Religiousness

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My mother didn’t give me a lot of useful advice.  That is, she gave me plenty of advice—but it wasn’t necessarily useful.  She told me not to put bananas in the refrigerator (which was good to know), but also that white shoes and straw hats must not be worn after Labor Day, and furthermore that one’s shoes must always be darker than one’s hemline.  I have no quarrel with the white shoes/hemline things because I never wear white; but Mom also informed me that a lady never wears diamonds before 4 pm, or a wristwatch after, which means that a lady who is lucky enough to have scored a diamond-studded Rolex can never wear it.  My mother wasn’t young when I was born—she was the age of most of my friends’ grandmothers—and I think some of her dicta may have been a wee bit out of date.  Anyway, I’m a woman, not a lady, and stand on my right to do as I please with regard to diamonds.

I am, however, in perfect agreement with her about one thing:  Religion and politics are not good topics for social conversation.

This conviction makes it just a little bit awkward for me that the third and final question that my English-language students almost invariably ask me is, “Why are Americans so religious?”

I say “almost,” because in fact, the Asian students I’ve interacted with never ask this.  What they know of American culture is what’s penetrated the filter of their own home-culture; and American religion mostly doesn’t penetrate the filter.  They see American-style Christianity all around them, and don’t recognize it.  An Asian student who had been in America for four years was amazed to discover that the figures in the Christmas crèche represented The Holy Family, rather than just “a family.”  It’s the European students who are curious about American religion.

The reasons Americans appear to be more religious than Europeans (I don’t quite concede that they actually are more religious, but they may seem that way) are many and varied, and since I love history and particularly the history of my own country, I think I could probably expatiate on them for several hours.

But I don’t.

For one thing, these are students of biochemistry, not history, and a lecture like that would bore them to death.  For another, to talk about religion at all would be as unsuitable as to wear that lovely fancy diamond-studded Rolex watch that I don’t own either before or, regrettably, even after four in the afternoon.

But it would be rude not to answer them at all, so I just look ‘em in the eye and I say, “Americans are religious because our country was founded by the people YOU drove out of your country for being too religious.

“Now, let’s get back to the proper use of the passive voice, shall we?”

I Must Show out a Flag and Sign of Love

flg_medOnce the international students that I tutor are satisfied that they understand why Americans eat so much meat (because we can!), they start asking me harder questions. And by harder, I mean things that are even trickier to answer than whether the entire English language contains even one verb that isn’t, in some way, irregular (answer: “ah—define irregular”). These are bright, educated, and very thoughtful young people, and their questions are deeply reasoned, and felt. They’re also quite varied (only the one about meat is of near-universal interest), but there are two others besides the one about meat that come up repeatedly.

One is why Americans are so enthusiastically, openly, obviously, and even (let’s face it) sometimes almost comically patriotic (“U-S-A!  U-S-A!”), and at the same time, so hypercritical of their country?

The first fifty times I was asked this, I really had no answer to give. I wasn’t even willing to concede that the inferences of the question were true. World-wide, I’d usually counter, most people love their native land. They love it the same way they love their mother; which is to say, a lot, and despite all her faults and failings, to which they are not blind. It’s just natural. Americans aren’t unique in this regard.

But I travel quite a bit (mostly in Europe), and I’ve even lived abroad; and after a while I came to the conclusion that the students had a point. (This is why I love it when the students ask me questions. I learn so much that way!) Go to a window in almost any European country and look out, and count the national flags that you see. Unless your room overlooks a souvenir shop, or it happens to be a national holiday, you won’t see many. But in the US, nearly every public building and many private homes fly the American flag every day. Cars sport window-flags, and patriotic bumper-stickers; houses are furnished with star-spangled throw-pillows and the birds in the garden are offered wooden replicas of the Statue of Liberty to nest in (I desperately want one of those; either that, or an Uncle Sam whirligig). I lived for years in a city where the local symphony orchestra—no matter what else was on the program—began every performance with a rendition of the national anthem.

It’s not that I haven’t seen comparable patriotic displays in other countries. I have. But not so many.

The conclusion that I’ve come to about all this is very much like the one I arrived at regarding the American passion for Meat. Our patriotism isn’t genetic, exactly. But it has been passed down through the generations.

The international students who are amazed by our flag-worship are the offspring of generations of people who, overall, had pretty good lives in their native countries. People who have it good someplace stay there. Nobody forsakes everything and goes off to live in a foreign country to do menial work and struggle with the irregular verbs of a new language on a whim.

Americans are the children of people who didn’t have it so good in the Old Country. People for whom America represented a chance—possibly the only chance—for a significant improvement in their quality of life. Consequently they were predisposed to like America before they had even arrived; and if they did prosper, and stayed and raised families here (thirty to fifty percent—depending on which source you read—of those who arrived on the immigrant ships went back home again), they taught their children that America was a great place, entirely worthy of incessant flag-waving, laudatory speeches and “Proud to Be an American” bumper-stickers which, unless you’re a naturalized citizen, make no sense whatever. (Your parents may be proud of their foresight in choosing to give birth to you in American; but, as a fetus, you yourself had little or no say in the decision.)

I don’t need to say any more than this to them before the international students tell me they suddenly understand why Americans are both hyper-patriotic and yet also very critical of their country. No country, they speculate, could possibly continue for subsequent generations to live up to the rosy picture of it painted for them by their parents and grandparents, who had exchanged a bleak existence for one full of promise.

Either that, or it’s something in American water. I lived abroad for two years. I loved every moment of it, and my existence throughout was anything but bleak. Yet I couldn’t wait to get back, fly the flag, eat a hot dog, and I always get a lump in my throat when a band plays the national anthem.

Where’s the Beef?

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I don’t know what they’re teaching young people in other countries about American culture, but whatever it is, I think it must be wrong. The international students that I tutor all appear to be suffering from a high degree of culture-shock. As soon as I’ve worked with them just long enough that they’ve begun to feel comfortable with me (which, coincidentally, is just about the time that I introduce them to the indicative perfect, “have begun”) they announce that America is not at all what they expected it to be, and the questions start pouring out.

These questions, like the students’ difficulties with English verbs, are specific to their particular home cultures. Students from more authoritarian countries want to know why Americans are so lawless; the ones from the Netherlands ask me why Americans are so excessively law-abiding. Honestly, that one makes me wonder how the Netherlands even continues to exist. A lot of them are stunned to find out—often the hard way—that things like the “No Parking” signs around campus are meant to be taken seriously. I’m asked the same things over and over again, year after year, except that in the past decade the sheepish inquiries about how Americans signal sexual attraction have really tapered off. I guess I must look too old now to be a good source of information on that topic.

There are three things about Americans that all of the students, from every culture, want to know—and one thing that only one student has ever wanted to know, which was if I was afraid of Mormons. Yes, Mormons; and yes, afraid. Never did figure out where that came from.

Anyway—as I mentioned, there are three characteristics of American culture that preoccupy all my tutees, and the first one is:

Why do Americans eat so much meat?

So far I’ve been asked this question 4,652 times, and never once, as far as I can tell, in a disapproving manner. In fact, the point is most apt to be raised at one of the semi-annual lab barbeques my husband and I host at our house, where the foreign students watch, awestricken and envious, as the Americans heap their plates with beef, pork, and chicken, and afterwards never have to wonder whether they made the right choice among the meats.

“How do they do it?” the international students ask, and the correct answer to this question (which I supply) is that it’s genetic. America was settled by people who loved meat, and we are their descendants. If you have ever read—as I have—the letters early immigrants wrote back to their various Old Countries, you will have noticed—as I have—that aside from a little family news, they’re simply catalogues of Meat the Said Immigrants Have Eaten; Meat They Are Currently Chewing; and Meat They Happily Anticipate Eating Very Soon. It’s like a sick obsession. Meat was apparently available in American in a way that it just wasn’t elsewhere; and meat-lovers couldn’t stop talking about how good—in regard to meat, at least—they had it here.

And then those letters motivated other meat-lovers to immigrate to America too; and pretty soon the whole continent was filled up with humanity’s most avid carnivores.

(I also tell the students that quite a lot of the meat the immigrants bragged about eating was game that they’d shot themselves, which probably goes a long way toward explaining why Americans are gun-crazy, too.)

The next time I write a novel about early America, I’m going to put a lot more hunting and meat-eating into it to provide that nice little touch of historical veracity that divides the ordinary historical work from the one an editor is going to demand big changes to. Editors are not interested in history; they are interested in sales. I wrote a novel once about the 1830s wife of a Congregationalist minister, and an editor informed me that the book was basically great, but would be much more commercial if she wasn’t religious. I’m not bitter or anything, but this is why I self-publish.

After we’ve dealt with the meat issue, the students and I then move on to the two other burning questions they all have about America; but I’ll leave those for another time.  The only thing I’ll say for now is that, happily, questions two and three have nothing to do with food.

Simplify, Simplify

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Sometimes when I need cheering up, I remind myself that I’m one of the lucky few in this world who is able to make my living doing what I love—writing.

Of course, it’s stretching a point to refer to what I make as a “living”; and it’s also not absolutely true that, in the course of an average working day, I actually get to write very much.  Mostly my job consists of re-writing what other people have written.  I also fill out a lot of paperwork, because much paperwork must be filled out before anything, from a major scientific breakthrough to changing a lightbulb, can take place at a university.  But still, I like my job, and I wouldn’t change it for anything that paid less than three times as well.

Okay; two times as well.

I work with biochemists (and biochemistry trainees), and, as I think I’ve mentioned, I’m also married to a biochemist, so I think I may state with some authority that the reputation biochemists have for being highly intelligent beings is generally well-deserved.  Their reputation for being incurably nerdy and somewhat absent-minded is also well-deserved; but I’m not going to get into that now.  My point is that they’re as bright a group of people as you will ever find, and like most really intelligent people, they usually write pretty well.

But as English becomes, more and more, the international language of science (and I think it could be argued that it is becoming simply the international language), a new, sub-dialect of Scientific English is evolving, and part of my job—my favorite part—is to translate regular Scientific English into this new dialect.

I learned this dialect in part by doing another of my little jobs around the lab, which is to correct the written English of the international students.

The difficulties the students have are specific to their nationalities.  Chinese students have terrible problems with verbs.  In speaking, some of them actually try to avoid them altogether (not recommended), or consistently use a single, particular verb-form—usually, for some reason, the present participle.  Nearly all of them have trouble distinguishing between an actual verb and a noun derived from a verb.  I let “we mixing the reagents,” or “I rotation the test-tube,” pass in conversation, but when the students bring me drafts of scientific papers they intend to submit, I know I have a duty to do.  Luckily, clarity is everything in a scientific paper, and style is nothing, so I’ve decided the Chinese students can live without the pluperfect.

Europeans have difficulties understanding the fine differences in meaning conveyed by the use of the definite rather than the indefinite article; students from the Middle East resist using articles at all.  “Such thing have no purpose,” an Iranian gravely informed me.  (She had trouble with her verb endings, too.)  The entire French nation apparently nurses a stubborn conviction that the word “information” should be plural.  “This informations was new to the investigator,” French students blithely write; and then they resist me when I demand that they change it.  (I avoid arguments by endorsing the use of alternate terms, such as “fact”.)  To a Russian, a double negative makes, not a positive, but a particularly emphatic negative.  (Russians also like the word “informations” a lot, though not as much as the French.)  All of them mistake slang for Standard English, which gives their papers a casual breeziness that reviewers absolutely hate.

Then after I’ve worked on the international students’ papers, I take what I’ve learned and apply it to the scientific papers written by the lab’s native speakers of English.  World-wide, many scientific journals are now published in English only.  Consequently it’s necessary, when writing papers for submission to these journals, to keep in mind that English isn’t the first language of most of the people who will read it.  Years ago, when I first started at the university, I combed draft papers principally for slang, idiom, and (in those pre-Spell-Check days) typos.  Now I flag unusual words, and simplify complex grammatical structures for the benefit of non-native speakers.

I haven’t quite resigned myself to changing my own writing style, though.  I probably should.  With the decline of the corner bookstore and the rise of Amazon-style world-wide book distribution, the more generally comprehensible a book’s style and vocabulary, the more likely it will be widely read.  Unlike many other writers, I have the experience necessary to take advantage of this.

I’ve been thinking, in fact, that given that there are over one and a half billion people in China, I should probably write specifically for the Chinese market.  I’ll write a book with a suitably Socialist plot—comrade gets girl; comrade studies Mao’s aphorisms with girl; comrade loses girl—and without any verbs at all.  It’ll be a smash.

Why Can’t Things Ever Be Simple?

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I like to read period literature.  –Not the stuff that gets anthologized and reprinted from age to age.  That stuff is mostly whatever the anthologists think is least likely to offend modern sensibilities.  It doesn’t necessarily reflect the attitudes of ordinary people of the time.  I like to read the ephemera.  Forgettable novels and cheesy magazine articles are full of insights into what people like me, people who were not necessarily great and lucid thinkers, once really believed.

A lot of times I find things in period writing that I don’t like very much.  Even after reading a lot of it, the intolerant religiosity of the western world in the nineteenth century sometimes still shocks me.  Writers whose portraits depict sweetly-smiling old ladies in mourning bonnets have no trouble consigning most of humankind to eternal damnation for the sin of not being the right sort of Christian.

Sort of reminds me of something—I can’t think what—that I read in the papers just recently…

Sometimes I find funny things.  I own at least two hundred articles and pamphlets, spanning two hundred years, outlining (in the blackest terms imaginable) what the authors imagine will be the dire and inevitable consequence to women of (among many, many other things) speaking in church or in public; taking payment for nursing the sick; becoming schoolteachers; using a telephone or riding a bicycle; voting; shortening their skirts or their hair; or serving in the military as (underpaid) “auxiliaries.”

The hilarious thing is that—in contrast to the poor record of futurists in general—the writers of these articles were absolutely correct in almost everything they prophesied!  Talkative, employed, short-haired, trousered women really didn’t continue to find their ultimate fulfillment in home, family, and a position of perpetual dependency.  (Men still find women attractive, though.  The extinction of the race due to the lack of the motivation a delicate silk gown provides to men to perform their generative duties is one prediction that has definitely not come true.  –Also, nobody foresaw the tattoos.  Ever.)

And sometimes in ephemera, I find things that make me nostalgic, and kind of sad.

This weekend I was reading a Nero Wolfe mystery that came out in 1965.  In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed in an effort to end attempts to deny African-Americans their legitimate rights and responsibilities as Americans.  Though that Act isn’t specifically mentioned in the story, the consciousness of it pervades the book.

The plot is a very common one:  A woman is found murdered, and her fiancé is suspected of the crime.  The complication, the topical detail that makes Nero Wolfe agree to take the case, is that the woman is white; and the fiancé, African-American.  The father of the fiancé, in fact, admiringly quotes a speech Nero Wolfe once gave to a group of African-American men—meant to be stirring, but to modern ears, bombastic and more than a little condescending—urging them to be better and more just than their oppressors.  With hindsight, I can just imagine how such a speech would really have been received.

The rest of the story is formulaic.  (Or at least, it is now.  It might have seemed more original at the time.)  Racist attitudes are openly expressed by the ignorant and evil; while the educated and/or well-meaning say things like, “When I consider myself superior to anyone, as I frequently do, I need a better reason than his skin.”  The problems of the two families, white and black, exactly mirror one another; as do, apparently, their life experiences.  The accused’s father is a professor of anthropology.  If he encountered any racist barriers in his rise to that eminence—and modern readers know that he did—it isn’t mentioned.  Once certain legal disabilities have been done away with, the book implies, the problem of racism in America will be solved, because black Americans will quickly become identical with the white mainstream American “us”.

Back when the book was written, I believed that, too.  I’m embarrassed to remember that now.

It’s been fifty years, and we’re still regrettably racist in this country.  But we have made some progress, I think.  Few of us believe anymore that there’s a single “us” for all the “theys” to turn into, for one thing.  That was an important insight.  America has been a multicultural society from the first, and success for a multicultural society doesn’t lie in somehow ceasing to be multicultural.  Nero Wolfe was good at solving crimes, and I envy his success with orchids (a pink Vanda!)—but in some ways, he was also just so awfully naïve.

I learn a lot of good lessons from reading ephemeral writings, such as that the longer-standing the injustice, the more intractable and elusive the remedy for it; that the degree of hysteria a societal change engenders isn’t necessarily proportional to the issue’s actual importance (oceans of ink were once expended in a futile effort to persuade men not to bring down Western Civilization by adopting the newfangled style of buttoning their trousers at the front, rather than at the side); and that solutions to one problem usually create a bunch of new problems.

And now, thanks to a Nero Wolfe novel, I also know to write only fantasy, or something set in the distant past.  Sure, topical is popular; topical is commercial—but unless you possess a crystal ball (I do not), at every stroke of the pen you risk—fifty years on—looking like a fool.

Life-Blights, Elves, and Al Capone

al-caponeMy mother had a cousin I’ll call Ann, and Ann was very odd.  Many of my mother’s relatives were odd, in fact, and some of them were flat-out crazy; but since Ann’s principal peculiarity was that she was habitually silent and withdrawn, she was actually one of the easier family members to have around and as a child I saw quite a lot of her.  In a time when successful day-to-day living required a certain amount of interaction with other human beings, Ann couldn’t live alone (today she’d probably do everything online and be just fine), but she knew how to sew and made a modest living doing alterations in a tailor shop, so she moved from house to house among her relatives, staying with each for as long as they could bear her brooding presence hovering at the edges of the family circle.  Ann never, that I saw, actually looked directly at anyone; but if you happened to look at her, you could see that she hated you.

My mother said all the hate was because Ann had suffered a Life-Blighting Disappointment in her formative years.  According to Mom, a spirit-crushing blow often caused a sensitive soul (Ann was a sensitive soul) to go straight around the bend.

I was afraid for years to find out what Ann’s disappointment had actually been.  I thought that just hearing about it might crush my soul, too.  But eventually I asked, and my mother gravely explained that as a very young girl, Ann had entered a magazine-sponsored story-writing contest—which she won.  The judges were impressed with her work, and said nice things; and Ann and her mother took the train to Chicago to have her picture taken with them.

Unfortunately, when the judges saw how young Ann was, they refused to believe that she could really have written the story herself.  They gave the prize to the runner-up story instead, and published it in their magazine.

A sad, sad tale—with a sequel.

The sequel is that years later, my mother showed me Ann’s story, found among her things when she died.  I was impressed by Ann’s wonderful penmanship, which was like lace; but by the story—not so much.  It concerned a wedding among the adorable little elfs in Elf-land (this was before Tolkien gave us the plural elves), and was sugary enough to cause tooth decay.

It was also not original, as I discovered ten years or so later when I was leafing through some turn-of-the-20th-century magazines.  I came across a children’s story—charmingly illustrated—about a wedding among the adorable little fairies in Fairy-land.

Yep.  Same story.

In what may have been the first game of Mad-Libs ever played, Ann had gone through “The Fairy’s Wedding” and changed fairies to elves, moonbeams to sunbeams, nouns to other nouns, and verbs to other verbs.  If the fairies wore pink, the elves wore blue.  If they frolicked, the elves skipped.  If they ate fairy-cake and drank dew, Ann’s more adventurous elves ate ice-cream and drank hop-beer.  The judges had presumably rescinded Ann’s prize not because of her age, but because somewhere between the announcement of the contest winner and Ann’s arrival in Chicago, they became aware that “The Elf’s Wedding” had been cribbed from a story published only three years before in a rival magazine.

After I finished laughing my ass off, the story of Ann’s Great Disappointment suggested to me—yes—a plot for a novel.

I’ve been thinking for years of writing about the struggles of another relative of mine—another distant cousin—during the Great Depression.  I know a lot about the Great Depression.  Both of my parents graduated from high school in 1929, and for the rest of their lives, they talked about the Great Depression all the time.  As a kid, I got very sick of the topic (“Eat your vegetables.  Why, in the 30s we couldn’t afford nice vegetables like that!”), but it provided me with a wealth of potential material.

And I always had an interest in this particular cousin anyway, because aside from the unfortunate Ann, she was the only member of the family besides me who ever wanted to be a writer.  Actually, what Relative wanted was to be solvent.  Writing articles for local publications helped with that.

Relative and her husband had a new baby and a new house when the Depression hit—a house they could no longer afford, but that Relative was determined not to lose.  In 1931, when her husband left for parts unknown (so that, with no man in the house, Relative could qualify for what was known as “Relief”), she moved with the baby into the house’s unfinished attic and rented out the rooms below to boarders.  She cooked and cleaned for them (and herself and the baby, of course), and the work was hard and not always safe (a drunken boarder once attempted to break through the attic door in the night), but she’d have done anything, my mother told me, to keep her house.

Anything?

Would she have written—porn?

So here’s my plot:  Armed with a volume of 1930s porn—left by a lodger, perhaps—Relative plays Ann’s Mad-lib game, churning out pornography full of exotic new euphemisms (1930s porn was all euphemisms) that titillate a jaded readership.

So far so good.  But would she have told her husband, I wonder?  Confided in her mother?  Would she have been introduced through her work into strange—and perhaps, broadening—new social circles?  How about my own mother’s brief, innocent brush with Al Capone?  She had no idea who the “chubby Italian man” she’d been speaking to was until afterward.  Can I use that?

Of course, then—as now—to play the Mad-Libs game with somebody else’s work was illegal, unethical, and a just plain rotten thing to do.  But I’m guessing that a nice suburban lady who finds herself writing pornography at a time when pornography is not only illegal but deeply, deeply sinful would have things beyond the ethical niceties of the situation on her mind.

I can’t wait to see how the story turns out.

A Rant

dollI’m about half-through with the novel I’m working on, so I figure it’s time I started thinking about a plot for the next.  This time, I’m going to write a serious work.  A very serious work.  You get no love from the critics, I find, if you’re not deadly, deadly serious.

It’s going to be about a marriage.

I’m a bit of an authority on marriage, having personally been married for many years myself; but the marriage in my book isn’t going to be like mine, because the woman in my book isn’t going to be like me.  She’s going to be pretty, for one thing.  And she’s going to be one of those people-pleasing types.  The kind who greases the axles of society and make the wheels of the world go ‘round—sometimes for everybody but themselves.

The person she wants to please most, of course, is her husband, because she loves him.  (I’m unsure as to whether I should include a few of the men she loved and wanted to please before she got married, or whether I should just start with the husband.  I’ll think about that.)  He’s not easy to please, either—though of course, like everybody, he thinks he is.  He’s picky about his food and his clothes and how often, and under what circumstances, he visits his mother; but these are all things with which my protagonist (I’ll call her Eve) can deal.

The matter of Eve’s personal appearance—in which Hubby demonstrates a consuming interest—is more problematic.

Hubby expects her to shave her legs and armpits, of course.  Hair grows there naturally, we assume for some good reason, on Hubby as well as Eve; but Eve must shave hers in order to be desirable.  Shaving results in stubble, however; and Hubby doesn’t like stubble, unless it’s his own—which, every day after about 5pm, it usually is.  Eventually she has her legs and arms waxed, instead—a process which causes her considerable pain.  It is also expensive.  Eve’s pubic hair, too, must be carefully groomed.  Hubby likes this.

He also likes Eve to be thin.  Quite thin.  Diet-all-the-time thin.  The kind of thin that makes lush breasts unlikely.  Hubby likes lush breasts.  Clever Eve has false ones implanted.

She also speaks in well-modulated tones, so as not to threaten Hubby’s sense of manly dominance, and strives to walk gracefully in shoes that hurt her feet, but make her legs look good.  She is careful to sit properly in dresses that, were she careless, would show off body parts that are for Hubby’s private viewing.

All the waxing and the implants and the hurty shoes (also the hair and the make-up and the juice cleanses and so on and so forth forever and ever amen) are expensive; and Eve wishes she were paid more at her job.  Unfortunately, no one takes a woman who has shaved and dieted and dressed herself to look like a child with large breasts seriously, and she is passed over for several promotions.

Then comes the story’s big finish.

I’m of two minds about the finish.  One part of me wants a sad, message-y ending:  One day Eve gets old, and all the primping and shaving in the world can’t make her look like a girl again.  Hubby’s eye—and other parts—wander, and the marriage ends in divorce.

The other part of me wants a happy, message-y ending:  One day Eve says, “You know what?  That’s enough.”  She goes feral—or anyway as feral as Hubby, whom everyone regards as a perfectly normal member of civilized society despite having hair and a certain amount of body-fat—and to her surprise, Hubby says, “But you’ll still sleep with me, right?  You will?  Okay; cool!”

And they live happily ever after.

Plotting to Have a Life

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It has been pointed out to me that I’m not the most ambitious human being in the world.  Aside from my powerful and unaccountable drive to produce and perfect unpublishable novels (I get up early and stay up late to write them), “good enough” is always good enough for me.  Ask me where I see myself in five years, and I’m prone to blurt idiotically, “Why?  What’ve you got in mind?” because other than to spend as many hours as possible per day writing, I have no clear-cut goal in life beyond a general desire to enjoy it.  In consequence of my lackadaisical attitude, my lifetime accomplishments so far can be numbered on the fingers of one hand—fewer, if you don’t count the time I qualified for a First Aid badge by accident because I was too embarrassed to admit that I’d wandered into the wrong room at Red Cross headquarters.

My daughter says I may need a Life Coach.

Other than to spend as many hours as possible per day writing, I have no clear-cut goal in life beyond a general desire to enjoy it

As I have hinted, I’m old, and frankly a little out of things.  The concept of requiring coaching to be able eat, sleep, breathe and, occasionally, to think—the activities, as I see it, that distinguish the living from the dead—is a new  one to me.  But I asked around, and sure enough, it turned out that one of my friends actually had a Life Coach at one time.  She told me all about it.

Coaching sessions, she says, began with her coach spritzing the room with a perfume mist chosen from a selection with names like “impetus” and “inspiration.”  This was to stimulate dormant or underperforming parts of her brain, which are, apparently, very susceptible to perfume.  The spritzing accomplished, the coach would then carefully question my friend to determine what her life goals were, and exactly what she would and would not be willing to give up to achieve them.  After six weeks of this exploration, Life Coach and Friend together drew up a Life Plan, a road-map that would guide her by the least-objectionable route her to her goals.  The whole process cost $1200.

“Worth every penny,” Friend assures me.

And I’m sure it was.  She’s been very successful.

I don’t have $1200 that I care to spend on a Life Coach, but I do love to plot novels, so I came up with an alternate idea and I like it so well that I’m going to recommend it to everyone.  I think we should all write ourselves—not Life Plans—but Life Plots.

I’ll start mine by summarizing my life story so far.  After all, what has already transpired has significance for what is still to come.  And I’ll be honest about it all, too—but brief.  This doesn’t need to be like one of those Russian novels with six hundred characters.

That done, I’ll get to the good part—the part of the story that hasn’t happened yet.  What will my protagonist (i.e., me) do next?  No cheating on this, either:  I won’t allow myself to write that I one day play the cello to a sell-out crowd in Carnegie Hall unless I also write my honest plan to take a lot of cello lessons and practice really, really hard first—both of which, frankly, I know in my heart  I’m not going to do.  But I could come up with a plausible story about how I learned to do some new thing.  Or I could mellow a little.  Not only—given my nature—would my mellowing constitute quite a plot-twist, but George Eliot already demonstrated with Silas Marner that having a character mellow is commercial, too.   I could also meet some interesting new people.  Of course, in order to meet new people, I’d have to get out more; so I’ll have to write that I start getting out more.  Whether the people I meet are interesting or not may depend upon where I get out to, so I’d better give that some consideration.

Also, maybe I should dress better.

I’ll write my life’s plot, and then I’ll live it—right down (I hope) to the scene where I die peacefully in my bed surrounded by my loved ones who are happy that I mellowed and got out more and dressed better, and also at least occasionally practiced playing the cello.  It’ll be great.  A literary masterpiece.

First, though, I’m going to spritz the room with perfume.  I can afford to.  I just saved myself $1200.

My Favorite Rule: Write What You Know

type-1161949_640I grew up in an undistinguished, lower-middle-class family, and was “the quiet one” in school.  I learned to type, and put myself through college doing clerical work in furtherance of business aims that I cared not one rat’s ass about.  Within a month of graduating with a degree in classics that proved that I had acquired the necessary skills and knowledge to pursue a more advanced degree in classics, I landed my dream job, gestating an embryo.  The embryo project was successful; and after a mere nine-month probationary period I was advanced—somewhat unadvisedly, perhaps—to the rank of household Mother-in-Chief.  This is a position I still hold, although in a massive corporate reshuffle that began on the day my male counterpart and I dropped the former embryo off at college, reporting lines have been rearranged, and my title is now an empty one, I’m afraid.  I live in the suburbs, enjoy classical music, and am still married to my original husband.

I actually have a point in telling all this; and the point is that it’s boring.  I have a nice, normal, boring life.  So how is it that I make so bold as to write books about people who don’t?  Isn’t there a rule that says You Must Write What You Know?

Yes, there is.  It’s a very good rule.  And I am happy to report that it does not apply to plots.

loss is loss, and suffering is suffering, and fear is fear, whether among the Suburb People of Middle America or the Slime Beings of Delta Vega

It’s true that if you haven’t known loss, you can’t—or rather, shouldn’t—write a book with great loss as its focus.  I’ve seen it done, and it never rings true.  And you shouldn’t write about battle, or space-travel, or riding in a Roman taxi if you’ve never been afraid.  But loss is loss, and suffering is suffering, and fear is fear, whether among the Suburb People of Middle America or the Slime Beings of Delta Vega, so go ahead and write that novel you keep telling me you’re going to get around to one of these days and in the matter of plotting, don’t hold back.  Really.  Go crazy with it.  But if you want to write that your protagonist, young Slime B. Ing, is radicalized when his pet mutant is killed before his very eyes by the evil Cephalopod general, you’d better have lost a loved pet of your own if you want the scene to really work.

And speaking of plots, as I always am:  I recently read a very bad story, set in a future in which weapons—they seemed to involve lasers, although this wasn’t entirely clear—were sentient.  This fact was a little throw-away.  I think it could make a whole plot.  Several plots, in fact.  How were these weapons developed?  Were weapons somehow modified so that they achieved sentience?  Or were sentient beings turned into weapons?  Are many “objects” in this future world sentient?  What would it be like, living in a world of sentient objects?  What would it be like trying to kill somebody with a weapon that was apt to want to discuss the situation with you first?  In a future world, do the sentient “objects” revolt, subjugate the “Irrationals” (our race), and try running the world by logic for a change?  Does it work?

I could write this, if I only had time.  I’d be writing what I know.  All day long, my computer goes out of its way to remind me that it is much smarter than I am. At least, anything programmed by Microsoft thinks it is.

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