Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

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I Am Artist, Hear Me Congratulate Self!

March 25, 2009

I was reading up on RaceFail09 earlier today, and I started following links and Google hits and somehow it got me to Alas, a Blog, which got me to Aaru Tuesday, and somewhere along the way I found the Bechdel Rule and the Miller Test and a great rant decrying the fact that a straight white guy is seen as the default hero in our fiction. It was one of those pieces where it doesn’t say things you haven’t heard or don’t already know, but says it in a way that forces me to acknowledge the truth in a way I hadn’t before.

And I realized that my book, which I have so carefully constructed for the better part of a year, fails on the basic level of not being about a straight white guy who swoops in to save the queers from the problems they can’t solve for themselves. For extra bonus points, I made the murderous bigotry merely the backdrop for my hero’s emotional journey, and his sidekicks facilitators for the same.

And furthermore, I realized that this manuscript, as currently constructed cannot be saved. But that’s okay, because I was already dreaming of the sequel, and I’ve now decided to toss Disposable Heroes and move straight to what was origonally the followup effort.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the new idea, because that would easily spawn 10 pages of self-indugent shit, but I will say that it is much better for allowing the plot and action to flow naturally from the character relations, and that I’ve basically given up trying to pretend that my favorate characters are not in some way self-insertions.

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Self-Education

February 24, 2009

I’m working on this short story featuring Lydia, a supporting character from Disposable Heroes, the manuscript I’m working on. Lydia originally started as little more than a piece of furniture; the book opens with a funeral, and what’s a funeral without a grieving widow? So Lydia’s at the funeral, and Zack (the protagonist) tries to talk to her and she bitches him out for getting her husband killed. From that start, she caught my imagination and started percolating in the back of my mind.

From very early on in the creative process, I had in mind this idea that in the sequel, Zack would be a minor supporting character, and that I wanted one of the minor characters from the first book to take center stage. Lydia was an obvious candidate for this treatment, so I started developing her in earnest.

As part of this process, I wrote a couple vignettes to help find her voice, and then I started work on a full short story about her. I wasn’t looking for an educational experience here, I was just messing around with a character I liked.

In the vignettes I had written her from Zack’s perspective. But when I sat down to write the short story, I wanted to do it from her perspective. And I did, and she stopped being Lydia, or at least the Lydia that I wanted her to be. Her insecurities, such as they are, were more prominent than I wanted them. Her lack of professionalism was glaring rather than hinted. Her aristocratic arrogance proved to be less effective the more it was shown, which is a problem because her notions of class are some of the primary ideas she uses to make sense of the world. It was also hard to let the reader see clearly what she looked like to the people around her: a young, ambitious officer with bags of charm, a fondness for theatricality, and a preference for spending her spare time alone. From the inside, she’s much less interesting, much less dynamic. Her actions lose their edge of unpredictability and surprise.

I’ve done this kind of split between what a character feels and what the show to the world before; Zack’s character is built on this, so I know it can be done. What makes Zack interesting to me is that we see, in detail, the contradiction between the face he shows the world and what’s happening inside him. But what makes Lydia interesting is that we get the idea that her persona is a mask, but we don’t know what she’s hiding.

When she’s the viewpoint character, all the things she tries to keep hidden from the world show up. I could go the route of simply not mentioning these things, there’s a danger of getting too cute with the smoke and mirrors there, and the readers may feel manipulated if I am obviously keeping things from them. Or, they may feel that she is too much the cipher, that I play her cards too close to the vest for her to be a compelling viewpoint character.

For her to work as a viewpoint character, I’d have to strip out most of her interiority, and describe the action as a camera would see it. Not coincidentally, I’m rewriting the story as a screenplay. I may go back and try to write it as “screen prose,” if that makes sense.

While I was struggling with this, I was confronting some of these issues for the first time. And I was learning in the process. I didn’t mean to, honest. I hadn’t sat down and figured out why Lydia interested me until I grappled with why she wasn’t working. So I taught myself how to analyze characters better, and now I’m a stronger writer. And I did this simply through practice and reflection. It’s fun when that happens.

Another example: Lydia and her mother have a big fight about Lydia’s decision to join the Army. I had this bit of dialogue I’d conceived of before I sat down to write out the scene, two short sentences that carried all the weight of their hypocrisy and were crucial to understanding Lydia’s motivations and emotional journey. But when I wrote out their fight the first time, I couldn’t find a place to insert these two lines. The flow of their dialogue happened so quickly and so strongly that it seemed like they were moving the scene along without me. I re-read the section over and over, and eventually I realized that I hadn’t been making a distinction between Lydia reacting to what her mother said and Lydia making an affirmative statement that moved the conversation along and forced her mother to react in turn (In this context, even ignoring the last thing the other person said is a reaction that carries meaning). Once I realized that, I understood that I could choose which character had the “initiative” and was directing the flow of the conversation, and then it was a simple matter of making room for what I wanted the characters to say.

It is very satisfying to get to a point where your skills are advanced enough that you can improve them yourself, without outside guidance. I don’t read books or articles about writing anymore, because they all tell me things I’ve seen before. I’m not a master by any definition, but now the best teacher for me is the work itself. It’s all very Zen.

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Essay 1 for Contemporary American Lit

April 27, 2008

This is an essay I wrote about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for my last lit course of college. This class has interesting books for us to read, but the lectures are pretty slow and boring. Mostly I’m just putting in my time, waiting to graduate. There’s nothing that will kill your enjoyment of a good book faster than being required to pay attention to EVERYTHING and jot it down in the margins as you go, so I’m trying to avoid that, too.

The following essay won’t make sense unless you’ve read the book. Since I wrote it starting at 3 in the morning, it might not make sense, even if you have.

When I first noticed the tense shifts, my first idea was to jump to a conclusion about their relevance to Bromden’s sanity. I thought that it was related to his fogging out, and how time seems to slip away from him a lot. That’s sort of right- his psychosis certainly does have a temporal element, but the tense shifts aren’t there to point that out; the narration does a fine job of that on its own. The tense shifts are there to signal the Chief’s struggle to claim and retain a sense of agency, and that sense of agency is directly related to his mental health. As the one becomes more secure, so does the other, and the places where the tense shifts from present to past and back are strategically selected to emphasize this internal struggle without being so clumsy as to write it on the wall.

The book starts in the present tense. At this point Bromden is clearly nuts, and very passive. “So she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling a big load. I hold my breath and figure, My God this time they’re gonna do it!”(p.5) Even when his hallucinations show him things that he is afraid of, he doesn’t take action to escape them, he only watches passively.

“This morning I plain don’t remember. They got enough of those things they call pills down me so I don’t know a thing till I hear the ward door open.” P8

When Bromden remembers an incident in which he saw another patient try to seize control of his own situation, the prose slips into past tense. Old Pete is making his last stand against Nurse Ratched: “Then old Pete was on his feet. “I’m tired!” was what he shouted, a strong, angry copper tone to his voice that no one had ever heard before. (p.45)” Bromden has sympathy for Pete’s struggle, and the first hints of a latent desire to reclaim control of his own life are symbolized in this use of the past tense. A flashback using the past tense might seem to be a hard sell as being particularly symbolic, but this passage begins a pattern that continues to the end of the book.

During the television vote, Bromden’s perception changes from present tense to past tense within the same passage: “McMurphy’s got hidden wires hooked to it, lifting it slow just to get me out of the fog and into the open where I’m fair game. He’s doing it, wires…No. That’s not the truth. I lifted it myself. (p. 123)” The whole passage is in the present tense, except for the sentence where Bromden takes credit for his own decision, which is in the past tense. In the very next sentence, the prose shifts back to the present tense. “McMurphy whoops and drags me standing, pounding my back.” Bromden has again surrendered his agency, and is back to being dragged along by McMurphy.

Later, as if to suggest a growing ease with claiming responsibility for himself, there is a passage of extended narration in which Chief uses the past-tense, but does not immediately describe any real agency on his part. “The way the Big Nurse acted so confident in that staff meeting, that worried me for a while, but it didn’t make any difference to McMurphy. All weekend, and the next week, he was just as hard on her and her black boys as he ever was, and the patients were loving it. (p. 137)” But when that passage moved beyond narration to immediate action, we see that this bit will show the Chief asserting control in his life again. “But this one night, a few nights after the big meeting, I woke up and the dorm was clean and silent; except for the soft breathing of the men and the stuff rattling around loose under the brittle ribs of the two old Vegetables, it was dead quiet. A window was up, and the air in the dorm was clear and had a taste to it made me feel kind of giddy and drunk, gave me this sudden yen to get up out of bed and do something. (emphasis mine, p. 141)” Up to this part in the story, the Chief hasn’t had a spontaneous urge to do anything. Even something as simple as walking to the window and looking out at the night is forbidden, and his transgression of this law is an uncharacteristically active thing for him to do.

And then, within a single paragraph, at the instant this small bit of agency is taken from the Chief, the tense shifts back to present: “The dog was almost to the rail fence at the edge of the grounds when I felt somebody slip up behind me. Two people. I didn’t turn, but I knew it was the black boy named Geever and the nurse with the birthmark and the crucifix. I heard a whir of fear start up in my head. The black boy took my arm and pulled me around. “Ill get ‘im,” he says. (p.143)”

After McMurphy realizes that he’s one of the very few inmates who is committed, he seems deflated, tired. At this point in the novel, the final swing of agency from McMurphy to Bromden begins in earnest. The chapter ends with: “The two technicians come back from coffee and go back into that room [the Shock Shop] across the hall; when the door whooshes open you can smell the acid in the air like when they recharge a battery. McMurphy sits there, looking at that door. “I don’t seem able to get it straight in my mind…. (p. 168)”

After seeing McMurphy in that state of human doubt and fear, some part of the Chief begins to realize that the benefits that McMurphy has brought to the ward will not survive him without the other inmates taking responsibility onto themselves. The next chapter starts and continues in the past tense. “Crossing the grounds back to the ward, McMurphy lagged back at the tail end of the bunch with his hands in the pockets of his greens and his cap tugged low on his head, brooding over a cold cigarette.” And later… “I wanted to tell him not to fret about it, and I was just about to come out and say it when he raised his head and shoved his hat back and speeded up to where the least black boy was walking and slapped him on the shoulder and asked him, ‘Sam, what say we stop by the canteen here a second so I can pick me up a carton or two of cigarettes.’” In this brief scene, Bromden is right on the verge of breaking his decades-long silence to comfort McMurphy when Mack makes his decision: he’s going to go to war with Nurse Ratched, and to hell with the consequences. Although Bromden doesn’t do anything in this chapter, he gets yet closer to his eventual escape. And at the same time McMurphy starts down the road that will lead him inexorably towards his merciful death at Bromden’s hands.

The pattern repeats itself throughout the rest of the book, culminating in the final battle between Ratched and McMurphy. Each new defeat McMurphy inflicts upon her brings more confidence to Bromden, and each setback takes a little bit of it back. By the time Part IV rolls around, almost everything is written in past-tense, and Chief Bromden becomes a more and more active character, rather than merely a colorfully unreliable narrator. The only exception to this starts on 241, where Bromden and McMurphy are in the Disturbed ward, where the police state aesthetic is even stronger, and Bromden is afraid they have gone too far. “[a nurse] handed us each a little paper cup. I looked in min, and there are three of those red capsules. This tsing whirs in my head and I can’t stop. “Hold on,” McMurphy says. “These are those knockout pills, aren’t they?” As the inevitable consequences of their rebellion fall upon Mack and Bromden, Bromden regresses, loses the self confidence to claim his own agency and begins to hallucinate again.

During electroshock, his sense of time slips again, and he flashes back to his time in the Army and his childhood. When he comes to, he finds himself at the crisis point and is forced to make a decision. He chooses to fight to control his own destiny. “It’s fogging a little, but I won’t slip off and hide in it. No…never again… I stand, stood up slowly, feeling numb between the shoulders. The white pillows on the floor of the Seclusion Room were soaked from me peeing on them while I was out. I couldn’t remember all of it yet, but I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands and tried to clear my head. I worked at it. I’d never worked at coming out of it before. (p.249)” Kesey underlines this with a mid-sentence (!) tense shift, and the novel remains in the past-tense until the final page.

The pattern linking tense shifts to Bromden’s agency is clear, but the reasoning behind was difficult to puzzle out. I suspect that the past tense is used to symbolically emphasize Bromden’s ability or inability to put his past behind him. The traumas in his life primarily revolve around being helpless in the face of an uncaring world, and they remain looming, half-remembered figures in his mind for most of his stay in the hospital. At the end, he begins to focus on the future, his past becomes clear to him, and it is just as clear that it is over and the future is what matters.