"What do you plan to do with your one, wild, precious life?" -Mary Oliver

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Paper Lanterns

For the last post of August, let’s talk about the upside of drought and unrelenting heat. Let’s assume this record heat (August was the sixth driest and the hottest on record for the Great Lake State) is not a harbinger of what's to come, climate upturned on its axis, chill in the desert of Palmdale where my sister lives and asphyxiation in the upper midwest. So what can be an upside to drought? First, there are no mosquitoes. I mean, not one single solitary bloodsucker is left in the Thumb of Michigan. Second, in the still of the exhausted summer night outdoor candles stay lit. They burn all night, inspire and enthuse, the only draft the flutter of a moth's wing before it's coerced into the fire. Paper lanterns sway next to the Boston ferns, and I think of swaying to the dance in a gauzy skirt the color of summer.


Let's talk veggies and the bounty of summertime. Melons that won't usually fatten in Michigan have thrived in the record heat. Cantaloupe and Sugar Baby watermelons, fully seeded for the future, have graced our tables—homestead and market. Tomatoes dropping ripe from the vine take all our time-salsa, canning, and bread salad. Peppers ripening to red and orange in the heat take no backseat to tomatoes. Volunteer cilantro from last year's planting sprouts underneath the soaker hoses in the pepper row as if they know their rightful place, and we pick and we pick and we pick. The butternut and delicata winter squash are a golden tan with skins that cannot be pierced with a fingernail, hence ready for harvest.

So what does this have to do with writing? What, I say, doesn't it have to do with it? We eat to live and writers live to write. I drink and eat and write. I bemoan my ability to keep up but the harvest is plentiful and I persevere and tend my soaker hoses and baby my laptop and long for the time to bring a new novel to fruition. I listen to music that gives me goose bumps like John Lennon’s Working Class Hero and then I go back outside to watch Orion march across the southern sky, because I have to. The new moon is dark and hidden like a story aching to surface. I’m writing about the secret everyone in my family knows but no one talks about. What are you afraid to write about? What are you waiting for?

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Poetry Bus

The Poetry Bus this week is being driven by Chris at the The Enchanted Oak. We had to chose one of two photographs to use as inspiration, and I chose this one -Alfred Stieglitz Georgia O'Keeffe--Hands, 1919

The poem links are up here.

My ticket to ride the bus....

THE HARDEST THINGS TO HOLD

The blues man wraps band aids around his fingers
and holds the quivering note beyond its value.

Grandmother had hands of steel
that whipped egg whites into peaks
and eroded the corner of the cake spoon
we all covet.

My sister's hands are bare.
She drinks cherry juice for arthritis
and sharpens her knives to an edge.
The piano is out of tune and the garden lies fallow.

The hospital had to cut
my mother’s ring off her finger.
They put it in an envelope with her name on it,
and gave it to me to hold.

The artist holds her left hand perfectly still
and draws it with her right.
The teeth that fall out of her
great grandmother's mouth in her dreams
are in the center of the palm.
The hardest things to draw are hands.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

THE BOY FROM YUGOSLAVIA (Flash 55)

While the teacher was at the beer garden they beat up the new boy with the funny name and she hid behind the country school and covered her ears until they were finished. He ran past her bloodied and in his place, face etched with the horror, and she thought, maybe now they’ll believe us.



If you can write a story in 55 words, post it on your site and then visit the G-Man to let him know. You'll get marvelous feedback from his many participants and even a visit from the man himself.

Have a marvelous weekend, writers and compatriots.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Control

The family of woman and children,
baby bottles, car seats and strollers,
head scarves and . . . tennis shoes?
make their way through the checkpoint.
A line of impregnability,
from the wrinkled forehead of the matriarch
(it’s always been this way)
to the teenager in black scarf
(I’m reminded of Minstrel Shows and the subterfuge of black face but can’t say why….is imitation the highest form of flattery?)
that drapes her face like a mantilla and frames her dark glasses,
modern as the painted toes
(slattern)
she bares to remove her shoes.
It’s our choice, she would insist if asked.
But I wonder where the men are.

The men behind the choice come through later,
unburdened in blue jeans, serious as kings.
Unencumbered but for their wallets and cell phones,
they sport flamboyant heads of hair
I’d like to run my fingers through . . .
and pull.

The women sit in chairs with their legs together
and await direction.
They cosset the children and await the men.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Meeting Mojo

Lightning flashed on the horizon but stars blinked overhead the night I met Mojo. He came in the middle of the night. He woke me up. He knocked on the door and I unlocked it.

He stood in shadow but I knew who he was. I invited him in.

“No,” he said. “You must come out.”

So out I went. We sat on the porch and lightning bugs landed in his hair and formed a constellation called Perseverance. Night birds chirped from the half-dead ash trees along the road and Mojo tapped his elongated fingers on the arm of the metal chair. He said no two sound alike if I would but pay attention, and I listened to the sing-song from across the yard, much like the murmuring amongst a flock of hens, low and throaty and full of mystery, as they run here and there with their full-hipped waddle.

I asked him why he came and went like a flimsy idea and he said it was I who could call him up at will if I but put aside that which wasn’t necessary to the writing life. He rose to his feet, and the lightning bugs flew out of his hair and flickered away into the hayfield.

“I have something for you,” he said. “We can go inside now.”

We sat at the kitchen table and he lit up a cigarette, holding it like a joint between his thumb and forefinger.

“What is it you have,” I said, impatient with his silence.

He stubbed it out. It didn't smell like a cigarette. It smelled like clover. “Show me your room,” he said.

I took him into my room, and he drew artwork from inside his shirt like a sorcerer and displayed it on my bed, and I waited for him to explain himself. Then he handed me a letter from an agent.

“Take it,” he said, forcing it upon me. “It’s a good letter and nothing to be sad about.”

I looked at the envelope. The return address was New York and my pulse skipped. A letter from New York, but one to be sad about.

“You should display it like a painting,” he motioned to the one on the bed. “And learn from it. You will not have success until you have had rejection you don’t turn your back on and refuse to learn from.”

And he was gone like the constellation of fireflies, leaving only the memory of his presence, but his words are etched along the knobs of my backbone.

All this in a dream.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Lifeblood of Fiction

Sitting at my laptop in the night with a glass of water at my elbow, there is movement in my peripheral vision. I glance at the source, alarmed, but the shimmering movement is only the play of moonlight on the water's surface. With each keystroke the water jiggles and though I know what it is, the ghostly shimmer fools me again and again, like the slap of the flag on my dad's flagpole in a brisk wind when I'm working in the garden. It has me looking over my shoulder, again and again. And I'm reminded of a passage from THE SOUND AND THE FURY.

If character is the life of fiction (as John Gardner says), description of time and place is the lifeblood that supports your characters along the way. Consider how William Faulkner describes water in a basin in the moonlight....

I could hear Shreve working the pump, then he came back with the basin and a round blob of twilight wobbling in it, with a yellow edge like a fading balloon, then my reflection. I dipped the rag, breaking the balloon.

Or this passage that blends the best description of twilight I've ever read with the memory of the brother who never grew up...
As I descended the light dwindled slowly, yet at the same time without altering its quality, as if I and not light were changing, decreasing, though even when the road ran into trees you could have read a newspaper. I could smell the curves of the river beyond the dusk and I saw the last light supine and tranquil upon tideflats like pieces of broken mirror, then beyond them lights began in the pale clear air, trembling like butterflies hovering a long way off. Benjamin the child of. How he used to sit before that mirror.

I just finished Ian McEwan's SOLAR, which set me to thinking about the importance of character development and how essential it is to make your readers care about your characters. Maybe this is an unfair comparison I'm about to make, but McEwan has been compared to literary giants, from Dickens to Faulkner, so my guess is that it isn't. The characters in SOLAR were as flat as failed bread and I had to force myself to keep going. Halfway through, I stopped waiting for it to get better and resigned myself to disappointment from an author who has never disappointed me before. So, even the experienced writer slips on occasion and falls into the trap of their own verbosity. Not only was the main character unlikable on a personal level, but as a scientist he seemed unmotivated, selfish, and greedy. And the only time McEwan comes close to a Faulkner description of time and place is when his Pulitzer Prize winning scientist steps out of his air conditioned car in the heat of the New Mexico desert and falls to his knees under the weight of it.

I think the main problem for me is that climate change is such a serious subject it doesn't lend itself well to the slapstick satiracal style McEwan uses to drive the novel forward. I found it hard to sympathize with this unlikable character who zips his penis in his snowsuit during a trip to the Arctic, this overweight academic who overeats before an important speech at a climate change conference and has to swallow his acid reflux as he tries to convince investors to take their money out of coal and oil and put it into solar. Who could take him seriously? This buffoon who has multiple failed marriages and countless affairs and who behaves badly at the turning point of the novel. And the multiple cast of supporting characters are equally unlikable and unmemorable. I didn't care about any of them. Characters are the life of fiction and these ones were dead in the water before the halfway point.

I think it unfortunate that one of the premier writers of our time missed an opportunity to bring solar power and all the possiblities encompassed within the miracle of photosynthesis into the mainstream conversation. Most readers won't put up with unlikable, boring characters, regardless of the subject. I would love to hear other opinions on this subject. And if any of you have read SOLAR, what'd you think?

If you can't give your readers a character to love, you'd better at least give them one to hate. Make your reader feeling something. Take Faulkner's Jason-one of the most despicable characters in the history of American literature-Jason Compson will stay with me long after I've forgotten McEwan's Michael Beard. Indifference to character is the death knell for a novel.