Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: October 2006

Review: Willful Creatures

Review: Willful Creatures: stories, by Aimee Bender
8/10, An enjoyable and well-crafted collection of fabulist stories

Aimme Bender gains the dubious distinction of being the first author to be reviewed twice in this blog. I very much enjoyed An Invisible Sign Of My Own, and when I had the chance to pick up this collection of her stories, signed, I grabbed it. I’d already read “The Leading Man” and “Deathwatch” in our fabulist workshop, stories about a boy born with keys for fingers and ten men told they have two weeks to live, and their different reactions to it. Among the other memorable stories in “Willful Creatures” are a story about a man who buys a little man as a pet, two girls whose friendship dies in a record shop, a writer told by God to stop writing, and a mysterious double murder illuminated by a set of salt and pepper shakers.

Bender’s stories move fluidly and enjoyably through their own realities, somewhat askew from the one we’re all familiar with. The boy with keys for fingers searches for the doors his fingers unlocks. The little man bought as a pet belongs to a whole world of little people that begins to fascinate his owner. The worlds are more or less fabulist, depending on the story; sometimes Bender is content just to play with language, and she’s good at that, too.

The stories are a pleasure to read, if only for the language, but Bender’s imagination makes them a delight to experience as well. Sometimes the allusions are clear, as in “Jinx,” the story about the two girls in the record shop. Sometimes it seems like she is just letting her imagination roam free. Either way, it’s a beautiful, strange book that I was sad to get to the end of.

F*** off, sunshine!

Garrison Keillor has been writing some interestingly political articles for Salon. His latest one (membership or reg may be required) is no different, a pleasant tour through the hospitality of the South covering a barb about the character of Southern politicians.

What’s interesting about the column is the letters accompanying it. They contrast the cultures of the South, New York, and the upper midwest (Keillor is from Minnesota); if I were to summarize them with a word apiece (a useful writing exercise), they would be, respectively, warm, cynical, and polite. There are proponents of each culture: people claim that the warmth of the South is genuine, that the cynicism of New Yorkers is refreshingly honest, that the polite but distanced courtesy of the midwest allows people to get along while affording them their personal space. You read one letter in which the writer gushes about the virtues of living in a Southern state where the neighbors care about you and ask after your family; the next writer talks about how “creepy” it was to move to a Southern state and have everyone in her business, asking how long she was staying, where she was from, what her husband did, and so on.

When inventing a culture, or writing about a culture, we tend to build cultures that mimic what we’re used to, or differ from them in striking ways. Dean Koontz’s crowded southern California differs from Stephen King’s small town/rural Maine: Koontz’s stories take place over sprawling urban landscapes crowded with people (with exceptions like “Phantoms,” where the small-town character of the ski resort is necessary for the story), while King’s stories by and large feel very familial–everyone knows everyone. Neither writer draws undue attention to his setting, but the setting and the culture it contains are critical parts of the story.

Think about the world your characters inhabit. Did they grow up there? If not, how have they adapted? What’s different about where they live now? I had dinner last night with a Ukranian woman who said that in the new Ukraine, many people wish for the communists to come back because under the new government, there is less structure and the culture is too mercenary. Not many Americans would imagine people might wish for the return of communism, would they? And yet, there they are.

Where are your characters?

Review: Collapse

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond
9/10, gripping social histories and not entirely pessimistic modern relevance

I am way behind on reviews, and waffled over whether to write a review of this book at all. After all, it isn’t fiction; what relevance does it have to a writing journal? Its main message is: Stop screwing up the environment if you don’t want to end up a puzzle to archaeologists in a thousand years.

That said, Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” was not only a great history of how societies become established and spread; it was also a useful tool for world-building. Climate dictates the spread of societies on an east-west flow rather than north-south (because you can cultivate the same crops at roughly the same latitudes), so civilizations in the east-west Eurasian landmass spread and grew, where the north-south orientation of the Americas slowed the growth of the societies that began there. Interesting stuff to know when you’re making up your own world and civilizations.

“Collapse” is similarly helpful. Given the establishment of a civlization, “Collapse” examines the stresses it can fall victim to, and the various responses that affect its survival. With few exceptions, the pattern seems to be: establish a population that is at the limit of what the land’s resources can provide, then get in serious trouble when the limit drops. That drop can happen as a result of climate (decade-long droughts did in the Anasazi and the Mayans) or as a result of transplanted people not understanding the land properly (in Greenland and on Easter Island, overplanting and overharvesting of trees made it impossible for people to survive). There are other factors–many of the societies that collapsed were isolated , but some were not, and Diamond provides a couple instructive examples of isolated societies that survived (Iceland, Papua New Guinea, Japan). Diamond points out that the intertwined effects of globalization in the current century are to eliminate isolated societies by connecting everyone, and to make of this Earth a single society that is more isolated than even tiny Easter Island or remote Greenland.

If you’re building a world, “Collapse” will get you thinking about resource allocation, societal attitudes and traditions, and the tricks a world can play on its people over the course of centuries. Even if you’re not, it’s worth reading for its sober assessment of our current civilization and the reasons for despair, and for hope.

That ol’ draft magic

First drafts are always tricky. Well, so are second and final drafts, but in different ways. In a first draft, you’re still discovering what the story is. It’s not uncommon for me to go back to the beginning of a first draft and think, “what the heck was I writing about there?” and ax a bunch of stuff. It’s also not uncommon for me to get stalled as the story just eddies about aimlessly. What I always have to keep reminding myself is to keep the boring parts as short as possible (preferably eliminating them altogether) and to wait for that part that reminds me why I started writing the story in the first place. It’s so nice to get back there, it’s like coming home after an exhausting day at work.

I’m certain that there will be a lot of things that get refined, rewritten, or streamlined in the second draft of this story, but the scene I’m in now likely isn’t one of them. It’s flowing well and it’s got me engaged in the story again. Good times. (Well, except for outside, where it’s the second day of the rainy season. But that means it’s nicer to curl up inside with the laptop and get some story done.)