Author Archives: louisehawes

How Etymology Can Change Your Life, And Other Matters Lexiconical

For years, those same years during which I couldn’t decide which I loved more—acting, writing, painting or sculpting, I tortured myself with one word: dilettante. Even my profile in the high school yearbook mentioned that “there must be at least three Louises,” one who painted, one who wrote, one who acted. Was I pleased by that suggestion? No, it confirmed that I was a dabbler, someone who skimmed the surface, who was a little good at a lot of things, A Jacqueline of all trades, mistress of none. In short, a dilettante.

Then one day, on an impulse for which I will be forever grateful, I looked up the word with which I’d been flagellating (a word which comes from the Latin for whip, but which is a cognate or close family member of the Old Norse word for fluttering wings) myself. Guess what the dictionary told me, dear readers? The root of the word (from the Italian by way of Latin) is a verb which means to delight. WHOA! What a revelation. Somewhere along the intersection of history and language, English speakers had separated art and knowledge from delight; and a dilettante had come to mean a person who wasn’t serious enough, who took mere joy from what they did or studied. Double WHOA! What’s wrong with taking delight? In lots of things? In anything you can wrap your hands or mind or heart around?

That is how, O Best Beloveds, the dictionary set me free. To be whoever I pleased. Among my many subsequent identities has been Etymologist, one who revels in the changing shape and meaning of words. (This specialty’s name comes, ultimately, from the Greek word eteos, meaning true or actual.) I’ve loved learning, for example, that almost all Indo-European words for write find their roots in verb forms that meant to push, scratch, carve, or cut. Little wonder, considering what hard work writing used to be before paper and computers. How rich and right, too, that the origin of the word human is probably a mashup of the Latin homo (man) and humus (earth)—not to be confused with beings of a higher order, you see.

wrong_superhero

If you’d like to dabble (which word originally meant to splash rather than immerse in water—can you really get clean that way? Tsk. Tsk.) in word origins, try this site, which introduces itself, aptly and juicily, thus: “This a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English.”

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php

So. What words have changed your life?

Advertisements

10 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Too Old to Write YA?

We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.

(from Roger Angell’s piece in the New Yorker, “This old Man,” 2/17/14)

 If you haven’t read the essay from which the above excerpt is taken, don’t miss it. It’s a gloriously written, truly felt piece that perfectly describes what it’s like to walk among you with a sound mind in an aging body. Do yourself and your horizons a favor, and read the whole thing. Today, though, I’d like to narrow the focus a bit, and take a look at a particular sub-genre of “elders”—dare we call them “poplars?”—older authors who write fiction for young adults.

I don’t know how many of us there are, but to judge from my informal survey of colleagues and from the regular round of faces I see at state and national book festivals and conferences, I’d say a fair number of writers for young readers are already, or on the verge of, collecting social security. Which means they are also fair game for the naysayers who insist that, if your phone is dumb and your jeans sit at the waist, you have no business authoring books for anyone under 20. Beyond the fact that jeans and phones are irrelevant if you write historical fiction, how much sense does this dismissive prejudice make when it comes to novels set in the here and now? Or for that matter, stories that travel to tomorrow and beyond?

What compels any writer to write the book she does? I never sit down and tell myself, I’m going to write a young adult novel today. Or, Now for an adult short story, or, I feel like a picture book. I write what I need to write, go where I have to go; many of my most pressing personal emotional issues can be traced back to adolescence, so that’s often the age of my protagonists. If I don’t learn and grow from the journeys I take in my writing, neither will my readers. I never write down to young readers or “up” to adults; it’s simply that blooms of one kind seem to beg for a slender vase, flowers of another sort look better in a wide goblet. The arrangement in either case calls for skill and caring and yes, passion.

Image

The young woman I was at thirteen was probably more idealistic, more romantic, more passionate than she has ever been since. The turmoil and heart-clutching theater of that period in my life keep calling me back. But at the age I’ve been blessed to reach now, I have lots of other periods calling me back, too: I’ve written short fiction that was published (and therefore labeled) as adult, YA, and middle grade; a picture book for young readers and a graphic novel for older ones; poetry; novels—books for all the juicy stages of me and you. So the logic of demanding that a YA author be young escapes me. I can appreciate, barely, the conviction that a teen author will have trouble portraying credible adult characters, whose experiences that young writer hasn’t yet lived. But to suggest that older writers have such heart fog they can’t reclaim their past, can’t revisit the young woman or man who helped make them who they are today? Not so much.

In fact, we mature types have what might be considered an edge over those still embroiled in the pangs and ecstatic highs of adolescence. We’ve been there, done that; and we have “crossed over” to the other side of that roiling time. By going back to it, we are, in effect, offering our young readers, not a helping hand, but company for the road. Someone to walk beside them, someone who can convincingly testify that they’re likely to get out alive. And maybe even wiser, happier for the trip.

 

 

16 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A Valentine from the Teacher

If you’ve recently accompanied a child or grandchild to the store to look for Valentine’s Day cards, you’ll have noticed plenty of choices for cards to send their friends, and even a great many options for cards to give their teachers. But, at least in my neighborhood, there were no Hallmark-type greetings for teachers to send their students. Which is fine, because I really want to write my own. And here it is:

To every student I ever told to put their novel in the drawer and start all over; to every new writer I asked to scrap a character, a scene, a metaphor; to every one who wrote me for advice and to whom I replied, however gently, Kill your darling, THANK YOU. Thank you for your grace under fire, your courage, your resilience, your can do/won’t surrender attitude; for teaching me so much about starting over unafraid. On this day, when we remember the people we’re thrilled and deeply grateful to have in our lives, I remember you. Image

Why now? Yesterday has a lot to do with it. Yesterday, I shared my latest draft with my writers’ group. I was more than a little excited about this manuscript, a novel whose opening some students and colleagues heard in a reading at VCFA. It’s a book about the young woman who danced John the Baptist to death. Working title? The Gospel of Salomé. But the story took an interesting turn after those early chapters—it acquired a second narrative voice, that of John’s most famous follower, Jesus Christ. The idea sprang, not from free writes or from any plot imperative, but from the headings in my Scrivener outline. Since I’d grouped the early chapters together under a section heading, “The Good Daughter,” it felt intriguing to connect the next (unwritten) chapters with the title, “The Good Son.” And who would this Good Son be? Who else?

Wow! How risky is that! And scary! And BIG! Flush with my own daring and feverish from leaping off one of the biggest writing cliffs I’ve ever contemplated, I wrote like crazy. I don’t eat breakfast, anyway, but I started skipping lunch, too. I wrote around the clock, skipping niceties like showers, walks, and answering the phone. Which means that, yesterday, when I finally turned my draft into the group, I had a great deal invested in it. But I wasn’t really worried. The whole risky concept was sure, I thought, to bowl them over. Besides, I knew the language was incantatory, even hypnotic at points, and I was, frankly, looking forward to hearing this reflected in their comments.

It wasn’t. Now everyone in our group is a published author, so we can all take an ego punch. (You can’t be published multiple times without having been rejected multiple times.) Still, I was stunned when my dear and precious readers, instead of praising my Jesus’ slightly ADD but enchantment-laced voice, asked me why I needed Him at all! They didn’t mean this in a religious sense, mind you. They were asking from a purely literary, craft-oriented perspective—why had I developed this second view point? What did it add to the story? How did it grow my central character, Salomé? How was it worth the risks, historical, motivational, and structural? Why not tell the story without it?

And this is where my students come in. You see, without the precedent they’ve set, I don’t think I could have possibly taken this in stride. But their example has been lodged in my psyche each time I ask a new writer similar tough questions, each time he or she rolls up their sleeves and tries whatever I propose. Sure, there is sometimes gnashing of teeth, not to mention moaning at the bar; but almost always my students are willing to put aside their disappointment, their agendas, even their ideas about why they write. And just go for it.

So I will, too, Sweethearts. I will, too.

14 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Air Kisses

Is it age? Loss of an in-house family? More free time? Whatever the reason, I find I now need, thrive on, cannot do without meditation—twice a day! My evening meditations are often fodder for dreams, and yes, they help me wind down, de-stress, sleep. In the morning, though, things are a different color: I open my eyes from these quiet times, as full of excitement as an untamed puppy. Down girl! I want to tell myself. But still, I can barely restrain the eagerness–the minute the world comes flooding back, each thing I see or touch or hear is kissable! How do you kiss a sound? How do you keep from trying?

Which reminds me of a piece of art I saw last June in a student show at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. I was teaching writing there, but in the spirit of interdisciplinary connection, I took my students to an on-campus show by high school painters. We wandered the exhibit, both inspired and cowed by the versatility, the fresh ideas of these young artists. The work that snagged me from the moment I walked in, and which I tried without success to capture with my cell phone camera, was a clear, single-paned window hanging off to one side of the gallery. It was covered, top to bottom, with lipstick kisses.

I think now of the girl who did this (I found her name on a wall tag, but failed to write it down). I’m sure she’s someone like me, someone who isn’t afraid of “dirty” things—dead birds, squashed squirrels and snakes. Feathers, stranded river stones, turtle shells. No piece of life (or death) seems without its own magic. Each is worthy of examination, attention, what I called in a recent poem, “impertinent curiosity.”

So when my grown kids tell me not to let their children touch these things, it makes me sad. The warm body of a small bird that’s just died on my front steps, flight still whispering in its chest—how is this “dirty?” How can we fail to stoop, to wonder, to bury with thanks?

I see her, then, this child-woman, who was never taught that germs are everywhere, pressing her lips against the old window she’s found. Over and over, making sure the moistness of her mouth finds the glass. Doing what artists do: letting her love shine through.

 

airkiss

 

 

14 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Cat’s Table and Gold Fish

I’ve just finished Michael Ondaatje’s latest, The Cat’s Table. I didn’t get the ecstatic high from this novel that I did from The English Patient. His new one is too easy to put down and walk away from, not even a novel, really, so much as a collection of vignettes clustered around a character/narrator in whom I never really invested.

But look on the bright side—I’ve stumbled on something that feels like a perfect blog topic, something that stopped me in my tracks. Here’s what I found on page 208:

Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves. We should not feel assured or certain about their motives, or lookdown on them. I believe this. I recognize this as a first principle of art, although I have the suspicion that many would not.

I had to read this passage twice when I stumbled across it, slipped in almost off-handedly, near the end of the book, where the narrator speaks to us as an adult, years after his experience at the eponymous dining table of ne’er do wells aboard a ship from Ceylon to England. Even now, when I read it, I feel my writerly hackles rise. (I’m not sure where my hackles are, exactly, but I know they’re stiff with indignation.) I am not so naïve as to assume what I’ve quoted is necessarily Ondaatje’s position, rather than the narrator’s, but there’s nothing in his rambling, uncertain novel to suggest it isn’t, either. In any case, the philosophy here is surely the one that governs the work of the real-life film director/ writer/teacher mentioned in this paragraph. But to take the democratic impulse that sparked the Dardenne brothers’ early documentary films about working class life in Belgium, and elevate it to a “first principle of art,” feels like a mistake, whether Ondaatje’s or his character’s.

By proposing as a moral and aesthetic mandate that readers should not have the upper hand, but should remain as mystified as our characters, as uncertain and ill at ease in the world –no wiser, no more confident than when they opened the book, Ondaatje’s narrator dismisses most of what I’ve always felt, written and taught about “empowering the reader.” His injunction also flies in the face of how powerful and moving I find many stories in which the author has deliberately contrived that the reader know more than the characters. This is especially the case with “unreliable narrators” like the butler, Stevens, in Ishiguro’s brilliant novel, Remains of the Day; or with omniscient narrators and multiple view points in the great novels of the 19th century—it’s because we watch Jane Austen’s characters part and come together in kaleidoscopic patterns only we are aware of, that we can see them as tender, flawed. It’s because we know more than Thomas Hardy’s Tess that we love her. An empowered reader, it seems to me, is the basis of much fine literature, just as a privileged observer (who sees, for instance, an echo of the playful dance and eyes of Matisse’s “Goldfish” in the nodding heads of the flowers above them) is the basis of much great art.

matisse-goldfish_med

Does this broader perspective, this “advantage,” make us feel scornful of characters, as Ondaatje suggests? Do we feel smug because we know what their future holds? Or how their past is shaping them? No more, I think, than the author who wrote them into being looks down on or dismisses them. No more than the artist scorns goldfish or lilies when he paints them to say something about the world.

The English Patient ranks as one of the most emotionally excruciating novels I’ve read. A large part of its profound effect, I think, can be attributed to the way in which Ondaatje makes us privy to the feelings of all five major characters. (In The Cat’s Table, he essentially limits us to the perspective of his narrator.) Unlike these characters, then, we can weave a tapestry from all their individual sensitivities and passions, making something deeper, more profound than any of them could forge on their own. Playing God this way doesn’t make writers or readers smaller of heart, but larger. By knowing more than our cherished characters, we can be both a tender mother bird with her wing around the world, and her nestling snuggled into the warm feathers of creation.

When he pairs empowerment with condescension in the passage above, Ondaatje sets up a straw man, and begs the important issue of a reader’s relationship to the fictional world, a relationship I don’t think has to mirror her relationship to the real one. I’m a reader, you see, who’s frustrated by a lack of resolution, by an aimless story that, like a painting which resolutely and faithfully portrays every pore and hair follicle with photographic fidelity, gives us a “slice of life,” not its juice. I don’t confuse reality with fiction. And I don’t want to: while our chaotic existence may inspire paintings or books, their art is born from the courage to give it meaning and grace.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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! 

Image

23 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

WHERE IS MY VOLCANO?

As a teacher of writing, I often find myself learning from my students. These lessons aren’t usually about craft or technique, since most of the time I’ve got years (or decades) on them in terms of experience. But that very experience can be a disadvantage when it comes to keeping the impetus for writing alive, the passion and flame that brought me to storytelling in the first place. 

In the past month, I’ve traveled to Costa Rica and New Zealand, and it’s from down under that I’m writing you about a creativity workshop my three sisters and I held last week in a town about an hour north of Wellington. Raised by juicy, creatively alive parents, my sibs and I have each ended up making our living in a different field of art, so our collaborative workshops always involve painting (Helen), music (Suzy), film animation (Janie), and writing (Louise). Just a few days ago, at the most recent Four Sisters Workshop, a young woman helped me remember what trumps structure, plot, and language. Like the others in this course, she had no professional background in writing, painting, music or film. Like the others, she chose an object to bring with her, a totem that acted as a spiritual and artistic fulcrum for each session. What she chose, a small chunk of volcanic obsidian, changed us all.

 Image

The final session in our workshop is often a free write, a letter written to each participant from their object. It’s a right-brain, erasure and thought-free expression of why and how the object is with us, why it chose to take this creative journey. In the free write that this young woman shared with us, the small jet-black chunk of stone she’d chosen (without knowing why), wrote her about explosions and fear, about destruction and chaos. It explained that while darkness and pain are usually confusing and frightening, they can also lead to renewal and growth, like the brand new flora that populate volcanoes years after an eruption, or the beautiful shattered face of the obsidian itself. 

I will not quote from the actual free write here, since workshop is a sacred space that needs to be protected, and a blog is the last place something one of us channels from our emotional core, needs to end up. But I have obtained the writer’s permission to share with you here the phrase, the exhortation that her totem, the small dark stone thrown off hundreds of years ago by an eruption, kept repeating. “Where is your volcano?” it asked. It urged the writer (and the rest of us) not to go where it’s safe, but to go where things are bubbling under the surface, where the footing is dangerous, where we are uncomfortable and unsure. It told the writer that the lifestyle and career choices before her could all be decided by asking herself, “Where is your volcano?” 

Not a bad way to make writing choices, too, I think. At least for me, from now on, a great many decisions, from the initial undertaking of a book-length project, to the selection of view point, to the determination of scene content and even word choice, will depend on the answer to a single question: “Where is my volcano?”

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized