Negotiating with the Muse

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image via fourwindsapps.com

One of the problems writers have, once they feel they have something to write about, is how to shape a story. The muse perched on one's shoulder will often flood the writer with insights, and the writer often feels the urge to cram all of those insights into one piece of writing. The writer's role, then, is how to pare down that overly generous flood to a concise storyline. A couple of thoughts:

  • The reader only needs to know 1/5 of what the writers knows about what's going on. This allows the reader's imagination to work with the storyline and makes for concise prose. 
  • A technique, should your story seem  a flood of information, side trips, and peripheral character data: cut your piece by 30-40%. Just go though it quickly and begin marking out what seem the less relevant things. This allows your subconscious mind to negotiate with the muse's insights in ways that lead to coherent stories.

Listening to Life

 

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image via hollywoodreporter.com

 

 Salvage The Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

 

I don’t remember why I bought this book. It probably wasn’t that it won the National Book Award for 2011; more likely that it’s about the Mississippi coast in the time prior to Hurricane Katrina. I have family living on that coastline, and have visited the area many times, being from the not-so-far-away Louisiana “hill country.” (Don’t laugh – there are some.)

I’m white, though, and while all Southerners or all classes and races interact (although they sometimes don’t admit it), this book has a lot to say about the underprivileged of all ilks throughout the South. The book is about a black family – or what remains of one – in the two weeks or so leading up to Katrina.

The principal character and narrator is the girl of the family, Esch, and she’s pregnant. Esch has an alter ego of sorts in her brother Skeetah’s pit bull, China, who in the first few pages gives birth to her first litter. Skeetah is something of a dog whisperer, and his hold on China is little short of magical. There’s another brother, Randall, who has hoop dreams, and a late addition to the family, Junior.  

A young lad named Manny has done the dirty with Esch; she’s in love with him, and is reluctant to tell him she’s pregnant. She goes through all the usual throes of morning sickness, having to guess what’s going on in her biology, but she’s a plucky kid, and she perseveres.

When Katrina hits, the family, which has already been turned upside down by poverty and the brood’s mother’s earlier death, is turned – I don’t know – sideways.

But this isn’t a story about victimization. It owes a lot to Victor Hugo’s underclass in Les Miserables – they improvise, they adapt, they attempt continually to overcome. Ward’s book leaves us with a poignant ending, but stamped with resilience and promise.

 

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 image via theparisreview.org

Jesmyn Ward knows how to hold a reader, she takes us deep into the souls of Esch, particularly, but each of the others in the family as well. She paces her story like a pro, never leaving us in despair, with a hint of promise just over the horizon. The story’s details are what continued to charm me: Esch-as-narrator’s eloquence, her insight (although she often spoke more “street” in dialogue – but it works) in her condition, the family’s ongoing plight as well as their separate and collaborative dreams.

And especially the book's attention to nature: the weather, of course, the dog’s fleas, ants crawling across Esch’s toes, the smell of the unkempt house, the feel of sweat, the ramen and Vienna sausages they eat. Even the details of a series of dogfights.

This book clearly deserves the award. It’s about life, and I can tell you it speaks to life as a Southerner, regardless of race, or color, or creed.

 

My rating 19 of 20 stars.

 

 

A Few Wise Words

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image via awpwriter.org

The Writer's Chronicle magazine has become my "go-to" source for finding out how other writers think about the process and craft of writing. A few pithy quotes in that regard from the February 2012 issue:

  • "What does literature do for me? I think I solve problems in my writing. They may be my problems, but perhaps others share them, and in the process of working these through, I hope to entertain." ~ Sabina Murray ~
  • "It may be that, however he identifies himself, every good novelist is at heart an anarchist." ~Askold Melnyczuk~
  • Yet of the writing of fiction, he (William Maxwell) says, "The difference between this and hallucination is not all that much." 
  • "So where did Mark Twain get his ideas? By starting with intense feeling and then groping toward story." ~ Alice Mattison ~

 

Another Harper’s Moment

I can't seem to quit writing about Harper's Magazine, especially since my old tried and true, NEWSWEEK, has corroded to crap right before my eyes. It's perhaps unfair to compare a weekly with a monthly, but Harper's always gives its readers something topical, but in a depth that NEWSWEEK has long since discarded. 

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In the February 2012 Harper's, Barry C. Lynn's report, "Killing the Competition," is a jaw-droppingly good piece of reportage on the manner in which not only banks and other financial institutions have morphed into monopolies, as they did prior to Teddy Roosevelt's day, but how tech companies have done the same. He goes into detail about the way both Apple and Amazon have become economic juggernauts, co-opting competition as they develop and draw in tech-friendly customers like me. He goes beyond that, though, to poultry farms, and other agribusiness. His bottom line? This is the way it is and shall be. But he hopes at the same time that we'll find a way to re-establish real markets again, in a real free market.

And the fiction here continues to be top drawer. "Old Mrs. J." by Yoko Ogawa (a shout-out here to Stephen Snyder's agile translation) depicts a seemingly charming but crusty old lady. But in the spirit of O. Henry, perhaps, and Poe, things aren't quite what they seem.

Another fine, balanced issue.

Why Write Fiction?

The featured article in the latest issue of Writer's Chronicle magazine – and here I resist a digression – makes a statement, in the context of creative writing programs, with which a heartily agree:

"Whatever shortcomings may arise when creative activity is institutionalized…creative writing programs at their best have promoted the public good by sharpening the uses and varieties of our national narratives."

This, in a nutshell, is why we feel the urge to write – and this is why we read.

 

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image via fiatopen.rollins.edu

 

Narratives, whether they be local or national, are inescapably products of the cultures we're a part of. While historical narratives can be manipulated, truncated, or otherwise changed to accommodate the power centers (here I'm thinking of political, religious, or hot-button social groups) of our societies, they won't ring true when written about in a creative sense unless they accurately represent what's going on in society.

One of the functions of fiction – and creative nonfiction – as the above quote indicates, is to sharpen the varieties of these narratives. Which is to say it's impossible to define a narrative in a way that will take in society's complexities. But stories will do that. For instance:

 

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image via lovettus 106.pbworks.com

 

 

If we read Thomas Russell's history of WWI, America's War for Humanity And William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, we gain a broad-brushed, somewhat slanted view of the western world during the twentieth century's first half. But if we read Hemingway's, The Sun Also Rises, followed by Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Dos Passos' USA trilogy, and follow that with Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, we begin to see a national narrative's many intertwined threads. We begin to see examples of society's seemingly unresolvable paradoxes. And we begin to see the evolution of that narrative on a much more personal level and how it accommodates paradox. 

Without that personal level, then, the broader view of a society's history doesn't mean much. And without creative writers, we wouldn't be seeing our social narrative in such detail. This is a large part of what makes fiction more real than chronicles of history, yet at the same time this is what enriches history and its ongoing narrative.

The Millions : 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists Announced

These finalists all seem fine books. My problem with the fiction is that from what I read in reviews, they all seem somewhat narcissistic – except for this one – my choice, if not a predicted winner:

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Of the nonfiction I have to go with this one – as fine a look at modern culture as you'll see these days, and possibly a precursor of what lies beyone postmodernism:

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The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award have been announced. The fiction list includes one of the biggest fiction releases of last year, but all five of the finalists got a fair amount of ink. No huge surprises. In fact, as we’ve noted in the past, the NBCC seems to do a better job of catching the zeitgeist than other major prizes like the National Book Award and the Booker, which like to play kingmaker by annointing less well known titles. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books.

via www.themillions.com

The Millions : 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists Announced

The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award have been announced. The fiction list includes one of the biggest fiction releases of last year, but all five of the finalists got a fair amount of ink. No huge surprises. In fact, as we’ve noted in the past, the NBCC seems to do a better job of catching the zeitgeist than other major prizes like the National Book Award and the Booker, which like to play kingmaker by annointing less well known titles. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books.

via www.themillions.com