Search
Blog Archives
Navigation

Entries in #craft (6)

Friday
Mar082013

Writing Across Gender Lines

I've been giving a lot of thought to the project of writing from a gender perspective different from one's own lately, for fairly obvious reasons. At The Atlantic, Michele Willens has posted a nice meditation on some of the questions and potential roadblocks that arise with projects like these. 

I chose to write a male main character precisely because of these roadblocks. Had I written a female character instead, the reflexive shift into my own experience in China would have been too hard to avoid, and when I began my novel, that experience was still so close that it would have colored everything, and not in a positive way. By following a young man around, rather than a young woman, I was forced to sit at a slight distance, and it was this distance that allowed me to write fiction, rather than thinly-disguised memoir. 

As time has gone on and Will has survived more drafts than I can possibly count, other benefits to his being male have slowly emerged. For one, the experience of a white male expat in China is still quite different at times than that of a white female expat, and that allowed me to explore certain themes that would have remained at arm's length had I been writing a woman. That said, I am very aware that the majority of the supporting characters are decidedly female, and it would be dishonest of me to say that they weren't easier, in a lot of ways, than Will himself has been.

Some people have suggested to me that this might just be the main character effect, and that it's always trickier to figure that person out compared to those who are not so spotlighted. But I do think that writing a man is harder for me than writing a woman in a similar situation would be, even if it has been better for the project overall. 

That said, Sally Koslow, as quoted by Willens, may well be correct. It may be more difficult for men to effectively cross that gender line. Koslow believes that "By default, women have it easier than men when they attempt to craft characters of the opposite sex, because our whole lives we've been reading vast amounts of literature written by men." But even if we take this as truth, I have to wonder to what extent women writers are influenced by our years of reading women--as written by men. What have we internalized as somehow "necessary" or "true" about literary representations of women that may only be necessary/true because it became conventional through a long line of male authors? (Women's Studies 101, right here.) And assuming that there is at least something that's come out of that long line that's worth challenging, do women writers have a responsibility to represent ourselves in a fictional space that we create and control? 


Wednesday
Jan162013

A George Saunders article--but not that one

There's been a lot of buzz online about the New York Times' recent piece on George Saunders in honor of The Tenth of December, his most recent short story collection. And while I read that article a couple weeks ago and enjoyed it, I don't actually remember all that much about it, save for his description of being on a plane that was quite likely to crash. (What can I say? I'm a mildly nervous flyer who lives abroad.)

However, I absolutely adored this other George Saunders piece in Slate, an author-editor book review that's a conversation between Saunders and his longtime editor, Andy Ward. Fellow Stockholm writer Angela Mi Young Hur sent this one my way, and it's definitely worth your time. (No matter who you are, if you read this blog at all, ever, I can guarantee the time-worthiness.)

Saunders is a devotee of the short story form, pointing out that "...at least three of the stories in this book were 'novels' until they came to their senses. That seems to be the definition of 'novel' for me: a story that hasn’t yet discovered a way to be brief." We don't have this in common, him and me; I wrote short stories in grad school, because it seemed as though that was What One Did (and they were way easier to discuss and review in workshop), but they couldn't make me like it. Nor could they make me particularly good at it. However, he goes on to talk about knowing when a piece is done, and it rings so very, very true for longer pieces as well:

I have an internal standard for when a story is done that I can’t really articulate. Maybe it’s just: I know it when I see it. Or: I know it when I don’t see it. It has something to do with making the action feel undeniable. There’s a feeling I get when (in the rereading) the language passes over from language to action: What was mere typing before starts to feel like something that has actually happened. So that can take a while and it’s not just about the language—it’s also a structural thing. If the story is tight and all the scenes are necessary, it helps me to understand what the current section is supposed to be doing—and hence I can know when it’s right and done.

People say this over and over, but there's just this feeling of rightness that comes when things begin to fall into place of their own accord, and this man, as any of you who've read his stories knows, is pretty good at getting his work to that place. He's also very good at talking about that work. So I'll finish with his words:

Part of the process of moving on and doing more work is to regard all past stories as these small clay rabbits you have made and brought to life, which you loved very much during that process, but which then go running off across the barnyard into the mist, with your blessing. So no favorites. I just feel slightly fond of them all.

Tuesday
Dec112012

Why Are My Eyes Sad?

Not actually our tree, but still a Swedish Christmas tree.

So I bought a Christmas tree today from an Egyptian guy who had a bunch of them stuck out in the snow right by our house. It's a lovely tree, and it's currently in our apartment, upright, with two cats circling. (After all, not only is it a tree, but it came in with snow that they didn't have to go outside to experience.)

While he was wrapping it up in the tree-netting, though, after we'd discussed the relative merits of our home countries' political systems, he told me he wanted to ask me something.

Oh boy, I thought. Here we go. "Sure," I told him, preparing to turn down a date.

"Why do you have sad eyes?"

That one wasn't what I expected.

"Well, I don't know," I said finally. "I mean, I'm not actually sad."

"Ah, okay. Some people just have sad eyes. That must be it."

This wasn't the usual "Smile, gorgeous!" that creepy guys like to give women on the street now and then. And he didn't seem like a creepy guy. The conversation drifted to tree technicalities easily, and then I paid for the tree and dragged it home.

But this still begs the question: are my eyes actually sad? No one else has ever told me that. So either everyone has just been protecting me from the horrible truth, or maybe I really did look sad. The possibility that the young, lonely, cold guy who spoke no Swedish was trying to prolong the conversation and hit on me notwithstanding (my husband and my father, I know well, will pick this option), what could be causing sad-eyes?

1) Allergies. Definitely a contributing factor.

2) I'm deeply depressed but have no idea.

3) I was actually a little bummed about something just before I bought the tree and it showed on my face.

Yeah...it's number three (with a touch of number one). I didn't realize that it was going to be obvious, but as I walked from the mall to the tree place, I had just realized why I've been so reluctant to get to work this week. After a wonderfully productive retreat with the Stockholm Writers' Group, I now have a full draft. This will be (knock wood) one of the last full drafts of this book I ever write. In the new year, I'll send it off to my agent, and I hope with all sincerity that she'll then take it away to be sold.

In short, while the rest of you might get to enter this imagined world sooner rather than later, my own period of intimacy with it is almost done. For six years and change, I've been at it, off and on–but mostly on. I've spent so much time with these characters that they are as real to me as many famous real people out there I hear about but have never met. More real, even. And just now, just as I'm getting things to where I am really happy with what the book is and does, I have to send it away. Maybe it's kind of like sending a kid to preschool just after you get them toilet trained. And I do joke that I'll tell our kids (when they exist) that this book is their older sibling.

Jokes and comparision to kids aside, I know I can't be the first writer or artist to feel this way near the culmination of a large project. I'm actually pretty bad at finishing projects in general. I took a personality test once that gave you indices of how driven you supposedly are by all of these theoretically-motivating factors. And guess what I got for "Completing Things," or whatever it was called. Yes, that's right: 0. That was my lowest score, even lower than "Neatness." (Swear to god, Mom, it really was!) It's probably tied into why I write novels vs shorter pieces in the first place. This way, I get to sit with these characters and their world for years.

I wish for all possible success with this book, I really do. But it's still bittersweet to give it up.

Tuesday
Oct022012

Searching for Similes

I love Mark Twain. I was doing an internet search to figure out what other people had used to complete the phrase "dart like a ____," and one of the first results took me to a page out of a Dictionary of Similies from 1916. This page contained many of the usual suspects, such as:

 Darted like an eagle.
            —Aneurin
  Darted … like an arrow aflame.
            —Joseph Conrad

  Darted like a skimming bird.

            —Joseph Conrad


And others that made me smile, like:

  Darting like glittering elves at play.
            —Mary M. Fenollosa

  Darted away like a bird that has been fluttering around its nest before it takes a distant

flight.
            —James Fenimore Cooper

And still others that rely on a familiarity with things that might be just a tad out of date:

 Darts on like a greyhound whelp after a leveret.
            —Walter Savage Landor

Shakespeare even weighs in, timeless as he usually is:

 Their influence darts
Like subtle poison through the bloodless veins of desolate society.
            —William Shakespeare

But the medal goes to Twain's simile, listed last, and a welcome relief from all of these romantic, flowery, natural images and--as one is wont to get from Twain--straight to the point:

Darted away like a telegram.
            —Mark Twain
Tuesday
Sep112012

Considering Apocalypse and Retro Culture

There's a great article just up at Longform, "The Revolutionary Energy of the Outmoded," that you can find on its original blog here. I'm still digesting every rhetorical move Christian Thorne, professor of English at Williams College, pulls when it comes to placing our '90s (and beyond, certainly, but the piece was written in 2003) near-worship of retro culture and obsession with apocalyptic films and books side by side. It's not a comparison that I would have thought to make on my own, but as I read the piece, I kept having those moments of complete recognition, the kind that make you feel kind of like an idiot for missing something that's so obvious once it's been explained to you.

And maybe it's because I'm also slowly making my way through The Gift for the first time, wherein Lewis Hyde (at least so far--don't spoil the ending!) argues that objects-as-gifts within a constant cycle of giving/receiving have a fundamentally different power and identity than objects-as-commodities as we know them in western capitalism, but what stood out to me most was this:

...[there] lies the buried aspiration of all retro-culture, even (or especially) at its most fetishistic. If you examine the signs that hang next to the objects at Restoration Hardware and other such retro-marts—these small placards that invent elaborate and fictional histories for the objects stacked there for sale—you will discover a culture recoiling from its commodities in the very act of acquiring them, a culture that thinks it can drag objects back into the magic circle if only it can learn to consume them in the right way. 

As a writer who is so often concerned with objects within my own work, and as a 30-something living in the 21st century who's necessarily been steeped in this retro-culture, reading this was less an "Aha!" moment than an "Oh. Duh." 

Thorne takes it one step further:

Underlying retro-culture is a vision of a world in which commodity production has come to a halt, in which objects have been handed down, not for our consumption, but for our care. The apocalypse is retro-culture’s deepest fantasy, its enabling wish.

I'm just skimming the surface here; the essay incorporates, the Left Behind series, Blade Runner, Delicatessen, The Truman Show, classic Chaplin-era slapstick themes, and, briefly, film noir.

I'll be giving the thoughts it's generated for me a lot more consideration myself. I'm not writing a novel set in the past, but I am writing a novel set in a foreign country and culture that is often exoticized, and idealized, in a way that's related to how we approach our reconstructed past. A large part of creating the world of 21st century Shanghai on the page, and making sure that the reader feels the same disconnect as my main character, lies in the objects that Will encounters. The objects are also implicated in the supernatural elements of the story. This and the distancing from home culture that living abroad necessarily creates seems to endow them with the kind of weight that Thorne argues we fantasize about getting from the apocalypse. The latter effect really just imposes another kind of scarcity; the former actually does, deliberately, endow them with magic of a sort.

I'd also be lying if I said that I've never considered writing an apocalyptic novel. At the moment, though, I think Octavia E. Butler has me beat out of the water before I've even made an outline, so that one's on the shelf for a bit.

I'm hooked. The essay is definitely worth a read.