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Monday, December 31, 2007

an apology and a clarification

A few weeks ago, I wrote about dialogue and posted excerpts from two writers whom I think do dialogue exceptionally well: Yusef Komunyakaa and Cheryl Strayed. But then I went on to say that Cheryl Strayed was an unlikable narrator, and Cheryl Strayed actually read the post.

I hurt Cheryl’s feelings, and that wasn’t my intention. I actually meant to compliment her, but how could she see the compliment in my post when I was so flip?

I wrote to Cheryl, apologizing. I felt horrible, and I needed her to understand that I’m actually a huge fan. I’ve used her essays “Heroin/e” and “The Love of My Life” in my teaching, and I don’t teach writing unless I think the writer is talented, and that my students will learn from the piece.

What I really meant when I used the word “unlikable” was that it was difficult for me to relate to some of the things she went through and some of the choices she made. (You should read both “Heroin/e” and “The Love of My Life” because they really are excellent essays. Both were chosen for The Best American Essays series.)

Cheryl and I exchanged a few e-mails, and she was very gracious. One thing that came out of our exchange was how important it is for writers to be honest. Cheryl said, “I think the only way you can write literary nonfiction well is to be honest. Actually honest.”

I totally agree. I’ve tried to write a book that sometimes makes me look bad. I write about things that many people don’t want to talk about or think about. My goal is to be honest. I guess this is why I feel so bad about calling Cheryl “unlikable.” She’s doing exactly what I hope I do in my writing, and my earlier post makes it seem as though I am discounting her. I’m a writer and I should be more careful with my words.

The whole exchange made me want to clarify something about this blog: I’m not interested in trashing writers, especially women writers writing about motherhood. There are enough people out there discarding and marginalizing this kind of writing. My goal with this blog is to spread the word about great writing, writing that touches me in some way, writing that I can’t put down, writing from which I learn something.

So, I apologize to Cheryl Strayed and I’ll be more careful with my words from now on.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

christmas according to Stella

Last night, after reading to Stella and turning out her light, I was lying next to her in bed, giving her a back rub when she said, very seriously, "Mom, Christmas isn't about love."

"Sure it is," I said, looking at her narrow back, wondering where she was going with this train of thought. "It's about love and family and being thankful."

"No," she said matter-of-factly. "It's about presents."

Oh dear.

Friday, December 21, 2007

revision and Némirovsky

I’m sure some of you have already read Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. For those of you who have not, you must go out and get it.

Némirovsky was a Russian Jew who had lived in Paris for twenty years by the time the Nazis invaded France. She was a successful novelist and mother to two young girls. After the Nazis occupied Paris, Némirovsky fled with her husband, Michel, to Issy-l’Evêque, the hometown of their girls’ nanny, where the girls had been living for several months. Life was increasingly difficult for them because although they were all baptized Catholic, they were still Jews.

During this time, Némirovsky was at work on what she thought would be her masterpiece—a thousand-page novel in five sections, constructed like a symphony. The interesting thing about the way Némirovsky wrote is that she made notes about her characters, getting to know major and minor characters and plotting out the book before she actually wrote it. After she knew as much as she could about her characters, she wrote the book. This is amazing, especially for someone (me) whose first drafts are usually crappy. I write, then rewrite, then rethink, then re-vision almost everything. And indeed, I tell my students that they MUST revise, that through revision they will find the true subjects of their essays and stories.

Vladimir Nabokov said, “I have re-written—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” And Raymond Carver wrote 20-30 drafts of every story he published.

I know not every writer revises, but it’s so much a part of what I must do, that writers like Némirovsky blow me away. Suite Française is amazing. Her prose is lovely, her understanding of human nature is uncanny, and her characters are drawn so carefully that you know them within a few pages. It’s remarkable, also, that she could write so clearly about the times through which she lived in the midst of actually living them.

Suite Française contains only two of the five sections that Némirovsky intended. In 1942, she was arrested, deported, and murdered at Auschwitz. (Her husband was also gassed there.) The nanny fled with their daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, who took with them their mother’s leather-bound notebook as a memento, and made it through the war hiding in various parts of occupied France.

It was 64 years before Denise opened the notebook, 64 years before she realized that it was a novel her mother had been writing.

There are several appendices, which explain Némirovsky life’s and include notes on what she thought would happen in the book. (So although you don’t know have all five sections of the book, you have a sense of what she intended for the last three.) These notes are fascinating because she had such a clear sense of what she wanted the book to be while she was still in the midst of it.

For me, the middle of a book is a messy time. I’m sloshing around in there, almost blindly. I have no idea if what I’m writing will be cohesive or coherent. Not Némirovsky. She knew exactly what she wanted to do: write a book dealing with the “struggle between individual destiny and collective destiny.” And she did it, even though she wasn’t able to finish it.

There has been some controversy about her and her posthumous success because she turned her back on the Jewish community. Pre-war, she moved in anti-Semitic circles, and during the war, she and her whole family converted to Catholicism. You would not know Suite Française was written by a Jew. Nowhere in the book will you find the word “Jewish.” There is no mention of the plight of the Jews during WWII.

I’m not sure how I feel about this, and I feel ill-equipped to comment on what I would have done in the same situation. (How can we really know?) But I'll ask this: if you thought baptizing your children as Catholic would save their lives, would you do it?

Monday, December 17, 2007

blogging in my head

I'm sorry I've been silent for the last week. I've wanted to blog and have actually been thinking about blogging, but it's been impossible for me to get myself to the computer. Partly, this is because I have a new cold (or maybe it's the same cold with new life), and all I've wanted to do is lie on the couch. I've also been very busy, which means, of course, that very little couch-lying has actual happened, and which probably explains why I'm still feeling so lousy. Bad Kate.

My last class of the term meets tomorrow, though, and my last day of work for a couple of weeks is Thursday, so on Friday I'm planning to plant myself on the couch with a stack of books and drink fluids until I puke. Sounds like fun, huh?

Amidst the sickness, however, I have been celebrating a milestone for this pregnancy. I am now 28.5 weeks pregnant, which means the little bugger, if born today, would have over an 80% chance of survival and a 90% of escaping without a long-term disability. My blood pressure is still beautiful--yee-haw--and my wrists still aren't swelling. (I check them oh, four to five times a day.)

It's actually amazing how relieved I feel, even though we still have four weeks to go to pass Stella's gestational age at birth, and I know that having a 32-weeker is no picnic. But a 28-weeker's chances reassure me. I can't help it.

I'll be back blogging regularly now. I promise.

Friday, December 7, 2007

who rocks the dialogue?

This week, one of my students wanted to talk more about dialogue because she was having trouble writing realistic, moving dialogue in her nonfiction. It's a common problem, I think, for beginning writers because their instinct is to write dialogue in a vacuum: he said, she said, he said, etc. I want my students to notice everything else that is a part of dialogue and a part of building realistic characters: gestures, thoughts, description, our presence in space and time.

I think the best way to learn how to write effective dialogue is to look at writers who do it well, so I chose the first page of a couple of essays from the Best American Essay series and handed them out to my class.

From Yusef Komunyakaa's "Blue Machinery of Summer":

"I feel like I'm part of this damn thing," Frank said. He carried himself like a large man even though he was short. A dead cigarette dangled from his half-grin. "I've worked on this machine for twenty-odd year, and now it's almost me."

Even in that first, short paragraph, we know how Frank talks and we know a little about who is--the kind of man who lets a dead cigarette dangle from his lips.

From Cheryl Strayed's "The Love of My Life":

The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week. I was in a cafe in Minneapolis watching a man. He watched me back. He was slightly pudgy, with jet black hair and skin so white it looked as if he'd powdered it. He stood and walked to my table and sat down without asking. He wanted to know if I had a cat. I folded my hands on the table, steadying myself; I was shaking, nervous at what I would do. I was raw, fragile, vicious with grief. I would do anything.

"Yes," I said.

"I thought so," he said slowly. He didn't take his eyes off me. I rolled the rings around my fingers. I was wearing two wedding bands, my own and my mother's. I'd taken hers off her hand after she died. It was nothing fancy: sterling silver, thick and braided.

"You look like the kind of girl who has a cat."

"How's that?" I asked.

He didn't answer. He just kept looking at me steadily, as if he knew everything about me, as if he owned me. I felt distinctly that he might be a murderer.

Well, as unlikable a narrator as Strayed can be, she's a talented writer, and she knows how to create real, raw dialogue and believable characters.

One thing I suggested to my students was this: think of a conversation that they’ve wanted to write. Where would this conversation take place? With whom?

Before writing any of the dialogue, describe the room: the light, the furniture, the place—what was the look, the feel? Was it hot in there? Etc.

Next, describe the person. What are his/her mannerisms? Does he run his hands through his hair? Does she twist hers in a knot or fiddle with it? Does he scratch at his eye, pick at eyelashes? One thing that would be helpful is to go home and really look at the people you live with—we don’t remember these things about people close to us because we’re so used to them that we don’t notice them anymore.

After they have the place and person details down on paper, they should write the conversation, including everything around the conversation—the physical space, their thoughts, body language, etc.

So, a question for all of you: who do you think does dialogue really, really well? (These can be fiction writers, too, but it would be great to have some first-person narrators.)

On a blog maintenance note: I'm sorry people are having to log in with a google-blogger account to leave a comment. I haven't changed my settings, and I'm not sure why this is happening. I'll try to get to the bottom of it.

On a sickness note: still sick. It feels as if I actually might be sick for the REST OF MY LIFE.