Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Awful Truth

It takes balls to let truth win out when writing.

This is as true for fiction as for non-fiction-- people can become very upset by the true actions of a fictional character. Whether the character is doing something that they themselves did in the past and are ashamed of, saying something they don't want said because it may influence children, or doing something they are afraid someone will do to them, a character that behaves realistically can be scary.

I recall two incidents that impressed this on me, in a visceral way. The first occurred during the course of a semester-long fiction workshop in college. One of my classmates was a woman in her late 30's, early forties; good as far as the nuts & bolts of writing were concerned, but she spent the entire semester reworking the same piece, and it wasn't a compelling story even in the beginning, when the subject was fresh. It was essentially a story about a marriage in trouble-- the friend of the wife is trying to find out where the trouble has come from. In some versions, it was the wife herself, or sometimes a sister-in-law, but in all of them she doesn't understand why the husband in the marriage has cheated. Every rewrite, even when the author said it was a different story, had the same problems in the dialogue and the characters' motives, and in each discussion afterwards she was stymied by the comments, and looked for different reactions from us, towards the husband and his actions. It struck me that she was trying to reason away infidelity, make some kind of logical talisman against it. If she could make the husband in the story see that it was unnecessary, then it needn't have happened-- there, or more importantly, in reality.

 This is not to suggest that my classmate had been cheated on personally-- I have no idea, but she had clearly been shaken up by some case of infidelity, and in her stories, she was virtually trying to undo it, for good and all. And each of her story versions suffered from her inability to let the truth, unpleasant as it was, come through her character's actions. Yet she couldn't hide from herself that infidelity happens, and that it can cause hurt to good people. She just kept trying to figure out the logic of an act that she refused to approach from the perspective of those who might commit the act. I often wonder if my classmate ever learned to separate her own needs from her stories.

 You can't get away with writing only what you wish would happen in an ideal world, if you're going to write fiction that rings true now.

 The second incident also centers on infidelity. One day, chatting with the mother of the family I was working for, I mentioned that I had seen the movie Unfaithful, with Richard Gere and Diane Lane. She asked what I thought of it, and apart from the fatalistic ending, I felt it showed most of the sides of a certain type of extramarital affair pretty well-- the compulsion of illicit sex, and how it works on people. I've avoided being part of such an affair myself, but I won't say I've never been tempted, or approached for such; and I certainly have known many women, and men, that did have affairs. I've heard their stories, heard the lines used, seen the patterns. It's funny how standardized the pattern of conversations within those relationships tend to be.

 My boss, however, was horrified by the film, from her expression, and seemed to momentarily lose respect for me due to my opinion.  She thought it was completely unrealistic, or said that-- but as I questioned her to find out why, underneath her protest I detected again the fear of such a reality, and the need for a talisman to ward it away from her own life. If I had agreed with her, it might have been comforting enough to ease the fear. As I hadn't, it almost made the prospect of infidelity-- lush and ravenous infidelity-- more real, and therefore, more possible.

 In each of these incidents, there is an irrational impulse at work, that makes the person want to push away and reject the truthful use of infidelity in a fictional story.

 But you cannot rid the world of infidelity by refusing to imagine yourself or your husband giving in to it, by not understanding the unreasonable reasons for it, nor by forcing your cheating character to see how great his wife is, after he cheats on her. Infidelity happens despite good wives and good husbands, despite children, despite the damage to trust, despite the social or financial inconvenience or embarrassment it can cause. The only person you can absolutely stop from being unfaithful is yourself. That's all the control we're granted, and it's not equally easy for everyone.

 The truth, here, could be anything besides cheating: hunger, war, poverty-- or lovely things, such as the kindness of strangers, the beauty of young women, the taste of good tea. Doesn't matter. What matters is, if it's the true object or meal or action you character would have or take, let them take it. If it's what they want to say, let them say it-- don't hold back out of politeness, correctness, or fear. Don't force your morality onto a character like a saddle on a horse, and don't be afraid to let good things, or bad things happen, if they come from an honest place. There are readers that will reject your story for being too true, but the story will stand better, and you'll be able to tell how close you've gotten to reality, by the discomfort caused in some circles.

 I learned, again, not long ago, that writing the truth in non-fiction can be dicey, too. You can lose friends by speaking your mind, however tactfully, on a subject dear to a person's heart. You can be jailed for it, some places; and today, on International Blasphemy Rights Day, I'm here to tell you not to give in to that bullshit. We shouldn't make laws that constrict our free speech, and we shouldn't bow down to the false correctness that says tolerance means an absolute horror of giving offence.

 Offensive things need to said, sometimes, to keep more offensive things from happening. Lose a few chickenshit friends, if you have to, but write honestly, write bitingly, write so that it matters. Don't apologise for it, either-- you can be sure that I won't.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Perfect Scene Strikes Again

When you fall in love with a scene you've written and edited to perfection, a scene that supports the  plot afterwards, it's a deep pleasure and relief-- you know that point, at least, is covered. You know you'll never need to change a word of the limpid, tender moment between those complexly engaged characters. Every note of their connection is correct, emotion flows warmly across the page-- the dialogue shines, reactions ring true, your restraint and skill make each beat and syllable seem not just necessary, but the only possible way to have written them...

 Until you get a new idea. The juggernaut may happen earlier or later than that "finished" part, it may skim the sides of discontinuity or dive deep, but it makes an impact on work you thought was done, with a capital D.

 Now, your new idea sends a shimmer through the thin spots you didn't know how to fix before, and promises to make loose endings tight... except it will completely fuck up your best, sweetest, work so far, the part of your book that made you believe you were onto something here, the part that showed you just how good you were. But with the new changes you need need need to make, it will be confusing/unncessary/just plain stupid.

 You've heard that phrase, kill all your darlings, and thought you knew what it meant, and maybe even had done it easily before, wondering what the fuss was about. Till now. So-- do you try to salvage the best parts and use them elsewhere, cut it completely, or wait and hope you'll find a way to keep it?

 What do you do?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Green Plum Finally Ripens

  There's a big project going public today, that I could have been part of, but declined to join.

  A shining group of artists, poets, storytellers and musicians came together to create a super-duper care package for the hungry and disenfranchised of the Sahel region of Niger. It's a mulitplicity of events, really; an art auction, an anthology, a radio show, and more.

 It's called Song of Sahel, and it will, with your help, bring much-needed relief to people starved by both drought, and the painful effects of war. A great deal of beauty, easily available, awaits those who wish to partake, and in so doing, help. I urge you to check it out, for there is sure to be something that moves you-- a gorgeous print, a lovely phrase or sentiment, haunting music.

 I can't lay claim to any of that beauty, and I haven't been clearly sure why: I am an artist, a musician, a poet, songwriter, writer. I could have contributed somewhere, somehow, but never did. Thinking on it last night, I finally understood why.

 At first, I was left speechless by the plight of the people in Niger-- the starving children that had been born there, the refugees fleeing in fear of war, over the Malian border, placing stress on an already stressed area, not because they wanted to leave their homes and country; but because it was their only choice for even a slim hope of survival.

Unlike some in our bountiful country, I have been relatively poor most of my life, and as an adult, I have gone hungry. But not for days on end. Not without hope of getting through it and into a time of plenty, again. Not like these children and their parents, their communities-- whole communities, ransomed by nature and perhaps incompetent leadership, to a fate of constant aching emptiness.

Such huge and hollow realms of need do not inspire me to lyrical flights of melody-- they leave me in the silence of grief, the silence of frustrated helplessness. I have no financial resources to help assuage this great, grave ocean of loss deepening so far away from me. So I was struck dumb, and then lost the daily use of the internet, so that my understanding of the project faltered-- sort of disengaged.

 There were other issues, too. Unable to research the beginnings of the project, I feared to partner myself and my talents, however tenuously, with any organization that could be religiously affiliated: forcing your view of the universe on people so hungry that they have no choice but to take all you give them, food and foreign morality, is to me a foul and evil thing, and the basis for many a further evil along the way. I had never heard of Plan International before; I knew that someone working for them in Niger had provided the original inspiration for SOS. So there might be a connection, a slight one. The very possibility made me cautious, and I was afraid to find out it might be true.

 Now, at this last moment, I have been able to allay those worries, and to see fully why my mind and heart weren't ready to commit to Song of Sahel. I felt I had nothing to give. And I didn't, I don't, but for this... telling you that my reaction to the tragedy may have been quiet shock and useless dismay, but there are artists of the first water  that had a better reaction. People like Sue Lobo, Tonia Marie Houston, Shirani Rajapakse, Marta Pelrine-Bacon, and Giorgio Mostarda-- and so many more dedicated creative minds and hearts. They have given deeply of themselves, to end the hunger and celebrate the strength of Sahel. Go to the link on the title above, or to the Plum Tree, and you'll find those gifts of verse, line and tune.

 Peace, Mari

Sunday, September 2, 2012

August, You Bitch! I'm leaving you.

 July, August: these months were not fun without my laptop working, and hotly hot weather. Little family troubles piled onto that, a few biggies followed, and August refused to end or get better. I'd decided to skip right into September a week early, give the summer a rest, and it seemed September was obliging me, but no... the heat returned, as it did last summer's end, to twist my plans around one more time.

 Who, I ask, that is not in grade school or living on a beach, can enjoy summer anymore? If you like summer, I'm not sure we can still be friends. Okay, I'll try, but don't talk swimming, golfing or the glory of being outdoors to me, please. I gave my cat fleas by going outdoors this August.

 I gave my cat fleas!

 Now I'm in for three months of treatment tubes, plus all the extra cleaning we had to do. #@!% summer! Summer in Buffalo, the bitch goddess of Weather-That-Makes-You-Hate-the-Sun. I moved back to Buffalo for the cold, and what happens? Summer takes over and extends herself in all directions. Well, not on my watch, baby. I'm leaving you, and just to prove it, I'll turn on my oven tomorrow and BAKE AN APPLE PIE!!!! Crumb-topped, cinnamon rich, flaky fruited pie. How's that for Autumn-erotica?

 Okay, maybe Tuesday I'll bake; it's still too warm.

 As my carefully laid plans for that evil season just past were blown to hell,  I'm going to use this space, in September, for a purpose I normally wouldn't-- a writing blog about writing. Don't expect elegance, query techniques, or lofty meditations on the nature of art itself, unless I write a drunken post, one day.

 Let's get right into the shit, then.

 Say you're going along, getting things done, or at least moving your projects from stage to stage, when the clouds descend, and you can't go forwards, or backwards; in a ward, your stride has been broken. Could be something as annoying as a broken laptop (that was less than a year old, dammit!, so why did I have to have the motherboard replaced already?) or something personal/emotional, like having a friend/family member go off the deep end and drag you into their drama. Or, you approach the state of divorce, but pull back; or you could get sick.

 Whatever it is, it stops you for a time, and then resolves, leaving you in a state of dissaray. Maybe so scattered you can't properly spell disarray, even though you were a top speller in grade school without working at it.

 It's not a block, it's more a thorny mix of lethargy and panic. Panic, because all the work to do and ideas and hot excited stuff running through the veins in your head built up into crazy, impossible layers while you couldn't get to it, or use it; lethargy from not writing, not regularly pushing your idea meat through the ole grinder. More panic, because you're aware that you are stale, too stale to properly assemble the bright structures your luminous, mile-high ideas deserve; and you know that as soon as you try setting them down, they'll crumble into sharp, painful reminders of what should have been.

 Then you try to jump in anyway, and the work is stiff, it's like running through molasses, and just as messy and cloying. You find yourself crazily hopping from metaphor to metaphor, in search of solidity, perhaps.

 What do you do now?

 It's a given that others will tell you to work through the rough patch, and I'd agree. However, I'd caution choosing your re-entry into imaginationland carefully. Pick a small piece to rewrite, or a very tight goal within your large work-in-progress. One that you don't have to worry about screwing up too bad, one you know you can go back to. Don't take on the glistening new idea just yet.

 Some may argue with this point, saying that the energy of newness will carry you through, and maybe it will. Or it could help you botch a promising new project in a way that drains you further, so that you curse the darkness while throwing out your last broken taper. Not what we're trying for, right?

 I think the safest, most comfortable project is the one to help you ease back in. Copying a final draft of a story, just to copy it, and giving yourself the opportunity to admire your past work. You might even see what needs improving-- you might get some of the juice back, taking it slow.

 For instance, I've been updating my blogs, and then stacking up posts for some of them in advance. Knowing I have even a half-finished draft of one of my weekly posts takes the pressure off. The feeling of relief is beginning to segue into excitement about a new book I had planned, before the onset of problems that put me off my daily writing habit. I can feel myself becoming ready-- not there yet, but closing in, getting to that hungry, happy state where I can't wait any longer to Start!

 Are you there?