Wondrous Varieties

mixed-raceWhen I was teaching in Michigan, I remember a Caucasian student who submitted a story containing African-American characters. What struck me was that each of these characters exhibited at least one stereotype of African-Americans. The stereotypes weren’t all negative, but they were stereotypes nonetheless. When I met with the student and raised this point, the abashed student said, “Well, I don’t really personally know any blacks.” To underscore this point, the student’s normal speaking voice dropped to nearly a whisper when saying the word “blacks.”

Like most clichés, the old fiction adage “write what you know” has a grain of truth in it. But when I meet writers whose knowledge only fits into a small circle, my advice is to always broaden that circle, not double-down on what’s inside. As we meet people different than we are and get to know them, two things happen and both are vital to improving our craft.

The first is we learn that while people may look different, while they may think, act, believe, and express themselves differently from us, they are essentially the same as we writing-fiction-burrowayare. It’s that different/same mix that creates what Janet Burroway, in her book Writing Fiction, called the individual-typical- universal character. Characters must be individuals, or else your story is lost from the start. Characters need to also be typical, meaning that they should act according to the norms of their natural or chosen environment. Even if your character is a lone-wolf rebel who is defying all societal norms, that character must act as lone-wolf rebels do; in other words, that character must exhibit at least some traits that are typical of rebellious people. Finally, they must be universal. They must have the core human traits common to all people.

Second, widening what we know and who we know deepens our mines so that we can extract richer and richer material. Unlike other skills and crafts, every moment of a writer’s life is part of our study. You climb on a bus in the morning and take your seat next to a stranger, and the lesson begins. What is your seat companion’s facial expression? What mannerisms are used? What does the person’s movements – actions and reactions – tell you? And if you’re the kind who can talk to strangers, what do you know about the topic chosen and where the conversation goes? What can you pick up about the sound of the person’s voice or the pattern of speech?

I grew up (childhood through college) in a time and place that was pretty homogenous, where traditions were touchstones to be kept and honored, and change was generally something to be wary of. My earliest writing reflected that sort of environment. My first teaching gig was at a local community college, and there I met a student who was of a different race, and he had AIDS. At that time (1989), AIDS was a death sentence, but there he was working for an education. We were talking one day, and he mentioned some of his dreams for the future. I can only imagine the look on my face because this soft-spoken, wonderful man chuckled and said, “My future mightn’t be as long as yours but yes sir, I have dreams.”

My circle widened a notch that day. And I realized I wanted (and needed) for it to widen much, much more.

A critic of this approach could point out – correctly — that an author like Richard Russo won the Pulitzer Prize by almost exclusively chronicling the small-town, blue-collar denizens whose jobs, relationships, and self-worth were either gone or on the way out. I would argue that that is by choice, not by restriction. And when we as writers don’t diversify who and what we know, we are limiting ourselves and our craft.

This blog piece began with an anecdote about stereotyping, and I’m bringing it back to that because if we don’t diversify our experiences and our writing, we ourselves become stereotyped. Imagine for a minute if Neil Gaiman announced his intention to only write romance novels from here on out, or if Toni Morrison said she planned to write hard science fiction exclusively. Maybe Russo’s next book will be a chick-lit story about the 1%. Publishing executives would have fits. They can’t do that!

Yes, they can. They – and you – are not limited by what you have always written or are known for writing. There are no rules about what gets written by gender or race or previous experience. Only you can limit yourself by not widening your circle or exploring themes outside of what you have written before.

Practice wondrous variety. Both your writing and your life will be richer for it.

Telling The Truth

“Truth” is a word that has been taking a beating for quite a long time now, but in the last Printyear, it has been used and abused with a fervor unmatched in my memory.

First absolute truth got roughed up in this age of relativism, the belief that there are no absolute truths, but only truth relative to a person and situation. Then, truth became personal – it’s true because I believe it to be true. If you don’t, well then, you’re lying. Even its corollary definition “to be true” (loyal) fell into that same hole: If I believe something, then you will stand with me to show you are “true.”

Then, just when it seemed “truth” couldn’t sink any lower or become more ambiguous, enter the 2016 presidential campaign.

I have been silent on this blog (and most social media) for several months due to the campaign. The job of the artist isn’t to capture the events as they happen but to look for the paths through the aftermath, to find the meaning in what occurs, strengthen what remains and help reconstruct (or build anew) what has been broken. So, the American part of me participated in the election, but the writer in me watched and listened.

But since October, I knew that upon my return to this blog, my first subject was going to be truth: the artistic sense of truth.

Every artist must interpret truth as he or she sees fit, so in that way, artistic truth has always been relative. To a point. But there is a deeper truth, what I call a “core truth” – truth that is at the core of who we are as people, in all of our wisdom and stupidity, our nobility and our cruelty, our love and our indifference. Writers who don’t try to connect with core truth in every story or poem they write will never achieve what they want to achieve.

So how do we find this artistic truth?

It starts with recognizing our own unique vision of the world. We need to sense or feel what it is we most want to write about and then cast it into its proper mold: poetry, fiction, non-fiction, or script. Then, the hard work begins. We have to dig into what’s below our characters and voices even while we’re creating their situations and surroundings above ground.

bellocqs-opheliaI recently read Natasha Threthewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia. It is poetry that imagines the story of a prostitute that Bellocq photographed in his famous, pre-World War I series in New Orleans. What’s so striking about these poems is how straight-forward and “prose-like” the writing is. Threthewey is a fantastic poet who can put sounds together in a poem that will steal your breath, but here, she goes for a spare, matter-of-fact style that reveals Ophelia’s core truth.

The following is an excerpt from the poem entitled “January 1911.” To better make my point, I’ve rendered the excerpt as prose, without poetic line breaks:

Perhaps you are too delicate to know of my life here. Still, you remain my dearest friend and should not worry that I won’t write. I know your own simple means prevent you from helping me as you would like. Help me only as you already do – with the words I crave, the mundane details of your quiet life.
Prostitutes are mostly viewed as either a blight on society or a commodity to be used, but these lines show us something quite different: core truth. Ophelia accepts her situation but still experiences the strong desire to have her friend’s “quiet” life. Deeper still, Ophelia is expressing her need to stay connected to an old friend and is asking that the friend do the same. In fact, the first line “Perhaps you are too delicate to know of my life here” is stated with no small degree of fear. Would her friend abandon Ophelia now that she’s a prostitute? The sub-text is clear: “Nothing has changed,” Ophelia is saying. “I’m still me, and we’re still us, no matter what our life situations are.”

What Threthewey has accomplished here is to present a woman seen to be in a disastrous situation and shows us the core truth about her – that she still has the same needs we all do. No matter what external events happen to us – or the reason why they happen — there are connections all human beings harbor and inner needs that all human beings seek to have met.

Good writing presents to the reader the external conflict between characters AND an internal core truth of those characters. Without a well-developed external character, you end up with solipsistic people populating your stories, what one editor accurately describes as “navel-gazers.” Conversely, if you don’t reveal an internal core truth in your character(s), the story will end up being (and sounding, to your readers) hollow.

Even if you are a genre writer, you must strive to develop both sides of the character.  What makes Robert Parker’s detective Spenser so compelling isn’t just his toughness or his wise-cracking friendship with Hawk, but his own unique code of ethics and the way he gauges his life so that he doesn’t diverge from that code and lose himself. What makes Charles De Lint’s artist Jilly so loveable is that she feels the heart and magic in every person, animal, and thing she encounters and always acts with an awareness of that heart, even when it gets her in trouble.

Core truth is what lies beneath our professions, our politics, our race, our gender, and all the other trappings of the physical world. That truth can’t be distorted and it can’t be denied by writers if we want our characters and our stories to reach their fullest fruition.

My Summer As A Fictional Character

Hopper

“Four Lane Road” by Edward Hopper

Like all writers, I have had fallow periods when the ideas and the desire to write jumped in a sports car and went on holiday. But I always knew they’d be back. I would use these fallow periods to read, think, and generally enjoy life as a non-writer for a change. When the ideas and urge to write returned, everything was refreshed and I worked with such passion, dedication, and energy that only overwhelming amounts of grading would be able to slow me down.

That’s how I envisioned this summer to be: A writing extravaganza. An uncharted season of few time-sensitive responsibilities and unlimited possibilities. By mid-May, classes had ended and my novel was well-launched, which meant my summer daily schedule could begin:

9 a.m-12 – Write

1-5 p.m. – Work on summer classes, book promotion, and house projects/maintenance

7-11 p.m. – Walk, read and/or write more.

Only, no writing happened. I slept late, found other projects to do, and couldn’t get my writing engine going. Yes, some personal illness and family matters cropped up in late May/early June, but those never stopped me before. I searched for signs that I had entered an ill-timed fallow period, but this didn’t feel like a vacation. It felt like abandonment.

All through June, when I sat down to write, I was empty. I forced myself to write, and the result was terrible. I pressed on, knowing from experience that the first few writing sessions after a long lay-off typically produce less-than-stellar results, but after a few minutes, I would click onto the Internet and Facebook. I couldn’t even bring myself to post there. I simply scrolled through the stream of goings-on, occasionally reacting to someone else’s post, but bringing nothing to the table myself. The same thing happened when I turned my attention to promotion – I sloughed that off. I tried writing poetry: got one drafted and then zilch. I turned to blogging, and except for an interesting nugget about Stephen King (see the previous piece), that, too, fell victim to distraction and ennui.

My wife kept reassuring me that I was tired from a tough semester and the rigorous process of publishing a novel. Since she’s right 95% of the time, I relaxed, but as June turned into July and then into August nothing in my writing life changed. It was as if the authorial world had turned upside down. For most of my life, I was depressed when I didn’t write. Now, I was depressed when I sat down to write.

I have never experienced writer’s block for more than a day, so I have no idea how this ends. I imagine it will (I can’t – or won’t – imagine any other ending), but as I sit here watching the sun drift ever-so-slowly southward and charting how the bright, summer light is beginning its autumnal  flattening, I have to admit one thing:

I’m scared.

If this were a novel, and my character was experiencing this sort of creative exile, I would have a feel for where this story was going, and I would know exactly what I had to do to keep it moving. Perhaps the writing gods are playing with me: They have turned me into a character stuck in some bloke’s novel and the bastard has an epic case of writer’s block. So here I sit, waiting for him to become re-inspired and pull me out of this holding pattern. It makes me wonder if every unfinished story in my “draft” file has characters feeling like I do now – on hold, uneasy, and waiting.

Okay, none of that’s very likely. What’s more plausible is recalling how a friend, a poet, once defined unstructured writing time: “A period, which, when it ends, you look back and discover that you haven’t written one damn worthwhile thing.”

Perhaps that’s what’s going on here. Maybe the imposed structure of the new semester will jar the world back into its normal orbit, and the creativity that I have lived with for most of my years will return. That’s my hope at the moment, and I’m sticking to it.

Three For The Price Of One

In a recent Q and A in Pittsburgh, Stephen King was asked how he managed to think of the horror plots he comes up with and still live a normal life.

Here’s his (paraphrased) answer:

There are three Stephen Kings. The first is the guy who goes out to his office in the barn every morning. That Stephen King thinks of the plots and writes the stories, but when the writing is done, he stays in the barn. The second Stephen King is the man at home, the guy who still takes out the garbage and whose wife tells him not to go out wearing that shirt. The third Stephen King is the one who goes on the road and does readings and answers questions. When my kids were little, they used to say “Dad’s leaving to be Stephen King again.”

I know exactly what he means.

Now, I can hear your question: “Wait a minute, Kenyon. Your popularity as a writer is as far away from Stephen King’s as earth is from a quasar, so how can you know what he’s talking about?”

The answer is this: Most writers are not going to be able to make their living purely from writing, so they have to find another way to earn money. Quite a few writers go into teaching. It’s a good choice. Why? For many reasons, but one of them is because teaching is a lot like a 15-week Q and A session. And to do it well, the writer has to develop a classroom persona which is akin to the persona a writer has when she goes out to face the reading public.

This persona is vital. If we are completely ourselves, meaning we are the same in front of the classroom audience as we are in our lives, we (and the audience) are in for a rough ride. Whether facing the reading public or the student public, you’re going to be asked the same questions, many times over, and you have to realize that while you may be talking about this book or this subject for the 30th time, the reader/student is hearing it for the first time.

I tend to be very out-going in the classroom. I get pumped up about my subjects, sometimes to the point where I have to rein myself in so I don’t overwhelm the students. I feel the same way when talking about my writing. But I remember one student who took to dropping by my office after class to chat about other topics. After the fourth visit, the student leaned back in the chair, eyed me a bit suspiciously and said, “In here, you’re nothing like you are in the classroom. You’re more laid-back. Less, you know, energetic.”

I couldn’t and didn’t argue. In everyday life, the Joseph Kenyon who takes out the garbage and whose wife tells him not to wear that shirt is passionate about what he writes and teaches, but he also is someone who likes his solitude. This is the entire premise behind my novel All The Living And The Dead: The brash and out-going student vs. the quiet and introspective professor. Which one am I? Both. And neither.

I don’t say that to be coy. Human beings are complex creatures, and if each of us is to be the most complete human being we can be, then we have to find a balance between the parts of ourselves. Each of us is the writer – our internal selves; the person – our friends and family selves; and the persona – our professional selves. Knowing which person to bring out in which situation is the key to keeping all three in balance or all three balls in the air. When one starts to bleed into the other – when we bring our personal lives into the professional, or our writer lives dominate the other two aspects – we get into trouble.

Still, in every encounter, every action, we offer pieces of ourselves to others. If you are a regular reader of my blog, then you see a piece of me that is as genuine and true as the piece of me my students see in the classroom or that my friends see at a party. The phrase “Getting to know” someone involves taking these pieces that another person gives us and fitting them into the puzzle. Each piece we add brings us closer to the total picture of that person. If we like what the big picture is becoming, we build a relationship and keep plugging in the pieces. If we don’t like what the picture is turning out to be, we stop.

But if we see a piece or two and assume we know the whole person, then we’re headed for either a great misunderstanding or great disappointment. Or both.

A Beggar’s Confession

I’m a beggar.

No, I’m not homeless. I have a job that allows me to pay my bills and live my life mostly the way I want to live it.

But I do a fair amount of begging because, well, as of April, I’m a published novelist.

Please don’t read that as a complaint but more a fascination with the way publishing – and society at large – has changed.

It used to be that novelists were among the nobility. They wrote the words, and a publishing house did the rest. That house not only published the book but also hired people to do the publicity, set up the tours, and market the book. In other words, the publisher took care of the grubby work.

That freed the novelist to show up at signings and readings, answer questions, and move on. Tours of this nature could be grueling but not out-of-pocket. I attended a lot of readings by famous and not–so-famous authors and even the not-so-famous writers admitted that they had varying degrees of help in booking and executing these tours.

While some of that old structure still exists in the larger publishing houses, I notice that friends and acquaintances who publish through those houses are doing a lot more marketing these days than they used to. And if you publish through an indie publisher, then you become your own marketing-PR-cheerleading team (unless you have a loving partner or someone who owes you a lot of money).

Now, I’m the first to admit that novelists had it easy for a long, long time. Poets hardly got the same treatment, even when poetry was king. Musicians played a lot of honky-tonk places or busked in the streets and had to schlep their own instruments to boot. I’m sure avant-garde performance art had a bit of marketing behind it: No one wants to see your paintings? Show a canvas on the street while lighting your pants on fire.

Today, however, this sort of begging has been re-branded brilliantly so that it’s not only socially acceptable but expected. We call it crowdsourcing.

Many artists are turning to this nouveau way to underwrite their ventures, but they aren’t alone. Pretty much any endeavor which has seen its funding dry up (and that’s pretty much any job under the level of corporate officer or professional athlete) now asks others in the community — real and virtual — to help fill in the funding gap.

Just two or three generations ago, this idea would have been unthinkable, even if the technology had existed to support it.

There is a legendary story in my family about my grandfather who was so adamant about not accepting “charity” that he wouldn’t sign up to receive his social security. My mother tried to explain to him that it was his money, that he had paid into the system for 20 years and that he was just getting it back. He refused.

So, one day while she was having him sign other paperwork concerning his retirement, she slipped the form in and told him it was an insurance form (not technically a lie, as the program’s real name is Social Security Insurance). My grandfather signed it.

When the checks began to arrive, he refused to cash them and he refused to talk to my mother. Eventually, he got over it, as have we all.

What would he make of me, I wonder? I’m the grandson who has spent much of his free time since April hounding family and colleagues, life-long friends and new virtual friends to buy his book. I’m about to beg some more, asking these same kind and open-handed people to review the book on Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes and Noble, or any other site, virtual or real.

A part of me likes this new, wild-west world where I get to publish (and beg) with a lot more input than writers of a bygone era got, but I also have some of my grandfather in me, some small voice that says “you know, Kenyon, there’s something unseemly and unmanly about asking people to spend their time and money for your benefit.”

That voice isn’t loud enough to stop me from doing it, but the voice is prompting me to write this next sentence: To my family and friends, those near and far-flung, I apologize if I’ve said or done anything to make you buy a book you really didn’t want to buy or to spend time reading a book you really didn’t want to read. I am very, very sorry. And even more thankful and appreciative.

But since what’s done is done, if you could see your way clear to write a review of that book, I’d be immensely grateful.

Belonging

Belonging

by Joseph Kenyon

The vast majority of what we read, listen to, or watch on a screen of any size is about finding where we belong: That place or group where we are always welcome and where our absence is noted and felt.

I began musing about this when I realized that Sunday, May 15, was the 130th anniversary of Emily Dickinson’s death. If anyone can claim to be the poster child for not belonging, it’s Dickinson. Her poetry, and the mystique around it, revel in being excluded, the outsider:

The Soul selects her own Society –

Then — shuts the Door –

To her divine Majority –

Present no more —

But taking any writer’s work as the best and final word on that writer’s life is to merrily skip down an alley in a tough neighborhood. Dickinson belonged to three tight circles: Her family (she was such a good baker that her father only wanted to eat the bread she made), her group of pen pals with which she first shared her poems, and her garden. Any gardener or nature lover knows that once a person establishes herself in that garden or a certain neck of woods, she becomes as familiar to the animals and trees as they are to her.

I found this out while living in Michigan where my love of bird-feeding reached full flower. Our house backed up to a nature reserve, and as I went out to fill the feeders, a call went up, starting close by and relayed through the trees. If I forgot to fill the feeders at night and the morning was advancing, finches would come and tap on the glass of our bedroom window (yes, they knew where I was keeping myself). I belonged to them. I was part of their order.

When we left Michigan, the feeders were the last things packed, and we timed the move to be in midsummer when the birds would have enough time to absorb the loss of a steady food supply. Even so, for the final two days, we kept the draperies closed so we wouldn’t have to watch the birds flying around, looking for the food they had come to know so well. I was under no illusions that the birds were my friends or that they had any emotions toward me, but leaving them was a loss of a group to which I belonged.

On the virtual side of life, have you ever noticed how logging onto Facebook has the same feel as walking into a neighborhood bar on a busy night? You open the door and you’re in the midst of a hundred conversations going on at one time. Old friends, new friends, issues, jokes, problems, and tears, it’s all there, wrapped up in the cloak of chaotic belonging. Some people are there for business or just stopping by, but the majority of patrons are there for the connection to other people.

Belonging.

Take a look at that word again. Do you see it’s opposite contained within it? To be longing?

So complex is the human mind that while we are doing one thing, we are wishing for the opposite. In the midst of belonging, we still can be longing for something else, that “other” group from which we’re excluded or feel excluded. When I lived in a rural area, I often felt left out and missing the vibe that only a city creates. Now that I’m living in a metropolitan area, I find myself wishing for a walk in solitary woods or look with longing at a blog about rural Devon.

Belonging and to be longing: The opposition creates the great tension that makes life the most complex and fascinating novel we’ll ever read. Yes, there are those who go to one side or the other: stuck in a hell without hope of release or sedate and serene without one concern about time or place. But for most us, we are here, wishing we were there, and once we go there, find ourselves wishing we were back again.

The trick is to give and to get the most out of each place or group to which we belong, whether that group is as large and boisterous as friends and family or subtle as a garden or a pet. And in those times when we find ourselves longing to belong somewhere else, we can find solace in the fact that all places and people belong to one wide world, and wider still, a universe, a consciousness, and/or a God whose essence is our essence.

Or in the words of another famous poet/songwriter who spent his life searching for belonging, even while he belonged to the most famous group in music history:

I am he

As you are he

As you are me

And we are all together.