Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Voices In My Head

When Marlena finished reading The Jubilee Express, Maureen Johnson’s story in Let It Snow, she texted me to talk about it. “I liked it;” she said, “it was Maureen in a way that most of her books aren’t.”

I agreed.

But now I'm wondering why.

One of the biggest difficulties facing a young author—both creatively and for essays—is finding their voice. This critique (“lacks individual voice”) often prompts complaints and uncomfortable musings, because it’s a bit disconcerting, obviously, to be told you don’t sound like yourself. Doesn’t everything you say, write or do have your voice? Isn’t that the point?

I understood what Marlena meant. Generally, I enjoy MJ’s personal blog a lot more than I enjoy her books, because I love MJ as a person: her humor and quirkyness and eloquence. The problem that comes with people you love writing books, however, is that they aren’t writing as them. They’re writing as their narrator, or as their protagonist. The Jubilee Express was exemplary because Jubilee was the closest a main character has gotten to Maureen’s personality; as such, the prose sparkled (as MJ loves sparkles) with what I can only describe as “honesty.”

Cue uncomfortable thought number two: are writers dishonest?

I wish I could remember who said this, but I remember being told once that someone preferred non-fiction to fiction because they “didn’t like being lied to.” Well, first of all Mr. Person-I-Can’t-Remember, your grammar sucks. And second of all, as an author, that kind of scares me.

I like to think of my characters as real people. Whole, separate, different from me. Obviously, we have to have few things in common—everyone on the planet has a few things in common. But if I imagine myself as a source of light (say, the sun), then my characters are mirrors (or moons): reflecting my own light back at me. Shining with light and life—real—but only if I write them so. After all, they need me to exist in the first place. So if I, as an author, need to start with my own personality as a template every time, then every change that I make is a bend in the mirror: twisting and altering it until the funhouse image looking back bares almost no resemblance to me at all.

But does each warp in the mirror rob my writing of a little bit of truth?

I can’t be sure, because the problem seems to go both ways. As I said, I was familiar with Maureen Johnson, her blog and her personality, before I read her books. But what happens when it goes the other way around?

So let’s talk about Sarah Vowell.

I read a few of Vowell’s books for the first time two years ago, knowing nothing about her. They were her latest, and so she came off not only as hilarious, well-informed and brilliant, but as seasoned. Practiced.

For those of you who have never read Sarah Vowell, here’s an excerpt from one of the essays in The Partly Cloudy Patriot:
…there are few creepier moments in cultural tourism than when a site tries to rewrite its past. Once, I took a boat tour up the Hudson and visited a seventeenth-century Dutch farm. At the farm there was a different tour guide at each station—the bridge, the mill, the manor—and to a man (they were all women actually) they described the farm’s slaves not as slaves but as “enslaved Africans.” As in “The mill was worked by enslaved Africans.” Or “Over there were the cabins of the enslaved Africans.” Or “That was the job of the enslaved Africans.” After a while I couldn’t stand it anymore and cornered one of those shawl-wearing tour guides and asked point-blank why on earth nobody used the world slave. And in that sing-song dialect of teenage girls, in which every ends in a question mark, she replied, “Because ‘enslaved African’ describes slavery as something that was done to them? Instead of what they were? Enslavement was not their whole identity?”
“Um,” I asked, “isn’t the whole point about being a slave that you don’t have a choice to be anything else?” Prettying up the word slave with that adjective-noun construction makes “enslaved African” sound nonchalant. As in “Those were the cabins of the jolly leprechauns.”
I adore her writing. When reading it, the voice in my head is cool, collected, smug. Shooting off lines as though they’re not funny when they are with ease; a kind of a Rory-Gilmore-ten-years-later voice.

And then Hannukah hit, and two things happened.

The first thing is that I asked for more of her books. I’ve read her most recent three, and so I wanted to round out my collection. The thing about going backwards, however (which, slightly related fact, I’ve done with MJ too; saved her first two books for last, I mean) is that writers really do improve over time. Practice may not make perfect, but it really does make better. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised when I started reading Radio On—25-year-old-Vowell’s diary chronicling a year of… well, listening to the radio—and found that she didn’t “sound” like herself. In fact, she sounded an awful lot like Chuck Klosterman. While one could argue that any witty young writer who focuses on grunge music sounds like Klosterman, I really wasn’t expecting the brashness, the anger and bitterness in Vowell’s normally light, teasing prose. It was like I was watching a video of her awkward, rebellious teenage years.

But should a decade really make a difference? Well, obviously, yes. A decade ago, I was writing such gripping tales as Wangdoodles and The Wacky Invention. Do those carry my voice? God help me, I hope not. But they’re still mine; I could deny it, but those (god-awful) stories are a part of my personal literary history. Who am I to disown them?

So Sarah Vowell did a little growing up. Okay, so did I.

And then the second thing happened: I actually *heard* her voice. Curious to see if she’d written any columns or articles on Barack Obama, I googled them together. I found a video clip of her on The Daily Show. Cue the shock:

[Okay, I tried to embed the video here but it wouldn't work, so be a dear and click the link?] (THE LINK.)

I knew that she’d done the voice of Violet in The Incredibles, but I thought that was just, y’know… a voice. Not HER voice.

So which is it? How she speaks, or how I, reading her words, assume she speaks? Or do one’s vocal chords have no bearing on one’s textual voice at all?

Again, familiarity gets in the way. I think of the essay Hayley wrote to apply to colleges; how I hadn’t needed to listen to her read it out loud on fiveawesomegirls because I could hear her so clearly in my head. How I have trouble writing my own work after watching a few hours of John Green on blogtv, because I’m hearing him narrate, not me, and I start to phrase things as he would rather than how I would.

… I’m horrible at ending blogs. I always want to cap it off with a “what do you think?” One of the reasons that I’ve never done this before is that blogs, I find, are for people with opinions who know what they’re talking about. Not that I don’t fit both of those categories, but I feel very uncomfortable broadcasting them here as though I’m the only person who is right. I don’t think I am; why should you?

So I think what I’d rather do is introduce a topic and then open up some dialogue. My bit’s covered, so now it’s your turn:

What do you think?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Re: My Last Post

Stayed up until about 4:30 AM finishing Prisoner of Azkaban; while the relative pros and cons as to the intelligence of this plan are sorely debatable, I wouldn't have been able to sleep anyway and found a little of the magic coming back as I read.

I'm not sure why that is, exactly. I mean, I have my theories:

  • It was very late at night; everything starts to get better when you're tired.
  • PoA was my favorite book of the series for a very long time.
  • The emergence of teenaged themes caught my interest (in other words, it's only the first two that I've simply outgrown; I think this very probable).
  • Remus Lupin.
  • Punctum!
    Christmas spirit was definitely thin on the ground in the Gryffindor common room that morning. Hermione had shut Crookshanks in her dormitory, but was furious with Ron for trying to kick him; Ron was still fuming about Crookshanks's fresh attempt to eat Scabbers. Harry gave up trying to make them talk to each other and devoted himself to examining the Firebolt, which he had brought down to the common room with him. For some reason this seemed to annoy Hermione as well; she didn't say anything, but she kept looking darkly at the broom as though it too had been criticizing her cat.

So I don't know. I'm not prepared to redact anything I said the other day yet (especially not the HBP stuff) but... well, I'll keep you posted, shall I?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Why Do I Like Harry Potter?

[warning: disjointed, half-baked thoughts to follow.]

So I’m doing this thing where I’ve decided to reread the entire Potter series from start to finish. I haven’t revisited them since Deathly Hallows came out, and after reading first Harry, a History and then Beedle the Bard, it just seemed like it was time to go back to Hogwarts.

And as I’m reading, I’m starting to wonder… why is it, again, that I like these books so much?

When I ask it, it’s not in a disgusted, “Why do I like these? Ugh!” kind of way. It’s just idle curiosity. To be frank, they really don’t suit my current tastes. I’m all about John Green and Maureen Johnson: relevant tales for teens with witty dialogue and a slightly funnier, but still very believable, reality. And sure, Ron gets off a really great line every now and then, but to be perfectly honest, I’m kind of rushing through the beginning. I’ve just started Prisoner of Azkaban, and a part of me was tapping my foot (… I suppose my foot was, huh?) all through SS and CoS, just wanting to get to Order of the Phoenix when we see real danger, real hormones and real emotion. Raised stakes.

I may return to this when I’ve gotten to it in my reread process, but this is just something I have to say: Half-Blood Prince was a very frustrating book for me. Such a big part of it was teenaged drama, just classic high school stuff, and I loved that—it would have been extremely bad form to pretend as though 16 year olds act any other way. But I felt as though Jo could have handled it much better. As a staunch believer in Harry/Ginny, I was obviously gratified to see that relationship come to fruition, but the way it happened made me want to punch things and pull teeth. There’s a logical build-up of interest on Harry’s side: the wonderful exchanges in OotP that made Ginny my favorite character, their shared experiences at the Burrow, him missing her when she’s gone—but then, when the time comes and the monster in his chest rears its ugly head, it’s all “Ginny’s so pretty.” Well, YES, Harry, we know. But she’s also fierce and funny and why the hell don’t you ever talk about that? Jo is known for her subtlety, but the telling-not-showing here really baffled me, left a bad taste in my mouth. And once the two of them have their several sunlit days? Their relationship is mentioned about three times in passing. I treasure that moment in the Common Room where they discuss tattoos; it’s the closest to typical YA the series ever gets. And obviously this was her first go, and the Pensieve and the Lightning-Struck Tower and the typical Rowling mind-blowing amazingness was present and accounted for.


It’s hard for me to talk about this. I don’t want to sound as though I’m insulting Jo or Potter or… I’m not. I’m really not. The thing that makes Harry Potter such a satisfying experience is the richness of the world—knowing that it’s not real, yet being unable to shake the feeling that it could be real. The government is a government, the school is a school and the people are people.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe Harry, Ron and Hermione were too busy being people to be teenagers. They had their angst (GOD, did Ron and Hermione have angst) but it just didn’t seem to have the right vibe.

I don’t know. There are no pull-quote punctums (punctia?) in Potter. All the rightnesses are slow and amorphous and spring from depth of character. Potter is a plot-driven series. It has strong themes, yes—good versus evil and the power of love—but aside from a few wonderful Dumbledore quotations, there’s very little one can just grab and show off as a token of what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown. The narrative does not go on thematic, idea-driven tangents. And I miss that. I love Jo’s quirky, tongue-in-cheek style, and I just wish that there were… more of it.

I suppose one could argue that I like Potter because I’ve always liked Potter, but that doesn’t seem right, either. I don’t pop in my Star Wars DVDs whenever I get depressed, and I was a fan of George Lucas younger and (possibly) harder than I was for Jo. There is—or rather, was—a great comfort in slipping into the world of Potter that I just can’t seem to get back any more.

And most of all, I miss the wondering.

This is the first time I’m starting at the beginning from a perspective of a truly closed canon. I read through all of them one last time after DH came out (“Oh my god, they learned about dittany for their very first final exams!”) but at the time, everything was still nebulous and swirling in my brain. I hadn’t gone to Prophecy yet, hadn’t sat down and truly examined all there was to examine… but I have now. And the mystery is gone.

And the more I think about it, the more I realize just how much the mystery really meant.

Harry Potter was more than just something to read. It was more, even, than an experience. It was an event in my life. It was what I lived and breathed and dreamt. And it was, at the time, just as open-ended as my own day-to-day was. Reading the series again now isn’t like rereading any other book, because I’m not reading it—I can’t read it—like I would anything else. I can’t dissect her style or choices, like I can every time I go back and read Looking For Alaska over again. All I can do is try and feel like I did then; it’s like going through an old photo album. I can forgive everything I find lacking, smile at all my favorite bits when I get to them, just as I can look back and examine my own adolescence.

But nostalgia just isn’t as fun as being there, and I can’t find a way to go back.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

An Introduction and A Spiel About Faith

Okay, so a few words on this blog and why it’s called what it’s called, before I get on with the actual post (which might not be terribly exciting.)

As an English-major-to-be at Brandeis, there’s a pre-requisite course I had to take entitled “Introduction to Literary Method.” Being rather cocky when it comes to all things Literate, I was fairly certain that this course would be a complete waste of my time, and do nothing but reiterate the boring points and stupid poems I’d already talked to death in AP Brit Lit at PHS.

Well, I was wrong.

At first, I only gave credit to the course for introducing me to the people who have become my closest friends on campus. Even if Lit Method had turned out to be the garbage class I assumed I was in for, it would have been worth it to meet Talia, Ben and Chef.

And yet.

When writing my final paper for this class, which I handed in yesterday, it slowly dawned on me that… I actually learned a hell of a lot. And not just in an acquiring-knowledge kind of sense, but in an acquiring-knowledge-about-myself kind of a sense. I found that “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” is actually one of the best poems I’ve ever read, and not a disgusting pile of pretentious drivel, and more importantly? I finally found the words to phrase a concept that has shaped my understanding of literature for years.

We read a poem by Wallace Stevens entitled “Of Modern Poetry.” The poem itself still isn’t my favorite, but he discusses how a poem must bend over backwards, be everything to everyone- stage, actor, and audience. He writes that that actor must be
“A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.”

I cannot get over the truth and power of those words. Everyone has a favorite line of a poem, favorite scene of a story, favorite bridge in a song. And it’s not just that it’s human nature to latch on to certain things; it’s… a deeply personal experience. Certain words, certain phrases, simply speak to us—resonate on a level that sometimes we ourselves can’t fully comprehend.

I grooved on that idea for ages, and was naturally thrilled when I got to see it come into play yet again in that same English class. We studied Camera Lucida, a book on photography theory by Roland Barthes. According to Barthes, every photo contains two elements—a studium and a punctum. The studium comprises the work as a whole; what the photographer (or author, or artist) is trying to convey, and how they choose to convey it. The studium is the kind of thing you write papers about in high school.

And the punctum is, largely, an accident. The punctum is a small detail that captures your interest—it enthralls you, “wounds you,” as Barthes would say, and greatly informs your entire reading of the piece. In other words, the punctum would be a “sudden rightness.”

So this blog is largely going to be about that—my experiences writing and reading, what influences me and what makes me cringe. A place for me to discuss what I love and why I love it.

And now on to the post I was going to write in the first place:

For about two years, I have been developing a novel that is very close to my heart—the kind of endeavor Hayley has referred to as “the infinite writing project of my soul,” which I could not agree with more. Entitled Keeping Faith, it revolves entirely around the relationship (and occasionally non-relationship) of two best friends: Faith Caldwell and David Goldstein.

These two characters have come a long way since I first met them in the winter of early 2007, just as I have come a long way as a writer. Initially very little more than a “Dharma and Greg” rip off (come on, you remember that show, right?), the two of them have grown into very distinct personalities.

I’m not going to lie. David is still very much like a male version of me: a worrier, a compulsive do-gooder, responsible and sarcastic. But in the years I’ve known him, he’s deteriorated; his moral core has gone off-center, just as Faith—whom I originally conceptualized as a complete wild child—daily becomes easier to anticipate and read, more open with herself and with me.

And slowly, I’m starting to discover why that is.

Of course, there’s the obvious reason: I’m, slowly but surely, becoming better at what I do. I’m taking baby steps towards a reasonable facsimile of reality in my prose every day. But the evolution of David and Faith, I have come to realize, has everything to do with me and my own relationship with my own faith.

You’ll forgive me if my thoughts get a little disjointed here: the epiphany I’m trying to convey to you now was first reached during a very deep, very religious and ultimately, quite personal conversation with Sarah Keeler at 4 in the morning.

My faith is my core. And not faith as in simply “blind belief;” faith is more than that. To me, faith is an unshakable conviction in the overall okayness of the universe. Knowing that things happen for a reason: not saying that we are rudderless puppets of Fate, but that we are put on this earth to learn and grow, and pain is just as big a part of that as joy. Knowing that everything we experience is an opportunity we are meant to grasp, and a lesson that we have to learn.

My faith is my core. There is pretty much nothing anyone could do or say that could make me lose my certainty. But what I’ve come to realize? David doesn’t have that. And that’s the big discrepancy between us—where the mirror reflecting me back on myself bends like a fun house, twisting him away from me and turning him into his own person.

David doesn’t have an internal faith. …but he does have Faith. And she acts as his ballast and compass just as surely as he does for her: not as a voice of reason, as he so often must be for others, but as a voice of profound empathy.

(Like I said: the bloggity bit was kind of boring.)

I’m not going to make any promises as to the frequency or substantiality of posts here; that’s only gotten me into trouble in the past. But for now… I’m excited, and I hope to see you soon.