Tell me about the last person you kissed; or getting to know your characters, every hurt, flaw, and mistake
Found on Tumblr by heroineoftheperipheral, these questions seem like excellent ways to know your characters better. Perhaps the responses could be the perfect introduction to your story, or a segue into the scene where protagonist meets antagonist. The possibilities are limitless. Have a go at this exercise and see what you come up with:
You may be familiar with the history of the Moleskine notebook since enclosed within each bound journal is a crisply folded, thin leaflet that adds personality to these specially crafted artist’s and writer’s tools. In accordion folds, the leaflet outlines the history translated in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese.
Here’s an excerpt from the “The history of the Moleskine notebook” which you can use as a template for your own biography or the biography of one of your characters, your novel, your chapbook, your luggage, your character’s beloved food processor, or dog, and the list goes on.
The Legendary Notebook
It all started many years ago, with a pocket-sized black object, the product of a great tradition. The Moleskine notebook is, in fact, the heir and successor to the legendary notebook used by artists and thinkers over the past two centuries: among them Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Bruce Chatwin. A simple black rectangle with rounded corners, an elastic page-holder, and an internal expandable pocket: a nameless object with a spare perfection all its own, produced for over a century by a small French bookbinder that supplied the stationery shops of Paris, where the artistic and literary avant-gardes of the world browsed and bought them. A trusted and handy travel companion, the notebook held invaluable sketches, notes, stories, and ideas that would one day become famous paintings or the pages of beloved books.
Read the rest here.
Your salonniere has drafted the history of Ruelle Electrique based on above:
It all started in two years ago at the start of January 2009 after reading an article in Poets and Writers on sustaining a literary community post-MFA. Ruelle Electrique is heir and successor to Enlightenment-era French salons run by salonnieres such as Madame d’Épinay, Sophie de Condorcet and Madame Roland. Frequented by writers and artists including luminary figures like Roz Ito, Virginia Jones, Roz Foster, Rio Liang and others, this electric salon offers a small digital corner to explore literary ideas and share in writerly dialogue. A trusted source for writers and artists. The salon hopes to inspire conversation that will generate stories and ideas, which, one day might become well known and shared among larger communities and greater audiences.
Today, the salon is synonymous with imagination, vision, and collaboration in both the real and virtual world. It is a refuge for writers, readers, and artists alike. With the diverse array of topics and interests, the salon is a place for creative souls to gather. With Ruelle Electrique, the age-old practice of conversation allows for sustained dialogue on passing and pressing fancies for literary communities.
Now you try! Send us your histories of fill-in-the-blank, here at the salon and let us know how this exercise worked for you.
Posted by salonnierealexis on 28, November 2011
1. Self- Evaluation from the Point of View of a Friend or Family Member
(This proves highly relevant to course content as the class discussed ‘Significant Others’ and how the relationship(s) affects our perception of ourselves. ‘Perceived Self’ / ‘Presenting Self’, Ego Boosters and Ego Busters along with Perspective Taking.)
For this freewrite you will want to assume the point of view of a friend or family member who knows you well. You will be writing from their perspective to give a critical evaluation of yourself. Imagine that they’ve been asked to give an honest and thoughtful assessment about your self. Your friend or family member must give a truthful evaluation about your character, your motivation, and your ability to follow through with action. In addition, they are required to support their opinion with concrete experiences, memories and events that illustrate their assessment.
To assist with this exercise you may want to answer some of these questions, again from the POV of a friend or family member who is evaluating you:
- How would you describe your personality?
- What motivates or inspires you?
- Who has influenced you and why?
- What past events demonstrate your strongest skills and traits?
- What are your weaknesses?
- How do you handle your weaknesses?
- If you could make changes to your life, your drive, your behavior, what kind of changes and why?
- When are you at your best? When are you at your worst?
- How well do you work with others?
- How well do you take direction?
- What kind of a leader are you?
- How do you inspire others?
- Other questions???
2. Personal Ad for Dating Agency
(This proves highly relevant to course content since the class addressed both mediated (digital) communication and the dynamics of ‘self-concept‘.)
Where did you grow up?
Get To Know Me:
About My Date (Describe who you’re ideal date is):
In My Own Words (give a paragraph description to entice potential dates):
Who makes up your literary ancestry? Which authors stand as your lettered godparents, your artistic aunts and uncles, who have passed down, whether you asked for it or not, their characteristic genes with all their faults and strengths? Just as we have a biological genealogy, we must also recognize and come to terms with our literary heritage. Brainpickings‘ Maria Popova and Michelle Legro recently covered Circles of Creative Influence illustrated by Wendy McNaughton who visualized for us an artistic dynasty wherein poets Rachelle Cruz and Barbara Jane Reyes followed suit by mapping out their own creative family trees.
Part of understanding one’s influences is also seeing the cracks. Every idol has them, and we’re not talking about personal defects such as womanizing or man-hating, or being a class snob, but artistic weaknesses that rupture fissures within the art itself. At the salon, we’ve been discussing the downfall of a former champion, E.M. Forster, (see Part I: “How E.M. Forster Jinxed My Writing”). I’ve had to come to grips with the negative influences he might have had on me such as his lack of spinning real, bone-breaking conflict. Anyone who’s every lived by Forster’s decree “only connect” may find it difficult to sever and destroy. Perhaps our inclination is because we don’t like conflict in real life. We’re always trying to avoid conflict. But on the page, conflict is what keeps the reader going.
Forster’s work embodies compassion, which is inspiring for life, but everyday life does not make great literature. As Flannery O’Connor argues in her book Mystery and Manners, from the talk “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction”:
Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put a finger on in any exact critical sense, so it always safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. (43)
O’Connor essentially indicts the very strength that pulled me to Forster as a youth. I loved his novels because they were filled with compassion, but compassion was merely Forster’s way of playing the novel safe.
In a Saint Mary’s Fiction Craft class, dated around 2006, novelist Julie Orringer stated something like the following:
Good fiction is when characters are forced to make decisions, forced to do scary things as they get deeper and deeper into the situation. Characters need to be thrown off balance where they want to regain some sense of equilibrium–whether its good or bad. Disrupt the normal pattern of motivation. Natural motivation vs. momentary motivation. Plot and characterization have to be working in a problematic disharmony.
Writing novels is not for the weak of heart. Thomas Hardy commits a horrible plot act toward the end of Jude the Obscure, absolutely horrific. Critics lambasted him for his supposed obscene treatment of marriage, but they missed the true obscenity, which won’t be revealed in this post. If you’re going to spill blood, you might as well do it on the page, that’s what its for. And, if you want to know how to effectively spill blood, you may want to take a look at Hardy’s Jude. He explodes his characters from the inside out and effectively punches the reader in the gut.
Fiction serves the same purpose as nightmares, allowing us a chance to explore the darkest, most dire possibilities without risking too much in the flesh. Risk is what makes or breaks a writer. We constantly take risks, from setting aside hours of our day to pen words and wasting countless sheaves of dead trees and postage in the hopes for some redemption for the time spent hammering at the keyboard. Writers must take risks both on page and off, which means moving beyond compassion, beyond safety, and beyond what feels comfortable. We must practice employing IEDs in our story-lines. If we care about our work, we will use guerilla force. We won’t stop at inserting shrapnel into explosive plot lines, so we can spread conflict. Otherwise, why write stories? Everything has to be at stake or its not worth it.
So how do we put lives on the literary line?
Firstly, when drafting, don’t worry about piecing everything together by leading through a step-by-step narration. Jump and jump often. Build through clues, pent up emotions, and disjunctive actions that remain true to the character but don’t exactly add up for the reader. It’s not necessary to explain every step. Withhold plot points but never motivation. We need to see why characters do what they do, but we don’t always need to know how.
We needn’t concern ourselves about answering all the questions. Life is comprised of endless loose ends. Think of Charlotte Brontë’s “suspended revelation” where she emphasizes the importance of concealing information to keep the reader in suspense. Nothing is ever neatly tied, so we just need hone our vision and see how many strings are necessary to hold the story together. The fewer the better. Some ties can remain slack, others may need to be extremely tight. It’s all about lifting the work up, getting as much height as possible to capture the reader’s imagination.
A lot of times we’ll put all our cards on the table, which is the last thing we want to do as writers. The game is to keep readers guessing up to the very last word. We do need to have the whole story straight in our heads, only straight enough to create a universe. Whether its a microcosm or macrocosm, the story must encompass a network of lives. When drafting and revising, trust in yourself that you’ll fill in the necessary gaps as you move back and forth through the story, combing through it until its impeccably polished.
As you revise, drop explosive hints at critical junctures. Find the hot spots and train readers to leap with the story. Train them to be athletes in the obstacle course you’ve created. You want readers to leap to conclusions whether right or wrong. So, how do we keep readers leaping and guessing?
- Figure out the reversal of situations with each character. Simply flip the plot around from where they started. It’s simple, really. Hamlet wants to kill father. He can’t kill father, so he ends up being killed himself.
- Make a running list of verbs for each character and track their evolution or devolution of verbs to ensure you have maximum explosive action.
- As salon member Virginia Jones says, “the climax is the point at which a character can’t go back. There’s no return, each character has to keep to the decisions they’ve made,” so we, as writers, have to make each decision count. Each choice has to be a stab at the body.
J.J. Abrams gave a recent TED Talk on the mystery box, his personal method of suspended revelation, which can help give insight on how to explode the teapot.
“You Only Have to Play One Note”
Borrowing a note or two, pun intended, from the world of music, in Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times video “Musicial Motifs in Tosca” he demonstrates to audiences how the opera composer Puccini developed unforgettable characters through themes, mini-themes, and motifs in his score for Tosca. Puccini employed specific themes to “enhance the emotional power of the work and to trigger responses from listeners.” He demonstrates the most famous leit motif of the opera, which is at the beginning, Scarpia’s theme. Tommasini explains, Puccini uses “three chords a flat, b flat, and e” which “are not harmonically related, which makes Scarpia seem like an out-of-control guy.” Scarpia is the antagonist, who thwarts the romance between Tosca and her lover.
Any reference to Scarpia later in the opera will incite the same chords, and the rest of the characters react to the theme. Puccini later develops these chords subtly in Act II, where they become truncated and repeated, as if they were stuck in a rut to show a shift in character and reveal conflict for Scarpia. Later the chords are borrowed by other characters to reveal Scarpia’s influence. The same three chords are intricately woven and tucked into the main themes of the heroine, Tosca. These motifs are manipulated into different variations to build on emotion and transform meaning and character throughout the opera’s story. Tommasini concludes by explaining, “Characters can borrow, steal from, and adapt from each others’ themes.”
On the same note, on October 10, 2010, KCRW’s Tom Schnabel interviewed Herbie Hancock, who spoke of Miles Davis. Miles once said, “You only have to play one note.” Hancock explains that he realized Davis meant you only have to play the right note. “You don’t have to fill up a solo with a lot of notes, just find the right one.” Hancock says he didn’t just want to play the piano, he wanted to play music. “When you hear Wayne Shorter play, you don’t hear him playing the trumpet, you hear Wayne Shorter. In the deep of my heart it became very clear to me that I had to play music, and let the chips fall where they may.”
Gustave Flaubert spoke of le mot juste, which is the same idea that Davis speaks of and practices. There is one perfect word, an essential note to hit for each character that reveals the moment. Each character has their singular note, and music is made when these notes oppose one another. Point and counterpoint. To create a compelling story, a writer need only to find the right notes and play them against each other.
Here’s some means of hitting those singular notes:
- How do other other characters generally respond to one another?
- How would strangers react upon first meeting each of your characters?
- What color would each character represent?
- What kind of pacing does each character embody? Is one fast? Another languid? Another stammering?
- What are the general moods of each character? Think of the four humors and play with them in combination. Or refer to astrological signs. This can help build distinct characters.
Writing Exercises from Brenda Petersen and her new book, “I Want to Be Left Behind”
Thanks to the wonderfully talented artist and musician Kellyn Sanderson who passed this little gem of a link onto the salon from the radio show New Dimensons on Redwood Community Radio, aired Saturday, May 22, 2010, Justine Willis Toms interviewed Brenda Peterson on her new book, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth. The interview touches upon evangelicals in the environmental movement paralleling Christian evangelicals, but, most interestingly, Peterson guides writers on honing self-perception and how to be critical of the self, how “to turn the eye” back on the writer, especially when writing from the personal “I.” She reviews several insightful exercises (below) and, with enlightened humor, discusses her process as a writer: “As I grow older I become more aware of my life as a divine comedy….You will discover the meaning of your life when you do memoir, discover the narrative arc that you can’t find in the first person…You can either be a writer or you can go ahead to Thanksgiving Dinner.”
Write three pages using “I,” or first person:
- about yourself from the perspective of someone who loves you
- three pages using “I” about yourself from the perspective of someone who hates you
- three pages using “I” from the perspective of someone who needs to understand you
This should also work for fiction, especially concerning a main character and for a critical character who has greatly influenced your protagonist. Think Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which is a quintessential piece that examines the death of a woman from the perspective of her sons and her husband. If you’re writing the novel or story from different points of view, you’ll want to show contradictions between relationships and perceptions. Be sure each character has a different take, a different reaction to the conflict, and differing drives and motivations in regards to one another. Use diagrams if it helps!
You can also apply this perspective to ideologies, philosophies, a song, a piece of art, or a movie. For instance, the first example that pops into mind is Rimbaldi’s legacy on the show Alias. Sloane and Irina Derevko devotedly followed Rimbaldi’s clues trekking to the ends of the earth, willing to kill to piece his mystical puzzle together. Jack Bristow never shared in their obsession because he had his daughter Sydney who occupied all his love and energy. The difference in approach complicates each character, their relationship to one another, as well as their relationship to self while also driving the story forward.
Write two pages starting with the prompt: “I surprise myself by….”
Click here for the entire interview
GoodReads Review on Alexandra Johnson’s “Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal, The Art of Transforming a Life into Stories”
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Each of us have an infinite arsenal of writing material to wield at our own discretion. Whether we recognize it or not, every moment that passes is crammed with writerly inspiration, and the onus is on us to seize this fodder and alchemize it into art. Alexandra Johnson’s Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal, The Art of Transforming a Life into Stories shows us exactly how to do this. I first read her work probably ten years ago. Her book The Hidden Writer: Diaries and the Creative Life is wonderfully inspiring, covering the diaries from the likes of Katherine Mansfield, Sonya Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Alice James, and Dorothy Wordsworth along with other luminary voices. These stories, journal passages, and diary excerpts have haunted me since as each artist silently battles with the written word in the shadows of their more renown male counterparts. Leaving a Trace coaxes us to follow these brilliant writers and diarists.
Filled with practical exercises and useful guidelines, Johnson leads us through the mire of our own life and lights a clear-cut path, so that we may view ourselves objectively and weave stories from the chaos of experience. Taking advantage of the clarity of hindsight and encouraging us to exploit our confusions, wrest with our fears, and tackle our struggles head-on, Johnson thankfully doesn’t dip into self-help or spout quasi-therapeutic mantras, which so often render writing books useless and impractical for the working writer. Her goal is fixed, professionally and artistically devoted to the craft of writing though readers do not have to be professional or emerging writers to adopt her practices. All of her exercises aim to shape a wonderful lens for our inner selves whether we’re dabbling or committed.
From “Chapter III: Ways of Seeing the Present-Tense World”
Lists limber the mind, focus its material, tap deep into the unconscious, finding its hidden interests. I often make them when I’ve got a cold. It clears the head immediately. Make three columns. In the first column, randomly list ten separate years in your life. Next, ten places. Last, ten people. Without stopping to think, go across the columns, circling four key items in each category. Make columns from just those. Now select one in each column and put them in a final list. That’s where you begin. In front of you is a master list, some code of memory, you’ve given yourself to decode. Trust your instincts. Your hand, like a magnet, simply found what I call the hot spots in the details. Write quickly to know why these three items won out.
From Exercises and Journal Prompts section of Chapter III
If you’re just beginning a journal, which of three memories would you never forgive yourself for not setting down? (78).
From “Chapter X: Living to Tell the Tale: Writing about Others”
There are several quick ways to get started when writing about others. Create a quick list of questions to spark specific details that are the core of the character portraits. Others are first defined by what they desire, fear, and own. Here are a few examples: describe four things you’d find hidden in their medicine chest or bathroom drawer. Which food would they most be ashamed to be found eating? Describe a single outfit or an article of clothing in their closet they’ve only worn once. Why? (205)
Johnson gives real life examples from students and fellow writers she’s worked with and been inspired by and stitches quotes from the heavyweights as well. Her book is well-organized into three units that first introduce us on how to start becoming more aware of our life experiences then shows us how to dig deeper into the past, and finally, instructs us how to deal with real life delicate matters such as staying mindful and respectful of our loved and close ones by morphing identities, characteristics, and physical attributes.
Providing effective strategies to gain objective perspectives on the personal. Sometimes these methods can be daunting, like archiving and indexing your journals, but all of her suggestions are entirely reasonable and useful with the sole intent of reflecting over our relationships, our private moments, and our daily routines. She commands us to cannibalize our thoughts and turn them into artful narratives. This writing book is definitely a keeper. Writers will find this a necessary user’s manual on how to constantly mine from within and never take for granted those fleeting moments that make us who we are. Nothing is sacred when it comes to writing. Its a free for all, and the story goes to whoever dares to seize it.
Exercises on Voice
In Little Debauches on November 5, 2009 at 5:47 pm
Inspired by Nicholas Delbanco’s Washington Post article, “Remembering the Reyes”, he writes about the imperative need for a dialectic, all urgent writing has, at its core contains an argument and counter-argument. So how can a writer “shape-shift at will” from one voice to another? Here are a few simple but essential exercises for staking each characters claim in the volatile landscape of conflict:
Dialogue– Write two pages of two characters arguing about the central conflict. Pay attention to the voice of each. Think of what’s left unspoken and let what’s verbally said lead to, stab at, but as Gypsy Rose Lee emphasized in her performances, the focus is on the tease.
Getting Physical– The body talks in more ways than words could ever. Pick a location that will require lots of physical action and interaction and, again, in two pages, have the flesh do and say what words can’t.
Epistles– If you’re not sure how to strip tease in dialogue, first write an epistle from each of the characters, journal entries, letters, emails, whatever kind of written confession you deem fit. Get their thoughts on paper from their perspective, 2 pages each, of course, then go back and circle what material you can use for scenes of dialogue, leaving the juicy stuff to the reader’s imagination.
an exercise for character development
Literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, negligible, and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February.
-From Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill
We cannot transcend the physical though we may like to believe we can through religion, philosophy, literature, and any other means we can grasp. Truth is the physical shapes every thought and emotion we have and, therefore, creates the world as we sense it.
Characterization can often become top heavy. With so much thinking, reacting, and feeling to capture on the page, we may forget that most of our daily lives involve the less aesthetic, more base rituals: the brushing of teeth, relieving bodily urges, showering, and feeding appetites. These activities comprise a good fraction of our everyday lives. How can we step into the bodies of our characters and inhabit them fully? Of course we may choose not to spend a page or even a paragraph on the pot, but we do need to consider our characters and their universe viscerally. The six senses should be a constant.
No matter the scene or circumstance, sensory perceptions are a writer’s first instinct. Think of how your main character reacts to her surroundings. How does she, as a volatile element herself, combine with other bodies and elements around her.
- If she were a scent what kind would she be? What scent clings to her? Which smells remind her of childhood? Teenage years of trepidation and adult age of ambivalence?
- What taste might your supporting character always hunger for? What taste reminds him of home? How does he savor a glass of whiskey? What taste lingers with him after sex? What does he imagine his lover’s skin tastes like?
- What does his voice sound like? Count the rhythm of his breathing? Describe the sound of her tread? How does she sound when she sleeps? What tone does he use when he’s talking to his mother over the phone as opposed to the women he meets at the bar? How does he hear the alarm in the morning? Does the radio set off a panic attack? Does his sister’s voice over the phone remind him of sibling rivalry at age seven? Does the staticky voice over the metro station speaker set off nerves?
- How do they handle their food? How do they reach out to their lovers? Do they paw, fumble, or grasp gingerly? Tell us the textures of their skin and their hair. How does their palm feel? Rough and course or silky smooth? The tips of their fingers? Does pain blossom into bright explosions? Does sweat trickle or pour?
- Your characters can’t possibly observe everything around them. If you’re narrating in the third, what observations does your protagonist miss? Does she only follow the flight of birds? Or perhaps she keeps her gaze to the ground? Is he searching for the woman with the bluest eyes?
- Lastly, how do they grapple with space? How much space does she take up? How does she fill up her space? Does she add to the energy when she’s among strangers at a cocktail party? Does he suck up the energy of his wife? Is she a cyclone of anxiety? Do her co-workers even notice when she’s present? Describe his equilibrium. Does he swerve, or is he a straight shot? Is she always stumbling and bumping into tables and chairs, or does she seem to float on air?
We all know the typical character profile. Dutiful writers will jot down the typical traits like a police officer taking down a suspect’s weight, height, eye color, or a nurse administering blood tests and asking for family histories. These kind of profiles often scratch the surface and fail to help us in important scenes when we’re diving into the wreck that makes the character’s story and life palpable for readers. To dig deeper and to flex muscle and sinew like a gymnast, we want to approach our characters at the most surprising angle. Here are a few ways to tilt your character in an entirely new light :
If your character were a <FILL IN THE BLANK FROM THE BELOW> what kind would she be?*:
1. ice cream flavor
3. time of day
5. sea creature
6. article of clothing
7. weather condition
8. element from the periodic table
9. body of water
10. architectural structure
11. fruit or vegetable
14. what film embodies your character’s life story/philosophy/ideals/romance
15. what song or album embodies your character’s life story/philosophy/ideals/romance
*We’re always welcome to new approaches, so if you’d like to add to the list–by all means, the pleasure’s ours.
There was a piece of ornamental water immediately below the parapet, on the other side, into which Mr. James Harthouse had a very strong inclination to pitch Mr. Thomas Gradgrind Junior as the injured men of Coketown threatened to pitch their property into the Atlantic. But he preserved his easy attitude, and nothing solid went over the stone balustrades than the accumulated rosebuds now floating about, a little surface-island.
‘My dear Tom,’ said Harthouse, ‘let me try to be your banker.’
‘For God’s sake,’ replied Tom, suddenly, ‘don’t talk about bankers!’ And very white he looked, in contrast with the roses. Very white.
Dickens uses the landscape to describe Harthouse’s anger and Tom’s anxiety. The characters are in and of the moment. Taste another sample:
Mrs. Sparsit, lying to recover the tone of her nerves in Mr. Bounderby’s retreat, kept such a sharp look-out, night and day, under her Coriolanian eyebrows, that her eyes, like a couple of lighthouses on an iron-bound coast, might have warned all prudent mariners from that bold rock her Roman nose and the dark and craggy region in its neighborhood, but for the placidity of her manner. Although it was hard to believe that her retiring for the night could be anything but a form, so severely wide awake were those classical eyes of hers, and so impossible did it seem that her rigid nose could yield to any relaxing influence, yet her manner of sitting, smoothing her uncomfortable, not to say, gritty mittens (they were constructed of a cool fabric like a meat-safe), or of ambling to unknown places of destination with her foot in her cotton stirrup, was so perfectly serene, that most observers would have been constrained to suppose her a dove, embodied by some freak of nature, in the earthly tabernacle of a bird of the hook-beaked order.
She was a most wonderful woman for prowling about the house. How she got from story to story was a mystery beyond solution. A lady so decorous in herself, and so highly connected, was not to be suspected of dropping over the banisters or sliding down them, yet her extraordinary facility of locomotion suggested the wild idea. Another noticeable circumstance in Mrs. Sparsit was, that she was never hurried. She would shoot with consummate velocity from the roof to the hall, yet would be in full possession of her breath and dignity on the moment of her arrival there. Neither was she ever seen by human vision to go at a great pace.
Now you try! Post below. Have a go!
Verbs and Nouns Only: avoiding the traps of trope
In Little Debauches on June 12, 2009 at 10:50 pm
Barbara Jane Reyes raises a timely and timeless inquiry on a complicated and frustrating issue in her post: “Luis Alberto Urrea, and telling story” on Poeta y Diwata | June 12, 2009. She questions her own critique of Asian American authors when tropes come to play in text.
One theme running throughout Urrea’s work is the border, the imposed physical border between the USA and Mexico, the lives of real people and real communities as a result/in spite of this border, its spiritual manifestations which people impose upon one another. Urrea, who is biracial, describes his parents’ home as having a border down the middle, as the two grew more estranged from one another. And rather than rehash his stories here, I wanted to say that I’ve been thinking since then about our telling community stories, how a writer can avoid cliche or spin a commonly used theme such as the border, into stories that are fresh, enjoyable, and engaging, which I think Urrea accomplished yesterday. Read more here
Its difficult enough to be concrete and specific with every painstaking word, image, scene, and story. The art of subtlety feels next to impossible. Compound this with writing about specific ethnic communities and the task to stay true is magnified. Its so easy to generalize with pen and paper. The medium is essentially two-dimensional. How does one go about recreating a three-dimensional world with a paper thin canvas?
If mama is preparing tortillas on the metate, how do we make this act come alive without stumbling into a cliched scene we’ve seen before hundreds if not thousands of times both in real life and on the page? How do we “make it new”? Avoiding cliche is a matter of treading the blade of a knife. Writers try to make a story, an issue, a moment personal for readers, but in order for us to do this we have to be objective with the words we use. The objective makes for the personal. The more we stray from the abstract, avoid generalizations and over-simplifications, and shun sentimentality, the less our work will fall into the traps of Trope.
Every appellation, all attempts for locution must be executed with meticulous care of language. Each word we choose must be measured and weighted against stereotype. We cannot be lazy. We must be vigilant with every stroke of our pen. Cement characters in action. Verbs and nouns only. No adjectives or adverbs allowed. Post this over your writing space. Tattoo it on your hand. Words should invoke flesh and movement. Leave the rest to your reader.