Monthly Archives: April 2013

Mosquitoes, Whining in My Ear

In one of the essays in The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes:

There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.

The mind is an irrational thing. It operates in its own conditioned, instinctive manner, so we can fight and flee our way through life.

I am a slow, ponderous writer. I often find myself caught without a mosquito net, with those whiny voices in my ear, drowning out any possible coherent thoughts. I stop. I listen. The work freezes. I set it aside. Sometimes I can go back and wrest some momentum out of some of those pieces. But sometime, sometimes, they just stay where they are. Inert. Dead.

But fiction is not life. Life plays out in far messier ways. Life demands that I wake up and pay attention.

When terrible things happen in the world I  find myself questioning what I do for a living. Writers are not “essential personnel,” are they? Here we are now, in the wake of the Boston bombings, and I’m dismayed at my own self-indulgence. We live in a world where a 19-year-old ends up bloodied in a boat in someone’s back yard, after having dropped off a bomb intended to kill and maim crowds of people. Obsessing over process seems irrelevant. I’m jolted out of any residual state of feeling sorry for myself.

Still, the thing we call process will take its toll again, I know. Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote about this in 1920, in her essay, How Flint and Fire Started and Grew.

…on taking up the legible typed copy and beginning to glance rapidly over it, I felt fall over me the black shadow of that intolerable reaction which is enough to make any author abjure his calling for ever. By the time I had reached the end, the full misery was there, the heart-sick, helpless consciousness of failure. What! I had had the presumption to try to translate into words, and make others feel a thrill of sacred living human feeling, that should not be touched save by worthy hands. And what had I produced? A trivial, paltry, complicated tale, with certain cheaply ingenious devices in it….

From the subconscious depths of long experience came up the cynical, slightly contemptuous consolation, “You know this never lasts. You always throw this same fit, and get over it.”

So, suffering from really acute humiliation and unhappiness, I went out hastily to weed a flower-bed.

And sure enough, the next morning, after a long night’s sleep, I felt quite rested, calm, and blessedly matter-of-fact. “Flint and Fire” seemed already very far away and vague, and the question of whether it was good or bad, not very important or interesting, like the chart of your temperature in a fever now gone by.

So there. Momentum is everything. The only way is to keep on keeping on. I’m swatting at those whiny mosquito voices and paying attention to the only work I know how to do.

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By Invitation Only

Lately? I’m re-discovering Jane Austen and falling in love all over again. I started with Northanger Abbey, a book I’d never read. I was bowled over by its cleverness, humor, delicious language, and lively pace. And then there’s her little gem of an epistolary novel, Lady Susan, whose scheming main character is great fun to hate. Finally, I just finished Mansfield Park, but not without dragging my feet. A lot. I had a great deal of trouble, you see, caring what happens to the insufferable, self-righteous heroine, Fanny. Park is the only Austen book I can’t really admire, not because it’s not strongly written and admirably constructed, but because Miss Goodie Two Shoes is simply so hard to take!

 Which started me thinking about other protagonists I might not be inclined to follow through a book. Some of them, like Melville’s Ahab, are folks even their authors knew better than to foist on us without a buffer. The white whale’s nemesis speaks like thunder, but without Ishmael’s more judicious voice for balance, could we bear the blast? A fellow writer, who’s gone back to grad school, is reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles for the first time. She emailed me that she just doesn’t think she can take any more of this character’s “victim mentality.” Since I adore Hardy’s novel, I begged to differ. But I also realized how individual our responses can be to main characters. And why not? I might introduce the same person to four friends at a party, and never know which combination will click. 

So how about you? Which protagonists do you wish you’d never been introduced to? I’m not talking about characters who start out totally unappealing and then turn likeable à la Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. And I certainly don’t mean delightfully, unrepentantly immoral or flawed m.c.’s like Gatsby or Scarlett O’Hara. I want to know, instead, who rubs you the wrong way from start to finish. (If you finish!) Maybe it’s a character the author doesn’t even know is unspeakable. (Does Philip Roth have any idea how truly loathsome Portnoy is?) Or perhaps it’s one who’s just plain boring. (I’m looking at you, Bella.) Bland or irritating, whiny or obnoxious, let’s invite them all together right here—for the world’s worst party! 

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Homeland

In September of 2012, my daughters and I traveled back to my birthland, South Korea. I refer to it as a birthland, because that was where I was born, but not raised. My family and I immigrated when I was four years old to the United States. I grew up in San Diego, California, and even today, living in Vermont, I still feel like a Californian in my heart.

For me the concept of a homeland is complicated. As a child, I never saw myself as an “American.” Americans were blond and blue eyed. Americans did not get yelled at with racial slurs or grotesque gestures of fingers pulling back the corners of eyes. Americans did not look like me. And yet, I did not feel distinctly Korean either. My outspokenness and questioning set me apart from other Korean children. At least that was what my parents would have me believe. So I wasn’t exactly Korean. And I certainly wasn’t American. I, and many children of my generation who immigrated from Korea to the United States at a young age or were born here to first generation parents, lived amongst the hyphens. The odd dash or space between identities. Korean American. We spoke Korean at home and English outside of the house.

To return for the first time to Korea since I immigrated was a very surreal journey. In many ways I felt guarded. I had heard from other Korean Americans who returned to Korea for visits, that the Koreans in Korea were somewhat unkind to the returnees. Those without language skills were taunted and made to feel that they were not truly Korean. Even the way we wore our clothes somehow signaled our difference in culture. Obviously, South Korea has modernized and Westernized since I left, and surely, attitudes and ideas must have changed with the times. Yet, I still worried about rejection. For so long, I had felt marginalized in the United States, and in some ways, I held a hope that there was a place that I might fully belong. As my daughters and I boarded the plane, I worried most of all that now I would truly come to understand, there was no homeland.

The first ten days in Korea were spent traveling by car all around the country. We had an English language GPS system and a map downloaded from Google. We visited historical sites, old villages, tea plantations and canoed in the ocean near my birthplace. The Gangwondo province is famous for its mountains and rugged coastline. For the first time, I saw the waters I had always imagined I remembered. They were more beautiful than anything I ever dreamt. Emerald green water with craggy outcroppings of rock; the seascape was just spectacular. And even though it was a little on the chilly side, my girls took a dip! It felt a bit like a baptism.

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(Kayaking in the waters of Gangwondo Province)

Even more amazing than the landscape were the people. So many friendly, helpful, kind people who aided us when we were lost, fed us when we were hungry, made us laugh when we were homesick, and loved us as children who had returned.  One toll agent even opened up a secret gate when I accidently ran the toll and then backed up to try and pay, blocking rows and rows of cars. Nightmare driver! The agent got out of her booth, waved me over to the far end and unlocked a gate that led out to a street. I tried to give her the money for the toll, but she wouldn’t take it and wanted to know where we were from in the United States. She wished us safe travels and waved as we left.

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(Chadwick International School in Songdo. Catherine, the librarian, was amazing!)

Time and time again from my sub rights agent,to my publisher, the international schools, librarians and their fantastic students, everywhere we went, everyone was so kind and delighted to meet us. They made us feel welcome, and more importantly, they wanted us to stay. They made us feel that we belonged in Korea with them.

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(Traditional feast meal)

All my memories of Korea and my childhood there had always been little fragments of images, people and places. None of it made sense, but they represented puzzle pieces to a whole picture that was always out of reach. As the days folded into weeks and the weeks collected into a month, I realized that my picture of Korea had not only been pieced together, but it had grown and shaped itself into a land. My homeland. Image

(Lantern Festival in Jinju. The entire city was lit up with huge lanterns!)

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The Joys of Copying from Someone Else’s Paper

I spent spring break in Florida.  No, really.  I wasn’t flashing anyone on the beaches or slurping down vodka infused Gummy Bears, though.  I was building sand castles with my grandchildren in nearby Orange Beach, Alabama…and Pensacola, Florida happened to be the least expensive airport to fly into.  (To be honest–instead of a storyteller–I was watching my granddaughter and grandson and even my son and daughter-in-law build sand castles while I huddled nearby because it was unusually chilly that week.)

In the evenings, I sat between the two twin beds and read aloud from my brother’s new middle grade novel, Adventures of a South Pole Pig, a story of Flora who is determined to not be stuck on the farm and goes to sea, is stuck in the hold, fights rats, survives a shipwreck…all the while also determined to discover her purpose-driven life.  “Why do you think she’s really on the ship?” I asked.

“To be COOKED,” five-year-old Noh said.

True.  But she believes she can become a sled-puller, and she is not the sort to roll over and, um, play dead, and she is helped in her quest by a irascible cat, a dog of little words, and a cabin boy.  I loved those wonderful “just one more chapter” moments. 

After we finished, my eight-year-old granddaughter said that she and I should write a story, as we did at Christmastime.  Great.  We bought a notebook.  “Let’s brainstorm,” I said.  “Characters?”

A pig.  Named Emerald.

A cat.  Dandi (“Two eyes popped out of the darkness.”)

A dog.  Buddy.

A joke.  Hay, Mr. Horse, why the long face?

What is our hero all about?  She likes to explore. 

What’s her problem?  She gets stuck in the Antarctic.  (My note: We have to learn some good details about the Antarctic.)

They meet a girl named Ally in the Antarctic.  Ally doesn’t give up.

“What is something inside of Emerald that she doesn’t yet know?” I asked.

She has a special, brave heart but she doesn’t know it.

Hmmm.  This all was beginning to sound like a certain novel by Chris Kurtz.

When I told my brother, he laughed.  Once at a writers’ conference, an author said that he’d never taken part in a critique group because if he wanted to play in an orchestra, he wouldn’t begin by sitting around playing his clarinet with other people who were learning to play the clarinet.  In most art forms, there’s a certain copying of the pro’s that goes on for a while.

Have you tried typing out the text of a picture book?

A novel?

Do you read poetry or picture books aloud to train your ear to the rhythms?

VCFA essays, disturbing as they can sometimes be to write (and read), have the wonderful effect of making us all stare deeply into a text, noticing things we haven’t noticed before; thus, all of those authors are on the faculty in a way.  We learn from paying attention to technique other artists have explored…and as we stumble around the Antarctic with ice crystals forming on our foreheads, we might even grope our way to our own true story places.

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Jam

         Image   A couple of weeks ago I got an invitation from the Smucker’s Jam Company. They were launching a “Breakfastime Story Promotion” and they wondered if I would like to write a five page, 250 word story for an in-store booklet.

             I was tempted for four reasons. I like jam.  I always enjoy the challenge of writing to a strict formula. As a cereal box reader from way back, I’m in favor of insinuating narratives into unlikely places.  And, finally, you’ve got to hand it to a company that bravely continues to call itself Smuckers.  (I noted right away that they did not want the story to be in rhymed verse.)  So I sent away for more information and guidelines.

The story was to feature a six or seven year old girl.  Easy-peasy; these are my people.  It was to include a reference to Smucker’s jam.  Well, duh.   Two to three sentences per page. Okey-dokey.  Three of the five scenes were to include a “special moment.”  This was getting a bit tougher.  I’m allergic to the word “special,” but hey, I can pop an antihistamine.

             Small print:  they would retain copyright in the universe in perpetuity.  Well, all right, I just won’t tell the Writers’ Union of Canada.  The writer might be asked to make television and/or live appearances.  Steady on!  For a 250 word story that will be sitting on the edge of a grocery story shelf??  Isn’t this being a bit grandiose? But the possibility is also kind of kicky. I’ve never been on a genuine talk show.

             But then, dear reader, I hit the wall.  It was this line:  “The story should be brief but meaningful and resonate with moms of children aged 6-7.”  What about the children?  Shouldn’t it resonate with the children?  Not a mention. 

            Of course, silly me.  This is not about children at all. If you’re clever and lucky when you write a picture book you can do an end-run around the commercial popularity of mom-stroking and mom-reassurance and actually write for the child but not when you’re writing a shelf-ender. I bailed.           

            By the way, I was telling this story to a friend in the grocery business and she told me the name of the product ads as pictured above.  They are called “wobblers.”  Don’t you feel enriched knowing that?

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