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.)

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A trip

January 31, 2011

photo by Chelsea Alling

photo by Chelsea Alling

“A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys.  It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness.  A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.”

– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Last week, I went on my first real road trip, and I wish I had brought this book with me. I read it years ago, maybe even before I could drive, and loved it.

Steinbeck’s trip was very different from mine. For starters, his only company was a poodle, and I got to travel with three wonderful girls. His trip was almost 10,000 miles; ours was 2612.1 miles (the distance from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon and back).

Over the course of our trip, Julia, Chelsea, Tracy and I held a two-week-old baby, witnessed a Dungeons & Dragons game, explored an abandoned theme park, ate bacon doughnuts, and, like Steinbeck, had our fair share of bite-sized interactions with strangers.

At one point in his book, Steinbeck is saddened by an encounter with a waitress who “wasn’t happy, but then she wasn’t unhappy.” He says,

“I don’t believe anyone is a nothing. There has to be something inside, if only to keep the skin from collapsing. This vacant eye, listless hand, this damask cheek dusted like a doughnut with plastic powder, had to have a memory or a dream.”

I have noticed in me a temptation to collect people like I collect experiences. On our road trip, I don’t think we came across anyone even close to “a nothing,” but I sometimes had the urge to instantly understand and even categorize those we met. I’m not quite sure how to combat this, but I know it involves humility.

There should be a sort of wonder in meeting a new person, probably not unlike the wonder of exploring a new place. But over the trip, sometimes I forgot that most people we encountered (waitresses, shop owners, homeless people, relatives, friends) have lived longer than I have, and all of them have a story just as meaningful as my own. There is not time to hear everything (or anywhere close to everything) someone has to say, so sometimes to remember that each person I meet is a complex, mysterious being, and that my perception of them is embarrassingly incomplete, is enough.

I am arrogant when I assume I know how the drug addict sprawled out on the streets of San Francisco got where he is, or why the waitress was so rude to us; there is so much I don’t know even about the girls I travelled with. In fact, one of the richest parts of the trip was learning bits and pieces of why my friends are the way they are. That, and pulling over every few hours to smell the salt-soaked coast or stand next to a redwood.

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.

Warped pictures

January 19, 2011

Yesterday in a used bookstore, I came across a ratty copy of a John Steinbeck book I had never heard of before called A Russian Journal. Since the other book I was looking for was nowhere to be found, I took a chance on this one instead.

It was worth the $.48 I paid. A Russian Journal is Steinbeck’s account of a 1948 trip he took with photographer Robert Capa to the Soviet Union. Neither wanted to concern themselves with politics, but rather, they aimed to “set down what we saw and heard without editorial comment, without drawing conclusions about things we didn’t know sufficiently”—a refreshingly unique endeavor, given this is was beginning of the Cold War Era.

I was surprised to find Steinbeck himself just as intriguing as his subjects. When one is recording a cross-cultural trip, it is difficult to mask personal quirks entirely, and Steinbeck isn’t shy. While he is cautious about casting judgment on the Russian civilians, he is not afraid to spend a few paragraphs explaining just how much of a “bathroom hog” his travel companion is (according to Steinbeck, Capa spent hours in the bathtub each morning reading the newspaper).

Over a period of about six weeks, Steinbeck and Capa toured Moscow, Kiev and Georgia.  While Steinbeck recorded everything from their transportation difficulties to their interactions with writers, farmers, and soldiers, Capa took thousands of pictures (some of which ended up confiscated). I was especially intrigued by their descriptions of rural Ukraine; I had the chance to teach at an English camp near L’Viv this past summer, and was delighted to learn that Steinbeck and I share a few common experiences. 60 years after he wrote A Russian Journal, Ukrainians still hold firmly to the belief that open windows cause sickness; this makes for some very uncomfortable bus rides.

And even though Steinbeck and Capa set out with purely observational motives, Steinbeck recognizes how nearly impossible this task is for the writer:

“Probably the hardest thing in the world for a man is the simple observation and acceptance of what is. Always we warp our pictures with what we hoped, expected, or were afraid of. In Russia we saw many things that did not agree with what we had expected, and for this reason it is very good to have photographs, because a camera has no preconceptions, it simply sets down what it sees.”

Probably the hardest thing for a woman too.

This next semester I am taking a class that focuses on collaboration between writing and art majors, and it’s likely I will be working with a photographer at some point. I am beginning to realize in myself a vague grudge against pure objectivity, and I hope for the chance to confront it in the coming months.