Solving Problems

I have finally read The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. I am late to this particular party, I know, because it was published in 2005. When I finished the book, I was not so happy with it, but ignoring that point, I want to say that when I began the book and reached page ten, I absolutely adored it. Not only was I feeling the enchantment of the author’s spell, but more important, the book – or its beginning — solved a problem in a project of mine that I had not yet fully articulated. It was like a big fat YES that fell out of the sky and opened the way.

It was like opening a door in my mind and finding on the stoop an unexpected basket of fruit, nuts, exotic candies twisted in decorative cellophanes, packets of Himalayan tea and … You get the picture.

The event makes me hope that libraries as we know them are around for a very long time. Walking into a building with thousands of books is like walking into the greatest mind-drug store in the world. Lying between those covers are the answers to questions we may not even know we have.

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February 12 2009

Confession. Right up front.
This date is on the bottom of a can of V-8 that has been living in my refrigerator since, oh, I don’t know, November 2008 perhaps. I don’t dislike V-8, but I am not a regular drinker of the juice – as might be obvious.

I must hasten to add, as the guilty often say when they feel more accusations are about to be piled on them, that the can has been moved around in the refrigerator like a troublesome tenant: back of the top shelf, highest rack on the door, down to the bottom right drawer (surely the biggest island of neglect overall), back to a rack in the door, and so on. It was most likely moved when I cleaned – and I clean refrigerators Solomon Grundy-style. I suppose I should also confess that I don’t like cleaning refrigerators for the usual boring reasons. In fact, I have become rather skilled in getting the job done quickly by using liners and baskets and bins. But I digress. The guilty say that, too.

Today I am throwing out the V-8. I’m positive that it’s not a souvenir from a great event. Therefore it’s time to give it the old heave-ho. And I am not going to open it first, because the smell of food that has been overcome by being inside a can too long is not a smell that one ever intentionally seeks.

As usual, I see something here about writing. Sometimes what we write is very much hooked to the times, but a few years out, the detail will have lost its punch.

The first truly dramatic Mohawk haircut I saw on a woman impressed me greatly. It was about 8 inches of spike, black as shoe polish, and it provided a fine balance for her piercings and tattoos. I’m sure you are reading this with a “hohum yeah the blood pressure is going nowhere yet” sigh. And so it should be. But this woman appeared in the mid-1980s in the local cafes and ordinary places in Iowa. Remember the first time you saw someone decked out this way!! It was news!

I used this woman in a young adult novel, which I drafted in that period, then ignored for a decade, then revived, and eventually published. By the time it hit the streets, the readers no doubt thought the character was just about as weird as you find her today.

So: the lesson is obvious, isn’t it. The next time I look through my old pasteboard box of writings from whenever ago, I’m going to take a good whiff and slap an expiration date on each one. Some bits may deserve salvaging, but if they flunk the Mohawk ho-hum test, they’re history.

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Hotel eggs and writing

The egg. Such a grand device. I can imagine that many writers have waxed every which way about the wondrous object. The idea of the egg’s simplicity nudged me again a few mornings ago when I had breakfast with Nancy Barry, who also taught the week-long session at the Iowa Summer Writers Festival (we were two of a dozen writers/teachers). Nancy and I looked at the menu, did the math, and decided on the breakfast buffet, where eggs were a choice. I had wanted an egg for a few weeks.

I lifted the silver roll-top and aimed for a portion of egg — that “hello, aren’t you happy-go-lucky to be alive enjoying another day?” yellow that even the most wan, over-produced egg can remind us about. I aimed the silver serving spoon for a section that had not been overlaid with suspicious zigzags of a “ha! my orange is brighter than your yellow any day” cheese, that orange that can always dominate yellow, but not in a battery-powered megaphone kind of way. I returned to my table and took bite number one. Pleasant, in the way hotel eggs can be: warm, cooked, functional, an egg-fix. Bite number two: lump. Buried in the eggs like needles in haystacks, which would be one of the meanest ever surprises for the unsuspecting lamb nuzzling its soft little mouth around for food, was a lump of ham. And, of course, they kept appearing.

Egg=protein and so much more. Prepared well, a simple and divine flavor. Adding more protein — two kinds — is the kind of excess that surrounds us. Since everything reminds me of writing, I have to add that early drafts can suffer from this kind of overload. TMITS [Too much information too soon.] We readers want to savor the flavors. Note for revising: recall the lowly, common, simple, ever-so-perfect egg. Readers may want to feast on its beauty, its eggness, before learning about the cheese, ham, pastry, yogurt, fruit, coffee, lunch, dinner, lightning, thunder, and the rest.

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Eula Biss in Iowa

Eula Biss spoke at a gathering yesterday at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, where I’m teaching a class called “Away with Words,” which I gave serious thought to naming “A Way with Words,” but that’s another post. Biss talked about research for personal essayists and how it differs from academic research. One point she made was about how the research can take you to a place you hadn’t intended to go. She described her own investigation into telephone poles, entering the term into a newspaper database for a specific period around the turn of the previous century. She didn’t describe her original intent, but she described the stories she kept finding — horrific lynching after horrific lynching. That was the essay she wrote.

Such a shift can happen in academic research, too, but the shift would likely be less dramatic, since most academics have a fairly well devised thesis by the time they dig in.

Her second suggestion was a welcome one, too. The topic was archives — those special locations all over the nation and world where original documents and materials are kept. She invited the writers to simply ask an archivist “What do you have here that’s really interesting that no one has written about?” Such a question might seem ignorant or naive, but she, who has published two prize-winning books of essays, claims it’s an excellent question. Archivists know the hidden gems in their collections — the ones just waiting for a writer to shape into an essay for readers.

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Airport material, even when you don’t want it

Recently I was in an airport in that situation where one flight is canceled and then the next flight is delayed. Stress and annoyance ran high. Delays are actually a good tool for raising tension for a character. Impatience pushes people / characters to act out something that is generally below the surface. We all have plenty of those — anxieties, fears, or ambitions. Impatience can rub off a scab off and make a character bleed a little.

So back to the airport, where a real woman lost it. Her public persona flew away. I missed the beginning and the end of the event, but the middle had drama enough. Whatever triggered her problem happened in a souvenir store. By the time I looked, the airy metal grate had been lowered, and a few guards seemed to be stationed in different parts of the store, as were a few employees. The woman’s outbursts echoed up and down the concourse and into the waiting area across from the store where the much delayed passengers were hanging out. Most of what she said was a loud blur, though the occasional crisp curse word was easily heard.

I have a very calm temperament, but I can recall a few times in my life when I lost it — screamed and yelled at someone. I know that I was yelling to try to make myself heard. I’m not sure the effort works, by the way, but I know that was my hope. In any event, I felt sorry for this woman and hoped that whatever people were saying to her in words those of us outside the grate could not hear, would help her find her way back to herself, and perhaps with a proverbial shred of dignity intact. I don’t know if she was on our flight, because I wandered off to get away from the crowd.

The rest of he story is about that crowd. Was it their own boredom, or can we splash some other label on that human behavior. Many watched it like it was a reality show staged for customers whose flights were delayed. People looked pleased about the diversion and exchanged snarky smiles.

So the crowd scene could serve a writer, too, for a number of purposes.

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Toothbrushes & Characters & Questions

A woman approaches the registration desk of a hotel and asks the employee for two toothbrushes. The woman is approaching middle age, with middle-brown hair, of middle height, wearing an expression that is in the middle area between cordial and private. She avoids eye contact. She does not want to add commentary about this packing oversight.
Is she silently blaming someone?
Is she disgusted that she forgot them?
Does she have twins who left them in the restroom at Wendy’s during the lunch stop on the way to the beach from central Pennsylvania?
Does she resent that she has to take care of this errand?

It occurs to me that this tiny moment is a good one to add to the list of back-story questions for characters. How would a character behave in this situation and why? Would the behavior change during the course of the character’s development and why? How could such a moment be used to signal attributes of a character?

Some moments generate more questions than answers, but I’ve always liked questions better.

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At least he had the decency to lie

>>Percentage of Americans outraged over Weiner’s extended denial about those tweeted photos and so forth:

It has been a week filled with, among other things, the phrase: “If only he hadn’t lied.” These words were often followed by: “How can we believe anything he says about health care or other issues in Congress?” Hmmmm.

Take that notion to the next step….

People of all ages will lie if caught in a situation where they fear repercussions—which often, though not always, refers to something they believe they shouldn’t have done. Key! A person’s active conscience might not be strong enough to prevent him or her from giving into temptation and indulging in a behavior, but later, if a reflective conscience is still strong enough to bring on the lies of denial—great, I say!

At least he had the decency to lie.

Where will we writers be if people go so far down the low road that all personal behaviors are A-OK. We need lines between OK and not OK. We need good guys and bad guys. Let us encourage whatever measure of loyalty or appropriateness or propriety remains in the hearts of our fellow and sister citizens, even if it means watching people squirm through their lies now and then.

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