Friday, February 24, 2012

Tricking the Universe: Writers and Their Superstitions

A professor once told me, People with a lot of rituals in their lives get more out of life. I didn’t agree with him then because I was young, a graduate student, and longing for spontaneity. But I’m older now (much older) and I’m more receptive to his comment.

Writers have lots of rituals. We tend to be a superstitious bunch and we call our superstitions rituals or ways of organizing time, but, really, these are superstitions. Most writers know about the rabbit’s foot Hemingway carried in his pocket, or John Cheever’s daily ritual of dressing in a suit and going to the office with the other businessmen. But I only recently learned that Jack Kerouac lit a candle every day. A.S. Byatt writes surrounded by her special collections of paper weights, snail shells, and other things; and Isabel Allende begins each book on the same day, January 8, because that’s when she began her incredibly successful first novel The House of Spirits. Edith Sitwell began her writing day by lying in a coffin, and Carson McCullers donned her lucky sweater whenever she wrote. Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk drawer. Alexander Dumas pere used different colored paper depending on the genre—blue for fiction, pink for nonfiction, and yellow for poetry. (I don’t know about the yellow, but I think he’s right about the colors for fiction and nonfiction, and I know there’s scientific backup for this—somewhere.)

I am not immune to this need to trick the Universe into being the wind at my back. I like to clear my desk before I begin a new work of fiction or nonfiction—tidy things up, file papers, finish lingering correspondence, pay all the bills I can find. I rearrange (by half an inch or so) the artifacts from India I keep on shelves nearby.

Part of this is procrastination, part is liking to see a clear path ahead for at least a few days, and part is trying to convince the universe that I’m here and I’m ready. At the end of a project I like to do a general cleaning of desk and drawers and files, even if they have nothing to do with the writing project. (You’d think my little home would be tidy and excessively neat, but you’d be wrong.) I think this is a way of getting rid of those dark spirits that hang around a story just waiting to see it go off a cliff. Add to this the need to write with only certain kinds of pens, the need to use only certain notebooks when I’m traveling and taking notes, and the need to structure time for other tasks in certain ways and you begin to wonder how I or any other writer can ever get anything done.

Do you have tools that seem to make your work flow better? Are there rituals or practices you rely on to get your words on paper? Let me know and I’ll add them to my growing list of what writers need to do their work.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Getting to Know Your Characters

Robert Frost wrote in the introduction to his Collected Poems (1939), “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” This doesn’t mean writers should be producing tear-jerkers. I take it to mean that the writer must know her characters, and this is the hardest part of writing for many.

Some writers rely on the standard character’s biography, creating an entire back story of education, family structure, coming of age experiences, and more. Some of this is very useful, but for me this kind of writing doesn’t get at who this character really is.

One of the most successful approaches for me is asking the character how he or she feels about a current social situation or crisis. How does she feel about it, and why? This is where I just start writing and wait to see what comes out. If I’m trying to discover a character who completed school some years ago, I might find myself writing about where she chose to sit in the classroom and why. Was she a good student but shy, so she stayed away from the front row, or was he someone who’d had a run-in with the professor and felt an ethical revulsion for him, so sat in the back of the room. Letting the character ruminate on these experiences tells me far more than a biography, no matter how long.

I also like to know why my characters do things. If one character has a hobby and practices it regularly, I want to know why. What is the character thinking while working on knitting or cooking or gardening or anything else? We are drawn to different things, and I like to hear the reasons for our passions. If someone is willing to spend hours every week on something for which he or she may or may not be paid, I want to know why. Our reasons run deeper than many of us realize, and this is where a character ruminating can generate fascinating revelations that deepen a story and even shape it.

In the quote above, Robert Frost was talking about the essential point. We care about those we know and understand. And that means more than height, marital status, number of siblings, the way we drink our coffee. It means all those things we know about our oldest and dearest friends from listening and sharing over the years. Only for writers, we have to get to all that listening and sharing in a matter of weeks. We have to let our characters talk, and then we and the readers will know them and care what happens in their stories.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Closing the Circle

(This post was originally published on Author Expressions on February 3, but I felt it was important enough for what I have been writing lately to reprint it here with a couple of photos taken in 1976. In the photo on the left, Lakshmee has set up her images in her family temple in her compound; she gave me the larger oil lamp and the water pot, both older pieces. In the photo at right, Lakshmee stands in front of her front door.)

Three weeks in India is barely enough time for me to get settled, unpack and get in touch with friends, but that was all I had. It was easy for me to do nothing but read, write, visit with friends, and think about where to have lunch or dinner. But I had one other task to attend to.

For over thirty-years I had the friendship of a woman who worked for me and my husband when we first lived there, and in her later years we became her main support, since she was by now a widow as well as childless. Being old and poor in India is not a good prospect, and although Lakshmee worked into her eighties in various capacities (selling wood which she stored in her house), she clearly was in decline. She died in September after an operation for a badly broken leg.

I knew this through emails, and sent money when asked and followed her medical care as well as one can from the other side of the world. When I arrived in India, I went to see one of her former employers who had been helping in her care and passing along information to me. To my surprise, Lakshmee had left something for me with one of her doctors.

The Triveni Nursing Home is an ayurvedic hospital where Lakshmee often went when she felt unwell, or, in my view, lonely and sad, and they always took her in, even if she showed no signs of having any money. I had told them I would cover her costs and they never seemed to worry about it. When I went to visit them in January, Lakshmee’s doctor informed me that she had left her puja items for me. I promised to return to pick them up the following week because the doctor’s maidservant was cleaning them (those wails of pain you hear are antiques dealers groaning across the country).

When I first met Lakshmee she was a complete surprise—someone who opened up doors to another world, a world that a colleague once told me was often unavailable to others. And at the end she was a surprise too. The puja items weren’t the usual ones I had seen her use—the steel water pots, the little lamps, the wooden incense holders. These were heavy bronze pieces that must have belonged to her parents—a heavy oil lamp and a water pot, and a small incense holder and oil votive lamp. A friend looked them over and told me which ones were the oldest and how I could tell.

I brought them back and they now sit in my library. I don’t recall ever seeing Lakshmee use them, and it may be that at one point she realized they were too valuable to have around for anyone to see; she had only a padlock on her front door, and had been robbed at least once. She was cautious with things that mattered to her, and she put away her puja items. And now I have them, an unexpected gift from someone who gave me so many over the years.

Lakshmee was, in the slang of the moment, the real deal, a traditional Nayar lady for whom the traditional culture was still more real that the modern world, and certainly made more sense. She had a clear and strong personality, and not surprisingly she shows up in some of my favorite and most vivid characters in the Anita Ray series. You’ll meet her in the next Anita Ray, coming in June 2012. If you want to know what Lakshmee was like, look for Gauri in The Wrath of Shiva. She turns the plot upside down, and then rescues it.