I’m not blocked. At least I didn’t think so until I read, “On Writing,” Stephen King’s memoir and instruction book on the writing life. He was talking about a complex novel in progress (I have a complex novel in progress), when the words just stopped coming. (Ditto.) How was he going to finish/rewrite it? (Yep, that too.) He used this blockage to ask himself the question, What am I writing about? And all of a sudden he’s talking about “theme” in novel writing. It’s a pretty good question.
My conundrum is the novel El Peon, my first long story and the first one to be challenged for the use of so much Spanish. Unchastened, I left most of it in. Art is different than genre, I thought. If Cormac can do it…blah, blah, blah. There are a number of other writerly flaws in Peon, which I periodically try to chase down and change. But it’s not that; it’s the story. How can it interesting without any violence or war or torture? My wife thinks it is. She thinks it is my best work thus far. And some other early readers do as well. Thanks to all. So why am I still naggling over it?
Peon was the subject of an earlier blog in which I concluded that one of the major settings needed to be a character in the story. The place had an effect on the other characters that was too important and too under developed in the original version. I still think so. As a result, I sat down and wrote a chapter (El Prólogo) of which I am inordinately proud. It has gotten me to the point of simulating Gaby Garcia, something I’ve had in mind for years. But what is Peon about?
Here is what I think: Peon has three protagonists, each a child in a manner of speaking, of Eduardo. Two of them imagine themselves as Eduardo’s victims. Each grows up in a Central America of explosive change. Metaphorically but also I think, realistically, I use the Free Trade Agreements (FTA) to symbolize those changes. Coming from Eduardo’s house, these three grow up in a traditional campesino culture. As young adults, they are presented with the changes in worldview, values and opportunities. The oldest, Guito, chooses a non-religious but spiritual path rooted in his love of nature. The second, Rigo, chooses a modified-but-still-traditional campesino path, (which still exists). The third, Aurelez, embraces the new world and becomes a psychiatrist and feminist author.
They live their lives in tension with each other and the world around them. In the end, Eduardo dies forgiven and all works out for the best. Not bad but not done. What is Peon about?
On the surface it is about the challenges facing peoples who are literally driven from one cultural milieu to another. We arrived in Costa Rica a couple of years prior to the FTA referendum. (As far as I know, CR is still the only country to have held a popular vote on the matter.) We chose to live in a very rural (no-Gringo at the time) part of the country. The choice provides us with a view of people living with traditional values in a land that has become a cell-tower farm, replete with Walmart and an osmotic seepage of the rest of the world’s values through the Internet. Almost all of my early stories dealt with the resulting tension.
There is no remorse in this blog. What happens happens. But the central tension has been how does one accommodate traditional values in the face of all of the change? Or, put otherwise, are traditional values of any worth other than a nostalgic piece of the national identity? Aurelez, takes on this challenge in her career and in her writing.
So, I suppose that is what El Peon is about. People live their lives. They have their failures and successes but they do so in a cultural context that can be quite disorienting.
Get on with it Dude.
Thanks to Lynette Hunt for the look-of-writerly-quandry photo.
Literature encourages tolerance - bigots and fanatics seldom have any use for the arts, because they're so preoccupied with their beliefs and actions that they can't see them also as possibilities. -Northrop Frye
Like thousands of readers, I riveted to the arrival of Go Set a Watchman from Harper Lee. It was her first novel that, in its rejection, spawned the culture-rattling, To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 1960, Mockingbird’s narrator is the first-person “Scout,” Atticus’ six-year-old daughter. The story is astutely framed as the memory of a twenty something returning in the 1950’s. In Watchman, Scout (Jean Louise Finch) does return as a twenty-something. She finds her father crippled with rheumatoid arthritis and possibly a touch of dementia. Whether true or not, Atticus Finch is different. Atticus Finch is a bigot.
The first reviews are dominated by the difference in the two Atticuses. And so are the comments to the NYT. These comments range from the, “Yeah, no surprise here,” brushoff, to thoughtful reminiscences of people who react with degrees of pain to the change. Some see the reality of hypocrisy in most of us reflected in the reality of old-man-Atticus:
“The "contrasts" in Atticus are surely the reality of most peoples' lives. What one "stands for" and believes in, good or bad, are not always practiced or the same thing…. How many people harbor racist or other unacceptable views but never act on or reveal them? Life is full of such imbalance.” Ken Russell
In Mockingbird, Atticus was the epitome of manhood. The movie image of him sitting alone and unarmed outside the jail to stop a lynch mob is indelible. He set a bar for civility that would cause men in any society to sit up and learn. And he was a perfect father. The one thing that could have made him more heroic would have been that he was willing to give his life for a principle even though he was racist. Not. Atticus Finch was flawless. It is the aspect of his character that led some to assert that Mockingbird is a children’s book, a fairy tale.
I want Mockingbird’s Atticus. But I’m drawn to commentators who relate the changes in him to the reality of the South of those times and these. Some speak of complicated childhoods in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. My mother, a flawed but good-hearted woman, took me to a movie in Atlanta in 1949. Its subject was a woman “passing for white.” I think—perhaps through rose-colored memory lenses—it was the first of her un-heroic ways of revealing to me the flaw in our legacy.
The reviews-of-Watchman brouhaha revealed to me my attachment to Mockingbird’s Atticus. Unexpectedly, it illuminated my inexplicable refusal to change my character, William Hoffman Zelaya, in The Oligarch. Doctor William is a flawless human being, if an imperfect guerrilla. Like Atticus, he stands up to racism and political oppression. I’ve lamented his perfection publicly for some time but seem incapable of making him more realistic. My William, like my Atticus, serves an author who needs his idealism more than his reality.
You remember Abraham Maslow. He’s the guy who told us that human motivation was layered and that until we took care of things immediate to survival (air, for instance), food and shelter were unimportant. And once starvation and exposure was solved, relationships and achievement and “self-realization,” took our attention in that order. Even if it feels a little oversimplified these days, it still makes huge sense.
I first learned of Maslow’s Hierarchy in the early 70’s in a military school. It was as though my eyes were pried open. Suddenly I understood my immigrant (step) grandfather and his intense commitment to family. A commitment and interest that never went further than that—relationships. Those kinds of aha’s can feel important, empowering. Cool.
Then—50 years later— along comes this:
“The ultimate source of happiness is within us,” said the Dalai Lama in an announcement about the [book] deal. “Not money, not power, not status, which fail to bring inner peace. Outward attainment will not bring real inner joyfulness. We must look inside.”
Archbishop Tutu added: “Sometimes life can be challenging and we can feel lost. But the seeds of joy are born inside each of us. I invite you to join His Holiness and me in creating more joy in our world.”
Not the first time I’ve heard these thoughts. I’ve studied Buddhist tenets at shifting levels of intensitity, for nigh on 30 years. But then sometimes old stuff can strike you a peculiar way. I remembered the images of 0f the Buddhist monk burning himself to death on a street in Saigon. Didn’t he have air, water, food, shelter, friendships, etc., pretty well squared away? Either, it seems to me, Maslow was wrong in some fundamental way or the monk was psychotic.
Or something else is going on. Perhaps the monk had transcended the first four levels of the hierarchy and was now operating at a level of motivation that put the well-being of his fellow humans so far ahead of himself that his idea was to draw attention to their plight, dramatically. There is a recognizable element of of Western “courage” in that choice that most of us reflexively respect.
Or maybe he skipped the hierarchy altogether. While one usually goes through the Maslow’s stages to the point where growth stalls out, perhaps it isn’t necessary. Perhaps, when one senses,“the ultimate source of happiness is within us,” stages in the heirarchy aren’t as compelling as they once were.
Yesterday afternoon I went to a party. Perhaps one beer too many but not too much. Nothing too unusual about that. I went to bed at my usual time but the next morning I felt lazy, staying in bed for a full three hours after usual. Dozing, off-and-on dreaming, and thinking about my latest story. It was curious even then. I’m normally up at five, six at the latest.
But what happened next was unexpected. After taking care of some mandatory emails I took my coffee to an easy chair near the dogs whom, unburdened by the writer’s curiosity, were well into their early morning naps.
Here’s the backstory: I’m in the middle of a sequel about a sixteen year-old girl and was stuck on the plot. The story had plenty of action and was moving fast until it didn’t. I had taken the problem to my fellow novelists and had gotten pithy and on-point feedback about the story. They reminded me that I was writing a Quest story and had failed to honor the requirements of said plot. The proposed ending feels like an anti-climax one said.
Now, I knew the hero’s journey plot going in. It fits for my sixteen year-old but what was to reveal her take away from the experience? First sex? Please.
She’d been through a lifetime of stress but I had left out the results of being betrayed. (In fact, I had left out a betrayal.) What does one’s hero learn from that? Is she vengeful? Does she learn to too-quickly-compartmentalize people into good and bad? Is she someone who must compulsively be right for life? Does she check her feelings for the betrayer against her own behavior? Can she forgive? Does she in fact, grow up?
Nothing like a stout cup of Costa Rican coffee to set the mind straight. I sat there sipping and watched her come into the room where her betrayer sat. It’s the scene where the story comes together, in this case with some Grisham-like legal twists. But the focus is on her and the betrayer, both of them physically damaged and severely stressed. And both of them are aware of what happened and their parts in it. It’s a pretty good ending.
I need to spend more time in bed.
As serendipity will have it, my wife forwarded this article. I found it later in the morning.
Copied from the NYT 5 Apr 2015
The quest underlies just about every form of storytelling, from religious myth to Greek epic to Hollywood blockbuster to personal memoir. In this structure, a protagonist is shaken out of his normal way of life by some disturbance and—often reluctantly at first, but at the urging of some kind of mentor or wise figure—strikes out on a journey to an unfamiliar realm. There he faces tests, battles enemies, questions the loyalty of friends and allies, withstands a climactic ordeal, teeters on the brink of failure or death, and ultimately returns to where he began, victorious but in some way transformed.
The hero’s journey is so pervasive in storytelling (indeed, some would say Campbell ruined modern entertainment by identifying it) because it is so aspirational. It offers the possibility of an escape from something that holds you back, and a transformation into something better. NYT 5 Apr 2015