Sounds of silence; tastes long gone

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I’ve started a new WIP, which is a little like falling in love all over again. New plot lines and characters make for new discoveries. All a little exciting; all a little frightening.

Some of those new discoveries come from background research. Many others come from my own memories resurfaced.

As lots of writers will tell you, if I’m talking about it, I’m not writing it. So, I won’t go into great detail. But I was inspired by Lorna at Gin & Lemonade to post on a fall food memory. Think: food memory; think: taste. Right? The first thing I thought was sound.

See, one of my most potent fall food memories is the sound of my mom stirring soup on the stove top as I woke from a dead sleep after some kind of dental procedure, I think it was. The backstory is blurry, but the sound of the steel spoon on a steel pot forever rings in my memory. It’s the sound of care and comfort, warmth and frugality (no doubt there were dried beans aplenty in that soup.)

But back to my WIP and one of my main characters. An eighteen year old girl on the cusp of entering college–and life, really–is losing her hearing.

Imagine losing one of your precious senses.

I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, pondering what sounds I could let go and lose forever. For one, I could stand to forget my yelling-at-my-kids chest voice–one I didn’t even know I had before parenthood. (Lots of interesting discussion on this topic in fiction and nonfiction lately, from Lauren Groff’s story to Lydia Kiesling’s essay.)

Some sounds I couldn’t stand to lose: the sounds of a quiet house; my kids’ voices; and my mom stirring a pot of soup as I awake from a silent sleep.

There is no true silence; I’ve learned that much about hearing loss.

There’s a woman in town here who has lost her sense of smell, and with it, her sense of taste. I feel a little bit like that. I try to remember what my mom’s soup that long-ago evening might have smelled or tasted like, but I can’t–at least not yet.

I regret that I don’t have my mom’s recorded voice, with the nasally accent she passed down to me–along with her veiny hands, her love of puns, and the cookbook of family recipes she made, one for each of us kids, when she was sick.

That soup recipe is likely in there; without knowing it, I may make it for my family this fall.

What are your favorite foods of fall? What foods take you back to your native place?

My native Rust Belt has some distinctive Tastes of Home, if you’d like to explore!

Want more Rust Belt fun. Check out my FB page.

Interested in trying your hand at food-writing? Lorna at Gin & Lemonade found these helpful: for-real from Writer’s Digest and for-funny from the New Yorker.

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Submit, submit, submit

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It’s that time again: submission season.

It’s the season when we writers polish up our prose and poems and novel MS synopses to send out into the world, fresh-faced and optimistic, imbued with loads of potential–in the hopes of being published. I wave to them and smile (a little smugly). “I’ve done good,” I tell myself.

And then proceed to shudder in fear.

Oh, wait.

Maybe that’s my kids. Yep, silly me. September is also back-to-school season, when I send my actual offspring out into the world, fresh-faced. I wave and smile…Well, you get it.

Here’s the thing.

Let’s not confuse our creative offspring with our actual offspring, our stories with our kids. Really, I’m talking to myself here. Is it just me? Am I the only one who’s ever uttered: “That manuscript is my baby.” (Note that I had not yet endured screaming twin infants when I said that.) No, I can’t be the only one. In fact, I’m pretty certain there’s a country song with that title.

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Blogging as Publishing: An Argument

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The old me is scoffing right now.

Blogging cannot be publishing, she says. (Pay no attention to the big blue “Publish…” button in the corner of the screen.)

Publishing is slow, arduous, rife with rejection, and even isolating. Publishing as a process is the painful price we pay for any kind of recognition, for standing–no matter how tenuous–among the literary community.

Blogging, on the other hand is quick-and-dirty and easy, without the arbiters of literary merit (read: editors), upon whose opinions has been built the entire modern canon of literature–fiction short and long, poetry, memoir and etc.–worth reading.

Writers as their own editors? Old me scoffs, twice.

Right? Not right?

And so there you have the schism of my train of thought as I prepare to sit on a Literary Festival panel next month to talk about–you guessed it–publishing from the writer’s perspective.

Old me is wondering if they will offer me half a chair to sit in. Maybe I’ll sit under, rather than at, the table with published authors and the like. Really, though I kid, the question remains:

Is blogging publishing?

To old me, the me that did an MFA when online literary journals were only just becoming a thing and, certainly, story and poetry submissions, were still printed and mailed (as were the rejection slips), publishing must be painful. Remember Friday nights in a library carrel with the Writer’s Market? There was no blogging anywhere on the publishing horizon then.

Literary publishing was–and largely still is–a slow process. Submitting our pieces has gotten a little quicker and easier, but the work behind it is still slow: we read, we research, we write, we read about writing, we revise, edit, revise and edit again.

The act of becoming the writer I want to be always will be a slow and arduous–even painful–process; blogging won’t undercut that.

Old me scoffs at the idea that I am the arbiter of my own work here on this blog, something of a mini-magazine. I am my own gatekeeper. I get to say what has literary merit and doesn’t (my own writing included); I review the books I like; I interview the authors I like; I can present a Rust Belt food pie chart and wax poetic about pierogies. Plus, I’d like to think this fiction writer (me) has started to find her essayist’s voice, because she (me again) was allowed the agency and space–this very blog–to do so.

I love editors (here’s looking at you, WordPress arbiters–really, you guys are great!). I love literary journals and print journals and thank my stars several editors and I have agreed that their journals and my stories would be perfect together.

But publishing doesn’t have to be defined so narrowly. Does it, old me?

So, here I go, about to hit “Publish”–because I can–to connect with as many as 713 of you, my followers. Not too shabby an audience, admits old me.

Because I haven’t said it in a while, thank you, fellow bloggers. Thank you for sharing in this awesome, insightful, global community of readers and writers and–yes–publishers.

Did my argument sway you? (I’ll let you know if it swayed old me.) Provided I have the floor (or table) for a minute or two to extol the virtues of blogging-as-publishing, what should I add?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revising is the opposite of cake

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Editing is veritable cake.

Editing ourselves might mean a trip to the hairdresser; editing our lifestyle might mean getting to bed on time; editing our house might take a can of paint. Editing a WIP means re-tooling, re-telling, and finding and following the right style guide.

But revising–really re-seeing–ourselves, our places and lifestyles, and, by extension, the stories we tell, takes much more time, energy, and lobotomy-level introspection.

Revising is the opposite of cake: not at all light and fluffy. Maybe something more like swamp muck, quicksand, or even asphalt.

Revising a WIP? My condolences. You’re in the muck of re-seeing and re-forming, struggling, hopefully, to once again resurface. Only then can you can catch your breath  to dig in again.

Me, I’m in the last, surface-y editing stage of one project and the first-draft stage of another–the former like frosting, the latter all discovery and flashes of light. (And here’s where the pastry analogy has worn thin, become too tough–ha.)

OK, back to the poor, unfortunate revising soul: to revise a WIP is an act of soul-searching, on the part of the author and the author’s characters. To revise a memoir must be a frightening process of destroying and remaking again and again one’s own image on paper. Bless you, memoirists; you are a brave lot.

I’ll lump the late Jefferson Davis in here–with memoirists, but not with the blessing. If you missed my recent post, I was reading Varina by author Charles Frazier of Cold Mountain fame. (Varina was Mrs. Jefferson Davis, first lady of the false country of the Confederate States of America during the U.S. Civil War.) In this historical novel, which explores the lives of real historical figures, there is a wonderful description of what it means to write and revise, provided by the character of Sara Dorsey.

Dorsey had been something of a writer, herself, and it’s at her home where Jefferson Davis is writing his memoirs (which, after his death, his wife ultimately revised). Dorsey describes the arduous task of writing memoirs this way:

…sitting still at a table draining memory dry to fill blank pages with strong words.

Tough enough. But then she describes revising–on the page but also on the page of history that found Jefferson Davis clearly on the side of the wrong:

…the joy of revising…which unlike life allows you to go back and rethink and make yourself better than you really are. … Even if the work comes to nothing, he will have these days to shape the past, make sense of how the runes fell against him.

Runes or no, what’s your favorite part of revising? Least favorite?

*above photo of a house seen and re-seen all at once, provided by Bill Moon of Port Clinton, Ohio–thanks, Dad!

 

 

Reading VARINA with Jesmyn

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OK, not exactly with Jesmyn (Ward, that is, the author of two National Book Award-winning novels and one of TIME‘s most influential people of the year).

Let’s back up. Varina is the latest painstakingly-researched period novel by Charles Frazier (of Cold Mountain fame); his protagonist, Varina, has the dubious–and real–historical distinction of having served as the first lady of the American Confederacy. But before she married Jefferson Davis, (who became president of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865), she was Varina Howell of Mississippi.

I was halfway through Varina, when I came upon Ward’s essay in TIME, “My True South: Why I Decided to Return Home” [to live and raise her children in her native Mississippi], introduced and excerpted at Longreads by Aaron Gilbreath.

I knew Ward and Varina would make good reading companions. And so, across vast differences–most notably, race and more than a century-and-a-half of time–two women from Mississippi meet, with me, and discuss the fractured meaning of home.

Picture the state of Mississippi, and you might conjure a grand river boat from gentile times gone by, paddle churning behind; you might as readily imagine a vast field of cotton being picked by slaves; or, you might picture the scene of a lynching. For Ward,

Mississippi is the memory America invokes whenever it wants to convince itself that racial violence and subjugation are mostly lodged in the past, that they have no space in our present moment, save in this backwoods, backward place.

Of course, we know that native places, like their people, have long memories and a long reach.

So, I’m straying from the American Rust Belt (again) to examine how Varina and Ward characterize another distinctly American place, the South they hail from: the land and legacies they (and all Americans, really) are tied to, for better and worse.

Though the American South is not in my bones, I am not wholly unqualified to join these women in this character-study of the place. I’ve never been to Mississippi, but I spent more than a decade living in Richmond, Virginia, which served as the Capital of the Confederacy. As a nineteen-year-old from Ohio, with a grasp of Civil War history that mostly came from watching Patrick Swayze in the 80s miniseries North and South, I would gain an education–inside and out of my college classrooms.

One hundred and thirty years after Richmond burned, I, like many students, lived on Monument Avenue (a residential boulevard bearing large-scale monuments of Confederate heroes, Jefferson Davis, included)–first on J.E.B. Stuart’s circle and later just off Robert E. Lee’s.* When, after a terrible summer storm, much of the city, including my sweltering apartment, was without power for more than a week, Robert E. Lee was first on the block to be back on the grid–lit up in the night like Christmas. The irony of that “enlightenment” wasn’t lost on me.

Still, Richmond was where I fell in love with American literature and found the slim canon I knew from high school stretched to include the autobiographies of slaves; up through the writers of the Harlem Renaissance; to Toni Morrison; and to my teacher, novelist Marita Golden.

Then, along that historic grassy boulevard where I lived, modern-day tennis star and humanitarian, African-American and Richmond native Arthur Ashe was memorialized with the first non-Confederate statue. And I watched the pickup trucks of skinheads descend upon Monument Avenue and circle the statue in protest, Confederate flags flying, as if their capital city had never fallen.

The novel Varina basically begins on the “Friday night before Richmond burned,” when Varina flees the “false White House and the capital city,” with a companion, Ellen, a former slave; and their children. The plan: to escape capture by the Union army by fleeing south on wagons–and living off the land, a few friends, and more strangers–first to “Floridaland,” and finally to Havana. (Here is where Frazier’s depictions of the raw Southern landscape shine.) But, escape doesn’t come easily for those so firmly in the wrong, as Varina laments.

Her recalling of her childhood in Mississippi reveals some of the most interesting facets of the novel–a novel which, though geographically and historically illuminating, doesn’t grip this reader as Frazier’s Cold Mountain and, especially, his Nightwoods did. The author writes of Varina’s (incomplete) childhood epiphany, the girl and then woman forever walking a tightrope stretched between complicity and geographical removal designed to save face:

She grew up where and when she did. [Slavery] was a given. But she began feeling the strangeness of it at about nine or ten…The sense that a strong line cut through all the people she knew…free on her side, enslaved on the other…the line between slave and free might have been only a foot across–but even then it cut deep, a bottomless chasm. Yet the only determinant of which side you occupied was a paper-thin layer a skin, a fraction of blood degree.

Would that we could say things have changed enough in 150 years, but Ward chronicles in her essay the racial aggressions–sometimes “slight and interpersonal,” sometime “deeper, systemic” that forever loom. Says Ward,

Living in the American South for generations, my family has collected so many accounts of racial terror, passed down over the decades.

And yet… when she might flee never to return, Ward goes back to her childhood home to live, because it is just that, home, for her and her children. Her depictions of the Mississippi landscape are both stifling and stunning:

…tall pines and verdant vines and lush shrubs, it was as if the very water in the air buoyed me up so I could float through the heat.

But it’s even more than her place. It’s all of this collected America in pieces. Gilbreath calls Ward’s essay, a “portrait of an entire nation,” and I would say the same for the story of Varina Howell Davis–my two reading companions, Ward and Varina, standing on opposite sides of a chasm we can only work to close through generations of building and rebuilding our best approximations of home.

Ward says,

I like to think that after I die, my children will look at that place and see a place of refuge, of rest. I hope they do not flee… Even as the South remains troubled by its past, there are people here who are fighting so it can find its way to a healthier future, never forgetting the lessons of its long, brutal history, ever present, ever instructive.

What are you reading right now? How does it inform your notion of home?

Ward’s story is part of TIME’s August 6 special issue on the American South. More from the issue here.

*Richmond’s historic avenue of Civil War monuments has not escaped controversy, which has raged from its inception in the early 20th century until now. Stay tuned.

*Image of a Mississippi wood courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

Dear Poetry…

Dear poetry,

It’s not you. Really. You’re great, if sometimes hard to read.

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Sun setting on my poetry romance (er, over Lake Erie)

OK, poetry and I were never very serious. But I want to try, try again.

Last year, a great friend (and great poet) turned me on to Marie Howe (the Stevie Nicks of poetry, am I right?) through several of Howe’s poems from her book What the Living Do and this amazing interview from On Being. I listened to that interview with Howe (the former Poet Laureate of New York) over and over, thinking, if I can “get” the poet, I can “get” the poems. She’s a woman, a mother; she was raised Catholic. Check, check, and check. I’m still working through her Magdalene, from which the poem “Magdalene–The Seven Devils” may be my fave. Do I get every single reference? Probably not? Do I still feel like a fiction writer in poet’s clothing? Sorta.

I don’t expect you to be easy, poetry. Really, I’m trying to meet you halfway here.

I recently came across the work of Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas, who grew up in Northeastern Ohio, like this girl. Check. And he had something interesting to say about writing about place:

For a lot of writers, there’s a realization: I can write about where I’m from, about what I know.

He says more in this interview here about “de-mystifying” poetry and about liking food and beer. Check and check.

I mean, we’re on the same wavelength now, poetry and me.

I’m looking forward to hearing Lucas read at the Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival. Here’s Lucas reading his poems “Midwestern Cities” and “River on Fire” from his 2012 book Weather. I’m also hoping I can get up the gumption to see if he’ll answer a few questions for the ol’ blog here!

If I imagine you in your underwear, poetry, maybe I won’t feel so unworthy.

Humor can be an entry to literature, even poetry. Right?

I saw the poet Billy Collins read several years ago. My twin boys were infants and I remember feeling so free–and literary–leaving my brand new, screaming offspring with my sleep-deprived husband to hear poetry at a downtown theater by myself. Collins is a huge deal, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, the “most popular poet in America.” Is he read by “serious” poets; I don’t know. He’s read by me. The Rain in Portugal. Come on, that’s brilliant.

Is Collins funny and wise? He was that day, as much as I needed those things, sitting alone in that theater, contemplating the senior citizens around me who’d raised their kids and made it to older age with their sanity intact, it seemed.

The poet smiled and rubbed his bald head and read poems about his cat. I like cats. Check.

Maybe I’m the one who’s easy, poetry. Let’s try again!

First poem you loved? Last poem you read? And…go!

 

Like this post? Give a girl a “share.” Thanks! ~ Rebecca

*image my own

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OH

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I have to say, I felt a little bit vindicated when reading author Lauren Groff‘s latest interview with Poets & Writers magazine (her short story collection, Florida, was released earlier this year) in which she asserts: “Florida is the biggest joke of all the states. It is the punchline to every other state’s joke.”

Oh?

That statement, itself, feels like a joke to this Cleveland, Ohio native. A quick recap for the Buckeye State-uninitiated: OH is flyover country; Cleveland is the “Mistake on the Lake”; the home team Cleveland Browns’ last season went 0 and 16. (Yep, it’s a rebuilding year–again.)

The big F-L? A “bad joke?” Even if one doesn’t dream of Disney or gets heat-hives, the Sunshine State has a lot on offer. For a girl growing up in the Snowbelt of the Rust Belt? Florida sounded like heaven.

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But into each heaven, some rain must fall. (Yep, bastardizing Longfellow now.) Stay with me.

Place is important. I’ve covered this before here and here. Writing about place is important. Writing about a conflicted place? Both sunshine and darkness?

Now, that’s interesting. Yep, Goff’s Florida is on my TBR. (Want to learn more before you buy? Bookish Beck has a short review of the story collection.)

But the push and pull of FL on the writer is not all the truth Groff has to offer in this insightful interview. Advice for the rest of us?

On collections: “I believe short story collections have to be an argument,” Groff says.

On being a writing mother and the “sexist enterprise” that is American parenting: “I had my husband sign a ten-year contract…It was about how we live…I’m a writer. I’m going to continue to be a writer. I will never be a full-time mother…”

On being a writer: “…if you’re the writer you have to take it [the above agreement] more seriously. It means you’re taking yourself seriously as an artist.”

So here I am, back at my desk, musing about place and writing and parenthood and balance and summer. When, you might ask, did this writing mother have time to read a magazine interview? On vacation, where these beautiful photos were taken in…

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OH.

Are you conflicted about your native place or the place you call home? How does place inform your reading and writing?

 

*Thanks, Dad and Ryan, for the pics!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

via The Performance of Writing: What Writers Can Learn From Elite Athletes

Rebecca here: From “low dread” to sports psych to the art and patience of practice, this guest essay featured on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog was spot-on for me. Hope it strikes a chord in you, too.

A quick story before I go–about humility and performance and the knowledge of our elders, etc., etc. My regular readers know I was a ballet dancer as a kid. It wasn’t just my thing; it was my only thing for a while, which is dangerous enough that one’s identity becomes wholly wrapped up in it. So that, when the pirouette fails, the person fails.

Anyway…about those pirouettes, I could practice and practice in a corner of the studio, sweating my proverbial balls off (sorry), but I wouldn’t entertain any other notions of practice besides putting myself in fourth position and taking off, spot, spot, spot, tight core, and land. Or fall. Or fall off pointe. Or spin out into the wall.

Before a performance of some kind, I remember my mom asking me if I ever visualized doing a perfect triple pirouette. I rolled my eyes in reply. Visualization, along with the self help-mumbo jumbo-yoga-reiki-dalai lama nonsense she’d gotten into since she got sick was just that.

Then, of course, she died (not just then, but years later) with more grace than I’d ever been able to perform with. No matter all my practice and all my sweat.

To borrow from this essay on the practice of writing, I wasn’t yet ready. I couldn’t yet plunge to the “deepest depths” for my art. My art is different now, but I think I can.

Yep, I’m ready.

Good evening and good writing and reading. Good practice–what ever that looks like for you.

What does writing practice look like for you?

Rust Belt Girl roundup for June 26, 2018

But first…a bit of inspiration (and my last reference to Amor Towles’s novel, A Gentleman in Moscow and its hero, Count Rostov–I promise–at least until the TV adaptation comes out.):

For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.

I’m adapting “acclaim” for my uses, loosely here. And “venture” in the creative vein. (No bungee jumping or sky-diving for me.)

Here’s the thing…recently, funny mom blogger extraordinaire, Becca, from With Love and a Little Self-Deprecation, got me to thinking, when she asked of herself a question I’m asking myself, this week. When was the last time I did something brave?

Not just something required that was maybe a tad-bit outside of my wheelhouse (to use  my fave maritime-inspired jargon). No, something that required guts.

Guts I’ve got when it comes to my kids. (Ask any mom.) Birth twins sans drugs–sure, got that… Forget my introversion (and the book I’m dying to read!) to introduce my toddlers to fellow toddlers on the playground–because, go figure, humans aren’t born knowing how to make introductions… Stick up for my kids when confronted by bullies… Overcome elementary math phobia to become a math club coach to teach kids that math is cool. Done, done, and done. Brave-ish Mom strikes and strikes again.

Now, can I be brave for myself? And can I be brave, when there’s no paycheck attached to it, when I’m the only one relying on me? Can I be creative-brave?

OK, let me back up to say that one reason I’m a writer is that I’m a nervous public speaker–and sometimes even not-so-public speaker. I’m just better on paper (you’re welcome). It’s one reason that I have five times the number of WordPress followers as FB friends.

And, funny thing, I taught freshman and sophomore-level college composition courses (yea, essays!) throughout my MFA, but teaching is different than speaking. Reading is different, too, if still a little scary. (Best done in a closet, as I was when I recorded my story, “Recruit.”) Reading my work before a group, letting my “weird” accent hang out–this I haven’t done in a while.

So, on my gutsy creative to-do list, this week: send my first, long-awaited literary agent query (first stop on the publishing road map) for my behemoth historical novel manuscript; and, even more to the bravery point, apply to present at a fall literary festival in my home state of Ohio, where much of my short fiction is set. This is new literary territory for me.

Part of my nervousness is due to the fact that to present at this festival really will be going home, and there’s a fear that I will be looked at as an outsider. (After so many years south of the Mason Dixon, I do say “ya’ll,” after all.)

Still, I’m going to submit my proposal. Worst thing that can happen is that they say no. Second worse, they say yes, and then I need to start stewing with nerves until September!

So, help a girl out, readers and writers:

Ever been to a literary festival? What do you look for (besides free books–yeah, I’m with you there)? What do you want to hear? Learn? I have no wares to hawk, no tsotchkes to share. It’s just me. And, in the immortal brand slogan of L’Oreal and imitator memes everywhere, I’m worth it.

I hope.

What’s on your gutsy creative to-do list this week?

 

 

 

 

In praise of twice-tolling timepieces and other miracles of invention: reading A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

My powers of observation are not so keen that I’m going to brave the very crowded depths of reviews of A Gentleman in Moscow. (Want to read my reviews, I’ve got a whole category, above.)

Let’s just agree that Amor Towles’s second novel is a modern masterpiece, shall we? If you are one of the four people on the planet who haven’t read or at least heard about this story of Count Alexander Rostov, here’s a brief intro (from the jacket copy):

When, in 1922, the thirty-year-old Count is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin…the [erudite and witty] Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry to a much larger world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships…

Basically, drama, relationships, and meaningful meditations ensue. Just read this novel about the Russian soul–its art, history, toil, treasures, and catastrophes. (And be sure to watch the best novel trailer I’ve ever seen at Towles’s website, above.)

Just as this former kid ballet dancer (me) can’t watch a ballet without my feet twitching,  my calves contracting, my back straightening, and my head lilting this way and that with those on stage, I can’t read a book without wondering how?

But here’s not the place for a deep-dive into craft. I simply want to note a few miracles of invention in A Gentleman… and provide a word of caution to the dutifully outlining and character backstory-charting new(er) writers out there.

An image of note: the Count’s twice-tolling clock is much more than a clock that tells time by tolling only at noon and at midnight. It provides a mechanism to discuss industriousness, for Towles to tell us of the Count’s father, who had the clock made because a man (of a certain class, time, and place) should be too busy with work to heed the chimes between waking and noon. And by noon, having had an industrious morning, a man should then leave his work to commune with others. Should he hear the midnight chime, he is too late to bed. And the replete uses for this image are only beginning…

Description of note: readers come to a book like this expecting description befitting its learned main character. Towles delivers, but fear not, he doesn’t (like in real Russian novels) let his pacing lag in many-paged sections of description. No, his descriptions are just as clippy and cutting as his dialogue.

Take the goose chase section (trust me), a funny and farcical bit that brings together in a hotel hallway a melange of worldly guests: two French journalists, a Swiss diplomat, three Uzbek fur traders, a representative of the Roman Catholic Church, a Russian opera tenor with his family of five, and an American general. (All that’s missing is a partridge you know where, but then we do have geese!) Each becomes a character–and a caricature in the Count’s eyes–in the briefest of scenes, thanks to Towles’s powers of description. The ambassador from the Vatican advised; the Swiss diplomat heard the Russian and the Italian out, mouth shut; the tenor, “who spoke only a few words of Italian, informed the prelate (fortissimo) that he was not a man to be toyed with.” The American general, from “The Great State of Texas” took charge and threw the geese out the window.

A sleight of hand (and humor) of note: recently I read a wonderfully-informative and instructive piece on Brevity‘s nonfiction blog, “The Sound of a Memoir,” about shying away from using song lyrics in our writing (whether fiction or nonfiction). Practically-speaking, citing song lyrics (titles are OK) can be an expensive endeavor–if a writer manages to get permission to use them. Creatively-speaking, there are better ways to note a song in a story–to provide a bit of soundtrack to a piece, to get the reader’s foot tapping and put him or her in mind of a certain time when that song said so much! (If you now, as I do, have Elton John’s “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” in your head, you’re welcome.)

Back to Towles’s mastery: In A Gentleman… the author artfully explores the passing of time and trends, in one part commenting on jazz music. In not one but a few places the author has the Count muse about the popular jazz tune that speaks of a distinct absence of bananas, a lack of bananas, for want of bananas… You get the idea. Anyone who hasn’t lived his entire life in a cave knows the song is Louis Prima’s “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” (hear the song here) but by not citing even the title, the reference becomes more than a song but a clever running joke.

All that’s to gush, yes, and also to provide a word of caution to the new(er) writers out there looking for the keys–not only to plot but to imagery and motifs, the characterization and quirks–that make a piece of writing beautiful. How to make these little miracles happen on the page? If I knew, I would be doing it, right now. But I think one of the keys to being a great writer is being a great reader. Another is to trust your mind to make the miracles as you go. Call it a state of flow or the (ahem) muse catching you by the hand, whatever, but writing is more about writing than planning. (OK, you caught me; I’m a panster.)

Yes, you can plan for plot. Outline all you like. Get a sense of your characters before diving in. But can you plan for the clever bits, the brilliant tropes and descriptors and “bananas” that make a piece sing, I’m not so sure.

What do you think? What miracles of invention have you encountered thus far in your summer reads? I’d love to hear from you!

 

*I grabbed the American and UK cover (which I prefer) images from Goodreads.