Category: criticism

A Special Sort of Patience

Thirty years ago, I was a young mother with two preschool children, one of them less than a year old. The necessities of life transplanted me to a tiny house in a tiny South Dakota town, where I was lonely and exhausted, with a touch of the postpartum blues. There were cloth diapers to wash, a home to maintain on a shoestring, cheap meals to prepare, a baby to nurse, kids crying and laughing, me crying and laughing and not one friend within a 500 mile radius. Life took a special sort of patience, then.

It was a good, messy, joyful and hard time, and I sensed even then that my children would bring me a lifetime of rewards. Yet, in the midst of it all, something was missing, specifically the creative writing process that inspired me as a college student. In a life-changing moment of temporary insanity, I resolved to add fiction writing to my hectic days.

So at five a.m., while everyone else slept, I would seclude myself in our little enclosed front porch. There were no heat vents out there and the chill poured off the old storm windows, requiring socks, sweaters and, if memory serves me, a blanket over my shoulders. I wrote for a while by hand, then bought a used typewriter (a major investment in those lean days). Between ideas, I’d sit looking at my reflection in the glass (which is all you can see at five a.m. in South Dakota in winter, in case you wondered) and make up stories. Some were long and some were short, and few were notably good. But I knew I ‘d learn, if I didn’t give up.

In order to have something else to look at besides my own ghostly pre-dawn image, I took a 3×5 piece of notepaper and wrote on it a quote from Gustave Flaubert.

Talent is a long patience.

I taped that quote to the woodwork between the windows above the typewriter. Of course, the day I copied it down, I didn’t imagine how long my patience would need to be, to become the writer I hoped to become. And yet, I was already a writer from those first days, because I was putting down stories, editing them and sending them out.

This was back when we ambitious, wordy folks with delusions of publication typed stories on paper and sent them through the mail. With stamps. You know, to publishers and editors, who sent back rejection letters. If you remember, you probably did it, too. I looked forward to the rejections and those mostly-kind editors sent many, but I kept writing. I took pride in having been gently, even personally, rejected by some of the best publishing houses in New York. Yes, a personal rejection with a note of encouragement went a long way, in those days. I even had a close call, coming a hair’s breadth from having a short story published in Redbook. An agent represented my second novel manuscript, and I felt discouraged when that story didn’t become a book. Now I’m glad it didn’t. It wasn’t ready and neither was I! But I kept writing, and more short stories and novel manuscripts followed, along with skill and confidence. They were just the practice I needed.

Because practice didn’t put bread on the table, I pursued other lines of work, some quite happily. I went to grad school, studied writing and medicine, ran a home-based writing and graphic design business, learned about the world from different viewpoints and raised my family. Writing fiction and telling stories ran through it all, like an underground river, coursing unseen while sustaining me.

The tools changed . . . I graduated from typewriter to word processor to computer, from dot-matrix to digital printing and from typed letters to email. Publishing changed, too . . . it opened to everyone, even as it became more challenging to land a book contract with traditional publishers.

an occasional payment for words

an occasional payment for words

Inevitably, I changed, as well . . . there were personal problems, life problems and health problems. Unforeseen interruptions appeared to veer me off track, then turned out to be the stuff of life and writing. It’s been quite a time, the past thirty years. Good news, though. Everything got better! (Everything that matters, anyway.) Even my writing skills, apparently, because a few stories found publication in journals and in an anthology, The Arduous Touch: Women’s Voices in Healthcare. Every now and then, a check came my way. I went out on a limb and embraced publishing my own novel, The Darkwater Liar’s Account, in 2013, a grand adventure because talent isn’t only a long patience, it’s being willing to take a risk now and then. I have two more novels sitting on my desk right now. One is en route to an editor, and the other, its sequel, is a completed first draft.

In thirty years, some things haven’t changed, perhaps most notably that I’m still writing. I enjoy research and growing stories out of what I learn, about life on the Great Plains and in the West, history, family life and health. That scrap of note paper with its message is constant, too. Eleven different apartments and homes have housed me since I first taped up that quote. Everywhere I’ve gone, it’s followed. The tape’s changed so often, the paper’s upper edge is tattered as if someone’s been chewing on it. It’s a little wrinkled, too, like me. We’ve both proven ourselves in ways that the twenty-something girl I was wouldn’t have expected, and may have terrified her, had she known.

Talent is a long patience.

 As I write this, I look up and it’s there, between the windows in my workshop, over my desk. The words still inspire me. After all this time, I don’t intend to lose them.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
cover art

This review is based on a pre-release reading of the uncorrected, “galley” proof provided to me by goodreads. Novel Release Date: June 5, 2012.

I just finished an early taste of summer vacation, with a rich and engaging book. Nichole Bernier’s debut novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., is a brave and breathtaking story about the subtle natures and interplay of womanhood, parenting, marriage and friendship.

The story begins as Kate Spenser, her husband, Chris, and their two young children begin their seven-week vacation at the beach. Kate is still processing the death of her friend, Elizabeth Martin, the victim of a plane crash in Queens that is abruptly overshadowed by the disasters of 9/11. As she mourns her friend, Kate also finds herself responsible for Elizabeth’s secrets and legacy; Elizabeth directed in her will that Kate alone receive the locked, antique trunk that holds Elizabeth’s journals.

Kate, although a reluctant interpreter of her friend’s written life, takes the responsibility seriously. Her commitment to reading Elizabeth’s journals influences not only her memories, but raises questions about Kate’s own decisions and marriage. Her fascination, which borders on obsession (as mine did, reading “over her shoulder”), stirs Kate into uneasiness. While ruffling the surface of her marriage, the responsibility also places her at odds with Dave, Elizabeth’s surviving husband, who struggles with his own suspicions about Elizabeth.

This story begins as an intriguing mystery about Elizabeth–her personality, relationships, changes and affections. Yet, this mystery is only the wrapping that conceals other, more tender dilemmas for the reader to unfold. Through her strong characters, striking observations and deep insights, the author leads us to ponder the dedication it takes to endure uncertainty; about the people we love, about seemingly random events and the “mere” coincidences that make the difference between life and death. The greatest mystery I savored in this moving story is the immeasurable cost of secrets, which protect, torment and shape us.

Nichole Bernier draws the reader into Kate’s private, conscientious point of view. Reflecting on her deceased friend, Kate considers that some people “don’t fit into a box. They grow to infiltrate everything, and when they suddenly go missing, they are missing everywhere.” In another post- 9/11 moment, Kate considers that, as for having a third child, “It seemed a dangerous thing, having more children than hands.” (Out of respect for the uncorrected proof status of my galley, I won’t quote more than this…although I could go on and on with great pleasure, thanks to many “aha” moments of literary and emotional resonance.) The author rings true with her characters and a timeless consideration of the dangers of love, in its many mysterious forms.

Please find more information on the author, book excerpts, the first chapter, release date and where to purchase at: Nichole Bernier’s blog and her author website. Thanks to goodreads for drawing my name out of the great hat of cyberspace. I will post this review on their site, as well.

Will You Like Her?

The protagonist in the novel I’m editing has likeable qualities. If she were perfect, though, one couldn’t imagine her as a real person. It does make me wonder…how much does a reader need to love the main character in a story? I read many reviews where the reader complains, “I just didn’t like that main character” and it only goes downhill from there. Of course, I care about her, as I’m her literary “mom.” But she’s edgy. She’s done some awful things. She struggles to be a good self and often fails.

Someone once told me that authors are the cruelest people in the world…that we draw characters only to subject them to terrible events, flawed relationships and abuse. This is true. Without conflict, there’s no story and without adversity, there’s no conflict. Outside cartoons, few readers will tolerate a nervous Nell, whose only personal issue or problem in the world is Snidely Whiplash. Look over there, Nell. It’s Dudley Do-Right. The End.

As a flawed human who reads, I can admire a strong protagonist, but I feel a little nervous until I find a human foible. Only then can I sit back and relate. Oh, good. This is a human story.

There are degrees of faults that writers use to develop antiheroes, hoping to hold readers’ interest. Sometimes reality inspires them. It’s said that Vlad Tepes was a bloodthirsty fellow even before Bram Stoker inflated him to mythical status. In books and on television (not to mention, the evening news), asocial, sociopathic and even psychopathic protagonists abound. Serial killers. Vampires. Werewolves. Misbegotten creatures, such as Mary Shelley designed. Most frightening of may be the evil so attractive that it slips under our radar–for example, that too-handsome guy who offers to change your flat tire.

In fiction, evil may be a warning, but it can fascinate and deliver a shiver of fear. Just ask Stephen King and Anne Rice about scary fun. To add to the confusion, evil can also invoke our pity. Most antiheroes didn’t ask to be to be bitten or mauled, raised by coldhearted mothers or born with a mental oddity…or did they? Free will can be a delightfully tangled fringe to unravel in a fictional character.

Scene shift to Hitler. Few people argue that he was simply misunderstood, or that if things had gone differently for him–say, if he’d sold a few more paintings–that he wouldn’t have exterminated millions of people. I saw you cringe. I share your discomfort and it’s nothing to joke about. This reminds that, yes, there is definitely a limit to how evil a protagonist or an antihero can be. There is a line that a writer can’t successfully cross…somewhere.

Sorry if I frightened you…my protagonist isn’t Hitler. Read on.

Flannery O’Connor spares no inconvenience or tragedy, when it comes to sifting the souls of her characters. Those hapless individuals may sing in Sunday School, but their songs won’t save them when they slam head-on into darkness, which they find where? Inside themselves. At least one of O’Connor’s protagonists possesses zeal but scant clarity of purpose. He preaches, wraps himself in barbed wire, walks with glass in his shoes, murders and seduces (not necessarily in that order). I would not invite Hazel Motes to meet my grandchildren, but as a fictional character he looms large and clear, as does the entire novel, Wise Blood.

Will readers like my protagonist? Maybe not much at all and to tell the truth, her likeability isn’t my main concern. I do hope that readers will relate to her. My challenge is to make her real so that her story is a truly human one. Whether readers cheer her on or call for her destruction, that’s their contribution to the story. Either way, I want her to live on clearly in their minds.

For a more on this issue of heroes and antiheroes, you might enjoy Theodore Wheeler’s review of Bad Marie. She’s very, very bad and you just might like her.

More on Flannery O’Connor

As mentioned in the previous post, Flannery O’Connor didn’t coddle her readers. She emphasized the origin of fiction and identified a potential risk for writers who wish to press the reader toward spiritual mysteries.

I would not like to suggest that this kind of writer, because his interest is predominantly in mystery, is able in any sense to slight the concrete. Fiction begins where human knowledge begins–with the senses–and every fiction writer is bound by this fundamental aspect of his medium. I do believe, however, that the kind of writer I am describing will use the concrete in a more drastic way. His way will much more obviously be the way of distortion.

In her singular droll manner, she pointed out that people didn’t always understand that her Southern regionalism was not intended to be a simple reduction or reproduction of daily life.

I am always having it pointed out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it, that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families, nor Bible salesmen prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs.

Rather, she had a different focus for this particular type of fiction writer.

Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than in probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. Image

She also saw a essential connection between the South and Christian theology.

But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.

By exposing and touching the South’s theological and regional nerves, O’Connor intended a specific and strong experience for her readers. Do you think she succeeded? Does her fiction stand as “Christian” or “Southern” in any sense today, or are these irrelevant designations?  Discuss… 🙂

Bioregional Literature III — The Desert

On what will certainly not be my last musings on bioregional literary criticism, I would like to offer up an interesting example. Tom Lynch, mentioned in my previous post, is an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he teaches “ecocriticism and place-conscious literature.” Through the Texas Tech University Press, Tom Lynch has published a volume entitled, Xerophilia: Ecocritical Explorations in Southwestern Literature. As a repeated, devoted visitor to Northern New Mexico, I look forward to reading this book. An excerpt:
“[W]hether I notice or not, the landscape suffuses my body. Unidentifiable scents enter my lungs with each breath: the mingled smells of dust, rock, juniper, turpentine bush, mountain mahogany, the heady mix of volatile oils of the creosote bush, and the ever-so-subtle odor of blue sky. Though less often articulated, all of my senses, not just vision, are engaged; the phenomena of this world circulate through me, and I through them. The landscape caresses as I pass through. . . . On my feet again, I hobble from stiffness, throw my pack on, and, leaning on my sotol stalk for balance, begin to pick my way zigzag down the long rocky slope. I am in love with this landscape. I am, indeed, a devoted xerophile.”                                   —from the introduction
For those of you like myself, who are tempted to look up xerophile and see how a person could be one…I already did. A xerophile is an organism that is adapted to conditions with a low availability of water. My longest stretch in an isolated region of the New Mexico desert was ten days and I felt an interesting sense of falling in love, a willingness to adapt to the extreme aridity, even if that sense of adaptation was primarily a keen sense of my vulnerability. It was difficult to walk anywhere without considering how far I might be from the nearest river or water source. In a larger sense, I realized the primacy of nature in that place and came face-to-face with my irrelevance to the surroundings. I was not at the center of any scheme in the desert, and it was a satisfying realization, both intellectually and spiritually.
Many have considered the westward expansion and settlement of the American frontier to have been a sort of dominion or mastery, the exertion and supremacy of human structures and energies over nature. It takes a spiritual, and even literary, humility to consider how the physical world shapes the those of us who tread on and in it. Perhaps it takes an even more profound sense of our union with and need for the earth to consider that we should tread lightly, even invisibly as we pass by.
Do we define places, or do they define us? Discuss amongst yourselves…
      photo credit: El Santuario de Chimayo, by Fermin Hernandez

Bioregional Literature I

To classify a literary work as “regional” may at first glance seem to limit its scope and appeal. Some essays, novels or poetry are initially slow to generate interest beyond their “land of origin.” However, readers today increasingly seek out literature that provides an experience that they would never otherwise find. Fascinating and worthy writers who record native, immigrant, minority and exile experiences increasingly capture contemporary readers’ imagination.

Many readers and critics favor one or another specific “lenses” through which to interpret what they read (gender, politics and linguistics are just a few). One such lens, a personal favorite of mine, is to explore the particular nuances that resonate from a literary sense of place.

My first exposure to this particular literary lens came while I was an English student at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD. Dr. Arthur Huseboe, who established the Center for Western Studies there, dedicated much of his scholarship to the culture and literature of the Great Plains and the West, with special scholarly attention to authors Frederick Manfred and Herbert Krause.

I learned more about Great Plains and Western regionalism while attending a Western Literature Association conference in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in October of 1989. By that time, I had lived across a broad swath of the region mockingly dubbed “The Great American Desert”–from Texas to Minnesota, and Colorado to Iowa. The idea of the American Plains and West as fertile ground for literature led me to focus on it, as well as creative writing, in my Master’s degree studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As a reader, the “meanings” of this particular region still fascinate me. The romance of literary participation in this regional tradition fires my own fiction writing.