Tag Archives: books

Mile Markers and Check Points

If you haven’t heard Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast “Magic Lessons” (based on her book of the same name), it’s an inspiring listen. Ms Gilbert speaks to creative folks who are struggling to start or re-start their work. As these fledgling artists speak to Ms Gilbert about their fears, she generously bolsters them with her experience and encouragement. She gives them assignments and deadlines. Then, she utters the six most powerful words any artist can hear: “I’ll check in with you later.”

Bringing an idea from the realm of the formless and vague into the physical world is the type of work that’s best done with some sense of urgency. A sweater stitched one meager row at at time, for example, would be deemed a useless enterprise, and discarded before it even had a second sleeve. Urgency creates momentum, powering the maker through the inevitable tedium and the challenges.

Sometimes the urgency comes from the idea itself, the sheer excitement of it, the friction as it rubs against the inside of the mind. But, other times, urgency and motivation come from those kind people who make the artist feel accountable, the ones who’ll ask questions, or say, “I’ll check in with you later. I want to see how this is going for you.”

For years, I was a Secret Writer. Only my husband and a couple of my closest friends knew that I was working on a book. And so, I worked on it in fits and starts, often losing the thread of meaning and struggling to find it again. The work never quite felt as though it mattered. In fact, it didn’t, because no one knew about it. It was like a ghost, or an imaginary friend that others were always accidentally sitting on.

The more I began to go public with my work – to share it with friends, read it to writing groups, and discuss my goals – the more it became a real part of my life. I had to get comfortable with the supremely uncomfortable act of talking about my writing. The secret was out. People were going to ask, “How’s the writing going these days?” And so, I had to have something to tell them.

Thank goodness for these people, without whom my efforts might have fizzled out completely. Now I use these folks strategically and on purpose, announcing my goals to my writing group and my friends, and asking them to please keep me honest. My goals are humble, sometimes embarrassingly so, but these mile markers along the way keep me trudging forward when I’d often like to stop. And, by the way, these folks use me, too, and our mutual encouragement makes us all feel a little less alone at our desks.

I’m grateful to Elizabeth Gilbert and the other professional artists who keep sharing their own experiences to inspire and motivate others. Most of all, I’m ever so grateful to my own personal cheerleaders, all the people who care enough to ask, “How’s your writing going these days?” Thank you for making room at the table for my imaginary friend.

This isn’t the first time Elizabeth Gilbert has inspired me. Also see my post about her wonderful Ted talk about creativity, and my thoughts on Eat, Pray, Love. And, if you are interested in creativity, her book Big Magic is… well, magical.

Book Notes: Hannah and Sugar by Kate Berube

Hannah and Sugar by Kate BerubeKate Berube’s debut picture book Hannah and Sugar deals with fear, a topic that most young kids know very well. A young girl named Hannah longs to pet Sugar, a dog who meets the school bus every afternoon. But, every afternoon, Hannah walks by without petting Sugar because she can’t overcome her fear.

One day, Sugar goes missing, and it is Hannah who finds the dog, leash tangled in the bushes. Hannah wants to run away and find someone else to take care of untangling Sugar’s leash. But, she also wants to be brave. Gathering her courage, she reaches out her hand. When she overcomes her fear and helps Sugar, her neighbors are happy and her father is proud of her. She gains a new friend in Sugar, and is able to pet and hug him every day. Most importantly, she has an inner feeling of pride and happiness.

Berube’s text is spare. The charming illustrations do the work of telling the emotional story. When we read that Hannah says, “No, thank you,” when asked each day if she wants to pet Sugar, Berube’s images show us how Hannah’s eyes never leave Sugar. Her small body leans toward the dog. Her longing for and fear of the dog are both real. Hannah’s body language reminds me of the way my daughter used to watch kids playing on the playground. She’d watch, mesmerized, wanting to join the game, but nervous and unsure.

Sometimes I forget all the things that might make my young kids nervous. It can be the pool, or going into basement alone. My four year old told me he could relate to how Hannah feels because he really wants to go down the very tall slide at the playground, but he doesn’t because he’s scared. Hannah’s story lets him know that fear is a normal part of life, and that there are ways to overcome it.

None of us at any age are immune to fear. Hannah and Sugar provides an opportunity to talk about fear with your kids. Ask them what makes them feel nervous, and share your own experiences. Figure out where fear is getting in the way, and then challenge yourselves to get past it. Accepting fear as part of life, while not letting it rule our decisions, is a skill that requires practice. For any of us who have missed opportunities because of fear, Hannah and Sugar reminds us to take a deep breath and be brave. There are so many beautiful rewards waiting on the other side of that fear.

DIY MFA: Text #5, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War came out in 1974, but its violent themes and multiple perspective structure feel modern and relevant. As I read it, I was torn between my reader’s zeal for the story and my writer’s mind learning from the masterful turns of suspense and symbolism on each page. I’ll lay out my thoughts about the lessons I take from this book to apply to my work.

Cormier creates suspense from the first page – indeed, from the first line – to the last. Up to the very end, I was not sure what would happen or how things would turn out for the main character Renault. In fact, the subtly ambiguous ending leaves me still not quite knowing what to think. For days afterward, questions about Renault haunted my thoughts and, if that’s not a testament to incredible writing, I don’t know what is.

The first line of the book both draws the reader in and tells the whole story in three words: “They murdered him.” The him, Jerry Renault, is a freshman at an all boy’s Catholic high school, getting beaten to a pulp at the football team tryouts. The paragraphs that follow this powerful first line brim with violent imagery; the nameless players on the field are explosions and sharp edges, tearing Renault apart. He’s “a toy boat caught in a whirlpool.”

Yet, even as Renault feels defenseless, beaten, and abandoned, he is aware that the most important thing is to survive. To go on, after being knocked down. So, he does get up, and is rewarded with a spot on the team. His inner strength results in triumph.

His actions at the try-out attract attention from more than just the coach. Archie, an older student at Trinity, and the brains behind a gang called the Vigils, notices Renault’s strength and decides to put him to the test. And this is where the chocolate comes in.

Throughout the book, chocolate is a symbol for power. The annual chocolate sale, run by the manipulative and creepy Brother Leon, raises money for the school. Cormier suggests, though not explicitly, that Leon has made a deal for his own benefit and needs the boys to raise additional funds to cover up his unlawful expenditures. Leon’s grab for power relies on his ability to conscript the students, especially the Vigils, into selling enormous amounts of chocolate for him. In return, the Vigils receive their own bit of power. All goes well, everyone buying into this game of power handed up the chain, except for Jerry Renault. He’s a thoughtful loner, missing his recently deceased mother and isolated from his grieving father. Renault’s objection to the chocolate sale throws the whole established system into jeopardy and makes him a target for Leon and the Vigils. In an echo of the football tryout in the first chapter, these characters organize ruthless physical and emotional attacks on Renault. This, then, is the chocolate war. The power war.

We readers desperately want Renault to have victory at the end. But, does he? He’s beaten, but still alive. Is survival enough? There is no coach to offer him a reward to make his efforts worthwhile. In the world, is there a reward for moral behavior? Does taking a moral stand pay off? Is it its own reward? If Renault could go back to the start, would he put his head down and sell his portion of chocolate compliantly? These are some of the questions that linger in my mind at the end.

In addition to suspense and symbolism, Cormier effectively creates a microcosm by populating it with believable and purposeful characters. Although the central conflict is between Renault and Archie, the peripheral characters fill out the edges. A few members of the student body briefly participate in the conflict, but the boys largely act as a wave, swelling in a single direction. At first, there are glimmers of admiration and respect for Renault’s bravery, then when the Vigils go on the attack, the boys are eager to see blood spilled. Their preference for violence over morality chills me.

As a writer of young adult fiction, I often wonder how to deal with the adults in kids’ lives. Many writers choose to keep adults out of the story altogether in order to empower their main characters. More difficult is to include adult characters in a way that supports the story, as Cormier does. The adults in the pages of The Chocolate War, aside from Brother Leon, are mostly silent and ineffectual, but their presence in the story serves a purpose. They largely do not see what is happening; even Renault’s father ignores his son’s situation. Though they are supposed to protect and guide their children, the parents and teachers are ignorant and useless.  One mother nags at her son about his manners, but her worries are so far from his own, and so insignificant, that he completely ignores her, “like shutting the sound of the television.” Cormier is pointing out here that the corrupt system of power relies on blindness as much as it does on the primary offenders, a message that is as relevant now as it was forty years ago.

The Chocolate War comes up often among writers, especially those whose stories feature teens, and I can see why. Cormier’s book is exciting, and does not shy away from the real challenges of teens’ lives, which, it turns out, aren’t so very different from the challenges in any one’s life. How many of us can say that we have figured out how to deal with corruption, that we always speak up when we see something wrong?

For more discussion of this book, listen to Jo Knowles speaking with Sara Zarr on the wonderful “This Creative Life” podcast, in which Knowles discusses Cormier’s impact on her work. Incidentally, Zarr’s podcast is always wonderful and worth a listen. The way she and her guests generously share their experiences and wisdom truly warms my heart and makes me happy to call myself a writer.

Also check out Junot Diaz’s related story in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, in which he also refers to Robert Cormier’s books.

To read previous entries in my DIY MFA series:

DIY MFA: Text #4, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The fourth book in my DIY MFA is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book wasn’t received well when it was published, so I didn’t know what to expect from my reading. I can only say now that I loved reading this book, and loved seeing the world through Janie’s eyes. This book and its characters have fastened themselves to my mind. In this post, I’ve chosen to discuss three of the many aspects that beg exploration: the beginning of the book, Janie’s character arc, and Hurston’s beautiful language. As I examine these aspects of the classic novel, I’m always thinking about how to apply what I’m learning to my current work-in-progress, and to my writing in general.

Hurston creates profound sympathy for Janie from the first page. The story begins as Janie  walks a gauntlet of prying, gossiping neighbors. Out loud, they talk gleefully about how she’s fallen in the world. “She ain’t even worth talking after,” one neighbor says, as they continue to discuss nothing else. “She sits high, but she looks low.” Janie earns the reader’s sympathy by enduring her neighbor’s stinging hostility; she more than endures. She walks by without withering, without stopping to solicit the neighbors’ good opinions. She sails by, with the grace and confidence of a woman who deserves admiration, but doesn’t need it. In just a few short paragraphs, Hurston tells us much about this character, and also allies us readers with her.

Getting readers to be on the main character’s side is something that Cheryl Klein has talked about in her book Second Sight (and also in this post on her blog). Klein says the author can make a character sympathetic by showing unlikable characters mistreating him or her. Klein discusses this strategy via Harry Potter (as is her way). She writes, “What happens is basic literary math: We dislike the Dursleys, and the Dursleys dislike Harry, so we automatically like Harry.” Janie couldn’t be more different from Harry Potter, but the same strategy works in both cases. If it can work in these two texts, it can certainly work in mine.

Hurston seeds the introductory pages with elements that pulled me instantly into the story. There is, as I’ve said, the friction with the neighbors. We also learn almost immediately that there has been a death, but don’t yet know who has passed away. Then, we hear about a man named Tea Cake, and we know only that he’s younger than Janie, that the neighbors didn’t approve of him, and that they assume that he has been an instrument of her downfall. Death, envy, and sex – what could be more titillating?

Janie’s arc from a person who lives according to society’s values to someone who lives by her own is a compelling and beautiful one. It’s not only that Janie has an unconventional love affair, or that she finds her voice. It’s what she says, it’s that she learns to say what is in her heart. For example, when Tea Cake asks her whether she regrets leaving her secure and affluent life to be with him, Janie says, “If you kin see the light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.” Earlier in the story, Janie resigns herself to a separateness of her outer and inner worlds. Such an emotional speech is only possible for her later in her life, when she feels whole.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a coming of middle-age story. There are many stories like this, about the older and wiser woman who, after spending her youth doing what society expects, sloughs of external obligations and begins to live for herself. I, an almost middle-aged white woman in the Pacific Northwest, relate deeply to Janie’s journey, though we share little else in common.

The beauty of this book is its language. Hurston writes with two distinct styles: the narrative voice and the dialogue. Both are rich with rhythm and metaphor. The narrative voice contains some of the Southern vernacular, but it’s in the dialogue that the characters and setting come to life. Hurston uses open vowels and dropped consonants, writing phonetically to make the dialect accessible to readers. Even though I’m not familiar with the dialect at all, within a few pages I felt at home in it.

Here’s an example that shows both narrative voice and dialogue. In this scene, Janie and her second husband Joe are having one of the fights that erodes their affection.

“You sho love to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothin’ Ah see!”

“Dat’s ’cause you need telling’,” he rejoined hotly. “It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and cows. I god, they show don’t think for theirselves.”

“Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!”

“Aw naw they don’t. They just think they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”

Time and scenes like that put Janie to thinking about the inside state of her marriage. Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.

So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left her bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again.

– Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes  Were Watching God

In a recent SCBWI workshop on dialogue, Lin Oliver advised writers only to attempt regional dialogue if they really know it and can comfortably keep it going throughout the whole book. Hurston writes the dialect precisely and consistently; it’s the tongue of her childhood.

My current work-in-progress Nana’s Bikini has several characters who speak with a heavy Italian accent. I’m struggling with consistency, and with how to convey their accents at all. Oliver’s advice is to indicate the dialect with key words or phrases, rather than try to carry the dialect through to the end. I’ll have to go back to my manuscript, and think carefully about how to do this. What could the key words be? What is the best way to write the Italian accent phonetically? Once I decide these answers, I have to make sure I carry that through from beginning to end.

This book was a gift to me as a writer and a reader, and I’m grateful for my DIY MFA for prompting me to read it. Thank goodness, too, for Alice Walker, considered by many to be responsible for rekindling interest in Hurston. In 1975, Walker wrote an article for MS. Magazine called “Looking for Zora” about her trip to Hurston’s final hometown to find her burial site and to speak with those who knew her. It’s a wonderful read about Alice Walker paying tribute to her hero, her adopted ancestor.

To read previous entries in my DIY MFA series:

Book Notes: The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer“The first few moments up there were terrifying.

I felt stupid, actually.

Vulnerable. Silly.

It was lucky that I was covered in white face paint – my face burned bright red beneath it for the first ten minutes, I could feel it.

The sheer absurdity of what I was doing was not lost on me.”

Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking

Before Amanda Palmer was part of punk-cabaret group The Dresden Dolls, before she was a Kickstarter phenomenon, she painted herself white from head to toe, dressed as a bride, and stood on a crate in Harvard Square, performing as a human statue. When someone dropped money into her hat, Palmer offered a flower and a moment of meaningful eye contact.

Palmer’s new book The Art of Asking is part memoir, part manifesto. With her life stories, collected anecdotes, ideas from other artists, and a dash of scientific data, Palmer talks about her journey to becoming a master of asking people to help her.

There are several reasons why people feel uncomfortable asking for and accepting help. For one, our society prizes self-sufficiency and disapproves of anyone who appears to be asking for a handout. Those who do ask for help are often criticized as unworthy poseurs. Palmer calls these critics the Fraud Police.

She points to the example of Henry David Thoreau. He has been criticized because, while he was writing his treatise on self-reliance, he accepted the generosity of friends and family, who gave him the land and food that sustained him throughout his work. Palmer writes that “every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought him a basket of freshly baked goods for him, including donuts.”

Thoreau’s donuts become symbolic in Palmer’s discussion of support for artists. She points out that no one would criticize Einstein or Florence Nightingale for accepting donuts. But artists “just can’t see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love.” She urges all of us to “take the donuts,” to see what we do as deserving of help, whether that help comes from fans, patrons, or family.

Palmer writes that she’s frequently asked how she “gets” people to support her work. Her response: she doesn’t get them to, she lets them. These aren’t strangers; these are her fans, her tribe. These are people who have shared stories with her, opened themselves up to her, allowed themselves to be moved by her. Palmer understands that her community wants to express their love and appreciation for her. As she writes, “Accepting the gift IS the gift.”

The book is beautifully written, with humor and, at times, raw honesty. The idea of asking for help ties me up in knots of anxiety. I don’t like imposing on people. But, as I read this book, I realized my inability to ask is really stinginess wrapped in a disguise of selflessness. There’s a generosity to asking, to letting people see your vulnerability and need. When we let people do for us, there is a ripple effect. Giving to each other strengthens bonds and gives others permission to ask for help in their times of need. Palmer call this “tightening the net.”

Palmer’s way of looking at life makes a lot of sense, not just for artists, but for everyone. In her world, giving and receiving are equally necessary. Both keep the ecosystem strong, breathing out just as critical as breathing in. They’re so equal that the lines become blurred; it’s hard to tell who’s giving, and who’s receiving.

Give the flower, take the flower. Give the love, take the love. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that, as Palmer says, the gift keeps moving.

DYI MFA: Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, Post #2

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I’m continuing my DIY MFA by writing about Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice and, though I’ve already discussed each book’s central relationship in a previous postmy thoughts are still on romance. I think there are two types of book romances. First, there’s the type of romance in which the author tells the reader that the characters are in love, usually from the first scene in which the characters lay eyes on each other, and the stated fact of that love is supposed to be enough to get the reader interested and invested in their love story.

The other kind of romance, the kind I prefer, is the Pride and Prejudice, Eleanor and Park variety, in which the characters develop deep love and understanding over time. By showing us how the relationship develops, the author earns our investment in that love working out in the end. I’ve noticed that this kind of romance frequently begins with the two characters actively disliking each other. Is the dislike a necessarily component of the romance? Do the characters ever feel ho-hum, just okay about each other, then fall in love?

The characters beginning with active dislike is an incredibly effective narrative device. First, it gives the characters’ feelings more runway, so they get to change more over the course of the book. It’s more satisfying for a character’s feelings to travel the long distance from dislike to love, than if they were to change from ambivalence or mild like to love.

Secondly, the initial dislike shows an attraction, and is itself the kernel of the connection that will later develop. My mother used to always say, “Hate is not the opposite of love,” which was a way of saying that a person who inspires us to love him or her can more easily inspire other strong feelings, like hate. For instance, Elizabeth’s dislike for Mr. Darcy is still a connection; he occupies her thoughts because he aggravates her. But she is thinking of him, much more so than she would be if she’d hardly noticed him, or thought nothing of him one way or another.

It might seem odd to think of dislike as an attraction, but in our own lives this is very true. Just think about when you’re mad at someone. You might tell all your friends about the unbelievable thing that person said, the way he or she betrayed you, or the way you plan to get back at the object of your anger. The person you’re mad at occupies your thoughts and energy, just as a person you’re falling in love with does.

The more books I think consider, the more I find this to be true, that two characters dislike each other upon first meeting. Furthermore, the initial dislike or distrust is often most strong on the female protagonist’s side. My hunch is that a story in which the boy’s affection is constant while the girl’s affection must be earned appeals heavily to girl readers, who are probably the intended audience in romance-heavy Young Adult novels.

Other examples of this pattern:

  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery – In this book (well, really, in the series) Anne and Gilbert start out as competitive and argumentative with each other.
  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – In this series, Gansey is rich and entitled, and embodies all that Blue dislikes.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – Katniss dislikes Peeta because at first he appears to be playing along with the games, and because he doesn’t seem to have any skills that will help him survive. She questions his motives when he befriends some of the other competitors.

I still have lots to say about the narrative voice of Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, so there will be a future post about that. It’s just that right now I still have romance on the brain. I’m going to be paying a lot more attention as I read to see which stories fit into or break this “hate first, love second” mold.

DIY MFA: Texts #2 and #3, Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The next two texts in my DIY MFA are Elizabeth Bronte’s 1847 book Wuthering Heights and Jane Austen’s 1813 book Pride and Prejudice. I think of these texts as grandmothers to the modern Young Adult genre, and I wanted to read them through the lens of comparison to contemporary YA texts (especially romance stories).

The shape of these 19th century stories closely resembles contemporary YA narratives. Just as modern YA romances do, the older stories focus on women in their teens and early twenties, their search for love and romance, and the troubles that romance brings into their lives.

In Wuthering Heights, Catherine and Heathcliff are childhood friends, deeply connected souls who are passionately devoted to each other. Because Heathcliff has no property or social standing, Catherine knows she could never marry him, so she marries a kind, caring, though rather boring man named Edgar. Devastated, Heathcliff launches a vendetta against Edgar that brings about the ruin of almost every other character in the book. Catherine’s misery is equally destructive; she has fits and makes herself ill in order to manipulate those around her.

I had never read the story before, but I knew of Catherine and Heathcliff; their names are synonymous with passion. So, I was surprised to find that the book doesn’t show why Catherine and Heathcliff loved each other so strongly, except for the fact that they’d grown up together and knew each other so well. Their love is stated as a fact, rather than developed throughout the book. Not only was their love not explored and shown clearly in the story, the characters weren’t shown either. Readers don’t know much about either character except that they are in love with the other. Romances of this kind aren’t satisfying. It’s not enough for me to simply know that the characters are in love. I don’t care about love as a concept; I care about love as a specific feeling between two human beings. Without the specificity, without the humanity of the characters, my investment in the outcome of their story is very low.

Pride and Prejudice tells the story of Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters, who must secure their futures by marrying as well as they can. Because Austen has created a character in Elizabeth who is warm and intelligent, it is not hard to see why Mr. Darcy becomes fond of her. And, over the course of the book, Darcy’s actions reveal a goodness and generosity of spirit. Though I’d read the book years ago, the language and characters drew me in again, and I was moved by the satisfying conclusion of this beautiful book.

The richness of the romance in Austen’s book makes me think of Rainbow Rowell’s recent novel Eleanor and Park, in which the love and the characters are believable and unique. Other books which do a lovely job of developing authentic romantic connections are Grave Mercy, The Impossible Knife of Memory, The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent, and Graceling. (This is an off-the-top-of-my-head list of recently read YA books, but they could be a good place to start for studying what make for good book romance.)

This is everything: to make sure the reader has reason to believe in the relationship at the core of the romance. It’s not enough simply to state that there is deep passion. There have to be reasons for it, and it’s better if readers see those reasons.

As I read Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, I noticed a big difference between them and their modern counterparts: the narration itself. I’ll explore the narrative voice more in a future post.

DIY MFA: Text #1, Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Several weeks ago, I wrote that I would pursue a DIY MFA degree, awarded to me by me, a quilt of texts that I want to read (or re-read), specifically in order to grow in my work as a writer, or at the very least to keep me warm this winter. The books that I chose were either recommended to me as exemplary examples of fiction writing, or they are well-regarded examples of the genres of fiction that I am currently writing (young adult fiction and short stories for adults).

The first text I read is Bluets by Maggie Nelson. It was an unusual choice for me, as the book is not like anything that I’m attempting to write, or even like anything that I would normally read, but it came with high praise. However, while still reading the first couple of pages, I regretted picking up the book and was grateful that it was short, so I wouldn’t have to suffer for too long.

My feelings about this books are very different now.

The text soon grabbed me, immersed me in the peculiar mind of an author in pursuit of a singular subject: the color blue. Although Maggie Nelson does not write much about herself, each word she writes, each section she chooses, points vividly to the person herself, to the writer, and to the act of writing.

Which leads me to the first question about this book: What is it? I’ve tried to describe it and struggled. For lack of a better word, I call each piece a “section,” but only because it sounds more literary than “chunk.” There are 240 of them. It’s hard to say whether they are poems, vignettes, research items, or simply ephemera. They are a mix of all of these, I suppose, collected with a blue thread stitched throughout, though the blue is more or less visible in these sections, and some feel more or less connected to the sections around them.

Each individual section is beautiful, yet it is the collection of them that is important. The book, though slim, feels like a work many years in the making. To sift through books, movies, life, and the world in search of meaningful tidbits and stories is hard enough, but to search for stories that relate to or evoke the color blue is another thing entirely. The nature of this collection suggests the writer as an obsessive person. And, it also suggests that there is something about the nature of writing that fosters (or requires) obsessiveness.

One type of section that appears throughout the book are sentiments addressed to a “you,” a former lover. In one of my favorite sections, she writes:

177. Perhaps it is becoming clearer why I felt no romance when you told me that you carried my last letter with you, everywhere you went, for months on end, unopened. This may have served some purpose for you, but whatever it was, surely it bore little resemblance to mine. I never aimed to give you a talisman, an empty vessel to flood with whatever longing, dread, or sorrow happened to be the day’s mood. I wrote it because I had something to say to you.

Nelson writes several sections that acknowledge the difficulty of pursuing such a project. She refers to failed attempts to gain interest for her work among scholars and grant committees. And then, at the end, rather than feeling satisfied with her final product, she says she feels surprised about how small the finished project is, “an anemia,” she writes, “that seems to stand in direct proportion to my zeal.”

Nelson’s choice, the specific choice to write about the world through the color blue, reminds me that there is an immense power in the particular. It’s a great paradox in literature, that the more the writer succeeds in expressing the specific, unique details of her experience, of her story, the more universal and affecting her story will be to the reader. That is the true beauty of this text, that Maggie Nelson has managed to depict all the world, not in a grain of sand, but in a color.

Other thoughts and resources:

 

Book Notes: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


Jacqueline Woodson’s newest book Brown Girl Dreaming tells the narrative of her childhood through a collection of poems. Woodson has won numerous awards for the work of her prolific writing career, and Brown Girl Dreaming is a finalist for the National Book Award. Here, Woodson sketches a thoughtful portrait of a herself as a girl, figuring out the world, becoming a person, and becoming a writer.

The first poems are set in Ohio, where Woodson is born. Just a year or so later, her mother takes her and two older siblings to live with her own parents in Greenville, South Carolina. Woodson’s mother tells her children, “We’re only halfway home.” She knows they won’t stay there; many of her family and friends have already moved to New York City, and that’s where they head, too.

The book deals in large part with the notion of home, a difficult one for Jackie and her siblings. Woodson imagines her mother, standing in the middle of a road, stretching her arms toward both North and South, and this is how Woodson herself is for the majority of the book. During summers in South Carolina, where the Civil Rights movement gains momentum, Woodson’s Northern speech and mannerisms differentiate her and her siblings from the other children. In New York, she longs for the beauty and richness of life with her grandparents down South.

Family is the defining element of Woodson’s childhood.  The love she feels from her mother, grandparents, and extended family tethers her, protects her, and makes her strong. Much of who she is, from physical traits like the gap between her teeth to her love of telling stories, she traces back to her family. They also give Woodson the strength to be different, to find her own path, to pursue her passion for writing. Watching her brother sing in a school concert, young Jackie revels in the realization that each of us has a unique brilliance. Her brilliance, she knows, is words.

As a child, Jackie announces that she’s going to be a writer. She cherishes an empty notebook, learns by mimicking greats like Langston Hughes, writes songs, and binds her own book of poetry. Like home and the love of her family, writing makes her feel powerful. She sees early on that writing is a gift, and a key.

These are the first of Woodson’s poems that I’ve read, and I enjoy them just as much as I enjoy her beautiful prose. Some of these poems are vignettes, some descriptions, and some just ideas, like the poem “how to listen #7:”

Even the silence

has a story to tell you.

Just listen. Listen.

One of my favorite poems tells of the warm nights when Jackie and her siblings sit as quietly as they can, listening to the adults tell stories. They’re careful to be invisible, because as soon as the adults remember their presence, they’ll be sent away from the grown-up talk. In their bed later, Jackie repeats the stories aloud, over and over, until well after her siblings are asleep. Woodson’s writing reminds me of the awe we have as children, the hush and magic in moments as simple as whispering to your best friends in the dark. Through writing Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson recreates that magic, and allows us to go back there with her.

This is a wonderful book for children in upper grades and beyond, particularly those children who love reading and writing stories. They’re likely to be inspired to pick up an empty notebook and start filling it. I know I am.

Continuing Education


I’ve been thinking about an MFA a lot lately, and not just because it’s something that I can’t have. Since moving to Portland, I frequently daydream about creative writing programs because I’m struggling to build my community. In New York, I knew people who would read my work, critique it, and support it. Here in Portland, I barely know any kind of people, much less writerly people. I’m building a local community slowly, brick by brick. But it’d sure be a lot easier with an MFA program.

Another reason that I think about an MFA more often these days is that, as I become more serious about my writing, I become more aware of what I do not know, and hungrier to expand my knowledge of writer’s craft. Always a voracious reader, now I’m reading with heightened attention to the writer’s choices. And, while I consider myself well read, there are major gaps in my reading experience. An MFA would help me fill those gaps, certainly. But, in this, too, I’m going to have to go it alone, at least for now.

So, I’m putting together a syllabus. It’s a work in progress. I call it Shannon’s DIY MFA, the beginner knitting project of the literary world. Despite the dropped stitches, I think it has a certain homemade charm.

My syllabus could use a little rounding out, and I’d like it to have at least twelve books. It could probably use a little male-ness for comparison’s sake (though, with all the syllabi that have suffered a lack of female-ness, I’d much rather have this problem). It’s a hodge-podge of a few books that I’ve always wanted to read, plus a few books I think I should read, plus one book (Austen’s) that I would like to read again, with the writing central in my mind.

Poetry
Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Short Stories
Bluets, by Maggie Nelson
Boysgirls, by Katie Farris
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer

Novels
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte