Sunday, September 23, 2012

Why I Love September

A friend of mine has been teaching at various colleges ever since she received her graduate degree. When we talk about other careers we might have tried instead of teaching (for her) and freelance writing and editing (for me), she invariably remarks that she would find it hard to give up her summer months for a twelve-month-a-year job. I understand but I never think about those summer months. Still, I realized recently (actually Labor Day weekend), that I still think the year begins with the day after Labor Day. That was when school started (back in the dark ages), and the two or three weeks just preceding Labor Day included a lot of preparation for the change in activity.

I still think that way. This is fitting. September is, after all, National Preparedness Month. (I'll bet you didn't know that.) While others may start thinking about their New Year's Resolutions right after Christmas, I am blessedly free of that impulse.

September is when I consider what I want to accomplish during the coming months and get my plan under way. I clean out closets, go through stacks of book, find more things to set aside for the local charity thrift shop, and in general act like a big change is coming.

This year, in addition to tidying up the closets, I have tidied up my blog, attaching it more or less tightly to my web page. My web maven, a wonderful writer as well as the only woman I know who understands my computer blind spots, Kathleen Valentine, did the job, and I now feel very organized. It won't last but for the moment it feels good.

I've made a list of stories to finish and novel ideas I want to flesh out; I hope to begin one of them soon, when I get my current project into the mail.  Part of this planning comes out of my love of lists--things to do, books to read, little tasks to complete. Crossing things off those lists makes me feel enormously satisfied. And since these lists only contain things I want to do, I never experience wholesale failure, which is usually the case with New Year's Eve resolutions. For me, September is definitely a time of new beginnings.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Never Too Old for Surprises

Saturday, September 15, 2012

By the time you reach your fifties and sixties you think you know yourself pretty well. You've been through the crises of growing up, starting a life, managing a career, getting along with friends and family and co-workers. You've survived a few tragedies and disappointments, and learned to live life day by day. You think you know how you'll react when the end point comes. I cared for my mother and younger brother. I thought I knew how to listen to the patient, and how I felt about end of life care. I was wrong.

Two or three months ago our dog, a shelter Lab mix, started losing weight. He'd been my mother's dog, and we brought him home to live with us after she died. The cat refused to have anything to do with him, but he settled in. He never had any medical issues until this spring and summer, when he started losing weight and developed diarrhea.

Right now I have a kitchen table cluttered with pill vials--red, blue, green plastic bottles, a plastic bag with packets of powders, and a box of capsules (this doesn't include the other pills we returned for a different dose), and cans of special diet food--none of which we could get down him for more than a few days at a time. He's had an ultrasound, an internal exam, an x-ray, and numerous visits to the vet. He would have started on homeopathic treatments this week if his body hadn't made it clear that no more effort should be made. He can't get to his feet on his own, can't eat, and can barely drink water. His body has stopped shedding--gone are the clumps of black hair I find whenever I vacuum. He also smells different.

As I look back I'm surprised how many times I was willing to try just one more visit, one more possible treatment, one more test. The ultrasound terrified Rob, and why not? He was held down on a table while a stranger shaved part of his body and then ran a cold piece of metal and plastic over his bare skin. He had an x-ray. Both tests showed exactly nothing. He had no tumors, no noticeable cancer, no unexpected growths or decay. He had arthritis in his spine and hips, but we already knew that.

Rob is going to the vet's this afternoon for the last time. And I am going to spend the rest of the weekend (and longer) wondering what is it about a pet that pushed me to try three doctors and scads of medicine when it was obvious where the dog was headed. I wonder if it's because he can't speak. He can't tell me where he thinks he's going (and sometimes as I watch him standing on the sidewalk, I'm not sure he has any idea where he's going or wants to go). I wonder if it's because he seems so helpless that I'm driven to help more. We had no diagnosis because we didn't know what was happening to him; the various tests turned up nothing. The observation that he's old (13) and his body has decided it's time to quit is too simple and too non-medical. What was the trigger that told his body to quit?

Two or three weeks ago I sat on the floor beside him and was surprised to find myself starting to cry. Even if I couldn't admit it to myself, I knew.

It rained this morning when we got him outside for a short walk, but that didn't seem to bother him. Usually he dislikes the rain. He also dislikes the ocean, which is odd for a water dog. He wandered along his usual route, seemed to forget where he was going, turned around, wandered some more, which is when we brought him home. He's ready, and he's probably been ready for weeks.

Pets teach us many things--unconditional love is the one people usually cite. But Rob taught me something about myself. He didn't want treatment, and I had trouble catching on to that. He only wanted to lie on the grass in the backyard and watch the squirrels and rabbits and birds pass by. That's another lesson to remember.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Naming Your Characters

Starting out on a new novel or short story is exciting for me, with that sense of promise of interesting events and discoveries about characters. The first character, usually the mover of the story, appears well developed and named. I may not know this character well, but I can already see a form and personality. And, most important for this discussion, I don't have to work at choosing a name. Finding names for other characters is much harder.

Characters are not all the same, and their names shouldn't be either. I keep a list of characters as they appear and are named, to avoid basic pitfalls. First, I don't want all or many of the names beginning with the same letter. I did this in one mss and it lent a certain poetic quality to the story--that annoying dum de dum de dum de dum. Keeping a list of names prevent me from ending up with a list of characters like this: Paul, Pam, Priscilla, Peter. Second, the names shouldn't be too similar. It's confusing, for example, to read about Sandy talking to Randy about Mandy.

Third, the names of characters should reflect the culture of the story as well as the real world. If the story I'm working on, for instance, is set in South Philadelphia, or Boston's North End, the reader should encounter a lot of Italian names at least for the background characters, such as the man running the corner convenience store or bakery. If the story is set in parts of central Canada, the reader will expect one or more eastern European surnames.

Historical novels pose other challenges. During the 1940s girls were given what we now regard as common names--Ann, Carol, Catherine, Deborah, Linda. Today the names are more exotic--Olivia, Ryan, Shayla, Taylor. If your story is set in the 1700s, many of the names will be biblical--Ezekial, Jeremiah, Sarah (also a perennial favorite, along with Elizabeth).

Fourth, if you have inadvertently chosen the surname of a famous historical person, change it. If you have not inadvertently chosen that name, take a look at the character and ask yourself if your character reflects that person in a responsible way. Books live on after us, and whatever we think we're experimenting with can turn out to be the joke that falls flat at the dinner party. If you want to offer a commentary on a particular public figure, write an essay.

I once used the name Muir for a character intentionally because I have met a number of people named Muir and I felt the character was the kind of person who could have followed in the extended family lines of John Muir. I reread each passage in which the character appeared in order to be certain I had not insulted anyone with that name. In the end I kept the character's name. I also once inadvertently named a character after a famous baseball manager and when I realized that, I changed it. (This is what comes from not following sports closely, but hearing it only as background noise.) The character could perform his role in the story with any number of surnames.

Fifth, no matter what name I choose, if it looks at all familiar, and sometimes even if it doesn't, I check it in a phone book or on line. I also check the names with a google search. Someone somewhere is liable to have a name some writer invented for a novel, and I recognize that I can't guard against every eventuality, but it is important to make a sincere effort to avoid using the name of a real person.

Last, once you have settled on a character's name, live with it. You cannot change this in the middle of the story, or when you're revising for the last time. That is not the time to decide you've always liked the name Marylynne better than Eloise. Writers choose names because each one seems to fit the character, and to change the name means changing the personality of that character after it's already established. If you really want to do that, it's time to start writing another story, with a different character carrying your new favorite name.