Monday, July 25, 2011

Horse angels and the future king of Heaven

I'm back. I was vacationing on the glorious Jersey shore last week (where all good Italian-Americans go to flirt with sun damage). Surprisingly, I had a fairly productive writing week. Did some reading, too. Finished the previously mentioned "Bright's Passage" by Josh Ritter. And the verdict on it (for Tommy) is, uh...meh. It was beautifully written (as expected. As I said before, he's an incredible lyricist), but  I think the biggest issue here is that he liked his protagonist too much. Ritter saves his main character so many times throughout the (very short) novel that he essentially renders the tension impotent.

The novel opens with the death (in childbirth) of the title character's wife, Rachel. Bright, who has recently returned from WWI, has an angel following him, giving him orders (the angle takes the form of Bright's horse) and declaring his newborn son is the "future king of Heaven." It works on the page much better than it's rendered here. And, really, the problem isn't the ability to suspend one's belief---Ritter is a deft enough writer to pull off that kind of set up--but the angel's commands put Bright in harms way so many times, yet each time, Bright manages to right himself (with and without the angel's assistance). This neatness might be forgivable to some degree, but much of the action, much of Bright's motivations seem to hinge on past atrocities (either experiences in the war, or dealings with Rachel's family), but none of those things are fleshed out, which makes it difficult for the reader to truly understand why Bright does what he does. For example, Bright calls Rachel's father (the Colonel) and her brothers "cruel," and the angel tells him to "save" Rachel from living in the house with them.  Yet the reader is never clued into what, exactly was so terrible about the house in which she grew up, nor what made the boys so cruel. Another example:  The angel commands Bright to name the child (nearly three quarters of the way through the novel) "Jee-roosh" which is a phrase uttered repeatedly by a not-particularly well-liked fellow soldier. Why? Is there a connection between Bright's fallen comrade and the child? Does the nonsensical phrase "Jee-roosh" have some esoteric significance? So many questions, important ones, that go unanswered. The ideas, the half-formed ones feel so weighty, but they're never really given the attention they feel like they should get.

Reading the story, I got the distinct feeling that Ritter was holding back. And at just under 200 pages, he certainly could've explored and expanded the narrative and really dug into his characters. The story has a tremendous amount of potential--the premise is wildly interesting and the characters feel weighty, even if they are woefully underdeveloped. Honestly, the book feels like a draft, one that needs sketched out, filled in a bit more. I almost wish he'd take another crack at it and really roll up his sleeves.

That's it for tonight. I'll talk a little bit about some of the writing I did later this week.

Oh, and while on vacation, I got an email with the galley proofs of my story "Cecylia" which should be in the next edition of the Journal of War, Literature and the Arts. Not sure when the issue is coming out, but hopefully soon!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Workshops vs. Therapy Sessions

I met with two of my lovely writer friends this weekend. We try to get together on a regular basis, but it's never as often as we'd all like. Talking to them is restorative; I feel new energy after our meetings. We "get" one another, too, I think. I think--because our meetings function more like therapy sessions than workshops--we know one another so well that the advice we can give one another is so much more helpful than the standard workshop here's-what's-no-working-in-your-story stuff. It's real and useful and given by people who can see where the advice-seeker is trying to go, sometimes better than said advice-seeker. I don't think Nancy or Betsy has ever once tried to impose their own personal tastes on whatever I've given them to critique.They're pretty good at figuring out what I'm trying to accomplish and assessing whether I'm on the right track. I'd like to think I'm doing the same for them. It's not easy--for anyone--to do that. It's an acquired skill (and one I know I'm still a little shakey about). It's so much easier, and it feels much more natural to view some manuscript through one's personal lens. "I like this/I don't like that."  Eh. Who really cares what you, the critiquer, like or don't like. Is what I have on the page working or not? If it's not, why?

Sometimes, though, the author's intent isn't so clear. I once had to read a short story for class in which the writer described, in brutally sadistic detail that bordered on pornographic, a sexual assault. It was difficult to read, for numerous reasons. Imagine the class's surprise when the writer, when given the opportunity to explain his ideas, he claimed the story was part of a larger work in which the protagonist and her guests were recalling memories on her wedding day. Oh. I see. So just a typical scene at a wedding reception. The happy couple, surrounded by family and friends, recall the most harrowing moments of their lives. Heartwarming. Or something.  It's hard to judge those kinds of works, the ones in which the writer's not really sure of the intent (and I have to say, I'm not convinced the above-referenced writer was being completely honest. I think instead that he was caught off guard by how very poorly the piece was received and quickly tried to come up with some kind of explanation. That's what it felt like to me. I still can reconcile what he wrote and his explanation for it. He failed in his explanation, of course, but that might be beside the point. If there is, in fact, a point...Sorry. I feel all over the place tonight. I think my thinking cap is dented.)

Maybe my point is that you can't beat having talented writers who are willing to help you work out all the stuff that's going on in your head. The stuff that ends up on the page, and more importantly, the stuff that gets stuck up there. The stuff that gets stuck because we throw up too many stupid obstacles in our own way. We purposely leave our shoelaces untied and end up tripping over our own feet. There's nothing so great as having people around you who are willing to pick you up and dust you off after you do. They get out there and help you take a sledgehammer to all those brick walls that somehow end up in your way. Invaluable, I say.

Thanks ladies. :)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I drank beer called "Verboten" this weekend

First mistake.

Actually, I had a great fourth; I got to spend time with people I don't get to see nearly enough. But my first day back at work was frantic, and I'm brain-dead. So this post will be criminally short. Which may not be such a bad thing.

Anyhoo. I like Josh Ritter. If the name doesn't ring a bell, that's a shame. Josh Ritter is a singer-songwriter/folky kind of fellow who can really write the hell out of a song. Seriously. He makes songs that can be spare and arresting and/or catchy and joyous. All of them are beautiful and smart with a strong literary bent. I mention this not only because I think he's a musician worth checking out, but because he recently wrote a novel, Bright's Passage. I haven't read it yet (it's on the arm of the couch beside me, just waiting to be cracked open), but if his fiction is half as engaging as his lyrics, I'm in for an enjoyable read.

This weekend, I heard an interview with Ritter on NPR. The interviewer asked how he managed to write an entire novel in a few years while touring most of that time. And Ritter's response is really the impetus for this post. Ritter said that he had to make a conscious effort not to be precious about the writing process; to find and make use of any little bit of time.  This is good advice and something I'm going to try for myself.

I'll admit, I tend to be a bit precious about the whole writing thing myself. And, honestly, I don't necessarily thing that's such a bad thing. I think--especially for those of us who don't get to be full-time writers, for those of us who constantly get dragged away from "writing time" by other things, being a tiny little bit precious about it is okay. It's okay to ritualize the process a bit. To take a bit of pleasure in arranging the desk, finding the right notebook, the right pen (for those luddites among us who still write drafts long-hand. ahem) etc before sitting down to the task of writing. But on the other hand, life does get in the way sometimes and sometimes the only time you get is what you carve out in between meetings or appointments or general obligations. Sometimes, if you insist on waiting for the perfect time, the perfect conditions under which to write, you'll end up waiting too long.

Here's to very belated New Year's resolutions. Wish me luck.