Monday, September 13, 2021
Thursday, July 15, 2021
Back in the late 1980s, when Reagan left the White House and it was evident he was in decline, a journalist reported that others had noted the mental failing much earlier because the president began using the word stuff, dropping it in more often rather than developing the rest of the sentence. Instead of being precise and clear, he used the word as a shortcut, making his sentences sound informal rather than incomplete. This, apparently, is a sign of declining mental skills, and an early sign of dementia.
Well, that got my attention. With a grandmother who died with Alzheimer's, and later a mother in the early stages before she died, I took note of the signs I could look for in my own speech. When the use of the word stuff and others like it turned out to be one of them, I hopped on that bandwagon and have been riding it ever since. I have long been uncomfortable with the sloppy use of the word thing, and avoid it whenever possible, so now I had two words that made me cringe when I heard them skidding into place in a sentence.
Changes in contemporary American vocabulary are obvious to anyone who reads an old newspaper from the 1950s or earlier. I'm not convinced this is a sign of the shrinking of our language skills, but it is certainly an indication of their changing. Our writing and speech are much simpler, more casual, blunter in many cases, more often laced with slang. Linguists may argue about the size of the English vocabulary--half a million words or fewer than two hundred thousand if most of the inflections are skimmed off--but in daily transactions our chosen words are few. The ever-present stuff and thing may be a sign of change and nothing more.
A professor in graduate school, in the 1970s, remarked a few times on the tiny vocabulary of a particular Slavic language. I haven't been able to track it down, but I did come across a language thought to have the fewest vocabulary items. Toki Pona is a language created by Sonja Lang, and has 123 words. It takes usually about thirty hours to learn and the speaker must rely heavily on creating metaphors to get his or her point across. I can't say it appeals to me. Even though language grows through metaphor and borrowing from other languages (one of the reasons English vocab is so large and rich), I think I'd be frustrated at not having more words to play with, especially technical terms. This particular language strikes me as replete with versions of stuff and thing.
A writer who captures a character's linguistic oddities--speech patterns and rhythms, vocabulary and inflection--wins my eternal admiration. This doesn't mean the author demonstrates a vast vocabulary; only that she captures the peculiarities of an individual in words. The first time I read George Higgins I felt like I was in the room with his characters and at any moment they'd be menacing me as though I were in the story.
The news about Reagan may have startled me out of a complacency I didn't know I had. But in the end it made me a more conscientious writer, alert to moments of laziness in thinking and writing that can be corrected and thus perhaps improve the work in ways not imagined. Whatever challenges me to be more alert is good, regardless of the original motivation.
Friday, June 11, 2021
There was a time in my life, not so long ago, when I could say that I never wasted time. I couldn't because I simply had so much to do. I worked full time, produced a semiannual literary journal with a colleague and later an anthology of crime fiction with two other colleagues, ran a monthly writers' group, critiqued friends' mss, and oversaw my mother's health care during a critical time. And I wrote.
My focus was on crime fiction, novels in two series with a few short stories based on the main character in one, Anita Ray. I wrote both stories and novels during the brief interlude between arriving home from work and dinner, after taking snatches of time during lunch or while walking to a meeting or waiting on hold to think through what I wanted to write in the next scene or passage when I got home. When I could I attended writers' conferences and participated in a few volunteer projects. And then I retired.
I have long felt that writers' block is an indulgence. I may not feel like writing, but once I sit down and begin, the words come. No matter how bad the writing might seem at the moment I know I can always return later and rework it. The point for me is to keep going. Once I retired I didn't feel the same pressure, but I also didn't stop writing. While working I had to use every minute I could find but now I could begin earlier in the day, whenever I wanted, and take more time working through what I was trying to say. I might still sit down unready to write, as it were, but I still wrote no matter what. I wasn't at my desk to play solitaire. Nothing changed in retirement, just my attitude to time now that I had more of it. I let myself daydream more, stare out the window more, talk to the dog more.
Did having more time make a difference? Did I write more? Did I write better? Did I think more deeply? The only question I'm sure about is the latitude retirement gave me to try new things--new characters, new settings, new problems. And then last year I began thinking differently about how to construct a story, and that produced a very different novel from my usual fare.
Last summer I set aside the reliable and much enjoyed cozy/traditional format and pulled up one character and got her into trouble in the first line and kept her there. The story is obviously suspense and not a cozy. I learned a lot about a different style of writing but in the end I also learned about me. I see the world in a certain way, and even in a suspense novel with danger in every room, threats at every corner, the main character is going to have a certain world view and certain beliefs that might be shaken but won't be destroyed.
Writing suspense meant going deeper into certain characters but it also meant uncovering the roots of principles, the drive leading to the goals that can be misdirected, and inchoate beliefs that can underlie a life and be twisted before being recovered in a truer form. I spent a lot more time thinking about these issues before I began writing--weeks, even months.
Being willing to take the time to explore these discoveries in fiction might not have happened in earlier years when writing another cozy seemed the obvious choice, the easier path. I might have ended up wasting a lot of time--months if not years--in producing another series that was okay but not much more. But in the end I finished with a novel that is different from my usual work and a level above it. And now comes the test. My agent has it and now I wait. Once again, the issue is time. Waiting time.
And also thinking time, thinking about the next character who will be in trouble in the first line and stay there until a few paragraphs from the end. Time is set only as we choose to set it.
Thursday, June 3, 2021
Saturday, May 8, 2021
Tuesday, April 13, 2021
This is my fifth post about my project to read a novel by a woman from every country. This week it's Morocco. I'm learning a lot about how non-English and non-European writers conceive of the novel form and purpose. The language of composition undoubtedly plays a role.
Year of the Elephant: A Moroccan Woman’s Journey toward Independence, and Other Stories, by Leila Abouzeid
Translation from the Arabic by Barbara Parmenter
Introduction by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea
University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, 1989
In the tightly constructed novel of the title, Zahra returns to her home village after a sudden divorce. This is 1950s Morocco just after Independence. Her husband informs her she will receive whatever the law allows, which is one hundred days of support. After the years of fighting shoulder to shoulder with her husband and others for independence from France, the woman is stunned and angry, feeling betrayed and lost. Childless, she can return to live with a sibling but chooses instead to live in the room of the family estate she inherited from her father. The various rooms inherited by relatives have turned the old estate into an apartment building, but at least she has a place to live. A holy man in the local mosque listens and advises her as she recalls her years in the resistance, her many visits home bedecked in jewels and fine clothing, and her plans for a new life once the colonial power was driven from the land. She is unprepared for life as a divorced woman—no money, no skills, no family connections that she wants to submit to. A few friends attempt to aid her but there is little they can do and she wants her own life of dignity and position. She navigates this new world, assessing the changes in her old collaborators as well as her husband, but in the end she makes peace with the new nation of Morocco and her new self, and grows well beyond the woman her husband divorced.
Also included are eight short stories that are glimpses of life in Morocco as it struggles to transform itself from a traditional culture ruled as a French colony into a modern nation on the world stage. In most cases they read more like scenarios than fully developed stories but the view of a traditional culture clashing with the modern world is clear.
This is the first novel by a Moroccan woman written in Arabic and translated into English. As such it marks two important trends—the growing use of Arabic instead of French or English in literature and the rise of educated women in public and literary life. Although some reviewers have enjoyed the writing style, I didn’t find it admirable. The novella moves along well, and the ending is both ironic and hopeful.
Friday, April 9, 2021
One of the first pieces of advice I received when I began writing mysteries, in the 1980s, was this: Every story should have something real in it. Not everything can be invented; the story will begin to feel ungrounded, thin. The real element can be in the setting, characterization, dialogue, or plot development.
In writing classes I illustrated this general rule with a simple writing exercise focusing on character development: describe three people, one whom you know, one whom you have seen around where you live but don’t know personally, and one who is entirely your invention.
Every student reacts to this exercise differently. At first I thought students would approach the three characters in the order in which they were presented, and some did, but not all and not even most. I expected they would devote an equal amount of time and thought to each one, but again they did not. Some spent paragraphs on one and only a line or so on the others. Again, I expected most would fall into the pattern of a basic description, but I was wrong. Some gave a basic description of each person, almost like an abbreviated biography, and some gave the same information in a bullet list. Others wrote a scene with snatches of dialogue, and still others described the person in question engaged in an activity. For some this exercise was clearly the beginning of a short story. But in the end almost every student responded to one of the three characters most strongly and most creatively.
The second character I asked them to describe—the one whom you have seen around the town or city where you live but don’t know personally—brought out the most original and compelling characterizations. After listening to the students describe their process, I wasn’t surprised at the results.
The first person, one whom you know, brought along a lot of limitations, and the writers felt restricted—and some felt uncomfortable—in describing someone they knew well. The last one sounded tempting, and for several it was, but the character felt less than real, sometimes fanciful and often dull. The middle one—one whom you’ve seen but don’t know personally—gave them a starting point. The mere fact that this was a person who had caught their attention suggested their imagination was already engaged, and the descriptions became vivid, going far beyond the person they had seen at a distance. By not knowing the individual personally no one was constrained by specific characteristics. The half-knowing seemed to stimulate the imagination, and the descriptions took off from the basic reality of the person seen from afar.
The second person had enough grounding in reality to give the character, no matter how fancifully or outrageously described, a certain persuasiveness because he or she was in fact real. Even when we’re making something up in its entirety we add that telling detail we glimpsed while sitting opposite someone on the subway or a manner of speech we overheard at a party. We look for something that caught our attention and use it to catch the reader’s.