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.

 

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.

What Sculpture Taught Me about Writing Dialogue

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(Photo via Good Free Photos)

The town I live in goes in for public art in a big way, which is very nice except that the piece of public art nearest my home is a statue I don’t like.  Actually, it’s a statue I hate.  This statue is—unusually, these days—representational, and I like representational art.  I should like this statue.  Instead, it evokes an active loathing in my soul.

My daughter—who’s an artist—would probably tell me that this very loathing is the proof that, as a work of art, the statue is a success.  The principal function of art, she tells me, is to make people uncomfortable.  (I think that’s what she said.)  Whether that’s true or not, this statue that I hate has been useful to me.  It’s helped me to write better dialogue.

The statue is of a young woman who looks like she might be waiting for something.  I’ve always assumed she was waiting for a bus because a) the statue is positioned at a bus-stop; and b) she looks a little bored.  Not a lot bored; just a little.  It’s life-sized, which means the young woman is taller than I am because almost everybody is, and she’s dressed very casually in jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie with the hood down and resting on her shoulders.  A light breeze stirs her hair.  Her head is turned slightly to the side, and she stares down the road, watching passively for the bus, which on this particular route runs every hour, seven days a week, except on Christmas and New Year’s when the buses in this town don’t run at all.  Every detail of her face and clothing (her hands are concealed in her pockets) is absolutely correct and in perfect proportion.  Even the aglets on the ends of her shoelaces are visible.  She looks, in short, exactly like a slightly bored young woman of between 18 and, say, 25; casually dressed; who is waiting for a bus—and who has been dipped in bronze.

I’ve lived here for sixteen years, which means (if I’ve done the math right, and allowing for days off) that I’ve driven by the Statue I Don’t Like at least 4000 times on my way to work.  I’ve loathed it every time.  But sometime about viewing #2847, I realized why I didn’t like it; and that the statue had a lesson to teach.

I used to spend a lot of time trying to make characters in my books converse with each other in a way that I considered to be absolutely true-to-life.  Grammar, vocabulary, idiom—I wanted them all exactly those of real people.  Nobody popping off an “oh, very well” in my books, when nobody in real life has said “oh, very well” for a hundred years.  No siree.  And the dialogue I produced that way was the literary equivalent of Bronze Bus-Watcher.  Go to any bus-station and see her equivalent in the flesh; listen to the conversations going on around you and hear my characters’ dialogue.

So when it comes to statuary and dialogue, I conclude, true-to-life is overrated.  True-to-life is an undistinguished young woman rendered faithfully but soullessly in bronze.  Good dialogue—not the stuff I write; but I’m working on it—is Michelangelo’s David.  One hand is bigger than the other, and his eyes don’t track; but you certainly can’t go down to any old bus-stop and see him.

I’m working now on making dialogue that is untrue to life; but, I hope, more revelatory of my characters’ souls.  I’m big into baring souls.  Souls are more interesting to me than even plots—which is saying quite a lot.  This new way is hard for me; but I like it.  I can make my characters say anything I want them too now, even if it’s something nobody in “real life” ever has said, or would.

So far, they have never wanted to say, “Oh, very well.”

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.

The Devil’s in the Details

fish-GrimmsI may have mentioned that I’m no longer young, but believe me, it doesn’t follow that I’m nostalgic for The Good Old Days. Sure, forty years ago I was better-looking. My skin was smoother and I had fewer stomachs and chins. But I also had only my own hands and brain to rely on, whereas now I have robots to do my work, computers to think for me, and Ebay on which to buy back my childhood.

I’m currently waiting, with all the patience of a six-year-old, for a boxed set of books: Grimm’s and Andersen’s Fairy Tales, published in 1945. They’re the versions I grew up with, beautifully illustrated with copperplate engravings, and—possibly because the world seemed an especially harsh place in 1945—honestly and accurately translated from the original languages with no accommodation to a child’s fragile psyche. In 1945, apparently, children’s fragile whatevers were to be hardened up, not accommodated. Sensitive child? Cod-liver oil shots and Grimm’s Cinderella were just what the doctor ordered.

The theme of the Grimm’s Cinderella is basically the same as Disney’s: Abused step-child triumphs. The difference is in the story’s plot details. There’s no fairy-godmother, for one thing. Cindy finds her three ball-gowns (one for each of three successive nights of dancing; even a prince wasn’t expected to pick a wife in only one night) lying on her mother’s grave. Disney either thought a grave was too morbid to mention in a children’s story, or that by leaving open the question of whether Cindy’s mom was absent due to her death or a messy divorce, more children could identify with her. I can see his point. My father died when I was very young, and I had a grave to visit, too. I saw myself every time I looked at the illustration of Cinderella at her mother’s graveside.

I also identified with the fact that she had two older sisters. My own two sisters weren’t step-, and they weren’t (very) evil; but we had our issues. I got a big thrill out of the part of the Grimm story in which in response to their mother’s urging, the step-sisters make their big ugly feet fit Cinderella’s little lost shoe by cutting off their toes and heels. “When you’re queen,” Wicked Step-mother reassures them, “you won’t have to walk anymore.” I was a little disappointed in the prince for being such a dim-wit as to fall for the ruse (twice); but luckily for him, some talking birds nearby alerted him in time to the blood-trails the sister’s mutilated feet were leaving. The talking birds also made sure to peck out the step-sisters eyes once Cindy was happily settled in the castle.

In the Andersen book was the delightful The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, in which a very vain little girl who bridges a mud-puddle with a perfectly good loaf of bread to avoid soiling her shoes gets sucked straight into a Hell that makes the Biblical lake of fire look like Club Med by comparison (moral: Don’t be vain; also, don’t waste food); and The Red Shoes, in which a vain little girl lies about the color of her shoes to her half-blind benefactress and is danced to death by them (moral: Don’t be vain; also, don’t lie).

Now, those were some stories!

In contrast, my grandson’s current favorite book is one in which Superman uses his various super-powers to determine that Mr. Grocer’s missing bananas were stolen by a gorilla. Superman gets the gorilla to confess to this transgression by assuring him that he (the gorilla) will feel much better once he’s got the whole ugly story off his chest. (The bananas will still be gone, though. No word on who compensates Mr. Grocer for the bananas.) Same basic fairy-tale-type plot, with Superman filling in for fairy godmother; same basic moral set (lying, stealing, and wasting food are bad); but what a difference in the details! I read Grandson this story at bed-time and then we both fall asleep from sheer boredom. I’m not allowed to read him Cinderella, or The Red Shoes. I’m not allowed to read him The Girl Without Hands, in which a father cuts off his daughter’s hands to escape being taken himself by the Devil. But I’m looking forward to re-reading them myself; and who knows? Maybe one day my daughter will change her mind. Maybe one day she’ll reason, “After all, Mother read them as a child; and look how great she turned out.” Maybe one day Grandson himself will figure out that he’s being cheated, and demand better entertainment. Honest: Grimm and Andersen will harden his little psyche right up.

No cod-liver oil for him, though. That stuff’s just plain nasty.

All the Forks in the Roads

Raffles_croppedI’m not particularly superstitious, but when my daughter asked me one day whether I had ever read any of E.W. Hornung’s stories about the gentleman thief Raffles on the very day after I had picked up a copy of Raffles:  The Amateur Cracksman in a used bookstore and read it cover-to-cover, it seemed significant.  Not so significant that I should have agreed shortly afterward to her suggestion that we give up a year or so of our lives to annotating the entire Raffles canon—but you know how it is.  I had never in all my (too) many years before read any Raffles stories at all; and then, answering to a sudden impulse, I had done so just in time to maintain my undeserved reputation as “mom-who-has-read-everything.”  I felt like I owed something to Fate.

Raffles and his somewhat thick sidekick Bunny (in case you’ve never read about him, or seen one of the myriad movies or British TV series featuring the character), are dark twins to their exact contemporaries, the Victorian/Edwardian gentleman detective Sherlock Holmes, and stodgy Dr. John Watson.

The creation of Raffles was, I think, both E.W. Hornung’s tribute to, and retaliation against, his overbearing brother-in-law Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for what must have been (judging by Conan Doyle’s surviving correspondence) a lot of pretty nasty jibes around the family dinner-table concerning Hornung’s habits, talents, and background.  Both men were novelists, and several of Hornung’s early novels were either set in, or featured, Australia—a country in which Hornung had lived for several years and of which he had fond memories.  Conan Doyle made no bones about the fact that he considered the place barely civilized.  Hornung’s father was a Hungarian immigrant; Conan Doyle (who was, um, Irish) prided himself on his thoroughgoing Englishness.  Perhaps worst of all, Hornung loved the game of cricket more than he loved breathing; but, short-sighted and asthmatic, he was terrible at it, while Conan Doyle was a very good player.  It must have stung.

By coincidence, after I had finished my part in annotating the Raffles stories, I read a brief biography of one of my favorite writers, John Fowles, who is best known, perhaps, for The French Lieutenant’s Woman* (though I personally preferred A Maggot).  While reading, I was struck by some uncanny parallels between Fowles’s life, and the life of the fictional jewel-thief, Arthur Raffles.  Both had little family, and lots of education.  Both were Head-Boy and stand-out athletes at their prep schools, and captains of their school cricket teams, for which both were bowlers.  Both made the decision, in their early adulthood, to eschew being what Fowles termed “a British Establishment young hopeful,” and follow an unconventional path in life.  Offered two jobs—one a good one at Winchester, the other a poor one at “a ratty school in Greece,” Fowles of course took the one in Greece, and turned soon after to writing novels, a disreputable profession if there ever was one.  At a similar turning-point in his life, Raffles decided to play amateur cricket and rob his social peers.

My familiarity with Raffles coupled with my admiration for John Fowles makes me the ideal candidate to write Fowles’s biography, I think.  One of The French Lieutenant’s Woman’s most interesting stylistic points is that it offers readers a choice of possible endings to the story.  In writing Fowles’s biography, I’m going to do the same.  Does John Fowles become a novelist, or does he become a jewel-thief?  Knowing, as I do, how Arthur Raffles’s life played out, I can make either choice seem perfectly plausible—except for one detail.  John Fowles the novelist became rich, while Raffles the thief died penniless.  I think we all know that it usually works out the other way.

*The only novel I have ever enjoyed for its extensive footnotes.

Happily Ever After?

africanqueen

I admit to a strong preference for happy endings in books.  A really strong preference, in fact; as in, I read the ends of books first to find out whether I’m going to get one.  I don’t necessarily reject all books with sad endings, but I like to have the option of rejecting them.  This is probably because when I was still young and impressionable, having seen and loved the movie version of The African Queen, I read the C.S. Forester book on which it was based.

This was a mistake.

(There’s a spoiler coming next, but if you haven’t already read The African Queen and think you might ever want to, don’t skip the spoiler.  Read on.  This is something you’ll want to know.)

I’m not shy about mentally re-writing books that I feel have let me down a little

In the book, Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnutt don’t almost get hanged, the German captain doesn’t marry them, and they don’t manage to blow up the Königin Luise; a British gunboat does.  Instead, the two lovers ride off into separate sunsets (Charlie is going to join the British Army!) with no more than a vague and unromantically-phrased “agreement” between them; and (in the author’s words) “whether they lived happily ever after or not, is not easily ascertained.”

What the hell kind of an ending is that?

And the answer to that question is—a better one than the ending to that great American classic, Huckleberry Finn.

Huckleberry Finn is, by nearly everybody’s reckoning, one of the greatest novels ever written, right up to the point where Aunt Sally says, “Why, it’s Tom Sawyer!”  Then it turns into one of the world’s greatest disappointments.

Now, I’m not shy about mentally re-writing books that I feel have let me down a little.  Just recently, The Martian got a mental re-write in which the Mars base was relocated underground.  Until I’d satisfied myself that poor Watney wasn’t going to be rescued only to die of cancer five years later, I couldn’t relax and enjoy the rest of the story.

But until just a few weeks ago, I never considered another ending to Huckleberry Finn.

This is probably because in the first English class in which I studied it (middle school, as I recall), the teacher announced, in a manner that brooked no argument, that Huckleberry Finn lapsed into silliness at the end because Mark Twain couldn’t bear to write the tragic ending that the story must inevitably otherwise have had.  There was no third choice, apparently.  It was slapstick or heartbreak.

Friends, this is a lie.  It took fifty years and more than a touch of senility to free up my brain enough to see it, but there are actually at least seven million possible alternate endings to Huckleberry Finn.  One jumps straight out at me.  Huck has his share of the treasure from Injun Joe’s cave:  Why doesn’t he buy Jim (and then, presumably, free him)?  If Miss Watson is willing to sell, why not to Huck?  Possibly Twain could even have had the Widow Douglas facilitate the sale in return for Huck’s promise to return and bear meekly with being “civilized.”  That kind of arrangement would have provided all sorts of opportunities for him to include a lot of pathos and soul-searching on Huck’s part, as he voluntarily relinquishes—not his fortune, which clearly isn’t important to him—but his freedom.

Which still leaves 6,999,999 other possible endings.  I’d love to hear some of them, if anyone will share.