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ImageI’m just home from a minor, unskilled role, helping with a wedding. One of the authors who has been part of my writing life for more than a decade, now, is a graduate of VCFA and has taught there a few semesters, too–Deborah Wiles. I got to see one of the first copies of Revolution, a story of the 60s and of Freedom Summer and of her own childhood memories spending summers with her family in the South. Her house is a home full of warmth, music,friends, good food, quirky stuff, and generosity. Since her youngest child was getting married…all the more so. We told a lot of stories and talked about traditions and family stuff that swirls in everyone’s life.

As we writers think about our characters and their families, sometimes we’re trapped by what we know–only able to play in our own playgrounds. We coax up a motivation that seems to fit perfectly for our protagonist and plan a scene using logic: what would make sense for this person to do or say under the circumstances? There’s nothing like a wedding to remind me that actions and reactions can be a tangle of barely-understood yearning and other emotions we hide even from ourselves. When a writer gets it right, though, we know.

A student recently included Eleanor and Park in her annotated bibliography and she wrote this: “One scene really hit me— Christmas Day the stepfather is in a seemingly good mood, but the more he drinks the family knows it is too good to last. Sure enough, he comes to dessert and wants to know where’s the pumpkin pie? He curses and flings rice pudding, and leaves. Then ‘Eleanor’s mom picked up the bowl with what was left of the rice pudding, and then skimmed the top off the pile of pudding on the floor. ‘Who wants cherry sauce?’ she said. They all did’ (199).

Up with families in all their messy glory–the gift to writers that keeps on giving.

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3 Comments

by | May 26, 2014 · 2:52 pm

Names on a Map

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I spent some time last week with friends out in the Gulf Islands of Canada, and I was reminded again -as I usually am when I travel – how intriguing local place names are. I’m sure my fascination with place names was heightened recently by reading (for the first time, sad to admit) the opening novel of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Proust is a master of details, including the naming of imaginary towns, churches, houses, and roads in one direction (by way of Swann and the village of Combray) and the other (the Guermantes way.)  I think it’s in the naming of people and places that our imaginations first begin to engage with stories.

The lighthouse at Georgina Point...

The lighthouse at Georgina Point…

Out on Mayne Island, I studied a map and found the following place names, by category:

Bays:

Village, Miner’s, Bennett, Piggott, Gallagher, Campbell, Oyster, Horton, Dinner, Kadonaga, Naylor, Reef, Maude

Points:

Edith, Helen, Laura, St. John’s, Crane, Georgina

Highground:

Heck’s Hill, Mt. Parke

Road Names:

Minty, Latour, Felix Jack, Tinkley, Tinker, Cotton, Skana Gate, Isabella

I wonder about the women: Maude, Helen, Edith, Laura, Georgina, Isabella. Were they mothers? Sweethearts? Daughters? I wonder if Miner’s Bay was named for miners on the island or for a family named Miner. I’m delighted by the existence of Cotton, Minty, Tinker and Tinkley Roads, which sound like the names of mice in a Beatrix Potter adventure (Tinkley is the naughty one, right?) If you go from Heck’s Hill to St. John’s Point, will you have been walking in a heavenly direction (or if headed round trip the opposite direction while picking blackberries could you say you went to Heck and back for those berries?) The story behind a road called Felix Jack needs to be told, though the strangeness of “Kadonaga” Bay might be explained by the Japanese Memorial Garden,  planted in honor of the Japanese-Canadian families whose land was taken from them during World War II. I imagine the Kadonaga family, suitcases packed, waiting on the dock at Miner’s Bay for the steamship which would take them from their homes.

Members of the Japanese-American Community days before their forced evacuation from the island....

Members of the Japanese-Canadian community days before their forced evacuation from the island….

Next time you travel, make a list of the place names around you. They might surprise you – or make you wonder…and don’t stories begin with wonder?

Arrival, Village Bay Ferry Dock, Mayne Island

Arrival, Village Bay Ferry Dock, Mayne Island

Right now, I’m wondering about Maude. Who might she have been? Though the timeframe is wrong, and the origin of the place names is off,  I begin to imagine someone like Maude walking up Heck’s Hill with her friends, one who might be named Georgina Campbell and another who might be named Hamako Kadonaga, looking for berries. It’s late summer, 1941…by the following April, Hamako and her sister, mother and grandmother will be sent inland to an internment camp; her father – I imagine someone who might have run the fish saltery near Emery’s Store – will be sent farther inland, as Japanese-Canadian men between 18-45 were – and forced into hard labor until the war was over.

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Maybe the story is told through letters from one girl to the other. Maybe Hamako addresses her letters to Maude Miner, Cotton Road, Mayne Island, British Columbia….who knows? I’m playing a game – let’s call it an experiment –  “Names on a Map.”

Berry Picking circa 1910

Berry Picking circa 1910

9 Comments

by | April 28, 2014 · 2:11 am

Some Blackbird’s Wing

Feeding off of Leda’s post, lately I’ve also been thinking a lot about landscape and the various ways that it situates itself in our lives, and thus in our stories.  Almost all of my work has been set in the lands in which I either grew up or in which spent a considerable bit of time.

But at the moment, I’m working on a story that takes place far away from my hot, humid coastal plains, in a wintry, blizzardy sort of rocky land cut through by a swift and freezing river, and it’s gotten me just a bit rattled.  What do I know about ice and snow?  It’s not that I haven’t experienced it; rather, it’s that I don’t really know it at a visceral level, the kind of knowing that comes from winter after long winter of persistent cold.

What I’ve discovered is that the writing has made me homesick, and I find myself craving my natural habitat even though I’ve never left.

Does this even make sense?  Maybe?  I doubt it.

Anyways, one person who brings me back home every time is singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith.  Whenever I’m yearning for my beautiful Gulf Coast, I listen to her song, “Gulf Coast Highway,” and I’m there again, right there.

So, I’m sharing her with you, and at the same time sharing this bit of space on earth that I love so well.  Enjoy!

2 Comments

by | September 13, 2013 · 1:00 am

FALL INTO BOOKS

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The first spectacular fall day takes me right back to my first fall in New England. I had run away from home, as it were, to college, outside of Boston. Until I was 15, the end of summer meant grief and loss to me: I left my true home, summer camp, and was forced to return to school, which I hated. I cried for days after camp. I was an outsider everywhere but there.

Then, at 17, I drove north. North. I am still here. Camp had been in New England, so I already knew where I had to go to college, but the glory of fall lived only in my imagination. (Leda, stop now and take a deep breath. Do not begin a rant about climate change and what is happening to fall and to everything else. Deep breath, I say.)

Fall in Vermont: buying peaches becomes picking apples and freezing applesauce. Planting the garden becomes clearing the garden. Stacking wood becomes burning wood.  And wrapping up all the endless outdoor chores means more time for reading. Reading books. In paper. Real books. Books in piles in the living room, the bedroom, the basement, the bathroom. Books by VCFA folks, in particular.

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Clever segue: there was a time, my children, when I took it upon myself to more or less keep track of books published by the faculty, alumni, and students of our exceptionally wonderful VCFA/MFA/WC. I even sent emails of the congratulatory sort, many of which I titled “World Domination.” It wasn’t an impossible task. There were only about 10-15 faculty at the time (this is ancient history), 60-75 students, and most of us were too busy teaching and learning to have more than a book or two a year published (am I funny, or what?). I knew the names of almost all of the graduates because I’d started hanging out at VCFA way back in another century. Plus, I was still reading review journals—all of them—and I kept my eyes open. Blogs were few and far between, and no one had ever heard of Facebook.  

Ah, it was a lovely time. A simpler time. I loved sending out those little cheery notes.

Writing for publication is an odd thing, isn’t it? I don’t think there are many of us who write novels just for ourselves–or for fun (hold your laughter). We tend to want readers, and not only the readers we know. We have, in fact, probably dreamed of holding our first published book for a very long time, if not forever. Didn’t you imagine how it would feel to open your book for the first time, smell the paper, look under the dust jacket, check the binding, memorize the ISBN, call your friends, maybe throw a party? Didn’t you imagine the first time you would see your book on a shelf in a bookstore? A library? Did you—oh, did you—imagine a child (red-haired, pigtails, maybe? A sort of Anne Shirley child?) approaching you with your book held to her chest and a secret sort of smile, the child who might whisper to you, “I loved your book”?

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I think I’m not making this up.

As the semesters piled upon each other, however, I noticed I was falling dreadfully far behind. VCFA books were being published right and left! Reviews appeared everywhere!  Milky Way numbers of stars glistened hither and yon! People were winning awards practically every second! There were two-book deals, three-book deals, six-figure deals: World Domination indeed! (I have used up my 2013 quota for exclamation marks now.)

The task has become overwhelming, and I have apples to pick, wood to burn, books to read. But this is not about me. The point is this, I think: each and every book is cause for celebration. Each and every book means that people can still read, can still find, purchase, or borrow books, and might even be eager to discuss their response with others. Each and every book means that someone’s dream is out there for others to discover.

Some of us, however, are still struggling, still hoping. It is you I celebrate as well. Either someone will publish your hard work, you’ll publish it yourself, or, maybe, you’ll stop writing. People, you can have a full and rewarding life without that particular dream fulfilled. Your friends and family will still love you, you will still love them, and there will be perfect fall days when the earth is so beautiful you can hardly bear it.

 I have come full circle. Happy fall, happy writing, happy reading, and congratulations to all of you.

14 Comments

by | September 8, 2013 · 3:06 pm

Harper’s Index

I’ve been a fan of Harper’s Index since it began, which was a long time ago though I have no idea when. Do you know it? It’s a regular feature in Harper’s—a seemingly random list of statistical information. But it’s far from random. The editors of the page cleverly arrange one-sentence long factoids; often the juxtaposition is absolutely startling. Or upsetting. Or ironic. Amusing. Usually political. There are no conclusions; that’s your assignment.  Read between the lines, connect the dots from A to B.

For a journalist or a writer of nonfiction, these are little gems. Yet possibilities also exist for the novelist. Where do ideas come from? The Index offers opportunity. And also: how can you structure your own writing so that the reader does some of the work, making inferences, drawing conclusions, making connections.

My husband is a statistician, so I approach the Index with suspicion, if not with more than the average amount of skepticism. Harper’s always has source information, however. But that’s not the point. The point is—here—to engage the mind and imagination. Then, the connections are where story comes in.

For example, this series: (November, 2012)

  •  Percentage of Canadians who believe in global warming: 98
  • Of Americans who do: 70
  • Of Republicans: 48
  • Percentage of Republicans who believe in demonic possession: 68

 Those three are possibly incendiary (ha, what a punster I am), but would be fascinating to explore. What are the possible inferences? What is the connection between people who believe in demonic possession and those who don’t believe in global warming? Clearly there’s a lot of overlap—why? Maybe not a story idea yet, but where can you take it? Do more Republicans have actual experience with demonic possession? A president, perhaps? (No offense to Republican readers.) After all, we all know that the supernatural is what’s selling (ugh).

 Or these (August, 2012):

  • Percentage of top 40 songs from the 1960s that were written in a major key: 85
  • From the 2000s that were: 43

 What thoughts pop up from this startling information? That we’ve gotten more sophisticated in our tastes? That we’ve gotten sadder as a nation? That music teachers are more anxious? That social media are influencing our tastes? Moreover, what story possibilities occur to you? Let me know. I’ve got a few ideas myself. Example: one teenage rock and roll star who makes it his or her business to ban anything written in a major key. Perhaps he has been taken over by demonic possession and wants ensure that the entire US population is on anti-depressants, making us easier to invade. What—me  worry?

Moving right along: these (August, 2012):

  • Number of private U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks in 2010: 15
  • Number killed by falling televisions: 16

 My warped sense of humor takes me right to a film script. Were the televisions dropped by the terrorists? Who dropped the last one? Are televisions becoming animated killers? Oh, I like that.

 Or these single entries (August, 2012):

  • Number of days a juvenile penguin eluded Japanese authorities after escaping from an aquarium in March: 82
  • Estimated market price paid by panhandlers in Johannesburg to rent a baby for the day: $3

With the single entries, there’s no need to follow the line from A to B, but each, as with a good newspaper headline, suggests multiple entry points. From whose point of view should the penguin tale be told? Picture book or novel? Who else is involved? Where is the penguin hiding? What does he learn to eat? Is he disguised as a child? Etc.

The panhandler piece raises similar questions, minus the picture book option. A darker tale.

My brain begins to spin. And while it’s hard to take someone else’s ideas for your own work, there’s nothing wrong with springboards to your own imagination.

The Index  is also searchable if you’re a subscriber, so you can have fun developing your own sequences. I just happened to search DOGS. Can’t imagine why.

Item. Surely there’s a story here:

  • Estimated number of American dogs that have been named as beneficiaries in wills: 1,000,000
  • Ratio of American children to American cats and dogs: 1:2

Less happily. Tragically, and a companion to Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful new book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves:

  • Number of beagles used in radiation research that the Department of Energy will bury in a toxic-waste dump in 1991: 850
  • Gallons of radioactive beagle excrement that will be buried: 34,000

I just might write that novel myself.

 

5 Comments

by | July 4, 2013 · 6:44 am

Phonetics, the short course

POSTED BY: Louise Hawes

During a recent visit with my family, I watched my two-year old granddaughter take a bath in her new favorite phrase: whoopsie daisy. If she dropped something, she said it, and saying it made her eyes larger than ever, her mouth smile wide around those last lazy syllables. If she fell, or stood up, or found something that had been lost: whoopsie daisy. If she saw something that looked lopsided or silly: whoopsie daisy. The joy, the delicious relish with which she pulled out this all-purpose word condiment, was contagious. Soon were all using it, for everything. We named things Whoopsie Daisy. We sang Whoopsie Daisy. We used it as encouragement, in sympathy, to express appreciation. It sounds good everywhere, always. It’s just plain fun to say.

Whoopsie Daisy (originally whoops-a-daisy) has gotten me thinking. About how often I choose a word based on its aural/poetic satisfaction, other things being equal. If I’ve got a choice, for example, between barbarous and cruel, give me barbarous every time! And felonious?  Hmmmm. Luscious on the tongue, and much more satisfying than illegal. Decrepitude and dilapidation are two more juicy sounds that sing songs about less than savory concepts.

And speaking of how the sound of words can often be more attractive than their meaning, I guess I should mention “Silent Night.” When I was my granddaughter’s age and listened to folks singing the line, “Sleep in Heavenly peace,” I heard, “Sleep in Heaven, Leapies.” I assumed Leapies were something like cherubs, and that they ran around a lot, played hard, and their parents had to be forceful about putting them to bed.

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The word for this sort of mishearing is Mondegreen, a lovely word all by itself. It was coined by an American writer, Sylvia Wright, who misheard a line of a ballad: While the balladeer sang, “They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray, and laid him on the green;” Wright heard “They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen.” Whoopsie Daisy! One earl and one lady down. More grizzly, sure. But a lot more fun to say!

Mondegreen’s of your own to share?

19 Comments

by | June 28, 2013 · 2:30 pm

In the Spaghetti

To me, writing a novel is like sitting in the middle of a giant bowl of spaghetti. You’re surrounded by a heaping mass of character arcs and story threads, so you spend much of your time feeling confused and overwhelmed. IMO, this is not only natural, it’s necessary–if you don’t feel confused and overwhelmed at least part of the time, that’s an indication that your novel may be slight.

Every once in a while, though, you’ve got to step back and try to understand what you’re writing so you can get firmer footing that will help you move forward. Every writer has his/her own method of getting this type of footing. Me, I’m an office-supplies freak, so I like to do my planning by hand.

Here are a couple of blog entries that explain the glory of Post-its:

http://melissawyatt.livejournal.com/185672.html

http://www.julie-cohen.com/blog/2010/09/17/post-it-plotting/

There are as many ways to sort through one’s spaghetti as there are writers. Here is a different, non-Post-it type of organizational thinking from J.K. Rowling:

http://www.slashfilm.com/wp/wp-content/images/jkrowlingpage.jpg

I do love colored Post-its, but I also have three cats, and they like to play with flapping little papers. My Post-it concoctions are fun, but they never last more than a few hours. The method I tend to fall back on the most is just jotting down my scenes as a brief list. A few words remind me what each scene is, and seeing the whole book laid out is often enough to get my brain in gear. Oddly, I almost never look back to see what the list was. Instead, I make a new list every time confusion stalls me out.

But I’ll try any methods that strike a chord with me, and I will shamelessly tweak and bastardize to suit myself. I’ve used planning ideas derived from systems by Carolyn Coman, Martha Alderson, and others. When it comes to combing out the strands of spaghetti, it’s whatever works at any given moment. So…if you have a link that shows a different method—or a different version of the ones above–please post it in comments. Let’s share our resources!

4 Comments

by | February 7, 2013 · 8:01 am