Archive for May, 2011

The Atypical Convent in Daughter of the Conquest

In colonial Peru an extraordinary number of women lived in convents.  At their peak in the seventeenth century, one fifth of Lima’s female population lived in its thirteen nunneries.  During their rise during the second half of the sixteenth century, the great convents provided the logical refuge for women seeking to escape male domination.  The two convents in Cuzco, Santa Clara and Santa Catalina, were typical of these little cities within a city modeled after European convents in Belgium, France and Spain.  Despite their establishment under the male authority of their religious orders, the women pursued independent lives behind the convent walls, enjoying theatrical performances, music, gardening, needlework, entertaining guests, and even rearing babies left at the convent door as their own.  Many of the nuns were wealthy, upper class women, who brought both their large dowries and their personal servants to the convent.

From reading about convent social life, the comings and goings of visitors, and the luxurious quarters of the wealthy nuns, some even dwelling in separate little cottages; I realized that entering the nunnery would be a desirable choice for an independent-minded woman like my central character in Daughter of the Conquest, the third novel in my historical trilogy.  Far from restricting her range in a story, the convent would extend her possibilities as a woman. To escape her unhappy marriage, Mirasol flees to the convent of Santa Clara.  Life there is a far cry from the cloister of austere cells that I had thought typified a nun’s existence before my research into the great convents of the colonial period. Mirasol’s retreat from secular life is not total, for as abbess of Santa Clara, Mirasol plays an important role in Cuzco society, wielding political and economic power unlikely for a married woman in colonial society.

Daughter of the Conquest

Cover Image: Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, as a Nun by Jacob Jordans

Placing my character in the convent also allowed me to develop how colonial rulers carried out Christianization and the acculturation of the indigenous Incan royalty into Spanish social structure. The Catholic Church served to amalgamate elements of the native culture into the context of Christianity and of western European society. Now that the sword had claimed the land for Spain, the cross was enlisted to win souls for Christ.  The setting of the convent of Santa Clara helped both to create a strong female central character and to dramatize the process of colonization in Peru, part of the former vast empire of the Incas.

The outlets for women were indeed narrow in earlier centuries, but the convent in Christendom afforded a bastion and a refuge for women. Furthermore, it was a place that promoted and facilitated the education of women. For a woman with a thirst for learning, books were available there to expand her knowledge. A girls’ school was usually associated with the great convents. After graduation, the girls could choose to enter the convent or to marry. Marriage was a dangerous option, offering a good chance of an early death in childbirth.  Rape was always a possibility when war rather than peace was the norm.  With the odds against women, is it so surprising that as many as twenty percent of the female population chose to take the nun’s veil?

Especially, when babes in baskets found on the convent door step meant no nun’s maternal instinct need go unsatisfied.

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The Dramatic Monologue: Biblical Women Speak

A dramatic monologue in poetry is not exactly the same type of speech as a soliloquy in the theatre.  In a soliloquy the character is alone on stage speaking his thoughts Woman at the Wellaloud. There is no auditor other than the audience who is eavesdropping on those thoughts; although in a poetic dramatic monologue, the speaker could be alone talking aloud to himself, too.

Often the dramatic monologue is termed a persona poem, because the voice, the “I” of the poem, is a person speaking. In the process, the speaker reveals his personality traits and situation.  Often his words are directed to an implied auditor. Other times the auditor is identified by use of direct address.  The dramatic monologue could be described as a one-way conversation.

The soliloquy in theatre and the dramatic monologue in poetry share in common the dramatization of character.  The dramatic monologue works to communicate peculiarities of speech, distinctive traits; and details about the time, place and other circumstances of the character’s life.  Inherently, the dramatic monologue is fully realized in its theatrical performance. Some of the most memorable poems in English literature are dramatic monologues. In high school, Robert Browning’s classic poem in this form—“My Last Duchess”—fired my passion for poetry. In Browning’s poem there is an implied auditor to the Duke’s remarks. In another unforgettable example, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” identity of the “you” that Prufrock addresses in the opening lines is open to speculation. The dramatic nature of these poems endows them with a story-telling power not comparable in lyrical poetry. Robert Frost expanded the dramatic poem to a two-way conversation in such poems as “Death of the Hired Man” and “Home Burial.”

Before writing the collection Women at the Well, I had dabbled in persona poems, chiefly because the dramatic aspect made them ideal for oral interpretation in a Readers’ Theatre setting. The centerpiece of the collection is the woman whom Jesus meets at the well. She gives him water and he probes her soul. After hearing a church homily on John 4:1-28, I went home to write the poem “Woman at the Well.” That poem got me thinking about other nameless women in the Bible whose back stories begged to be told. Even the big name players like Deborah and Judith needed an expanded voice. In rereading the women’s stories, I discovered there was so much left unsaid in the male version that the gaping holes had to be filled. And the women’s stories must be told in their own words as imaginatively as I could.

I appointed myself to do this task in 1986.  When I started the project, I was aware that revisionist looks at the Bible were appearing more in both fiction and non-fiction. As the poems progressed, I saw my Old Testament women filled with rage while the New Testament women reflected Christ’s message of love. The New Testament women were frequently the first Christian converts, so that in Part Two of the Women at the Well, the speeches become less strident. Since then my dramatic monologues have gone through two revisions and expansions.  In its latest edition Women at the Well now includes the voices of sixty-one Old and New Testament women.

I confess to taking many liberties; I offer unorthodox interpretations of some of the Biblical women’s lives. I even went so far as to include a dramatic monologue by a woman who is never mentioned in the Bible: Judas’ mother. I wondered what the mother would say about her son’s betrayal of Jesus.  In some poems, it is clear whom the woman addresses; in others her auditor is unidentified. In the paired piece, “Lot’s Daughters,” I have the two sisters alternate in a two-way conversation. The dramatic monologue in all its manifestations proved ideal for having the Biblical women come alive on the stage. In retrospect, I had probably the most fun writing this book than any other.

Writers usually turn to writing the types of writing that they enjoy.  Naturally, I turned to dramatic monologue in Women at the Well, having read so much memorable poetry written in this form.

Can you recommend some dramatic monologues in poetry?  Have you used the form in your own poetry?

So You Want to Write

Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has the impulse to create. Children playing freely express that urge. They have not yet developed a need for a How-to Manual. About thirty years ago I stumbled across Brenda Ueland’s book If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit, first published in 1938 and still in print.  I was aspiring to write my first novel and Ueland’s advice not only on writing but also on living the life you desire propelled me forward. This book remains the single best book on the pursuit of writing that I have ever read. If you read Ueland’s book, I guarantee it will plant you in your desk chair, where you will fill that blank page in front of you with the words of the story that is inside you.

Brenda Ueland cautions the creative self does not write out of the desire for fame and fortune.  The writing that does so, she says, is bound not to be authentic. But this is not even the half of the sage advice she gives to aspiring writers.  I have tried to follow the writer’s life, which this remarkable early feminist sets forth.  For those who say they have always wanted to write, I venture here to offer some things I have found important in fulfillment of that desire.

First, I advise aspiring writers to come out of the closet and admit they are not writing just for themselves. If their desire is to write, they must grow beyond mere expressions of ego concerns to reflect universal insights into the human condition in a unique way. To achieve this, they must:

  • Read widely in good literature.
  • Identify what makes the writing good.
  • Write daily in a designated writing space.  A journal entry or letter count. A grocery list doesn’t.
  • Share their writing in a group that meets regularly.
  • Accept the suggestions that seem authentic and rewrite. Discard what is not true to their spirits.
  • Get rid of network television, but watch a lot of good movies.  No television reduces procrastination and frees time for thinking and writing, but the great visuals and memorable characterizations in good movies inspire.
  • Walk a lot. This expands the imagination. Bicycling and cross-country skiing help too, but not as much as walking.

Some of you may be thinking: What about writing conferences and workshops? They are useful tools in the formative stages, but a word of caution. All support groups may outlive their usefulness. The goal of such writing groups is to teach you to be your own best critic. You are the ultimate arbiter who must decide what is authentic and what is not. Avoid the trap of doing more talking about writing than writing. A critique group must be genuinely supportive, helping you find what rings true for your intent and not engaging in destructive criticism or ridiculous suggestions to write your story the way they envision it.

Journal-keeping is the most important tool in my writer’s kit. It could be yours too. Since age eighteen I have kept a journal. It is the compost heap for my writing. I let ideas, images, anecdotes germinate there. I do not write every day in my journal; sometimes I have neglected it for weeks. Yet I always return to it like a horse to the barn, for it is more than a log of my life. I often lift ideas and lines to incorporate into a poem or story. I use the journal to think through my writing projects.  I sift through traits and actions my characters will take.  The journal clarifies artistic intent and helps in the process of creating novels and poems.

Brenda Ueland (1891-1985)

“I learned that when writing you should not feel like Lord Byron on a mountaintop, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten–happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead on after another.”                   –Brenda Ueland

The Joys of Browsing

When that first book an author has invested so much time and care in writing is finally finished, it is not. There is still more writing in the offing: book blurbs, back cover material and that candle on the cake–the attention-grabbing title.  I have skipped over the tedious task of query letters, pitches, synopsis, etc. to market that book.  Here I focus on what the book browser actually reads or looks at in making book selections. Is it that all important eye-catching cover design? Maybe. But some best-selling books have had some rather bland covers. And the discriminating reader, of course, knows not to judge a book by its cover. The serious reader turns to such matter as the table of contents, the introduction, and the first paragraph to make a decision to read the entire book. I disdain reading last pages, preferring that delectation in due course, if I actually decide to get the book.

With the deluge of good books, I have turned more and more to book reviews. Often I know already what books I want to browse through when I enter the bookstore. I do read book jacket material or back cover descriptions. At the most I read the first page. I never bypass the bargain table, because I often find gems that somehow inexplicably got lost in the scramble for publicity.

Now with the advent of online booksellers, I wonder if the joys of browsing have changed in anyway. Do titles, blurbs, book jacket matter, or covers have the same order of importance in your browsing? Do you browse more by author, title, genre, subject, or some other element. What do you read first: the publisher’s description or customer reviews? Do you refrain from reading customer reviews until you have read the book yourself? Does a low star rating sway you?  Does a clever title get you to look inside? All the peripheral writing that goes into a book after the book is written may make the difference in whether it is read in its entirety.

Before the online bookstore, I found that the sure cure for the blues, a general feeling of listlessness, was to jump in my car and drive to a bookstore. After a few hours browsing, I was out of the doldrums.  My book browsing joys have only increased with online browsing. I love recommendations popping at me based at what I have read previously. I like being able to browse any author’s complete works, which cannot be all stocked in the brick and mortar store.

How do you go about browsing?

The Power of Play

The importance of play in early childhood development has been pointed out in psychological research. The human brain is wondrously malleable from infancy to seven years old. The globe has been explored, but the brain is the most exciting frontier remaining to fully chart.  Language acquisition in the first twenty-four months of life is an incredible phenomenon.  More so is the capability of that infant brain to acquire more than one language and to keep the phonological and syntactic codes of multiple languages separate.  In many ways the acquisition of language can be seen as free play, alone and with the parent. The baby babbles freely and playfully imitates the speech of his mother. The child’s language acquisition accelerates as the parents sing, talk and recite nursery rhymes to the child. The adults invent many new verbal games to play with the child as well as using the familiar Patty-cake, Ride-a-Pony and This Little Piggy.

Fascination with how play formed such an important part of my life and that of my peers growing up in the 1950s and 1960s led me to recall the games and activities that occupied so much of our waking hours.  Recollection of my childhood days underscored the fact that playing outdoors was vital.  We preferred even to play a board game on the front porch than to stay inside.  Fortunately, television did not broadcast around-the-clock and children’s programming was within restricted hours.  We went to bed at a decent hour, way before that off-the-air signal appeared on the screen, and we could be alert for school the next morning.  Unorganized activities (soccer moms take note) without adult surveillance in those pre-teen years allowed for the free play of imagination. We created our own images on the screens of our minds without the pre-packaging of manufactured electronic toys.

I fear my readers will think me a Luddite, one of those dowdy anti-tech dinosaurs, who claim the good old days were Nirvana. Hardly. I love my computer and acquired my first one in 1984. I concede video games improve hand and eye coordination and have their place as an enjoyable past-time. What I do not concede is the unbridled time spent on computer games to supplant outdoor games, inventive play, and reading as the major portion of a child’s day.  I would not have the child’s computer time scheduled for the hour before bedtime.  The computer screen seems to extend wakefulness and inhibit normal sleepiness at the end of the day.  I would schedule that fun hour when the child first arrives home from school at a time before supper.

Reflection along these lines was the catalyst for my series of poems on childhood activities.  A childhood without electronic gadgets and television 24/7 was magical. Physical exercise and expansion of the imagination were its hallmarks. An overweight eight-year old was an oddity.  I reflected that the growth of consumerism created a market for expensive toys. Previously, more often than not, children made do with simple toys or made their own.   Those makeshift kites and jump ropes somehow provided endless hours of entertainment compared to today’s electronic games that may be abandoned altogether a few weeks after the Christmas present is unwrapped.  I collected the poems I wrote to recapture this pre-digital age childhood in my poetry book Playground. I hope aging baby boomers will take a trip down memory lane in this book. For those born after 1969, I hope it motivates you, as President Obama counseled also, to turn off the television and read a book aloud to your children.   Allow into a child’s life the room for the type of play that empowers, the play that expands imagination and inventiveness.

What Comes First?

A chef has an array of ingredients around a big mixing bowl. What does he put in the bowl first? An experienced cook has a method of operation, a conception of a tasty dish and an order for creating the finished recipe.  In the same way, fiction writers have the elements of theme, character, setting, and plot to manipulate.  The story can first arise from any of these elements and expand from there. Perhaps the story arises from a concept, an idea such as, the subjugation of women in a totalitarian society. Then, a novel like The Handmaid’s Tale might arise. What if the novelist is captivated with the psychology of an escaped slave? Then, a novel like Beloved might emerge. What if a writer is intrigued by an island off the coast of England? Then, a novel like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is written.  Suppose a novelist wants to write a story about a virus wiping out the world. Then, if he is Stephen King, he writes The Stand.  So it is that some books often are described as character-driven or plot-driven.

Whatever the germinating seed of the story, the other elements must combine to construct a well-developed narration. Starting with a theme, the writer conceives the characters who will dramatize that idea, a plot to propel the action, and a place where the action will occur.  A writer who is fascinated with motivation will begin with characters and explore their psychology, placing them in locales and in conflicts that illuminate the human condition.  Similarly, once a writer has a plot in mind, he envisions characters and places with which that action can be vividly enacted.

What comes first in a novelist’s mind may demarcate genre writers from writers who are called literary.  Character-driven works often fall into the literary fiction category. Toni Morrison’s Beloved that explores the character of an escaped slave is a character-driven novel.  Writers who conjure action-packed plots naturally would gravitate to the thriller, horror, mystery, suspense, or science-fiction genres.  That is not to say that genre fiction cannot have good character development and motivation integral to the plot’s unfolding. The distinction is their point of departure.  Is the focus the desire to know why people behave the way they do or the desire to tell a good story that will surprise and delight?

Admittedly, this is a very brief look at the subject and begs for more viewpoints.  With what element do you must often begin your stories?  What distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction?  Are the lines blurred in any writers you know? Does it even matter as long as the finished product is a seamless, artistic whole, a seemingly effortless work of fiction, which E.M. Forster elucidated so well in  his Aspects of the Novel, way back in 1927, yet still valuable today.

These are many questions to throw at my readers all at once, but the question “What comes first?” opens the door for as many answers as there are writers.

Music to Write By

Do you play music in the background to stimulate your creative juices when you are writing? It seems that the right music can effect positively any activity. For instance, I discovered that playing Handel’s Entrance of the Queen of Sheba propelled me into my least favorite activity of housecleaning. I zipped through those dreary tasks gayly sweeping a feather brush over lampshades and book shelves. I whipped through the drudgery and got on to the serious business of writing before my now dust-free computer monitor.

But what music is conducive to your writing, gets you going in positive directions and keeps you glued to that page composing for hours scintillating prose?  I have found that it depends on what I am writing and where I am at in the stages of a project. For the first draft of a short story or novel, John Coltrane or Miles Davis works. For some reason the jazz helps the innovative process. When my theme, setting and characters are fixed and have assumed substantial form, I play thematic music that will evoke the mood and place of my story.  The Andean music of the South American group Inti-Illimani kept me writing steadily on my novels Voice of Stone and Conquistadora that are set in Peru. When I was writing the third novel in the trilogy Daughter of the Conquest and was trying to evoke what life must have been like in a sixteenth century great convent, I played a CD, a wonderful mixture of Indian and Spanish sacred music, Nueva España directed by Joel Cohen with the Boston Camerata.  I also played convent Gregorian chant music.

Typically, I do not play lyrics while I am writing, with the exception of Enya’s CDs, which I have played while writing poetry.  Most often I choose a classical symphony or instrumental guitar music. My husband, who writes science-fiction, chooses some of the New Age music from Narada collections.  Anything that will act subliminally while still freeing the words from your mind will work.

Is music a part of your creative process? If so, what types of music do you write by?