Sunday, January 23, 2011

A shared ambition - across time

It sometimes seems to me like the world is chock full of people trying to get published, that one in ten people harbor a dream of being a novelist. With so many online resources for writers, including blogs and Twitter feeds like #litchat and #askagent, it's easy to be aware of large numbers of people who spend their days tapping away at the keyboard. It's inspiring but it can also be a little intimidating!

The popularity of literary dreams, of course, is not limited to the internet era. Nor is a widespread awareness of so many aspiring scribblers due only to our online connectivity. I've been reading Stella Tillyrand's Aristocrats, a historical novel very closely based on the lives and letters of the upper class Lennox sisters, living in the mid-18th century. In it she describes the refined social life of the oldest sister, Mrs. Fox: "Many of the Foxes' friends put themselves forward, in their own circle and sometimes on a more public stage, as wits and writers, and traded copies of their occasional verses."

I'm also reading Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners, in which she writes: "In the South there are more amateur authors than there are rivers and streams...In almost ever hamlet you'll find at least one lady writing epics in Negro dialect and probably two or three old gentlemen who have impossible historical novels on the way." That was 1957. This is clearly not a new phenomenon!

O'Connor is a good bit more dismissive than I feel. Even though most of us will not achieve the dream of publication, I think it's only for the good that we are out here writing away. As we strive to improve our writing we become, I think, more astute observers of humanity and, hopefully, more dedicated consumers of the arts. And the more of those we have as a society, the better!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, by Richard Zimler

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge, Z is for Zimler. And I'm done!

We usually, I think, attribute the most notorious Renaissance violence against Jews to the Spaniards and their Inquisition. But over the course of two days in 1506, the Portuguese residents of Lisbon massacred approximately 2,000 Marranos -- Jews forcibly converted to Christianity.

That horror initiates a week of mystery and vengeance for the twenty-year-old Berekiah Zarco, a "New Christian" still very much Jewish at heart, largely due to the influence of his uncle. Uncle Abraham was a father figure and religious sage for Berekiah, but when the chaos of the massacre unfolds over Lisbon, Abraham is murdered. Berekiah finds his uncle's nude body along with that of a young woman, and he knows he must find their killer. Berekiah spends the next days, the remainder of Passover, unspooling the mystery of his uncle's death and, in doing so, he reveals the complicated and fraught lives of deceit his fellow Portuguese Jews live.

I had high hopes for this book and was looking forward to being transported. It is rich in detail and texture of Jewish life, and Zimler captures well the atrocities of that April week in Lisbon. But so many other aspects of the novel were disappointing. The writing is overwrought and in need of an editor. Halfway through the book, Berekiah switches the tense of his narration from past to present, with a half-hearted explanation. Berekiah himself swings wildly from emotion to emotion, making him difficult to sympathize with (particularly when he is hateful towards his mother, for reasons unclear). In the search for his uncle's murder Berekiah identifies so many suspects - over a dozen - that it is difficult to follow them much less feel tension linked to a particular one. Berekiah's detective zeal often leaves him unsypathetic to the plight of the living around him. And finally, Zimler concludes the book by slipping away from narrative and into preaching. Anti-semitism is certainly a cause worthy of denouncing, but he apparently forgets that any reader with him for that long is likely to share his disgust for the ugly practice.

Still, I did learn a lot from reading the book, and it was interesting for me to read a novel with such an unapologetic Jewish view. I'm not sure if there were any sympathetic Christian characters - one or two minor ones - which is probably historically accurate for a 16th century Jewish narrator. So I'll give Zimler credit for avoiding a maudlin multi-faith anachronism. That's something, right?

Image is a contemporary German artist's rendering of the massacre, taken from

Saturday, January 15, 2011

In defense of happy endings

I am feeling a bit distraught. I just finished reading One Story Issue #136, "Number Stations" by Smith Henderson. It was beautiful and compelling but also devastating. A lot of bad, sad things happen to people in that story, even if the author leaves room for a little hope and kindness. (I do recommend reading it, if you can stomach some despair. See Henderson's interview with One Story for some background.) "Number Stations" got me thinking about endings. And author holds a lot of power in an ending. If the reader is still with the story by that point, the reader probably cares about something. The author most likely has some emotional grip on the reader - which means that the reader is vulnerable.

When I was a child and I dreamed of some day being a writer, I promised myself I would always write happy endings. I remember feeling like the world owed us happy endings, like readers who opened their hearts to love characters deserved to be rewarded. In practice, this has turned out to be pretty difficult. After all, it's easy to write a story with a sad ending. Stories are about conflict and conflict has inertia; it is a boulder rolling through the lives of the characters. The easiest course is to let that boulder plow through the characters, knocking them over like bowling pins. Far more difficult is to craft a realistic diversion, a way out. But that's what happy endings are.

I think it's very stylish now (and it has been for decades) to have sad endings. After all, irony is ascendent and maudlin cheerfulness seems too earnest for people who aspire to the intelligensia. But as a reader, I hope for a skillful exit from the conflict that a writer as set up. And as a writer, I aspire to manage that escape. Especially as I hope to fulfill the oath I made as a child and the implicit promise to please an important reader of mine. It is a difficult promise to hold to.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Practice, Not a Competition

I am a horrible sports fan. My husband is a die-hard Giants football fanatic and I have really, really tried to bring myself to some level of enthusiasm for the game. I have dedicated Sunday afternoons to watching football or made a point of reading the sports page to pick up some Redskins coverage. But I can't seem to spark any interest. The same goes for the mixed martial arts fights he now follows with intensity.

One reason watching the games is so difficult for me is that I have a hard time with the losers. Without a compelling personal reason to root for a particular team (unlike my brief years as an enthusiastic Tar Heels basketball fan), I can easily see that they both want to win. And it's so sad when one team's ambitions are crushed. It's hard to feel unalloyed excitement for a player who gets a chance to prove himself because it always comes at the expense of someone else who is benched or injured or stuffed. All of this is even more the case for the MMA fights, and in that case the guy losing is getting his nose bashed in.

Yoga by contrast is a practice, not a sport. You can't win yoga. And any competitive spirit, any jealousy that someone else can hold a pose "better" than you goes entirely against the spirit of yoga. We are only competing against ourselves, recognizing that everyone's body is unique and striving to work within our own bounds.*

Writing, I think, is similar. Although we may try to determine the best writers it's truly impossible. That's why those end-of-year lists are so interesting, why literary prize decisions are so controversial, and why book club discussions can be so contentious. Taste is subjective. That's ok.

It's worth thinking of writing as a practice, I think. It's something we as writers return to as often as we can, each time thinking only of trying to write the way that we each individually write. Anne Lamott addresses the need for each of us to find our own, unique voices in Bird by Bird: "Every time Isabel Allende has a new book out, I'm happy because I will get to read it, and I'm unhappy because half of my students are going to start writing like her." She continues, urging writers to open the doors inside their lives that are accessible only to them. "The truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice."

And the only way to get there, I think, is to practice. Not trying to win, or be the best writer in your writing group, or to prove yourself to that mean girl in the 7th grade who said smart kids were losers, or whatever. Just trying to deepen your own practice.

*I'm not trying to argue yoga is better than competitive sports, only explaining why it works for me!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A contest!

Contests are fun, right? The odds are slightly better than playing the lottery, and hopefully you get to polish up some of your writing in preparation. The ever-helpful Guide to Literary Agents is running their eighth iteration of "Dear Lucky Agent." This one is limited to literary fiction - my favorite! (I am grouping historicals in with literary, because I think the best historical fiction is simultaneously literary. See: War and Peace, for example.) If you're interested, here are some of the details:

1. This contest will be live for 14 days—from Jan. 9 through the end of Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011, EST. Winners notified by e-mail within three weeks of end of contest. Winners announced on the blog thereafter.
2. To enter, submit the first 150-200 words of your book. Shorter or longer entries will not be considered. Keep it within word count range please.
3. This contest is solely for completed book-length works of literary fiction. Literary fiction, defined, is fiction that falls outside the categories of genre fiction. Much fiction falls into the so-called popular commercial genres of romance, mystery, suspense, thriller, Western, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Writing that falls in none of these categories is often called "literary."
4. You can submit as many times as you wish. You can submit even if you submitted to other contests in the past, but please note that past winners cannot win again.

See their blog for more info.

And most importantly, what's the prize?

Top 3 winners all get: 1) A critique of the first 10 pages of your work, by your agent judge (priceless!). 2) A free one-year subscription to ($50 value).

Have at 'em!


According to my writer's group, I am obsessed with beginnings. Last night, after recovering from their teasing (which was certainly brutal and involved flaming pikes), I had to concede that they were more or less right. I love the beginnings of stories and have tried to craft adequate ones myself, a task I am definitely still working on. My favorite beginnings are the ones that manage to encompass, in a small way, the entirety of the story or the novel.

From Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God: "Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board." (Swoon, right???)

From Olga Grushin's The Line: "Who's last in line? Are you last in line? What are they selling?"

Other beginnings drop the reader wonderfully, mercifully, in the center of the action. The simplicity and modesty of these sentences is part of their power - the author doesn't let big words or ideas get in the way of the story.

From Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita: "One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch's Ponds." (There is some foreshadowing even in that simple sentence! Brilliant.)

From Edward P. Jones's "The Sunday Following Mother's Day," a story in Lost in the City: "When Madeleine Williams was four years old and her brother Sam was ten, their father killed their mother one night in early April."

Aren't those lovely? Don't you want to read the stories? (Well, maybe not the last if sad stories aren't your thing.) But then, in spite of my love for beginnings, I forget them. There are few beginnings that I can still precisely recall by the time I've finished a captivating story. Sometimes I go back to the first page of a novel so I can appreciate the journey, and possible symmetry, the author gave us. But otherwise, the beauty of those first few words usually fades away as I become engrossed by the tale. I guess, in a way, that is the best beginning. One that lays the foundation for a story and our thoughts about the characters, but then quickly gets out of the way for the action to happen.

Anyone out there have a favorite beginning? If you're like me, it might be hard to recall off the top of your head, but it's fun to go flipping through your favorite books.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New number, same us

According to the Gregorian Calendar, we have entered into a new year. Two thousand and eleven - a lot of years. But there are different ways to count a year, since a date is, after all, only a human construction. We are in year five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-one of the Jewish calendar; or year one thousand, four hundred, thirty-two of the Islamic/Hijri calendar; or either 4704 or 4647 of the Chinese continuously numbered system. All those different ways of counting time make me feel a little unmoored - where are we?

In a way, releasing ourselves to look at the date as a construct is liberating. Nominally, we are entering a new year. But that year has only the meaning that we give it and by framing it we create its own story. Kind of like writing, right? Of course, in life there are plenty of things outside of our control. I can already tell 2011 will bring curveballs and challenges for me. But, like with writing, I can set the tone and try to explore what happens.

The stillness of winter is a lovely time to sit back and evaluate, so, taking advantage of the tradition, I do have a few goals for the new year. I want to continue to use my yoga practice to open my heart and creativity. I want to write more and try to write better. I want to challenge myself by reading new and different books. (More on that later - I'll be looking for recommendations!)

I'm interested to hear how others feel about the "new" year. Do you feel we have marked a milestone? Do you have objectives for the months that come?

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma