Such is Life

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My family tree produces more than its share of nuts, but there are also some wonderful characters and stories there.  I use them sometimes; but really, there are just too many.  I could write for a whole long lifetime and never get around to using half the available material.

My paternal grandmother’s life alone would make a shelf of novels.  Born in Pomerania, she came to the US—alone—at fifteen to join an older sister and brother-in-law in Wisconsin.  They had a business there (what kind, I don’t know) and according to my grandmother, worked her like a slave.

Her brother-in-law took advantage of her in other ways, too.  When she was seventeen, my grandmother had a child by him.  Her sister was either indifferent to the state of affairs, or possibly even relieved to have someone to share the burden of her husband’s demands.  The sister adopted the child as her own, and the situation continued as before.

When my grandmother was pregnant by her brother-in-law for the second time, she ran away to Chicago and lost herself among the large numbers of Polish immigrants whose neighborhood was centered on the Polish Catholic Basilica of St. Hyacinth.  A local priest introduced her to Joseph, a more recent immigrant from the same small village my grandmother had come from.  Joe was lonely, and looking for a wife.  The couple were wed just as soon as the banns had been posted.

It wasn’t until after they were married that my grandmother revealed that she was already carrying another man’s child.  To her surprise, her new husband was undismayed.  Babies were always a blessing, he said.

A story with a happy ending—unless I chose to continue it.

The marriage was an unhappy one.  The hastily-wed couple were ill-suited to one another.  My grandfather frequently said that when “the old woman” was dead, he would dance on her grave; and when the time came, he would have, too—except that by then he was too old and too feeble to dance.  The couple had twelve children, but buried six of them; interestingly, the daughter who was technically not his own was always my grandfather’s favorite.  My father and his siblings grew up not knowing that their mother had ever lived in Wisconsin, far less that they had a half-sibling there—until the daughter of that sibling (my grandmother’s first grandchild) wrote one day, apparently in a fit of adolescent pique at her mother, to inform them.

Though Grandma had long since quarreled with, and left, the Catholic Church, the shame of what she had been told there was her “sin” in “submitting” (at fifteen!) to abuse by an older man in an unfamiliar country was as sharp as ever, and the family, suddenly confronted by this new information, was thrown into chaos.

In the midst of it, my grandmother had a stroke.  Her devout older children (her younger children—my father, for one—had followed their mother out of the church), kept the priest who came to administer Extreme Unction waiting in a hospital corridor until they were certain their mother was unconscious.

Three years later, my grandfather died.  He was buried—not immediately adjacent to his wife of fifty years, but with the tiny graves of two Joseph, Jr.’s intervening.

“To keep them from fighting,” my father told me.

 

Writing Is Harder than Reading (Just Ask Charlemagne)

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At Runnymede in 1215, King John of England did NOT sign Magna Carta.  He couldn’t.  He didn’t know how to write.  (He affixed his seal to the document instead.)

The great Charlemagne couldn’t write either.  In his later, post-conquering-most-of-Europe-and-making-Christian-conversions-by-slaughter years, Charlemagne took an active interest in all branches of learning. But after his death, his former mathematics teacher, Einhard, reported that though Charlemagne even kept a tablet under his pillow to practice writing when he couldn’t sleep at night, he never mastered the skill.  Since Einhard doesn’t say that Charlemagne never mastered reading either, I think we can assume that Charlemagne could read—and that, given the size of King John’s personal library, that King John could probably read, too.

I’ve been reading up on the subject, and it turns out that to contemporaries of the two kings, for them to be able to read but not write wouldn’t have appeared at all unusual.

Until quite modern times, it turns out, reading and writing weren’t studied concurrently. Reading came first, and most students left the schoolroom before they advanced beyond that.  Those who continued their education learned first to write numbers, not the alphabet.  To be able to keep simple accounts on paper (or, earlier, parchment) was much more useful than to be able to write words, since there was always a handy clerk or something around who could take dictation.

Only a student who persevered for years learned to write at all; and no one but a scholar was expected to do more than to copy someone else’s words.  (Books of paradigms for letters, and even simple sermons, were widely sold.)  A person was called “literate” who could sign his or her own name*; and to be able to produce an original work was a mark of an uncommon level of educational attainment.

Since I learned to read and write simultaneously (and in my mind, they’ve always appeared inseparable), this seems very strange to me.  After some thought, I’ve decided it’s analogous with the way that most people can reproduce—with voice or a musical instrument—a tune that they hear; some have learned to read other people’s notes; but only a relative few can actually compose original music.

In fact, now that I’ve written that down, I really like the music analogy.  For one thing, as far as I know it’s mine, which prejudices me in its favor; and for another thing, it makes me feel like Mozart.  –Okay, not the Mozart of the “Requiem”, more like in his “Twinkle, Twinkle” days; but Mozart nonetheless.

It also makes me feel better about the fact that the other day I caught myself making an egregious error in simple subject-verb agreement in something that I wrote.  In the past, a mistake like that would have embarrassed me very much.  This time I just said to myself, “Not everyone is born a Mozart!” and let it go.

 


*Check out this 1867 report from Britain on literacy among the poor, in which “able to read” and “can produce a simple signature” are separately noted; or this 1902 bulletin from the Department of Labor which has columns labelled “Able to read and write,” “Able to read,” and “Illiterate.”

Me & You & Mary Sue

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that how to write must be one of the most difficult things in the world to learn in a classroom setting.  —At least, I never learned anything about writing that way, and I went to school for many more years than the law actually requires, and took a lot of writing classes.  To their credit, quite a few of my writing teachers admitted this.  “The only way to learn to write is to do it,” they’d say.  And if they’d been more honest, they would have added, “But just in case some really pointed and brutal criticism of your efforts is also helpful, I’m going to give you a lot of that, too.”

This was bad while I was in school, since it amounted to me paying large amounts of money to hear my writing disparaged to my face; but it’s been great since I graduated.  Whereas I not only ceased to learn any more mathematics once I got out of the classroom, but actually forgot everything I ever knew including how to calculate a tip in a restaurant, my writing has gradually, steadily, improved.  In school, I wrote every day, and I have continued to write almost every day since; but I only do math when I have to.

People who generally prefer math—e.g., everybody I live and work with—tell me they want to improve their writing, too, but are stopped by the fact that, unlike with mathematics, there aren’t any books full of problems for them to practice on.  They would write, they tell me, if they only knew what to write about. They seem to view plots as analogous to equations, and want a page of them to solve.

There’s something in that viewpoint, I guess.

I admit that I don’t really understand why they can’t come up with as many plots as they want all by themselves, though.  As far as I’m concerned, plots are the easiest thing in the world.  When all I want is some practice writing, I just rewrite scenes from my life—a short-cut that provides me with not only a plot, but also a protagonist and a setting, all ready-made.  Then I can get straight into the much-harder work of describing them.

At first in retelling a story, I frequently succumbed to the temptation to turn myself into a species of Mary Sue*.  There’s nothing wrong with “improving” on reality a little, I guess; but I got bored with being a hero all the time, and now I actually appreciate how my occasional social ineptitude provides me with many excellent opportunities to portray humiliation (self-inflicted), and regret instead.  (Life supplies plenty of material for scenes of hurt and loss without any help from me.)

And it’s therapeutic, too.  I don’t know for sure, but I doubt I would ever say the same about working a partial differential equation.


*For any who don’t already know it, a Mary Sue (as defined by Wikipedia) is “an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert or wish-fulfillment.”  If you have written a novel in which the protagonist is just like you, only better in every way, you have written a Mary Sue.  Enjoy your work—but do not share it.  Especially do not share it with me.

Writing in the First Person

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I’m deep into writing another book—a sequel to Ant-Lands.  This is by popular request.  “Honey, write a sequel to Ant-Lands,” was a popular request of my husband’s.  I don’t usually read sequels myself, having formed an unfavorable opinion of them when I was six years old and wasted a week of my young life on the insipid Heidi Grows Up; but I feel like I owe my husband something for being my most faithful and supportive reader.  He once compared my work favorably to that of Joseph Conrad, his own preferred author, and though I don’t believe for a moment that he really thinks I’m in Conrad’s class, the memory of his heroic attempt to sound sincere when he said it is something I will always treasure.

Just to make a change from Ant-Lands, which was written in the third person, I’m writing the sequel in the first person.  I admit to feeling a certain hesitance about this—not because I don’t like writing in the first person (witness this blog), but because I’m haunted by a remark from a friend concerning the first-person point of view.

Her name was Julie, and Julie had given up reading a novel written in the first person because, she reported, it confused her.  She said, “The book kept saying, ‘I did this; and then I did that’; and I kept thinking, ‘no I didn’t!’”

Now, I have never had this problem.  In the same circumstances, if my brain says anything, it says, “Yeah, I totally did do that, and lots more!”; but are there many Julies out there?  By writing in the first person, am I taking a chance on limiting my future sales?

Julie and I are eager to hear from anyone who has more information on this important topic.