To Write or Not To Write?

How can I put into perspective how difficult I find the practice of writing a novel? Words with purpose. Sentences that express some truth. Scenes that join thwritinge dots.

I don’t know?

At times, I feel my attempts at writing a novel may be the hardest thing I’ll ever do. Harder than maintaining the two most important relationships of my life (my wife and my son)? Harder than continually challenging myself and developing my career in the hospitality industry? Harder than simply being a person on this planet at this moment in time?

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, I think, so hard, too hard, the skills required to write a novel that holds together from beginning, through the muddle to the end.

Other times, I’m harsh with myself – ‘First world problems, man.’ I have a good job. I have a loving family. I have a roof over my head and food in the pantry. I am living in the most abundant era ever. I lack for nothing.

And so, yeah, I could give up writing. Why should I struggle so much? I could choose not to face the keyboard and blank page-on-screen every morning. Who needs that 5.15am alarm?

Viggo-Mortensen-in-Good-007

Seriously, 5.15am. It’s dark when I get up and it’s still dark when I finish writing at 6.15am. There’s no audience. There’s no pat on the back. There’s no-one there to say, ‘Good job, dude. Love your work!’

There’s just me, my practice and this tornado inside of me that demands I continue to ‘Show Up’.

So, giving up, chnew-crescent-2.jpgoosing not to write is an option. Of course it is.

But that won’t stop the feeling inside that needs an outlet for the ideas that are always swirling around my head. They won’t go away. They’ve flowed through me like tributaries trickling from the
mountaintop down into the valley where the river masses and swells my whole life.

As a writer I’m trying to navigate these waterways. Trying to craft my voice, my style, my unique and sincere self through the stories I want to tell.

And this is hard for me. Almost every day, in some way, I struggle with how best to communicate my literary ideas through story. Often, I feel like I’m failing. Sometimes, I have some positive self-talk: ‘Keep turning up, Ken. Keeping working the problem through showing your dedication to your characters, your story and your practice.’

Other times, most times, I’m not so gentle and generous. One day I may finish a novel that ends up somewhere near where I want it to. I really hope for the day. And as best I can, I will fight my corner. I will continue to show up, because while my confidence waxes and wanes, the urge to tell stories and write never does.

Narcotics, love, and Colombia: An interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee (2014 IPPY Gold Medal Award winner) talks to Heather Vasquez from the University of Central Florida about her new novel, Juventud.

Juventud tells the story of young Mercedes Martinez, who seeks the truth about her father, Deigo, a wealthy Colombian sugarcane plantation owner with narcotrafficking ties. When she falls in love with Manuel, a fiery young activist with a passion for his faith and his country, she awakens to the suffering of the desplazados who share her land. Following one tragic night, Mercedes flees Colombia for the United States to a life she never could have imagined. Fifteen years later, she returns to Colombia seeking the truth, but discovers that only more questions await.

Headshot_Vanessa Blakeslee

In the acknowledgments, you mention that the story of Juventud began at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. What inspired you to place the story in that specific time period in those places?

Fiction isn’t born in a vacuum. The initial inspiration for Juventud had struck me in college. One night I sat among a group of young women, all of us sharing stories about our first loves. One of them, an international student from Colombia, told us that her first boyfriend had been killed—shot to death by a masked gunman in a nightclub. We listened, riveted, as she described how he died in her arms at sixteen. But even more disturbing was her admission that she couldn’t be sure, but she suspected her father might have arranged for the young man to be killed—the father hadn’t approved of their relationship, and was determined for his daughter to leave Colombia and finish her education in the United States. Oddly enough, she admitted that in time she’d come to see how her father’s reasoning was correct even if his methods were not. Had she stayed in Colombia, married the young man and not sought a higher degree at a well-reputed school, her life would have turned out much differently—her opportunities and worldview greatly limited.

The student and I didn’t stay in touch. But her story haunted me—the lover’s bloody end on the nightclub floor, the father’s insistence that she find a better life in the US. For her to even suspect her father of carrying out such a ghastly deed—what must this man be like, and how did she maintain a relationship with her father, if at all? For years the questions simmered in my imagination before I put a word to paper. But I finally did, in my first semester at Vermont College, and a voice emerged. My professor urged me to explore where it might lead. That voice belonged to Mercedes.

 

How did the place and time influence the story?

In studying the sociopolitical events of 1990s Colombia, a certain period of tumultuous unrest in early 1999 caught my attention, in the southern city of Santiago de Cali. This, then, was the backdrop that I inevitably had to set the dramatic questions against, for the personal conflicts of the characters to emerge from place and resound thematically. So from early on I had a distinct vision that I was striving to capture.

At first, Google searches and Wikipedia sufficed to lay the broad strokes. I chose Santiago de Cali as a backdrop—a lesser-known, southern city and hotbed of violence in the late 1990s. As I turned up more websites about human rights, guerilla activity, and so forth, I uncovered a series of events in early 1999 that ideally worked as a backdrop to propel the characters’ motivations—the ELN’s hijacking of an Avianca passenger plane, the surge in threats, bombings, and assassinations of public figures and peace advocates including humorist Jaime Garzón and later, Archbishop Duarte. I ended up condensing the timeline of Part One to a specific five months.

From early on in the process, I understood that I had to include the Church if I was going to be true to the time and place. Colombia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country; the very philosophy behind the guerilla movements in South America is that of Marxist Liberation theology. This ideology interprets the Christian faith from the perspective of the poor, and in the early days of the guerilla movements, the 1950s and 60s, the members adopted Marxist teachings in their advocacy for social justice. When I came across the ELN revolutionaries kidnapping the congregation of La Maria Church in a wealthy district of Cali, I knew this had to affect my characters somehow. La Maria Juventud and its leaders, Emilio and his impassioned brother Manuel, were born.

 

Juventud_CoverThere are specific details about Colombia, FARC, and the ELN. You mention sources you used to in your acknowledgements. While you were researching, what information and facts were you most surprised to learn about?

The most surprising and disturbing facts I learned concerned the paramilitary atrocities of the 90s and early 2000s. In the US, we have been led to believe that the FARC and ELN guerillas were the most brutal forces to contend with, the “enemy” so to speak – when in fact the “paras” carried out just as many terrorist tactics, if not the majority. Yet the mainstream media remains silent on these privately-funded, unofficial “armies” who carry out the dirty work of politicians, the wealthy and multinational corporations against the poor. I was also keenly aware that many Americans have a cursory, if erroneous, understanding of the conflict in Colombia, gleaned from sound bites they’ve picked up about the drug war, cartels, maybe the FARC, but little else. In Juventud, even though the characters are fictitious, Manuel’s idealism, Diego’s protectiveness, and Mercedes’ suspicions are all informed by real events.

 

What else did you do to learn more about Colombia? Did this influence you on a personal level? For example, do you now have a favorite Colombian food?

In addition to academic texts, I consulted primary resources: online footage of peace marches in Colombia in 1999, news articles from that year, archived interviews with notorious paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño Gil from before his death in 2004. These placed me even more fully in 1990s Colombia. On a personal level, I was also in the midst of shifting away from the fervent Catholicism I’d been practicing in my mid-twenties because I couldn’t reconcile my personal stance on women’s and gay rights with the Church’s doctrine, but found myself reluctant when it came to Catholicism’s stance on social justice—a cornerstone that I believe Christianity, but especially Catholicism, very much gets right. I’m a huge proponent of “faith in action,” in that respect—the only way spiritual principles make sense to me is if they are lived out in practice. Otherwise, what’s the point?

When the time came to title the book, the editors and I decided on Juventud, which translates to “youth” in Spanish. “Juventud” speaks to our tendency in youth to see the world in black-and-white rather than shades of grey. But it also captures the ongoing humanitarian crises in South and Central America—the tens of thousands of children illegally crossing the US border and the drug-related massacre of 43 students in Mexico in 2014, even as the Colombian government and the FARC move toward a lasting peace. Fiction can show readers how events effect people like Mercedes, Manuel, and Diego, in ways that a news article can’t.

As for food, you can’t beat a homemade arepa.

 

How did your research influence the story? Did you make changes to what you had planned as your learned more about Colombia?

Research largely shaped the story, especially early on, and while I don’t feel that I over-researched, there was a lot of material that ended up getting cut. For instance, I knew Diego Martinez had to be complex and not just a one-dimensional villain, so I needed him to have a legitimate occupation but with room for some shady activities to go on. I guessed he might own a plantation, and I researched the agriculture of the Valle de Cauca region. Growing sugarcane was a perfect fit. In research, some of what you learn informs the narrative directly—for instance, in the scene when Mercedes first accompanies Diego to their cane fields and he partly confesses; there she briefly describes his farming operation. But often, a lot ends up on the cutting room floor. I’ve spent more hours than I like to admit watching YouTube videos of alpaca shearing, only to have scrapped those sections.

At one point, in trying to figuring out what would lure an adult Mercedes back to confront the individuals from her past, and mainly Papi, I tried to write a parallel plotline of her as an FBI agent. I read the official FBI training manual, researched different possible career paths for her—embassy police, DEA—all of which felt out of my purview and ability to pull off convincingly. I wrote about a hundred pages, all of them horribly weak. And in the end my research revealed that for someone with Mercedes’ background, having any ties at all to a family member who’d been involved in narco-trafficking, even if she wasn’t herself, would have eliminated the possibility of her having any kind of U.S. government career with top-secret clearance. So that steered me toward making her more of a scholarly expert and researcher who ends up doing more of what I’ll dub, “the D.C. bounce-around”—working in government for a time and then the private sector, in this case, finding her way into journalism.

But that failure wasn’t for naught—I ended up mentioning that this was why she didn’t end up someplace like the FBI, and the research on top secret agencies and their joint task force operations with other nations’ special forces units certainly helped when it came time to build Asaf’s character swiftly and effectively. So I’m afraid mostly the alpacas lost out!

 

There are influences of the Catholic and Jewish faith in Mercedes’ life. How would the story have changed if she didn’t have those? 

The novel would be enormously different, absent of the religious context—I suppose I might have invented a way for Manuel to lead a secular human rights’ organization. I imagine I’d have mined the thread of the desplazados more, or the narcotrafficking, rather than touch on the sexual coming-of-age and women’s rights subplot. But leaving out the Catholicism, certainly, wouldn’t feel true to the culture nor historical fact. The Church has very much been involved in all facets of Colombia’s civil war—civilian and guerilla.

The Catholicism created a conduit for me to bring in the Jewish thread to the book—I’m always looking how to complicate threads further to create more contrast and meaning. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, if her mother is not only American but Jewish, and if her mother is on an identity-quest of her own, and if Mercedes eventually goes to visit her in Israel? And then we have the contrast between another decades-long conflict, that of Israel and Palestine, and the Colombian civil war. So in the latter half the book expands outward to reflect not just the issues of social justice and violence in South America, but the global conflicts still raging today. The common ground between Judaism and Christianity is unearthed, but also the divide between the religious and secular. Not to mention the resonance of what Mercedes has escaped from, after she learns the history of her maternal Jewish family prior to World War II.

I suppose I also could have structured the narrative differently—say, three third-person narratives, one following Mercedes, the others following Manuel and Diego—but I was more interested in Mercedes as an embodiment of the global citizen of today, the highly-educated Millennial who inhabits several different identities and cultures, and how she navigates the paths available to her. Education and access to birth control are enabling women around the world to make strides and command their destinies for the first time in human history; I found myself more invested in giving a female protagonist full rein, seeing how her roots in a conflicted country leave their imprint on her emotionally as she otherwise achieves success.

Mercedes’ story is ultimately about how our perceptions very much shape our desires and decisions, not always to our own best interest. Inevitably we are molded and driven by what happens to us in our youth and how we perceive those events, a perspective which is limited and therefore flawed, yet unbeknownst to us at the time, and often for many years afterward. Through Mercedes, the novel reveals how we grapple to make sense of these formative individual experiences – and how as adults, we have the opportunity and means to gain clarity, responsibility, and forgiveness, and ultimately understand and transcend our past even if it will always remain part of us.

 

Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut story collection, Train Shots, won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction, was long-listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and has been optioned for a feature film. Blakeslee’s writing has appeared in the Green Mountains ReviewSouthern Review, the Paris Review Daily, the Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among others.

Juventud is available for purchase from Curbside Splendor Publishing.

 

 

The Labyrinth is Thoroughly Known

2013-04-10-labyrinth

Last week I got a bit academic on you and started down this road of form and structure, and what it means to readers and writers and so on. The reason for this dialectic digression stems from my own exploration of the concepts of form over the past few months while I have been structurally editing my manuscript. As anyone who has ever done this knows, ideas of form are integral to the structural process.

I began last week by underlining the fact that ‘form’ as a concept is incredibly complex and a multifaceted term that at different points in one discourse may refer to genre, style, format or structure, or something else altogether. Indeed, ‘form’ often refers to a combination of all these things within the cultural connotations that society has built up over a good few thousand years of literary and narrative art, since well before Aristotle’s Poetics first tried to categorise and define these ideas.

Not only do these concepts of form span history, but they also span ethnicity. While world cultures vary in language, customs, religion and social structures, the ideas of form within storytelling seem yet to transcend even these vast diversities (Let’s pause for a moment and wonder at the incredible global unity that is created by the sharing and telling of stories, and how we have come to be at this moment in time as a result of the many ages and cultures that have come before).

So form is complex, yet it is also timeless. It’s difficult to define, and yet a firm grasp of form can provide an author with a necessary framework to build or remodel a work of narrative art. This is why so many literary courses deal weightily with the study of form. It not only informs our reception and criticism of narrative work, but also the way in which we construct it.

Last week I proposed we look at some theories of form that have emerged over the past fifty years or so, since the advent of Modernism combined with massive industrial and technological progress opened the world up to a greater consumption of and formal interest in literature. In the 1950s there unfolded a rebirth of literary academics, and therefore a new progression of philosophical schools of thought about the subject. Here we shall touch on only a few, but at least some of the most important theories that shape how we currently think about structure and story.

Northrop Frye

Last week I pointed you in the direction of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism as a foundational academic work that paved the way for all modern concepts of form. Frye was labeled a ‘structuralist’ (as opposed to the post-structuralists that came later) because his theories were founded on the idea of certain concrete and universal frameworks of story.

Don’t be discouraged if you began to drift halfway through Frye’s ‘Polemical Introduction’ and gave up before you even started on the first essay. Frye is considered by many to be the most important theorist on Western literature to have existed in the past fifty years. So his work is necessarily detailed and extremely thorough.

Here’s the general idea about Frye:

  • He was one of the first literary theorists to develop a theory of criticism solely based within the framework of literature itself, instead of applying theories of criticism from other fields of study, as everyone else was doing at the time.
  • This meant he studied the works themselves and developed a theory based on content and communicative ability instead of the whims of literary trends and personal taste.
  • As a student of Aristotle, he based his analysis of literature on the elements identified in the Poetics.
  • By interrogating the substance of great works of literature, he surmised that literature has a general tendency to rely on primitive formulas.
  • He developed a four-fold scope of analysis that was inherently cyclical, that is, took cues from the progressive and atmospheric change of natural seasons, the ages of man, and the progress of history.
  • This is where his famous theory of seasons comes from, where each season corresponds to an archetype of story: comedy, romance, tragedy and satire.
  • He argued that myth and literature are codependent, as literature is merely a means for a society to reinterpret and revoice myths that are central to its foundation and development.
  • His theories focus on the way in which these myths are retold.

In summary, Frye was a genius. In order to really understand his work you need to read it, but short of that try Wikipedia’s summary or this rather helpful slideshow. Basically, he discovered that within certain combinations of foundational elements, all the variety of world literature takes life, much like the twelve tones of music, transmuted through differences of register, metre, rhythm and timbre, form the basis of all the musical works of the world.

Essentially, he found that literature is about telling the same stories in an infinite number of different ways.

Joseph Campbell

Campbell takes this concept of central story archetype one step further in his seminal work, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, from which the theory of monomyth, or The Hero’s Journey, is derived. Campbell was a scholar of legends and world religion and his work points to the same conclusions as Frye regarding literature and narrative being simply the retelling of myths. However Campbell goes on to decide that all stories can be traced back to a single myth, irrespective of time, place or culture: the transformative myth of the hero.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_(1891)

Here’s where we can get less abstract and more concrete about form, specifically how it applies to narrative structure. While Campbell’s work was also complex and expansive, he was very adept at applying his theories to modern stories, not just literature but film as well. Add to that a fantastic way with words and ideas, and you quickly see why this guy became so important to contemporary story theory.

Campbell’s work is much more accessible for non-academics than Frye’s so I recommend a full read. However, this series of interviews with Bill Moyers provides a comprehensive and entertaining summary of his ideas, beginning with this fantastic quote from The Hero with A Thousand Faces:

We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the heropath. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

Here’s the Campbell overview:

  • Through extensive comparative research of myths and legends throughout the world he developed a theory that all stories centre on a hero completing a transformative quest.
  • He defines a hero as someone who has found or achieved or done something greater than the norm; who has risked himself for the benefit of others.
  • Like Frye, Campbell discovered that story was cyclical, specifically formed by a going and a return.
  • The basic motif is that of leaving one condition and finding a source of strength or change in order to bring the hero into another, more mature or advanced condition.
  • All stories are based on the objective of saving something: a people, a race, a person, an object, an ideal; and of the hero sacrificing something in order to achieve that salvation.

Have a quick search around the internet and you will find countless diagrams of the hero’s journey and pictorial depictions of Campbell’s work. You will also find a lot more information on the ideas that have come from his writings, specifically the monomyth, but also the structures of initiation rituals and coming-of-age stories as they tie in to the hero’s journey.

In summary, Campbell found that all stories can be traced back to the idea of a transformative quest, that of sacrificing one state for another in order to benefit an external cause.

So…

You may not agree with the above ideas, in which case you would be more interested in the schools of deconstructionism and post-structuralism which became very popular when meta-thinking was all the rage, and was probably what dominated most literary corridors when you were at university (and no doubt still does). Next week we’ll touch briefly on these thoughts, and consider why, after all that, we keep on coming back to this inescapable idea that there is nothing new under the sun except the way in which we colour things.

Is the labyrinth thoroughly known? Or is it impossible to ever know?

Perhaps therein lie two sides of the same coin.

 

Elise Janes

 

The Many Forms of Form

Literature and philosophy have been inseparably entwined in the thoughts of humankind since we first had such thoughts about such things. Almost all our modern thinking about narrative structure and form has its foundations, at least in part, in Aristotle’s famous examination of story, Poetics, which itself was a product of centuries of development of dramatic art and narrative experimentation.

school of athens

The stories we tell have impact far beyond narrative content and plot elements such as character, place and time. Indeed the way we say something is just as important as what we are saying when it comes to the influence and interpretation of meaning in narrative art.

Form is a many-faceted concept for just this reason. When we try to list form or define it in some way, we inevitably find a myriad of cross-overs between other literary elements, most particularly structure and genre (even Wikipedia has trouble). These techniques and concepts become indelibly linked in our cultural consciousness as a byproduct of the way we develop certain constructions around certain types of stories.

Literature can be said to be divided into the grand dichotomy of poetry and prose. But even there we have problems when we start to identify the way in which these two literary metrics can be presented.

Then we may try to list the grand narrative media in an exhaustive and mutually exclusive list of constructs, from longer narratives:

  • Novel
  • Epic poem
  • Drama

To shorter narratives:

  • Poem
  • Novella
  • Short story
  • Vignette
  • Legend
  • Myth
  • Folk tale

And then we should consider the performative arts who often have their own distinct formal constructs:

  • Theatre
  • Film
  • Song

And then we ask, should dance be included or is it non-literary, even though it is also a narrative form?

Then consider informative texts. Do they have their own structural conceits? Do they classify as separate forms of writing?

  • Historical novels
  • Literary non-fiction
  • Biography and autobiography
  • Documentary
  • News
  • Persuasive arguments
  • Thesis & analysis

What about functionality and purpose? Does that play into the divisions of form?

  • Fairy tales
  • Morality tales
  • Teaching parables
  • Analogy & symbology

And of course broad-spectrum genre is a major form qualifier:

  • Fantasy
  • Epic
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Drama
  • Quest

And the many derivative narrative structures that have sprung up over the most recent decades as technology plays into the way we communicate our stories to each other:

  • Blogs
  • Forums
  • Music videos
  • Short films
  • Tweets
  • Status updates
  • Flash fiction
  • Vines

All of these forms, from the grand multi-volume works to the one-hundred and forty characters, have intricately linked cultural associations attached to the way they are presented. A play in the Shakespearean style may have five acts, employ poetic metre, follow the conventions of tragedy or comedy, and even include songs and musical numbers. A fantasy narrative may take the form of either a multi-volume novel or an epic poem, media themselves bound in pre-conceived structural nuance, employing well-rehearsed act-divisions and conventional literary techniques such as catalogue, dialogue, monologue, and even deeper formative layers of allusion to legend and myth.

Narrative form as a classifiable entity came under specific academic study in the 1950s, after the great revolutions of the Modernist period threw all previous conventional understandings of form into flux. Since then several schools of thought have sought to demystify the question of form for philosophical and technical reasons, in aid of both the audience and the auteur.

Clearly this is a topic too vast for one discussion, or even one series of discussions. So over the coming weeks we will explore the modern concepts of form and structure and how they apply to narrative art in contemporary practice, examining the theories of narrative form developed since the 1950s. We will touch briefly on the works of structuralists such as Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye, to that of post-strcuturalists like Michel Foucault and then on into the most recent decades where the advent of screen culture has brought about the revival of the oldest known form of story-telling, the ubiquitous and oft-bemoaned three-act narrative.

To get yourself started, have a look at the seasonal myth theory of Northrop Frye and then this brilliant introduction to Joseph Campbell’s hero narrative.

Look close enough and you will see these monomythic stories everywhere, leaving us to wonder whether there are a myriad of different forms as diverse and nuanced as life itself, or if there is really only one true story, told over and over again in many different guises, tracing back over all narratives since the beginning of time.

 

Elise Janes

 

Whose voice is whose?

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, "Voice Array, Subsculpture 13", 2011. "Recorders", Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2011. Photo by: Antimodular Research

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Voice Array, Subsculpture 13”, 2011. “Recorders”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2011. Photo by: Antimodular Research

Writers have a platform. A platform is a voice. Voice is influence.

Whether your audience is one or one million, what you say (and the way you say it) has lasting impact, not only in the minds of those who consume it firsthand but also as a fleck on the wider canvas of cultural commentary.

We live in an age immensely conscious of voice, arguably more so than any era that has come before. This is the time of struggle for equality; of wrestling out the vast complexities of privilege and poverty, the established and the transient, the dominating and the dominated.

As such the concept of voice is under greater debate now than ever before. This creates a vast shifting tension between points of difference, as we dig deeper to unveil the true core of the conundrum of inequality.

What is privilege? What does it mean to be represented, faithfully or otherwise? Who has the right to tell what stories and how? These are questions shaping the way we engage with narrative of all kinds, moulding the way writers write and readers read.

At the National Writers’ Conference in Melbourne last year, two authors sat on a panel titled “Voices on a Page”, both young; one female, one male. One Arab-Australian the other Anglo-Australian. One spoke about dialogue and the other about rights. Even with only two artists weighing in on the topic, various and completely alternate interpretations of ‘voice’ were explored.

The discussion about privilege took precedent, eliciting the strongest emotional reactions from the panelists and the audience. It became clear that one writer was writing with the mission to proclaim identity and while the other wrote to explore it. Questions of narrative ‘rights’ and responsibilities became heated, not just between the panelists but between audience members as well. There was a point where I glanced around to make sure an exit was nearby, in case things got out of hand.

Now, riot-inducing panel sessions are not something we expect from writing conferences these days (though maybe we should) as people tend to steer clear of these raw issues for lack of a concrete grasp of their own thoughts. Because when we burrow down through the politically correct lingo and vitriol, we must ask ourselves, and each other, what we really mean by terms like ‘privilege’, ‘rights’ and ‘identity’. After all, whose voice is whose?

One author went as far as to say we are not entitled to write from any voice except our own, that when we try to interpret the world of others, we undermine their authenticity.

Do you agree?

The other emphasised the scope available to writers in observing and understanding other worlds and other voices, in interpreting them through the multifaceted lens of society and in doing so exploring alternate perceptions.

Again it comes down to this concept of representation, a topic I explored in greater depth in this article about Patricia Arquette’s now-infamous Oscar speech.

While I agree that representation should be wider spread, I believe this is a fundamentally complex issue that is only just now beginning to unfold and take shape. If we are not open to other perspectives on our own voice I fear we miss a significant aspect of what it means to be part of a diverse community, finding our own identity within the wider collage of lives and voices that make up our society.

Writing, in its essence, is art. Art is not only life, it is the lens that enables us to see ourselves from angles we can’t reach on our own.

Could Vladimir Nabokov write from Humbert Humbert’s eyes without being a pedophile? Could Leo Tolstoy write Anna Karenina’s without being a rich society girl? Could J. K. Rowling write the voice of Harry Potter without being a 13 year old boy? Could George Martin write Cersei Lannister without being a female, a mother and an incestuous sibling?

When artists toil over ‘voice’ and ‘narrative rights’, are they only referring to gender, race and class? Or should we accept that the discussion simply isn’t that straightforward, and that privilege and voice come in all shades of grey?

We need to maintain an open mind when it comes to deciding, as a global artistic body, what we can and can’t do. Without a solid definition of this slippery concept, we cannot, in all honesty, accuse one another pell-mell of discrimination and inauthenticity.

I agree that there is no black and white solution. What some people call archetype, others will call stereotype. What some people call privilege, others will call restriction. What some people deem authentic, others will denigrate as derivative.

So where is the middle ground?

In the end, as I’ve said before, good writing is good writing. A good writer will not take on a voice that they are unable to faithfully render, or at least render in a fresh and valid perspective. There must be a cohesive balance between creativity, observation, and respect. Yes, we need greater diversity in our narrative casts, but not by means of forced contrivance. Yes, we need to find representation for a wider span of voice, but not at the expense of stripping others of their right to creative expression.

In Robert McKee’s brilliant discourse on Story, he discusses exactly this universal application of characterisation, and the responsibility story-tellers have to render authentic human experiences.

“Deep within these characters and their conflicts we discover our own humanity…to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality. We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days.”

Exploring voice is one of the primary reasons humans read and write, and engage in the act of telling stories. Voice should not be a restrictive category; it should enable authors to explore the nuance of worlds that are both far and near to our own, to mine the complexities of life and in doing so find the answers to how our own life should be lived.

McKee goes on to articulate this.

“Story is not only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities – work, play, eating, exercise – for our waking hours. We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep – and even then we dream. Why? Why is so much of our life spent inside stories? Because as critic Kenneth Burke tells us, stories are equipment for living.

Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aristotle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead his life?”

As authors, let’s not use voice as a way to marginalise, but instead to open up, to ourselves and others, the incredibly vast spectrums of human experience. Let’s commit to authentic and deliberate renderings, to considered and thoughtful approaches, and provide the world with the profound and delicate emotional experiences that come from stepping into another mind.

Your voice is valid. Use it.

 

Elise Janes

 

Mythos in Children’s Literature

There is a vast amount of literary technique to be learnt from writers of children’s literature: how to condense character, how to form intimate adventure, how to elucidate on complex issues with simple yet profound illustration. Regarding the symbolism of seasons, in external and internal frames, the following excerpt from Virginia L. Wolf’s article considers what we can learn from their use in classic children’s narratives.

The Cycle of Seasons: Without and Within Time (except)
Virginia L. Wolf

“Seeds grow to plants, yield their harvest, and die, the earth lying dormant and barren until the cycle begins anew. Within a year an animal may also progress from birth to full maturity, producing its own offspring. Similarly dependent upon the natural cycle, people find in the seasons multi-leveled and universal symbols. We see spring as childhood, summer as adolescence, fall as maturity, and winter as old age. On the religious or mythic level, the cycle of the seasons becomes the birth, death, and return of a divine being. In literature, according to Northrop Frye, there are mythoi, or generic plots, associated with the seasons—comedy with spring, romance with summer, tragedy with autumn, and irony with winter (162). The full cycle may suggest permanence, promising transcendence as spring follows winter or threatening endless repetition as summer leads to fall. Or, it may capture continuous change as each season offers new and unique experiences.

“In a children’s novel whose primary setting is home, formal requirements often necessitate the use of the cycle of the seasons. Novels using this setting differ enormously, depending on their individual content, especially the age of their protagonists, but besides their use of the seasons, they share other characteristics. Typically, they concentrate on a very small setting, introduce very little conflict, and celebrate a way of life. They may seem a collection of episodes with no clear-cut order. But, as I intend to demonstrate, the cycle of the seasons gives them form and, in the process, meaning.

“Four such novels are E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, Eleanor Estes’s The Moffats, and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Part I. All four are relatively stationary in space, focusing on their respective protagonists’ homes, and all four have a strong female emphasis. None of them, furthermore, introduces serious conflict. On the other hand, there are many differences among them. Charlotte’s Web runs from spring to spring, The Moffats from summer to summer, Little House in the Big Woods from autumn to autumn, and Little Women from winter to winter. Also differing are the seasons emphasized, Charlotte’s Web and The Moffatsstressing summer and Little House in the Big Woods and Little Women stressing winter. The most significant differences, however, are those created by the age range of the protagonists. Wilbur is one at the end of Charlotte’s Web, Laura six at the end of Little House, Janey nine at the end of The Moffats, and Jo sixteen at the end of Little Women. The age of the protagonist is, of course, an essential factor in determining the age of the child reader of a novel and the form this novel can take. In their similarities and differences, in other words, these novels should provide the critic with the opportunity for increased understanding of the ways children’s novels vary for the sake of audience.

220px-AnatomyOfCriticism“At the same time, they also reveal the potential of the cycle of the seasons for structuring children’s novels set in homes. In Northrop Frye’s terms, Charlotte’s Web and Little House in the Big Woods are romance, both very nearly becoming myth, and The Moffats and Little Women are comedy. Frye uses the term myth to refer to a communal vision controlling a work of literature. “Undisplaced myth, generally concerned with gods or demons” (139) he sees as the center of all literature, which often displaces, or adapts, myth to varying degrees for the sake of plausibility. To the extent that the techniques of mimesis—verisimilitude, fullness and accuracy of description, for example—characterize a literary work, in other words, myth is displaced (51, 139-140, 365-367). Romance Frye defines as “the mythos of literature concerned primarily with an idealized world” (367), and as the one which least displaces myth. Both similar and different, comedy is the mythos of literature in which myth is greatly displaced, resulting in romantic comedy to the extent that the ending represents an ideal, and ironic comedy to the extent that it does not (163-186).”

Writing Seasons

No this will not be a discourse on the figurative seasons of a writer’s life. There are plenty of those oozing around the web and many more hidden in forgotten spiral notebooks on your study shelves.

Right now I’m focused on a much more literal literary problem. I’m interested in the craft of writing seasons.

Weather plays a pivotal role in narrative. Beyond the objective way it motivates plot and action, climate affects mood and tone in both monumental sweeps and incredibly subtle nuance. Seasons define culture, customs, language, symbols and associations in ways that few other narrative features can. It is inevitably a major player in any creative work.

walden_pondImagine, for example, that Thoreau had secluded himself on a Florida beach instead of the woods of New England. Walden would be an altogether different experience (with a different title) and we never would have had such an enlightened discourse on the transformative power of Spring:

The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and sluggish hours to bright and elastic ones, is a memorable crisis which all things proclaim. It is seemingly instantaneous at last. Suddenly an influx of light filled my house, though the evening was at hand, and the clouds of winter still overhung it, and the eaves were dripping with sleety rain. I looked out the window, and lo! where yesterday was cold gray ice there lay the transparent pond already calm and full of hope as in a summer evening, reflecting a summer evening sky in its bosom, though none was visible overhead, as if it had intelligence with some remote horizon.

Consider the brooding danger of To Kill a Mockingbird without the backdrop of a long Southern summer. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights without the crystalising Icelandic cold. Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori without the Japanese fall of winter sakura blossoms. The English Patient without the hot, sandy North African war. A Tale of Two Cities without rainy London streets. The White Tiger without the steaming slums of Delhi. Love in a Time of Cholera without the tropical heat of the Caribbean coastline.

In fact climate does more than simply play a part in a single story: its manipulation in one work forms part of a dense cultural mesh through which all associated narratives are viewed. That is, the way authors and storytellers interact with seasons defines the social discourse of the places they write about and the cultures they inhabit.

As an Australian I am aware of a niggling responsibility to try and build on the sparse cultural mesh of our young, small and (let’s be honest) insecure narrative landscape.

When I was just a little book nerd reading my Richard Scarry and Beatrix Potter I would often find myself wondering where my parents hid those great piles of red leaves in which to jump (preferably with yellow galoshes). I would wait in my backyard hoping to spot a phantom squirrel nibbling an acorn. I would gaze out over green parks trying to imagine where all the spring bunny rabbits were hiding. I would search around our living room in hopes of finding a crackling fireplace, the one I was meant to curl up in front of while snow fell outside.

In short my imagination was genuinely confused by the disparity between the seasonal landscapes of my picture books and the reality that surrounded me.

DPSAnd thanks to narratives like The Groves of Academe, The Secret History, Wonder Boys and Dead Poets Society I find it easier to picture a school year beginning amidst chilly autumn leaves than in a hot, clapboard classroom under a sadly rotating ceiling fan. Apparently we are supposed to camp in immaculate pine forests in the summer instead of at the beach. And overseas vacations should be at the Caribbean or the South of France instead of Fiji.

This phenomenon of seasonal currency also translates directly into the invented worlds of speculative fiction, finding its way into a variety of speculative genres but most obviously into epic fantasy where Northern Hemispherical climates dictate the law of imagined geographies. Middle Earth is modeled on the seasonal terrain of Tolkien’s native England, as is Lewis’s Narnia. American landscape features throughout Jordan’s Wheel of Time and is particularly apparent in the Western flavor of King’s Dark Tower series.

In Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire narrative weather is a major player on a number of levels. It not only creates atmosphere, tone, obstacles, opportunities and cultures, it literally defines the identities of the warring families of Westeros and Essos, and thus the entire backbone of the series.

The_Wall

I’ve dreamed of the day when I would read (or write) an epic narrative where the climatic world was turned on its head. In my version of A Song of Ice and Fire the Wall would be in the south and Dorne would be in the north. The Iron Islands would be the Sandy Islands, and winter would never be coming.

In my world, pumpkins don’t grow at Halloween. Snow doesn’t fall on Christmas Eve. Beaches are never cold, windy places with wooden piers and taffy. Birds don’t fly south for the winter. Heading west means deserts, not prairies, and north the Equator, not the Arctic Circle. There is never a real reason light a wood fire, or rake leaves, or shovel the sidewalk. We steal mangos not blackberries, and bake pavlova instead of pie. Family picnics are BBQs at the beach, not sandwiches in green meadows.

This is the world I know. This should form the landscape of my imagination and therefore of my imagined worlds. It’s a strange thing to have to work against a preconceived cultural notion of tone and place because the culture, while dominant, is not your own. Yet it is part of my responsibility as an emerging creative voice, and a challenge I submit to all those in the same position: to add to this global lens in our own language and rhythm, and make our own experiences, and that of our Southern-land compatriots, a greater part of the world’s narrative imagery.

 

Elise Janes

The Structure Spectrum

As a writer, I’m curious about other writers. Talking process is something I love to get into with a fellow author. In the way an engineer might admire a building or bridge, I look upon the novel as a technical structure. One that’s supported, reinforced, made possible by many, many intricate working pieces that bring the whole together into one glorious final edifice.

Struct1

I’m forever in awe of someone who has the compositional skills to create an opus that delivers on its early promise.

Knowing the struggles of getting from initial idea to finalising a draft, what fuels me is connecting with other writers. Learning how other writers tackle challenges that arise in the writing process helps me understand their mind and also my mind. It often gives me a third perspective on situations I’ve found myself in and only too late realise my approach has been too black and white, too all or nothing.

There’ve been times over the past few years where I thought I understood the type of writer I am. What I never saw at the time and that I see now, is that the blinkers are on. The times when I’ve felt most certain, have too often turned out to be the times when I’ve been very naïve, cocky and even ignorant. Getting caught up in the prestige of being a ‘writer’ I’d forgotten why I write and the type of writing that really jazzes me.

During a moment of reflection a couple of weeks ago I had an epiphany. Such a simple and clear insight, it brought me to a halt and gave me immeasurable peace. This realisation comes at a time when I’m progressing steadily through the first draft of my next novel. For weeks I’d had been having a conversation in the background of my mind, never fully conscious, never fully addressed, all relating to novel structure and planning.

How much time and effort should I put into planning and plotting?
How detailed should my first draft structure be?

2000px-heroesjourney-svg

Then it came to me:

As a writer I like to know where I’m going. I just don’t want to know how I’m going to get there.
Destination is important. Landmarks and signposts along the way for me are crucial. But as a writer, I’m happy in my ignorance of how I’ll get from plot-point to plot-point.

I need there to be an element of surprise in the actual writing of each scene. An unexpected discovery.

A character coming a little more to life. Links in the chain of the story connecting, sometimes by design, sometimes by chance.

That’s where the excitement is. That’s where exploration and discovery occur. Struggle and realisation. The magic of writing.

In years gone by my attempts to plan a story down to its final detail prior to starting my first draft have always ended the same way. I’ve half a dozen manuscripts in various states of incompleteness to prove it.

On the flipside of this spectrum, my last novel was written largely as a free-writing exercise.

Signposts to aim for – yes.

An overarching structure with plans as to how to develop both the characters and story – no.

At this stage in my development as a writer, that’s where the project crumbled in my hands. There were so many holes I encountered in the re-writing phases – 5 drafts at last count – that I hadn’t the skills to overcome and fix. Instead, I dug myself deeper and deeper into a formless, shapeless abyss where everything ceased to exist.

This simple realisation about how I approach structuring and planning was both timely and reassuring. And like any spectrum I’m trying to find where my sweet spot is so I can become the best writer I can be.

Where are you on the structure spectrum?

 

Ken Ward

“War is what happens…

…when language fails.”
― Margaret Atwood

There’s something about the astonishing horror of war that brings out the most human of stories. Spanning all thematic arcs from tragedy to triumph these narratives explore grand notions of destiny, glory and patriotism alongside intimate theatres of love, personal sacrifice and extreme resilience.

Examining wars real and imaginary, ancient and present, from classics to modern Booker-prize winners there’s something in this list for everyone.

1915: A Novel of Gallipoli (1979)1984-by-opallynn-d4lnuoh
Roger McDonald

1984 (1949)
George Orwell

A Farewell to Arms (1929)
Ernest Hemingway

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
Erich Maria Remarque

Atonement (2001)
Ian McEwan

Birdsong (1993)Birdsong-Sebastian-Faulks
Sebastian Faulks

Catch-22 (1961)
Joseph Heller

Cold Mountain (1997)
Charles Frazier

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
Ernest Hemingway

Gone With the Wind (1936)
Margaret Mitchell

Matterhorn (2009)9780802145314_p0_v1_s260x420
Karl Marlantes

Regeneration (1991)
Pat Barker

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Kurt Vonnegut

The Book Thief (2005)
Markus Zusak

The Iliad (800 BC)
Homer

The Kite Runner (2002)ou-cover
Khaled Hosseini

The March (2005)
E. L. Doctorow

The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013)
Richard Flanagan

The Things They Carried (1990)
Tim O’Brien

The Quiet American (1955)
Graham Greene

Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993)17905709
John Marsden

War & Peace (1869)
Leo Tolstoy

War Horse (1982)
Michael Morpurgo

Elise Janes

Being a writer: what do you need to make it happen?

I once heard someone say, ‘We would never talk to another person the way we talk to ourselves.’ As writers our self-talk can be highly critical and extremely biting:tumblr_mbffz2ntyg1rtheg4o1_400-323x450

‘This is terrible.’

‘I’ve written nothing today.’

‘I’ll never finish this.’

‘I’m a failure.’

While we’re not always gentle with ourselves, sometimes the gloves need to come off. There’s a state of agitation that exists between satisfaction and dissatisfaction where creativity and motivation are born: the constant arm wrestle between low and high pressure weather systems that vomit thunder and spit lightning.

In these moments we can be at our very best and at our very worst – the line can be very thin. It’s not easy to be both Good Cop and Bad Cop to the vulnerable and sometimes insecure writer inside of us. As I battled, knee-deep, through the detritus of rejection and seeming failure during the latter part of last year I found my only companion was Bad Cop. It wasn’t long before his tired cynicism began to sound like Truth.

And just as I felt the vestiges of one novel and eighteen-months of work slip through my fingers, I experienced a moment of quiet calm. Soon though, whispers of doubt grew louder and seeds of undoing sprouted stems. It was as I resisted this return to negativity that a question emerged from the ether of my subconscious: What do I need to write?

A challenge and carrot. A push and a pull. In the tug-of-war between Good Cop and Bad Cop, the little agitated atoms within me were shaken into a state of heated friction and proposed a way forward.

It didn’t take me long to come up with the three core things I needed to enable me to write and remain committed to my practice of writing on a regular basis:pencil-writing-ftr

 

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Energy

 

  1. Space

Need:    Somewhere I can go where it’s conducive to be a writer and to write.

Action:  I converted the spare room in my house into a writer’s den. I moved in my book cases and stacks of CDs. My notes and plot structures adorn the walls. I’m cocooned in my craft and my stories and my characters.

Result:  I’m writing more regularly, more spontaneously and I’m really enjoying how and what I’m creating.

 

  1. Time

Need:    To carve out thirty, sixty or more minutes per day (or at least five days a week) to write.

Action:  I’m eating more lasagne. I’ve found the 40 minutes while the dish is on the oven a great time to work on some new scenes. On the nights where I’m not eating lasagne it’s either the second I get home from work (thirty minutes of power writing leaves me free to relax for the rest of the evening) or just after a scalding hot shower (the ideas I have in the shower never cease to amaze me).

Result:  Slowly but surely the first draft of my new project is coming together. I’m making steady progress which is very satisfying and keeps Bad Cop at bay.

 

  1. Energy

Need:    To not be fatigued, hungry or tired when I sit down to write. To have the reserves to bring passion and intensity and clarity to my writing.

Action:  Eat better throughout the day. A better breakfast. A good lunch. Some fruit. Something in the afternoon before I leave work. A good dinner when I get home. Exercise – basketball mid-week, football on the weekends. Get a good night’s sleep.

And when I’m not writing, don’t attack myself for not writing. If I’m going to chill out and watch a movie or spend time with a loved one or friend, enjoy that as much as I can. No guilt. No regrets.

Result:  I’m able to get a lot done in a limited amount of time. My writing desk is at a height where I can comfortably stand and type – so I do. And this allows me to bring a lot of movement and dynamism to how write. I’m having so much fun doing what I’m doing.

 

This is the prescription that’s helping me stay on the edge and be sharp in my practice. It’s going to be different for everyone. Each of us will have different elements we’ll need to bring to the table to make our writing work for us. So there’s no one size fits all approach here.

But by starting with one simple and direct question, you’ll be amazed, given application, patience and dedication, where it will lead you. Here’s the challenge:

What do you need to write?

 

Ken Ward

 

Body Image credit: morethanflesh / http://www.lydiamccall.com/heal-negative-body-image/