Monday, April 30, 2012

I was stealth evangelized by a twelve year old

So, at the library the other day, I helped a younger patron, a boy I'd say was twelve or so. He finished his transaction, efficiently and politely (which is more than I can say for some adults I deal with, certainly), adjusted his HUGE backpack, and rested his hand on the counter briefly. Then he looked at me and said "That's for you" and left.

I looked at the counter, and thought "did that kid just give me ten dollars?", a "lol wut?" moment if ever there was one. Then I picked it up. It was a Billion Dollar Bill.

I was amused, and then confused, as I examined the item further. One of the little seals on the front says "Thou shalt not covet". Ooh, he got me. I wanted money. Then I turned it over. Apparently, I'm going to hell.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

So Much Depends on the Weather

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

"It was raining iced pitchforks."

"To the Red county and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth."

"It was a dark and stormy night" is an oft-quoted trope; Snoopy uses it when he fancies being an author. I used it when I wrote my very first novel in fifth grade, The Chent Mansion Murders ( it was only four chapters long), and I'm not sure where I'd heard of it to begin with. From Snoopy, I guess. I'd never seen the rest of that sentence until I'd used The Google to see what it was actually from, which is a novel called Paul Clifford, published in 1830 by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, neither of which I'd heard of, other than in the context of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which is an annual contest in which people are invited to write "the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." I'm sorry to say that we missed this year's deadline; it was April 15. I also don't know what it says about me that I just spent ten or so minutes reading last year's winners. If one can properly be said to "win" such a thing.

The second sentence is in the video game Max Payne, delivered in the noir toned, gravel bottomed voice of our narrator.

The third is the opening sentence to The Grapes of Wrath.

 I've heard it said that when writing fiction, one should avoid writing about the weather. I'm sure this is one of those rules that one might break; after all, characters in a story are not operating in a formless void, typically. Weather, if you aren't being too heavy handed or purple about it, can be a deft way of setting a tone and transporting the reader into the headspace you require them in order to receive the story you're dishing out.

Kind of funny that all three quotes I picked involved rain, but pretty much everybody knows how they feel when it rains. If it's windy and rainy, you have a way of feeling. If it's sleeting, that's a whole 'nother misery. If it's a gentle rain, well that's something too. It smells different outside, when it's raining. It taps at your windows, when it's raining. You might get a headache, when it's raining.

Now look at the first line from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." We've all lived through days like that in April; the clocks striking thirteen, though? That pulls you in. Does it mean that something is off in the order of things? Well, if you've read Nineteen Eighty-Four, it's pretty off. If you haven't read Nineteen Eighty-Four, why are you even on the Internet, unless you're going to go get a copy of it right now. Seriously. Get it and read it. You can't talk about dystopia without it (is it ironic that Google's spell check doesn't recognize "dystopia"? Maybe.)

In The Stranger by Albert Camus, our narrator ultimately shot a man because of the sun. That's simplifying things, but also not. You should probably read that book, too. Its first line doesn't have to do with the weather: "Maman died today."
Purple prose, though, that can a bad scene. You know what I mean; it's really unavoidable, if you're in the habit of reading. You've read it in this entry already, in fact: that opening line of Paul Clifford might be considered purple prose. It's overdone, and unnaturally flowery, and has made "it was a dark and stormy night" the very definition of a cliché. 

Ultimately, blue skies or not, blighted lands or fertile, setting matters, and so does the weather in it. The weather needn't be a character unto itself, and probably ought not be, but I don't think it's instantly bad writing in order to include it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Singular Sensation

Sometimes, when writing, you want to shed normal descriptions. You want to describe something as it's never been described before, while leaving no doubt whatsoever as to what that something is.

In your day to day life, you catalog senses, feelings, experiences, trying to shelve them like rare antiquities, squirreled away to relate later, in different lights.

My soap, bought on vacation and jealously guarded, used slice by slice from the main bar, had sharp edges this morning. The patchouli scent of it dulled the sharpness and made me want more.

I got a new kind of gum, hard white pillows in a plastic tray, foil backed like pills. When I bit them, the shells cracked and there was a tiny drop of liquid inside. It was how I imagined biting an insect to be; crack the carapace, liquid hitting the tongue.

Black ink on my fingers, fading purple with repeated scrubbings, nails dirty, then grey, then pale.

A papercut, too shallow to bleed my dry skin, edges of the loose skin white like a flower petal.

Purple prose is to be avoided, but sometimes, you just need to skate that line. You need to think of your words and roll them on your tongue, like somebody sampling a wine. Too much and it's too dense, too sweet. Too little, and everything is bones.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Library insanity 3

A patron walked into the library around 6 or 7 in the evening. She came to the desk, looking a little nervous. This nervousness is a normal state for some of our more....interesting...patrons, but this one is normally friendly and confident.

"There's a timer outside", she said. "In the gazebo."
"Time like...on a bomb?" I asked suavely.
"Yeah, you can hear it ticking." She walked over and opened the door. Indeed, you can hear it ticking.
"Modern bombs don't tick," I said (so rarely can I apply this quote in everyday conversation. Most times, nobody even gets it. But that's all right. I know.)
"Should I touch it?" She asked. I weighed the options, quickly. My coworker was out of the room. We aren't allowed to leave the desk unattended. Did I really want to go closer to a potential bomb. Would it really be a bomb? That seemed kind of ridiculous. Luckily, the male patron by the DVDs had started paying attention.
"Oh, that's mine," he said, a little defensively. We both looked at him. "It's for my pot roast."

Oh. Of course.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Why I Don't Write Poetry

I mentioned in The Order of Things that I don't much like poetry.

Since that day, just last month, Adrienne Rich passed away. I was sorry to hear that she had passed; she's a poet whose work I really like. She had a lot of impact on a lot of lives, and was willing to be a strong women when others would not or could not. I don't know anything about her politics; I only know some of her poems. And they are very good.

But, poetry. I don't much write poetry either. I wrote a couple of poems in college,  and they are very much college poems. Not because they're about drinking or frats or what have you, but because of the quality of writing. Little that I wrote in college may see the light of day in its college form; I'm not sure if any of it hasn't been re-edited at this point, if not entirely rewritten.

I can be casual with my words. I can be braggy in conversation, using words I know that perhaps others won't. I like feeling smart. Sorry.

With poetry, though, every word matters. Syllables and sentences run into each other and away with each other, and with good poetry, poetry that I like that that others have published, and that I'm happy has seen the light of day, that poetry has layers of meaning. There are the words. Then there are the references they're making. Then there is the new thing that they all make together. Then there is the place you take those things, and make it something new for you.

I don't write poems like that. Can I? Maybe. It would be very hard, and undoubtedly worth it, but words of such weight aren't how my stories tend to speak to me. Not that fiction is "easy" either, but it's not as hard. Easy and hard aren't even the words I mean, they're layman's translations for gut feelings and visceral reactions. Poetry is evocative of different things for me than fiction, a different place in my brain where Ginsberg smokes (did Ginsberg smoke?) and Eliot prays (preys?) and Anne Sexton is more than a little mad (crazy, that is, not angry).

The starting line of a poem is like a reverse fishing lure: it bobs on the surface, waiting for you to strike and catch yourself, and then it pulls you down with it.

"Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The Muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedius argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question....
Oh, do not ask "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit."

~The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T. S. Eliot

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Book Review: Up, by Patricia Ellis Herr

Up: a Mother and Daughter's Peakbagging Adventure might seem like an odd book for me to have chosen. Really, it kind of is. I don't have little kids. There aren't dogs in it. I'm not from New Hampshire. I'm not into hiking up mountains. I mean, I'm not against hiking up mountains, it just isn't a burning passion for me.

The book happened into my hands at the library, as books so frequently will. You see, when we get new books, they come to use from what is essentially our book warehouse, and then they go upstairs to the offices to be processed and barcoded. Then they come down on a delightful little cart and a piece of paper gets slapped on there that says "new books!" and the staff get to look at them before sending them to their waiting patrons, or putting them on the shelf. Up did not have any waiting patrons, and it had a compelling, easy to read style, and a good hook at the beginning. I took it home and devoured it.

Up is about Herr and her daughter, Alex, and their hiking. Or "peakbagging", as they apparently call taking a trail to the peak of a mountain. The general plan was doing "four thousand footers", which is apparently doable, round trip, in a day. Even with a five year old. Yup, that's right. Herr's daughter, Alex, was five and a half when they started their peakbagging shenanigans.

Alex is a smart and dynamic little girl. She and her little sister, Sage, are home schooled by Herr (she doesn't go into the reasoning, but before having children, she was  PhD candidate, and apparently her husband works at MIT, so it's not like they don't have the chops), and encouraged to be inquisitive and active and make their own decisions. Which extended to this level of hiking.

The book was a brief and digestible pleasure to read. The environments they spend their time in are beautiful and sometimes less than forgiving, but no real tragedies befall them. Herr is in fact a smart woman, and a smart mom, and there are no times at which I was smacking my forehead and yelling "Don't go in there!" at the book. Her husband sort of takes a backseat in the book, but he's obviously a good man, and has significant influence on their daughters. The girls are...well...little kids. But also smart and lovely. I'm sure they're going to grow into fantastic adults.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Devil's in the Details

Remember in school, when they taught you to write a first draft, and then a second one, and so on? Maybe they had you do an outline first?

Yeah, I hated that.