Saturday, December 15, 2012

Writing Craft: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

I found myself reading a kindred spirit in the writing style of Wells Tower. Tower takes a comprehensive approach to character development and story complexity, with the attitude of a fellow Gen Xer. Well-written subject matter carried a dark subtext, but not usually of some harrowing violence or a macabre scene – though the unusual title story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” certainly filled that role, following a violent story of Viking invaders with hints of fantasy and speaking in current day vulgarity. These were stories about every day real people living real lives in the face of adversity and challenging interpersonal relationships.

The stories all fit the slice of life style I studied in college twenty-plus years ago, though much more developed and filled out. The darkest element was what was not written; the ambiguity. The stories ended with little-to-no closure after setting up tense scenes, elaborate intertwining storylines, and characters the reader can easily become vested in. For example, in the story “On the Show” we are left wondering if the perpetrator of an awful child-molestation act at a carnival is caught during the on-going police investigation. While the story follows the momentary lives of several characters at the carnival, his identity is casually revealed near the end as he thinks about his wife and daughter following a cattle competition he had just hosted:
But he doesn’t care for the pointless velocity of the carnival amusements. Looking out at the whirling skyline of the fair, he can’t help thinking about all the earth you could move, all the beef you could haul with so much fuel and good steal. He thinks, too, of last night, of the boy in the Honeypot, and feels a pleasant ache, like being rasped on the back of the sternum with a jeweler’s file. There’s a want in him to take a stroll around, but he pushes it down. (Nook Ed., p. 148)
With exception to the title story, I found myself struggling to accept the stories’ endings; I wasn’t ready to finish when they did. The lush prose and witty language made for compelling page turning, but the endings left too much unresolved.

I did something I don’t normally do when I write a book response or review: I read some online reviews by other readers to see how they responded as I work my way through my own takeaways. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was loved by many readers though a handful disliked the lack of closure displaying the same feelings I had when I finally put the book down. Going back to my original point, it’s what wasn’t written that caught my attention. It was intentional to create discomfort, depicting the uncertainty of the real world. Not everything has a clean ending, or an ending at all, as we move through time and space interacting with each other.

As far as writing craft goes, it’s difficult for me to find specific focus on what I may have gained from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned as I did from other recent books this year. His writing style shares many craft elements to my own. I will say this, though, it gave me a new respect for taking chances, particularly leaving stories intentionally open-ended. And it has spurred a new thought-process worth considering in forcing the reader to make connections and draw conclusions. I’m sure a few readers were put off for this reason, but I embraced it the trust and confidence Tower put on me.

Contemplating Newtown

Heavy sorry looms over the only state I have ever known as home. Twenty-four hours ago, an incomprehensible act of senseless violence took place in the nearby town of Newtown, Connecticut, a town I have always been fond of. We spent a lot of time there while living in neighboring Southbury. Some of our favorite restaurants, a barbershop I frequented, our bank, even our favorite dairy farm ice cream stand call Newtown home. It’s a town where some friends of past and present now reside as well as some of my cousins, and a community my wife and I have considered living in over the years.

Now when I turn on the news reporting on the tragedy, I recognize in the background little spots of normalcy, places we’ve enjoyed or just know in passing, corrupted my bright news camera lights setting the stage for the latest horrific details to be revealed. I know a few people whose loved-ones bore witness to this tragedy, including a teacher and a few students – all safe and unharmed – forever touched by this event. Another friend’s professional mentor and friend was not so fortunate, sadly.

Last night on my drive home from work as I approached Newtown along I-84, helicopter lights became apparent in the distance; more numerous as I passed by the Sandy Hook area. The exit ramp for Sandy Hook was barricaded confusing the drivers ahead of me as I listened to the governor’s emotional speech from the Sandy Hook firehouse. A surreal moment and harsh reminder of a complicated and difficult day to comprehend.

Like Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Aurora, Newtown, or more specifically the beautiful small community of Sandy Hook, will carry a tragic and unfortunate mark in the American conscience. Let’s not remember it only by name, thought, let us remember each of the victims, including everyone who lived through it, and their families, and help them move forward with their lives.

No political arguments on gun control or religion in school will bring back the innocent lives lost; nor will they prevent further tragedies of this nature. All Americans need to come to an agreement that these violent acts cannot continue and look at the root causes. Untreated mental illness, easy access to legal and illegal firearms – we as a society need to change what we are doing in these areas, because our current actions are not working.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Antithesis of Creativity

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Immersed in a whirlpool of ideas, some good, some worth dropping off a cliff to the jagged rocks below, still others leading to publication or other successes, creativity abounds in all of us. It’s how we use that energy, how we channel it into our passions that defines us as artists or strategists or inventors or a number of other creative-based professions. When we are fearless, we are at our best.

It’s that moment when we let apprehension stand in our way; when we let self-doubt consume our inspirations; when we allow aversion to risk-taking to override our passions. That moment when the reaper positions his queen with that bony hand to proclaim checkmate. Fear is the consummate eternal when we grant it the opportunity.

Fear comes in many valid forms: an explosion at a chemical factory, an out-of-control eighteen-wheeler on a busy highway, an angry dictatorial boss, the wrong end of a gun. All physical, all legitimate. Even a zombie invasion should one occur. It’s the fear in our heads that restrains us, prevents us from taking ownership of our ideas, of executing an idea as the lingering possibility of retribution or disappointment hangs six inches in front of our noses. That is the antithesis of creativity, which has claimed so many unwritten stories and unperformed songs. And it lives in our collective subconscious, both culturally and individually.

Those lucky fortunate few who have made a killing following their creativity passions, those people we are fans of and consume everything they produce. We love them, we want to emulate them and collect everything they’ve ever touched. We hang on their every last words. We wonder: How did they do it? Right place at the right time? Perhaps. More than likely, they took control of fear. They did not listen to the naysayers – themselves the products of internalized fear – they channeled that energy into their passions, they took risks knowing that at any moment we may reject them. Through every mountain and canyon, they persevered.

Bottom line: we are products of ourselves, we are our own creators. We define what we put out there, assuming we take the first step allowing our viscera to be exposed. The sad reality is, most of us are willing to give in without a fight. Don’t do that.

Push forward. Follow your passion. Create.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Elusive Focus

What to write? So many ideas, so little time to record them all. They ebb and flow, some stick, others slip back into the ocean. Focus is key, when I can find it. Focus with the ability to filter. I often find my focal point is a puddle of pulsating slime, not very clear, as you could imagine. It slithers as only slime can along a broken concrete and dirt floor, eluding me when I need it most. And when do I need it most? Now.

Here I am, fixated on closing a story for the second time. The first closing opened new doors. Funny how that works. This welcome weight I have hoisted over my shoulders, carrying it on end much like a Scottish games competitor, I am working desperately for the sake of my sanity to bring closure to this story again. Now my focus is a twelve-foot maple tree trunk I need to throw as far as possible. Without damaging anything.

My focus is damaged. It just is. I have no explanation. It reminds me of the astigmatism I used to have in both eyes – I had Lasik. Unfortunately, Lasik doesn’t sharpen conscious thought. It morphs from one form to another without warning, sometimes holding my subconscious hostage as my superego tells it it’s not very nice and should stop that. Yeah, that superego is too gentle, too nice, too outside of my general area of focus. Is that what it is? Attention deficit?

As I sit here tapping out S-O-S in Morse code, for all the wrong trivial reasons, I am crystalizing my ideas, my intent to close the story, or at least current storyline. That more than likely is the thing that is stirring my brain non-stop: the story is not meant to be short. It has become a living entity, and I need to nurture it some more before I drop it off a cliff where it will return to its primordial ooze state of self-being. Or as I like to call it, the slime found on smooth rocks covered in algae and mollusks. What am I writing?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Writing Craft: Pastoralia by George Saunders

Whimsical, stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences portraying the inner workings of defective people facing situations outside of their comfort zones. Darkly humorous and grimly serious, George Saunders’s short story collection Pastoralia was unusual to read and hard to put down. Saunders nails the flawed protagonist’s portrayal in every story: egocentrics searching for self-esteem, self-deprecating narcissists looking for love, the last minutes of a troubled boy’s life, and a theme park living-history performer trying to get through serious life circumstances in the most mundane manner possible in a mockery of corporate America.

Saunders writes a seamless blend of inner thoughts and actions of the outside world. By varying run-ons with short abrupt sentences, he creates an organic portrayal of harsh reality in his characters’ observation of their worlds. Consider the following monologue from a motivational speaker helping an audience rid themselves of problem people from their lives in the story “Winky.”
“A certain someone, a certain guy who shall remain nameless, was doing quite a bit of crapping in my oatmeal, and simply because he’d had some bad luck, simply because he was in some pain, simply because, actually, he was in a wheelchair, this certain someone expected me to put my life on hold while he crapped in my oatmeal by demanding round-the-clock attention, this brother of mine, Gene, and whoops, there goes that cat out of the bag, but does this sound maybe paradoxical? Wasn’t he the one with the crap in his oatmeal, being in a wheelchair? Well, yes and no. Sure, he was hurting. No surprise there. Guy drops a motorcycle on a gravel road and bounces two hundred yards without a helmet, yes, he’s going to be somewhat hurting. But how was that my fault?” (45)
The setup of the speaker’s story is drawn out, like he is stumbling through his thoughts, though it’s all intentional from a motivational perspective. As the scope narrows to the point, “how was that my fault?” sentences constrict themselves driving the point’s emphasis home.

A similar structure appears in the following passage from the title story “Pastoralia,” in which the corporate leadership sends out one of many memos to the living history performers in a theme park. It starts out short, becomes quite long, then reigns itself in. It is a bit long, but well-worth reading.
Regarding the rumors you may have lately been hearing, it says. Please be advised that they are false. They are so false that we consider not even bothering to deny them. Because denying them would imply that we actually heard them. Which we haven’t. We don’t waste time on such nonsense. And yet we know that if we don’t deny the rumors we haven’t heard, you will assume they are true. And they are so false! So let us just categorically state that all the rumors you’ve been hearing are false. Not only the rumors you’ve heard, but also those you haven’t heard, and even those that haven’t yet been spread, are false. However, there is one exception to this, and that is if the rumor is good. That is, if the rumor presents us, us up here, in a positive light, and our mission, and our accomplishments, in that case, and in that case only, we will have to admit that the rumor you’ve been hearing is right on target, and congratulate you on your fantastic powers of snooping, to have found out that secret super thing! In summary, we simply ask you ask yourself, upon hearing a rumor: Does this rumor cast the organization in a negative light? If so, that rumor is false, please disregard. If positive, super, thank you very much for caring so deeply about your organization that you knelt with your ear to the track, and also, please spread the truth far and wide, that is, get down on all fours and put your lips to the tracks. Tell your friends. Tell friends who are thinking of buying stock. Do you have friends who are journalists? Put your lips to their tracks. (41)
Even though this is satire, I feel like I have come across similar self-aggrandizing corporate communications in the past, talking in circles, using many words to say so little. In this passage, the shorter, more specific sentences seem to be where the truth actually lies – the negative rumors. Whereas the positive rumors the author refers to are stumbling streams of thought aiming for justification by quantity of words.

Returning to the story “Winky,” this style of writing is used to depict the protagonist’s state of mind after finishing his session with the motivational speaker. His limited perception of wealth and his lack of worldliness are revealed through the process. Both humorous and sympathetic.
Yaniky had walked home in a frenzy, gazing into shop windows, knowing that someday soon, when he came into these shops with his sexy wife, he’d simply point out items with his riding crop and they would be loaded into his waiting Benz, although come to think of it, why a riding crop? Who used a riding crop? Did you use a riding crop on the Benz? Ho, man, he was stoked! He wanted a Jag, not a Benz! Golden statues of geese, classy vases, big porcelain frogs, whatever, when his ship came in he’d have it all, because when he was stoked nothing could stop him. (53)
The tragic story “The End of Firpo in the World” brilliantly captures the racing imagination of a mischievous, troubled boy, Cody, as he plans a prank on his neighbors while quickly riding his bicycle around the block to assess the situation. Again, it’s long, but showing an abridged form would not do it justice.
Well, it would be revenge, sweet revenge, when he stuck the lozenge stolen from wood shop up the Dalmeyers’ water hose, and the next time they turned the hose on it exploded, and all the Dalmeyers, even Dad Dalmeyer, stood around in their nice tan pants puzzling over it like them guys on Nova. And the Dalmeyers were so stupid they would conclude that it had been a miracle, and would call some guys from a science lab to confirm the miracle and one of the lab guys would flip the wooden lozenge into the air and say to Dad Dalmeyer, You know what, a very clever Einstein lives in your neighborhood and I suggest that in the future you lock this hose up, because in all probability this guy cannot be stopped. And he, Cody, would give the lab guy a wink, and later, as they were getting into the lab van, the lab guy would say, Look, why not come live with us in the experimental space above our lab and help us discover some amazing compounds with the same science brain that apparently thought up this brilliant lozenge, because, frankly, when we lab guys were your age, no way, this lozenge concept was totally beyond us, we were just playing with baby toys and doing baby math, but you, you’re really something scientifically special. (79)
So, what did I take away from the book that I can carry into my own writing? Like I concluded after reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a few months ago, breaking the conventions of proper sentence structure and grammar, the writing craft alone creates the mood and environment in which the story exists. The run-on sentences contrasted with the short abrupt statements, in this case, create a natural duality reflective of how people think and perceive the world. One idea begets the next idea, which opens a tangential thought and so on. The pathetic and tragic characters of Saunders’s stories, as whimsical as they appear, are real enough that I don’t question their identities and authenticity. My take-away is simple: creatively (i.e. break the rules) use the craft as appropriate for the story to give it credence; don't hold back.