By: Judy Bobrow
My mother often quoted a philosophy she called the Law of Compensation. It was her way of rationalizing what we saw as the negatives in life by turning them into positives - and sometimes it drove me crazy. But I’m trying to employ that philosophy today, as I recover from recent back surgery. Suddenly, I am transformed from a busy, physically active person, into someone who needs to walk slowly and constantly monitor every movement. My new normal is: Don’t Bend! Don’t Lift! Don’t Reach! Walk Carefully! So, I’m looking for the positives, and here’s what’s been revealed.
Slowing down can be good! Imagine that!! The whole process has made me appreciate time in a new way. Instead of keeping one eye on the clock to make sure I get to the next activity on time, I am reading whole books in one sitting and writing with a much clearer mind. Most important I have time to think about the things that require the luxury of time for pondering and appreciating the small things – like watching the birds at my feeders and the slow rising of the sun in the early morning when I can’t sleep.
I certainly don’t want to go through surgery again any time soon – back or otherwise – but there is an important lesson for me in my mother’s Law of Compensation. It is possible to turn negatives into positives if I just allow myself the time. And perhaps the biggest positive is that lengthening my time now is good training for the future, older me.
Thanks Mom! JB
I’ve been hearing that publishers don’t like prefaces to novels. They say those are just a note to the author, not the reader. But I’ve lately read a couple of novels that were published with a preface. So I asked myself, why? The Kitchen House opens with a preface in which we see a woman hanging from a tree. The novel then tells us how that came about. That preface does a little work in giving the reader a sort of mystery: who, why, etc? Rules of Civility (Amor Towles, Penguin, 2012) is a far better novel that opens with a preface. I’m looking at it carefully to see why.
It opens with a date: October 4, 1966. So it does that little task, and we meet the narrator, an upper middle class Manhattan editor and her husband. Then we’re told that the scene is the opening of an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, the opening of a show called,Many Are Called, “portraits” the narrator says, taken by Walker Evans, taken surreptitiously on the subway in New York City, during the depression years. Evans had a camera up his sleeve, and took pictures of the people sitting directly opposite him on the subway, without their ever knowing they were being photographed. (If you have time, stop here and think about the epigraph, a quotation from Matthew 22:8 to 14, where Christ does some parable ending with “many are called, but few are chosen.” So far I haven’t figured that out, so I asked my local library to get the Evans book, Many Are Called. Still haven’t figured it out. The epilogue of the novel is titled “few are chosen.”)
The preface goes on to a little discussion of the nature of society these days, that is, 1966: too much drinking, for one thing. But it focuses on the role of the US in the world now that World War II has decimated our competition and the Russians don’t seem to be much of a threat. Then the preface narrows down to Manhattan and to the exhibit of photographs taken back in the thirties. Depression and flappers.
And the narrator begins her personal history, her own life during the depression. She imagines that the exhibit might be quite a revelation for the younger people there, but for her it brings up old ghosts, and one old ghost in particular: there are two portraits of a man one surmises was once a romantic attachment. The first they see shows him “ill shaven in a threadbare coat” underweight, but bright eyed and addressing the world. Vibrant and naive. The second one they see shows the same man well dressed, filled out, handsome, sure of himself. Perhaps a little world-weary. But. The second picture they see is actually the younger version of the man. This is not about a young man finding himself. It’s about a man losing himself. Or is it? The novel will be not about the rise, but rather about the fall, of Tinker Grey. Or not.
The narrator alludes to Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which you may remember is a poem about the moral bankruptcy of Edwardian England: “time enough to murder and create—or at least, to have warranted the dropping of a question on your plate.” In the context the question appears to be the question of what has happened in her past. And the question on her plate is the question of what happened then, not just the events, but what did they mean?
And the allusion suggests at least some moral decay as a theme for the novel. I note that near the end of the novel the narrator again alludes to Prufrock, “There will be time for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions.” The novel is bookended with Prufrock. (“And in the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo” ---the poem, like this preface, is set in a high society art gallery.) And the structure of the novel is rather well described there: a hundred visions and revisions. This is not a novel with a strong plot, where the protagonist confronts an evil and vanquishes that evil in the final scene. What it does is give us the narrator’s vision of each character, and then at least one revision, in some cases several revisions, none of them really conclusive. Ultimately they are visions and revisions of society in New York City. Think The Great Gatsby, and also, Edith Wharton (House of Mirth, specifically).
And the theme of the portraits is carried out through the book, with some of Evans’ portraits introducing sections, as if the novel, too, is an exhibition of a series of portraits.
The cultural density of the novel is impressive. And the writing is masterly. Like so many other writers today, Towles manages at least one simile, usually rather epigrammatic, per page. They are extended similes that account for much of the texture of the prose, and often for the cultural density that causes me to hear so much more per line. There are whole metaphoric paragraphs where the energy is concentrated like a black hole: but these emit a lazer light.
So. What does this preface do? It sets up a world context for the novel, and a social context, takes us into the depression through the eyes of a celebrated, photographer, who actually lived outside the novel, and lets us know that the novel will be very literary, by which I mean it locates itself in the literary world, takes up the questions our best literature explores, and then finally narrows down to the business of what happened to one particular man during the thirties, as seen from the point of view of one specific woman.
This preface is rich enough to be a novel in itself. It is a guide to reading the novel, raises all the themes the novel will work out. Is it really necessary? Would the novel succeed without it? Could this not have been handled as Chapter 1? Perhaps. In any case, I am grateful for the heads up. The novel is very rich and I love spending time with it. - SQ
Why can’t I seem to get out of my own way?” is the question Cheston Knapp asks in his recent book of autobiographical essays, Up Up Down Down. The question caught my eye in a review of the book in the February 25 Book Review section of The New York Times, by writer and comedian Michael Ian Black.
Knapp’s question is one we can all ask ourselves as we struggle to solve life’s complexities. Our habits of thinking, the places our minds go when nobody is looking, our hardwired perceptions of our own abilities – they all get in the way from time-to-time. But for Knapp, who is struggling to move forward from aspiring reader and writer to literary reader and writer, the question is asked in the context of his writing life.
Like Knapp, I am constantly trying to “get out of my own way” when I write. Instead trusting that how I see something deserves to be taken seriously, and that I am the best person to express what I am feeling and seeing, I find myself struggling with my own insecurity. The voice in my head is saying, “Who do you think you are? Yours is not an authentic voice. When they read what you’ve written they will see that you’re not a ‘real writer.’”
The voice in my head often stops me from sitting down to write at all or changes my writing voice to one that is someone else’s. It suggests that maybe my descriptions need expanding. Perhaps a sprinkling of metaphors would be a good idea. How about searching the thesaurus for more impressive word choices? Valid suggestions all but at some point, perhaps, I should just let my own voice come through. Although not perfect, it is authentic and honest and – mine.
As I consider Knapp’s question, I am paying close attention to what critic Black, managing editor of the Portland Oregon-based literary magazine, Tin House, says.
He advises Knapp to take a deep breath, swallow his insecurities and trust in his already excellent writing voice. In short, drop the question mark and simply get on with getting “out of his own way.”
Sounds like good advice! I think I’ll give it a try myself. JB
I often sit down to write but quickly find my thoughts wandering. I need to do that before...I need to get...I need to... I can't focus. Can't get any more words on paper. But I love to write! I want to write! So why can't I seem to settle down long enough? Why am I so easily distracted? That's when I usually do more research. Research on writing. Research on writer's block. Sometimes research is my distraction. But there is something that helps. It's called freewriting.
Freewriting is writing randomly, whatever pops into your mind. Or it can be simply working on a project without stopping to think about it. There are no rules. You simply write. You don't worry about spelling, grammar, form or put any other constraints on your writing. With freewriting you get your thoughts on paper (or computer) before you have a chance to forget. Before you feel stuck. Blocked. When you have an idea, or know what you want to say, you don't stop to correct grammar or spelling, and you don't loose your words. You don't tend to become so distracted because you don't allow gaps for other thoughts to creep in.
This exercise in free thoughts can sometimes create writing that is un-useable. But you may find that more creative thoughts come your way. You may get a flash of creativity that helps combat writer's block. Use it like you use brainstorming.
Edit later. If you can't think of a word you want to use, substitute with another word or put an XXX in it's place. I like to use the XXX, so I can do a find and replace when I go back through and edit. Don't get bogged down trying to come up with the ideal word, phrase or metaphor. Save it for when you edit.
Freewriting works best if you set a goal. It can be an amount of time, like 10 or 20 minutes, or a set amount of words or pages. Then just start writing. You can use this technique with your novel or just as a warm up exercise. Do it for fun. It can help drive out the distractions. Give it a try, let your free spirit guide you and see what happens!
There comes a point, at least for me, when the characters I have drafted take on a life of their own. They become as real to me as some of my long-time friends or family members and often I find myself telling their stories in social settings. This is a sure-fire way to be banned from future gatherings, but more on that in another post. When you have developed a character that you find intriguing, that perhaps has more to say than the few pages of text that you allow them in your novel...maybe it's time to give them access to social media.
Think about it, everything we do as writers is about creativity and sharing a message. The best way of doing that to the masses, is by tapping into any one of the social platforms available on the internet today. By posting as your character, you can really get to know them, and perhaps find out how they would react to a certain situation. In my mind, this is especially beneficial for characters who span a series of books.
Facebook is one of the easiest platforms to use for this purpose, by way of the Create Page option they provide. This allows you to generate a page, tied to your privacy settings, for anything you are interested in. With a few photos from a royalty-free photo gallery, such as Pixaby.com, you can build your character's platform and give your readers somewhere fun to visit between novels. The posts can be scheduled ahead, which is what I recommend, so messages can be generated when you have the time, and posted when you don't. I have been having fun with one of the trouble makers from my series, you can find her Facebook Page here. This is also a great way to advertise future books!
I have also made great use of Pinterest. Not only have I found a ton of recipes I would love to try one day, but I have also built boards that allow me to visualize things for my books such as settings, props, attitudes, etc. I think of it as a visual mind map, one that I can share with my readers after my book is released. I think it is a fun way to give your readers a peek inside your head. You can see what I have brewing in mine on my Pinterest page here.
There is an overwhelming amount of software, apps and information on the internet, and finding the things that work for you and your schedule is key. Remember that tools are meant to help make what ever job you are performing easier, and what works for one writer may not work for another. With that being said, I have had pretty good luck using the tools I describe above, and hope you consider them for your character's development. Most of all, have fun with your writing. Your characters will thank you...perhaps even on Facebook! DH
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