Little earthquakes

22 07 2014

Ann Patchett writes lovely characters.

Well, huh, that could be misleading, implying that all of her characters are lovely. They are not.

Let me try again: Ann Patchett is a lovely writer of characters.

Yes, better.

Even when the characters are only briefly sketched, or when she chooses to hide aspects of the character from the reader, she gives you enough that you want to learn more about these people.

Dr. Swenson in State of Wonder is, shall we say, an obdurate personality, bound up in her own understanding of the world and impatient-to-dismissive of alternative views. I found her to be admirable, as well as the kind of person who terrifies me. How does someone get to be that way? What is it like to live utterly without neuroses?

You could put a label on it, I guess, call her some variant of -pathology, but that would take away her humanness, reduce her to that pathological label.

In any case, Patchett doesn’t give us much to go on—here’s Annika Swenson, now deal with it—but she gives us (or me, at any rate) enough to make her a real human being, to make me wonder about her.

Patchett is generally able to make all of her characters, supporting and main, human. I was a bit frustrated with the main character in Patron Saint of Liars—or maybe I was frustrated with Patchett’s withholding of information about her—but I never doubted she existed. (In fact, she’s one of the inspirations for the main character in my second novel, who, like Rose , leaves an apparently decent life to live her own life.)

I do have to admit, however, that the opera singer in Bel Canto, Roxane Cross, never did become real to me. It’s not that she was a cardboard character or that I disbelieved that someone like her could exist, but she never came into view.

A lot of people loved that book, but I did not. It shared, with Run, Patchett’s greatest weakness as a writer: plot.

Now, I didn’t have a problem with the set-up of Bel Canto—a gala is taken over by militants—nor with the  suspension of time in which the hostages and militants alike subsequently live: Patchett excels at setting the stage and the letting her characters loose.

No, the problem was with the resolution. Patchett is fine at setting things in motion, but not so fine at bringing them to a close, and the bigger the push at the beginning, the rockier the ending. Had I been more drawn to Cross, (as I was with the characters in State of Wonder, which suffers from a similar dynamic) I might have been able to walk over those rocks with her, but I wasn’t, and thus was left stranded.

The lack of realness in many of the characters in Run meant that the reader was left mainly to the plot, which was. . . not good. Patchett is generally willing to let things ride for long periods, but in Run, she kept jamming up her characters with unnecessary plotting, with the overdrawn happenings crowding out the characters.

Which is why I think her best novel is The Magician’s Assistant. She sets events in motion, and then just lets them go; what plot developments there are arise from the characters themselves, so instead of these events pulling us, er, me, out of the story of their lives, they drew me further in.

Maybe because, like Taft (a much better novel than its name implies) and Patron Saint, the events are smaller, arising out of her characters lives rather than intruding upon them.

I know: the line between “arising out of” and “intruding upon” can be arbitrary, depending on whether you think a couple of runaways showing up at a bar or long-estranged family arriving to visit the grave of a recently-dead son & brother is organic rather than artificial.

Or maybe Patchett is just better at revealing the beauty in the ordinary than the extraordinary.

In any case, I prefer the ordinary set-ups, largely because Patchett doesn’t have to strain to move her characters into place for the denouement: they move there of their own accord and, in that end, we are left with the people themselves.





To the top of gravity

15 04 2014

Ta-Nehisi Coates wants to teach his students to write honestly.

I said, Well, yes, but. . . .

To which he replied, Sure, and. . . .

It’s marvelous to tell writers to write the naked truth, to get the courage to strip oneself naked by remembering that everyone else is naked, too.

Human condition: a talisman for bravery.

Except that, well, maybe not so much “Except that” as “In addition to” the call to honesty one must remind the student-writers to be brave, that honesty often requires bravery, because honesty is a hard good to handle.

To be honest requires bravery because you might get your teeth kicked in.

It is also the case that to be honest can be, as I put it, “giddifying”: you are loosed from yourself as helium bubbles pop through your skin and you can’t quite believe that the words you wrote and are about to send out are your words meant for everyone. You have broken the sound barrier and speed of light and are now stretching beyond time.

You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. I’m being honest, at least how I can feel after having written: discombobulated and disoriented and blinking and wondering just where the gravity went.

Not always, not most times. But sometimes, still.

Such a glorious sensation: I’d chase it forever if it weren’t so unreliable.

Or I, braver.





I will try not to breathe

29 12 2013

So I got back from visiting a friend with C. (we decided against a drink at our bar) and went to bed earlier than I usually do on a Saturday night and it took awhile to fall asleep and I woke up at some point in the middle of the night and I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t sleep and I don’t know if it was the visit or the pancakes or coffee or waffle fries but I couldn’t sleep and somewhere in the midst of the not sleeping I came up with an idea for another novel.

I have the title and everything.

Now, I’ve already been working on another novel (and need to finish off the edits of the second novel and oh yeah send out pitch letters) which has been long in incubation and which I really want to see how it works out but now this not-sleep idea came WHOOSH and I think I could knock out a first draft right quick then let it rest while I work on that other novel (and finish the edits of the second and send out pitch letters) and I don’t know, see if I could write two at the same time (they’re very different ideas) and hm there’s that cyborgology conference I want to write a paper for and, well, goddamn.

January’s going to be a busy month.





What’s your name, little girl?

21 09 2013

I’ve written some boneheaded things in my time.

For example, I wrote an editorial for The Daily Cardinal which began “Enough fucking around”, and proceeded to excoriate the Reagan administration for not doing enough to free the hostages in Iran.

And then that whole Iran-Contra thing broke. Yeah.

The narrative I wrote for/about my high school senior class, the one in which I told a tale involving every member of that class? There’s some nasty shit in there; in particular, a smirk about one guy who was sometimes picked on (and maybe a coupla’ of his friends, I don’t remember exactly) being the head of a gay motor-scooter club, or something similarly witless. It was a shitty thing to do: in the mid-1980s, to joke about someone being gay was really no joke at all, and I knew it, and did it anyway.

I’ve tried to avoid meanness since then, and although I do still have some problems with the kind of righteousness which got me in trouble with the hostages, I generally try to write what I’d stand behind, and stand behind what I’d write.

Two recent pieces at Lawyers, Guns & Money, about the names people give their kids, however, have reminded me of a more recent transgression. A coupla’ years ago Ta-Nehisi Coates posted something along these same lines, and a bunch of us jumped in with names we each found ridiculous. I contributed a number of names of people I had known (or known of) whose names were puns—stuff along the lines of Erasmus B. Dragon or Mike Easter.

I regret that now, and pretty much anything else I said about names, mostly because these are real people in the world. They bore no responsibility for their punned names, but because they happened to have crossed paths with me, those names were now held up for ridicule. It was a shitty thing to do, and I should have known better.

So while other LGM writers and commenters were having fun with all of the names they dislike, I couldn’t join in. Oh, there are definitely names I don’t like, but unlike the discussion about the horrors of ketchup, I thought, man, there are people out there with those names, who may love those names, and who are unlikely to shave the distinction between their names being mocked and their persons being mocked.

This doesn’t mean the writers and commenters at LGM are monsters of the universe, any more than I was a monster in writing what I did. Still, it’s a shitty thing to do.





Is this the real life

22 05 2013

I’m so late.

With the edits on Home Away Home, that is. Some time ago K. had expressed interest in the manuscript—she’d liked  The Unexpected Neighbor*—and I said, Ah, yeah, okay, as soon as I give it one last go around.

And then I did nothing.

K. bugged me, and I said Yeah yeah—I know, how awful that someone wants to read your work!—and did nothing. Repeat. And then I thought, Huh, I should get this done.

I made it easier by editing it section by section and sending those off to K. Some sections required sanding, others, sawing, but edits for one through five went pretty well.

And then I got busy with ghosting and grading and in the meantime K. was reading what I’d sent and then she finished and said, Hey. . . and I said Two weeks. And then did nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing: I started with the edits and again with the sanding and sawing and then I hit a point at which I realized Oh, crap, I’m gonna need a bigger saw, and stepped off.

I’ve stepped back up, proceeding bit by bit, but MAN do I have to dial it back. Both The Unexpected Neighbor and Home Away Home are dialogue-heavy and both suffer from the same defect: my tendency to make the characters too knowing.

Actually, it’s not just that they’re too knowing; it’s that this knowingness gets in the way of realistic dialogue. Now, were I writing a mannered piece, this wouldn’t be an issue, but the characters of both of these novels inhabit worlds I’d like readers to recognize; thus, they have to sound like real people.

I don’t mind that I over-write on the first draft; what I do mind is that it’s not until many drafts later that I manage to pare it back. I don’t know what I’m doing on those other drafts—it’s not as if these two works are plot-heavy—but apparently I can’t see the over-knowing dialogue until after I’ve worked everything else out.

Presuming, that is, that I’ve worked everything else out. . . .

~~~

*Click on that link and it’ll take you to Smashwords, where you can buy the novel for the princely sum of 3 bucks! Half the cost of a pint of Guinness! Less than a latte! Totally worth it!





Snap that thing thread, cont.

1 04 2013

There is one area in which I’ve never been good, will never be good, and. . . I don’t mind.

I’m talkin’ ’bout writing, specifically, deadline-oriented writing. I always wait until the latest possible moment to start something, and I always pull it off.

Always: there may have been times in which I didn’t, or turned out something so terrible that I might as well have burned past the due date, but excepting those few moments of freak out (paralysis in assembling an undergrad policy paper) or granted-ahead-of-time extension (grad human rights paper), I git ‘er done.

Now, latest possible moment doesn’t mean last possible minute. A research paper requires, duh, research, and the latest possible moment for a long and complicated piece might be, say, a week or two, while the lead time for a short and simple piece is a day or two. The point is that I’ll almost always have more time than a day or week or two, but will wait until I can feel the deadline before cracking open the word processor.

I have no control over when that feeling arrives. I’ve mentioned previously that I am not a particularly intuitive person and I don’t trust my gut, but this is not anything I’ve been to reason my way through. I can tell myself Get to work!, but unless that stress switch gets flipped by something beyond my comprehension, it ain’t happening.

And I’m fine with that.

That might be the one thing which distinguishes my writing procrastination from every other kind of procrastination: the stress is productive, creative, even. It’s not necessarily a pleasant experience—long days fixated on a required task are rarely pleasant—but I don’t hate it, either. Instead of anxiety scattering my mind, the pressure charges my concentration. I don’t lose focus—I gain it.

Like I said, I don’t know why or how this works for me, I just know that it does, and have been taking advantage of this. . . skill (?) for as long as I’ve had writing due.

~~~

. . . Which is another way of stating I’m up against a ghosting deadline, and may be a spectral presence on this blog for the next week.





Big wheel keep on turnin’

25 03 2013

Funny how that works: You start writing, and then. . . you just keep writing.

The upside of inertia.








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