Monday, September 30, 2019

Writer’s Almanac for September 30, 2019

I try to listen to Writer’s Almanac every morning. Today’s program was filled with treats. Garrison Keillor reminded me that today is the birthday of Truman Capote. First, after the usual biographical information, he quoted a passage from In Cold Blood—it was a section from the passage I read aloud for last week’s Banned Books night at the Rock Island Library. It was all about the normal sounds of that November morning being punctuated by shotgun blasts that changed so many lives. I had chosen well.

Secondly, Keillor added two quotes from Capote on writing:

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”

“Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born know them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.”

Good advice for a visual learner.

Finally, learning how George Perkins Marsh delivered the first address on climate change on this date in 1847 was surprising. His observations and conclusions from 172 years ago ring true today in his musical analogy about man as a “disturbing agent”:

“Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords. The proportions and accommodations which insured the stability of existing arrangements are overthrown. ..."

Such a nice way to start the day.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

In Cold Blood for Banned Books 2019

The following is my “speech” for Banned Books Week. The Rock Island Public Library and the Midwest Writing Center join for a yearly public reading and I did more than sit in the audience this year.

In Cold Blood for Banned Books 2019

I’ve come to Banned Book readings because they are so important. I have often wished to participate, but what book to choose. I’ve found lists of banned books and have been pleased that many titles are familiar to me as ones I’ve read. But not so pleased because there are so many more left to explore.

This year I went online, perused the first list, and what did I find? Dr. Seuss! Really?! Someone in Toronto complained about the violence in Hop on Pop.

I’m awaiting the arrival of my first grandchild. She is sooo going to have this book. My youngest son will have to deal with any ensuing mayhem. So, yes, a tiny little part of grandparenting is … shall we say—payback. Just kidding—he was the “good one”.

Okay, I’m buying this book but it’s not the one I want to talk about tonight.

Neither is this one.

Lord of the Flies was assigned reading by my high school English teacher. I should explain that this guy was in the army, the World War II army, and got his college education through the GI bill. He liked to say the regular college students started out [down] here. While the returning veterans started out [up] here. So, Mr. Schakel knew his stuff.

I read the book, wrote my report, and he called me up to his desk. It was after class and he patiently explained to me how I missed the whole point of the book. I don’t remember his words, but the sinking feeling—yeah, I remember that.

I missed Hop on Pop the first time around.
I failed my reading assignment with Lord of the Flies.

That leaves the book I do want to talk about: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote—whose research was assisted by the one and only Harper Lee, but I didn’t know any of that at the time. I was a somewhat isolated teenager in small-town Iowa. The important thing here is that I, as a teenager, chose to read this; to enter the world of Perry Smith & Richard Hickock, the Clutter family, the criminal investigation, the confessions, and the trial.

This was an eye-opening experience for me.
This opened the door to all kinds of questions:

WHY did this happen?
HOW could it have happened?
WHEN will it ever end?
WHAT can a person, an individual, do?

Sound familiar? We are still asking those questions. And that’s okay.

We must not lose the chance to connect with the kinds of books that stir our passions, our fears, that push us past our boundaries, the books that make us tackle the difficult questions.

That is why I chose In Cold Blood for tonight.

My reading:

“Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans—in fact, few Kansans—had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow train streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there. The inhabitants of the village, numbering two hundred and seventy, were satisfied that this should be so, quite content to exist inside ordinary life—to work, to hunt, to watch television, to attend school socials, choir practice, meetings of the 4-H Club. But then, in the earliest hours of that morning in November a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises—on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles. At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them—four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives. But afterward the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy re-creating them over and again—those somber explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other strangely, and as strangers.”    
1965, first printing, page five.

The fact is that while I can read about true crime, or in this case a “Non-fiction Novel”, when it came time to write my own book I went with the safer, less violent, cozy route—that included a nice, friendly dog. To answer the question of Why?—that was my choice.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

How to Race in the Rain and Other Lessons

“I loved it when he talked to me like that. Dragging out the drama. Ratcheting up the anticipation. I’ve always found great pleasure in the narrative tease. But then, I’m a dramatist. For me, a good story is all about setting up expectations and delivering on them in an exciting and surprising way.” Page 59

I love it when an author can incorporate writing lessons into the text of their work.  I got two gems with The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.

The first quote, above, is about structure, not revealing all knowledge too soon or all at once. Something I had to struggle with early on, and which I still try to pay extra attention to. I call it the information dump: an irresistible urge to tell all way too soon. For me, in my first novel, it was the backstory of Pearl, the 103-year-old retired teacher. Her actions were too important to squander away. I had to make myself break her story into smaller sections, space them out in the narrative, gave her the beginning and the end. I made myself be patient. Some readers got it, some didn’t.

Building a firm foundation for the main character is vital. The writer must create a narrative arc of development that plots a path of growth, either positive or negative. It reminds me of one of the first tips I got from a dear Bishop Hill friend, “Your protagonist has to change.” 

Vonnegut tells it this way: Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.* That’s a little extreme for my taste, but it gets the idea across.

The second quote from Stein highlights just such a lesson:

“The true hero is flawed. The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles—preferably of his own making—in order to triumph. A hero without a flaw in of no interest to an audience or the universe, which, after all, is based on conflict and opposition, the irresistible force meeting the unmovable object. Which is also why Michael Schumacher, clearly one of the most gifted Formula One drivers of all time, winner of more races, winner of more championships, holder of more pole position than any other driver in Formula One history, is often left off the race fan’s list of favorite champions. He is unlike Ayrton Senna, who often employed the same devious and daring tactics as Schumacher, but did so with a wink and therefore was called charismatic and emotional rather than what they call Schumacher: remote and unapproachable. Schumacher has no flaws. He has the best car, the best-financed team, the best tires, the most skill. Who can rejoice in his wins? The sun rises every day. What is to love? Lock the sun in a box. Force the sun to overcome adversity in order to rise. Then we will cheer!” Page 136

Frankly, this would work for a synopsis for the whole book. Our protagonist, Denny, has misfortune after misfortune rain down upon him in an unceasing downpour, testing his skills, his principles, his very soul … until the very end. We discover the metal of his being. On the last turn of the last lap victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat. The only thing left to wonder about is what happened to Enzo, the dog.

*From Brain Pickings:

#8 on Vonnegut’s list cancels out what I said about pacing. But, in my defense, he was talking about SHORT stories.

Links to other author’s lists of advice can be found here as well.