Words Fail Me

I groan when they show writers in movies or TV shows worrying about word choice, as if all writing is poring through a thesaurus trying to find just the right word. That almost never comes up for me. I worry a lot more about characters and story than whether I describe a thing as “shiny” or “glossy,” and find these depictions irritating.

But that’s where I’m at right now. Two sisters in my story-in-progress are arguing about something (actually multiple things at once, like arguments often go) and one [verbs] at her sister and [verbs] out of the room. The girl groans and stomps, or she growls and storms, or she exhales in frustration and clomps… but none of these sentences capture her vocalization the way I hear in my head, or the way a small body exits a room in anger. (I cringe at the word “flounce,” though it may be technically accurate, it seems to be in the realm of “spunky” and “sassy” for words that delegitimize the way girls act and feel).

Allegedly any language has the ability to express any idea, despite Sapir, Whorf, and Orwell’s claims to the contrary, but I’m not convinced. The word “march” makes me visualize the rigid gait of a soldier; words like “stomp” and “clomp” suggest a heavy-footed oaf, and “storm” seems fast-moving, not a furious exit with time for smoldering sideways glances.

As for the first verb, I don’t want her to come across as a pig, or a dog, or a dragon, with the huffing and snorting and growling.

If I don’t get a grip on this sentence soon I will expel my breath in an annoyed manner and leave the manuscript in a brusque manner.



Why The Round House is better than Oscar Wao

This week Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was named the best book of the century so far. I found the book to be absorbing, especially for the historical passages, but had some problems with it: there is a lot of gratuitous violence, especially against women, an unconvincing love story driving the plot, and unsatisfying conclusion. But obviously I’m alone, because it won the Pulitzer Prize (among other honors), launched Diaz into the stratosphere of prestigious authors, and is now apparently the best book of the last fifteen years.

Oscar Wao is described as the quintessential “nerd of color” book. I’m not crazy about the word, “nerd,” but if nerd identity is a thing, Oscar Wao is the kind of nerd you see on The Big Bang Theory: absorbed equally by all things nerdy without any particular favorite, emotionally (even intellectually) stunted, and socially inept. To me, he seemed like a non-nerd’s conception of a nerd.

Well, that’s my opinion, and I probably wouldn’t blog about it, but this morning heard a terrific passage in The Round House where Joe, the narrator and protagonist, describes his love for Star Trek: The Next Generation. For me this was a much better execution of the “nerd of color” trope that Oscar Wao.

First, Joe is really into Star Trek, and is very specific he means the new Star Trek, The Next Generation (it takes place in the 1980s). He particularly likes Worf. This fealty to one show and one character, the specificity of it, is more true to the nerds I’ve been and known than the all-things-nerdy caricature. Second, in a few nimble paragraphs Erdrich integrates this fandom into Joe’s personality and social context, describing how the show figures into Joes’ emerging identity, how aspects of the show work as metaphor for his experience as a kid-of-color and as a sex-obsessed teen, how the show fosters a community and code among his peers. Oscar Wao didn’t do any of these things. Oscar’s nerdiness makes him an outcast among other Dominican boys and later seems to limit his potential academically and professionally.

The Round House shows how this classic “nerd” interest helps foster a kid’s self-identity, instead of warping it. It shows how the social experience of a television program helps Joe cement his relationships, instead of making him an outcast. It doesn’t use the word nerd, but in one chapter Louise Erdrich does for Joe what Diaz never does for Oscar: take a nerd-positive view.

I’ll Mention This Again

I am teaching an online class through the Loft Literary Center beginning on February 2, 2015. Here is the description:

Many consider ages 8–12, “the middle grades,” to be a golden age for readers. Their novels include classics like Charlotte’s Web, the Ramona series, and the earliest adventures of Harry Potter. Most Newbery winners also fall into this category. In this class, we will explore some of the qualities that make a book a hit with young readers, with an emphasis on developing a character-driven story. Topics covered include creating a main character kids want to chase through the pages of a novel, avoiding stereotypes and cliches, and being attentive to the inner life of a middle grade novel. Participants will have an opportunity to share their work and get feedback from their peers as well as from the teaching artist.

And here are answers to commonly asked questions:

  • The class is completely online and mostly asynchronous. We do have weekly live chats to check in but the meat of the class is in the online readings and discussion forums. (We use the Moodle platform, but don’t worry if that doesn’t mean anything to you.)
  • There is a chance to share works in progress with the rest of the class; you also get private feedback from me on about 10 pages of writing.
  • The class is listed as “intermediate” primarily because of the expectation that writers are familiar with (if not steeped in) middle grade books, but if you have not read a lot you can catch up by familiarizing yourself with at least some of the following books. Most are Newberry medalists or honorees, so look on that bookshelf if your bookstore or library has one! These are not assigned class readings, but I use them as examples throughout the class (this is a partial list):
    • Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (and others in the Ramona series) – Beverly Cleary
    • Bud, not Buddy – Christopher Paul Curtis
    • Harriet the Spy – Louise Fitzhugh
    • The Giver – Lois Lowry
    • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH – Robert C. O’Brien
    • Hatchet – Gary Paulsen
    • From the Mixed Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler – E. L. Konigsberg
    • The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin
    • Holes – Louis Sachar
    • Maniac Magee – Jerry Spinelli
    • When You Reach Me – Rebecca Stead
    • Charlotte’s Web – E.B.White

    We also all read one recent book recommended and voted on by the class, and I try to get the author to join us for a chat.

Sign up for the class here! I hope to see you there.

The Individualistic Ant

Source: Dino Quinzani/Flickr

I learned a lot about insects this last summer because my son is fascinated by them. We watched documentaries together and paged through books. Once, in a fit of unrealistic ambition, I checked out the pulitzer-prize winning book by E. O. Wilson — entitled, simply The Ants, and approximately the size of a one-story house. We did little more than look at the pictures, though I found an almost Kabalistic calm in reciting the names of the many, many genera and species. I was as awed by the scope of scholarship as I was awed by the mighty conquerors themselves.

Ants, you know, are pretty amazing creatures. They build cities and keep slaves and herd livestock. They adapt to and thrive in practically every environment and will, I am sure, outlive us primates.

And they are eusocial animals, every one of them completely given to the colony. Even the queen is essentially a population generator, so if you imagine an antennaed tyrant presiding over her minions, you’re wrong. The queen ant is a single mom with a million children. Being an ant is no picnic.

I find myself peculiarly envious of this life strategy; this absolutely ego-less society, so harmonious it is called a superorganism, each colony functioning as a single mind and entity. I know, I know. I’m supposed to be horrified, but when you become a naturalist you abandon moral judgments.

Anything I learn about fills my brain with ideas for stories and a desire to read all the existing stories on that topic, and so it was with ants. Somewhere in the brief foray into Myrmecological fiction I came across a wondrous story by Ursula K. Le Guin, which serves as Aesopian fable, as well as a pastiche of anthropology and linguistic scholarship. It feels like an idea that could have been a full-scale novel, a Watership Down style epic. It is a gem, one of many in a brilliant career.

And yet, I find myself scratching my head at the premise. The author (and here, I mean the imagined author within the metafiction of the story, not Le Guin) sees the extremely successful and beneficial organizing principle of her kind to be a kind of villainy, one which she must vainly struggle against.

Is this a parody of dystopian novels, which always show (left, right, or center) a lone egoist chafing against political oppression? Or does Le Guin, like all futurists and fabulists, recoil at the idea of a eusocialism, so offensive to our core values of egoism and individualism?

She’s a good enough writer that I’m not sure, but I feel like there should be a counter-fable for once, showing an ant hill depleted by individualism, each hoarding its seed, cutting off the tunnels from others, shuttling its waste into the next ant’s nook, quite forgetting that their future depends upon one another.

The interior life is often stupid

The interior life is often stupid. Its egoism blinds it and deafens it; its imagination spins out ignorant tales, fascinated. It fancies that the western wind blows on the Self, and leaves fall at the feet of the Self for a reason, and people are watching. A mind risks real ignorance for the sometimes paltry prize of an imagination enriched. The trick of reason is to get the imagination to seize the actual world—if only from time to time.

The world did not have me in mind; it had no mind. It was a coincidental collection of things and people, of items, an I myself was one such item… I could be connected to the outer world by reason, if I chose, or I could yield to what amounted to a narrative fiction[.]

- Annie Dillard, An American Childhood*

I am an introvert, but don’t worry. I’m not about to launch into one of those self-fascinated pieces about how I am special and misunderstood. It’s just that I do have a very interior life, full of reflections and broodings and spun narratives. I imagine most writers are like that (perhaps not all), but I was struck by this passage and how it crystallizes a constant struggle of mine to do an objective assessment of my reality and spring it free of fancy, to know know what I actually know, and what I’ve constructed.

Writers tend to fancy that every bird symbolizes their own hope, and it’s easy to forget that the bird is minding its own business. This is why I opined recently that I wished I had majored in some “hard science,” where enough information surrounds an object that you can understand it on its own terms: the bird striking across the sky becomes a kestrel, and you know a thing or two about its behavior and habits, so it is no longer a stark image but a living thing. It is not there to inspire you; it is chasing a wren.

This bears on a work in progress and an essential scene — essential to character, not to plot — and I now know what I was trying to accomplish with that scene, though I don’t think I actually need to change anything.

*I may post more about this remarkable book, which recounts a cognitive and perceptual awakening by a child with astounding detail. I do not think Ms. Dillard has ever written a book for children, but her ability to recall the experience of being a child is like nothing I have ever read.

Dear Teen Me

There is a “Dear Teen Me,” meme that I have not done, but if I were to do it now, I might invoke my young self to stop reading Vonnegut, to read maybe one book each by Nabokov, Auster, and Delillo but not read them obsessively, so that my own writing become paralyzed with self-consciousness.

There’s nothing wrong with those writers, but every high-school aged boys with aspirations to write discovers Vonnegut, imagines himself to be the next great wit, and writes Vonnegut-tainted stories for a time, and emerges from the smothering style only when, as an upperclassman, he discovers the likes of Nabokov, Auster, and Delillo. And so, for a time, he begins soon abandoned self-conscious novels, talks about metafiction at parties to anyone who pretend to listen, and wonders if he needs to read more Thomas Mann to have literary street cred. I would like to stop teen me from taking those perilous steps and losing a decade to misdirection.

I would allow the Hawthorn, the Poe, the Steinbeck and Twain but only to have an anchor in Americana. I would discourage an scholarly inclination toward anything — if a story works, it works on instincts, not on explanations. I might even caution him to major in something besides English. Vonnegut was a mechanical engineer, after all, and Nabokov an entomologist. Major in geology or anthropology, I’d tell myself. Something that gets you outside and mucking around in the soil.

Literature built atop a tower of literature is the right road for someone else, but not for you. Your way into a story is the story, not the language. Your strengths are emotional, not cerebral. Find an anchor, a patch of soil to plant yourself, a way to see the world without words.

I would tell my young self to discover Sigurd Olson and Annie Dillard and the poetry of William Stafford and the essays of E.B. White, not because they tell me how to write, but because they tell me how to live.

I would tell myself to go for more walks.

I would tell myself to talk less and listen more.

I would tell myself to learn the names of trees and bugs.

I would tell myself to appreciate silence and the immense value of free time.

But knowing that teen me as I do, I know he wouldn’t listen to any of this.




Judi Dench as Catherine de Bourgh“If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.” – Lady Catherine De Bourgh, Pride and Prejudice

As one contemplates the snowy wasteland out one’s office window, one cannot help but feel that one has made tragic errors in living one’s life to have arrived in such a bleak position. And so, one’s mind turns to the daydreams and idle “planning” of other life-paths.

I’ll bet I would have been a good designer of board games, I think, and perhaps I’ll do it still. (I actually made one or two in college, but remember nothing about their schematics). I read this French documentarian knocked out Risk one weekend and made a bazillion dollars. I should do that.

On the other hand, I should have gone into the executive end of publishing, where I could conceive of entire lines of books and hire other people to write them. I am a slow writer but a veritable idea factory. What would be great about that is that ideas are perfect little gems, and any problem with the product would be on the writer.

Or I should have become proficient in Spanish and have some international role in some industry (I don’t care which) that would have me, right now, on a beach in Costa Rica drinking something out of a half-coconut.

If I had tried those things, I would have been great at them.

What are your Debourghings, dear readers?