Saturday, September 22, 2018

Death is Everywhere

I'm an optimist! The title and first sentence may seem incongruous--they're not. I'm an optimist even though I know death is everywhere. I'm also a Christian, which shapes my world view and perspective toward death.

As writers, if we don't acknowledge the ubiquity of death, we avoid a significant aspect of life. People die around us daily; we read about shootings, or car accidents, or floods in the paper or on Facebook; we see stories on the news of tragic deaths both here and abroad. Sometimes the deaths are closer to home--a parent, spouse, child, or friend. These deaths affect us deeply, changing us, shaping us.

The death of a loved one is like an amputation. Gerald Sittser writes in A Grace Disguised that "catastrophic loss is like undergoing an amputation of our identity. It is not like the literal amputation of a limb. Rather it is more like the amputation of the self from the self" (Sittser 70). These losses affect us deeply and profoundly and our lives are not the same. Death amputates a part of us; it alters our gait. We need to learn to live with the amputation; we learn to walk with a new gait--one that absorbs the loss.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their 9 children
My point here is that as write stories, or novels, or poems, if we don't write about how our characters' losses through death have shaped their lives, we may be missing a crucial component of their character.

In the two novels I've written (am writing), each contains a woman dying in childbirth. Don't analyze me! Scores of women die in childbirth, even today--even in America. Centuries ago it was common for women to die in childbirth. Queen Victoria had 9 children, and during her first pregnancy her closest advisors put a plan for succession in place... in case she died in childbirth. She didn't die in childbirth, and in fact her husband Prince Albert predeceased her by 40 years. After Prince Albert's death, Queen Victoria went into mourning, and she wore black for the rest of her life. Her husband's death shaped the rest of her own life.

As you create characters, or write historical fiction, include in their personal histories and backstories the deaths that shaped them. This will add depth, complexity, and veracity to your writing.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Stories Are Everywhere

Walking to work today I greeted or interacted with six people. My walk is only three blocks long! I like living in the neighborhood where I work and attend church. Once I got to the office I'm working in today, I realized how each person I greeted or talked to has a story. Some I know; some I don't. But every person has a story; and every story is potential for a short story, a poem, a character, or a novel.

First, I greeted an Egyptian man who is always out and about in the neighborhood. His sons attended our after-school program and his older son hung out with one of my sons. Then I saw an older woman from our church. Her son recently died of throat cancer and she is still grieving. She has a story to tell. In the next block I came across a former student. She took my speech class over a year ago and is still pursuing her Associate's Degree.

Before I reached Dunkin Donuts I came upon a homeless man whom I've talked to a bit. I gave him some change and wondered how he ended up homeless on the streets of Jersey City. I'm sure there is a long, fascinating, somewhat tragic story there. While waiting for my bagel, I saw another former student. This young Pakistani woman told me about her struggles in this country. She is now finishing her degree at NJIT. I know a few of her stories, but I'm sure her life is worthy of a book!

As I left Dunkin Donuts to walk the remaining block, another homeless man asked me for money, which I gave him. When he said he needed a hug, I told him "I don't hug strangers," which isn't 100% true, but I shook his hand instead. Again, I can only imagine the stories he could tell--about his own life, and others' lives.

If you're an aspiring writer, just look around you every day. Talk to people. Engage. There are stories all around us!

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Grief Described

How can one describe grief? It is universal, yet individual. It comes to every person, yet its manifestation is unique, not only for each person, but for each grief observed. Grief can overtake us, diminish us, expand us, and show us both the limits and breadth of our humanity. Many poets, playwrights, songwriters, and novelists have attempted to describe grief--to greater or lesser success. 

The best book on grief I have ever read is non-fiction, by Gerald L. Sittser--A Grace Disguised. The title alone is powerful. Sittser lost his mother, wife, and one daughter in a car accident he survived. The drunk driver who hit his car robbed him of three generations of women instantaneously. I cannot fathom that kind of grief. But his description of what he went through brought healing to me after my own sweet dad died in 1996. I have recommended his book to many others, and bought several copies to give to those in the throes of grief. I remember one passage in particular--he writes an analogy about the necessity to go through the darkness (the grief) to get to the light (the healing).  Read along here as he describes his dream:
I dreamed of a setting sun. I was frantically running west, trying desperately to catch it and remain in its fiery warmth and light. But I was losing the race. The sun was beating me to the horizon and was soon gone. I suddenly found myself in the twilight. Exhausted, I stopped running and glanced with foreboding over my shoulder to the east. I saw a vast darkness closing in on me. I was terrified by that darkness. I wanted to keep running after the sun, though I knew that it was futile, for it had already proven itself faster than I was. So I lost all hope, collapsed to the ground, and fell into despair...  my sister, Diane, told me that the quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.  (Sittser 33)
What a powerful image. I continue to dwell on that as I grieve the losses in my life. A friend of his mentioned a poem by John Donne in which he describes east and west as opposites which come together if one is followed far enough. In case you're curious, here is the poem by John Donne:

Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness

Since I am coming to that holy room,
         Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
         I tune the instrument here at the door,
         And what I must do then, think here before.

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
         Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
         That this is my south-west discovery,
      Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,

I joy, that in these straits I see my west;
         For, though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
         In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
         So death doth touch the resurrection.

Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
         The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,
         All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,
         Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
         Christ's cross, and Adam's tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
         As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
         May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.

So, in his purple wrapp'd, receive me, Lord;
         By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others' souls I preach'd thy word,
         Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
"Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down."

Stay turned for more on describing grief in my next blog post. Please share with me an especially apt description of grief you have read, or written!

Friday, February 23, 2018

KT Writing

After my mom died, my siblings, my husband and I had the heart-wrenching task of cleaning out her house, the house I grew up in, the house she lived in with my dad for 32 years until he died, and then 20 more years. My husband and I emptied the bookshelves, filling over 50 boxes of books. My parents were great readers—classics, mystery novels, Shakespeare’s plays, a collection of books on the Antarctic, and Jane Austen. I grew up around books and have been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. I have also turned to the pen, then the typewriter, then the computer to express myself. I am a writer.
            Although I have been writing for decades, I have not always been comfortable identifying as a writer. In my mind a writer is someone who writes well, who writes for a living, or who has gotten paid for his or her writing. It seems presumptuous to call oneself a writer—it seems to be a moniker only others can apply.
            My first attempts at writing were in school, the requisite haiku's, essays, and short stories. I made my first attempt at serious writing after I got married and decided to explore my Irish roots. After reading Leon Uris’ Trinity I decided to write a novel about an IRA soldier (terrorist) and the troubles in Northern Ireland. After about 25 pages I gave up on that novel.
            Subsequently, I worked on a novel about a young woman who lived in Manhattan in the early 80s (or was that a memoir?!). I spent a bit more time on that, worked up an outline and a few chapters before that too went into the circular file. Writing took a backseat to motherhood, but after my second son was born I decided to try again. This time I decided to follow the advice to “write what you know.” Both my young sons had asthma, so I worked on an essay for parents on coping with chronically ill children.
            I figured I would start small, and write about something I had experience with, and then branch out to more creative writing. For over a year I worked on this short piece. The first step was deciding on a topic – caring for chronically ill children. Then I created an outline, using my own experience to guide the main points. After I had a rough draft I identified and interviewed experts in the field. Articles in popular parenting magazines typically include quotes from experts. My own personal experience would not carry enough gravitas to sell the article. The interviewing process was long and sometimes frustrating, but very rewarding. I distinctly remember interviewing Leo Buscaglia on the phone – back in 1992. He is a psychologist who works with disabled kids and their parents, and a very wise and sweet man. His quote contributed to the section on parental guilt: “After thinking logically, parents will realize they would never have planned anything to hurt their child,” Buscaglia told me on the phone.  After I finished the article and incorporated the quotes, I added a box of helpful organizations parents could contact for help.
            Once the article was finished, all I needed to do was find a magazine willing to publish it! Several queries were sent and rejection letters received, until the day I received an envelope in the mail from American Baby Magazine. What a memorable day! They liked the article and wanted to publish it. They offered to pay me $250! I was ecstatic! I remember laughing and crying simultaneously. I had arrived—I was a writer.
            The money was not significant; the magazine was not prominent; the article was not long. But an editor had determined the content and quality of the writing was sufficient to pay me to print it in their magazine. Ten years later I co-wrote a book, and the advance was $2,500. Although it was ten times as much as my first check for writing, nothing could match my euphoria when I received my first check for writing.
            In addition to 50 boxes of books, I cleaned out my dad’s 10 file cabinets in his office and the garage. I went through all of them, file by file. As a college professor, he had files on almost everything—think “Google” in file cabinets. He also had a lot of personal files, including files on the children and grandchildren. I kept a few of them. I found my first published article in one marked “KT Writing.” 

Friday, July 14, 2017

What's up with the book blurbs?

When I pick up a book by an author unknown to me, the first thing I read is the blurb on the inside cover. If I'm interested, I then go on to read the first few pages. If I'm hooked I either borrow the book, if I'm in the library, or buy the book, if I'm in a bookstore. But here's the thing. I have noticed lately that the book blurbs are often misrepresentations of the book! The blurbs are either misleading, focus on minor characters or events, or sometimes downright incorrect. This is confusing, aggravating and unnecessary.

What is the purpose of a blurb? It has been described as a sales pitch, an online dating profile (stretching it) or an endorsement. In this blog I am referring to the description of the story, not the quotes from other writers or readers endorsing the book. The descriptive blurb will entice a reader, or turn her off. Now I'm not sure who normally writes these blurbs, but it should be the author. I have a sneaking suspicion that the publisher or editor writes them, which is why they are often inaccurate and misleading. I almost feel as if I were snagged by a 'bait and switch.' The blurb leads me to believe the book is about one thing, whereas the focus is on something else.

I understand blurbs can be tricky to write. The writer needs to give away enough of the story to attract a reader, without giving too much away--no spoiler alerts. However, the blurbs should not overemphasize minor elements in the story, nor should they be patently false or misleading. Don't you agree?

Here are a few samples from the books I have read over the past month:

The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, by Jennifer Ryan:
"... This story tells the home-front struggles of five unforgettable choir members: a timid widow devastated when her only son goes to fight; the older daughter of a local scion drawn to a mysterious artist; her younger sister pining over an impossible crush; a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret; and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past."
Technically most of this is true, though they were not all active members of the choir. The artist wasn't really an artist. The refugee is a very small part of the book and the "secret" is revealed in one paragraph and never mentioned again. So to me, the blurb is misleading.

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine, by Gail Honeyman:
"Meet Eleanor Oliphant: she struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she's thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy....
When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen, the three rescue one another from the lives of isolation that they had been living."
First off, Eleanor does not chat with her mother on the weekends, but on Wednesday nights. Secondly, only Eleanor is isolated; the other two men are not really isolated. So the blurb misrepresents and misleads the reader. It may not seem important, but why not just tell the truth! Also, I would describe Eleanor as having "Asberger's like" qualities. I might also mention her traumatic childhood.

The Mother's Promise, by Sally Hepworth:
"Desperate to find stability for Zoe, Alice reaches out to two women who are practically strangers but who are her only hope...  As the four of them come together..."
The four of them don't really come together. The two women help Alice, but the blurb is misleading in the way it represents what happens with the four main characters.

Why should we care? These are all very good books, I recommend each of them, but when I finished each book and looked back at the blurb, I felt it did not represent the essence of the book well, and it should!

What do you think? Have you had a frustrating experience with misleading book blurbs? Please share in the comments section.

Friday, July 7, 2017

What makes a book "good" - Part 3 - Alliteration

Originality is a vital element to good writing, and we have looked at prose and similes thus far. Let's turn our attention to alliteration. I really enjoy alliteration, but in small to moderate doses--too much and it becomes annoying. There is a line in Martin Luther King Jr.'s essay, "Letter From Birmingham Jail" that I really love - I share it with my students every time we cover the essay, and see a mixture of expressions on their faces, from awe to boredom! As Dr. King writes about his disappointment with the inaction of the white church during the Civil Rights movement, he notes that while some Christian leaders have joined the cause, others have been
       "more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of
         stained-glass windows." 
The repeated "s" and "c" sounds combine to make this an auditory feast. It borders on being too much, and ends up being just right.

I offer here a few more alliterations from books I have recently read:

     "Everything else depended on largeness of spirit and liveliness of the intellect, he said when
      anyone complained of the cramped quarters or unpretentiousness" (Allende, Of Love and 
      Shadows, 26).

     "We were sitting down for luncheon, the sun spilling into the dining room as the gramophone 
      played Vivaldi. I heard the front door open, then the slump of my mother's body as she hit the 
      floor, the sunshine streaming in, unaware" (Ryan, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, 4-5).
There is not a lot of alliteration here, but enough to make it interesting, and her description evokes a real sense of time and place.

       "Emma enjoyed herself extremely," (Austen, Emma, 95).
A Jane Austen quote is an absolute necessity!

And Will...
    "From forth the fatal loins of these two foes; a pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life," 
     (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet).  Enough said!

     "He'd stand at the cooker, simmering tomatoes with fresh herbs, reducing them to a rich sauce,
      slick and slippery with a sheen of olive oil," (Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, 21). This is a new book, and a great read. Just don't believe the blurb. I'll write about book blurbs in my next post.

Please share your own alliteration "finds" - the ones you enjoy reading, and those that drive you nuts!

Friday, June 30, 2017

What makes a book "good"? Part 2 - Similes

Originality was the focus of my first post in this series, and that elements carries through in this post. One of the hallmarks of good writing is the use of original similes. Similes are often word pictures, and as a visual learner, I appreciate how they make the text come alive. Here are some examples from some good books I have recently read, and a few quotes from my two novels in waiting (waiting to be published)!

"Our guilt coated the house like pollen" (Bohjalian 39). This line in The Sleepwalker is a perfect example of how "good" writing contains similes that are original and have veritas.

"The sun was a red bindi dot on the forehead of the sky as they started their walk," (Umrigar 33).  Thrity Umrigar has so many stunning similes it is hard to choose just one, but this line from The World we Found stuck out.

"From the moment she began to boil the water for breakfast, she never sat down but was always busy with the children, the washing, the meals, the garden, the animals. Her days were all the same, like a rosary of identical beads shaping her existence" (Allende, Of Love and Shadows, 14). It's important that the simile relate to the theme of the book (I think). It pulls everything together nicely, and as Catholicism is one of the themes of this book by Isabel Allende, the simile is appropriate.

"At night it creaked softly, like a weary, rheumatic old woman" (Allende 26).

"A cool breeze blew through the trees, and Ledu and I held each other, laid out side by side on the thin blanket, like two knobby walking sticks" (Sweeting, Remnant). I had different wording for this, but I was trying to think of something in Ibo culture to relate to, and came up with this.

"The mother was already thin, her arms like sugar cane stalks" (Sweeting, Remnant). Again, sugar cane is commonly grown in Nigeria, so I thought this might be an appropriate simile.

"Three stories high, the house boasted a wrap-around porch, fitting as snugly as a babe on a mother’s back, pots of geraniums, marigolds and camellias brightening the porch and scenting the air" (Sweeting, Remnant). 

"Her eyes were swollen and red, her hair looked like a cross between Medusa and a spider web, and there was dried snot on the side of her face" (Sweeting, Expecting).  This novel is American and contemporary.

"It’s almost like an unwritten taboo. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, you stay in the community. I think it’s a bigger taboo than marrying outside your race, or your religion" (Sweeting, Expecting). In this book I am working on now, the reference is to a deaf person marrying a hearing person. 

Please let me know what you think of these similes, and share some of your favorites!