Monday, December 26, 2011

Unraveling the Tapestry - The Trouble With Endings

For the past two weeks, I've been working on the ending arc in revisions for my novel THE SPARROW'S SECRET HEART.  It used to be an ending, but the old ending no longer fit. So it devolved into a hodge-podge of thematic ideas, key scenes, and placeholders strung together with notes.  Then, last week, with the freedom of winter break, I managed to come up with a collection of finished chapters.  But they didn't feel right.  I couldn't put my finger on the problem.

Lucky for me, my critique group met in spite of it being Christmas Eve, and I got some great input about the order of events and other key issues.  I left feeling wonderfully inspired.  Christmas was a non-writing day.  Even I knew there was no point tackling anything then.  But this morning, I was back at it and worked my way through the feedback from my group.  The result?  I've completely unraveled what I had and I'm back to a collection of scenes, notes, and thematic elements with missing links and placeholders.  Aaargh!  My intellect recognizes this was a necessary step to achieve my greater goal.  Some other part of me hates this feeling of going backward to move forward.

This process got me thinking about Penelope, Odysseus' long-suffering wife in Homer's ODYSSEY.  To put off the hordes of suitors clamoring to snatch her up, Penelope promises to remarry when she finishes the tapestry she's working on.  But she doesn't want to remarry.  Supposedly, she is so faithful, she believes Odysseus is alive and will return.  So, every night, she unravels the tapestry that she wove during the day.

I've always accepted this tale on face value - a clever way to get around her own vow, extracted under duress, while remaining faithful to her husband.  But today, I find myself contemplating Penelope the Artist.  She's been working on this damn tapestry for twenty years, but she willingly puts off its completion. Some part of her must have rebelled at the intentional destruction of her own artistic creation.  How did that feel?  Was she ever tempted to say "the hell with it - I just want to finish the damn thing"?

A writer's relationship with the completion of a novel has some similarities.  We know that once we finish, we have to say goodbye to the story and the characters that have been our faithful companions.  There's some grief and loss connected to that.  So, sometimes, we actually sabotage our own efforts at an ending, unraveling things just to put off the inevitable.  On the other hand, there are times when the unraveling is simply a necessary evil in the process of getting the right ending.  We don't want to end up with one of those annoying, if conveniently present, suitors that keep banging at the door demanding we just draw things to a conclusion.  No.  We want to remain faithful to the spirit of our novel, to our future readers, to the deeper themes of our work.  We want the right ending, even if it means unraveling our work night after night.

Tonight, I'll drink a toast to Penelope the Artist.  And then, tomorrow, I'll get back to work reweaving the tapestry of my ending, until I get it right.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hooray for Fellow Margin-Scribblers

The other day, there was an essay in THE OREGONIAN by Douglas Yocum decrying the tendency to write in books and insisting people should cease and desist, that it ruined the books for future owners and for sales.  I felt sad when I read it.  I disagreed.  Today, I rejoice because it is clear I was not alone.  Three letters to the editor and two columns in the Sunday book section (one by writer Natalie Berber and the other by teacher-writer Tim Gillespie) all responded to that essay, and all with variations on my own feelings.

Notes in the margins are a way to take part in the great cross-spatial, cross-temporal conversation that is the written word.  When you write and highlight and underline in your books, you are interacting with the text, giving it the kind of life it was meant to have.  For no written text can fully exist without a reader, any more than a play can fully exist without an audience.  The only exception to this "go-ahead-and scribble", of course, is books that don't belong to you - school textbooks, library books, books borrowed from a friend.

If someone else wrote in a book I now own, it gives that book life and history.  It widens the conversation.  It connects me, in a mysterious and particular way, to that unseen hand that scribbled the notes or highlighted the words.

I remember in high school coming upon a copy of a small collection of Persian tales that had belonged to my father.  All sorts of notes, reactions and responses were furiously scribbled in the margins and the pages and the inside cover.  It gave me a special kind of insight into my father's inner world, a gift I wouldn't trade for a million pristine copies of that same book.

I've just begun rereading WUTHERING HEIGHTS.  Some of the earliest clues to the real story of Cathy and Heathcliff are uncovered by the narrator through Cathy's scribblings inside her books. The narrator's relationship with Cathy's old books invites us, the reader, to interact with his tale as well.

I rejoice in knowing that there are so many book lovers like me, folks who understand the literary equivalent of the story of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT.  If I ever manage to get one of my books published, I hope it will be as well-loved as the Skin Horse in that tale, dog-eared, with coffee-stains and bookmarks and scribblings inside.  I must confess, I doubt that digital texts, no matter what their affordability or convenience, will ever receive that same kind of love.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Change Over Time Part 2 - Rereading Jane Austen

A while back I wrote about the different lens through which we view stories depending on the time of life in which we read them.  I mentioned rereading OLIVER TWIST at that time and promised to take on Jane Austen next.  Well, as predicted, Ms. Austen's work makes a lot more sense to me now, at age 45, than it did when I was in high school.  Not exactly a big surprise.

Specifically, I am rereading PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.  Now, I must confess, the beautifully spot-on adaptation featuring Colin Firth, which my husband and I have watched several times, has perhaps enabled me to catch some of the nuances in the book that might still have escaped me even now.  However, I honestly believe the bulk of my increased appreciation of the humor and social commentary in the story comes from the heightened perceptions and insight that only age can provide.

This leads me to wonder why on earth we persist in assigning such books to read when people are too young to really appreciate them.  In fairness, perhaps there are many of you who became ardent admirers of Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy or D.H. Lawrence or Herman Melville at the tender age of 15.  I wonder, however, if that came about after reading them as assignments or after finding them on your own.

Even in college, so much of what I read became a massive swirling mishmash of ideas, whereas the same sorts of classic literature, explored on my own at my own pace with my own personal purposes AFTER college, resulted in deep insights and a lifetime love of those authors.  That is how I fell in love with Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy, DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, e.e.cummings, and many more.

Are there works of classic literature that, like fine wines, should not be served before their time?

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