Monday, August 1, 2011


My commercial alter-ego, Isabelle Drake, is pretty excited about the new Kindlegraph feature for Kindle ebooks. With this feature, readers can request a personalized "Kindlegraph" of any of the Isabelle Drake books available on Kindle.

This Kindle function does, in a way, give Kindles an interesting advantage over paper books. But is it enough to have an electronic signature? After all, the author doesn't touch the book and the reader doesn't have to meet the author to get the "signature."

So what matters most? Meeting the author? Having a personalized copy?

Maybe it isn't a matter of one, a paper book signed, being better than another, a Kindle edition kindlegraphed. Maybe it's just a matter of different. ?

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Motif of “Hats” in Madame Bovary

Welcome back guest blogger Carol Owens Campbell. Carol is an MFA student studying fiction at Pine Manor College's Solstice in Creative Writing program. Her current work in progress explores the turbulent echos of the Kent State Massacre as seen through the eyes of a young college student.

In this second of two parts, Carol continues her exploration of hats in Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

Flaubert’s motif of ‘hats’ in Madame Bovary contributes to a nonjudgmental theme resonating throughout the novel that “Each of us is different.” As a symbol of this truth, Flaubert describes a variety of ‘hats.’ He also describes a variety of individuals who populate his novel, each symbolized by the ‘hat’ each wears, i.e., an adulterous woman in veils, a group of nuns in hoods, an ethical husband in a leather hat, two men who seduce a married woman, one man in a jaunty straw hat and another bareheaded, a druggist in a skullcap, a young daughter in a bonnet. The image of each ‘hat’ contributes to the difference between each character’s profession, age, personality or behavior.

Flaubert’s motif of ‘hats’ also contributes a curious challenge to a theme of “There’s a Heart vs. Head dilemma when it comes to love.” In the debate between heart vs. head, the “head” represents a person’s logic when it comes to “love” that leads to vows, boundaries, and the propriety of courtship and marriage. The “heart” represents uncontrollable, delirious passion. Flaubert’s motif of ‘hats’ pays homage to both sides of the argument of “heart/passion” versus “head/logic” for his novel addresses passion fulfilled and logic ignored. His novel is also a cautionary tale for both sides.

One of the functions of a ‘hat’ is to cover one’s head. Therefore, if one’s head is covered literally in the heart vs. head dichotomy, the heart, unfettered by logic, would win the contest. Follow one’s heart would lead to freedom to do whatever one’s “heart” led one to do. After all, “logic” would be covered up and one’s passion could flourish without boundaries.

If, on the other hand, one’s head is literally not covered allowing logic to figuratively prevail, then individuals would be more circumspect in their choice of a mate and more thoughtful in their loving relationships.

Flaubert’s deliberate positioning of ‘hats’ in his narrative as well as his deliberate choice not to mention ‘hats’ at all for twelve pages in the middle of the novel ultimately serve to diffuse the “heart vs. head” argument. He does this by allowing those wearing ‘hats’ to feel passion and champion logic and the lovers who are bareheaded for twelve pages (125-137) to give in to their passion while the logic of consequences prevails in their knowledge. Flaubert, in his nonjudgmental way, acknowledges that passion and logic both have consequences and it is vital to a thriving love for both passion and logic to be integral parts working in harmony.

Emma Bovary’s choice of passion over logic cost the most prized possession she owned: “her life.” Charles Bovary’s choice of logic over passion cost the most prized possession he owned: “his wife’s love for him.”

Flaubert gave them the opportunity to know this. Yet even though Emma was a doctor’s wife and Charles was a doctor, neither of them understood that one’s “heart” and one’s “head” are not just parts of one’s body operating separately. Instead they are integral parts of one’s body and soul, both vital to a thriving love of logic and passion working in harmony together.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

‘Hats’ as a motif in Flaubert's Madame Bovary...Effective?

Welcome guest blogger Carol Owens Campbell. Carol is an MFA student studying fiction at Pine Manor College's Solstice in Creative Writing program. Her current work in progress explores the turbulent echos of the Kent State Massacre as seen through the eyes of a young college student.

In this first of two parts, Carol explores hats as a motif in Flaubert's Madame Bovary.
A “hat,” i.e., cap, hat, hood, or veil, is a recurrent image in Madame Bovary There are ninety-seven descriptions of ‘hats’ and over a hundred mentions of ‘hats’ in the 247 page novel. Examples include: “We were in the habit of throwing our caps on the ground so as to have our hands more free” (1); “It was one of those head-gears of composite order, in which we can find traces of the bearskin, shako, billycock hat, sealskin cap, and cotton nightcap; one of those poor things, in fine, whose dumb ugliness has depths of expression, like an imbecile’s face.” (1, 2); “He trampled on horses’ dung with them, one hand in the pocket of his jacket and his straw hat on one side.” (97)

Flaubert further highlights the importance of ‘hats’ in his story by noting their absence. There are more than a dozen mentions of characters whose heads are not covered by a ‘hat,’ i.e., a bald head or unfettered, flowing hair or strands of hair. Examples include: “little bareheaded children” (43), “He read aloud, bareheaded, sitting on a footstool of dry sticks;” (87), “in his hand was a long tress of black hair.” (247)

‘Hats’ qualify as a motif for they are unifying objects throughout the novel. ‘Hats’ also may be elaborated into a general theme.

On the first page of the novel, Charles Bovary’s cap is an essential detail, i.e., “the new fellow was still holding his cap on his knees even after prayers were over.” (1) Bovary’s worry that his cap will be stolen, “casting troubled looks round him,” (2) offers a premonition of the general theme of Bovary’s life, i.e. that he will have a prized possession, his wife’s love and fidelity, stolen from him.

The loss of a cap foreshadows the loss of his wife’s affection during her affairs with Rodolphe and Leon. Furthermore, the cap is the object of Bovary’s worry and a catalyst for the bully behavior of his classmates. Later, his wife Emma is the object of Bovary’s worry and the catalyst for the bully behavior of a merchant, a tax collector, his mother and others.

The hat-imagery unifies characters and events in the entire literary work, with the exception of a curious twelve-page absence of the motif (from pages 125 to 137), until the final pages conclude with these passages: “A terrible curiosity seized him. Slowly, with the tips of his fingers, palpitating, he lifted her veil.” (236), and “The women followed in black cloaks with turned-down hoods” (239)

Are ‘Hats’ effective as a motif in Madame Bovary?

The emphasis Flaubert places on ‘hats’ serves a dual purpose. One purpose includes a ‘hat’ in the literal description of a character’s outward appearance, i.e., “He (the druggist) had on a frock-coat, nankeen trousers, beaver shoes, and, for a wonder, a hat with a low crown.” (93) or “The councilor pressing his little cocked hat to his breast repeated his bows” (99).

Another purpose is symbolic. Flaubert crafts a ‘hat’ to symbolize a character’s feelings. In the scene at the masked ball, Emma Bovary is described as follows: “She wore velvet breeches, red stockings, a club wig and three-cornered cocked hat on one side.” (205) Emma’s outfit of breeches and red stockings indicate rebellion, given the mores of the time, however, her “three-cornered cocked hat” points to her feelings of cocky, arrogant, brash confidence to “dance(d) all night to the wild tones of the trombones.” (205) Her feelings of wild abandon are symbolized by the cock of her hat. The irony is that her abandonment by Leon is the catalyst for her behavior that night.

In another scene, Emma and Leon consummate their passion behind curtained windows in a carriage dashing through the countryside and streets of Rouen. As she leaves the carriage, the veil of Emma’s hat symbolizes the curtained windows and the secrecy with which she feels she must keep her love affair with Leon. “At about six o’clock the carriage stopped in a back street of the Beauvoisine Quarter, and a woman got out, who walked with her veil down, and without turning her head.” (173)

Earlier, in Leon’s seduction of Emma, he alludes to a dream in which the motif appears. “In an engraver’s shop on the boulevard there is an Italian print of one of the Muses. She is draped in a tunic, and she is looking at the moon, with forget-me-nots in her flowing hair. She resembled you a little.” (165) His wish for Emma not to forget him after he moved to Rouen is symbolized in the flowers in the hair of a Muse.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of craft in fiction depends on a reader’s appreciation and understanding of the author’s technique. In the following examples of Flaubert’s choice of a ‘hat’ as a motif to symbolize feelings of characters, I offer my views:

“From that moment her (Emma’s) existence was but one long tissue of lies, in which she enveloped her love as in veils to hide it.” (191) The choice of a veil is a perfect image to me. Not only does a veil evoke a soft covering of netting or fabric to conceal one’s face, it also evokes a wedding veil and a nun’s headdress, alluding to vows Emma once cherished. Now she cherishes Leon’s love and needs to protect it. Flaubert’s motif of multiple veils hiding her lies also evokes the image of lying, when layers of untruths build and multiply.

“She would have liked to be once more lost in the long line of white veils, marked off here and there by the stiff black hoods of the good sisters bending over their prie-Dieu.” (78) The choice to insert “white veils” into Emma’s memories is effective as it literally recalls her days in the convent. However, it also symbolizes her wish for childhood days of innocence, a universal feeling to which most adult readers can relate, and the memory of “good sisters” in “stiff black hoods” that offer her solace as well.

“You were downstairs in the anteroom, ready to go out, standing on the last stair; you were wearing a bonnet with small blue flowers;” (166) In this passage, Leon proves to Emma that she is an “incomprehensible force that took captive my life” (166). His devotion to detail in his description of Emma’s bonnet symbolizes his devotion to her. His attention to her, his memory of her to the most exacting degree, his vision of her months before still remembered as if frozen in time, evokes his charm, his youth, his besotted feelings, his passion. Flaubert exposes the power of how “paying attention” to another person is not only flattering but also seductive.

Another example of Flaubert’s insight into the effectiveness of his ‘hat’ motif can be found in the introductory scene of the book. Bovary’s cap is so unusual (2), it symbolizes how different Charles Bovary is from the other students. The effect of Charles Bovary’s oddity evokes my concern for him as a sympathetic character. The ‘hat’ motif not only heightens my feelings of tension, it also compels me to pay attention to the behavior and choices of this young, vulnerable boy.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Through Glass

Welcome back guest blogger Laura Jones. Thoughts this time on Dave McKean's His Story from Pictures That Tick.

I thought I was in love with the way McKean combines abstraction and representationalism. But if that's love, then love isn't a good enough word for how I feel about the metaphor he just created for artistic vision. And it's gruesome, yes, but fabulous. In 'His Story,' the story told to the narrator by his father is represented by a piece of broken glass.

When confronted with the shard as a child, he mishandles it, or misunderstands it, and is injured by it. He cuts his hand. He puts away the glass for several years. Older, he views the glass again. “It was still clear and cold. / But I was sure there was / more to it than that. / I had to get inside it. / Or let it get inside of me. / I had to look at it / in a different way” (172). And then he takes the shard, and he shoves it into his eye.

The narrator, through the simple metaphor of a piece of broken glass, illustrates the idea that an artist's creativity comes from looking at the world through the lens of pain and prior experience.

It is no accident that the central image of this short piece is a human form with a shard in his eye. It is a grotesque image. It elicits a visceral reaction. We like to protect our eyes from harm. The thought of piercing our eyes on purpose, obscuring our vision intentionally, is nearly unthinkable. And that gives this image a great deal of power. It gives the concept of an artist as a bit of a masochist a sense of literalness. The first person narration combined with the illustrations depicting what happens to 'I' suggest that there is a kinship between the writer/artist and the narrator. The sense of ars poetica makes it personal. The artist must suffer for his or her art.

It is also no accident that McKean relies on primary colors in this story to convey a sense of rightness. Prior to the narrator altering his vision, the illustrations are shown in shades of yellow or blue. With the entrance of the shard of glass and its piercing of the narrator, red – blood, pain – completes the trinity of colors. It is only with the metaphorical acceptance of red blood, the suffering of others, the stories of the past, that the images and the overarching plot become balanced and acquire a sense of completion. “Later,” the narrator says immediately after red becomes predominant in the imagery, “I thought I had made a / mistake. There was some pain. / And the way I saw everything / seemed to have changed. / But I had taken an / important step. / I could not go back now” (173).

The heightened balance of color and form in the imagery supports the idea that the pain shown is not gratuitous self-mutilation, but rather that it is a necessary part of the narrator's life progression. The text concurs.

As the written story progresses, the shard of glass through which the narrator views the world works its way through the narrator's head until it is no longer a part of his vision, but is instead behind him. The prism that gave color and depth to the narrator's life – the story that his father told him – has been forgotten piece by piece. At one point that narrator realizes that he is seeing the world, “through my own eyes entirely” (177). He looks for his father's presence again, searching in mirrors and microscopes. His father's story has fallen out of focus. His “memories all seemed frozen, / and cold, and hard” (179). With the lens of the broken glass missing from the narrator's vision, McKean's illustrations lose their color balance again. As in the beginning, the images of the narrator without the memories of his father are shown in muted shades of blue and yellow. Without the piece of glass to draw blood and show the world in a prism or clarity, the narrator is left in a dreamlike state of disbelief and monotony.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Stephen Koch's The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction

Welcome back guest blogger Carol Owens Campbell. Carol is an MFA student studying fiction at Pine Manor College's Solstice in Creative Writing program. Her current work in progress explores the turbulent echos of the Kent State Massacre as seen through the eyes of a young college student.

In this second of two installments, Carol considers perspective as discussed in the popular fiction writers reference book: The Modern Library Writer's Workshop.


In Koch’s extraordinary book, he commands, “Whatever feeling you ask the reader to join, let it be strong. If your talent is connected to your passion, it will all find expression in a thousand signs, in turns that will be too multiple in meaning for one simple value judgment. The real issue isn’t whether you love or hate your characters. The real issue, whatever the bond, is the vitality and force of what you do feel.” (111)

With almost every sentence highlighted in my copy of Koch’s book, I find his perspective profound. I relish my discoveries about inventing and re-inventing myself as a writer. I also find Koch’s personal stories poignant.

When Koch shares the anecdote of informing his student, three weeks from her graduation deadline that her work is a mess, that she must toss it and start over (163-165), I froze, then panicked. Through Koch’s capable storytelling, however, I calmed and understood the merit of his counsel.

I read Koch’s personal story at the conclusion of the book and wish, as he had, that a book like “this one” had been available to him. I also wish that The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield had been published before 2003 so that Koch could have referenced it in his fifteen pages of “Notes,” in his twelve-page index, and in his text.

Finally, as I read Koch’s perspective and reverence for W. Somerset Maugham “whose notebook is one of the most instructive ever to have gotten out of the desk drawer and into print” and whose “notes on places (Maugham visited) are models of how to capture a setting and the atmosphere of place and time” (214), I reflected on all I had learned.
I appreciate Sandra Scofield’s suggestion to read Koch’s book. I value the voices of writers through the years sharing their own perspectives with me. At times I wish Koch had not bounced from one writer to another so quickly for I felt I was at a tennis tournament with my thoughts going back and forth, again and again, to grasp the insight of Hemingway then the perspective of Kerouac, the brilliance of Austen then the humor of Lamott. Nevertheless, I celebrate Koch’s applause of those writers for whom I am their ideal Reader, including W. Somerset Maugham whose literary work, The Moon and Sixpence, is one of my favorite books.

Ultimately, I cherish this book. I plan to reference Koch’s words and ideas often as I find my way on the path to discover the story I most want to tell. I also cherish my stroll through the history of lawn tennis, particularly my final discovery.

Upon reading that Dwight Davis, a student at Harvard, chose the lawns of the Longwood Cricket Club as the site of the first Davis Cup tennis tournament played between the United States and Britain in 1900, I was stunned. After all, the Longwood Cricket Club is on Hammond Street in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, across from the CVS Pharmacy, on the street that intersects with Heath, mere walking distance from Pine Manor College, the place where I first learned of Stephen Koch.

This serendipity reminds me to thank Sandra Scofield for recommending this book. It also thrills me that Koch is hitting the ball into my court as he reminds me with a rallying cheer: “Your business is spinning the dusty straw of your uncertainty and fear into the pure gold of clarity and conviction. It is the task of a lifetime.” (29)

The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, Stephen Koch, 2003, Modern Library, an imprint of Random House Publishers

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Stephen Koch's The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction

Welcome guest blogger Carol Owens Campbell. Carol is an MFA student studying fiction at Pine Manor College's Solstice in Creative Writing program. Her current work in progress explores the turbulent echos of the Kent State Massacre as seen through the eyes of a young college student.
In this first of two installments, Carol considers a popular fiction writers reference book: The Modern Library Writer's Workshop.

The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club merits acclaim in the pantheon of sports as the place where Major Walter Clopton Wingfield invented the game of lawn tennis. Now known as “Wimbledon,” it hosts the only Grand Slam tennis tournament in the world still played on grass. It is also where the term “Centre Court” originated.

The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch merits acclaim in the pantheon of books about the craft of writing for within this book Koch assembles a lawn full of stellar writers to encourage those just beginning. Now known in this annotation as “TMLWW,” it is where Koch’s words play out on pages bound by a cover of vibrant green, the color of summer grass and the color most associated with “beginning.” This book is also where the word “invent” serves as a writer’s central focus.

A Writer’s Central Focus: To Invent

Wingfield honored the Greek heritage of the game of lawn tennis by calling it “Sphairistike” (Greek for “skill at playing at ball.” Source: Wimbledon official website, “About Wimbledon”). In TMLWW, Stephen Koch quotes Paul Johnson who addresses a writer’s skill. “In writing, as in all art, confidence is the beginning of skill.” (203)

Koch also honors the heritage of the word, invent. “The Latin root of the word invent means to discover.” (58) Koch supports a writer who wants to tell a good story by urging the novice to “Begin. Begin right now. Begin with whatever gives you the impetus to begin – anything at all that arouses your imagination. The rightness of things is generally revealed in retrospect.” (3, 4)

Koch is persuasive in his argument that a story must be discovered as a writer writes it. A story, he insists, is not something a writer-storyteller knows in advance. Rather it is through the discovery process that a writer “invents” the story s/he most wants to tell. “Let’s get one basic thought into play right now. You can make up a story only by finding it, and you can find a story only by making it up.” (14)

Quoting scores of famous writers, Koch joins their chorus urging a writer to invent characters, story, plot, style, voice, conflict, structure, and, in a revelation to this writer, one’s Reader. “This mute attention, this imagined experience of someone else hearing and grasping what you have to say, inevitably guides any writer’s work. Your prose must be shaped in part by your understanding of how the Reader is listening to it. And this – all of it – is something you must also invent.” (182)

Other treasures of wisdom to be discovered in this book include:

“A bad novel is better than an unwritten novel, because a bad novel can be improved; an unwritten novel is defeat without a battle.” Paul Johnson (43, 44)

“Sometimes – many times – the muse appears wearing the mask of a deadline.” Stephen Koch (44)

“You will recognize her or him (your protagonist) by the way you care.” Stephen Koch (93)

“First drafts, even pretty good ones, can be excruciatingly hard for anyone but their authors to read. The primary issue, line by line, is not their higher meaning. It is their basic meaning.” Stephen Koch (173)

To Score or Not to Score

Major Walter Clopton Wingfield proceeded to give meaning to the sport of lawn tennis in 1873 by creating a scoring system that includes the terms, “love, deuce, match.”

One hundred and thirty years later, in 2003, Stephen Koch offers what this Reader considers a “scoring system for writers” that could employ these same designations.

Love reflects a writer’s passion, obsession, and desire to write. In TMLWW, Graham Greene is quoted: “Talent, even of a very high order, cannot sustain an achievement, whereas a ruling passion gives to a shelf of novels the unity of a system.” (31)

Koch agrees. “Your talent will go to waste unless it is sustained and strengthened by the nagging, jagged, elusive thing called obsession, that stone in the shoe of your being known as a calling, a vocation. Call it dumb persistence. Call it passion. Call it fire in the belly or the madness of art. It is less the ability to write than the insistence upon writing.” (31)

“Katherine Anne Porter said, ‘This thing between me and my writing is the strongest bond I have ever had – stronger than any bond or any engagement with any human being or with any other work I’ve ever done.’ ” (31)

“Betsy Lerner observes, ‘If the voices keep calling, if the itch remains, no matter how punishing the work or inhospitable the world, then you must take a long hard look at all the writing you’ve been attempting to do all your life and commit to it.’ ” (32)

Koch states, “If you are lucky, writing will be and will remain your greatest pleasure; intense, surprising, a kind of lifelong love story.” (53)

Deuce refers to the distinction between two near synonyms, “story” and “plot.” In a tour de force explanation of the distinguishing characteristics of these two often-batted-about terms, Koch states: “A story is an account of any real or fictitious sequence of linked events. Yet in order to be fully told, every story must have a plot. The plot will consist of whatever makes the story move.” (65) He then references the story summary and plot movements of “Hamlet” proving the brilliance of Shakespeare and also the acumen of Koch, the former chair of Columbia University’s graduate creative writing program.

“Feeling the story,” Koch writes, “followed by figuring the story – can start working together in a dynamic reciprocity from which the real shape of the story can emerge in an alternating shimmer of certainty and surprise.” (67)

Of course, another example of “story” and “plot,” that Koch cites is more succinct. “The cat sat on the mat’ is not the beginning of a story but ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is.” John LeCarre (74).

Match refers to the Writer and Reader relationship. “You create the Reader with your style,” Koch states. (118) “This invention of ‘the Reader,’ the secret sharer of your every syllable, is a defining element of style. It ends up as a relationship. As a writer, you have a great deal to say about what this relationship is to be. But it is not entirely in your hands. It is ultimately a collaboration, an exchange. Whatever the relationship, it should offer the real person reading your prose the gift of some larger, richer consciousness.” (119)

The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, Stephen Koch, 2003, Modern Library, an imprint of Random House Publishers.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Rabid Dwarves and Misplaced Senses

Welcome back guest blogger Laura Jones. This musing written to her MFA mentor, on Margaret Peterson Haddix's Just Ella. 

I must begin by admitting that I never intended to read this book. It's not on my reading list, it probably shouldn't be on my reading list, and I should probably be writing about Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales which I enjoyed greatly and which is probably overdue because I had it out from the Boston Public Library and forgot it was in my school bag when I left Boston for Central New York. Maybe even I should be writing about The Sandman Papers, edited by Joe Sanders, which is a compilation of critical essays about a very well known graphic novel that was freakishly influential to me. At least The Sandman Papers feigns to be academic. Just Ella does no such thing, which is, in fact, probably part of why I read it.

I mentioned in my last missive that I intended to reread books I had enjoyed as a child or teenager, with an eye for what drew me to them. As a self-exploratory exercise, it appeals to me. It's also an excuse for me to buy up books I don't need; I found a copy of Just Ella at a Salvation Army Store. I paid somewhere around 39 cents for it. I remembered reading it as a kid; I remembered that it was about a princess that fell in love with her tutor. What I didn't remember until I started rereading it was that it was a retelling of Cinderella (specifically a delving into of what happens when a self-sufficient young lady is forced into proper royal behavior and realizes that what she thought was love was just infatuation, and must deal with the consequences).

If Just Ella hadn't ended up being shockingly relevant to my current academic and creative interests, I would have written it up on my annotated bibliography and otherwise ignored it. I mean, it's a children's book. I powered through it in an afternoon after having accidentally sedated myself by mixing a tranquilizer with an allergy pill. It was that accessible. But as I said: it's relevant. Two or three years ago I took a class where I was expected to read Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. That was an awesome educational moment: I was required to read something that I ended up loving instead of something that I was merely required to have read. It was also at that moment that I realized that I'm fiendishly attached to retellings of fairy tales. I should stop ignoring it.

Another book I grabbed at the same time I got Just Ella was a hardcover copy of fairy tales ($1.23); of course I've read them all, but not quite with this wording, and certainly not with these illustrations. My god, it occurs to me that I'm ignoring something major when it comes to my creativity. I mean- the desktop background on my laptop is a really tweaked out illustration of Snow White (she looks possessed and the dwarfs (who are on rope leashes) look rabid).

And the funny thing is, it wasn't so much reading Just Ella that forced me to consider my love affair with reworked fairy tales as the fact that I was going over all of the books I've read in the past few weeks, trying to figure out what I had interest in writing about, and it occurred to me that yet again I passed up books I probably should have been reading in favor of a rewritten fairy tale that made me happy and was downright effortless to consume. As simple as breathing, reading stories based on long tradition and tried-and-true themes delights me.

I'm not really sure right now why I'm not writing fairy tales. I wonder if it's because I have a [perhaps misplaced] sense that contemporary fiction should be realistic. I wrote last about how delighted I am by fantasy that is portrayed as realism. The thing is, I'm also over the moon about fairy tales that aren't pretending to be anything but fairy tales. It may also, of course, be in my [perhaps misplaced] sense that if I write fantasy, I'm delving into the realm of Children's/YA. Of course that's foolish and I should know better. Just because many of the reworked fairy tales I've read are classified as YA doesn't mean they all must be, and – and this is probably more important – even if I am writing YA, I shouldn't be concerned about it. It is, perhaps, because I have a [certainly understandable] sense that poets are all a bit strange, nonfiction writers are all a bit too normal, and YA writers are all a bit too damned happy all the time. Mind you, that sense is probably also misplaced, but it's there. I stereotype other writers. So sue me.
But to get more to my point, once I justified having read Just Ella, and once I decided that it wouldn't be the end of the world if I wrote about it instead of writing about Dracula (main nit-pick: its format as a collection of letters and diary entries and the like kill suspense by way of ensuring that a reader knows at least one person survives long enough to write about the events), it occurred to me that one of the things I really actually like about Just Ella is that Haddix used the word 'automaton.'
No big deal, right? Well, I wrote with a group of people for a few years starting when I was about fifteen, and they were more or less obsessive compulsive about using language that was appropriate to the content and type of story. So a story taking place in a locale that is very Middle English shouldn't use latinate language, it should use germanic language. A sci-fi story that's heavily technology-oriented probably shouldn't feature a lot of thees and thous unless there's good reason for it. I had it drilled into me that the language the a writer uses should reflect the realities and truisms of the world s/he is trying to create.

And Haddix used the word 'automaton' in a story about glass slippers and dungeons. That's about as understandable to me as having Queen Elizabeth I talk at great length about robots and microchips.

But the thing is... I'm not at all certain that there's anything particularly wrong with using whatever language springs to mind. It didn't hurt the story any that Ella felt like she was expected to be as obedient as something synthetic. It just stood out to me as something that I wouldn't do. I notice it more in YA novels than I do in general literature: almost as if the authors don't notice their word choice, or as if they don't care, or as if they don't expect their readership to notice it. As somebody who loves Poe's short stories because of the poeticism of his word choice, it really catches my attention that you can just go out and write a story and not be all that concerned about the appropriateness of your word choice.

It's almost reassuring, in a way. Stories can be considered both clever and enjoyable without necessarily needing to be endlessly edited for linguistic merit. Of course linguistic merit is important too, but reading Just Ella brought a few really key things to mind:

  • There's nothing inherently wrong with writing fun and flippant stories.
  • I don't always have to show off my honed vocabulary when I'm writing.
  • I really need to get my shit together and stop ignoring the things that make me feel both happy and creative.
  • And so I finish thusly, with a meek apology that I wrote about a book that I wasn't really supposed to be reading.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Inclusion of the Magical in the Mundane

Welcome guest blogger Laura Jones, MFA student at Pine Manor College's Solstice in Creative Writing Program. Laura is currently combining her talents for writing and art in a graphic novel.

The fascination for me in a lot of writing lies within the balance between the artist and the artistry than in any certainty of what really happened. It delights me more to guess which aspects of the story are invented and which are mined from the writer’s daily life than to know it’s all factual or to assume it’s all fake. It’s a game I like playing, and Neil Gaiman lets me do it. 

Gaiman takes easily to this, writing “The Price” in first person, using the voice of his narrator to pull you in, promising that, yes, it really happened. Of stray cats, he writes, “We pay for them to get their shots, and, indignity upon indignity, we have them neutered or spayed” (51). The narrator names the cats, describes them. “We never seem to have more than eight,” Gaiman writes, “rarely have less than three” (51). The narrator goes away in the story to finish writing a book (much like the author might), and comes back home to find a recent addition, the Black Cat (it has no other name), injured. The narrator takes the sick cat to the vet, brings it home, keeps it in the basement to heal, cleans up its diarrhea, gives it antibiotics. The story reads like a personal essay about a man whose family informally adopts cats.

The first hint the reader receives that this is more than a well-recorded memory is when the indoor convalescence of the cat coincides with several terrible things happening to the family. The family, which had been happy, experiences several everyday hardships: a car accident, a fight with a friend, problems at work, an awful summer camp experience. This still would have all come across as nonfiction, or at least determined realism and naturalism, but for the order in which events are so concisely and effectively shown:

Everybody is happy and the cat, free to roam, is injured nightly.

The cat, after being taken to the vet, is locked in the basement to convalesce.

Bad things happen on the days that cat is locked indoors.

As soon as the cat goes back outside and gets hurt again, all the bad things more or less fix themselves.
It is not conveyed that the family is struggling and the cat, as a side note, happens to be there; it is conveyed that the family’s amount of happiness and safety has a direct relationship with the cat’s freedom to fight outside at night. It’s not a correlative relationship, it’s a causal one.

I should mention that this story has more the feel of magical realism than fantasy, which may be what makes it so special to me. Fantasy tends toward a feeling of self-consciousness, perhaps symptomatic of the difficulty of creating an entire believable world that isn’t like ours. In Gaiman’s work, often we’re thoroughly grounded in our own sense of reality, but then we’re confronted by the less-than-rational, which seems to wait for us around the corner, smirking over the fact that we’re not expecting it. It’s not so much that we’re thrown from our sense of realism, either, particularly because Gaiman’s prose style is so often matter-of-fact.

In ‘The Price,’ for instance, when the Devil arrives and the cat attacks to keep the Devil out of the narrator’s home, I wasn’t pulled from my sense of reality. Gaiman had already prepared me for something like this by earlier showing me that the cat’s wounds were inextricably connected to the family’s state of well-being. When the cause of injuries turned out to be a chaotic morphing Devil with red eyes, it was really not much of a surprise. We already knew the cat was special. Now was just finding out what on earth it was fighting every single night. If there was shock, it was more along the lines of “Why didn’t I see the Devil coming?” as opposed to, “A Devil? Really? Yeah right…”

Because of Gaiman’s naturalistic style of storytelling, particularly in ‘The Price,’ even the most wondrous and questionable events seem like they really actually probably – hypothetically – could have happened, if you just happened to be at the right place at the right time to witness it. Because ‘The Price’ reads like a personal essay that explores the balance between caring for other lives and in turn being cared for, it’s almost possible to forget the fact that the cat, if it ever really existed in Gaiman’s reality, almost certainly never battled the Devil in the middle of the night, by the front porch, in complete deadly silence, while Neil watched through night-vision goggles from inside.

Having easily reached the understanding that I like magical realism – both reading it and writing it – the question becomes how to write it so that other people are willing to go along for the ride and reach the end of the tale without rolling their eyes at anything beyond an obvious joke.

Gaiman got it: leave clues. Don’t play coy with your reader. If he’d just talked about how this cat, this black cat, fought all the time, and then one night the narrator watched the cat fight off the Devil, it would have seemed contrived and awkward. Instead, because we learned so early that there was a causal relationship – even if we didn’t quite understand its nature – between the cat’s well-being and the family’s, it wasn’t as far of a stretch to suddenly realize that the cat was protecting the family from something downright evil and tangible. It’s not a shock to find out a cat is having magical or surreal experiences when you already know that the cat seems rather magical or surreal. If you leave clues early enough in the story, you can guide a reader into accepting just about anything.

Adults, I suspect, want to believe. Imagination is fun. It’s just getting jaded adults to the point where they can keep their logic at bay for the duration of a story that’s the tough part: if you don’t have a causal buildup and you spring a sudden moment of magic on them, they get quite upset about it.

Note to self: writing is quite a bit like laying out a scavenger hunt: the clues need to lead to prizes, and the prizes need to be cool enough for the players to bother working out the next clue.