Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Discipline to Just Think

Reading posts and comments from other writers so I can compare and contrast process is an invaluable experience for me. There seem to be as many methods out there as there are writers.

One subject we haven’t touched much on is how the actual story comes into being. I don’t recall at all how the germ of my work in progress came to me. I can recall roughly when it happened and that I sat down and started writing immediately, but not much more than that. Since that time, I’ve learned a great deal more about process and how I should be turning this idea into a novel. The story has also changed significantly.

Saturday I had plans to do some writing and some reading. I recently bought the entire thirteen volume collection of Chekov’s short stories and I’ve been working my way through volume one. I’m also reading Augusta Locke by William Haywood Henderson, one of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop instructors who will be at the retreat I’m attending next month. And I picked up The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian, based on an intriguing review by Scott Esposito that I read at The Quarterly Conversation.

But first, I needed to unload the dishwasher. Then I needed to eat and I like to read the paper when I eat. After reading the paper I figured I’d take a look at another book that I have sitting in my stack for later. Woody Allen on Woody Allen, In Conversation with Stig Bjorkman is a series of interviews with the writer and director, organized by film. Several hours later, I was still reading the book and by the time I sat down to write, it was Saturday night.

The fascinating thing to me about Woody Allen is that he is a writer first, and an extremely disciplined one. Throughout this series of interviews, it became apparent that each script that he writes is developed almost entirely in his head before he begins the mechanical process of writing.

From the book:

“You told me earlier that on Tuesday you will start work on your new script. How do you proceed? Do you sit every day between certain hours, like office hours, and work?”

“Yeah, I get up early, because I naturally get up early. And I come down here and I have breakfast. Then usually I work by myself. Once in a while it’s a collaboration, but usually not. And I go into the backroom or this room (Woody’s living room) and I start to think. I walk up and down and I walk up and down the outside terrace. I take a walk around the block. I go upstairs and take a shower. I come back down and think. And I think and think. Then just by the sweat of the brow, eventually something comes.”

He goes on to describe the actual writing as the joyous part because by then, he’s got everything worked out. I thought that if I had spent a fair amount of time just thinking and working my story out in my head before beginning to write, how much simpler things would be and it occurred to me that surely other writers probably do proceed that way. Making time to do nothing but focus on the story is easier said than done. Perhaps the physical act of writing feels more productive, but in the end, it’s possible we spend as much, if not more time fixing things we didn’t think through as we would have spent had we thought things out more thoroughly up front.

Finding time to think about anything without multi-tasking or losing focus is tough. For example, while finding the URLs to create links to the references in this post, I also found out that Placido Domingo, general director of the Los Angeles Opera just announced that Woody Allen will make his operatic directorial debut with the opening event of the Los Angeles Opera's 2008-2009 season. This has nothing to do with how he writes, but for crying out loud, is there anything he won't try?

I tend to be quite a bit like Ellen Degeneres when it comes to being able to focus for an extended period on one thing. I’m thinking about why it would make more sense for the husband character to be an attorney and not a doctor or an investment banker and I’m wondering where the word attorney came from. Attorney starts with the letters “Att” and I wonder how AT&T being the sole service provider for the iPhone is going to impact their stock prices, and I wonder why they call it chicken stock or vegetable stock because after all…

You get the picture. I’m not always six degrees from a straight jacket and a good anti-psychotic, but nearly.

How much thinking and working through your story do you do before putting pen to paper or before beginning to type? Does the story develop as you’re writing it, or do you have much of it worked out in advance and refine and add detail as you go? As you write more and more stories, do you find you know more in advance what’s going to happen?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

This is the Stuff That Gets Stuck in My Head

I do plan to post something soon on writing and my questions relating to same, but Friday afternoon I was planting some flowers and I couldn't get that old children's song, Frère Jacques out of my head.

Frère Jacques

Frère Jacques



Sonnez les matines!

Sonnez les matines!

Din, dan, don

Din, dan, don

After all these years I just noticed that this is a song I am supposedly singing to my brother and I’m using the formal form of you, vous instead of the familiar, tu. Am I the only person this bugs? Do French speaking people even sing this song?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Mid-Week Diversion

I thought I’d have a change of pace from the usual post about writing and creativity and propose something fun to provide a mid-week diversion. In the spirit of summer nostalgia that's been prevalent these last couple of weeks on some of my favorite blogs, pull up a wicker chair on the screened in porch.

My stepmother’s family has a simple game they often play when they get together. I’d never heard of it the first time I played one Thanksgiving visit and have never seen anyone else play it, but it is easy and it’s really a lot of fun. Kids can join in too and usually manage to do pretty well. With all the kids home and/or visiting for summer, it might it make a fun family night for some of you.

One of the relatives put this out on a blog that he helps to run recently. He posts under a pseudonym, so although I’d like to give him credit, I'll honor his anonymity. He devised this method of playing the game in the blogosphere, as opposed to playing in real life. It takes about two minutes to explain the game and its rules. I copied the explanation and rules that follow verbatim from his post:

We call it The Alphabet Game, but there are a lot of games that use that name.

Every player takes a pencil/pen and paper. We all write the alphabet down the sheet. Then someone picks up a magazine or newspaper or book and reads a short passage.

We only care about the first 26 letters of the passage. We write those down next to the letters of the alphabet, creating 26 pairs of letters.

For example: if the chosen passage were "The Road Not Taken," with its first line "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood," each player's sheet would now begin:



Now the game begins. (There are two italicized points about the game that I'll explain further in a moment.)

Each player tries to think of a famous person with each of those 26 initials. Players write them down on their sheets; an experienced player may get 15-20 names on an average game.

After time is up, we score. If a player has a famous person that no one else named, s/he gets two points. If several players have chosen the same famous person, each gets one point.

We've recently tried a variant that has promise: adding a bonus point for names in a particular category. So, if the bonus category is "Music," 'Stevie Wonder' earns three as a unique pick and two as a shared answer.

(The scoring is the raucous part in my family. We refuse to go round-robin and announce our answers -- we keep interrupting each other. But we keep playing, so I guess we like it that way.)

Those are the rules -- pretty straightforward. But we have developed a history of "case law" (translation: consensus reached after an extra beer) on several matters of definition.

Who is a "famous person"? Lots of case law here.

  • It cannot be someone that we only know within our group. So, "Benny Nogood, that boy Aunt Edith used to date," doesn't count for BN.
  • In cases of doubt, another player must vouch that the name is indeed famous. In our house this is seldom invoked. We tend to accept it when one player says, "If you weren't such bookish dweebs and lived in the Real World, you'd know all about Nomar Garciaparra!" Or conversely, when someone says, "Oliver Gogarty is the guy that Joyce based Buck Mulligan on, and I've been to the pub of that name in Dublin, and if you don't believe me you can Kiss My Royal Irish Arse!"
  • The same person may qualify under multiple initials. It's common to use "Dwight Eisenhower" and "Ike Eisenhower" for DE and IE in the same game. "Queen Elizabeth" also counts (sometimes a player specifies QE I or QE II, just to make a duplicate less likely and get a 2 rather than a 1.
  • "Person" is the wrong word, based on case law. "Character" is closer to the rule. It need not be a real person: Oliver Twist counts. It need not even be a person-person: Mickey Mouse and Mister Ed count. Non-character names do not: no Led Zeppelin for LZ, no General Electric for GE. (But Jethro Tull and Aunt Jemima would count.)
  • When is "time up"? We don't use a timer. When someone thinks it has been long enough, and no one else seems to be inspired, s/he proposes "Are we done?" Usually someone says "Not yet!" and we keep going. But the peer pressure timer is now ticking. By the third quorum call we usually get agreement to score.

The above description completely describes the face-to-face game. I recommend it. Now comes the experiment.

We'll need a few rules changes from the face-to-face game. My proposal:

No Googling. Not for finding names, and not for confirming someone else's name.

No points for dupes. The first person to post a particular name gets two points; there is no point earned for saying "I was thinking of him/her too!"

No "Are we done yet?" discussion. When the game gets posted, it includes the deadline.

The diarist cannot post any names until someone else has posted a name on the diary. (The diarist is a player in the game, too. Otherwise s/he has an advantage: just formatting the diary will trigger thoughts of people.) Lisa’s Note: I think what he was saying here was that since he was going to play, he wouldn’t post his answers until someone else went first.

Less latitude on "famous." I know I can rely on my cousin Freddie's knowledge of Famous Racecar Drivers, but we don't know that about each other. So, feel free to challenge another player's answer on the "famous" ground. If I use "Dick Tuck," I'll need another Old Person to back me up. Lisa's Note: In this forum, assume anybody published or with a book deal is famous :)

Lisa’s Bonus Point Category: I propose an extra bonus point for every debut novelist named.

Lisa’s Made Up Rule on the Text Source: I propose an extra five bonus points if you can guess the name of the book these first letters come from. I’ve chosen the very first sentence of the book.

Lisa’s Time Limit: Scoring as of whatever time I decide to go to bed Wednesday night. If you copy down the game below, it’s normally about a 5 – 10 minute process to come up with as many answers as you can without any references except what’s in your head.

Note on Posting Your Answers: Once you decide to play (and who wouldn’t!), don’t look at any comments posted first because they’ll get stuck in your head before you think of yours. Work out your answers and when you go to post them, scroll past comments without reading them and post first, then look. I’ll check periodically and keep a running tally. When you post your answers, if you’ve got esoteric names feel free to note next to them who they are so we all learn something. Also, for those of you Type-A personalities (like me); accept the fact that you will spell names wrong or say one name when you really mean another. That's what happens in the in-person version of the game since we can't look anything up. It's OK!

OK, here’s the game:


Not about art, literature, publishing, creativity or struggling, but we all need a break from our day sometimes that’s just fun. Come on -- play!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Who Are These People?

I was having an interesting email exchange with a blogging friend about how much our own experiences inform our fiction and we touched on the subject of memoir. Coincidentally, I’m reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, also a memoir. Just a few minutes ago, I was checking in on Kristen Nelson’s blog, Pub Rants and memoirs were the subject of posts for three days running.

The subject got me thinking about how much of ourselves and the people we know creeps into our fiction. Writing my manuscript has been an iterative process. About eighteen months ago, a hypothetical situation occurred to me. The incident was something that could potentially happen to any business traveler and that person would have to choose one of two actions – both with devastating repercussions. Having never previously attempted a novel, I started to build the story. At the beginning, the main character was modeled almost entirely after me by default. I didn’t intend to make her me, but because I was juggling all the challenges of plotting, pacing, structure, etc. it was easiest to start with someone I completely understand. Some of the characters I developed aren’t based on anyone I know at all. Others are based almost entirely on real people. Not coincidentally, the characters with the most dialogue are the ones based on people I know. I suppose it makes writing dialogue for them easier because I can hear what they’d say and how they’d say it. Through ongoing revision, I’ve continued to make changes and evolve most of the characters a good distance away from their real world inspirations. I’ve moved them to new locations, changed their back stories, added and subtracted spouses and children, reinvented how they know the main character and taken them further into the realm of fiction. But although my main character is involved with people who aren’t real and is doing things I’ve never done, it’s taking me much longer to separate her from me and give her a completely unique persona.

When it comes to place, I’ve stuck with locales I know a lot about. At one time, a large part of the story took place in a city I’ve spent time in, but am not intimately familiar with and I recently cut that entire section and began rewriting it. It seemed too overwhelming to introduce one more unknown into the equation. Familiar people and places are easier to deal with while I’m being challenged with so many other issues.

I’m self-diagnosing my ongoing experience as a natural tendency of the beginning novelist and I anticipate that as I develop more skill, it will be easier to create characters completely out of thin air and to take the time to research other locations to represent them genuinely. I suspect that as I continue writing and revising, the story will come more into its own and the characters will mature into independent beings, their genesis unrecognizable to anyone but me.

Many well known authors write characters who are thinly veiled versions of themselves. John Updike and Philip Roth come immediately to mind. Quite a few writers admit to basing certain characters on people they’ve been close to in their lives.

The origin of fictional characters has me fascinated and I am hoping to hear from those of you who write. How much of your main character is you? How far away from you can you really get with your main character? Does your ability to create leading characters who are not like you at all develop over time? Where does the inspiration for your characters come from? Are they based on people you know? Are they a conglomeration of more than one person? Do you invent them in their entirety? How has this process changed for you if you've written more than one novel?

I'm hoping, as always to learn a lot from you.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Checking Out the Literary Blogs

I have an insatiable curiosity about all kinds of things, so I’ve managed to learn at least a little about a lot. With writing, I’ve recognized my limitations and know the next step is getting some formal instruction. Self-education has taken me as far as I can go. I’m nervous and excited to say that I joined a writers’ workshop with a very qualified faculty and exactly the kind of workshops and resources that I’ve been looking for. Thanks to Scott’s encouragement and insistence that I get on the phone and take the first step, I’ll be attending a week long retreat next month and I’m enrolled in an eight week workshop on writing the novel that starts in August. I feel incredibly fortunate to have access to this kind of help and that I have Scott’s enthusiastic support.

I’ve also tried to supplement my education by checking out the Literary Blogs. I’ve got links to a number of them on this site and I’m getting a lot from the essays and reviews. Lengthy, thoughtful pieces of the type posted on these sites are relatively new to me. My favorite so far is Conversational Reading. Scott Esposito posts fresh content often that’s interesting, informative and even when he’s critical, it comes off as professional and objective. June is Reading the World month and in the short time I’ve been reading his posts, he’s had a focus on books translated into English. Interviews with translators have brought me a new perspective on foreign writers and even on reading books originally written in another language. For each new book I discover and for each piece I read that provides a new insight I’m growing and learning. Now and then I read something on one of the Lit Blogs that gives me that “odd man out” feeling. The criticisms on a few sites come across as personal and harsh. The comments can also be pretty outrageous – at least to me. Today I read a review by a reviewer of another reviewer’s review. Yes, I said the word review four times in that sentence. Most of these people are full time reviewers, essayists and editors, and some are novelists and professors. Books are their lives so it’s understandable some of them get pretty passionate. In those moments, I feel like I’ve accidentally wandered into a private party where I’m not welcome. I wonder if the Lit Bloggers are writing only for each other. Maybe they are. I’m a lurker only in these environments and sometimes I have questions about what I’ve read, but I’d never consider asking them. At least not yet. Sometimes what I read makes me feel a little dumb. I'm not familiar with all the references. I know I shouldn’t feel dumb – it’s my ignorance that’s making me feel insecure and that can be cured, but I don’t like the feeling.

That really got me thinking about literary fiction and the audience for it. It’s no secret that it’s a tough space for an author and that most literary fiction will never be read at all or at least not by very many people. I find most of it very accessible and I enjoy reading it – it’s the reviews and the essays about the books and the authors that are sometimes tougher to get through. What I’ve learned on the LitBlogs has introduced me to even more that I think I’d like and it’s given me greater perspective on it. But the sense that group discussing this type of work is somewhat exclusive and elitist is hard to shake. I wonder if the tone of these pieces actually makes some of the books and writers sound less accessible than they really are.

There’s been a lot of discussion about newspaper critics, bloggers criticizing books, who should be considered credible as a critic or reviewer and who shouldn’t. How do you feel about it? Do you read essays and reviews about authors and books or do you ignore them? Do you have an opinion about the ongoing discussion and debate between the in-print and online critics?

Monday, June 11, 2007

How Did You Learn to Love Books?

Last night I read some pretty grim statistics about the reading habits of adult Americans. I spent some time looking at various websites to try to validate the numbers. Nothing I read was surprising. There is a direct correlation between education level and reading habits and a direct correlation between a child’s exposure to reading materials at home and his or her reading skills. There are no revelations there. The percentage of people who claim that they read books on a regular basis varies, depending on education level but on average it’s safe to say that less than half of all adults in this country read books at all. I was motivated to look into this after reading a post at the author, Eileen Cook's website that I initially found at Seize a Daisy.

I’ve been trying to figure out why some people can’t live without books and some people have no use for them. Almost everyone in my family, including my maternal grandfather who left school the age of nine, read books constantly. Secondary education didn’t factor in as there are few college graduates in my family. I don’t ever remember not reading. I remember the first time I did read words on a page. I remember books I read growing up – The Cat in the Hat, Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, The Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales and a great one called, May I Bring a Friend? I remember reading Laura Ingalls Wilder in third grade and tearing through all the Little House on the Prairie books. My mother’s Nancy Drew Mysteries were at my grandmother’s house and I read all of them. I moved on to the YA of my day – S.E. Hinton -- and wore the covers off of The Outsiders and That Was Then, This is Now.

Sometime around sixth or seventh grade I started reading adult paperbacks. I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Love Story first and then I had pilfer books and read them in secret. There were stacks of books everywhere and when nobody was watching I read On the Beach, Alas Babylon, The Choirboys, The Carpetbaggers, The Happy Hooker (Yikes), Fear of Flying, Valley of the Dolls, Flowers for Algernon, The Exorcist, The Godfather, Trout Fishing in America and countless others.

I found a box of my father’s old books and entered my brooding junior high beatnik/existentialist phase, reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Howl by Allen Ginsberg, The Stranger by Albert Camus and No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre. I vaguely remember No Exit and reading these books up in my room while blowing cigarette smoke out the attic window and feeling pretty sophisticated. They had an impact on me and that summer between seventh and eighth grades I was caught shoplifting – yes, in a bookstore – a book about becoming a writer. I’d inherited my mother’s portable Smith Corona and typed out my adolescent angst on onionskin paper in that attic room night after night.

The first adult book I ever read that was recommended by a friend my own age was Carrie, Stephen King’s debut novel. A boy in my American History class told me I had to read it because it was “wicked good”. That was 1976, my freshman year in high school and I read every word King wrote for the next decade. Mr. Walker, my Freshman English teacher marked up a story I turned in for having sentence fragments and ellipses. I tried to argue that Stephen King wrote like that and Mr. Walker told me Stephen King was a bad writer. So much for early reviews.

Mr. Walker and my other teachers introduced me to Shakespeare, Homer, Thornton Wilder, John Knowles, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Anne Frank, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, Victor Hugo, Herman Melville, George Orwell, Tennessee Williams, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain. I remember all my English teachers and I loved the world they showed me.

I read whatever I could find for many years, especially when I was in the Air Force. There was a lot of “hurry up and wait” so at 2 A.M. in a tent in the snow, I was just as likely to be reading a paperback the person on shift before me left behind, whether it was a World War II story, a Tom Clancy thriller, the biography of Ted Bundy or When Bad Things Happen to Good People the person who relieved me was to be reading The Catcher in the Rye or Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. We swapped books constantly. The Stars and Stripes bookstore had a limited selection but I found a hardcover once called The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by a new writer called Michael Chabon, I stumbled onto one or two Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins books and I read everything Anne Rice wrote that I could get my hands on.

For many years I've been overwhelmed with new releases and the desire to read with a more educated and critical eye. I want books that make me think, show me something I’ve never seen, present a perspective I’ve never heard and use words in ways I couldn't imagine. As a lifelong lover of books, my taste and choices have evolved to suit the time in my life. I’ve missed out on reading so many good ones. That's the biggest drawback to a lack of higher education. New and intriguing works come out every day. I’ve added a new category of links to Eudaemonia, called Literary Criticism and I’m learning a lot from these thoughtful bloggers.

I’m pretty sure the era I grew up in is long gone. Reading was natural when there were only a handful of TV stations, no video games and no such thing as a VCR, let alone cable or the internet. If you were grounded as much as I was, it wasn’t possible to survive without books and a library card. Making sure that books are plentiful and buying books for the children and young adults in my life has always been second nature, but the average kid doesn’t have the kind of time on his or her hands that I did. I know that exposure to books fosters a love of them, but what can each of us do to encourage the kids now?

How did you develop your love for books? Were you surrounded by them growing up? Who turned you on to books you loved as a teenager and young adult? Do your children love books as much as you do? Has your taste in books stayed pretty consistent or has it varied widely? What can be done to increase the number of readers in this country?

Note: A subsequent visit to Eileen Cook's site indicates she has started a revolution! Apparently I was only one of a lot of people who decided to pick up the ball and blog about this. Better still, there are some creative and hilarious suggestions about how to remedy this crisis. Stay tuned and look for more revolutionaries in the coming days.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Spectrum of Human Behavior

Sometimes I think being a writer is an excuse to engage in the in-depth study of – everything really. Over the last month or so I’ve unintentionally read two books and watched several movies that illustrated some of the most extreme human behavior imaginable. Both works of fiction are award winning novels. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world where many of the survivors engage in rape, murder and cannibalism. Jose Saramago’s Blindness is an allegorical tale that takes place in an unnamed city and country. It begins when a man goes blind and his site is replaced by a brilliant white (as opposed to darkness). The ailment appears to be contagious and the government quarantines the blind in empty institutions where they are left to fend for themselves. Tyranny, rape and degradation ensue.

Coincidentally, neither book was a choice I would have naturally gravitated to. I read The Road as a concession to the buzz after it won a Pulitzer. Blindness is the selection for a book discussion group I plan to attend this week. While reading both, I continued to wonder whether it’s realistic to believe that the conditions described in each novel could bring about such deplorable human behavior.

I was still reading Blindness when I watched the movie The Secret Life of Words this week. One of the main characters is severely damaged and eventually reveals having been one of fifteen women held hostage, starved, tortured and repeatedly raped at one point during the ten year period of the Yugoslav Wars. When the character recounted her story, I was suddenly awash in images of the Holocaust, the massacre in Rwanda and the genocide in Darfur. When I looked further into how many more incidents of genocide have occurred globally throughout the last several hundred years, I was reminded of more examples than there is room to list here. Sadly, I’ve concluded that art really does imitate life.

But not all is doom and gloom. Just at the point that it would appear the human race is capable of the most base, barbaric acts imaginable, a glimmer of hope appeared in one in a series of Amazon mailers that the UPS man leaves on my doorstep several times a week.

The movie Baraka was shot in 1992 and if you’ve never seen it, I recommend you borrow, rent, or buy it for an experience unlike any other. From’s Editorial Review:

The word Baraka means "blessing" in several languages; watching this film, the viewer is blessed with a dazzling barrage of images that transcend language. Filmed in 24 countries and set to an ever-changing global soundtrack, the movie draws some surprising connections between various peoples and the spaces they inhabit, whether that space is a lonely mountaintop or a crowded cigarette factory. Some of these attempts at connection are more successful than others: for instance, an early sequence segues between the daily devotions of Tibetan monks, Orthodox Jews, and whirling dervishes, finding more similarity among these rituals than one might expect. And there are other amazing moments, as when sped-up footage of a busy Hong Kong intersection reveals a beautiful symmetry to urban life that could only be appreciated from the perspective of film. The lack of context is occasionally frustrating--not knowing where a section was filmed, or the meaning of the ritual taking place--and some of the transitions are puzzling. However, the DVD includes a short behind-the-scenes featurette in which cinematographer Ron Fricke (Koyaanisqatsi) explains that the effect was intentional: "It's not where you are that's important, it's what's there." And what's here, in Baraka, is a whole world summed up in 104 minutes. --Larisa Lomacky Moore

I was able to watch this DVD shortly after finishing Blindness and the movie reminded me that we are all connected, despite the isolation we often feel. At our worst, people can become little more than animals, but at our best we’re capable of incredible beauty.

So where did I end up after all of this analysis of human behavior and of the human condition? I realized that as a human being, I can’t help but be affected by what I hear, see and read about other people, both the victims and the victimizers. It's painful and disturbing and it hits me on a deeply emotional level. I also realized that as a writer, I have to be a student and an observer of psychology, sociology, anthropology and any of the other “ologies” that can help me objectively study the human condition. To tell a compelling story, the ability to attempt understanding of all sides is imperative.

I began to think about the lengths many writers go to in order to immerse themselves in their chosen subjects. Authors have lived in war torn regions, visited prisons, mental hospitals, hospices, disaster areas and countless other locales to research a story to make it as true and as real as possible.

What lengths have you gone to in order to research a story? What methods of study have you employed? How important has research and actual immersion been to your writing?

Monday, June 4, 2007

Ernest Hebert and The Dogs of March

Have you ever loved a book or a movie so much, you’ve insisted that a good friend borrow it, knowing they’ll love it as much as you do? Had a childhood friend come to visit and you couldn't wait to introduce him or her to your current friends? Back in the early 80’s I read a book called The Dogs of March and although the original copy I had was loaned out and never returned, I bought another copy several years ago because I wanted to be able to read it again any time I had the urge. It’s like one of those books Judy Merrill Larsen posted about several weeks ago. I’ve probably read the book a half dozen times. It’s an old friend.

Ernest Hebert teaches writing at Dartmouth College. In 1979 he published The Dogs of March, the first in a series of six novels that take place in the fictional town of Darby, New Hampshire. I am currently reading Spoonwood. Published in 2005, Spoonwood is the final book in the Darby series. Hebert published Mad Boys in 1993. The Old American, published in 2000 was a departure from the contemporary setting of his previous works and takes place during the French and Indian Wars. Kirkus Reviews called it “a brilliant work, destined to be one of the great American historical novels.”

Hebert has been honored with numerous writing awards. United Press International honored him with three journalism awards when he was a reporter for The Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire. The Dogs of March, was cited for excellence by the Hemingway Foundation. The New Hampshire Writers Project named Mad Boys the best novel by a New Hampshire author in 1993 and the same honor went to The Old American in 2001. In 2002, he received the Sarah Josepha Hale Award for lifetime achievement by a New England author. Spoonwood was the IPPY award winner for Regional fiction in the Northeast in 2005.

In September of 2006 The New England Booksellers Association named Hebert their Fiction Author of the Year.

Reviewers have noted that in Darby, Ernest Hebert has created New Hampshire’s own version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Howard Elman, the main character in The Dogs of March, and a recurring character in the series is a working man, ignorant in many ways through his near illiteracy. He becomes unemployed, and without health insurance early in the story when the factory he’s worked in all his life is sold and the jobs and machinery are moved south. He finds himself in a battle against change and in conflict with the new people moving into the area who have “college degrees and big bank accounts.” Zoe Cutter is the newcomer who’s bought the property adjacent to Howard Elman’s forty acres. Zoe has come from the city with plenty of money and ideas about turning the property into an idyllic New England landscape, and running a country boutique. The junk cars and abandoned machinery that are eyesores to Zoe are as much a part of the landscape to Howard as the trees and the stone walls.

Hebert was probably the first (and may remain the only) author to masterfully, elegantly and genuinely create Granite State natives, working class people, as complete characters not just as caricatures of the stereotypical New England Yankee, used to backdrop bigger stories.

I have a special place in my heart for the Darby series. I was born and raised primarily in and around Boston, but I lived in the area of New Hampshire where the story takes place for a brief time and visited my father there for the last 25 or more years of his life.

When I think about why The Dogs of March has endured for nearly 30 years, why it remains in print and why I find it as true and relevant now as I did when I first read it, I believe it’s because beneath the well drawn characters, the intimate sense of place, and the taut, compelling plot, flowing throughout the story and elevating it to literature is a theme about insiders and outsiders. What has often been called regional fiction isn’t regional at all. This is a universal story.

Immigration issues have been big news since the first Europeans set foot on this continent and displaced the Native Americans. In rural areas, the insiders are the working poor and middle class and the outsiders are the affluent. These areas have changed, sometimes gradually and sometimes rapidly by development that has displaced the original insiders. In urban and suburban areas, often the dynamic is reversed. The insiders are the middle class, who feel their lives and culture are being disrupted by those in the lower socio-economic rung of the class ladder. We live in a largely transient culture now where one can start out as a newcomer and outsider and eventually become an insider – without changing addresses. Changes around the world have made this a global issue. The insider and outsider theme carries into our psyches and how we feel among our friends, families, neighbors and co-workers and they with us. We’re always shifting our roles between insider and outsider.

Ernest Hebert’s website is a wealth of fascinating insight into his writing process and tells the story of how he came to be a fiction writer. One of my favorite pieces is an essay called “How John Gardner Kicked My Ass and Saved My Soul”. He provides us with insight into where Howard Elman came from, how his own working class and immigrant roots informed his work and even how he came to name his characters. You can also hear an audio interview with the author at New Hampshire Public Radio and read a number of reviews of his work by doing a search on Ernest Hebert or Ernie Hebert.

If you know his work, I’d love to hear from you. If you’ve got a favorite author that isn’t widely known, please share what it is about his or her writing that you love. If you have thoughts on the insider versus outsider – native versus newcomer theme, I’d love to hear those too.

A lot of the authors I love are household names. Ernest Hebert is not as widely known, but he is one of my favorites and may turn out to be one of the best writers you’ve never heard of -- yet.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Wind Sprints

I was not much of a joiner as a kid. I attended thirteen schools between kindergarten and my high school graduation, so I never felt quite confident enough to get involved. When I was a sophomore, I decided to try out for the track team. My friend Stacey had gone out for track freshman year and I was feeling a little abandoned after school. I had never played sports, but thought perhaps staying between two white lines on an oval was something I had the finesse to handle. Girls’ track was pretty popular and the team was big. Even though we had sixty girls, the coach had to cut a number of people every fall when tryouts were held. Our school had been #1 in our league for several years in a row. I was not quick, but I was in pretty good shape, so I was tagged a middle distance/distance runner. That made me a primary candidate for the mile and the two mile and a back up if all else went wrong and we needed someone to run the half mile.

Our coach, who also coached distance runners at Boston College, was fantastic. We had workouts that I still marvel at. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we’d run about five miles on the road and go back to the gym to lift weights. Tuesdays and Thursdays we’d run ten miles. The coach always had some other drill mixed in between our warm-up and road work. Sometimes we’d jog to the Endicott Estate, a nineteenth century mansion on 15 acres of lush, open grass that had been willed to the town by a multi-millionaire shoe tycoon in the 1960’s and we’d do wind sprints. He’d line us up, long distance runners next to discus throwers, long jumpers and sprinters and we’d sprint for maybe 100 yards and jog back to the start. He’d vary the length of the sprint and in the beginning; the stars of our team – the sprinters – would leave all of us behind. After a while, shot putters and fifty yard dash runners would fall to the side, complaining of pulled muscles and side aches. The distance runners would plod on until we were released from the unpleasant drill.

During the actual track meets, it was a little tough sometimes to wait the entire meet until the last event, the two mile. I ran the two mile a lot. Friends, fellow athletes and parents loudly cheered on the shorter, more exciting events early in the day, but even the most dedicated of grandparents had a hard time maintaining any kind of excitement when watching a group of girls run around a track eight times. In those days, it usually took the front runners twelve minutes or more to finish – my personal best was 12:10. It was much more a psychological than a physical challenge to run the two mile. I used to sing the lyrics to Don McLean’s American Pie in my head to keep distracted.

I moved again before my junior year, so that was my one high school experience in varsity sports. I’m still a little proud to say that I lettered that year – won and placed in enough races to earn the big wooly grey “D” to sew on the crimson (it was really maroon) jacket with my name embroidered on it.

Writing a novel is a little like being a two mile runner – more like training for the marathon really. People are vaguely aware you’re doing it, it’s not especially glamorous and it’s a little painful to watch. There are no cheers as you complete each lap – at best maybe a “you’re doing great, keep going!” now and then, but it’s truly a solitary accomplishment and even if you finish, there’s no guarantee you’ll win or even place.

As I study and begin to learn more about craft I’ve begun to think I need to do some wind sprints. I need little bursts of accomplishment to bolster the long process I’ve undertaken so I’ve decided to pen some short stories while I continue to hammer out my manuscript. By starting out with so ambitious an endeavor, I’ve denied myself the time to experiment and writing some short stories seems the logical outlet for trying different things. I’ve also put myself in the awkward position of starting a huge undertaking with absolutely no real validation or feedback about my writing and too much insecurity to look for it yet. I’d never dream of showing my work in progress to anyone at this point, but perhaps the short story will give me the opportunity to share a piece of myself the next time someone asks what I’m working on. It feels less threatening.

Lots of well known authors either wrote short stories prior to writing novels or do both. Some novelists don’t write them at all. Did you write short stories prior to embarking on your first novel? Do you still? Do you consider short stories a training ground for embarking onto that much more formidable form – the novel -- or do you find them too different? Do you see a downside to working on both forms simultaneously? Do you ever write something apart from your novel (if you're writing one) so you can feel like you've finished something? So you can write something completely different?

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf