“The Summer Before the War” and characterization

 

So many writing texts tell us to detail biographies of our characters in order to make them authentic. “In Magic Words” Cheryl Klein suggests that we ask a myriad of questions about ourselves (and I mean endless questions) at various ages and save that in a file. She recommends that we analyze our lives at picture book age, at elementary school age, and at our teenage. Although I truly believe in this advice and offer it to others, I’ve never taken the time or pain to do this. The closest I came was in a workshop with Susan Campbell Bartoletti where she asked us to remember our most important house growing up. Then she suggested we think of something important that had taken place in every room of that house. Frighteningly, I remembered nothing but very negative scenes, the stuff for a Mary Carr memoir, maybe, but so far not for my personal work. I certainly entertained good memories then, after being self-shocked. Compared to many in our country, I didn’t suffer, and I know my parents were better parents than their own. So part of my resistance is that I don’t want to whine and especially don’t want to trash family members who tried their bests.   But I think I resist, too, out of laziness. I write memoir, but confine myself to disability issues. The characters that surround me are real people, which may be easier to fledge out than fictional ones. Of course, I’ve often changed names (with a disclaimer at the beginning of the books) and if they were (in my mind) really villainous, I’ve thought of ways to give them metaphorical small penises, so they won’t get litigious.

But in reading Helen Simonson’s second novel, “The Summer Before the War,” Random House I think, 2016, I’ve been so enthralled by the characterizations of her large cast, by the nuance of many. The book has the character foibles of a Jane Austen novel, but also includes the astonishingly cruel that we’ve come to know in contemporary authors’ work. It also deals with war with a reality that brings tears at times, so it’s not escapist fare.

I’ve been reading it every chance I get and am now into the last 50 pages or so. I’m reluctant to read with the same avarice because I don’t want to come to the end. So much of this is because of the wonderful characterizations.

The book has inspired me to try the character sketching drudge work. Some of my darker experiences could be varied a bit and given to fictional heroines, and that might lead to a kind of Beatrice Nash or Hugh grange from the simonson book. At least it’s worth a try.

And if I’ve motivated anyone to read this novel, I should say that her first book, 2010, was “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” which I think was made into a movie.

 

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Metaphor and Simile

 

 

I learned years ago that metaphors and similes had to be precise. Several of my students have heard the story of my metaphor about sidewalks, “the skeletal frame that defined my world.” My editor deleted this phrase from my ms Taking Hold: My Journey into Blindness. But I wanted to keep it. I was writing about having had the final retinal hemorrhage that had eliminated all residual sight. I woke to this major loss, freaked out, then dressed, and went outside to wait for my boyfriend at the time who was driving me to work.

Six inches of snow had fallen overnight, concealing the sidewalk from street and from grass shoreline. I walked to a short-cut so that he wouldn’t have to turn a corner and I got lost. My cane couldn’t detect the sidewalk. Pretty traumatic and pretty important in explaining life for a blind traveler.

“But a sidewalk isn’t skeletal,” my editor argued.

We settled on “the solid structure that defined my world.”

Recently I read Ted Kooser’s take on these terms. He claims that they have personality. Metaphor has certainty, while simile suggests uncertainty. In the sidewalk situation, I realize now that everything about that scene was overwhelming and obscured. What traffic there was spun its wheels or hardly moved, giving me no help. The sidewalk offered my only clue, the only certainty, and it was hidden. Metaphor was the right choice in that instant.

In the book, I’m writing now about the guide dog/human partnership, I describe an average day in the life with Dave. I say that he is as much at the front and center of my schedule as my grandkids are to my daughter’s. Of course, there are enough differences in the demands of dog and children, so that simile seems to be more effective than metaphor: Dave, the preschool human equivalent, or a similar metaphor, seems overblown.

Kooser also says that choosing metaphor or simile shows the author’s personality. Smile. I know writers who are definitely metaphor types. I think I’m more the simile sort: “well, it’s kind of, I mean, pretty much like…ah…”

 

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Lessons from a favorite teacher

 

Today I thought of my favorite high school teacher, Miss Harry, who taught 11th grade English. During one class, she chose to read aloud the assigned descriptive essay I’d written about my Mom’s lovable, colorful cleaning lady. My classmates laughed and sighed in all the right places, so the singling out of my work ended positively.

But Miss Harry’s simple critique affected me more than I understood at the time. “You have a knack, Sally.”

From then on, I fell in love with words. Innocent that I was, I took Readers’ Digest vocabulary quizzes and tried to use those words in my writing. The results were mixed, at best. The ones that pain me most even to this day are “the cursory purgation,” used in a note to my episcopal minister after a meaningful talk we’d had. He couldn’t restrain himself from laughing with my dad about it, and the affectionate ridicule I endured is still a vivid memory.

Nevertheless, I was drawn to words and Miss Harry’s class. But the water ballet’s show was coming up Thursday and the chorus final production the next night and endless rehearsals beforehand, and all our short story summaries for Miss Harry were due Friday. She would choose only one of ours from each row. I feigned illness that day, a huge accomplishment with a nurse as mother, only to learn that so many others did the same that Miss Harry wanted everyone’s collection of summaries on Monday. Saturday and Sunday, I hardly slept. I read and wrote. On Monday morning, I still had one story to read and review.

“Lee,” I whispered. “May I see what you wrote for the last summary?”

I skimmed it and used my own words.

At the end of class a week later, Miss Harry stood at the front of the room with a pinched face and our reviews in her hand. “I was very disappointed at the cheating that has taken place in this class.”

“What can she be talking about?” I wondered, trying even to fool myself.

At the top of my paper, she’d written, “Sally to Suzanne to Lee.”

Turns out that Lee had misunderstood a plot point, and Suzanne, who had also borrowed from Lee, and I had penned the exact mistake.   Pretty transparent cheating.

As the students exited the room, all murmuring, I sat stricken in my seat. I somehow stood and headed toward Miss Harry’s desk, but my Civics teacher had come in to speak to her. I trembled and fought tears so conspicuously the man stopped talking and hurried out of the room. I managed to confess my crime before giving way to hysterics.

Miss Harry said, “Ah, Sally. You’ve done something wrong,haven’t you?”

I nodded.

“But you’ve admitted it. And, for that, in my estimation, you’ve gone up a notch.”

And that was it. No harping. No punishment. In my two most important interactions with Miss Harry, she’d used monosyllabic words, “knack” and “notch.” But she’d shown me that brevity, freshness, precision, tempered with warm regard cut through all the B.S.

At the time I didn’t realized I’d just had a mini-lecture in writing well. I only understood that I’d been caught up short and vowed never to cheat again. But years later I came to know that Miss Harry had a profound influence in my teaching, writing, and all my relating to others.

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Delayed Post

 

 

As you can see I haven’t posted in nearly two months. My husband and I have been helping our daughter and son-in-law with our grandkids in Philadelphia.

Our daughter has been suffering again with endometriosis, a very common problem for women that is neither researched nor talked about enough. She was very ill with it seven years ago and had surgery, but it has now returned. Endometriosis has been rampant among the women in my family. My sister and her two daughters were young sufferers.  One month before my wedding 43 years ago I had surgery because of the disease and lost my right ovary. Though I never experienced the debilitating pain that many like my daughter feel, I still found it difficult to live richly and fully with the sharp needle-stabbing pain to my right side.

If you or anyone in your family has struggled with endometriosis, and you are moved to help with research dollars, here is a link that may interest you:

https://www.motif.me/collections/trending-the-endo-co/products/the-endo-co-bracelet-10001497

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Query letter ideas

 

 

I’m about to write a query for a manuscript I’ve just finished, so began to look for articles on synopses.  I came across Lisa Katzenberger’s 4-point consideration before entering a pitch session.  Since so much of queries, synopses, and just promoting oneself as a writer is kind of pitchy, I thought I’d share:

 

 

  1. Are you working on anything else?  I never thought of including such information when pitching one manuscript, and, if asked, I can imagine blowing this opportunity with an editor or agent.  Isn’t this a no—no in a synopsis?  A query?  Well, now I’m not sure it’s off-limits in a query and could be an indicator that you are not a one-book wonder.
  2. Who are your favorite authors?  Not sure this fits into queries and synopses, but in pitching….seems vital to have contemporary names, not C.S. Lewis and Seuss, but also not JK Rowling.  An agent and editor can discern a good bit about you as someone up-to-date and literate by the author’s you read. And many times queries are stronger when the writer compares her ms to well-known and similar books.
  3. How would you describe yourself as an author?  You could turn to genre, audience, or element, as in character-driven or humorous.  But the question is important merely for you to assess yourself and gain self-awareness, if for nothing else.
  4.    Where did this story come from?  This question allows you to give the immediate source, but also can trigger you to dig deeper.  What are you wanting to talk about?  What emotions are you hoping to convey?    What made you have to write this book?  In the Susan Campbell Bartoletti talk in western PA on March 24, she pointed out that we should write about the things we like, things we want to know about, but also those things we really “should” be writing about.

I write mostly about disability, even though I had 26 years of abed-bodiedness.  Deaf-blindness issues seem to be a need.  Publishers speak of wanting diverse books.  I read that approximately 300 children’s books were published last year with African-American protagonist and about 200 with Hispanic main characters.  Librarian friends tell me there were far fewer publications with disabled characters.  Notice that I don’t have sources here, so I’m giving more opinion than fact.

But the truth is that I feel that writing about Deaf-blindness is a kind of call.  One of my writing group members with a serious medical condition doesn’t write directly about this because of privacy issues and because she doesn’t want to write “sick lit.”

So where our books come from and what we choose to write about is so individual, therefore so interesting.  And I think it’s possible to debate whether any of us “should” write on a specific subject.  But I do support looking into where our stories come from and whether we are really writing from our hearts, and if not, why not.  Self-awareness again.  It grows and grows in importance to me.  But now I have to face the query letter, and has any of this musing helped?

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Details in our Writing: How Many?

One of the biggest challenges for me and my students is how much detail to include in our work.  Always we hear the phrase, “show, don’t tell.”  Writing texts stress specifics—details, details, details.  But finding the balance between “show, don’t tell,” and “less is more,” another oft-repeated phrase is tricky.

In the memoir I’m finishing about the guide dog/human partnership, I wrote about the research into dogs’ five, often astounding, senses and talk about my own. Though totally blind and substantially deaf, I’ve learned that the brain’s plasticity and my training have enhanced my other senses. But the details, though pretty delicious, overloaded the members of my writing group, hearing the chapter.

I hypocritically comment, “cut, cut, cut,” in the margins of my students’ papers so it was good to have the same reaction from my peer group.

Orson Scott card and probably a host of other writers talk about every aspect of our writing being autobiographical, the settings, topics, characters, metaphors, and every word we choose. In this way our writing with its specifics out of our cores becomes fresh and important.  But how to judge if we have too many “spare parts,” as Ted Kooser calls them?  I suggest reading aloud, but also reading aloud to others, or having them read aloud to you.  This last especially works.  I wrote an article for a writing journal about it, actually.  Hearing your work in the voice of someone representing your target audience really lets you know, not just the overloaded details, but when the reader is absorbed and engaged, or when she’s just reading words, but has lost interest.  Note: preferably the reader should not be a relative, close friend, or someone biased toward you.

There are probably other ways to check for excessive details. Some suggest using differently-colored markers on your printed pages for action, dialogue, narration.  Then check the balance.

Simply knowing that too much detail is just as bad as too little may be a help. Ah.  The quest for the Goldilocks measure continues.

 

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Gathering Ideas and Revising our Work

I cannot recommend enough the Ted Kooser The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Adice for Beginning Poets.  So far as I’ve read, it could be called simply The Handbook on Writing.  In the early pages he talks about getting ideas and about revision.

In an appearance at Chatham a year ago, Lois Lowry said that she didn’t believe in “writers’ block.”  She went on, “Is their dentists’ block?”

Novocain, I’d suggest. I respectfully disagree with Lois, at least about writers’ block.  Last Monday night during the Drew-Heinz lecture, Roxanne Gay,  Difficult Women, also disagreed.  I definitely think many of us get “stuck” or empty of ideas.

Kooser addresses that beautifully and inspirationally, I think.  He spoke of William Stafford who said getting ideas was like fishing.  You just toss in your line and sit.

Kafka addressed the process somewhat differently. To paraphrase, he said, “you just sit and listen.  Well, don’t listen, just sit and wait.  Well, don’t wait, just sit.  Ideas will roll in…”  His advice is to do this every day.  This is the writer’s work, to show up at the computer.

I share this, knowing that life interferes with that dictum of showing up every day.  Illness, and, well, work (I almost said “real work”  which is as bad as the person who asked me once if the book I had coming out was a real book or another children’s book)  And our children always come first, and our families, our dogs…all meaningful relationships.  But please don’t wait till you have the idea before writing.  Sit, and ideas will come, at least according to Stafford and Kafka.  Personally, I can’t promise.  But I do think to sit regularly and welcome ideas is worth a try.

On revision, Kooser says most people see it as the worst kind of drudgery. I have to disagree, again.  Cleaning, cooking, laundering—for me, these trump revision flat.  Kooser says that he has revised most of his poems of only 20 lines forty and fifty times, looking for clarity and freshness.  I say I’m on a third rewrite of my guide dog story, but that doesn’t include the endless revisions plus tinkerings of chapters.  It doesn’t take into account that I’ve written this story as a fictional series, as a lengthy memoir about blindness framed by my dogs.   Trying to write about my guide dogs has been something I’ve been doing for years now.

And although, like most of us, I’m crazy to publish a book, and revision seems to stall that process, I’ve grown to love the tweaking and detailing and deepening of a project. Tweaks that might have to be trimmed or abandoned altogether are fun.  Oscar Wilde supposedly told someone about his writing one day.  Paraphrasing, it went something like this:

“Well, I spent all morning and put in a comma.”

“And what did you do in the afternoon of this exhaustive work?” the woman asked.

“Oh, I took out that comma.”

So please don’t feel pressure from me about getting to that computer more often. Life offers enough pressures.  But please don’t postpone sitting at the computer because you don’t have an idea.  And don’t postpone sitting down to revise, because the work needs to be turned on its head altogether.  Just think, one comma at a time.

 

 

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