘on time.’

“There was pride in it, and relief too. The split second has been growing more and more important to us. And as human activities become more and more intermeshed and integrated, the split tenth of a second will emerge, and then a new name must be made for the split one hundredth, until one day, although I don’t believe it, we’ll say, ‘oh, the hell with it. What’s wrong with an hour?’ But isn’t it silly, this preoccupation with small time units. One thing late or early can disrupt everything around it, and the disturbance runs outward in bands like the waves from a dropped stone in a quiet pool.”

In addition to being a writer of uncommon grace and insight into the human experience, it seems that Steinbeck also knew that someday we’d be annoyed at our smartphones for taking three seconds instead of two seconds to load information we used to wait half a day for without blinking an eye.

By the way, if you haven’t read East of Eden, do so. Like me you’ll wonder what the hell took you so long.

PS…I have to add a totally random aside. Today I was getting my oil changed and a woman in the waiting room who was big time squirrely because her car was taking so long saw me reading this book and told me that she’d written a memoir about her time living in Indonesia and one of the rejected titles was Least of Eden. Ha. Another was The Bali Jar. Double ha.