“Borges and I”

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I’m glad this story was merely a single page because I had to read it several times to fully understand it. How can something so brief manage to be so complex, powerful and true? The more I analyzed it the more I understood what Borges was trying to say and I’m glad because what he wrote rang true for me.

This week’s lecture on Setting and Atmosphere says: “Does “Borges and I” have a setting? In a traditional manner, no, but it does project a sort of “outer envelope” that surrounds the text, an atmosphere of thought. The setting might be somewhat invisible, but not non-existent. Perhaps it is what thinking might look like, a kind of dream space. And there are objects and details for the reader to zoom in on: “the arch of an entry,” “the portal of a church,” “the clumsy plucking of a guitar” (Borges 277). If not the mind, maybe time itself is the setting of this very short piece, or a human soul.”

This made a great deal of sense to me. The setting is in the author’s head and his subconscious mind. It exists but not in the same way a city exists. It exists in his mind.

“Borges and I” describes a kind of internal struggle that the author feels between his private and public selves, between what he writes and who he is, between his thoughts and how he expresses them. It’s a way of putting into words what we cannot actually see, hear or touch. How does one describe something that exists only in the mind?

He says: “It would be an exaggeration to consider our relationship hostile. I live, I agree to go on living, so that Borges may fashion his literature; that literature justifies me.” It seemed to me almost as though the author is admitting he’s depressed. He defines himself by his writing and so much so that he would cease to exist without it. It’s not just how he defines himself but it’s also what he lives for. That’s profound.

It’s beyond deep and, yet, I bet every writer can relate to this feeling on some level.

This story made me think of my own story. Not just the stories I write but also the one I’m living. I’d been writing full time for two years when my daughter was born. She wasn’t home a week and I was pitching one novel and writing another. Postpartum depression set in and even thought I fought it and denied it, on some level I knew it was there. Still, to his day, I’m unsure if the depression was entirely a result of childbirth and the lack of sleep that comes with it or the onslaught of rejections that come hand in hand with pitching a first manuscript. It was probably a combination but I knew I had to embrace my feelings in order to get through it. Family and friends urged me to take a break from writing but I knew I couldn’t stop writing because it would have been like killing the part of me that made me who I am.

Writing isn’t just a profession or a hobby, it’s an existence. It’s not just what we are—it’s who we are. We are defined by the words we put on paper as if we gave birth to them.

Borges writes: “Little by little I am surrendering everything to him, although I am well aware of his perverse habit of falsifying and exaggerating.” This brought me right back to Prose and what she says about “good liars.” In a way, writers of fiction are liars in that we are making up stories and telling them in such a way that the make-believe becomes believable. Good writers are able to pull this off much like “good liars” are able to seem genuine.

 

Listless (A Short Short and a Short List)

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Viv sat at her desk and stared listless at her computer screen at the dozens of unopened emails ready to be read. She desperately needed sleep but settled for coffee.

She’d spent the night being virtually spanked by two equally irritated friends: Liz via text and Joe via Facebook messenger.

Liz and Joe were both so happy when Viv introduced them to each other just one week earlier.

Viv rubbed her eyes, sighed and then clicked open a new email.

“Dear God,” Viv typed. “I promise to never attempt to set up friends, acquaintances or even complete strangers ever-ever-ever-ever-ever again. You know I meant well but I’m clearly a matchmaking moron. I accept that now. I also accept that you’re the only one who could possibly interpret the ridiculous things they say they want in a mate. I tried and failed! Please forgive me for my stupidity, find it in your heart to forgive me, give them whatever they say they want and end my suffering. Thank you. Your fan, Viv. ”

He must love dogs and hate cats

She must love cats and hate dogs

He must be able to swim

She must not mumble

He must have a job

She must be good in bed

He must be good in bed

She must sleep naked every night

He must never wear socks in bed or with sandals

She must never pee with the door open

He must challenge me without ever pissing me off

She must laugh heartily and sincerely at all of my jokes

He must be able to make me laugh without ever tickling me

She must never point and laugh at my penis

He must be incredibly romantic

She must have incredible tits

He must know when to be serious

She must know when to shut up

He must never tell me to shut up

She must never fart, burp or go to the bathroom except to powder her nose

He must never offer me a Dutch oven

She must love me for me and not my money

He must have lots and lots of money

She must give me blowjobs daily

He must love my friends but think they’re all too ugly and/or fat to picture naked

She must drink beer

He must have a huge penis and know how to use it

She must have the body of a Victoria Secret model but be completely down to earth

He must be well kempt and well groomed but not overly metro-sexual

She must be completely hairless from the nose down

He must be smart but not smarter than me

She must have a hot mom and it would help if her grandma’s hot, too.

He must not masturbate in public

She must have an adventurous side

He must not have any weird or disgusting eating habits

She must never order just salad while on dates with me

He must have a spotless criminal record

She must not have an STD

He must not be a pedophile

She must not be a stripper unless she’s doing it to put herself through med school

He must have intense eyes but not resemble a serial killer

She must get along with my mom

He must not be a mama’s boy

She must be the type of woman who I can see mothering my children

He must love children but not already have them

She must never bring up the topics of marriage or children

He must be ready to commit

She must love to cook

He must like to dance

She must love me for me

He must love me more than football

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Tis the season for goblins and ghosts so I figured I might as well reblog this post!

Valerie Zane

Well I have and it was awesome.

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays (3rd favorite to be exact). And ever since way back when I was a kid, I’ve always loved getting dressed up for it, typically alternating clever and disturbing costumes year after year.

Against his will, I usually “urge” my husband to dress up too. In fact throughout our relationship, I’ve tortured him with one awful costume after the next. He claims he hates it. But I don’t believe him since he almost always gives in to whatever I want. One year, I made him dress up like a turd. Yep. It was a group theme. I made the costumes myself. Corn and all. He was a good sport about it… even though it was a little shitty of me. Another year, we were simply ketchup and mustard. He said “no” at first but eventually…

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“Kindred” by Octavia Butler (The Fall)

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Our protagonist, Dana, starts the chapter showing us how she met and fell in love with her husband, Kevin, and what her life was like just prior to meeting him. We get to know her.

Something I found poignant was how she referred to her job with the casual labor industry as “a slave market.” When I read that in the first paragraph I knew this chapter was going to show Dana’s perspective change. Looking back, she states: “It was nearly always mindless work, and as far as most employers were concerned, it was done by mindless people. Nonpeople rented for a few hours, a few days, a few weeks. It didn’t matter.” She is an aspiring writer and though she feels this job is beneath her, she does it—half asleep and popping No Doz but she does it. A new perspective for her came painfully in “The Fire” as she saw real slaves and was even beaten by the patroller, but because of this flashback of sorts into her past we get to see where it started and appreciate her shift of awareness.

We also learn on page 57 that Kevin, her husband or at this point future husband is “a kindred spirit crazy enough (like her) to keep on trying.” In this one line, we know he will keep trying for as long as she does and that tells us all we really need to know—he will be her partner. They’re kindred spirits, similar to Dana and her ancestors. So on the very next page when we see them “fall” together into the past to the moment when Rufus just “fell” and broke his leg, it’s not just an interesting thematic namedrop moment (even though I loved that we were given “kindred” and “fall” in the same chapter) but we also know he will play a big role in Dana’s adventure.

In “The Fall,” Dana and Kevin acquire motivation. In “The Fire” it was all about how Dana was going to get out of this place and time and back home, but in “The Fall” it’s about supporting each other and after Rufus—not just because he’s a child who needs help but also because he is, in such a profound way, Dana’s past. By helping him, she also helps her ancestors and herself.

My thoughts are summed up by Butler in this paragraph: “I was the worst possible guardian for him—a black to watch over him in a society that considered blacks subhuman, a woman to watch over him in a society that considered women perennial children. I would have all I could do to look after myself. But I would help him as best I could. And I would try to keep friendship with him, maybe plant a few ideas in his mind that would help both me and the people who would be his slaves in the years to come. I might even make things easier for Alice.”

As the chapter progresses, this motivation grows. Later in a conversation with Kevin, who has been hired to teach Rufus, Dana says, “Let me help you with Rufus as much as I can. Let’s see what we can do to keep him from growing up into a red-haired version of his father.”

While Kevin and Dana share perspective in their present day, it seems, their motivations in the past do not line up. While Dana is beginning to bond and show desire to fix things, Kevin is still motivated by “home.” On page 100 he says, “Look, I won’t say I understand how you feel about this because maybe that’s something I can’t understand. But as you said, you know what’s going to happen. It already has happened. We’re in the middle of history. We surely can’t change it. If anything goes wrong, we might have all we can do to survive it. We’ve been lucky so far.” I wonder if this difference of motivations will cause conflict later between Dana and Kevin. 

Going back to Prose and analyzing what she says in her chapters on character and dialogue along with what I’m trying to accomplish as a writer, I am absorbing a ton through reading Kindred. Through lesson with Prose and through example with Kindred, this week I learned the importance of depth when it comes to characters. Butler gives Dana depth by sharing her original perspective and motivation and then changing both of those things dramatically.

It’s not enough to know what a character looks like; it’s important to go deeper. We must figure out and then project to the reader the character’s motivations. It’s also crucial to give a character perspective so that it can change as he or she grows.

“Aren’t You Happy for Me?” by Richard Bausch

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“Aren’t You Happy for Me?” by Richard Bausch is an excellent example to showcase this week’s lecture as well as Francine Prose’ chapters on character and dialogue.

The story is a fast paced, high energy and, yet, profoundly sad and intensely frustrating peek at broken relationships and family. While the story was, at times, all over the place that added to its authenticity. It felt familiar but also uncomfortable like a true story being shared or like I was a character myself, sitting awkwardly in the room with the father and pretending not to listen.

This week’s class lecture states: “As students of writing, we are often told for example that we must describe what our characters look like, and we often do, and this is fine and even good. But, writing isn’t a formula, it is an art, and our characters certainly shouldn’t be created with a formula in mind either. Prose gives an example of the Marquise in Heinrich von Kleist’s novella The Marquise of O–, saying that “There is no information, not a single detail, about the Marquise’s appearance . . . We assume that the Marquise is beautiful, perhaps because her presence exerts such an immediate and violent effect on the Russian soldier that he loses all control and turns from an angel into a devil . . . Kleist tells you what sort of people his characters are–often impetuous, wrongheaded, overly emotional, but essentially good at heart–and then lets them run around the narrative at the speed of windup toys” (115).”

Prose goes on to say, “He (Kleist) has no time for their motives, nor do they, as they struggle, like the reader, to keep up with the pace at which one surprise follows another.”

In “Aren’t You Happy for Me?” it was easy to picture these people, flawed and full of issues and real life drama, despite the fact that Bausch doesn’t really describe them or their surroundings physically. In fact, aside from what the mother is wearing (and the smile on her face) and the characters’ ages and genders, he tells us very little about what they look like. And, yet, we still feel we know them because of their actions and words. 

For example, I imagined the daughter being pretty, fresh-faced, bratty and naïve but book smart. I pictured the father to be sad, lost, lonely, and defeated both emotionally and physically. For the most part neither one’s actions or words felt premeditated. They were guided by the situation.

In so many ways this family is my family, your family or the family of someone we know. It’s unique and, yet, familiar. You and I may have never experienced their exact situation, but we understand how they feel. As a parent, it’s easy to relate to a father who wants the best for his child. And looking back at my youth, though I never got knocked up by a much-older professor (not that I’d admit it here if I had), I feel like I can still easily relate to the daughter’s fears, anxieties and, especially her all-in-without-concern-for-the-consequences mentality. She is her age, and we’ve all been there. Descriptions are not necessary when we’re looking in the mirror.

In regards to dialogue, Prose says, “Most conversations involve a sort of sophisticated multitasking. When we humans speak, we are not merely communication information but attempting to make an impression and achieve a goal.” 

Bausch exhibits this masterfully. In the story, the dialogue is intense, choppy and inconsistent. Because of this it feels real and authentic. The conversation between father and daughter is a family nightmare but a believable one. The way the daughter drops bombshell after bombshell on her dad is crazy but classic. And the way she continuously sighs, puts him on hold and even hangs up made it feel like life in the way nothing in life goes smoothly. The fact that her fiancé was sitting there listening made me feel uncomfortable, similar to how the father felt. It was already awkward! With so many abrupt distractions and interruptions, I wanted to yell at the daughter, “Hey! Pay attention. This is your life we’re talking about!”

The chat between the father and his future “son-in-law” was relentless. It’s easy to understand the father’s frustration as he deals with his child making what he sees as the mistake of her life. And if that’s not bad enough he gets to talk to this immature adult who his daughter has chosen, for lack of a better word, as a life partner. The fact that she seems to not be listening makes it even more frustrating and realistic. There’s nothing the father can do or say to fix this situation but, like anyone in his shoes, he’s trapped in his disappointment and frustration and simply can’t argue effectively but also can’t just let it go.

Oddly enough, the father and the fiancé, due to their circumstances and disappointments in life, are also her age—emotionally speaking. The fiancé is twice a widower and the father is spiraling toward divorce and realizing that he’s about to lose his wife and daughter. At their ages, both men should know better. But the fiancée sounds more like a young college student than an experienced professor, and while the father’s advice might be seen as wise, his delivery was not. Even stranger, the mother who is separated from the situation for most of the story and soon to be separated from her husband should probably be more alarmed but simply seems disconnected, free and optimistic. Even that somhow felt natural to me given her situation with her husband.

In regards to my own writing, I’ve learned a few important lessons here about character and dialogue from Prose and Bausch. First I learned that, while helpful, descriptions aren’t always necessary to define characters. There are other ways to provide critical details and information without getting physical. For me, this validates my occasional instinct not to worry so much about the descriptions and just focus on the story. Second, I learned that there are exceptions to every rule. Regarding dialogue, some say writing can be real without being overly realistic and others disagree. So I get to decide for myself. Finally, I learned to always keep my goal front and foremost in my mind. It doesn’t matter which roads I choose to get there as long as I arrive.  

“In the American Society”

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In the story In the American Society, Gish Jen glosses over the family’s backstory and skips to their success. I think this is why, for me, the beginning felt rushed and the narrator’s initial tone seemed braggy. It was like Jen jumped to the successful part without showing the struggle first. Looking back, I needed to see the struggle.

I had trouble relating to the family from the start. Going back to Prose and the chapter on narration I analyzed in my last post, it may be that Jen wasn’t writing this to me. I certainly don’t consider junior high too soon to start saving for college. If anything that feels too late. Things like this made the family’s struggle fall flat for me.

Regarding dialogue, the term “you people” didn’t feel sincere or authentic either. While I get what Jen was trying to show, I just don’t believe that Mrs. Lardner would use it like this: “Why, I’d be honored and delighted to write you people a letter.” I’m just not buying it. It felt contrived and over the top. Then when the family mocks her in private it made me dislike them, not Mrs. Lardner.

But as I read further, I started to think that may have been her intention. Perhaps the narrator wasn’t trying to get me to like or even feel for the father and his family but, rather, maybe she was trying to get me to feel even more sympathy for the workers. If that was indeed her intention, it worked. When Booker enters the story on page 666 was the first time I felt any emotional connection whatsoever. His arrival, for me, also made the father feel real to me but only briefly. But then it all fell apart again with the way he treated his workers and then again later with talk of bribing the judge. In the back and forth between Jeremy and the father in the final pages, I felt like I was being strong-armed into feeling pity. The only thing I felt badly about was the fact that I felt no sympathy whatsoever for this man.

If this was a much longer story, I think I might have been able to grow more with the characters and my feelings would have had the chance to flow organically but, again, it felt rushed from the start.  This is the lesson I’m taking away for my own writing. Don’t rush the important stuff! 

Prose says if you know who you’re speaking to then it’s okay to “skip over slow parts” or even “hurry the narration along.” But I had trouble connecting to this story. In fact, I think it’s a prime example of how as Prose puts it: “The truly problematic question is: Who is listening?”

I tried to “listen” but I just didn’t get it. To use Prose’ words again, Jen “tossed this heartfelt confession out into the ozone” for all to experience but the tone simply wasn’t for everyone.  It didn’t work for me. 

“Reading Like a Writer”

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At the start of chapter five in the book Reading Like a Writer, Prose says, “The truly problematic question is: Who is listening? On what occasion is the story being told, and why? Is the protagonist projecting this heartfelt confession out into the ozone, and, if so, what is the proper tone to assume when the ozone is one’s audience?”

These questions set my brain ablaze. I wondered: How often do I take the time to think about my potential reader when I sit down to write? Or do I just write? I hate to admit it but I’m fairly certain that more often than not I just write. Of course, there’s a point when I think about who might read my work but this revelation rarely comes with the inspiration to write. During that stage, I’m absorbed in the writing and, perhaps more so, in myself.

Then I thought, how often do we write without ever taking our audience into consideration? Do we write for ourselves and leave it to our potential readers to decide whether or not we’re speaking to them and how they feel, or don’t feel, about our words? Then why so we get sensitive or insulted when they don’t feel anything? Why do we take it so personally when we didn’t try to connect?

When I read the work of other writers, I rarely feel like they wrote for me or tried to connect to me specifically but, rather, I just happened to like or dislike whatever was written. Usually it feels more coincidental like, to use Prose airplane analogy, sitting down beside a complete stranger on an airplane and (instead of ignoring them) striking up a conversation and finding a new friend.

Every once in a while, in reading, like in life, a rare moment occurs when I truly feel the words were meant specifically for me as though it was (cliché alert) meant to be. What’s exceptional about those meant-to-be moments is that they feel magical. Don’t they? Whether they happen in life or in art, when we stumble upon that kind of deep connection, we feel satisfied and whole.

It seems to me that we, as writers, should strive to create more of those moments.

Who we are speaking to is at least equally if not more important that what we are saying. But let’s face it we don’t always get to pick our readers. We certainly cannot control what they like or dislike. But, still, when it comes to reading and writing it’s all about the connection. The words hardly matter if the person reading the words isn’t feeling them. Good writers don’t just write. They inspire emotion.

At the end of chapter five, Prose says, “What I hope I’ve managed to show is how much room there is, how much variation exists, how many possibilities there are to consider as we choose how to narrate our stories and novels. Deciding on a narrator’s identity, and personality, is an important step. But it’s only a step. What really matters is what happens after that—the language that the writer uses to interest and engage us in the vision and the version of events that we know as fiction.”

This paragraph not only summarizes Chapter 5 but it also summarizes what I’ve learned, so far, in my experience as a writer. All of the pieces are important but it’s the whole that is most important and even though no one topic will speak to everyone since we are each unique and so are our tastes and experiences, one thing we have in common is that we all feel. That said, writers should strive to provoke feeling and write so that the beauty and depth of our words and the artistry and passion in our sentences connects, engages and touches those who read them.