Archive for June, 2011

Please Trespass Here

I read both novels and poetry. Sometimes I combine the two and read a verse-novel (a rare find). An excellent example of a full-length verse-novel that I recently reread is Darlington’s Fall by Brad Leithauser. It leaves me wondering why it did not receive more acclaim than it did.  The novel I just finished reading is 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. Wanting to know about this writer, I read that he died before the novel was published and that he wrote poetry first, but turned to novels to earn money when he had children to feed. That got me to thinking about other novelists who also wrote poetry. Margaret Atwood, D.H. Lawrence, Erica Jong, Herman Melville, John Updike, and Sherman Alexie come to mind. If my readers can suggest others, please share them and offer your opinion of how well they do in each genre. There is also Sylvia Plath, primarily a poet, who wrote her one novel The Bell Jar. And, of course, Tolkien included verse in the form of songs in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy.

From writing poetry, I trespassed into the land of fiction, writing novels and short stories.  In my latest poetry book, Please Trespass Here, I have collected all the poetry I have written since 2001. The collection is divided into five sections: Settings, Characters, Motifs, Novenas for Grandmother, and Playground. The topics span world events in the first decade of the 21st century mixed with humorous takes on daily life and nature. Themes turn to the criminal mind and to literary figures. The title invites the reader to trespass into the poet’s territory and be rewarded, among other things, with sightings of moose, a great grey owl, and a bear.  After completing this poetry book, I have set poetry aside for the time being to begin a new novel. I will never entirely abandon poetry, for I get great pleasure from crafting a poem’s lines and stanzas.

I invite those who only read novels or anyone who left poetry behind when they left school to trespass on the territory of poetry. The rhythm and imagery that jump out at you in your favorite prose passages thrive in the concision of poetry. I offer here the title piece:

 Please Trespass Here

Please Trespass Here Book Cover

The tempo of summer simply slows

Like subtle flutter of warbler wings.

A grasshopper lurches in the lawn,

While I loll, open book, on the deck.

Nothing as serene as a printed page

Spread to the sun in perfect marriage

Of mind and matter—the world soul

Emerson thought of long ages ago

Before my mountain home was born.

Unwelcome cowbird lands on the feeder.

Today I am content to see the intruder.

There’s room for crossbill and grosbeak,

Prettier by far than this dusky wayfarer

Who neither reads nor admits of signs.

Ample is the hour, ample is the sky

For vagrant cloud and flagrant crow.

No circle more sacred than black soil

And no world larger than this moment.


Virtues of Walking

Today I was reminded of the virtues of walking. Spring was late in coming to my neck of the woods, and here it is officially summer. Warmer and sunnier thankfully today, I walked and thought. Walking is conducive to thinking. I mostly thought about the novel I am writing. I take my walk after two hours of writing, which usually is the most I do at one sitting. I do not get so much thinking done in any other activity. Washing dishes, vacuuming, pulling weeds, any other physical activity do not produce the same results. The combination of fresh air, sun, trees, birds, and sky possess something inherently thought-provoking for me.

In my walk, I worked out many details of my story. Ideas came left and right on how I could improve or change words, sentences and paragraphs. When I arrived home, I was well-satisfied in body and soul. I immediately resumed my writing to add the ideas that had occurred to me during my walk, and I wrote an hour more before stopping.  Beyond the thoughts the walk produced; I was energized, refreshed and stimulated.  The best remedy for a roadblock in your writing is to take to the road. Walk outdoors. Solutions for that troublesome spot suddenly come to mind on a walk.

Walking’s ability to rejuvenate seems to derive from its leisurely pace. Objects do not speed by so fast as to make close observation and contemplation of them impossible. The walker can absorb the scenery.  I don’t have to huff and puff, sweat and strain with some misbegotten notion that I am molding a plump body into  perfect shape, but just relax, breath in the fresh air, and take in the sights. Walking is different from hiking. In hiking I think of climbing a steep slope, exerting myself to reach a certain height. I don’t want to climb steep grades. I want to think and to see and not to hear myself gasping to go a few feet higher up an elevation gain. I’ve done that and it has done little for my writing productivity.  But walking has enlarged my imagination and has inspired me to maintain a disciplined writing schedule.

Main Characters in Conquistadora

It was rollicking fun to write the second novel in my conquest trilogy, Conquistadora.  Beatriz and Isabel are two fun-loving, feisty women who share adventures in the long march with the Spanish army of conquest. In my research into the history of the Spanish conquest of the Incas, I stumbled upon a tidbit of information, that little pearl that can inspire a writer to weave a work of fiction upon that little fact. I learned that two women named Beatriz and Isabel accompanied Diego de Almagro’s army when his ship landed on the coast of Peru in 1532. Records give the last name of Isabel as Rodriguez, but Beatriz’s surname was unknown. Almagro’s army joined Francisco Pizarro at Cajamarca and the two captains led the expedition through the Andes Mountains to Cuzco, the Inca capital. Because of Isabel’s pluck, the men nicknamed her La Conquistadora. Beatriz was called La Morisca, apparently because she was of Muslim descent from southern Spain.  In my novel I give Isabel a different surname and invent one for Beatriz, who becomes the conquistadora of my title.

Imagining how these adventuresses came to accompany the expedition, their relationship, and eventual fate in the New World fueled my story.  Writing it was my adventure, which I always approached with delight, eager to concoct another adventure for one of my two camp followers.  I wanted to tell the story of the conquest from the viewpoint of two lower-class Spanish women, brassy and bold, who could lampoon the arrogance and brutality of the conquistadors while using them for their own purposes.  Because the Spanish nobility had scorned and abused them, they sympathize with the conquered Incas and defend the native women.  Beatriz is a picaresque figure, living by her wits, and finagling to be the lady she could never be in Spain.  Isabel, the older of the two women, assumes a motherly role towards Beatriz and provides a counterpoint in some ways to Beatriz’s ambition. I love these two women and I hope my readers will too.

First Steps in a Novel: My Method of Operation

Whether the seminal idea is a theme, character, setting or plot; before I actually write a first draft, I do a lot of preliminary writing.  I create a cast of characters who will  enact the events that I will unfold in the story. I write character sketches for each of them in which I describe their physical and personality traits.  I ascribe age, profession, family background, likes and dislikes, pastimes and other pertinent data to fully understand who the character is.  I summarize in a few pages the arc of the plot, the major conflicts and complications. This is a framework around which, as I write, additional or different directions may arise from my preliminary conception of the story.  I also write several pages that describe the setting. I want to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the objects in that environment.  The main theme or point of the story is central to the choices I make about the details of character, plot, and setting. I must know the point of my story, or why bother to write it?  If I can’t tell the reader why I wanted to write the story in the first place, they can’t decide if they want to read it.

Even after I am well into the first draft, I record possibilities for incidents, confrontations, and motivations in the novel.  The physical act of writing these mental meanderings helps to solidify my purpose and to decide what alternative will work the best.  I have pages of these musings for every book I’ve written. I may write out mini-scenes or sections of dialogue and then later work them into the novel at an appropriate point.

Do I know what my ending is when I start?  Not all the time. Some time it is only the general notion that it will be happy or tragic, that the main character will change or remain the same. If I have conceived a specific ending, it is open to modification or change as the story evolves.  Most novelists report that their characters take on a life of their own as the action progresses and what was not conceivable at first, becomes the logical outcome to a chain of events, consistent with that character’s previous behavior. That’s what makes writing so exciting, those turn of events, that surprise even the writer.

When the first draft is done, the work is just beginning.  There must be readers for that newborn babe, readers who are not bosom buddies apt to lie through their teeth how great the novel is, when you know there are dung piles smothering the solitary wild rose scattered here and there in the manuscript.  There’s an Arab saying: “The monkey’s mother thinks he’s beautiful.” That adage serves to remind me  my brain child is ugly at this stage. I have an ugly duckling that with the help of several perceptive, objective and critical readers, I could turn into a graceful swan.  When I first started writing, I hated the revision stage–ugh–too much work. But now I like digging in the dirt like an avid gardener, pulling weeds left and right, so those flowers have room to grow.  But we can leave the topic of revision for another time.

Readers, please tell me about your method of operation in your creative activity.  I would love to hear about them.

Solitude: Grace and Space to Create

Between the party animal and the recluse lies the writer.  Both ends of the socialization meter, of course, are extremes with the writer’s need for solitude somewhere left of center, tilting more rather than less towards the solitude end, while still retaining the need to emerge from the cave of self from time to time to socialize, to rejuvenate and to satisfy an equally important urge to observe the human carnival. When writers do not have enough of solitude, they lament its absence.

So it is that Virginia Woolf found that room of her own, that Robinson Jeffers built that stone house by the Pacific Ocean, that Thoreau went off to Walden Pond, and so many other writers have retreated to that studio over the garage to be alone with their thoughts and to write. The virtues of solitude are many. The anchorite’s spiritual quest often led into the desert where in isolation he not only experienced divinity but also his own soul. In seeking to be alone, a writer also desires to commune with his authentic self. By reaching into his thoughts and deepest beliefs, removed from the noise of the crowd, he dredges forth the truth of his experience and of his intuitive knowing. The writing issues from this wellspring.

Solitude is a beatitude, carrying none of the negative connotations of loneliness, depressive isolation or unhealthy self-absorption. Solitude is a state of reflection that results in peace, joy, and contentment.  The space where the writer retreats to create is merely the physical aspect of solitude; the spiritual side is the grace that solitude bestows, grace in the sense of a spiritual gift or favor whereby those wellsprings of inspiration can be tapped. Then the writing becomes a labor of love.

Each writer has to carve out the time and find that private space where the grace to write engulfs like a warm sea.  The longest I have been able to maintain this solitary writing state is a few hours. Then I must get up, walk around, do something else for a while.  The writing life does not demand all or nothing–just a slice of your life. Those who are faithful to that call to solitude will finish their novel, memoir, short story, or whatever book they have inside.  Solitude is so important to creativity that unless a writer is at home in that solitary space “the would-be writer” will not progress beyond “the wannabe.”

But it is not only artists or writers who need solitude. Time alone is essential to personal growth and development.  Everyday living assaults our minds, bombarding us with sounds. We cannot be alone with our thoughts in a waiting room without a television turned on. Our psychic well-being demands down-time from the surround-sound. Writers need a heavier dose. If you want to look more closely at how solitude benefits everyone, not just artists, read Solitude: A Return to Self by Anthony Storr.

Where and when do you find solitude?


One Hundred Years of Solitude

I have just finished reading for the fourth time this novel by Gabriel García Márquez, 1982 Nobel Prize winner.  This is a dense book spanning the five generations of the Buendía family that reveals more and more upon each reading–the mark of a great literary work. Many Nobel Prize winners not writing in English go unread by Americans. But not this one, which leads me to think about why this book has had such success in English translation.

Because Márquez brings humor to social, economic, and political matters in his story; he is able to broaden its appeal to a world audience, who identify with the absurdities of the human condition across time using the backdrop of an unidentified Latin American country and the fictional founding, growth, and decline of the town Macondo. The comedy turns black in the account of the massacre of the banana workers and the ultimate disintegration and extinction of the  Buendía line. Through humor Márquez makes his point more effectively on how history repeats itself in a way high seriousness could not. His satirical barbs always hit the bullseye. He gets the American Mr. Brown exactly right.

Despite the plethora of characters, each one is consumed by solitude even in the throes of love affairs. Solitude, not only of Macondo as an isolated town, is the flaw that eats away at their individual hearts and that of the community.  Ursula’s obsession with incest is well-founded and the motif of inbreeding that does occur in the saga of the family serves as a metaphor of the insularity of the community that feeds upon itself and cannot reach out in love, tragically seeking solace for loneliness in carnality. In one instance, Aurelio Segundo and Petra Cotes demonstrate authentic love in caring for Fernanda del Carpio. The men are given over to violence or searching after knowledge in solitude. The women see through the weaknesses of the men, supplying their need for sexual intimacy or withholding it. Fernanda del Carpio is hilarious as a woman steeped in tradition, religion, and illusions of her noble Spanish ancestry.  I found her characterization one of the funniest in the novel.

There is much to be said about this novel, requiring more than one essay or book. Just a discussion of the names that Márquez assigns his characters would suggest many meanings and interpretations. It is not my intent even to summarize the novel only to offer that humor is the source of Márquez’ genius. He implies that the ability to laugh at ourselves is healthy, essential to communal well-being.  Pride, arrogance and pomposity afflict a people who cannot laugh at the ludicrous in their lives. Yet in the final analysis, is the vision a dark one, considering that the novel ends with the words: “. . . races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth”?

I don’t think so. Márquez implies the reverse in the hopeful prospect that Columbia where he was born and the world at large can discover a new world of love, where communities reach out in love not only to their members but to other nations.  Therein lies the opportunity to end the cycle of solitude and destruction.

Frog Roll of Writers & Books I Love

This category is for posts on writers and books that I single out for my personal frog applause.  My posts will explain what I find excellent and enjoyable in the writing. If you are looking for some recommendations for good books to read, look here. I invite my fellow frogs to hop in the pond and agree, disagree or expand upon the subject. A choir of rib-bits is great!