The Posture of the Writer - Part II

Last week I asked whether or not you thought the writer’s “posture” effects his or her ability to carry out the work of writing. We looked at Madeline L’Engle’s ideas on this in WALKING ON WATER, and some of you shared your own ways of listening to the work. We all seemed to agree that time set aside is an absolute must, and that deliberately “unplugging” helps too.  

Today let's switch gears just a bit and look at Anne Lamott’s thoughts about the posture of the writer towards the world as found in the well-loved guide BIRD BY BIRD.  

The posture of the writer towards the world

Lamott says that writing is about “learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on” (97).  The goal of the writer is to “help others have [a] sense of wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small bordered world” (100).  In order to do this, we must cultivate in ourselves that sense of wonder; we must live in the world with our eyes wide open. Wonder requires reverence which is “awe, a presence in and openness to the world” (99).             

It also requires a conscious effort, doesn’t it? Most of us are just so busy or, dare I say it, self-focused that we look right over the street musician playing Bach’s “Chaconne” in the metro station. You know what I’m talking about, I hope? That day in 2007 when Joshua Bell, the violin prodigy-turned-internationally-acclaimed virtuoso played his $3.5 million Stradivari in the D.C. subway as part of a social experiment to see if people would recognize and stop to appreciate beauty?

Yup, there he is. The famous Joshua Bell.

So, as writers we must take our eyes off our own lives and notice the details in others, right? But then we must take it further. We must ask ‘why?’ Why is that man dressed like that? Why does the usually cheerful postman have bags under his eyes? Why is that child’s smile so sad, so lopsided?            

But lest we take Lamott’s definition of the writer as “a person who is standing apart” (97), as an excuse for elitism, she reminds us that to really see people as they are, “you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense” (97, italics mine).   

How can we do this? How can we get to know ourselves—the real true self that is often buried under tons of cares and responsibilities and images of who we ‘should’ be? Perhaps one very important step is what we touched on last time—to “be” as L’Engle practices, to get quiet within ourselves.  

But another tactic might be to step outside our emotions and examine our motivations in the same way we might examine character motivation for our work-in-progress. Instead of riding the irritation I feel at the slow-as-molasses driver in front of me, I could ask why I find the situation so irritating. What lies beneath the moment? Not just the fact that I’m late and the driver is in my way, but what does my irritation say about me?  

And then, might I turn the situation around? Ask instead why the driver is not paying attention? Engage my imagination? Wonder if she worried about what to make for her dinner party Saturday night? Or if perhaps she was up all night with a sick child and is drowsy at the wheel? Or if she distracted because she just lost her job?   

If I let it, wondering in this way helps me develop a deeper sense of empathy, both for myself and others. And I think it gradually aids me in the struggle to portray characters as complex and intriguing human beings. 

But there’s another side to Lamott’s ideas on the writer's stance towards the world. She points out that the writer's job involves “seeing people suffer and, as Robert Stone once put it, finding some meaning therein” (97). 

Meaning in misery, goodness in anguish... this is a big deal, right? We all suffer hardships and loss, and so do those we love--our friends, our families, our children. But what about those we never see face to face, half-way across the world or shut away in homes for the mentally ill or living in fear of a tyrannical regime. And then there are the very extreme cases, the Holocaust, famine, religious persecution and martyrdom. 

How do we, as writers, find our way through the muck? How do we create hope?

Lamott says, 
To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be part of the solution, to understand a little about life and pass this on (107).
So if Lamott is right, and we are first and foremost to care, then we can't be self-protective. We must live in the trenches. We must face reality. We can't escape to our towers and look at the world as through a mirror (see reference to Lady of Shalott from Part I here).

But perhaps our work can be a mirror. Perhaps it can be that object which reflects, not just the shape and color of reality, but the truths underlying it. 

And perhaps the writer's posture towards the world is really, at its best, not a posture at all, but instead an action, a striding forth, a choice and a hope that we, and the things we create, just might be part of the solution.

So I've got two questions for you this week:

1.)    Which authors come to your mind when you think of books that make a difference in the face of suffering? Who, among those who write for children and young people, might serve as our models?

2.)    Anyone, be it a refrigerator repair man or a daycare worker, can interact with people and places, past and present, with compassionate awareness and write about it. But what gives a story power? What makes it work? What allows it to speak to us? Does it have to do with the execution? Is this where mastery of technique and skill make the difference?
What do you think?

Please share. And if you'd like to keep tabs on the responses from others, don't forget to click on the mail icon next to your comment. They will go straight to your mailbox.

The Posture of the Writer - Part I

Okay, before you laugh and go way, let me just say that by "posture" I am not talking about the way a writer sits at her desk, hands poised ergonomically over the keyboard. This is not about yoga or zen meditation, however cool both those things may be. In using the word "posture" I'm thinking about the writer's view, the way she sees, the attitude she possesses. I'm thinking about something that exists within the writer herself. 

I think most of us will agree that good books--enduring books--stand on more than the author's mastery of skills. But would you also agree that the author's inner life effects the execution of his or her work? 

The late great Madeleine L’Engle meditates on the writer's inner life in WALKING ON WATER, particularly in regards to the posture of the writer towards art, or writing.  And Anne Lamott talks about the idea in BIRD BY BIRD, by concentrating on the posture of the writer towards the world.

For today, let's consider the posture of the writer towards her art:

L’Engle says that for her, writing involves “being.” 
“When I am constantly running, there is no time for being.  When there is no time for being, there is no time for listening” (13).
Listening to the “work,” the art, she says, is essential. This is because she claims “the work often knows more than I do” (24).

L’Engle sees the artist as the “birth giver,” or the servant of the work (18).  The art is larger than the artist; therefore, if the artist does not listen to the work, the result will be less than it could be.

This makes me think of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” (hence the gorgeous Waterhouse paintings above and below!). Shut in her high tower, away from the cares of the world, she can weave her “magic web of colors gay.” She can pay attention to her art. But if she looks away from the mirror that shows her the things that are happening in Camelot and sees the world with her own eyes, she will be cursed.

Thank goodness we’re not under such a curse. But it is a delicate balance, isn’t it?

I’ve found that this sort of single-mindedness toward writing requires me to plan ahead, as well as be a bit ruthless about what I take on beyond my normal daily responsibilities. Sure, I long for the Lady’s tower, but since I live in the real world and have a growing family, I have to schedule in blocks of time to contemplate and listen. I’ve also learned to be cautious about what sort of noise I allow into my life, so I don't have a cell phone, or cable, or GPS. For me, they  invite too many disruptions. Blips that turn into pauses, pauses that turn into minutes, minutes that turn into half-hours. Time that I need to stay simple and focused on the tasks and people at hand, the ones right in front of me. Going without  in this way helps me to listen to my work, even when I am not “doing the work.”

I don’t think L’Engle is saying this sort of listening has to be a solely passive activity. The paradox of any artist is that she must work.  L’Engle herself says,

“We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not, otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it” (24).
I think she is talking more about a constant, intentional awareness of the importance of this work we do. L’Engle gives us permission to acknowledge its magnitude and see it as our master. To realize the “privilege” it is to serve it (23).  She helps me see that writing ultimately isn’t about me. The moments of sharp, bright, consuming inspiration don’t make me special. They are gifts. But if I’m not listening, I could miss them.

Kind of humbling, isn’t it?

So how do you make time to be, instead of “act?” How do you make sure you are listening to the work?

(check back next week for Anne Lamott's wisdom on the writer's posture to the world, okay?)

Worthy of Study

We can learn a lot about writing great books by reading great books, right? I read over 20 novels last year, mostly YA, but a few MG too. There were many I liked, but not enough to label a crush.  

Then there were those that really stuck with me. Personally, I know I’ve got more than a crush when, after I’ve finish the book to find out how it all ends, I want to STUDY it. Not in a general way, but in line with a specific question I have. It is usually because the author has done a particular thing so very well.

So here are my top picks from 2011 (not necessarily that were published in 2011, but that I read in 2011 J) and why you might want to pull them apart and study them. English class, anyone?

If you want help with Plot:

THE REVENANT, by Sonia Gensler—The time period and historical setting real stuck with me. That and the creepy haunting of the main character, Willie. The narrative feels very confident, all the loose ends are tied up at the end, and Gensler does a good job of making Wille’s story-worth problem (she’s a runaway hiding her identity) intersect with and affect her ability to solve the story’s surface problem (the haunting of a Cherokee girl’s school). The story begins in just the right place with an inciting incident that intrigues and reveals just enough about the character to keep us reading. The narrative makes and keeps its promises too, with plenty of satisfactory surprises thrown in. I think you’ll love it.

If you are considering how to handle Multiple Points of View:

ENTER THREE WITCHES, by Caroline B. Cooney—Actually, I was a bit put-off at first by the multiple narrators, but once I figured out who each “speaker” was, I found Cooney’s handling to be quite intriguing. This is because even with the varying viewpoints, the narrative still feels like Mary’s (the main protagonist) story because the others only relate information that agrees or disagrees with what Mary thinks or says. They also allow us to look at Mary through their eyes, which gives us a broader picture of her than we might have had if the POV had been restricted to Mary only. Lastly, each sequence and p.o.v. change moves the story forward with almost cinematic effect. The reader doesn’t have to redo points of time from one p.o.v. to the next, the narrative just keep moving ahead as though we have changed cameras. Plus the book is a retelling of MACBETH, one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.

 If you are looking for a vivid and compelling use of Setting:

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, by Beth Revis—A spaceship? I mean, can there be a cooler setting choice for a murder mystery? Revis does an excellent job, not only of painting the setting for us so we feel we are walking around inside the ship, but of showing us how the setting affects the main character, Amy. I feel just as pressed in and trapped as she does. I wonder if there is any hope that she will ever get off that ship, just as she does. I feel the ship hurtling through the black expanse of space even now, months and months after reading it. If you are developing a setting that is essential to the narrative arch of your story (which in my opinion, should always be the case), pay attention to all the places where Amy is not only acting within her environment, but thinking about her environment. I think that is precisely why the setting feels so real.

If you want to understand how to create memorable Character:

LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER, by Deb Wiles—I will never forget Ruby, her poignancy, her flesh-and-blood feel, the way she speaks and thinks. This is up there with Gilly Hopkins, and Anne Shirley, and Ramona Quimby. Wiles gives us Ruby in layers – images, quirks both verbal and physical, descriptions, actions, reactions, emotions. Study this one, and you will be glad to have spent time with this dear, dear girl.

And as a bonus:

BLACK PEARLS, by Louise Hawes—every short story is incredibly well-done. Just wait until you read the retelling of Cinderella from the Prince’s point of view, or the one about Snow White. But my absolutely favorite is “Naked,” from the rhyme “Ride a cock horse to Coventry Cross.” A perfect treatment of a relationship gone wrong and the nobility that can rise from the cracks in the human heart. I cried. And then promised to study it several times over. I am so glad I did.

Have you read anything recently that you want to tear apart and study and put back together again? Feel free to share your recommended reads from 2011!