This week I read Home by Toni Morrison. Home is a compact novel of only one hundred and forty six pages. It has a great opening hook of a man trying to escape from a hospital and letting the reader in on his plans of deception and escape. He doesn’t remember what he did to get arrested or taken to the hospital which starts the story off with a mystery. However, the novel continues to surprise by changing POV characters. The reader, keeps expecting the story to return to the first character Frank, a Korean War veteran with PTSD, but the novel keeps moving from character to character through the women in Frank’s life before coming back to him.
What I Learned
Structure: For a short novel, it has a surprise multi-POV structure with chapters in italics talking to the author, or someone who might tell the MC’s story in the future.
The title does a lot of work for the novel. It presents the theme and dramatic question and argument. What is home? Is it a place, a feeling, a person? Is it true that you can’t ever go home again? Or is home the place you settle, find comfort, or just give up looking for anything better?
Opening hook: The novel starts with one of the italicized sections describing a childhood memory that is a mystery about witnessing a dead body being buried in a field and ends addressing “you” as the person “set on telling my story.”
The first opening scene. The opening sentence is one word: Breathing. The next sentence is, “How to do it so no one would know he was awake.” What an intriguing opening. The character is contemplating using the most basic controllable action necessary for life to create a deceit. Instantly the reader has a ton of questions. Who is he trying to deceive? Why? Whether our MC is a good guy or a bad guy, he is manipulative and deceitful at the most basic level. And yet the reader wants answers to why and thus there’s already an investment in the character at least until they find out why he’s in that situation.
Evoking emotion: The emotion this novel evoked for me was disgust. To do this, Morrison broached taboo topics like Eugenics, forced sterilization, the horrors of war, PTSD, and child prostitution. I talked about writing about taboos in my RNLN post about A Widow For One Year by John Irving. She used many different techniques to finally get the reader feel disgust.
1. An unreliable main character. The main character is a Korean War veteran with Post Traumatic stress. He signed up with two of his childhood best friends and watched them both die horrible deaths. Morrison’s descriptions of how he experiences PTSD make his actions and feelings both real and relatable.
2. Making the main character honorable, or giving him heroic attributes: the only thing he has is the medal he earned for valor, and the reason he escapes and heads to Georgia is to save his sister. Everything he does is because he received a letter that says his sister’s life is in danger.
3. Making the main character vulnerable and giving him faults: The main character keeps getting mugged and losing all his money. He has to rely on the kindness of strangers. He has to trust others when he can’t even trust himself.
4. Betrayal: Though Morrison has set up the MC as a person who can’t be trusted, through making him relatable, honorable, and vulnerable she tricks the reader into believing him, only to be betrayed by the horror of the truth of his actions during the war when he finally faces and shares his truth.
Ending: The ending circles back to the opening scene, finding closure for the children in that opening memory.
Character and Character arc:
By using multiple POVs, Morrison makes it possible to see the MC through the eyes of the women in his life. One of the chapters is through the eyes of the “evil step-grandmother” who his family lived with before he left for the war. From her point of view, she had just gotten what she wanted in life before her new husband’s destitute family showed up and took it all away. They not only took her space, they expected her to be responsible for their children who became the only ones for her to take her frustrations out on.
Near the end, Frank sums up his sister Cee’s character arc for the reader:
“This Cee was not the girl who trembled at the slightest touch of the real and vicious world. Nor was she the not-even-fifteen-year-ole who would run off with the first boy who asked her. And she was not the household help who believed whatever happened to her whole drugged was a good idea, good because a white coat said so. Frank didn’t know what took place during those weeks at Miss Ethel;s house surrounded by those women with seen-it-all eyes. Their low expectation of the world was always on display. Their devotion to Jesus and one another centered them and placed them high above their lot in life. They delivered unto him a Cee who would never again need his hand over her eyes or his arms to stop her murmuring bones. “
I think one of the things I’m learning through reading novels as a novelist is telling the reader what you want them to take away from the novel is something the great novelists do. What makes it different than just exposition or telling is that the statements are interesting and thought provoking. The rule “show don’t tell” appears to be a rule meant to be broken.
Description and time: When the main character, Frank (Smart) Money does finally go home to his parents’ house, “that had been empty since his father died,” he re-rents it for a few months and finds some treasures in a hole next to the stove. “Cee’s two baby teeth were so small next to his winning marbles: a bright blue one, an ebony one, and his favorite, a rainbow mix. The Bulova watch was still there. No stem, no hands—the way time functioned in Lotus, pure and subject to anybody’s interpretation.”
In that short description, she says so much. The most important things to the MCs young self were his sister’s baby teeth, his winning marbles and a broken watch. But she’s also described life in the town he grew up in, and time itself. Time is “pure” when it can’t be tracked or known.
Another way she uses description and time is right after Frank brings his sister Cee to a safe place. Her life is in danger. The reader doesn’t know if she will live and so the reader is hooked. Frank has done what he can do and now his sister’s well-being is out of his hands. So what does Toni Morrison do next? She writes two pages of description about the sun and heat. Current writing instruction would would most likely tell me that readers won’t put up with that much description anymore. They will get bored or scan over it, and yet, in this novel it works. She’s putting the reader in Frank’s shoes. He’s feeling the sun and the heat acutely as he walks to line up for work in the cotton field while no longer having anything he can do to help his sister but wait and stay away.
Thought provoking equivalencies: The thing that really makes this novel stand above to me are the statements about abstractions:
content=hopeless “My family was content or maybe just hopeless living that way. I understand. Having been run out of one town, any other that offered safety and the peace of sleeping through the night and not waking up with a rifle in your face was more than enough. But it was much less than enough for me. “
desire=disgust “Thinking back on it now, I think the guard felt more than disgust. I think he felt tempted and that is what he had to kill.”
violence=good “Once seated, Frank wondered at the excitement, the wild joy the fight had given him. It was unlike the rage that had accompanied killing in Korea. Those sprees were fierce but mindless, anonymous. This violence was personal in its delight. Good, he thought. He might need that thrill to claim his sister.”
I’ve reached an interesting and complicated point in my study. I want to create images that express contradictory abstract nouns and evoke emotion. But how will I photograph those images if everyone has different definitions for abstract nouns and everyone perceives images differently? How do points, lines, and colors on a two-dimensional surface evoke emotion at all?
This exploration will be ongoing, probably for a long time. I’ve been reading widely and while re-reading Abstract Art by Anna Moszynska noticed a reference to a text called Point and Line to Plane written by Wassily Kandinsky. I had recently looked at a picture book called The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock which talks about Kandinsky having synesthesia. I’m glad I read that before Point and Line to Plane because it helps make sense of how Kandinsky talks about visual elements making sounds.
The Science of Art
In Point and Line to Plane which was first published in German in 1926, Kandinsky is attempting to create and explain a science of art. He sees every experience as a duality of external and internal.
Every phenomenon can be experienced in two ways. These two ways are not arbitrary, but are bound up with the phenomenon—developing out of its nature and characteristics: Externally—or—inwardly. . . . Aside from its scientific value, which depends upon an exact examination of the individual art elements, the analysis of the art elements forms a bridge to the inner pulsation of a work of art.
When explaining his idea of an outer experience he titles the section “Shock.”
Sometimes an unusual shock is able to jolt us out of such a lifeless state into vigorous feeling. Frequently, however, the most thorough shaking fails to revitalize the deadly condition. The shocks which come from without (sickness, accident, sorrow, war, revolution) wrench us violently out of the circle of our customary habits for a shorter or a longer time, but such shocks are, as a rule, looked upon as a more or less violent “injustice.” Therefore, the desire to re-establish as soon as possible the traditional habits, temporarily abandoned, outweighs all other feelings.
And here’s his explanation of Inner experience:
Disturbances originating from within are of a different character; they are brought about by the human being himself and, therefore, find in him their appropriate foundation. . . . There, the receptive eye and the receptive ear transform the slightest vibrations into impressive experiences. Voices arise from all sides, and the world rings.
Kandinsky’s ideas of inner and outer experiences make me think of the emotions of the artist while making art and the emotions of the observer when experiencing the art. No matter how precisely an artist has used different elements in an attempt to evoke a specific emotion, or experience, the viewer may see something completely different.
I shall mention in passing that the theory of empathy has afflicted generations of aestheticians with a host of pseudoproblems. One asked : Are the feelings expressed in sights and sounds those of the artist who created them or those of the recipient? Does one have to be in a melancholy mood in order to produce, perform, or apprehend a melancholy composition? Can “emotions” be expressed in a Bach fugue or a painting by Mondrian? These and other similar questions become incomprehensible once one has understood that expression resides in perceptual qualities of the stimulus pattern.
He alone can appreciate the art, who could comprehend the conversation of the painter, and share in his emotion, in moments of his most fiery passion and most original thought. And whereas the true meaning and end of his art must thus be sealed to thousands, or misunderstood by them; so also, as he is sometimes obliged, in working out his own peculiar end, to set at defiance those constant laws which have arisen out of our lower and changeless desires, that whose purpose is unseen, is frequently in its means and parts displeasing.
So what is the relationship between the emotions of the artist and the emotions of the observer?
“Riegl emphasized an obvious but previously ignored psychological aspect of art: that art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only do we collaborate with the artist in transforming a two-dimensional figurative image on a canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the visual world, we interpret what we see on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture. Riegl called this phenomenon the “beholder’s involvement.” Based on ideas derived from Rigl’s work and on insights that began to emerge from cognitive psychology, the biology of visual perception, and psychoanalysis, Kris and Gombrich went on to develop a new view of this concept, which Gombrich referred to as the beholder’s share.
Kris, who later became a psychoanalyst, started things off by studying ambiguity in visual perception. He argued that every powerful image is inherently ambiguous because it arises from experiences and conflicts in the artist’s life. The viewer responds to this ambiguity in terms of his or her own experiences and conflicts, recapitulating in a modest way the experience of the artist in creating the image. For the artist, the creative process is also interpretative, and for the beholder the interpretative process is also creative. Because the extent of the viewer’s contribution depends on the degree of ambiguity in the image, a work of abstract art, with its lack off reference to identifiable forms, arguably puts greater demands on the beholder’s imagination than a figurative work does. Perhaps it is these demands that make abstract works seem difficult to some viewers, yet rewarding to those who find in them an expansive, transcendent experience.”
The How-tos of Evoking Emotion
Searching for the actual how-to of evoking emotion with art, I found a couple of paragraphs in The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum:
Let’s pause for a moment to consider the ramifications of lines, forms, and contrasts on the emotional content of an image. This is of the utmost importance because even the most technically perfect print is meaningless without emotion.
. . . jagged lines are far more active than curved lines, which themselves are more relaxed. High contrast is far more active than low contrast. Middle gray tonalities impart the quietest, most relaxed mood of all. So jagged, sharp lines or even tightly curving, twisted lines combined with high contrast will be intensely active and highly charged. Gently curved lines along with softly modulating tonalities will impart a quiet, relaxed mood.
Any thinking photographer will use this universal language to his or her advantage. If you want a quiet, reverential mood, you’ll do well to work with curved lines, rounded forms, and subdued contrast. Soft light, gray tones, and pastel colors on rounded hills impart the feeling of a gentle, pleasant, livable landscape, whereas strong sidelight on sharp, craggy rock spires imparts excitement and adventure, perhaps even a feeling of foreboding.
So certain lines and colors, tones of color and lighting can evoke calm or excitement. That’s a start.
Kandinsky begins his scientific study with the geometric point. But he quickly moves from the idea of a mark of a pen or a brush to a surface to the written word. He says the geometric point is “the ultimate and most singular union of silence and speech.”
The geometric point has, therefore, been given its material form, in the first instance, in writing. It belongs to language and signifies silence.
In the flow of speech, the point symbolizes interruption, non-existence (negative element), and at the same time it forms a bridge from one existence to another (positive element). In writing, this constitutes its inner significance.
Externally, it is merely a sign serving a useful end and carries with it the element of the “practical-useful,” with which we have been acquainted since childhood. The external sign becomes a thing of habit and veils the inner sound of the symbol.
The inner becomes walled-up through the outer.
As you can see, even a point, the smallest visual (and written language and speech) element is itself a contradiction with both negative and positive elements of both inner and outer significance.
He says that by moving the point from where one would expect to see it, once can reveal its “inner tensions.” I absolutely love his examples and think it may be something to think about in the coming month of poetry:
Let the point be moved out of its practical-useful situation into an impractical, that is, an illogical, position.
Today I am going to the movies. Today I am going. To the movies Today I. Am going to the movies
It is apparent that it is possible to view the transposition of the point in the second sentence still as a useful one—emphasis upon the destination, stress upon the intention, loud fanfare. In the third sentence the illogical, in pure form, is at work. This may be explained as a typographical error—the inner value of the point flashes forth for a moment and is immediately extinguished.
So how does this help me with my images? Kandinsky got me thinking about focusing on basic elements. I haven’t contemplated the point’s inner tensions before; its sounds and silences, its illogical positions.
This week is going to be a little different. Every time I look “Abstract Art” in my local library system’s catalogue, the novel Kaleidoscope by Brian Seznick comes up. The cover looks like an extreme close-up on a green eye with the white lettering across the pupil. I’ve been curious why that novel comes up with “abstract art” every time, so this week, I checked it out and read it.
Seznick explains the connection himself in an author’s note:
“During the first three months of the pandemic . . . I started making abstract art, perhaps because it felt like the world was shattering, so my art needed to do something similar. . . . I found myself ripping apart everything I’d already written. It was like the narrative was shattering along with everything else, and out of the shards a new book began to take shape. . . . That’s why I decided to call this new version of the book Kaleidoscope, because each of these elements, like bits of colored glass, turn and transform and rearrange themselves into something new.”
I also finished S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams. You may recall that I first encountered S., or The Ship of Theseus while looking at unusual formats during RNLN of The Woman in the Library. I was taking my time reading it, reading a couple of pages of the text, then reading all the marginalia. But then I saw that two people are waiting for it at the library, so it will be due soon, so I started reading the text about a half chapter at a time them going back to the marginalia and that worked a lot better for me to get me into the story, though I must admit, after initially loving the concept, I found the result rather dull.
Both of these novels were very unconventional and yet, to me, had a lot in common. They both found ways to manipulate time, to have the past, present, and future exist in the same space, and they both explored the concept of identity, of knowing one’s identity, of a person’s ever-changing identity. And they both explore the fluidity of relationship.
Time & Space, Identity, and Relationship
In the sixth story, “The Abandoned House,” Seznick addresses Kaleidoscope‘s approach to time and space directly when James says,
“Most people think time is a machine that needs to be oiled and wound with a key. They think it’s something you control and maintain. But maybe it’s more wild than that. Maybe it’s bigger and stranger. Maybe time is uncontrollable, and endless, and … dangerous. Like a forest eating a house.”
The order of the very short stories of the narrator and James moves like that: bigger and stranger and wild. In the first story James leaves and the narrator is accused of his murder, and in the second the narrator has become, or is a giant who can become invisible and James may be the name of a boy who gives him an apple. Later James is an imaginary friend, and in another story the narrator is a spirit.
Then how is this a novel?, you may ask. Or how are these the same characters?, you may wonder. Seznick does a great job of explaining this in “The Story of Mr. Gardner.” Mr. Gardner attempted to write the ultimate reference book. He started with defining an apple, and ended up with seventy-five thousand pieces of paper, still trying to finish his definition of an apple when he died.
“We had only a tiny fraction of everything he wrote in our possession, but the fragments included references to Greek myths, the origins of the universe, children’s fantasy novels, the quests of King Arthur’s knights, the creation of the periodic table, a man who found the entrance to a buried city behind a wall in his house, spaceships, ancient Egypt, mysterious castles, the invention of the kaleidoscope, and the knitted blankets of his childhood bed.
“It’s sad that Mr. Gardner died without finishing,” I said.
“I suppose,” said James. “But I think he may have discovered something interesting.”
I waited for James to continue. He gently placed his hand on top of the pile of papers, as if he was touching a living thing, and said, “The entire universe can be found inside an apple.”
The stories in this novel are like those fractions of everything that define the narrator and James.
In S. the physical space of the book, the text, the footnotes, the inserts, and different colors of ink show the past, present, and future, overlapping on the page. In the text of The Ship of Theseus which is the novel that S. revolves around, time behaves differently on the ship than it does on land. In the section of Ship of Theseus called “Interlude: Toccata and Fugue in Free Time,” the character S. moves between the ship and land many times, slipping between times and spaces.
“When S. is on the orlop, with the pen’s nib flying over paper, with ink spattering over skin, fabric, wood, what emerges on the paper are flashes of image, lightning-strikes of sense-memories, fragmented impressions of events. They refuse to be strung into coherent, linear narrative no matter how consciously he tries to arrange them so; in fact, the more he tries, the more the pieces resist his efforts. Many feel as if they belong to his past, but others almost certainly belong to the lives of others . . . he transcribes a captain’s log of voyages he has never taken on a ship he has never boarded; he chronicles (confesses?) his murderous skulkings on terra firma , although these accounts drift away from fact, toward distortion and grotesquerie as he—a dazed but rapt Hephaestus—sits and sweats in the greasy orange glow, watching his hands as if they were not his own.”
V. M. Straka
The marginalia references another of V. M. Straka’s fictional novels, but this can also be read as a description of S. as a whole.
At one point in The Ship of Theseus, the story addresses the philosophical question, or mental puzzle called “The Ship of Theseus.” S. finds a book that chronicles every change that has been made to the ship he is on, and poses the question to himself.
“On the first page is a charcoal drawing of his ship (no, he reminds himself, the ship on which I’ve been held)—or, rather, an earlier version of it, when it was a harmonious whole, a shipwright’s realization of a xebec that would fly across the main and leave sailors about other vessels dumbstruck with envy. With each page S. turns, he finds another drawing of the ship along with marginal notes cataloguing the changes it has undergone.
He flips forward, ten to twenty pages at a time. Again and again the ship sheds a feature and dons a new one, reinterpreted and remade. Some of these changes are noteworthy . . . each one seeming to widen the gap between what was intended and what turned out to be. . . .Are they the same ship? Intuition tells him they are, though perhaps he is being influenced by the fact that the pages are all held together within the same covers.”
V. M. Straka
This made me think of the short short stories that make up Kaleidoscope, and all the postcards, letters, and marginalia that make up S. Are they novels because they are held together and presented as such? I think it’s more than that. Each of the authors used moments within the novels to explain how to read and appreciate them as novels.
Applying What I Learned
Though my novel is told chronologically, these novels got me thinking about all of the times in my MC’s life that affect what is happening in the present story and got me brainstorming.
Which times of Verity’s life play the largest roles in her present being?
Happy childhood, loving parents, happy home
Her dad gets shot in a random act of violence Meets Memphis because forced bussing Memphis uses Verity’s address so they can continue to go to same schools, Verity’s mom goes along with it when asked, but holds it over Memphis. Says if she ever gets called that Memphis is in trouble, she’ll tell them the truth. This starts Memphis’s resentment of Verity.
Middle School dramas / basketball / fascination with school shootings, random acts of violence High School dramas / basketball / fascination with school shootings, random acts of violence / parties / dances
College : left town for the first time / felt a little fame from basketball / aches, pains, injuries?
Good relationships/ Bad relationships
Her mother getting sick Leaving college to go to school closer to home to take care of mother Taking the job as a cop Becoming a detective Solving her first big case Pauline getting murdered The restraining order / getting fired Her mom dying
All of these things and more happen before the novel begins.
In Kaleidoscope, the two main characters—the first person narrator, and James take on many different personae.
I, the first person narrator is a boy, a giant, a man James is an imaginary friend, a boy, the king of the moon
What are my MC’s different identities?
She is the store detective working a nine to five, going home, eating dinner, watching tv, going to bed, doing it again tomorrow Verity of the first paragraph of this novel. She is the Verity of the present who goes through the events of the novel She is jogger Verity She is Memphis’s friend Verity She is Verity who pretends to be like Memphis to get attention She is daughter Verity, grieving for her mother She is jobless Verity, grieving for her future She is obsessive connection-making thinker Verity She is detective Verity She is police officer Verity She is uncomfortable in her body tall Verity She is in command of her body basketball player Verity She is not Malibu Verity
By the end there, I was thinking about Barbie and all her different personae.
How do the events I listed that formed how Verity is in the present interact with her different identities? I think I’ll try writing some of the big events in Verity’s life from her point of view as they happened, then as a memory from the POV of a present identity. Once I’ve done that, I may want to re-evaluate my chronological telling. Is there a stronger way to use time, identity, and relationship in the way I tell my story?
This Week’s Surprise Connection
I checked out a book called The Writer’s Library by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager, in which they talk to authors about the books that “made them think, brought them joy, and changed their lives.” I thought this might have some interesting insight for this study.
In the Foreword by Susan Orlean she says, “In Senegal, when someone dies, you say that his or her library has burned.” (Having lived in Senegal, I did not ever hear that, and have trouble imagining it, said, but some people in Senegal could say it.) But that’s not this week’s surprise connection. Later she says, “At last, I understood how much we all are our books. Their meaning to us doesn’t end when we close the last page. What we glean from them alters us permanently; it becomes part of who we are for as long as we live.”
After reading that, I started reading Kaleidoscope and in the third story “The Library,” I read
“I found one other thing from the wreck,” I told him. “A locked chest.”
The boy sat up. “Where is it now?”
I brought him the chest, and he opened it with the key he wore around his neck.
As he lifted the lid, we saw the trunk was full of seawater stained black with ink and glue. One by one the boy pulled out soaking, ruined books. They dissolved in his hands and he collapsed on the floor in tears.
“Tell me what they were,” I asked. “My father’s books,” he said. “He was teaching me from them. I loved reading these books and discussing them with him. Now he is gone, and so are all the things he knew. Everything is lost.”
It was as if the two texts were talking to each other.
Last year’s A to Z Challenge became a year long focus that changed how I approach art, poetry, and writing fiction. I like to combine the A to Z Challenge with the daily poetry prompts from NaPoWriMo and Poem-a-Day, so last year I picked the simple topic of “Abstract Nouns.” Abstract nouns are nouns that denote an idea, quality, or state rather than a concrete object. In other words, they are things that cannot be measured or perceived with the five main senses. They represent intangible ideas.
Studying abstract nouns led to reading lots of philosophy. Trying to capture photographs of abstract nouns led to a deep dive into abstract art and creating many new photography techniques. And the challenge led to some interesting poems about how we each have a different definition, sometimes contradictory definitions of the same abstract noun.
After the April Challenges were over, I continued my study with a new daily challenge of abstract nouns, and by the end of the summer, I had discovered a new passion: Contradictory Abstract Nouns. Inspired by a piece of writing advice, “Find the despair in hope, and the hope in despair,” I started trying to capture images of these contradictory abstractions, and this led to a continuing study of what I call the Big Five: Truth/ Deceit; Beauty/ Ugliness; Love/ Apathy; Happiness/ Despair; Wisdom/ Naivete. I even used the Big Five as inspiration for the main characters in my NaNoWriMo novel.
For this year’s A to Z Challenge I will be looking at contradictory abstract nouns that both start with the same letter. This will make for less obvious combinations, and more creative contrasts. Since A to Z subtracts Sundays, I’m going to leave this year’s Sundays open to collage my images and thoughts from the week.
Here is a calendar of the ideas I have so far. Like last year, X needs some leeway. These are tentative and may change by April first.
Maass says, ” . . . none of readers’ emotional experience of a story actually comes from the emotional lives of characters. It comes from readers themselves.” So how are we supposed to get a reader to feel from our writing?
He says, “There are three primary paths to producing an emotional response in readers. The first is to report what characters are feeling so effectively that readers feel something too. This is inner mode, . . .The second is to provoke in readers what characters may be feeling by implying their inner state through external action. This is outer mode, . . .The third method is to cause readers to feel something that a story’s characters do not themselves feel. This is other mode,”
Let’s start with what made me laugh:
1. The first example is when we first meet the four members of the Thursday Murder Club as a group for the first time.
A question has been nagging at Donna throughout lunch. “So, if you don’t mind me asking, I know you all live at Coopers Chase, but how did the four of you become friends?”
“Friends?” Elizabeth seems amused. “Oh, we’re not friends, dear.”
Ron is chuckling. “Christ, love, no, we’re not friends. Do you need a top-up, Liz?”
Elizabeth nods and Ron pours. They are on a second bottle. It is twelve fifteen.
Ibrahim agrees. “I don’t think friends is the word. We wouldn’t choose to socialize; we have very different interests. I like Ron, I suppose, but he can be very difficult.”
Ron nods. “I’m very difficult.”
“And Elizabeth’s manner is off-putting.”
Elizabeth nods as well. “There it is, I’m afraid. I’ve always been an acquired taste. Since school.”
*A note about Character Description: At the end of that first funny insult fest, Osman gives a little physical description: “Elizabeth is going glassy-eyed with red wine, Ron is scratching at a West Ham tattoo on his neck, and Ibrahim is polishing an already-polished cuff-link.” These little descriptions say so much.
2. “So we were all witnesses to a murder,” says Elizabeth. “Which, needless to say, is wonderful.”
3. Then, this contradiction not of behavior, but of the common understanding of the challenge of chess.
“Chess is easy,” says Bogdan, continuing the walk between the lines of graves and now flicking on a torch. “Just always make the best move.”
“Well, I suppose,” says Elizabeth. “I’ve never quite thought about it like that. But what if you don’t know what the best move is?”
“Then you lose.”
All three of these places where I laughed while reading, were mostly dialogue and had to do with contradictions. In the first example, the people talking all seem to get along and be fun and interesting pensioners in an old folks home. But they are quick to say they are not friends, and insult each other. What made me laugh was the insulted person agreeing with the insult. In the second example, was the unexpected reaction to the horror of murder, that it’s wonderful and somehow needless to say, as if murder is always wonderful. In the third example, it’s the idea that a difficult strategy game is easy, simplified to making the best move. Of course it’s that simple, if you don’t make the best moves you lose. Every game comes down to that, life comes down to that. But it’s not that simple, and that’s what makes it funny.
Which of the three primary paths made me laugh? I think it’s other mode, the third method is to cause readers to feel something that a story’s characters do not themselves feel. I think Osman set up an expectation of these pensioners being friends and hanging out because they like each other, but has them contradict expectations: saying they are not friends, not being upset when insulted, saying murder is obviously wonderful, and chess is easy. Each of these contradictions made me laugh.
Now let’s look at what made me weepy:
Joyce is reading the suicide note from the widower she was romantically interested in.
“And that was that, I suppose, so silly when you look at it, but I had no easy way of digging the tea caddy back up. So would continue to walk up the hill, and continue to talk to Asima when no one was listening, telling her my news, telling her how much I loved her, and telling her I was sorry. And honestly, Joyce, for your eyes only, I realize that I have run out of whatever it s that we need to carry on. So that’s me, I’m afraid.
Joyce finishes and stares down at the letter for another moment, running a finger across the ink. She looks up at her friends and attempts a smile, which turns in an instant to tears. The tears turn to shaking sobs and Ron leaves his chair, kneels in front of her, and takes her in his arms.”
Which of the three primary paths made me weepy? I think it’s outer mode, to provoke in readers what characters may be feeling by implying their inner state through external action. Maass says, “An important part of this method is the lengthy discourse . . . Why delve so deeply? One reason is to create a longer passage for the reader. That in turn creates a period of time, perhaps fifteen seconds, for the reader’s brain to process. That interval is necessary. It gives readers the opportunity to arrive at their own emotional response, a response that we cannot know.”
The section that made me weepy started long before this example section when I got weepy.
Applying What I Learned
How can I apply these techniques to my novel? Maybe my first step is to read through and find all of the places where I named an emotion. Then label which emotions I think the reader might feel. Then find which of the three primary paths will best evoke the story emotion.
This is a quick first step into the study of the reader’s emotional journey. I think this study will continue for many novels to come.
Overview: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf is an intimate look at a philosopher’s wife, her husband, and eight children and their guests at a summer house. The young son wants to take the boat trip to the Lighthouse but the weather is not cooperating and he is very disappointed. The novel is told in stream of consciousness from a very close omniscient point of view, so the reader is inside all of the character’s minds almost simultaneously.
The novel has three sections. The second section is a distant point of view in which time has passed and the house has been left vacant but is now being cleaned for the family’s return. The final section shows how the characters (and the world) have changed due to World War I.
This novel is semi-autobiographical in that Virginia Woolf was the seventh of eight children whose father was a philosopher and scholar and her mother died suddenly.
Things I Learned
Introducing characters through their thoughts and then their physical appearance: From the very first page the reader is in the characters’ heads. Here is how we are introduced to the Ramsay’s young son, James: “Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue . . .”
So we start inside his head and heart where he can’t keep his contradictory emotions separated, and then we see what he’s doing. Then she gives a little setting as part of his emotion: ” It was fringed with joy. The wheelbarrow, the lawnmower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling—all these were so coloured and distinguished in his mind that he had already his private code, his secret language, though he appeared the image of stark, and uncompromising severity . . .”
And after we know his feelings, and how they affect his actions and his surroundings, we get some physical description: “. . . with his high forehead, and his fierce blue eyes, impeccably candid and pure, frowning slightly at the sight of human frailty . . .” I love that description of his frown, a six year old “frowning slightly at the sight of human frailty.” Then, in the same sentence she moves into how his mother sees him in that moment: “so that his mother, watching him guide his scissors neatly round the refrigerator, imagined him all red and ermine on the Bench or directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs.”
So we’re even seeing his mother’s hopes for his future career. However, in the next paragraph we see another side of this little boy: “Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence . . .”
What a turn. By saying what the boy would do, but didn’t, Woolf has shown a secret dark side to the child she’s been introducing, but also introduces the child’s father in a very interesting and mysterious way.
Let’s look at another character introduction: The next character introduced after Mr. Ramsay is Tansley. He speaks before anything is said about him: “It’s due west,” said the atheist Tansley, holding his bony fingers spread so that the wind blew through them, for he was sharing Mr. Ramsay’s evening walk up and down, up and down the terrace. That is to say, the wind blew from the worst possible direction for landing at the Lighthouse. Yes, he did say disagreeable things, Mrs. Ramsay admitted; it was odious of him to rub this in, and make James still more disappointed; but at the same time, she would not let them laugh at him. “
The narrator calls him “the atheist Tansley” and yet Mrs. Ramsay whose mind we end up in doesn’t like that her children tease him by calling him the atheist. They call him the atheist not specifically as a religious non-believer, but because he doesn’t believe in anything. And they are teasing him because he admires their father and is studying under him. The only physical characteristic given is that he has bony fingers. He is introduced in relation to Mr Ramsay, but from Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view that he says disagreeable things, and thus the first thing he does in the novel is say something she finds disagreeable.
And here’s a third way she describes a character: She let’s the reader in on how one character thinks of another. Here we have how Lily (an artist friend) sees William Bankes (an old friend of Mr. Ramsay): “Suddenly, as if the movement of his hand had released it, the load of her accumulated impressions of him tilted up, and down poured in a ponderous avalanche all she felt about him That was one sensation. Then up rose in a fume the essence of his being. That was another. She felt herself transfixed by the intensity of her perception; it was his severity; his goodness. I respect you (she addressed silently him in person) in every atom; you are not vain; you are entirely impersonal; you are finer than Mr. Ramsay; you are the finest human being that I know; you have neither wife nor child (without any sexual feeling, she longed to cherish that loneliness), you live for science (involuntarily, sections of potatoes rose before her eyes); praise would be an insult to you; generous, pure-hearted, heroic man! But simultaneously, she remembered how he had brought a valet all the way up here; objected to dogs on chairs; would prose for hours (until Mr. Ramsay slammed out of the room) about salt in vegetables and the iniquity of English cooks. How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt, or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all?”
I love how Lily’s thoughts go from “you are the finest human being that I know” to “he objected to dogs on chairs” to what does liking and disliking mean anyway?
Describing setting through the emotions it evokes: The setting in this novel is mostly the gardens around the summer home which is near the ocean. As I mentioned in the description of James Ramsay, objects and setting are described through emotion. Here’s another example: ” They came there regularly every evening drawn by some need. It was as if the water floated off and set sailing thoughts which had grown stagnant on dry land, and gave to their bodies even some sort of physical relief. First, the pulse of colour flooded the bay with blue, and the heart expanded with it and the body swam, only the next instant to be checked and chilled by the prickly blackness on the ruffled waves. Then, up behind the great black rock, almost every evening spurted irregularly, so that one had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came, a fountain of white water; and then, while one waited for that, one watched, on the pale semicircular beach, wave after wave shedding again and again smoothly, a film of mother of pearl.”
Notice also how she used her sentence structure to delay “a fountain of white water,” building the mystery and tension throughout the sentence, so that the reader, along with the people on the beach, “had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came.”
Revolving: I noticed an interesting pattern of repetition through out the novel. An instantaneous repetition and then a later call back type of repetition that made me think of the cyclical nature of thought, memory, the seasons, years, life, etc. For example: On page seventy-six in my paperback she writes, “Minta cried out that she had lost her grandmother’s brooch—her grandmother’s brooch, the sole ornament she possessed—a weeping willow, it was(they must remember it) set in pearls. They must have seen it, she said, with the tears running down her cheeks, the brooch which her grandmother had fastened her cap with till the last day of her life. Now she had lost it. She would rather have lost anything than that!” Then on page 77 she writes, “There was nothing more that could be done now. If the brooch was there, it would still be there in the morning, they assured her, but Minta still sobbed, all the way up to the top of the cliff. It was her grandmother’s brooch; she would rather have lost anything but that, and yet Nancy felt, it might be true that she minded losing her brooch, but she wasn’t crying only for that. She was crying for something else. We might all sit down and cry, she felt. But she did not know what for.
Another example: On the bottom of page thirteen to page fourteen she writes, “He heard her quick step above; heard her voice cheerful, then low; looked at the mats, tea-caddies, glass shades; waited quite impatiently; looked forward eagerly to the walk home; determined to carry her bag; then heard her come out; shut a door; say they must keep the windows open and the doors shut, ask at the house for anything they wanted (she must be talking to a child) when, suddenly, in she came, stood for a moment silent (as if she had been pretending up there, and for a moment let herself be now) . . .” Then, on page twenty-seven: “The mat was fading; the wall-paper was flapping. You couldn’t tell any more that those were roses on it. Still, if every door in a house is left perpetually open, and no lockmaker in the whole of Scotland can mend a bolt, things must spoil. Every door was left open. She listened. The drawing-room door was open; the hall door was open; it sounded as if the bedroom doors were open; and certainly the window on the landing was open, for that she had opened herself. That windows should be open, and doors shut—simple as it was, could none of them remember it?”
The first example of this repetition is only a page apart, this connection of the character Tansley hearing Mrs. Ramsay talk about windows and doors and then Mrs. Ramsay talking about windows and doors is fourteen pages apart, and yet they are part of a pattern of repetition and call-backs throughout the writing that stood out to me as part of the novel as a whole as a study of distance.
Near the end of the novel she seems to explain all of her circular repetition when she says, “For in the rough and tumble of daily life, with all those children about, all those visitors, one had constantly a sense of repetition—of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations.”
Distance and intimacy: The first section of the novel is so intimate that the reader is inside everyone’s heads almost at once. The second section is so distant that huge changes, life and death, are in brackets at the end of sections of exposition. The third section is back to intimacy, but a guarded intimacy that has changed too much over time. The premise being explored is at what distance is the correct distance for connection?
Near the end of the novel the character Lily makes this comparison of physical distance and emotional distance, “So much depends then, thought Lily Briscoe, looking at the sea which had scarcely a stain on it, which was so soft that the sails and the clouds seemed set in its blue, so much depends, she thought upon distance: whether people are near us or far from us; for her feeling for Mr. Ramsay changed as he sailed further and further across the bay. It seemed to be elongated, stretched out; he seemed to become more and more remote. He and his children seemed to be swallowed up in that blue, that distance;”
I really like this section talking about the Lighthouse from a distance compared to the lighthouse close-up: ” James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?
No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too. It was sometimes hardly to be seen across the by. n the evening one looked up and saw the eye opening and shutting and light seemed to reach them in the airy sunny garden where they sat.”
From this passage one could conclude that relation includes both closeness and distance.
Contradictory Abstractions: Virginia Woolf liked to explore our contradictory natures and talked a lot about contradictory abstract nouns which I enjoyed. Here are some examples of how she explored contradictory abstract nouns: Truth / Deceit- “The extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of women’s minds enraged him. He had ridden through the valley of death, been shattered and shivered; and now, she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the question, in effect, told lies. He stamped his foot on the stone step. “Damn you,” he said. But what had she said? Simply that it might be fine tomorrow. So it might.
Not with the barometer falling and the wind due west.
To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilisation so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said.
He stood by her in silence. Very humbly, at length, he said that he would step over and ask he Coastguards if she liked. There was nobody whom she reverenced as she reverenced him.”
Reality / Illusion – “This will celebrate the occasion—a curious sense rising in her, at once freakish and tender, of celebrating a festival, as if two emotions were called up in her, one profound—for what could be more serious than the love of man for woman, what more commanding, more impressive, bearing in its bosom the seeds of death; at the same time these lovers, these people entering into illusion glittering eyed, must be dance round with mockery, decorated with garlands.
Wisdom / Naivete – “And that’s the way I’d like my children to live—Cam was sure that her father was thinking that, for he stopped her throwing a sandwich into the sea and told her, as if he were thinking of the fishermen and how they lived, that if she did not want it she should put it back in the parcel. She should not waste it. He said it so wisely, as if he knew so well all the things that happened in the world that she put it back at once, and then he gave her, from his own parcel, a gingerbread nut, as if her were a great Spanish gentleman, she thought, handing a flower to a lady at a window (so courteous his manner was). He was shabby, and simple, eating bread and cheese; and yet he was leading them on a great expedition where, for all she knew, they would be drowned.”
Love Languages: Love languages is something that I read about and liked in Plot vs. Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction by Jeff Gerke. The idea that everyone expresses and understands love in different ways. Virginia Woolf gives a good example of individual love languages, “He wanted something—wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. . . . Was there no crumb on his coat? Nothing she could do for him? . . .And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. ” This passage shows two people with two different love languages, one wants to hear the words and say the words, the other shows love through deeds and actions and wants love through deeds and actions.
Dialectic Thinking: And speaking of love languages. Here’s a great passage where Lily demonstrates dialectic thinking on love: “Such was the complexity of things. For what happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel, was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now. It is so beautiful, so exciting, this love, that I tremble on the verge of it, and offer, quite out of my own habit, to look for a brooch on a beach; also it is the stupidest, the most barbaric of human passions, and turns a nice young man with a profile like a gem’s (Paul’s was exquisite) into a bully with a crowbar (he was swaggering, he was insolent) in the Mile End Road. Yet, she said to herself, from the dawn of time odes have been sung to love; wreaths heaped and roses; and if you asked nine people out of ten they would say they wanted nothing but this—love;”
Applying What I Learned
Character description: Since I’m writing in close third point of view, I can’t float around in all my character’s heads. The only way I have to describe my characters is through my main character’s point of view. However, to follow Woolf’s order of introduction from emotion, to action, to physical description, I can try introducing my characters through body language, and facial expression, then what they are doing and objects they are interacting with, then more specific details of what they look like. I can also be more aware of how my main character is feeling when other characters are introduced, and use that feeling as a filter for how she would see the other person.
Another thing I can learn from Woolf’s character descriptions is to surprise the reader by presenting the character’s dark side as part or their description. How can I do that without knowing the character’s thoughts? They can say something rude, or unpleasant. They can do something unexpectedly mean, or bad, or just icky. I’m excited to try this out.
Setting: I really liked how she combined setting with emotion. My main character’s house is an important setting in the novel. When the reader is first introduced to this house, my main character has just gone through a life and death battle. She’s slightly injured, and on a sedative, the adrenaline is running out, so she’s exhausted but her mind is spinning, replaying what just happened, trying to remember every detail, so what does the house look like when she walks up to it? She’s angry and frustrated, but happy to be alive. Is the neighborhood friendly and familiar, or menacing and full of strangers? Is the house inviting and safe, or old and in need of a frustrating amount of work? Is it the house full of happy memories, or the house of sad memories? When she goes inside, what are the things she notices? The smells, textures, sensations, are they comforting, or further traumatizing, reinforcing that somehow she deserved what just happened? All these things can be expressed in how I describe my MC going into her house.
Revolving: Though I won’t be using this in Virginia Woolf’s style, it could be a useful technique for showing my main character’s ideas changing over time. I could have her think something at the beginning and have that thought come up slightly changed in reaction to an event, and then again slightly changed in response to another event, until she’s thinking the opposite at the end. I could do the same thing with another character through dialogue. The character can make a statement of belief or feeling at the beginning of the novel that they repeat slightly changed through out until they are saying the compete opposite by the end. I like those ideas and can already think of how to use them in my novel.
Distance: How can I use Woolf’s study of distance and intimacy as a writing technique? I think my take away is how she states the premise to the reader. She has her characters thinking about it and drawing conclusions. Since my main character is the only character with thoughts the reader can read. She may have some thoughts about how distance and intimacy interplay. However, that is not my novel’s premise. Near the end of my novel she needs to be thinking about truth and deceit and how her views on issues of truth and deceit have changed.
Love Languages come up in my novel between my main character and her best friend. One sees love through actions and deeds, the other through gifts and objects. Both of them feel taken for granted and that the other doesn’t love equally because they have these different love languages. I can try to make this clearer through my MC’s thoughts when she does something she thinks is showing love to her friend but doesn’t get the reaction she expects or wants. And since my novel is in close third, not omniscient POV, I will have to clearly show her best friend’s feelings through body language and dialogue.
I looked at expression as an abstract noun back at the beginning of my study in April of 2022, and created a facial expression out of wire for my images. But today, I’m exploring “a manifestation of an emotion, feeling, etc., without words” and communication of emotion through art.
In Photography and the Art of Seeing by Freeman Patterson, he says, “Once you have abstracted the visual elements most essential to a scene or event, you have to select. Selecting is choosing those parts of the subject matter that will best express the character of the scene or the meaning of the event.”
If I’m trying to express happiness, I need to select lines, shapes, colors, tones, and textures, then combine them in a composition that is my expression of happiness. And then select the ones that most express happiness and despair together? So if I go with yellow, orange, in the brightest tones, and the most harmoniously balanced composition, is that happiness? It’s like my Ship of Theseus question about story. What are the elements that can’t be replaced for it to still express happiness?
Patterson thinks I should be looking at this the other way around. “Once we have determined what the subject matter expresses (that is, its subject or theme), we may notice how that expression was achieved—by means of particular shapes, textures, and colours. . . .When you make pictures, take advantage of the natural sequence in which your senses provide information. First, ask “What does the subject matter express?” (Possible answer: joy.) Then ask “How does the subject matter express it?” (Possible answer: the joy is expressed through soaring vertical and oblique lines, light tones, and bright colours.)”
So today, instead of having an intention and attempting to capture an image, I’m going to look at some of my images and take advantage of that natural sequence. When I look at “Conflict” (top of page), I see forward motion being blocked, opposing forces. I see disappointment, and frustration. How is that expressed? Through the direction of the shape, the change of color from cool to warm, the dominant size of the reversed shape on the right , the brightness of the reversed shape, and composition putting the shapes in opposition with a zig-zag space between them.
When I look at “Generation” (above) I see calm, happiness, the lightness of Spring. How is that expressed? Through the light pastel colors, the two forms connecting through their overlapping lines, the overall swoop of the design moving up and to the right, the pink haziness joining the two forms like a warm feeling.
Though “Interruption” (below) is similar to “Generation” (above) it expresses a very different emotion. When I look at “Interruption” I see irritation, ugliness in the beauty; the chain of connection is broken. How is that expressed? The pastel color is overpowered by the brighter intruding shape in the foreground. The flow of the lines is interrupted creating a jagged line just left of center. The overall direction is down to the right, but also horizontal across the center.
Through this exercise, I noticed a zig-zag line of space creates a break in flow in both of the images with more negative emotions. This may be something I try as an expressive technique in the future.
“We respond with different emotions to different shapes, textures, lines, and colours on the basis of qualities we perceive in them,” said Patterson, and then quoted Rudolf Arnheim from Art and Visual Perception.
I put Art and Visual Perception in my kindle and searched for “expression” and then “abstract”. While reading the sixty-five matches for abstract, I found, “The surprisingly strong expression of geometrical figures in movement has been demonstrated in the more elaborate “abstract” films of Oskar Fischinger, Norman MacLaren, Walt Disney, and others.”
I had already watched Fischinger and Disney, so I looked up MacLaren and found this interesting film about drawing sounds on film.
This got me wondering if there were programs that would turn my images into sounds, and then I spent the rest of the morning playing with sonification.
PIXELSYNTH is an online program. It instantly turns your photos black and white when you upload them and then has knobs you can turn to adjust the brightness and contrast which will change the sounds. You can choose the key and types of scale used.
Photosounder has a free downloadable demo. At first it turned my image into fluctuating noise, but then I found “Group to Nearest Semitone” at the bottom of the Operations menu and it turned the noise into tones.
I’m just getting started experimenting with the possibilities, but I love how it brings music into my abstractions study in a new way.
This week I read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. It was our third novel in a row in omniscient POV, and yet it was very different from John Irving’s distant omniscient narrator of A Widow for One Year. Woolf’s narrator was so close inside the character’s heads and hearts, she was like a telepath with no control.
The novel was assigned as part of the online course “The Modern and the Postmodern (Part 2)” and in the lectures he talked about how the novel was the study of relational distance which I thought was interesting. And I’ll talk more about that on Thursday.
Today’s Surprising Connection
I got my copy of the poetry collection Waves by PJ Thomas to review for Library Thing Early Reviewers program, and started thinking about how I want to approach Reading Poetry Collections as a Poet. I looked at a great book on writing poetry In the Palm of Your Hand: A Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit, and in the section “Getting Your Poems into the World” he said, “The best places to learn about publishers and book contests are in the bimonthly magazine Poets and Writers and the bimonthly Writers Chronicle.”
I hadn’t heard of The Writer’s Chronicle, so I looked it up. It turns out it is the magazine of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs and in the February issue there is an article called, “In Working Order, or Proxemics & the Poetry Book” by Anna Leahy. Sadly, I couldn’t read it without being a member or subscriber, but it got me curious about Proxemics.
Proxemics is the branch of knowledge that deals with the amount of space that people feel it necessary to set between themselves and others. It is the study of how people unconsciously structure the space around them. It also has a Linguistic definition which is the study of the symbolic and communicative role in a culture of spatial arrangements and variations in distance, as in how far apart individuals engaged in conversation stand depending on the degree of intimacy between them.
Though my professor didn’t mention it, it seems to me that Virginia Woolf’s novel is a study of proxemics.
I did it! I finally read A Widow for One Year by John Irving. I finally understand the title that’s been sitting on my shelf for what seems like forever. It took a half a day longer than I thought it would, and it felt like I had run a 10K when I finally finished the last page, but I did it!
This was the first time I made my notes directly in the book. This was an old paperback in bad shape, so I didn’t feel bad marking it up. I forgot to put a color code in place before I started, so my highlighting colors don’t mean a lot. I attempted to make orange consistently mark foreshadowing, and pink marked statements about abstract nouns. I still used some post its to mark sections I thought I would want to reference.
It felt pretty good to highlight in the book, but since I felt like I just wanted to get through this novel and finish it, I didn’t spend time writing any notes in the margins. I think if I enjoyed the book more, I might have really enjoyed the process, so now I think I want to try this process again with another old paperback. I have an old copy of a book I love that I’ve been wanting to re-read. For the moment, I’ll keep that as a possible future read.
Things I Learned
A Widow for One Year was kind of all over the place. It reminded me of a clip show from an old TV series, when they would make an episode out of clips from other episodes. It contained aspects of all of the novels we have looked at so far: It used fictional books as part of the story like The Manual of Detection and The Madness of Crowds. It had the meta levels of a writer writing about a writer writing about writing like The Woman in the Library. It had the realism, sex, and adultery of Madame Bovary. It had the sexually obsessed parents of Unspeakable Things. It had the head-hopping omniscient narrator, and social commentary of Little Fires Everywhere. This vast tome had a bit of everything. And yet, it was completely different from all of those other novels in its emotional rawness and ability to surprise.
The thing that stood out for me the most in A Widow for One Year by John Irving was the excessive use of blatant foreshadowing. This is another reason the novel felt like a clip show, or like I wrote on Tuesday, ADHD as a novel. Irving starts a sentence in the present ant by the end of the paragraph you’re in the future or past and then he gets to the next sentence of the action in the present and then he’s off again. This created a strange constant pendulum swing of time. The distant omniscient narrator can see forever into the future and the past and will randomly let the reader in on this information. Such as, “In a year’s time, the police would crack down on the “illegals”; soon there would be empty window rooms around the red-light district.” This future knowledge doesn’t even affect the main characters, but there you go, future told.
Irving addresses this in a somewhat meta comment on his own writing, using a quote from Graham Greene. “On the subject of childhood, Ruth preferred what Greene had written in The Power and the Glory: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Oh, yes—Ruth agreed. But sometimes, she would have argued, there is more than one moment, because there is more than one future.”
Tragedy’s influence: This novel starts years after a tragic accident in which two teen boys die. Their deaths tear their family apart and influence the actions of the family members and the people around them for their whole lives. He emphasizes the effect of this tragedy through giving special importance to photographs hung around the house, each with a story that the characters tell to one another to keep the dead boys alive in their thoughts.
One of the things that Irving does well in A Widow for One Year is to bring the reader into taboos: mostly sexual taboos. Keeping the reader focused on sex and taboo sexual behaviors so when the events of the plot happen they are real surprises. Like a magician’s slight of hand, Irving has the reader looking at sadism and statutory rape, while never suspecting the deaths on the horizon.
Her first example is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray about homosexuality during a time that sodomy was illegal and a homosexual could be put to death. She used it as an example of a writer confronting taboo that could not be written about openly and said, “Being elliptical gives you a lot of power that being head on and direct would not have.”
But Irving’s use of taboos isn’t elliptical at all. It’s graphic and realistic and shoved in the reader’s face again and again. Oates goes on, however. She mentions memoirs about alcoholism, depression, and being a widower, and says they “hit a nerve of candor.” She also says that “tapping on secret audiences is the consequence of writing about taboos.”
Talking about the body: Irving’s focus on boobs and talking about penises is both casual as if people always openly talk about their bodies, and then repetitive to the point that I wondered about his odd boob obsession. This casual nakedness being normal and yet odd starts near the beginning of the novel when Ruth is four years old. “As usual, she took only a passing interest in his nakedness. “Your penis is funny,” she said. “My penis is funny,” her father agreed. It was what he always said.
By the time I neared the end of the book I was pretty tired of reading about Ruth’s boobs and came across this exchange. “It may have been his anniversary, but he was looking at your breasts,” Hannah said. “He was not!” Ruth protested. “Everyone does, baby. You better get used to it.”
I think there’s definitely something to be learned from the vulnerability of nakedness, and the realism of humans as sexual beings, but I also think Irving got a little hung up on it in this novel.
Applying What I Learned
At this early stage of my revision, I’m trying something I’ve never tried before. Starting at the end of my draft, I’m putting two scenes at a time into Scrivener and then brainstorming fifty other options. So I copied my final two scenes into a Scrivener file taking the time to write summaries and titles for the scenes and using the meta-data to color code the emotional arc and label the scene value. Then I brainstormed fifty other possible endings. Then I copied the two scenes before that and did the same. I’m really enjoying the brainstorming and near the end of fifty new ideas, the ideas are getting interesting. Going through this process is helping me really understand the infinite combinations of choices that make up every novel. I can also see how a first draft is like my mini-trampoline that I love, it’s a surface with springs, to bounce off of again and again.
Let’s look at how I can apply some of the big-picture elements of Irving’s A Widow for One Year to my novel revision.
Time: Though I was not a fan of how Irving used foreshadowing in this novel, is there a way of changing the chronology of my draft that would be a better way to tell the story? If I altered chapters between the present and five years ago leading up to and after the homicides, that could be very interesting.
It would show three different versions of my main character: 1. the recovered version in her new normal life 2. the confident rising star detective of the past and 3. the after homicide descending version, losing herself, not able to solve the case, crossing the line, getting fired, and hitting rock bottom. It’s a good idea. I might give it a try.
I could write all of the backstory about the homicides as scenes from my MCs POV. She, of course, wouldn’t see that she was spiraling, or crossing the line, but the reader would see her becoming more obsessive, and making bad decisions. This technique would change a lot of dialogue and exposition to scene which is also more immersive for the reader.
Tragedy: Like the characters of A Widow for One Year, my MC had a tragedy in her life when she was young that affects her motivations and decisions. I can use photographs, objects, and memories, stories she tells, sayings she uses, and ways she responds to people to show how much this tragedy has shaped her life and the lives of those around her. Irving’s example can help me emphasize this effects of the tragedy more through out my novel.
Taboo: I like the taboo exploration-distraction technique idea. In my novel the taboos are: paganism, mysticism, sacrilege, bisexuality, random acts of violence, psychological manipulation, and corruption. I may need to zero in on some specific aspects of those taboos that make people really uncomfortable and aren’t written about very much. And brainstorm how I can really lean into the taboo to surprise with a plot event.
Talking about the body:
I don’t think I talked about bodily functions all that much in my novel. After reading Irving, I’m wondering if I don’t need to get into the body more—not the obsessive, creepy breast fixation—but each of my women may be at a different stage in her cycle and it would affect her in a different way.
One of my characters is pretending to be older, to be a woman that would have gone through menopause. Having a tampon or pad in her purse would give her away. Also having her period would give her away, so cramps, bloating, headache, taking Pamprin, or a similar drug; these would all be signs that she is a younger woman. Being on the pill, could also give her away.
My MCs best friend is sexually open and likes to shock her by being crass, so she would openly talk about having her period, having her period while having sex, embarrassing moments of bleeding in public, etc. These are taboos that people don’t write about that much, though it did come up in Little Fires Everywhere.
Maybe having her period came up in the victim’s wife’s defense. Maybe she couldn’t have committed a grizzly homicide because she had cramps and was tired physically and mentally from having her period. It made her sluggish and anemic. That could be an interesting societal issue. I wonder if there’s legal precedence. I’ll look in my women and the law book.
Though I found Irving’s obsession with breasts really obnoxious and annoying and his obsession with sex disturbing, I think that avoiding sex and bodily function is also wrong, so finding a balance is important. Humans have basic needs, food, water, shelter, elimination, sleep, exercise/physical labor (purpose) and sex (connection). So my characters need all these things too.
This last week my images were inspired by some things I read in Photography and the Art of Seeing by Freeman Patterson. He says, “The expressive quality of a photograph depends on the photographer’s ability to abstract, that is, to separate the parts from the whole. Abstracting is recognizing both the basic from of something and the elements that make up that form.”
“Abstracting is not something you have to learn; you do it all the time without being aware of it. . . . Improving your ability to abstract takes practice. . . .Once you have abstracted the visual elements most essential to a scene or event, you have to select. Selecting is choosing those parts of the subject matter that will best express the character of the scene or the meaning of the event.”
“Abstracting and selecting are important to all types of photography.”
This got me thinking about abstract as a verb, so I looked it up in the dictionary. abstract v 1. to make an abstract of; summarize 2. to draw or take away; remove 3. to divert or draw away the attention of 4. to steal 5. to consider as a general quality of characteristic apart from specific objects or instances: to abstract the notions of time, space, and matter.
The definition of abstract meaning to remove inspired my new filters removing shapes from the filter and slicing them then opening them to add space. In the first series I trimmed them, sliced them, and curved them open then put them back inside the opening. In the second series I cut out the shapes sliced them, removed every other section and wove them back in, waffling the shapes. I really enjoy how the light bends around the paper shapes and how the colors blend and move through the spaces.
Abstracting these basic shapes into line, shape, and color are creating more dimension and movement than the attempts at creating abstract designs within the filters themselves.
When speaking of exercising your imagination, Mr. Patterson wrote, “Indulging in fantasy helps us to discover new ideas. Try looking at things in crazy ways.” He talked about a student who took a picture of his dog. He said, “A student of mine made a photograph of my German shepherd by panning while the dog was running over very rough ground. The panning of the camera, along with both the forward and up-and-down movements of the dog’s legs, made her hind legs look like wheels in rapid motion.
This got me thinking about the panoramic function in my camera. I had never tried it with my light-forming photography and wondered if it would work at all. The camera’s programming definitely didn’t like it, and it took many attempts before it would recognize that I was moving slowly enough and moving in the direction of the arrow, but the results were very exciting.
The camera, not able to sew the multiple abstract images together smoothly, created vertical striped and off-sets in the images. This surprise glitch creates its own abstract dimension within the photograph. Since I got it to work outside with the reflection balls in the grass and leftover snow, the next step was to see if it would work in the mirrorwold. As I expected, the camera made me really work for it. It didn’t believe that I was moving in a smooth line across a panorama, but through some serious patience, I made some very interesting photos.
Reading a novel like a novelist is abstracting a novel while reading, breaking it down into its parts, recognizing both the basic from of something (the story) and the elements that make up that form (writing techniques).
I finally read all the way through A Widow for One Year by John Irving. I now understand why I had such a hard time getting into it: it has a distant omniscient narrator and if ADHD (attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder) was a novel, this was it. However, it also had elements of every novel I’ve talked about in this series which I look forward to talking about on Thursday.
A Widow for One Year is a lot like one of my panoramic abstract photographs, constantly looking forward, trying to stitch many pieces together, and yet showing the seams, the glitches, as part of the art.
Today’s Surprising Connection
Among the many stories told within A Widow for One Year was the story of the hangman Arthur Ellis. Arthur Ellis was the pseudonym for Arthur B. English who was the official hangman of Canada between 1912 and 1935. I knew I had heard the story recently, but wasn’t sure where. Turns out it was used in the Three Pines series based on Louise Penny novels, Episode 7 (about a half hour in) “The Hangman,” which I watched and talked about when I read The Madness of Crowds.
Now that I’ve explored my process of Reading Novels Like a Novelist (RNLN) for a while, I thought I would combine my RNLN focus post with my Contradictory Abstractions post on Tuesday, but then we had surprise snow and the sun came out, so I took a snow day. Then yesterday was the Heron Tree submission deadline and now it’s mid-day Thursday, so you’re getting one combined post this week.
As I had hoped, my studies of contradictory abstract nouns and reading novels like a novelist have combined and overlapped, so that I can study them at the same time. As I read Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee, this overlap became even more apparent. Today, I’ll lay out how novels are a study of contradictory abstract nouns at three different levels: the premise of the novel as a whole, the character arc of each character, and the change in value during each scene.
Every novel is a persuasive argument. The author comes up with a premise and uses characters, and inciting incident, conflict and resolution to prove that premise to the reader. In Dialogue, McKee puts it this way:
“A core value is irreplaceable because it determines the story’s fundamental nature. Change core value, change the genre. For example, if a writer were to extract love/hate from her characters’ lives and substitute morality/immorality, this switch in core values would pivot her genre from love story to redemption plot.”
Look at those contradictory abstract nouns he placed in there for “core value.” Think of how many stories that revolve around Good vs. Evil. Every story, in a way, attempts to define these two abstractions and then pit them against each other.
Every novel is about change. The main character needs to change to achieve her desire though she may not want to, or know that she needs to until she is forced to make some difficult choices. McKee says:
“The impact of the inciting incident decisively changes the charge of the value at stake in the character’s life. Story values are binaries of positive/negative charge such as life/death, courage/cowardice, truth/lie, meaningfulness/meaninglessness, maturity/immaturity, hope/despair, justice/injustice, to name but a few. “
Look at all those contradictory abstract nouns I’ve been looking at since last summer.
Every scene of a novel from beginning to end works to prove the premise, but it also has its own change in value. McKee explains:
“The values in scenes can be very complex, but at minimum, every scene contains at least one story value at stake in the character’s life. This value either relates to or matches the story’s core value. Scenes dramatize change in the charge of this value.”
This reminded me of my posts in November when I organized different contradictory abstract nouns into the big five. For example if my overall premise is truth and deceit, then a scene may be trust/distrust, and another may be honesty/dishonesty.
RNLN Things I Learned
Now let’s look at these three aspects of a novel using Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The novel is about a wealthy family in a planned community in Ohio, whose lives are changed when their mother rents to a single mom and her teenage daughter.
Premise: The main premise of the novel is stated just after the three-quarter point (pg. 258 in the hard-cover); “What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”
The author explores this question through examples of a demanding “perfect” two parent wealthy family with four children, a poor single parent of one child, a surrogacy, and an adoption process gone wrong. She also shows two of the daughters wishing they had the other one’s mother.
The author’s premise turns motherhood into an abstract noun and its contradiction which she shows through couples who cannot conceive and abortion.
I looked back at the beginning of the novel to see if the premise was stated there as well and found this interesting line, “. . . they could see there was little inside to be saved.” And though this is talking about the house it could also be speaking to the character Elena as a mother and her relationships in her family.
Character Arc: The novel starts our in the wealthy mother’s point of view. Then I thought it was going to be multiple point of view by chapter, but it turned out it was written in omniscient which I figured out at the beginning of chapter five when she started head hopping from paragraph to paragraph. The character arcs seem to be looking at a combination of values of good/bad, rich/poor, and love/hate.
The novel opens with the house on fire, and a statement of who lit the fire, all that wealth and worldly possession up in flames, so the change is already known, the rest of the novel is the why, the explanation of how they got there.
Scene Value: Picking a random scene in the novel, I got the backstory section when Mia thinks she’s being followed on the subway by a mugger, but it turns out to be a person who offers her a proposal to make money. The scene’s value runs along fear of the unknown to fear of the known/possible. Along the main premise the scene moves from not a mother, to possibility of being a mother.
Ship of Theseus
After reading the novel Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, I watched the Hulu mini-series called “Little Fires Everywhere.” Remember when we looked at The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill and talked about interesting formats which led me to The Ship of Theseus? The Hulu series made me think of The Ship of Theseus as in, if you change, replace, and add to every piece of a story, is it the same story? What pieces have to stay the same for it to be recognized as the same story? The Ship of Theseus really is an interesting thought puzzle and there it was playing out right before my eyes. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what has to stay the same in a story for it to be recognized as the same story.