This story lifts up from the pages as if ideas, ideals, rained mutely up from the leaves. There’s a circular journey: a beginning, an end, and a continuation as a final choice is made, steps taken. Even the worst moments shimmer. And the best moments reach inside the chest and measure what makes a heart more than mere muscle. As a writer reading, I have stumbled upon another phenomenal mentor in David Wroblrewski.
Someone had said to me, You’ll never guess in a million years who did it, before I read Little Bee; in fact, before I’d even ordered a copy. The truth is, this “someone” may not have used those exact words, but those are the words I heard.
And so it is with Little Bee. Words written by Chris Cleave to tell the stories of two women from utterly different worlds paint circumstances and moments, the interior workings and outer actions, the ongoing ripples of those actions. Yet the whole of the thing, of the lines, paragraphs, chapters—becomes something beyond a book. Beyond material pages with front and back covers, a spine, of a particular size and a weight I can set aside. It becomes an imprint, a sort of stamp inked onto my thinking, as if a border’s been crossed and a stranger in uniform now hands me back my mind, allowing me entry and later an exit from these lives. Yet I leave with this indelible stamp, and not in a material passport. I think I will carry the sounds of Little Bee, alive and hovering inside my thinking for a very long time.
How does a writer create emotion in a reader? This was the question tonight on Pat Bertram’s Gather Group: No Whine Just Champagne. With a Group title like that, who needs anything more, right? The discussion was a good deal more and the hour spent reading and commenting with other writers well worth the time. To visit Pat’s blog, click on the link, lower right, of my “blogroll” and find interesting weekly posts on the craft of writing.
In advance of the Live Chat on NWJC, I wrote the following, just so I would have something to offer, and now I offer it here, on my blog, so as not to . . . hmm . . . not to vaporize [I knew I could come up with a good sci-fi-cyberspace verb if I gave it a sec!] so as not to “vaporize” my thoughts on good writing and emotional development of characters, in readers, making us care about those we’d just as soon not care about . . . etcetera. So, here goes:
I’ve been rereading The Hours by Michael Cunningham. The character played by Meryl Streep in the movie is, in the book, the protagonist of the story thread that Cunningham gives the most space/pages. I think because she is a shallow character, at heart, Cunningham is required to spend considerable time so that we, as readers, can find in her those elements of ourselves that we always hope stay hidden – our envy of what we don’t have; our propensity to go on about “surfaces” of things and people, the artifice, the “pretty” of pretty lives, and find ourselves unhappy, on some level.
Someone mentioned “deep” pov in pre-discussion, and I wondered if what Cunningham does with the “Mrs. Dalloway”/Clarissa character in The Hours isn’t exactly that . . . an attention to miniscule details and inner thoughts of a woman dissatisfied, yet pretending a vitality and happiness she doesn’t genuinely feel.
As a reader of the Pulitzer winning novel, and viewer of the movie, I can honestly say that in the movie I cared more about the Mrs. Brown (Julianne Moore) character and the Mrs Woolf (Nicole Kidman) character than I did about the modern woman, Clarissa a.k.a Mrs. Dalloway. But, in the book, it is the Clarissa character that I find myself emotionally involved with, reacting to, caring about more so than the others. She is not a sympathetic character and yet … I sympathize.
Good job, you, Mr. Cunningham, for taking me where I didn’t expect I might go with this read.
Beryl Clutterbuck was born in 1902, three years after Irene Lowe. Both women made perilous choices that could have resulted in Atlantic Ocean related deaths-Beryl by crashing her Vega Gull during her solo flight from England to North America, and Irene by a bad entry into the Atlantic after having been shot from the human cannonball cannon off the Atlantic City Steel Pier in New Jersey.
Beryl has a book written as if by her but actually by her third husband, writer and journalist Raoul Schumacher. West With The Night was published in 1942. This, by Ernest Hemingway in a letter to Max Perkins, is found on the back cover: “Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true. . . . I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.”
Irene has no book. And unlike Ernest Hemingway, I have never been there-not in the “time” of the writing, nor the place. Oh, I have been to the Steel Pier Museum at the north end of the boardwalk in Atlantic City, but the Steel Pier itself is no more than a few black marks rising from the ocean in crooked ways. The only connection to the “absolutely true” of Irene’s life story that I can vouch for are the photos and write ups in newspaper clippings and the recollections of an aging cousin who, in the end, identified Irene’s lifeless body for detectives in 1930’s New York City.
And unlike Beryl Markham (or her third husband) I am not setting out to write a biography of a life, but rather something of a biography of a “Time”–those first thirty or so years of the twentieth century. Irene Lowe is my inspiration for the telling of a woman’s “Time” in those years, those circumstances. I give my fictional Irene the further names of Parilee and Johns. “Parilee,” because this was the name of an aunt I never knew. Parilee was born to my grandmother, Elsie May Susan Gray Ivy. Parilee lived three years and died of the influenza that took millions of lives worldwide near the end of WWI. She was an aunt who was grieved some seventy years later, even as Elsie lay dying. They are all gone, my mother and my grandmothers, but I want to remember them through other women I never knew. Thus the name Parilee is added to Irene. And “Johns” is added for simpler reasons — I like the roll of it off the ear and the tongue.
I hope to write of how factors in gender and race influence choices we make as humans: the choices we make as individuals regarding how we move through life; the choices others are left with in their lives once gender, race, religion, etc. are factored into play. Or perhaps what I should say is What we are allowed to play.
If you read for escape and with not a lot of time to sink into a long work, then Merwin’s The Book of Fables is the place to go. It’s like a gated play yard for the imagination to spend its recess time. You can climb on a spinning yarn and be dazzled as the landscape whirls by, or you can go through the ups and downs of a see-saw ride, or pick up a question from a grassy expanse, roll it in your hand, and set it back down with some of W.S. Merwin’s insights rubbed off to your palms. His fables run from a sentence or two, to a bare quarter page, to as long as perhaps a dozen pages. I have not read a single one so far that didn’t provide the brief escape that I needed in the moment from the everyday humdrum. Merwin has a wondrous imagaination and way with the written word; I only wish he had been recommended to me earlier.
Benjamin Rosenbaum wrote “The Orange” and the editors of Flash Fiction Forward put it on page 135 when W. W. Norton Company were clever enough to publish the 80 stories Jim and Bob (Thomas and Shapard, respectively) had brought together. And I, after reading a review by Charles Lennox on Gather.com, and being less dim than on other days, I ordered a copy of Jim and Bob’s anthology from Amazon. Wonderful short-shorts. Wonderful small reads of big stories. Sometimes larger than life. As in the case of “The Orange.”
Here’s the thing: right or wrong, I often imitate stories most enjoyed and/or respected. In B. Rosenbaum’s short-short “The Orange,” the opening line reads: “An orange ruled the world.”
My world is ruled by whim, not an orange, and the short-short I want to write will not be about oranges, regal or treeless, but about . . . about . . . birds. Yes. And a particular bird that . . . hmmm . . . doesn’t rule the world, doesn’t even rule his own roost, but, instead, is, is . . . is (hold on, hold on, I’m thinking here!) is THE bird with the longest beak in the world! In fact, too long a beak to allow that this bird could or should thrive. The sort of beak that once a morsel, for instance a seed, is tweezered between top and bottom, the energy required to bobble that seed the whole length of his beak to enter his mouth burns slightly more calories than the morsel provides. A dim future, indeed. To be always in decline, generation to generation, until the decline is such that even if there were male birds capable of fertilization, their female counterparts could no longer squeeze out an egg. And it wasn’t just the one bird (well, at first perhaps, but not for long) or even confined to feathered types for more than half a season. In the same way that particularly viral influenzas spread between species, this counter-evolutionary process spread. Laterally, at first, until no eagle could maintain a wingspan as he soared; eagles of all varieties collapsing into fields, trees, granite mountain faces. Hawks, of course, too. Plain sparrows. Yellow canaries. Bees. Gnats. Mosquitoes and flies. By the time people felt the effects, they cared next to none. Science forgot how to make anti-depressants and those people that didn’t hang themselves (mostly because they were completely inept with nooses), ran over high cliffs like lemmings. They could have been mammoth or buffalo herded to fall in just such a way by primitive tribes on Paleo continents. They could’ve been, but in fact they were modern people gone retro beyond any brain capabilities at all! The sorriest part, the very most sorriest part of all this Rise and Fall of species is that by the time the “fall” gets underway, we are all too dumb to put the skids on—and, by the time we RE-evolution ourselves into homes and gizmos again, we can’t remember we’ve wrecked it all at least once before or that a species of birds grew beaks too long to be useful just from drinking the water used to cool the gizmo factory uptown.
The orange in B. Rosenbaum’s story got bought by the narrative voice on page 136 of Flash Forward Fiction. The n.v. paid 39 cents and after three days ate the orange, the same orange that was, until his departure, ruler of the world. How do I compare my rare bird of long beak? Never a ruler, certainly never eaten (not by this narrative voice!), is he, was he, in the end, the sum of all of our best intentions? Or . . . shh . . . . I’m thinking.
Isabel Coixet, Isabel Coixet, I must remember that name. I didn’t remember before, and she directed Talk to Her. I’d of thought I’d remember . . . truth is, it’s seldom I remember a great many names and titles these days.
I am certain I rented The Secret Life of Words for the wrong reasons unless simply loving words is cause enough. I’m also certain that I thought it was going to be a Will Short sort of documentary with interesting takes on crossword puzzle people or Scrabble fanatics or Spelling Bee participants. What a surprise to find what I found. After watching Tim Robbins and Sarah Polley and others play out their roles in a dismal factory and then on an oil rig, I checked out existing reviews; I wanted to know if the impact the movie had on me had worked to similar effect on others. Apparently, a few found the work as worthy as I do, but the majority found it “slow” and the characters “unbelieveable” or was it “unconvincing.” Personally, I applaud the director’s choice to slow down the events and allow the mudlike existence of the main character, Hannah, to become less screen role-ish and more real. There is a perfection to this timing, this slow (and almost strangled) re-emergence into some semblance of living again. I really don’t know how to write movie reviews at all, but I wanted to share with anyone who might stumble upon this blog that The Secret Life of Words is so worth watching IF you are into movies that enter your mind and occupy it with lives and how they are lived. I am always blown away by people valuing people — and that happens in this flick.