Archive for January, 2012

The Revision Stage


Although in my younger days I preached the necessity of rewriting after the euphoria of finishing a first draft, I did not go tripping lightly to undertake that chore. I went dragging my feet and procrastinating. Some attitudes do change with age and I have experienced an attitude adjustment over the years toward revising, editing and proofreading. No longer is it the necessary, but onerous stage. I jump into revision with more gusto as if I were cleaning out messy closets, jumbled with old clothes and shoes I haven’t worn in years, dumping them gleefully into a trash bag. I feel the same zeal throwing out wrong words, lackluster prose, awkward construction, straightening and polishing all my verbal disarray as I do with discarding the junk in the closet.  Closets need rearranging and so do sentences and paragraphs,  scenes and sections of dialogue. This is no longer work for me but play.

The tapes of our mothers play in our head long after they have died. This one, A place for everything and everything in its place, plays for me whenever I clean out the closet or finish revising a piece of writing. Some tasks we do because we have to and some tasks because we love to do them. The transition from disliking revision to loving it was subtle, unconscious, built up through time and habit just as my awareness grew as I aged that I had absorbed the repeated refrains of my mother until they no longer rang like the stale wisdom of my elders.


As I revise my latest novel, The Wheels of Being, I marvel at how revision has now become my favorite stage in the writing process. I am on a search and destroy mission to root out any weak element. Aha, I found a clunky word!  Kill it. This is a muddled passage. Clarify. Expand. Smooth.  This is worn out; this has a hole in it. Trash or patch, which one? I am really enjoying this stage. After all these years, am I finally practicing what I preach? It seems so. Even better, I am thoroughly enjoying it. It feels like a walk in the woods or riding a bike. It’s fun!


The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

This is a book  I have been meaning to read for a long time. As soon as I finished it a few days ago, I immediately returned to the first page and began reading again.  First published in 1998, I denied myself the immense pleasure of this novel far too long; for Barbara Kingsolver is the best contemporary novelist I have read in a while.

Kingsolver chooses the perfect way to narrate the story of an evangelical Baptist missionary and his family who go to the Congo in 1960 during the tumultuous period of independence from Belgium. Chapters alternate among the mother Orealanna and her daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May telling the story.  The Congo will affect the five in strikingly different ways that illuminate the complex relations among the family with the Congo, with religion, and with the crazed missionary zeal of the father Nathan Price. Kingsolver’s choice of names is always significant. The mother and girls, and ultimately the father, pay a price for their misguided mission to Christianize the Congolese, and their personal stories, reflect the tragedy of colonialism and the culpability of the United States and Belgium in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. But the politics form the backdrop of the saga of the Price family; each in turn, describe what the awful price was they paid for being accomplices with their father’s mission to presumably save Africa from heathenism. Watch for the number of times the narrators use the word price.

There are many reasons why this book stands out in recent American literature, not least of which, is the mastery with which Kingsolver creates the characters of the five narrators through their distinctive voices.  The viewpoints of the girls generate the powerful impact of the novel.  A great book has an inevitability about it in which all the aspects of fiction work so well together that to conceivably have written it differently would have diminished the effect. The dark continent as seen through four daughters and their mother who have been uprooted from Bethlehem, Georgia, and their subsequent exodus from the Congo in the wake of  tragedy carries the most powerful emotional force possible and reveals the horrific damage European colonization visited upon foreigners and Africans alike. Although this is a story of death, disease, poverty, hunger, and political treachery; the voices of the three teenage sisters and the five-year old Ruth May often sound humorous notes as they observe their absurd and precarious situation plopped down in a  jungle village, the only whites except for visits of the pilot Eeben Axelroot who flies in supplies. Many authors can weave a good plot nowadays; the great writer also demonstrates playfulness of language that continually delights. Adah’s palindromes and Rachel’s hilarious malapropisms add depth and zest to their personalities. Kingsolver captures the tone of the youngest child Ruth May, and it is her voice that brings the novel to a beautiful conclusion in the final chapter.  Not only does Kingsolver achieve wonders in creation of character but also in the description of the setting. I feel, smell, see, taste, and touch that Congo. It oozes with the breath and life of plants, animals, the river, the mud, the colorful clothes of the Congolese, and the green mamba snake slithering in the dust–an image of a fallen Garden of Eden six centuries after the first Portuguese paddled up the Congo River.

Kingsolver deftly ties Biblical references and dramatic scenes together, suggesting in the juxtaposition of characters and in the interactions of blacks and whites, the novel’s main themes. I carry away from my two readings of this book over the span of two weeks the travail of sorrow, an appreciation that the illusions we carry can both harm and redeem and that the truths we hold dear are culturally determined.  Everything about this book shouts excellence–theme, plot, character, language and organization–so that I urge you to read it and find out why the Bible is called poisonwood.

Winter and Writing

Living in the north country of cold and snowy winters can be conducive to the writing life, particularly if one is not overly fond of outdoor winter sports, driving on icy roads, or bundling up for the weather.  I have been making great progress on my latest novel this winter season. Cabin fever is no problem, because I have been transported out of my present surroundings into the fictional world I am creating.

The reality is that the snowfall, unlike last winter that made a five-foot canyon of my driveway, has been scarce. The snow on the ground now at 4000 feet elevation in the Salish-Kootenai range of northwest Montana does not make for good cross-country skiing, so that I have not been tempted to put on my skiis, enticed away from writing into a winter wonderland. The scanty snow is making me think that winter has been cancelled this year for lack of interest. Old Man Winter drifted north and dumped his load on a small town in Alaska.

The winter energizes me to write more. In retrospect, I think I have always got the most writing done in winter.  I don’t mind bundling up, wearing heavy sweaters and Cabela’s underwear. How did William Faulkner and Eudora Welty write in that muggy, sticky southern heat? I don’t know.  Did fans, desert/swamp coolers, early air-conditioning, and a mint julep fortify sweaty fingers?  Besides, I like being outside too much–writing on my deck in summer–to want to live in a controlled indoor environment like Florida. The state could not have been developed without universal air-conditioning. So I’m a damn Yankee . . . oh, well. I was born in Chicago.

Since my energies have been focused on finishing the first draft of the novel in progress, I have neglected the weekly posts to “How Public Like a Frog.” I confess I have gone extremely private. A nature that tends to the reclusive and introverted has regrettably gone more so. However, I will emerge from this cocoon come February when we vagabond to the southernmost lower 48. I anticipate doing some bird-watching and fishing on South Padre Island. In the evenings I’ll be reworking the first draft of The Wheels of Being in the truck-camper as I incorporate the comments and suggestions of my number one reader and critic, Rod Rogers, also spouse and travel companion, fellow author, and jack-of-all-trades.  I’ll be sending more frequent blog posts your way as we circle the country over six-eight weeks.