Thursday, December 31, 2009

love in all its dimensions

Writers generally stay vigilant for spotting story lines that might have a unique spin in depicting vulnerabilities of the universal condition. That's pretty highbrow for moving into a discussion of an absurd but tenderly poignant 2007 movie, watched only recently, titled "Lars and the Real Girl." The storyline depicts an emotionally damaged young man who resorts to buying a life-size inflatable doll to be his companion and ease his loneliness. When the movie was first released, the concept seemed off-the-wall, bizarre, and a bit kinky, with an unsavory connection to sex toys. Still, it seemed to garner some modestly good reviews, and there was always an interest in how the writer and director handled this material. In the age of Netflix, it was easy to find out, and rather enjoyable. One hastens to add that the acting was especially good. Well, the humans. The doll was especially weird.

Lars, a thirty-something, is living in a garage apartment next to his married brother Gus's home. Karen, Gus's attractive wife, hurries across the snow covered yard in her robe to knock at Lars' door; she wants to invite him to eat breakfast with her and Gus. Lars is too shy or something to even open the door: they carry on a one-sided conversation through the glass pane, until Karen thinks she has an agreement. But instead, Lars drives off to work. He dresses neatly, and works at a computer station in some sort of large technology firm. His cubicle mate calls him over to see the assortment of sexy, inflatable dolls he has on his monitor. Lars is disapproving of his associate's waste of company time. Another associate, Margo, a charming young woman, tom-boyish good looks, comes over to flirt with Lars. She's obviously very interested in him, but he keeps a cool distance. So far, nothing too amiss.

Days later, a crate is delivered to Lars apartment. Gus and Karen are inquisitive, and Lars is evasive. Karen again tries to get him to come to dinner at the house, and, surprising her, Lars accepts—if he can bring his girlfriend. Karen is ecstatic; of course he can. Lars tells her the girlfriend, Bianca, is from Brazil, the daughter of a missionary, and has had an injury that requires her to use a wheel chair. No problem; Karen is so happy for him. The next scene alone is worth the price of admission. Karen and Gus are seated at one side of the table staring across at something that grips them in a sort of catatonic trance. The camera pans around to show a smiling Lars at dinner, with Bianca, the life-sized, inflated doll, seated at the table in a wheel chair beside him. From time to time, Lars speaks to the doll, shares food from her plate, and carries on a conversation with Karen and Gus as if there was nothing unusual happening at all.

Getting kinky yet? Not at all. Lars explains later to Karen that since he and Bianca are not married yet, it wouldn't be right if she stayed with him in his apartment, and so could she stay in the extra bedroom in the house? Of course, yes, of course, Lars; no problem, says a shell-shocked Karen.  In what seems a good writing strategy, the back-story is unfolded after an intrigue has been built-up wondering what is Lars problem. Gus gradually pieces it together for Karen. Their mother died when they were just youngsters, and it devastated their father who remained drowned in grief and remorse afterward. As soon as he was old enough, Gus, unable to bear it, got out of the house. Lars, the younger brother, was left to live with the depressed father until years later, and it apparently had taken its toll on him.

Karen decides they have to get Lars to see a local doctor-psychologist in this small, mid-western town. The ruse is that they're going to have this woman doctor check out Bianca to be sure that everything necessary is being done for recovery from her 'injury.' Lars is persuaded, and the office visits are humorous, but more than that, it's moving to see how the doctor is actually probing into Lars' own state of mind. Exceptional acting in what could have been just comedy.

Just as compelling, it seemed believable that the whole town was pulling for Lars, accepting Bianca as an everyday reality, especially by Lars' church-going community, and his office mates. Yes, Margo stays threaded into the storyline; see the movie to appreciate just how well it was done.

The bizarre nature of the story recalls an article, "Love in 2-D," by a Japanese writer, Lisa Katayama, which was published in the NY Times last July. The phenomenon involves "a thriving subculture of men and women in Japan who indulge in real relationships with imaginary characters. These 2-D lovers, as they are called, are a subset of otaku culture— the obsessive fandom that has surrounded anime, manga and video games in Japan in the last decade." Studies have suggested the 2-D love phenomenon "may be attributed in part to the difficulty many young Japanese have in navigating modern romantic life." The author points out that a government survey shows "more than a quarter of men and women between the ages of 30 and 34 are virgins; 50 percent of men and women in Japan do not have friends of the opposite sex."

The 2-D aspect refers to a practice of forming real, romantic relationships with a graphic image of an anime character imprinted on the slipcase of a pillow, which they carry with them on 'dates,' perhaps to a karaoke bar, a public dinner, or similar public places. These items are sold on the Internet, or can be bought or traded at public conventions. Katayama interviews several men who are a part of the subculture, and represent a broad spectrum of 2-D lovers. At one extreme there are men who have given up all expectations of ever marrying, who have a wistful, self-conscious awareness of their fetish, but are nevertheless happy and fulfilled in their 2-D love. In the middle range, some may have tried 'real' romances, but were dumped and have returned to 2-D love. At the other end, some may be happily married now, but have fond recollections of their former obsession. Katayama suggests that the majority of the 2-D lovers go to work, pay rent, have a wide circle of friends, and otherwise live normal lives. Although the paraphernalia may alarm some—the anime characters are often scantily clad prepubescent girls (cartoons; like Elsie, but unwrapped)—the interviewees mostly seemed to have pretty gentle natures. In any case, there doesn't appear to be the cases of sexual violence reported in Japan as are reported in western newspapers.

The human condition seems to endlessly amaze, and should prove an endless source of new material for writers to ponder.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Cherry Blossoms and the Butoh Dance

The emotional impact of any story can largely depend on our own life experiences, and where we now stand along that unfolding journey.  A recent German film, "Cherry Blossoms," besides its good acting and visual gems, has some powerful themes that will be useful to discuss from a story writing viewpoint.

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Here is a summary of our film story to facilitate the discussion.  A married couple lives in a small German town, and the man is nearing retirement from his civil service office job.  Trudi's doctors reveal the results of her recent medical exam; she has a fatal illness.  They suggest she break the news gently to her husband, perhaps while they go on an adventure together, a change of scenery.  Trudi is very dejected; she tells them Rudi doesn't like changes, or travel.  Nonetheless, she coaxes Rudi to take a vacation with her to visit their three adult children.  Trudi had studied Japanese Butoh dancing before marrying, and would love now to visit their youngest son, Karl, who lives and works in Tokyo.  However, not knowing of her illness, Rudi protests that it would be cheaper for Karl to come here, and so they go instead to visit their other son and daughter in Berlin.  The visit is unexpected and their son and his family have little time to entertain the parents, nor does the daughter.  The daughter's lesbian partner is persuaded to drive the parents around town for their sightseeing, and to a Butoh dance performance. The expressionistic dance intertwines graceful movements with the grotesgue, the light and shadows of coming into being, and the ceasing to exist.  Rudi, who has no taste for Butoh, sits on a bench outside the performance area.

The parents soon decide their busy children have no time for them, and leave Berlin to visit a lake resort.  While there, Trudi dies, and Rudi is plunged into despair.  He has depended on his wife all his married life for his happiness.  The children return to their parents' home for the funeral.  They have a dubious, even distasteful, expectation for Rudi's ability to fend for himself without their mother, and are fearful that he will become dependent on them.  After some reflection on the Butoh keepsakes and Japanese travel literature his wife had left behind, Rudi travels to Japan to visit Karl, and to come to terms with his loss of Trudi.  Like his siblings, Karl is busy with his work and wary of his father's despondent and dependent-like intrusion into his life.  Rudi wanders the seamy side of Tokyo, in and out of strip joints, massage parlors, but all in grief.  Often he wears his wife's clothing beneath his topcoat.  Rudi overhears Karl on the telephone with his sister describing his wanderings and cross-dressing, and complaining that it is her turn to be a host to their father.  The next day Rudi wanders into a park, where he watches a young Butoh dancer perform in a remote, sylvan setting.  He starts a conversation with her, and she tells him how Butoh helps her keep contact with her deceased mother.  Rudi returns to the park each day to watch her dance, and she befriends him and helps him find his way around Tokyo.  One day he follows her home, to discover she lives in a tent in a wooded outskirt of the city.

Rudi asks the girl to accompany him to visit Mt. Fuji, the long cherished ambition of Trudi.  The girl cautions him that Mt. Fuji is very shy, and is often lost to misty cover for days at a time.  They go and stay together at a resort near Mt. Fuji, and indeed, one day leads to another as the mountain stays hidden in mists.  During this time in the resort their friendship deepens; he shows her his wife's clothing which he carries in his luggage, along with the momentoes of her Butoh period.  After some days at the resort, however, Rudi becomes weaker, and grows ill.  One night he steals outside and discovers that the mists have risen to reveal Mt. Fuji in the moonlight.  He quickly dresses in his wife's kimono and Butoh makeup, and he hurries to the side of a lake beneath the mountain.  There, he dances his own interpretation of the Butoh, and is joined in the dance by an apparition of his wife.  The next morning the girl awakens to find Rudi gone and hurries to find him dead by the lakeside.  Returning to their room, she finds he has left her a large amount of money in an envelope.  Together, she and Karl participate in the cremation ceremony for Rudi, and afterward each walks off on their own into the city.

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The story has some very good, universal problems that help generate story tensions: growing old; a dependency by one spouse on the other for psychic happiness; a reversal of dependency issues or perceptions of such, between parents and children; and the need for symbols and ritual that satisfy our deep yearning for a spiritual dimension of life.  The use of dance as a ritual form portraying a spiritual dimension of life, particularly the Buhto dance, has a profoundly satisfying appeal.  The symbol of the whitened face mask of Buhto, creating an impassive persona for the dancer, from a coming into being, to a ceasing to exist, is so mesmerizing and beautiful.

The Buhto dance seems to signify the persona and mythology of the Hindu god, Kali, to my mind.  I'd been thinking of additional revisions for one of my short stories, concerning a mountain climbing expedition by an American couple in the Karakorum Mountains, on the borders between India, Pakistan, and China.  In my story it's a minor peak, of religous significance to devotees of Kali, and had included a real or imagined Kali dance sequence at a story resolution point.  At the least, Cherry Blossoms will be a source of further inspiration.  I'll probably revisit the short story in a later blog.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

writing in first person POV and other perils

Has there been an overwhelming tendency in contemporary times for authors to favor writing in first person point-of-view?  Cris Mazza, an author and professor of writing, thinks so, and discusses results of her informal surveys in "Too Much of Moi?" published in The Writers Chronicle, Oct/Nov 2009.  Mazza surveyed literary magazines and story anthologies, including about 150 stories within each category, and 123 novels.  She generally found first person narratives to be on the order of 60% to 70%, but with up to 80% in some individual magazines.  For the novels, about 66% of the total, and 87% of thirty-one first novels, were in first person.

Mazza makes a point that "While 65% may not seem overwhelming, it would be considered a landslide in a primary election that offered more than two choices on a ballot."  Our authors' ballot, would of course, include first, second, and third person candidates, with at least several variations of the latter: typically called omniscient, objective, and limited third person.  Not many enduring stories have been written in second person (here's a plug for one contemporary work, Chris Lynch's "Freewill.") Generally, fiction written more than a few decades ago favored limited third person, and older classic fiction favored omniscient third person.

Various motives are given for writing in first person.  Some authors believe it to provide a more intimate story, one that feels more 'real' to a reader, and, in view of the current market popularity of memoirs and 'chick-lit' stories, may provide a narrative style of obvious appeal to a wider share of the reading public.  Good first person stories have been, and will continue to be, written; but an author should have a good understanding of the potential weaknesses.  Mazza says "Really effective first person should be like viewing the story's events through a clouded, scratched, nicked, warped, or otherwise marred piece of glass, or plastic."  Otherwise, one of the pitfalls may be that it becomes all too easy to slip into a mode of narrowly relating a character's emotional and physical responses to a series of obstacles placed in the way of the character getting what she wants.  A straightforward, major problem, multiple sub-problem obstacles, and final resolution, constitute the road map of the story.  It becomes difficult to include perceptions of irony, nuance, and character complexity that can raise the story to the level of a literary work.  Another potentially draining situation is when the first person author and the story protagonist become the same character, probably a common problem.

Some good, in-depth material on the advantages and disadvantages of the several point of view narrative styles are given in "The Art of Fiction," by John Gardner, and "Creating Fiction," edited by Julie Checkoway.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

encountering "Distant Relations"

What is left unsaid by the author can sometimes provide an ultimate, satisfying epiphany in a work of fiction.  This reflection developed slowly with me after reading "Distant Relations," by Orhan Pamuk, a short story appearing in the Sep. 7, 2009 edition of The New Yorker.  Pamuk was the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.  His story seems a gem,  suited to gaining a better understanding of the art of storytelling.  (Spoiler alert: find and read the original first, if you can).

The story concerns a young, cosmopolitan, Turkish man who has finished his degree in America and is being groomed as a manager in his father's prosperous business in Istanbul.  Kemal is due to be engaged to a girl from one of the wealthy, Westernized families of the city, girls who were beginning to break the old taboos, and, occasionally, were brave enough to sleep with their boyfriends before marriage. Here is Kemal, summing up his relationship with the girl, Sybil:

"Believing myself a decent and responsible person, I had every intention of marrying her; but, even if I hadn't wished to, there was no question of my having a choice now that she had 'given me her virginity.'  Before long, this burden cast a shadow over the common ground between us, which we were so proud of--the illusion of being 'free and modern' (though, of course, we would never have used such words for ourselves), on account of having made love before marriage--and in a way this, too, brought us closer."

However, early in the story, he goes to a shop where Sybil had pointed out a handbag to him that she admired.  He is startled to find he knows this store clerk from his childhood; she is a younger, distant relation, and very beautiful.  Fusun stretches into the window display to fetch the bag from a mannequin, and Kemal is mesmerized by the too-short, lacy yellow skirt, and the yellow pump she kicks off while reaching.  They make small talk, and Fusan, a blonde, tells him the cost of the handbag, but she is sure the shop owner, a close relative of Kemal, will offer him a discount when she returns from lunch.  "It's not important," he says, and takes out his wallet, "a clumsy gesture that, later, Fusun often mimicked..." he tells us.

Well, we have a little foreshadowing here, and expect perhaps later we will observe a more intimate relationship, where Fusun grows to mimic him.

Meanwhile, Kemal seems to wrestle with his vision of himself as "a decent and responsible person," and his yearning toward perhaps a more modern, uninhibited sexual freedom.  He suggests to Sybil that instead of meeting in his office for their trysts, they meet in an unused flat his mother owns in the Merhamet Apartments.  However, Sybil doesn't want to sneak around in secret apartments as if she were his mistress.  "Where did you get this idea from, to meet in that apartment?"  "Never mind," Kemal says.  We feel the tension developing in Kemal's two states of mind.

Sybil points out to Kemal that the 'Jenny Colon' handbag is a fake, and suggests he "return the bag, get his money back, and run,' because the shop has cheated him. Kemal reluctantly goes back to the shop for a refund, but faced with the wounded pride of Fusun, and his continued enchantment with her, he is soon consoling the weeping girl with tender hugs.  She can't return the money to him because the shop owner has gone home and the register is locked--another humiliation for her.  Kemal struggles to get out his reply: she can drop it off at the Merhamet Apartments, where he tells her he goes afternoons, to catch up on office paperwork.

We seem now to be heading toward the denouement of our story; will Kemal shed Sybil and take up with Fusun, or perhaps he will break loose of his old-fashioned inhibitions and carry on with both simultaneously?  He leaves the shop in a state of shame and guilt, mixed with images of bliss, on his way home to his parents' house.  Enroute, he notices a yellow jug in a shop, and impulsively goes in and buys it.  The symbolism of the yellow equates, of course, as it does throughout, with Fusun.  (My sketch of the yellow, evening primrose serves as a lead-in to our story).

Our story, (related by Kemal in a distant past tense), hurtles toward a conclusion.  When Kemal reaches home he asks his mother for the key to her Merhamet Apartments, and it now becomes obvious it has been unused for years.  Kemal tells us the "yellow jug drew no comment from anyone during the twenty years that it sat on the table where my mother and father and, later my mother and I ate our meals.  Every time I touched the handle of that jug, I would remember those days when I first felt the misery that was to turn me in on myself, leaving my mother to watch me in silence at dinner, her eyes filled half with sadness, half with reproach." 

It was a masterful construction.  The story forces the reader to return to key encounters and dialog to satisfy himself that he, at last, understands Kemal, and the resolution of his story.  I felt that the author laid out all the foreshadowing and clues that successfully engage the reader, and lead to the conclusion that Kemal attempted to continue a double life with the two women, and ended up with neither, a saddened and lonely man in his later life.  Not many other short stories with such veiled endings are as well done.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hills Like White Elephants, and other paintings.

Lately, I've been re-reading Alex Powers' "Painting People in Watercolor--a design approach," a favorite of mine, and thought about how similar in approach the design of a good story can be to the design of a good painting. Both furnish aesthetic experiences for a reader or viewer, and it might not be too surprising if they both shared a few conceptual elements.

After covering a lot of design ground, Powers sums up four essential elements in his most successful paintings: 1) less subject; 2) bigger shapes; 3) darker values; and 4) faster painting (for livelier paint quality). If I can translate this to writing, some fiction presents numerous characters, place settings, and motifs or plots, an overall busyness, which can make reading more of a mental challenge than an aesthetic experience. The 'bigger shapes' criteria is related to fiction, because our right-brain, aesthetic appreciation may be challenged to discover interesting shapes meant to illuminate a story, when all those shapes seem to demand equal attention.Powers' darker values advice is related to many artists' tendencies to paint their shapes in a narrow, unexciting range of light to middle value hues (colors), whereas the more adventureous, and aesthetically pleasing paintings will include a vivid use of glowing darks. Similarly, in writing, a bolder palette of values for emotions and actions could be used to accent the fiction's principal 'shapes.' Finally, the faster painting admonition can remind writers that perhaps the originality and energy of a story may be drained by a constant 'noodling,' and 'toning-down,' of any risky material.

I decided to select some classic short fiction piece and work backwards to visualize how a writer's vision might show some affinity with Powers' design principles. Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," a strong, aesthetic reading experience, seemed to surface as a candidate immediately. So here goes. The opening paragraph of the story seemed to contain all the design shapes needed for the story:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station
was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building
and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American
and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would
come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.

Hemingway offers all of the important shapes for a painting in his opening paragraph. The initial sketch includes the two main characters, the long, white hills with no shade or trees, and an abstraction of the railroad track leading away, toward Madrid. The river is suggested by another shape. The sketch might also have shown the couple sitting in shade outside the bar, waiting for their train, but it might introduce too much subject matter--too busy. Small shapes, like table and chairs, might weaken the composition, as in 2).

Some of the initial value range is established here, using warm hues to suggest the heat. The reflected white glare of the hilltops in sunlight suggest the white elephants fancied by the girl, Jig.

Aesthetically, the painting seems to be holding together well thus far. This is a digital painting, using Corel Painter X watercolor tools, and is a lot more forgiving of mistakes than traditional watercolor painting. The eye moves through the painting from the lower right, over the 'paper-doll' silhouettes of the figures--our focal point--and leaves over the hills at the top.

Some of the values are further darkened, and the small format for the blogging images suggested that might be enough. A little decoration in the form of painting splatter is added, think-metaphors for the scatter of dialog between Jig and her partner as they contemplate whether Jig will go through with an abortion.

The man is confident an abortion will be safe, reasonable, and allow them to continue a happy relationship. Jig wants to believe him, but seems ruefully uncertain, right up until the train arrives.

I think most of the major aesthetic shapes of the story are captured in the painting, but the complete aesthetic experience afforded by the intellectual impacts of the couple's dialog can only be experienced by reading and pondering Hemingway's story.

Nonetheless, I think a writer could benefit by visualizing his story, during the conception, during writing, and during revisions, as a composition of major shapes, shaded in a range of values that dramatize their presence, and by critical use of language that supports the vision's selected focal point.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Recently a 17-yr. old boy, Zac Sunderland, completed a 13-month, 28,000 mile, round-the-world voyage in a 36 ft. sailboat. Zac bought his well-used boat for $6000, and set sail in June 2008 when he was only 16, arriving back home earlier this month, 13 months later, at Marina Del Rey in southern California. Previously home-schooled, he studied to complete a high school education while at sea. His parents--dad is a professional sailor--stayed in touch with him during the voyage, using special software and satellite updates to help track storms in Zac's path.

I was reminded of this daring kid's voyage while at the nearby Point Arena wharf, inspecting a small monument (see my sketch) on the rock-armored beach, commemorating a landing of 15 men from the town of Yawatahama, Japan, on Aug. 13, 1913. A free-hand etching done on a metal plate set in the top of the monument depicts their 15-meter, 3-masted junk, and though the boat was a bit larger than Zac's, it may not have been any more seaworthy, and certainly did not have the satellite updates of weather to help plan the safest route along the 11,000 km voyage. It did have 15 crewmen , though, which I'm not certain was an asset or a problem. Disappointingly, the hopeful immigrants were returned to Japan; nevertheless, a sister city relationship sprang up between Yawatahama and Point Arena in later years.

All of which leads into my latest evening reading, "On to Oregon," by Honore Morrow. First published in 1926, it had been mentioned by a number of YA literature folks as one of their favorite books while growing up, and was compared to a couple of American classics. I'd never heard of Morrow's novel, but as noted, I'm intrigued by stories of epic journeys. John Sager, a 14-yr. old boy, with four younger siblings, and his parents, are on a wagon train leaving Missouri in 1844, and headed for the Oregon Territory. He is a difficult, rebellious boy, and the journey up through Wyoming has already faced desolate wasteland, hunger, sickness, and marauding Indians. When both of John's parents die of disease, it falls to this undisciplined, but tenacious boy to keep his remaining family together, and try to bring their wagon through to Oregon. John has elements of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer in his makeup, but he faces much more dangerous trials in his story. I'm only one-third through, so I've yet to decide how well the book succeeds.

A collection of my YA book reviews is at Jacketflap.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

pinocchio, in depth

Pinocchio, like many of the classic fables, seems to have numerous layers of symbolic meaning, much like the more studied, often darker, fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Perhaps the staying power of such stories owes something to our subconscious resonance to the embedded symbolism.

Tim Parks, writing for NYRB (30Apr2009), penned an interesting review for the new translation of the classic, "The Adventures of Pinocchio," by Carlo Collodi, translated by G. Brock. Collodi had a formative background that may well have colored his story of Pinocchio. Born in 1826, the first of ten children in a poor Florentine family, where six of his siblings died in childhood, Collodi knew the hardscrabble life he sets for Pinocchio and the puppet's creator/father, Geppetto. Collodi was educated in a seminary, but in 1848 and 1859 volunteered in two unsuccessful revolutionary wars fought to unify Italy and free it of foreign powers. By the late 1860s the country had been unified, and Collodi began his writing career working for the new Ministry of Education, where he was invited to write for children. As Parks tells it:

"The success of his children's books was welcome but Collodi's ambition had been to write adult literature. Here, however, his work was criticized for failing to deliver realistic character and incident, and for its underlying pessimism about both the new Italy and human nature in general."

Though given an exuberant, feel-good treatment by the Disney movie version of 1940, the original story told the adventures of a brash, gullible, and easily manipulated Pinocchio. Collodi's cynicism about human nature inhabits the puppet's disregard for his poor father's efforts to shelter and educate him, and is palpable in concocting the guileful, unsavory schemes of Cat and Fox for hoodwinking the puppet. (We seem to have reprised Cat and Fox lately in Wall Street's Bernie Madoff gulling his trusting puppets). Parks opines that Collodi's "…irritation at writing in a genre he thought secondary may have contributed to the story's extraordinary mood swings and unusually cavalier approach to such matters as narrative consistency," but which nevertheless contributed to the story's vitality.

Parks relates how Collodi tired of his story and wanted to end it at the point where Cat and Fox, unable to prise Pinocchio's mouth open to get at his hidden gold coins, hang him in a tree, and plan to return for the coins the following morning. However, the publishers prevailed on Collodi to continue, and he presses on with the following remarkable scene:

"Oh, if only you were here, Daddy!" calls Pinocchio. "His eyes closed, his mouth opened, his legs straightened, and then, after a tremendous shudder, he went completely limp."

Parks notes the scene appears suspiciously like an allusion to the Crucifixion. Yes, astonishing, but credible, considering the profane cynicism of the ex-seminarian, turned anti-cleric, and revolutionary soldier, who fought against Papal armies and their foreign allies opposed to unification of Italy.

Other religious symbolism may be ascribed to the character of the blue fairy, a girl with "sky-blue hair," and "her face white as a waxen image," iconography suggestive of Mary, the Blessed Mother figure in the Church. The blue fairy in the story is a recurring figure of solace and comfort to the beleaguered Pinocchio. Here, Collodi seems not so cynical, and perhaps somewhat wistful for the Italian archetypal figure of the ever-caring mother, exemplified by Mary.

In the end, Collodi tells us Pinocchio becomes a boy like other boys. Are we then elated, or are we rather nostalgic for the loss of Pinocchio's former individuality and freedom? But he never showed anything like individuality or enjoyed much freedom as a puppet, and had only ever been a victim of internal whim and external manipulation. Collodi loved such enigmas, and broke lots of conventional fiction writing rules to spin his magical, compelling tale.

The story has always intrigued me, and it may have much more depth and writing craft than I'd previously imagined. A writer could learn a few things from Collodi.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

subconcious underpinnings for fiction writing

I think many writers experience a rich relevance of certain place settings encountered on local excursions, or in distant travels. Such encounters may set in motion a sort of subconscious connection to the scene, even though one had little or no direct memory of a physical connection with the place. We're not speaking of the common 'déjà vu ', or, 'I've been here before' feeling; rather, one more specifically targeted to the writer: 'this place expresses something that I may need to deal with in my fiction.'

These ideas were in mind recently when I sorted through some of my photographs taken at an old, largely empty, dairy ranch property, circa 1880-1940, located here on the west coast. The first shots were of a Victorian-style tree house, ensconced in the twisted heart of a gigantic, ancient cypress tree. The mysterious doorway conveys something of a magical portal into fictional space. Inside are carved figures representing the Garden of Eden: Adam, Eve, the animals. Intriguing, especially after reading the recent novel, "Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand," by Gioconda Belli, a story about the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The other photos were taken going away from the tree house, on a walk through lush, overgrown vegetation to the now abandoned, original ranch house, slowly subsiding over the years into the black earth beneath. Such a sense of loneliness and mortality, perhaps somehow linked to the tree house diorama.

I assembled a few minutes of a movie clip using the photos, with a piano sonata playing in the background. The music haunts me whenever I revisit the old house.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

to write, or sketchcrawl?

After a few short story rejections over the past months I feel a need to recharge my inner battery, so I have spent more time on art, including drawing, outdoor sketching and life drawing sessions at the art center, and watercolor painting.  Sometimes art seems a little safer--if someone doesn't care for the picture I'm working on, well, that's okay; I rarely ask an opinion.  The drawing or painting either works aesthetically for me, or it doesn't.  Writing involves a little more of the personal joys, sadness, triumphs, and failures that a writer brings out of his experience to the fiction work undertaken.  You don't necessarily know as much about me from my art as you might from my stories.  Just so, an editor's rejection can be hard to handle; is it a judgement on my inner workings, or just a matter of writing craft?  Okay, we all know that any writer that dares to submit their work will have these introspective periods, and just need to get over them.

A friend suggested I join her in an international fraternity of sketchers who every 3 months go on a one-day sketching odyssey in their area, and then post the results on the group's web page, at   The Sketchcrawl page downloads drawings from our blogs, so here's a few I completed for the 22nd Sketchcrawl, all from locales near my home on the northern California coast.  

First sketch: Point Arena Lighthouse; Second Sketch: Point Arena downtown.

Third photo: wharf at Point Arena; Fourth photo: pioneer's graveyard in Manchester.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

inauthentic authors

The sketch depicts a storyteller, a seanchai, in the Irish tradition, who unwinds his tale from the darkened corner of a smoky cottage (inspired by photo in "Rachel Giese: The Donegal Pictures). Though he remains partly obscured in the shadows as he tells his tale of 'long ago and far away,' the audience judges his appearance and words to decide for themselves whether he's an 'insider' or an 'outsider' to the people of the story. If he speaks intimately of the ways of the 'Tuatha de Danaan,' the faerie people, he may take care to validate how he comes by such knowledge. He might claim for himself a special relationship to the faeries, but in that case his audience might wonder why he has come to be wandering their countryside, hungry, and in want of shelter for the night. Whatever his claim, the storyteller needs to stand ready to defend it. If his story suggests an intimate, personal tale of the Tinkers, also known as the Travelers, a gypsy-like subset of the Irish population, the storyteller's own appearance, dress, and dialect may be key in winning over his audience.

In modern times, our written novel, with its acceptibility of author pseudonyms, a wider world of social and cultural complexities, and various degrees of removal between author and audience, may place the audience in a more vulnerable position to 'inauthentic' authors. Some cases discussed here will clearly involve 'inauthentic' authors, as in the case of an author of a memoir which did not in any way represent his own, personal experience. A lesser degree of inauthenticity might be ascribed to the author James Frey, who was shown to have allowed substantive amounts of fictional episodes to creep into his memoir. In such cases the storytelling might be more rigorously honest, and still compelling, as first-person fiction. Indeed, most 'memoirs' probably have at least some, if minor, amounts of fiction, which would not necessarily move the memoir into being thought inauthentic. The issue of inauthenticity is a lot less clear in other cases.

The subject has provided the media with a lively topic in recent years, wherein misrepresentations of a book have raised interesting issues for the reading public. In most if not all the cases the misrepresentation originated with the author, though occasionally the publisher seemed remiss in fact-checking. In a few books the representations were a hoax, with the writers presenting themselves as Holocaust survivors, or as survivors of drug addiction, or of urban violence, and their work is offered as a memoir, or a personal experience. However, in other cases the misrepresentation might consist only of a false suggestion by the author of his ethnic identity, intended to establish credentials for writing the story, and to gain access to market quotas he presumed to exist for that cultural or ethnic identity.

An interesting survey and a writer's discussion of this topic are given in "Real Fakes & Inauthentic Others," by Alyce Miller, in The Writer's Chronicle, V5 No. 41, March/April 2009. Curiously, some of the same fakes and inauthentic others were discussed in "Guilty," a 2008 bestseller by Anne Coulter, a political conservative, who focuses on a notion that such authors feel the 'modern' need to identify with 'victims' in their stories.

Hoaxes dealing with the Holocaust include an award-winning "Fragments," by Binjamin Wilkomirski, published in 1995, and comprising memories of his imprisonment as a Jewish boy in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. He was uncovered as a hoax in 1999. He'd actually spent the war years with adoptive parents in Switzerland, and wasn't even Jewish. Another two hoaxes of the genre exposed in 2008 included "Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years," by Misha Defonseca, and "Angel at the Fence," by Herman Rosenblat. They had all seemed to reviewers to write with authority, but their stories had come unraveled, either when backgrounds were checked, or some pertinent detail didn't stand up. Rosenblat couldn't repeatedly have met his blond angel at the camp fence as he described, because someone who knew better, an actual camp inmate, pointed out the physical inaccessibility of that fence to any prisoner. Nonetheless, these were stories that were apparently well crafted, and were praised by critics and readers—until the matter of authenticity had come up. If the story had been labeled as fiction, would it have succeeded as well? It might have lessened the presumed authority of the writer, but if the protagonist had been developed as a sympathetic character, and the story had gripping obstacles and resolutions, well then, perhaps.

An example of the false memoir, and false ethnicity issue, which was treated in both of the references given above, and which I also recall from reading a NY Times book review, unfolded after the publication of "Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival," by Margaret B. Jones. The memoir's protagonist is a half-white, half-Native-American girl, who grows up in an African-American foster parent's household in South Central Los Angeles. She runs drugs for the 'Bloods' street gang, raises pit bulls to sell to gang members, and loses her foster-brother to gang warfare. In the Times interview, Margaret has escaped her past life, now has a small daughter and a new home in Washington, bought using proceeds from a Starbucks investment, and attends college. It seems incredulous, but why not? The interview includes a photo of a young black man who is a guest in her home and is said to be recovering from a gun wound. In another photo Margaret is sitting on the stoop with her child, Rya, and one of those mean-looking pit bulls she used to raise in the 'hood. Unfortunately for her, it was later discovered that Margaret B. Jones is really Peggy Seltzer, who grew up in an affluent section of southern California and attended a private school there. Nevertheless, she opined that she'd done some good with her fictional account of life in the 'hood, by giving voice to an oppressed minority who are usually ignored. Too bad she hadn't called it fiction.

Another interesting literary ruse occurred with the publication of "My Own Sweet Time," by Wanda Koolmatri, supposedly an Australian Aborigine woman, but which was really written by Leon Carmine, an Anglo-Australian male cab driver in Sydney. He was disarmingly honest about it when the ruse was discovered: "I couldn't get published, but Wanda could." Before being discovered an ethnic outsider, his book "took the publishing world by storm."

There were many other interesting cases discussed by Miller in her article; "The Education of Little Tree," by Forrest Carver, a hugely successful 'autobiography of a Cherokee Indian,' though Mr. Carver was later discovered to be white; and "I, Rigoberta," an autobiography by Rigoberta Menchu, a renowned Guatemalan human rights activist and Nobel laureate, but relating experiences Rigoberta never had. Though not the poor, uneducated person she had claimed to be, she said she wanted to speak out for those voiceless, oppressed people of her country who had suffered such genocide.

Ms. Miller makes some interesting points when she surmises that "the…hoax may, in part, function as a reminder of the consequences of condescending to work from "previously silenced or suppressed voices" by presuming it looks like a particular thing," and, "The notion that an 'outsider' appropriates, while the insider never does, is false and simplistic."

To conclude, the inauthentic author might run the gamut of a repugnant hoax, to someone who made a venial marketing decision.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

starting a story

Perhaps one of the most pivotal points in laying out a short story is where to begin? According to Michael Kardos in his excellent article, "In Defense of Starting Early," (Writer's Chronicle, Feb. 2009), much of the contemporary advice is to start at, or immediately following, a conflict, and proceed efficiently to the resolution. He quotes Vonnegut: "Start as close to the end as possible."

My own stories sometimes include initial settings of time and place, and character development, that may not be needed to engage the all important question of, "what is this story really about?" In most cases it might easily start a little closer to the end, but then it could become a different story. It might be done just as well or perhaps better that way, of course, but Kardos, who's job was to read several thousand manuscripts for three literary magazines over the past seven years, has come to see how frequently the story that starts late fails to develop an engaging plot.

He says that, typically, the late-starting manuscript begins in the aftermath of some accident or tragedy (twenty percent of the stories received at his literary magazine assignments) and moves forward from there, depicting how a character deals, or doesn't deal, with the accident or tragedy. Often the story doesn't work because the accident or tragedy seems to exist mainly to add gravity to the work. If the backstory were cut, the events of the dramatic present that follow wouldn't change at all. Other times, even if the accident or tragedy is directly relevant to a story told in the dramatic present, we are shown characters moving from place to place, making observations, having conversations, etc., but very little in the way of plot. This is because the important story—the gripping story—is already over. The most dramatic event in these characters' lives has already happened.

Kardos mentions the Ur-text of narrative theory, Aristotle's "Poetics," in which "the beginning of a plot is said not to follow anything by causal necessity. Rather, the beginning is, by definition, that from which events of causal necessity follow." Kardos concludes that "after-the-accident" stories are noteworthy in being "unconventional, especially when the accident is not actually an accident at all, but rather, as is often the case, the tragic result of causal factors. Often these causal factors, if rendered in the dramatic present, might make for a more compelling and satisfying story than the one actually written."

Why is this unconventional structure so common now in contemporary fiction? Kardos hypothesizes it has to do with the dominant aesthetic virtues of subtlety and restraint, as seen in the continuing relevance of Hemingway's "iceberg principle," such that "if fiction were an iceberg, then seven-eighths of the iceberg ought to remain hidden underwater." Another example given is Raymond Carver: "Most of my stories start pretty near the end of the arc of the dramatic conflict." Kardos says that "Given Carver's tendency to avoid flashback and backstory, we are typically denied knowledge of the events that have gotten his characters to where they are now, at the start of their narratives….One of the effects that Carver achieves by starting late, and skipping these earlier, character-shaping events, is the downplaying of causality—action and reaction, or problem and decision—in favor of a brief, shimmering moment in a character's life, the exact significance of which is difficult for either the character or the reader to articulate."

I think Kardos makes a good case for being wary of starting too late in your story.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

cell-phone novelists

A startling writing phenomenon seems to be rolling over Japan—cell-phone novelists, mostly girls and young women, who are posting serial installments of their work on special (free) web-hosting sites. Imagine trying to tap out a 100,000-word novel on a cell-phone, using just your two thumbs, while commuting to your job on the crowded bullet train. Some of these writers have no idea of the structure of novels when they begin, but, increasingly, their on-line works are making it into manga (graphic novels), books, and movies. A recently published novel written by a previously unknown cell-phone author sold 2 million copies. A movie version of another cell-phone novel earned 35 million dollars last year. At the end of 2007, cell-phone novels held four of the top five positions on the literary best seller list!

Some of the examples discussed in The New Yorker (12/22-29/08) generally portray passive, emotionally painful, often masochistic, romances, written with very simple word and sentence structure. The editor of a literary journal is quoted as saying, "The author's (real) name is rarely revealed, the titles are very generic, the depiction of individuals, the locations—it's very comfortable, exceedingly easy to empathize with. Any high school girl can imagine that this experience is just two steps from her own. But this kind of empathy is largely different from the emotive response—the life-changing event—that reading a great novel can bring about. One tells you what you already know. Literature has the power to change the way you think."

In a panel discussion hosted by the same journal, the question discussed was "Will the cell-phone novel 'kill the author'?" A panel conclusion was that the novels weren't literature at all, "but the offspring of an oral tradition originating with the mawkish Edo-period marionette shows and extending to vapid J-pop love ballads." The journal editor concluded, "It's not a question of literature being above it. It's just—it's Pynchon vs. Tarantino. Most people have a fair understanding of the difference."

Yes, but I like the connection of Japan's current cell-phone bare-bones novel to the earlier marionette shows. Perhaps some American bare bones, genre novels are offspring of the ubiquitous Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century "Punch & Judy" puppet shows, staged on sidewalks in many of our urban-immigrant centers. No literary pretensions there, just economical, brief respites from grim realities pressing in on all sides.

Friday, January 2, 2009

evoking sympathetic characters--or maybe not

Every so often one picks up a novel in which the protagonist has been given some demoralizing physical affliction that is not his main obstacle in getting what he wants in the story, but seems to have been factored in by the author, either to create added sympathy for the character, or perhaps to provide an interesting, additional tension. But does it work?

On one end of the scale, arguably, we might have the overweight character, whose romantic horizon is consequently more constricted, or who suffers numerous barbs and indignities as a result of his weight. Does the overweight condition add much to the story? I can think of several YA novels in this category, most not too memorable, but a recent graphic novel might be useful to discuss along this line.

"Skim," by cousins, Mariko (author) and Jillian (illustrator) Tamaki, is the story of Kimberly Keiko Cameron, attending a private, girls' school in Toronto. Kim and her small group of friends practice an eclectic mix of Goth and Wiccan lifestyles, which sets them off from the majority, more affluent and conventional girls. Kim, who lives with her divorced mother, is a very lonely girl to begin with, and her overweight condition intensifies this. She develops a crush on her English teacher, a young, hippie-like, New Age woman. The graphics are quite effective in showing how Kim's fantasies sometimes mix with the realities of her infatuation. The teacher abruptly transfers away from the school, and Kim is despondent. She compensates a little by eating more frequently, and resists attempts by her girlfriend to hook them up with college boy dates. The story has its tender moments and story interest, but the overweight factor, and eating compulsion, are ultimately a little off-putting. Kim's lonely nature, her search for identity and meaning through Wiccan ritual, and through a fantasy love, seemed enough for the story without the added hurdle of her body weight.

Overweight may or may not have a genetic basis, but cerebral palsy definitely does, and we'd really be loading our character down with this while he's on his search for what he wants in the story. "Stoner and Spaz," a YA novel by Ron Koertge, does just that. Ben is a conservative, strait-laced, generally ignored student with a CP disability, a spaz, who escapes his loneliness with a heavy dosage of movies at the local arts theater—until he meets Colleen there, another lonely student, but a rebel who'll do any drug, and take any dare. She doesn't ignore his disability; she teases him about it, and thrillingly they're on some sort of high wire together. He doesn't even smoke cigarettes, but she has him try a joint, and takes him to all the swinging clubs with her. She challenges him to direct his own movie, and he challenges her to give up the drugs. We get the feeling Ben will have the strength he needs for his challenge, but our heart goes out to Colleen who just doesn't seem like she'll make it. So, does the affliction make for a better story? It probably would have worked fine if he were just the lonely, movie-addicted, introverted young man he was, without the CP complication. However, the CP seemed to have a reasonably good fit, wasn't overly clinical, and the story didn't strain to send any message about disabilities. Koertge continues to be a favorite YA author.

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," by Mark Haddon, demonstrates a deeper end of the scale for imposing an affliction on a character. Christopher, an autistic 15-yr. old, narrates his story. Here, the affliction is the dominant theme of the story, though Haddon weaves his revelation of the autistic child's view of the world into a warp of light mystery about who killed a neighbor's dog. Christopher utilizes his love of reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries and an acute, deductive logic, to pursue the mystery. He is handicapped by an inability to 'read' the moods and behaviors signaled by other people, and though he cannot tell or understand jokes, he is often ironically funny. Other times, he is maddeningly irritating with his idiosyncrasies, and petulance toward his beleaguered father. I recall that Haddon had training in social work, and he probably understands his character well. In the case of this novel, the affliction, and the writing, are compelling reasons for reading the novel through, but the reading experience finally seems less rich when the mental process of the character is so far removed from us.
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