What will you do with your one wild and precious life? - Mary Oliver

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Writing & Race: Black Men, Cubans and Gypsies are Living in My Head!

Two of my novels include a Black man as the protagonist. In a meeting a few weeks ago, I overheard the statement that Anglos cannot write about Black people because they don't have the experience and knowledge base.

I suppose the statement above would apply to my writing about Asians, Swedes or Native Americans or any other culture of which I am not a part.  I understand the point and agree that there are many compelling arguments for and against writing from the viewpoint of a cultural identity that is not one’s own.  On the other hand, when writing fiction, isn’t that what writers do as they get into the minds and lives of their characters? The statement became more and more absurd to me as I thought about the classics. But it called me to look at my own writing and why I write about the characters that are in my own stories. 

My desire here is not to haggle about whether or not I know enough about the cultures that I write about to include them in my novels and stories, but to look at the larger picture of the basic human condition with our imperfections, inadequacies, hopes, dreams and fears.  A writer must explore the questions of what is common to every family, every woman every man, every child.  What are our common bonds, and how do we strive to rise above adversity? What forms us at human beings, and what is our deepest yearning? I believe every human being comes into this world with unlimited potential, and then the world gets hold of us and leads us on our own hero's journey. I believe each of us has an innate desire to do good and to try our best. I do not believe these traits are restricted to only one culture.  I believe hope and determination are what we all hold onto, no matter what class or culture society wants to drop us into. And some in our culture are not so nice.

I think that blanket statements like the one I first mentioned only tend to marginalize us and polarize us from one another.  Because to jump right to the conjecture that the inability of one person or another to write about another race is the norm is to not only miss the larger picture of our cultural need to love one another by understanding one another, but also to dismiss the great novelists of the world.

I have lived in the South my entire life and can write from the perspective of a southerner. No, it’s not always about race. But to leave race out of in my fiction is to deny my own history. My experiences with others of differing cultural backgrounds is part of what compels me to write. My interactions with African-Americans has been life-long.  No, I can never in reality get inside the head of a Black man and know his thoughts. Oh, but I can in my writing. I have a couple of Black men living in my head who wanted their stories told. I also have gypsies, mechanics, and a couple of Cubans living in there that have been transferred to the page.  I believe I present their stories with honor and honesty. If they were real live people they may or may not think so, especially if they are characters who behave badly. Ah, then comes the time for redemption. Or not.

If writers only wrote from their own perspective, only a tri-racial person could have written Huckleberry Finn.  And what about gender? Some of the best novels I’ve read are written by men using female protagonists. Wally Lamb immediately comes to mind as a contemporary writer who uses female protagonists. And then there’re religious denominations, professions, and endless other plot twists and turns that writers use for their characters.  Of course, there is a ton of bad writing in the universe to back up the argument that a writer shouldn’t write about something they know nothing about. To fully develop our characters writers simply must do our research. Writers cannot write without doing our homework. In a sense, we must become the characters we write about, immerse ourselves in their worlds.

I don’t think the argument is a matter of writing from another perspective; it’s a matter of bad writing or good writing. Writers are chameleons who can be any thing and any body. That is one of the pleasures and joys of writing, to get into that dream state of becoming our characters, seeing the world through their eyes, and revealing that world to our readers, while the newspapers pile up at our doors, while the outside world lives in chaos, and while characters keep developing themselves in our writing, telling us their troubles, their yearnings, and where they want to go.

What is your experience in writing from other cultural perspectives?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Unknowing Agents of Inspiration

Susan Cushman's post,  Getting Saved, Sex and Writing over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find, inspired me this morning. Susan writes of a teacher who put masking tape over her mouth to stop her from talking. Her words sparked memories of my own childhood. I am an extreme introvert, although not shy. My elementary school was Walthall School in Hattiesburg, MS. When I asked a question or made a statement as a child it was usually a well-thought out sentence so as not to embarrass myself. In 4th grade I have this vivid memory of having not heard the page number leaning over to ask a classmate what page we should be reading. When I leaned back into my own desk, here comes the teacher stomping towards me, yelling at me. I am terrified. She grabs my little desk with her big hands and shoves it back against the wall.  The impact jolts my tiny 9-year old body so much I can still feel my skin shudder.

I don’t think I uttered another word until I graduated. There have been other agents of energy (this is being kind) who tried to stop me from writing and talking in addition to that fourth grade teacher. In ninth grade, we had an assignment in English Class to write a persuasive letter to someone. I have no memory of whom I wrote my letter to or what I was trying to persuade them to do, but I have a strong memory of what my teacher said about my letter as she read it to the entire class. Shame invaded my life and still lives rent-free in my brain.

Growing up in the south, we have certain words that are part of our language, our vernacular. We use these words in our homes, in our businesses and in personal conversations.  I won’t bore you with the specifics, but I had used several of these words in my assigned letter. The teacher read my letter and snickers echoed off the walls as my classmates listened. She waved the letter in the air and shouted that one does not use such language. I was humiliated. I did not write another thing until I graduated. Except in my personal journals that I kept since elementary school.

As a young bride living in New Jersey in the early 70s I got a part-time job as a typist at a company called Myron Sugarman International.  They manufactured gaming machines for casinos.  I typed letters from the Dictaphone. The men who dictated those letters were all fast talkers. Too fast for me. Well, that was New Jersey, and those accents, you can imagine, were strange for a young girl from Mississippi. I tried to slow down the machine so I could understand what the men said, and I strained to listen. I did my best. The words I couldn’t understand I just made something up that fit what I discerned the letter was about.  Every letter came back with red marks. I tried to explain that I could not understand their accents. They laughed. They did not have an accent – it was me! People in the office asked me questions just to hear me talk.  I was so embarrassed I shut up and quit the job.

But I continued writing in my journals. I made up characters, settings, descriptions. Years later, in a fit of anger, my now ex-husband threw all my journals, around 30 or them, in the Ross Barnett Reservoir. I guess he thought I was writing about him. All those stories now sleep with the fishes.

Writing was mandatory in college classes of course, so I tip-toed around those words that one does not use and was awarded some scholarship dollars to Millsaps College in Jackson, MS based on my writing. I was finally set free.

Now I come to today, and I am like an addict who goes on a binge, wakes up 5 hours later and wonders where the time went. The newspaper is still in the yard, the dust has gathered on the coffee table, phone calls go unanswered, and my FaceBook status is non-existent.  That is how it is when I am writing. Time stands still.

My husband Robert comes home and knows I am writing and leaves me alone. He encourages me. He understands.

Who were/are, in spite of themselves, your unknowing agents of energy and inspiration to keep writing

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Power of Rejection, and Why I Keep Writing.

Robert and I take our three rescue dogs to the Shelby Farms Dog Park often. Every time they go, it is the best day of their lives. As if they have never scurried after rabbits, splashed in lakes, or played with other mammals similar to themselves. Every time we go, it's a whole new world.  The excitement builds from the moment they see me putting on my walking shoes. They hear the squeak of the chair, and that's it.  When Robert picks up a leash, they sit and fidget until he attaches leashes to their collars. They rush the door and around to the back of the Jeep, so anxious to go. We drive with all windows down, and three heads with lips and ears flapping are seen in our review mirrors. They are together in a wad, metaphors for ecstasy.

On arrival at the dog park they don't even wait for the hatchback to open, noses are at the ready. Down from the Jeep they bound, then off to the lake.  Only one dog, the Golden Retriever, is a swimmer. The other two are waders, but they want to be swimmers.  They waggle their bodies as if they are going in, then turn around and watch Buddy swim toward a tennis ball. He snatches it in his muzzle, and swims back, snorting out water with each breath. On shore he drops the ball and runs off in search of a dog trotting down the dirt path.  This, my friends, is doggie bliss. It seems there are no boundaries, and plenty of lakes, butterflies and small animals, humans who all love dogs, petting hands at the end of every arm.

After about two hours, this is all they can take of bliss.  They are panting and tired.  They know the Jeep and run back there and wait to get in and lie down.  This has been fun, and now it's time to go home and rest. Until next time.

This is how it is with me and writing.  I know, it's a stretch, but stay with me here. The anticipation, the build up to the process, the journey through the terrain of the story, the lovable characters (though many are odd), the appreciation of the opportunity, then okay, it's time to get back on the road.  Then rest.  Then I do it all over again, and it is always brand new. Writers are those who write.  And I am one.

Over the past ten years or so, I have completed 3 novels, 35 short stories, about a dozen essays, and I want to add "so far".  Some writers say writing is cheap therapy. Others say writing satisfies some inner urging, or that they believe they were one of Dickens' characters in a previous life, or they believe their story is so unique people will line up for it, or they have a need to be famous, or rich, or whatever the reason may be. I don't know about those latter reasons; however, the inner urging I do understand.  And of course the cheap therapy. But for me, that's not the only reason I write. Truth is, writing makes me feel good.  Simple as that. 

Writing helps my deep memory. Those childhood events and stories that were long forgotten are somehow resurrected when I fall into what Robert Olen Butler calls that "dream state". There is a zone of emotional connection that we tap into when we put words on paper and words fall together to describe a scene or a character that we are seeing in our heart and brain, and the words come effortlessly as if snowflakes drifting from the sky. The beauty of it is ethereal and we know it when we do it.  But only after the writing is done.  When writing is an effort - when we struggle to find just the write word or phrase or metaphor for a circumstance so we can compare and contrast what we want the reader to experience, when we find just the right sequence of words, then and especially then we sit back and we say where did that come from and we know.

Like those dogs running free, my mind runs free with words.

So what if I get a rejection now and then?  (And believe me, I've received plenty.) One rejection does not stop the flow of process or passion for the craft. Ellen Ann Fentress says, "You're just statistically closer to a "yes" now, Emma".  I believe her.  She would know.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Grandmothers are Everywhere. Find One.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes says: "It's never too late to take up with a courageous, wild, calm, mostly sane grandmother. Or grandfather. They are everywhere. Just like the young are everywhere. Speak to each other, and you will likely not ever again be as strangers."

One of my co-workers lives two blocks from me. I think she is a few years older than I. And wise. And fun. I've walked past her house dozens of times while walking our dogs. This past week I learned that she will be moving several miles away to a condo. Walking the dogs the other night I saw her car in the driveway, her door ajar, so I stopped and knocked and was of course invited in. Dogs tied up outside, we had a wonderful talk. I said to her that I had never stopped by, even though I thought about it many times, but now that she is moving I felt compelled to stop. Even though I had never stopped before, I had felt comforted knowing she was there. Like a grandmother that I could call on if I needed her. (Even though she and I are close to the same age.) She is a wise one. She is funny, and loving, and well-read and a joy to be around.

I remember spending the night with my Cajun grandmother, Mammau, many times when I was a little girl. She read to me from books that were not necessarily for children, but nothing inappropriate, just historical or religious. She gave me my first diary and encouraged me to write every day. One of the regular things we did was listen to the radio at dusk. She sat in her rocker, and I snuggled up in her big feather bed. The radio was on her dresser tuned to a station interrupted by static now and then. Usually it was WWL out of New Orleans, an early version of talk radio run by the Jesuits at the time. The subject matter was varied, and the station was known for broadcasts of dixieland jazz concerts. Late at night, my grandmother and I listened to Southern Gospel programs, and some local preachers. Some were quite entertaining, causing us both to laugh. She had a little terrier named Snooky, and I would sometimes lure him to follow me home by taking a piece of bread and giving him tiny pieces along the way. Then Mammau called to ask my mom and dad if he had followed me home and I pretended like I was surprised and had no idea he had followed me. She knew.

Mammau taught me many things, but the best thing she taught me is how to be a grandmother. My nine year old granddaughter is here for the weekend. She has started a blog. I am very proud of her. She writes!

Who in your own life has been a grandmother to you, or who inspired you in your early efforts at writing?
[Note: on the photo above, I wish I could attribute it to the person who took this picture, but it was emailed to me by another blogger and that person had no idea where it came from. If anyone knows, I would like to give this photographer the credit he or she deserves, so please contact me.]

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Name. It's all about the name.

My daughter is about to give birth to a girl in a few short weeks. They've chosen the name Lola Frances. A family name. I know they put a lot of thought into this choice.

I've been thinking a lot lately about names. Parents begin to think about names as soon as the fact is known that a baby is on the way. And then there are all those baby naming books - Amazon has almost 1500 titles of books on choosing your baby's name. A child's name is extremely important.

My Great Aunt Emma was a nurse during World War II. After the war she became head nurse at the VA hospital in Gulfport MS. In my childhood I spent a week with her during a few summers when she would take me to the seawall and watch the waves roll in, and we threw bread out for the seagulls to snatch up. All through elementary school, I was the only Emma. When anyone was singled out because of bad behavior, such as talking, and it was someone named Emma, it was certainly me. I wanted so to be a Kathy, or a Patty, or a Debbie. I felt I did not fit in and the only reason was that I had this old-fashioned name. Nothing against Aunt Emma, whom I was named after, but back in the 60s it just was not a common name. When I was in 7th grade, I was the only Emma still. My middle name was Maria, so I decided to be known as Maria. My report cards and school records were changed. The first time I brought home my report card for my parents to sign, my father was apalled. Who in the world is Maria? he asked. When I explained that I didn’t like the name Emma and had decided to henceforth go my the name Maria, he and I had a sit-down. He explained to me the importance of the name Emma - that it was an old family name, and I should be proud to carry this name. He told the the story of how he and my mother had decided on naming me after his Aunt Emma because of how brave and tenacious she was. Aunt Emma had died a few years before that, so his feelings for her were still tender. I decided to go back to being Emma. Now I am glad I did. It's the 2nd most common name for baby girls these days. What happened to the Debbies and the Kathys?

Over the past few years, I studied a bit about the act of naming. When the ancient civilizations “named” something, it became their own. In biblical terms, naming was extremely important because it gave a person dominion over that which was named. Most every religious denomination has a ritual around the naming of the child. In the Episcopal Church, we say at Baptism, "Name this child."

In my fiction writing, I struggle with the names of my characters, because a name can tell the reader a lot about the person they read about. Sometimes the name comes right to me as soon as I begin a story. Other times I have to use Joe or Sue until the character reveals himself or herself to me through the writing. Then Joe or Sue might become a unique character whose name I have never even seen or heard before. One of my protagonists is named Goodlord Fenney. I never heard of anyone by this name and have no idea where it came from. But it fits the person I have pictured in my mind's eye.

What is the origin of your own name?

Go back to your own birth. Think about how things were then. What does your name say about you? Or, try the opposite writing prompt: You are given a different name. Whose idea is this? What is the name’s origin? How will your life be different?