Monday, October 31, 2011

That Crazy Love for Writing

The other night, when I was in one of my periodic "my writing stinks I don't know why I bother with this madness and I'll never get a novel published" moods, my husband ventured that he thought I enjoyed writing for the sake of writing, regardless of whether or not I had an audience. Well, not exactly, I tried to explain, without sounding like a raving egoist. Writing is about communication, fundamentally, and storytellers want their stories shared. He parried with the counterexample of diarists, who write for themselves. I admitted he had a point, but conceded my weakness - that's just not me. I guess I do want the validation of publication and someone else's approval. Isn't that embarrassing.

But now, thanks to Betsy Lerner's wonderful, funny, and instructive The Forest for the Trees, I can feel justified in being in good company! Lerner's book is the second of two I've read recently about the more personal, intimate sides of writing. She and Bonnie Friedman (in Writing Past Dark) explore the knotted mess of fear and ego that both propels and hinders writers. As Lerner reminds us, writers are people who write. She says, "When writers say they have no choice, what they mean is: Everything in the world conspired to make me quit but I kept going." Yes, that sounds about right.

Friedman and Lerner both urge writers to dig deeper into themselves, to use writing to express those burning emotions that are doing everything to evade our thoughts and our pens. That's a good reminder, I think -- encouragement to take risks with our characters and our readers. I know that my tendency to want to be nice to people bleeds into my writing and subverts my efforts to build tension. Thanks to my writing group and authors like Lerner and Friedman, I'm at least aware of the weakness and know to press myself.

Most importantly, I've been reminded that writing is hard work and slogging through the emotional roller coaster is a natural part of the process. As Lerner notes, "Writing is nothing but a long distance race. The same kind of hubris that can cripple a runner who doesn't properly train can also derail a writer from reaching his goal." With that in mind, it's nose to the grindstone. With a periodic pat on the back for seeing my first published story hit the streets. We'll all keep working at it!

Isn't the cover of The Forest for the Trees just beautiful??

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Doc, by Mary Doria Russell

Doc Holliday is one of those characters that we're surprised was actually a man, a flesh-and-blood human living in the 19th century and not just a spit-fire, charming consumptive dealing deadly hands of poker in legend after legend. John Henry Holliday was born in Georgia in 1851 and, as Mary Doria Russell tells us in her first sentence, he began to die only 21 years later. But the Fates, as she has it, had a lot more in store for the southern gentleman cum dentist before that death caught up with him. Fleeing the tuberculosis that killed his mother and had already settled in his lungs, John Henry fled west, where he met Kate, the woman who would change his life, and the Earp brothers, the men who would draw him into the history books.

Doc tells John Henry Holliday's story before the fateful showdown at the OK Corral. The book is a strange beast, with a heaping of omniscient narrative overview and relatively little real-time story telling. For this reader, that took a little getting used to. But the story picks up as the novel progresses, and by the time Doc is coughing blood into his handkerchief while Morgan Earp reads to him at his bedside, I was hooked. Russell does a wonderful job of humanizing this legend, apparently aided by an impressive amount of research, and I'm very glad to have met her version of Doc.

The photo here is of John Henry Holliday at age 20, upon graduation from dental school. It is one of the few authenticated photographs of the man.

Side note: Apparently Paramount bought the rights to a script for an action adventure film about Doc Holliday. Cool. Though I'm willing to bet Mary Doria Russell's version of the man is far more interesting.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Zookeeper's Wife, by Diane Ackerman

Jan and Antonina Zabinski filled their bright house with laughter, scampering baby animals, and tinkling piano music. Beyond the house stretched the Warsaw Zoo, where Jan was the caretaker, and every day the sounds of elephants, monkeys, macaws and other exotic animals drifted through the air. But the Nazis brought war to Poland, and the zoo was devastated. The Zabinskis reacted with unusual courage, drawing upon their conviction that both humans and animals deserved more than the occupiers believed. The Zookeeper's Wife chronicles the true story of their brave efforts, which would ultimately help more than three hundred people survive the Nazi horrors.

Diane Ackerman is an author of both non-fiction and poetry, but I think it is her poet's sense that most strongly imbues this book. If you're looking for a straightforward narrative, this is probably not your story. Ackerman leaves out key details (like how old the Zabinski's son Rys is at the start of the war), and sometimes neglects to follow a storyline to the end. But if you're looking to learn more about the people that experienced the cruelties of Nazi occupation and the depth of strength they brought to bear in their resistance, this is a great read. Ackerman clearly loves Antonina, the title figure, and brings her to life for us with deft prose. She and her husband were remarkable and inspiring individuals, and I think we are better off for knowing them.

Image is of an elephant from the Warsaw Zoo in 1938, courtesy of WikiCommons.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Confident writing

It's fun to enter contests. There's the element of surprise and a sort of carefree, what-the-heck release that comes from tossing your hat in the ring. Just like that silly carnival game where you flip over a random rubber duck. Yeah, you probably won't win but hey, those duckies are cute. Bayou magazine sponsors annual prizes in fiction and poetry that include the added benefit of a subscription to the journal for your $15 entry fee. (So check it out and throw your 7,500-word-or-less hat into their ring!)

The first piece in Bayou's latest issue (#35) is titled, unappealingly, "Shitstick." Against my natural inclination, I started reading anyway. It did not take long for the author to grab my attention, and he held it, in spite of the fact that the essay is about young boys I didn't have much sympathy for and a childhood experience I could not relate to. It was the writing. Hans Burger, in his first publication, has some damned confident prose. And just like with dating, confidence is attractive.

As a result, I've been thinking about what exactly makes writing confident. The easy answer is "doing everything right" - displaying the right details, choosing the most fitting words, and balancing between description and action, among other things. But that answer seems like a cop-out to me. Perhaps confident writing is nothing more than the intangible sense a writer gives when she knows what she has to say and says it with the most perfect economy available. But perhaps confidence is a mirage, the result of layers upon layers of careful editing. I suspect that no amount of editing can make uncertain prose gleam with confidence, but I'm open to being convinced.

Photo from the Rubber Duck Regatta, a program to benefit prevention of elder abuse.

Monday, October 3, 2011

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

When a pharmacologist working for a major drug company is declared dead from a fever in the Amazon while on a work reconnaissance trip, his colleague Marina journeys to the jungle to learn what happened to him. A reluctant
Marina arrives in bug-ridden Manaus only to learn that her destination, a mysterious research lab run by her former professor, is more difficult to both find and understand than she had ever anticipated.

While this story does not sound like a likely candidate for a lyrical, moving book, in Ann Patchett's amazingly talented hands the novel simply soars. Marina is a complicated character and, though it takes us a little while to get to know and care for her, her journey is ultimately worthwhile. And Patchett's writing is a joy, as she brings us to the sticky, oppressive heat of Manaus, the mind-numbing terror of the monotonous jungle, and the simple beauty of the Minnesotan plains. Take the following excerpt, for example. I will never think of opera in the same way as before.

... But when the house was dark and the overture rose up to their third-tier balcony she understood completely. Suddenly every insect in Manaus was forgotten. The chicken heads that cluttered the tables in the market place and the starving dogs that waited in the hopes that one might fall were forgotten. The children with fans that waved the flies away from the baskets of fish were forgotten even as she knew she was not supposed to forget the children. She longed to forget them. She managed to forget the smells, the traffic, the sticky pools of blood. The doors sealed them in with the music and sealed the world out and suddenly it was clear that building an opera house was a basic act of human survival.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma