A special nothing

April 18, 2012

Unlike God, the novelist does not start with nothing and make something of it. He starts with himself as nothing and makes something of the nothing with things at hand. If the novelist has a secret, it is not that he has a special something but that he has a special nothing.

-Walker Percy, “Questions They Never Asked Me”

I don’t fully understand what Walker Percy means above when he talks about having “a special nothing,” but I am at least continuing to learn that writing isn’t all about voicing ideas I already had before I wrote.

This week in class, my professor asked each of us for a “status update” on our writing, and when I actually got to thinking about it, I realized that something is starting to change in my story. My protagonist is being humbled, and so am I.

I noticed this week that I am pretty judgmental of my characters. When I write an argument scene, I tend to over-simplify the whole situation in my head. I usually know whose side I am on, which character is more “right.” And so far, my protagonist has usually been “right.” (She’s not meant to be an autobiographical character, but I naturally sympathize with her the most.)

But the other characters are finally starting to come to life. That is, they are finally starting to feel not me-ish. They are challenging my protagonist’s assumptions, and mine too. That’s one of my favorite things about writing; I haven’t experienced it much, but it is just so cool to be humbled by characters, to get out of my own little writer-ly head for a little while!

Last night at the studio, the wind carried the first four pages of my manuscript right out the window! At least the woman in the building across from us got a good laugh.

And speaking of getting out of my own head, I got to recommend another manuscript last week! Most days I still can’t believe I get to read all day long for work, and it’s even cooler when I am reading something that teaches and inspires me. (Although really, even if it’s a rough manuscript, finishing a novel is in itself a pretty admirable feat….)

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Those other deaths

April 14, 2012

“The feeling of having to obey every impulse and gratify every desire seems to me not happiness, but a kind of slavery… nobody talks about it as such though.” – David Foster Wallace, in a 2003 interview

Lately I’ve gotten to write several reader reports for fiction, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a happy ending.

In a few of the manuscripts (and a few published novels) I’ve read this semester, the author chose to resolve the story by having their protagonist get what they want (and modern “happily ever after”s are often bizarre…they involve things like divorcing boring husbands or dropping lousy friends). There is little sense of sacrifice or humility; it’s all about “finding oneself,” which sometimes is just another way of saying “doing what I want to do.”

As readers, do we admire these characters, or do we just like them because they give us permission to live like they live? (I could ask myself this question about a lot of things…the shows I like, the blogs I read, the music I listen to.)

I wonder if admiration is important in literature anymore. Of course, it’s not like every protagonist should be admirable; often characters teach something true about life or about humanity by being ugly. But it seems like too many novels (and memoirs) today are trying to celebrate ugliness, to call the slavery that Wallace talks about above freedom. (By the way, it’s crazy cool to me that a greatly respected secular novelist like David Foster Wallace so closely reiterates the Apostle Paul’s words from thousands of years ago.)

I don’t know how my own writing project will end, but I don’t want it to be just about my character getting what she wants. I’m not sure how to write an admirable character (that is, at least not cheaply admirable), and I think a big part reason why is that too many of my own days are about getting what I want.

Sometimes I trick myself into thinking that if I were to indulge myself less, I would be missing out…that if my day became less about me, it wouldn’t be as full. But Madeline L’Engle (and Jesus before her) reminds me that it’s just the opposite really.

“I must never lose sight of those other deaths which precede the final, physical death, the deaths over which we have some freedom; the death of self-will, self-indulgence, self-deception, all those self-devices which, instead of making us more fully alive, make us less.”

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn

P.S. I also just read that one of DFW’s favorite books was The Screwtape Letters…That is really unexpected and exciting to me. More motivation to re-read it this summer.

World building

March 25, 2012

“Our windows looked out on acres of rubble, broken brick and concrete and pulverized plaster. We grew more and more fascinated with this expanse of ruin, for it was not deserted. Underneath the rubble were cellars and holes, and in these holes many people lived. We would watch out of the windows of our room, and from behind a slightly larger pile of rubble would suddenly appear a girl, going to work in the morning, putting the last little touches to her hair with a comb. She would be dressed neatly, in clean clothes, and she would swing out through the weeds on her way to work. How they could do it we have no idea. How they could live underground and still keep clean, and proud, and feminine. Housewives came out of other holes and went away to market, their heads covered with white headcloths, and market baskets on their arms. It was a strange and heroic travesty on modern living.”

-John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal

This is the image that inspired (and is continuing to inspire) my writing project this semester (I would say “my novel” [which should really only be said in a deep voice, and pronounced naaaaah-vul], but that just sounds too hilarious, doesn’t it?!). I first read A Russian Journal in January of 2011, the winter after I visited Ukraine for a few weeks, and this paragraph has stuck in my mind ever since.

Tomorrow I will turn in 15,000 words of my project (77 pages!!! But it’s in Courier font, which is really spread out). One of the hardest parts about writing so far has been describing the world in which my story takes place. I have found some excellent articles on Kiev in the 1950s, and even a few pictures, but I am still unsure about so much. With each scene, I ask myself dozens of logistical questions that I do not have time to answer. Though I am continuing to research as I write, the pacing of the semester is much too fast for me to get all the facts (what things look like, how society works, etc) precisely right, and it drives me crazy!

Though really, even if I did get the facts right, I am still an American girl writing about a culture with which I have had very minimal interaction. That’s part of the fun for me, and it also helps me not take this project too seriously (which in turn helps me to be flexible enough to really listen to criticism).

But back to this thing called “world building.” At first I really envied the students in our program writing fantasy novels; since all of their material comes from their head, they don’t have to worry about describing something wrong. But then, after listening in on a few critiques, I have actually come to realize that dreaming up a world is HARD. You have to make all sorts of decisions about who has power and why they can maintain it, where societal rules come from, what motivates people to act the way they do…stuff like that. Let’s just say that while our teacher grilled one of the writers on the architectural structure of her city’s buildings, I was feeling pretty darn thankful that instead of creating the world of my project, I just get to learn about it.

And learning about post-World War II Soviet Union really is fascinating. Ukraine’s history is sad and so humbling (as you can tell by Steinbeck’s quote, many of Ukraine’s major cities were almost completely destroyed in the war*), but also really inspiring given where the country is today.

(* Surprisingly, it was the Soviet Union’s own army (not the Germans) that destroyed a lot of Ukraine. Stalin’s infamous “scorched earth” policy ordered that Ukraine’s rich resources either be brought to Russia or destroyed before the Germans could get a hold of them.)

And with that, a few pictures from my trip back in 2010:

P.S.  I have been waiting and waiting for this popular Ukrainian hairstyle (I call it the “can I get a side of fat rat tail please?”) to trend here in the U.S., but still no luck. (I am serious. I love this hair.)

A few loaves

February 13, 2012

“Writing is like giving away the few loaves and fish one has, trusting that they will multiply in the giving.”

– Henri Nouwen, Reflections on Theological Education (via Luci Shaw’s essay “The Writer’s Notebook”)

Writing wise, this last week was rough. We had to pitch ideas for our semester project in our “Publishing & Being Published” class Thursday, and we were only allowed to say one sentence (a logline, as they call it). I was planning on writing non-fiction essays about my parent’s first couple of years in Africa (I had even begun to interview them), and not at all looking forward to sharing my idea with the class.

For one thing, I know from being at my internship only a week now that personal essays do not sell, because personal essays are not interesting to anyone but the person who is writing them. Fair enough. (Although actually, I love reading personal essays. But I suppose most of the ones I manage to get my hands on–the famous ones–are the exception to the rule.)

The thing is, I really wanted to write these essays. Not because I had anything I wanted to say, and not because I think other people would enjoy reading them, but because when I write, I learn. And I wanted to learn more about my parents, and more about Africa.

But I was terrified to pitch my yet-to-be project, because just the idea of “pitching” gives writing this performance aspect that I find tear-inducing. And so it went badly. (Don’t worry. I didn’t actually cry.  At least in class :)) Not because my teacher was insensitive, but because this is a class about publishing and “the market,” and so I left the studio feeling really weighed down. I felt this enormous pressure to make my piece “worth reading,” and that was never what I wanted it to be about.

And so, after a few hours of panicky, angry thoughts, I decided to switch my project to a less emotionally-charged one. I was too stubborn to consider switching at first, but Christian helped me realize that this just isn’t the environment for the type of project I wanted to do.

I just e-mailed my professor with my new pitch for a novel (a novel that I do not have in me yet, save a few character names), and I am praying that Henri Nouwen is right. I believe he is, and I have found his words above to be true so many times before.

I think it will be good to escape my own inner world for a while, and to enter someone else’s. Of course, I am worried that I won’t have anything to say once I get there, but that’s how writing is supposed to be…not recording, but discovering.

As painter Jasper Johns says,

“I think that most art which begins to make a statement fails to make a statement because the methods used are too schematic or artificial. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying, not what you set out to say.”

– Jasper Johns, in a 1965 BBC interview

Panic

April 2, 2011

The cover

"See Dick and Jane. Dick and Jane have a choking feeling."

"Oh no. No, no, no. Dick and Jane have nausea."

Just wanted to share the book Amber and I made for our Vision, Voice & Practice class. We picked up a pamphlet from Biola’s health center on Panic Attacks, and it didn’t take long to decide what we were going to do with it…it just begged to be made into a children’s book. Of course, we weren’t trying to make panic attacks funny, but rather comment on the nature of this particular (and probably most) “helpful” pamphlet(s). Despite its best intentions, the pamphlet was pretty painfully simplistic and borderline condescending…so when Amber and I started re-reading some old Dick and Jane books, we knew we had struck gold. Since the Dick and Jane books were designed to teach kids to read, they are super repetitive and just a little bit awkward.

So, I re-wrote some of the bullet points directly from the Panic Attack pamphlet “Dick and Jane” style (although I didn’t change any of the pamphlet’s wording or the order of the points), and Amber drew some “Dick and Jane” style illustrations (aren’t they great? she actually copied some of the orignal pages without changing anything, and in others she moved an arm or omitted and object), and viola. Also, Amber works in the Biola library, so we are contemplating giving our book a PIN number and everything and just leaving it on a shelf in the children’s section. We shall see.

P.S. Also, here is our inspiration, that cute little pamphlet from the Biola Health Center:

Homemade books

March 10, 2011

our book in its early stages

finished!

a look inside

This past week in my Vision, Voice and Practice class, we worked on a collaborative project (writers paired with artists) in making small books from magazine scraps. We only had an hour to put the books together, and my partner Amber and I loved the process. I actually decided to make a few more of these, mostly to compliment my portfolio this semester. I just finished an underwater book a few days ago to go along with my latest piece, and I am excited to get it back from the Duplication center Friday so I can cut and bind it!

Amber is also my partner for a bigger collaborative project in the class, where our only restriction is that the piece must be text-based. I was a little nervous about working with a partner on such a creative project (what if we have completely different tastes?) but I got lucky this time… I have loved all of Amber’s ideas so far and we work really well together. For our project, we chose to re-contextualize a pamphlet we found in the health center called “Panic Attacks” into a Dick-and-Jane-like story book. I just finalized the text and I can’t wait to see how Amber illustrates it.

Watch-dogs

January 20, 2011

“In nothing is the difference between the Americans and the Soviets so marked as in the attitude, not only toward writers, but of writers toward their system. For in the Soviet Union it is the writer’s job to encourage, to celebrate, to explain, and in every way carry forward the Soviet system. Whereas in America, and in England, a good writer is the watch-dog of society. His job is to satirize its silliness, to attacks its injustices, to stigmatize its faults. And this is the reason why in America neither society not government is very fond of writers. The two are completely opposite approaches to literature.”

-John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal

When I came across this paragraph yesterday, my immediate (admittedly panicked) thought was, “I am training to be a watch-dog of society?!” The task seems just a little bit daunting. And then I started to wonder how many novelists would consider themselves “watch-dogs of society.” A few came to mind (I think Salinger is one of my favorites), but very few of them were current, and none of them popular.

But Steinbeck is explaining the role of a “good” writer, and of course, “popular” and “good” are two different things…but were they always?

When A Russian Journal was published in 1948, the New York Times Bestseller List was shorter than today, but it was comprised of arguably much better books. Pulitzer Prize winner Norman Mailer‘s novel about the Philippines Campaign of World War II, The Naked and the Dead, made the list, as did Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lion, about Shaw’s experience as a warrant officer. Thorton Wilder’s The Ides of March, about the death of Julius Caesar, appeared, and he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize too.

In 2010, while the Bestseller list contained the occasional Nora Roberts (author of over 200 romance novels) or Jodi Picoult, by far the most recurring genre was thriller—and not well-written thriller at that. Four of the 31 books were authored or co-authored by James Patterson, the prolific author of, most recently, Don’t Blink and The Postcard Killers. In an interview with Time Magazine in 2010, Patterson responded to Stephen King’s comments that he is a “terrible writer” with, “I am not a great prose stylist. I’m a storyteller.”

Fair enough. The purpose of this post isn’t to criticize thriller fans. It’s rather to ask whether the American writer’s job description has changed. What would Steinbeck say to Patterson’s calling himself a “storyteller”? Perhaps being a storyteller and a writer are two different things? Because it just doesn’t quite seem fair for Patterson to shrug off “prose styling” and still call himself a writer.

And is American society still “not very fond” of writers? At the very least, it seems we have grown increasingly fond of storytellers. Maybe the “watch-dog” title has been stealthily taken over by television hosts and bloggers. And that might be alright, just as long as someone is barking at the burglars. Of course, I do not mean to say there are no current American writers who consider it their foremost duty to satirize society’s silliness…I am not nearly well-read enough to make such a claim. Surely there is still a place for the writer—Steinbeck’s “good” writer, that is—today.

Two years after Steinbeck wrote this paragraph, William Faulkner gave his take on the duty of a writer in his stunningly eloquent Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

“…The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again… Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

I don’t think I want to be just a storyteller when I grow up. I’m not positive I want to be a watch-dog either. One thing I do know: I do not want to write of my glands.

Postcards and plums

January 18, 2011

Yesterday I came down pretty hard on literary “fakes,” but as I was writing I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of empathy for those men. I wonder if we all don’t feel a little fake sometimes. Surely in the way we live, but maybe even in our creativity.

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to discipline myself into writing regularly. Since I have not been in school for the month of January, “regularly” has meant everyday (though I am sure this will change once my classes start). And it has been difficult. Especially so in the moments when, after working on a post for an hour or two, I realize I have not learned much in the process. Of course I cannot expect to be inspired every day, but then why post those days? If this were a more public blog, I don’t think I would. But since my main purpose in starting it was to force myself into practicing what I love, those entries that make me cringe a little to re-read (and some I have not mustered up the courage to re-visit) are posted. And sometimes, I feel a bit like a fake for it.

Not to mention that so far I have not been able to resist piggybacking off writers that I respect, quoting their work as if it somehow validates my writing. Does this make me a fake too—this inability to see a situation through my own eyes? Am I like Thierry Guetta? I’m not sure if I will ever be to go through a day without hearing the words of characters or authors I have read; how can I ever mail a postcard without thinking of Milan Kundera’s The Joke, or eat a plum and not think of William Carlos William’s “This is Just to Say”? And maybe I don’t want to…I haven’t decided. But it undoubtedly affects my writing.

One thing I am sure of (admittedly only through the wisdom of those very authors): writing is a discipline. And even if I convinced myself that every thought I wrote was completely original, there would still be days I feel like a fake; this is simply a consequence of being disciplined.

Sometimes when I pray, I have absolutely no sense of God’s presence; I am sure I am talking to the ceiling. How relieved I was to learn that Madeleine L’Engel used to feel the same way when she was alive. But, she points out, as when writing seems fruitless and even embarrassing, this is no excuse to stop:

“If I don’t struggle to pray regularly, both privately and corporately, if I insist on waiting for inspiration on the dry days, or making sure I have the time, then prayer will be as impossible to me as the C minor Fugue without work.”

I want to learn to play the C minor Fugue. (Metaphorically, that is; I have given up all hope of ever being musical.)

(A note of caution: With discipline sometimes comes arrogance. Occasionally I find myself actually stopping in the middle of a prayer to think, “Oh, that was a good one. Yes, I said that just right.” Well, L’Engle helped me with this one too: “If I am conscious of writing well as I am writing, those pages usually end up in the wastepaper basket. If I am conscious of praying well, I am probably not praying at all.”)

Faking it

January 17, 2011

One night this Christmas break, I watched the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Banksy Film. I was absolutely fascinated, and when I watched it again a week later, it was just as good. The documentary tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman obsessed first with video-taping graffiti artists (in the guise of a filmmaker) and then with becoming one himself. In the first half of the film, Guetta shadows two famous street artists: LA-based Shepard Fairey, and Banksy, a notorious British artist whose identity is unknown (his face does not appear in the movie and his voice is distorted). Fairey is best known for his Barack Obama “HOPE” posters, and Banksy for his politically-themed installations illegally placed inside the British Museum, near a ride at Disneyland, and along the Israeli West Bank Barrier (to name just a few).

But the movie is really about Guetta. At one point, Banksy flippantly tells Guetta to try street art himself, and, seemingly overnight, Guetta does just that. He creates the moniker “Mr. Brainwash,” and after very little practice on the streets of LA, decides to have an art show. Guetta re-finances his house to pay for a studio and for a crew to print and build all his installations (created mostly by looking through books of other people’s work and changing the colors around) for him, while he focuses on “hype.”

Guetta has very little artistic vision behind his work, and it is clear to everyone watching the documentary that he is simply mimicking what he has seen Fairey and Banksy do (when asked the messages behind certain pieces, his explanations are painfully shallow). But, shockingly, after the first week of his show, Guetta has sold almost a million dollars’ worth of art and his pieces go on to show in galleries around the world.

Is Guetta’s work art? If his buyers realized how little of himself he actually put into it, how little he had to say about it, would they still pay tens of thousands of dollars? Or is a work of art’s value found solely in the piece itself, and the artist’s thought process completely irrelevant?

In the documentary, both Shephard Fairey and Banksy were surprisingly gracious towards the man who had seemingly cheated his way to the top of the art form which they had each spent years establishing. Though Banksy calls Guetta’s art “meaningless” and says it “looks like everyone else’s,” he also acknowledges that in art, there aren’t supposed to be rules.

Though it seems more unlikely that someone could pull of a best-seller by simply mimicking a great novelist, the writing world has encountered a few “fakes” of its own.

Take, for example, James’ Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces. Frey first submitted the book as a fiction work, but when publishers refused him, he decided to call it a memoir instead.  When journalists began to question the validity of certain parts of the book, like his time at a drug rehabilitation center and the suicide of a girlfriend, Frey admitted that much of his account was exaggerated or untrue.

So what about Frey’s book? Does the fact that he made a lot of it up make it worthless? (Admittedly, I didn’t really care for his writing even when I thought it was real, but I was outnumbered. It topped the New York Times Bestseller List for fifteen weeks straight).

Dave Pelzer, author of A Child called “It,” is facing similar accusations of fabricating his own memoir. In it, Pelzer claims that his mother viciously abused him as a child, constantly starving him, making him eat his own vomit, and even stabbing him in the chest; Pelzer’s family says he is an attention-starved liar.  (And their accusation is made more convincing given that Pelzer’s website says he is a “Pulitzer Prize Nominee,” which is simply untrue. He did, however, submit his memoir to the Pulitzer committee, which anyone with a spare $50 can do).

It could be argued that Guetta is better than Frey and Pelzer: they both lied about where their work came from; he never did. On the other hand, Guetta’s work (which was actually done by his crew) simply mimicked other artists; Frey and Pelzer both wrote their books themselves. Surely none of these men are respectable artists, but what does that mean for their work?

I’m not sure. At one point in Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy wrestles with this question. He sits back in his chair, arms crossed, and after a reflective pause, says, “I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.”

Nudges

January 15, 2011

A little girl has been benevolently haunting me for a few years now, but I know how to get rid of her: one day, I will write about her. I started to think about her the summer after I graduated high school. I wrote a few paragraphs about her, thinking eventually I could turn them into a short story. The problem is, there is still so much I don’t know about her (including her name). She has only given me fragmented images of herself, and every time I have grown impatient and tried to think up more images myself, they have turned out blatantly contrived and ended up in the trash.

I know this sounds silly (Freud would probably have something to say about it), and it’s not usually how I write. I have read interviews with great writers where they talk about their characters taking on a life of their own and beginning to dictate the story. Sometimes I roll my eyes, but usually I am just jealous. These authors make writing a novel sound so easy…mystical even.

Only once (described above) have I felt this sort of nudge from a character, this feeling that I am not merely making her up, but telling her story. The only problem is I haven’t gotten very far in the “telling” part. I have tried to go back and write more about her, but I have probably added 3 sentences since she first introduced herself to me 3 years ago. Part of me is afraid of getting her all wrong, of being unable to portray her as she is. I am not just waiting for more glimpses into who she is, but I am also waiting to learn how to write fiction well (I have yet to take a writing class, but am trying to get into one next semester). At least, that’s what I tell myself.

I am still reading Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Sketch of the Past,” and last night I came across a passage where Woolf shares how her mother’s death, which occurred when Woolf was a girl, affected her teenage and adult self:  “until I was in my forties…the presence of my mother obsessed me. I could hear her voice, see her, imagine what she would do or say and think.” Woolf goes on to explain that it wasn’t until she wrote To the Lighthouse, a book that came to her in “a great, apparently involuntary, rush,” that she stopped being obsessed with her mother.

I suppose that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest. But what is the meaning of “explained” it? Why, because I described her and my feeling for her in that book, should my vision of her and my feeling for her become so much dimmer and weaker?”

I don’t know the answer to Woolf’s question, and I’m curious to know whether she ever found a sufficient one.

Woolf’s situation is obviously different from mine in that she was “laying to rest” her mother, while I am hoping one day to lay to rest an invisible friend of sorts. But Woolf’s thoughts helped me identify one more reason I might be avoiding finally getting this girl down on paper: I’m afraid that once she is gone, no one will replace her, and then I will lose these strange and exciting nudges forever.