Friday, February 22, 2013

Showing the Story

Last week, I shared my qualified disappointment in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior because it is a heavy-handed polemic. Artificial scenes staged for the purpose of informing the reader do not foster felicitous expression, and nothing happens except that two characters talk back and forth, one delivering encyclopedic paragraphs while the other listens and occasionally comments or asks a question to give the former character an excuse to lecture on.

Stephen Colbert, echoing E. M. Forster, said (and I'm paraphrasing!):

•    Information equals facts; e.g., The King Dies. The Queen Dies.
•    A story, on the other hand, includes motive and emotion; e.g., The King Dies. The Queen Dies. The Queen dies of grief.  (P. D. James cites E.M. Forster, using the examples given in these bullets.P. D. James cites E. M. Forster.)

What redeems Flight Behavior when characters are not busy imparting information is guilt, lust, grief, ambition, fear, betrayal, longing, oppression, and friendship, the emotions that drive us to err, flee, fight, lie, laugh, love, and yield. The story thrives with these human emotions and behaviors when not bogged down in an analysis of climate change and biological imperatives.

So it must be in your work. You must tell of the human experience in order to tell stories. Story-tellers of old, including Grimm’s retelling of older tales from the oral tradition, used short-hand such as “And they lived happily every after,” a sentence used to communicate bliss and fulfillment; it leaves happiness to the imaginations of hearers while the teller remains on the safer side of decency.

Other writers, in more recent days, describe how a couple shows their happiness in each other, often using a kiss. In doing so, these authors convey the same bliss and fulfillment, but vividly, precisely, specifically. They show rather than tell.

Of course, such descriptions are more difficult. After all, how does one capture the abstract in concrete actions and language? Here’s how Margaret Mitchell accomplished it in Gone with the Wind, one of the top ten kisses in literaturetop ten kisses in literature:

“’Scarlett O’Hara, you’re a fool!’

Before she could withdraw her mind from its far places, his arms were around her, as sure and hard as on the dark road to Tara, so long ago. She felt again the rush of helplessness, the sinking yielding, the surging tide of warmth that left her limp. And the quiet face of Ashley Wilkes was blurred and drowned to nothingness. He bent back her head across his arm and kissed her, softly at first, and then with a swift gradation of intensity that made her cling to him as the only solid thing in a dizzy swaying world. His insistent mouth was parting her shaking lips, sending wild tremors along her nerves, evoking from her sensations she had never known she was capable of feeling. And before a swimming giddiness spun her round and round, she knew that she was kissing him back.

‘Stop–please, I’m faint!’ she whispered, trying to turn her head weakly from him. He pressed her head back hard against his shoulder and she had a dizzy glimpse of his face. His eyes were wide and blazing queerly and the tremor in his arms frightened her.

‘I want to make you faint. I will make you faint. You’ve had this coming to you for years.’”

Rhett, at least, believes that his kiss completes Scarlett, the narrator also suggests that Scarlett feels some level of bliss, and Mitchell titillates readers. These are all ends to which stories go. They speak to us of the human experience, and their effect is powerful, painful, exhilarating, bittersweet, and tragic. As a result, we celebrate our universal human natures, sometimes in song, as Faith Hill did in “This KissThis Kiss:”

…But you got me like a rocket

Shooting straight across the sky

It' s the way you love me

It's a feeling like this

It's centrifugal motion

It's perpetual bliss

It's that pivotal moment

It's, ah, impossible

This kiss, this kiss


This kiss, this kiss….

Unlike Mitchell, Hill relies upon a series of metaphors comparing love, especially felt in his kiss, to centrifugal motion, perpetual bliss, a pivotal moment upon which her heart and soul turn. With these, we understand as fully as we did after reading Mitchell’s description that the kiss spins us in space until we are light-headed and light-hearted, and that, dear Readers, is the heart and soul of quality writing.

Reading Challenge:

If you’ve settled for Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in the 1939 spectacle, Gone with the Wind, pick up a copy of Margaret Mitchell’s book of the same name and spend the last weeks of winter with a good book.

Writing Challenge:

Describe your first kiss. Be patient with yourself. It’s not easy. Here’s one more professional example, this one by Rita Dove.


In water-heavy nights behind grandmother's porch

We knelt in the tickling grasses and whispered:

Linda's face hung before us, pale as a pecan,

And it grew wise as she said:

        "A boy's lips are soft,

        As soft as baby's skin.
The air closed over her words.
A firefly whirred near my ear, and in the distance

I could hear streetlamps ping

Into miniature suns

Against a feathery sky.


Friday, February 15, 2013

Barbara Kingsolver: From Story Rooted in Character to Character in the Service of a Polemic

Barbara Kingsolver is an author oft referenced in this blog. She creates dynamic, memorable women, some encumbered by marriages to flawed men who are not their equals. Others have been cut loose from family and husbands, and they stumble before finding their way forward into their strength and promise. A few are jaded and callous, capable of using others, especially men, to advance their own agendas without any sense of duty to those who helped them on their way.

Earthy. Spunky. Driven. Smart. Sensual. Sexual. Maternal. Capable. These are traits easily attributed to Kingsolver women whom she uses to advance our understanding of our relationships to each other and to Nature itself.

In The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver recreates late 1950s and very early 1960s Africa while sending the Price family there to proselytize and thrive. Nathan Price, the patriarch, pushes his family, then abandons them as he seeks his own redemption without regard or concern for his family’s suffering. Orleanna, Nathan’s wife, first obeys, then resents her husband, and finally deserts him as Africa teaches her several harsh truths: that God will not intercede or rescue her from Africa and more important, that she has no sovereign claim to any part of Nature without unrelenting labor and heartbreak. She must work the garden if she wishes to survive, and she finally does, but only after Nature takes her youngest daughter, stolen from her benign neglect by the sudden, terminal strike of a venomous snake. Orleanna rises to walk away from oppression, from grief, from Africa. She surrenders her children unto some pulse, some necessity over which she has no control. In doing so, she saves them and herself, only to hunger for forgiveness every day of those days left to her.

In Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver again makes setting a character, this time Appalachia where the American Chestnut once towered majestically over lesser trees and coyotes did not have to compete with humans for territory. There, one woman, an expert on moths and pheromones, becomes a widow and loses her place in the family she acquired by marriage. Another woman responds to the pheromones of a stranger and becomes pregnant. A third quarrels with the man next door over spraying for weeds; she teaches that every action stirs a reaction and that the actions of men, especially the man next door, have deadly consequences.

Each of these women is a sojourner, on her way to some other place--away from grief, into motherhood, and into a partnership with her neighbor. Each woman finds some peace with and through Nature, but the journeys are in the service of Kingsolver’s lecture about the delicate balance that exists between creatures of the forests, insects in the air, and humans walking the trails below. Her novel is a polemic, but one that hides within the story.

In Flight Behavior, Kingsolver’s polemical stance is absolutely transparent. In fact, monarch butterflies are the story: it is the loss of their habitat and the importance of their survival that is the core and heart of the tale. Dellarobia, the protagonist in this novel, begins to break from her cocoon at the first sight of millions of Monarchs, transported to Tennessee after a crushing rain in Mexico. She reverses direction, no longer climbing up the mountain to meet a young man with whom she intends to begin a tryst. She has been transformed and will soon dedicate her life to butterflies, to all of Nature, and especially to helping her children escape from the poverty and low expectations that endanger them.

An academic and researcher, Ovid Byron, soon learns about the Monarchs’ new winter home and sets up a laboratory, even employing Dellarobbia to help him count the butterflies and assess their health. Byron sees the curiosity, wit, and intelligence that has been hibernating in Dellarobbia. He inquires about her education, appalled by the poor one given in her small town. He recognizes her skills, her talents, and her fine work ethic, and he facilitates a future that would not come to pass without his encouragement and resources. He reaches a hand to Dellarobbia, and she pulls herself up and out by grabbing it.

But do not be misled. This Kingsolver novel is less about Dellarobbia and more about Dellarobbia as a human Monarch. Her Mexico is a high school pregnancy, shotgun wedding, and miscarriage, all of which cause her to cleave to her new home whether it’s good for her or not. In fact, Tennessee and its bitter cold winter is less than ideal for the Monarch; most of them die just as Dellarobbia’s great promise would die if she does not shed her cocoon, flex her wings, and fly to a new place.

Ovid Byron and Dellarobbia engage in long conversations--speeches really--in which Kingsolver delivers encyclopedic information about Monarchs, climate change, and the delicate balance we endanger by ignoring the warning signs and believing that our own short-term goals are in our own and Nature’s best interests. Kingsolver makes a case for temporary pain in exchange for long-term gain. Man should not pocket the check for clear-cutting whole mountainsides; he has a duty to protect and preserve what has taken many more years than his own lifetime to flourish. If he takes the check, he may find the mountainside collapsing, sliding with the rain, filling the crevices and flooding the flat land at the base. His home may wash away as surely as the Monarch’s Mexican home did, and he is less able to take wing and fly away to another home, mired in the mud of his own making.

To suggest that I did not enjoy Flight Behavior would be a lie. I liked it, and I learned so much. But I like The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer more. Those books exist as fine stories that stand alone with or without historical and scientific underpinnings; Flight Behavior seems to have been an academic lecture first with a story laid upon the scientific and historical base rather than the other way round.

Reading Challenge:

Read Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. Read Prodigal Summer and The Poisonwood Bible too if you have not already done so. Enjoy the fine portraits of women. Few writers create such wonderfully complex women.

Writing Challenge:


1a : an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another

b : the art or practice of disputation or controversy —usually used in plural but singular or plural in construction

2: an aggressive controversialist ( polemic)

Write your own polemic, beginning with the words: This, I believe . . .

Friday, February 8, 2013

Comprehending Human Suffering through Literature

How can we comprehend human suffering if we do not suffer? How may we understand the effects of racism or sexism if we do not walk in the shoes of others? Two very different works of art provide us with the shoes. The first is an exquisite story, “Sonny’s Blues” (, by the brilliant craftsman James Baldwin; the second is the 2012 film directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty, the film that has been a topic of recent posts.

First, let is be known that I have never known racism. I step into the world with light, fair skin, the color that has often been the color of privilege. I have never had any reason to dread stepping from the safe haven I call home into a world full of prejudice, bias, hatred and suspicion. I am only slightly acquainted with the harsh judgment of strangers because I am overweight, a state that brings out the worst arrogance and certainties about my character. I may have to confront the occasional “Boy, you’re fat,” but I do not have to live with the N-word whispered or shouted at me and I do not have to wonder if words like “lazy” and “47%” are directed at me. My racial heritage has allowed me to believe that doors and windows are open to me so I need a story like “Sonny’s Blues” to glimpse the sorrow and suffering that racism inflicts.

Sonny is the younger brother of the narrator, a teacher married to Isabel and father to a beautiful child, Grace, whom polio claimed while Sonny was in prison for using heroin. In spite of the narrator’s promise to his dying mother that he will care for his more sensitive younger brother, the two became estranged, each choosing very different lifestyles. The narrator is a successful family man with a career, Sonny a soldier and musician. He lived with the night, with jazz, in clubs, and overseas. He turned to drugs that, the narrator believes, help boys such as Sonny and his own students live lives confined by the color of their skin. After reading about his own brother’s arrest in the daily news, the narrator remembers Sonny while looking at his students:

I was sure that the first time Sonny had ever had horse, he couldn't have been much older than these boys were now. These boys, now, were living as we'd been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone.

Those words, those lines seem, to me, to be powerful and poignant descriptors of the effects of racism, of living with the knowledge that having a great mathematical mind, a passion for language, and a will to teach might not be enough. After all, in this story published during the 1950s, the narrator still lives in Harlem; he’s still confined by the color of his skin in spite of a respectable job with a steady income. Even his ceiling is low; the world is not his for the taking even though he is a good credit risk, an award-winning teacher, and fine family man.

Sonny expresses himself in jazz, an art that the narrator deems as thin and unrealistic as a hologram. Without music and musicians who understand the story unfolding in Sonny’s music, Sonny has no recourse but to flee into drugs, but once released from prison and living under his brother’s roof, Sonny would like never to use heroin again. He knows however that he’s vulnerable, especially because he is so alone in his suffering. His brother does not dwell in the sorrow; he moves with it, through it and beyond it most of the time. Sonny cannot, and I think I understand.

Once, during a two-week stay in Mexico, as my husband drove the narrow, mountainous roads, I glimpsed a man pursue a hungry dog with a large club. “Stop!” I cried, but there was no safe place to pull over, no shoulder running beside the road, only dense, damp jungle encroaching. Later, one evening after dinner, as we left Bucerias, I saw a starving dog in the town square where locals grilled meat and laughed together. The dog didn’t beg; it seemed to know there was no mercy for it, none from these people who, I’m told, have so little themselves that they cannot pity the poor beasts among them. I told my husband that I could never live there, the place he wanted to retire. I told him that my soul ached, my heart heavy with the animals so helpless, so hungry. We left for a country where no-kill shelters are a rather recent innovation.

Sonny looked upon the suffering of his race. He saw that in many places there was no mercy, no remedy. He could not bear the pain, especially if his own brother judged him for needing an escape. But it is Grace, that sweet daughter, dead, that provides the brothers with a shared experience. They can understand the depths of sorrow, but they descend by different paths. Sonny bears the sorrow of his race, the narrator the sorrow of his lost child. Then, when the narrator hears Sonny’s blues, improvised on a piano and nourished by the bass, a horn, and drums, the narrator nearly drowns in the grief that the music strips naked; then the brothers swim to shore together, on the notes of struggle and loss and pain.

Maya, the female maverick at the heart of Zero Dark Thirty, has no brother, only a few, rare and patient co-workers. One stumbles upon a revelation in a decades-old file and realizes that this vindicates Maya’s theory that bin Laden’s courier is the key to finding the Al Qaeda puppeteer. Another advises Maya to lighten up, to try to get along so that her superiors will support her obsessive quest to bring down bin Laden.

These moments of camaraderie and friendship are rare and even foreign to Maya, a CIA operative working in a paternalistic agency, a paternalistic world. She’s driven. She’s fiery. She’s blunt, and she learns that a woman never speaks truth to power without consequence. She alone doggedly pursues a single theory. Her single-mindedness puzzles and even maddens others. Worst of all, she’s right. Her courier theory leads to bin Laden, but of all the people involved in the pursuit of bin Laden and his assassination, the real-world Maya, according to the woman who portrayed her, is the only one not promoted in the CIA.

At movie’s end, one pilot acknowledges that she must be important because an entire plane has been requisitioned to take her anywhere she wants to go, but where exactly is that? Where does a woman alone, one who’s pissed off so many, go? If she were the characters portrayed by Eddie Murphy, Steve McQueen, or Bruce Willis, the subjects of last week’s post about mavericks and heroes, Maya would have been slapped on the back, applauded, and welcomed back into the fold. She would not have been alone, on a huge empty plane, without a direction home. And that image of the diminutive woman alone is an excellent portrait of sexism. Women who nag and insist upon a direction must become acquainted with being alone. They must be willing to wear the labels of bitch, harpy, and shrew while men, equally vocal, determined, and abrasive, could be featured on the cover of Time magazine as Person of the Year.

Reading Challenge:

Read “Sonny’s Blues.” Savor its rich, rhythmic use of language so like the riffs and threads of jazz. Revel in Baldwin’s use of figurative language. Then turn to the stark, shadowy world of covert operatives, torture, and “old fashioned sleuthing” (Bigelow). Watch a well-defined spy procedural, but be aware of the little woman in a world of men.

Writing Challenge:

1.    Select at least one passage from “Sonny’s Blues.” Using your own subject, recreate the grammatical patterns that Baldwin uses to such good effect, aware that imitation is flattery as well as an excellent way to broaden your own stylistic repertoire.
2.    Write a letter to an imaginary CIA director, demanding that the fictional Maya receive a promotion for her excellent work in bringing down bin Laden.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Mavericks Mutate Into Action Heroes

I have pretended to prefer action heroes more than once when my husband and I searched for a movie to see.

“What about Die Hard LVII?” I might offer.

“That sounds good,” he says, barely concealing his enthusiasm. “Do you really want to see it?”

“Who doesn’t love Bruce Willis and domestic terrorists defeated?”

“Then, let’s see it!” He grins.

Action-hero plots are entirely predictable, the outcome a foregone conclusion. Whether the movie flickering on the screen features Eddie Murphy’s Detroit cop in Beverly Hills Cop, Steve McQueen’s Bullitt on the streets of San Francisco, or Die Hard Bruce Willis as a NY cop in LA desperately seeking his modern bride, we can count on the following:

•    In exposition, we learn that for the protagonist, justice is personal. Eddie Murphy hunts down the killer of his old friend, McQueen’s reputation and career are on the line, and Willis wants to save his wife and marriage.
•    We also learn that the protagonist is a maverick. Murphy invents back-stories and defies authority almost daily. McQueen quickly perceives that he is one man against corrupted power and goes his own way in great danger. Willis is the cowboy long after Tombstone has grown peaceful; he needs a school marm to protect, but she’s an empowered woman, capable of saving herself until international thieves overwhelm her workplace. Then her cowboy shoots his way to her while she remains composed and confident that her man will save the world with only bare feet and his wits.
•    The maverick thinks quickly, endowed with skill and MacGyver-esque resources. Murphy talks fast and has absolutely no fear of authority, celebrity, or firearms. McQueen drives a Mustang up and down San Francisco hills better than any Grand Prix winner, and Willis can knock back a shot of whiskey, walk barefoot over glass, and still shoot straighter than any one shooting back.
•    The protagonist is alone against insurmountable odds. Murphy confronts thugs, hitmen, whole police departments, villainy, and better fire power, yet he beats the bad guys. McQueen faces off against Congressional power and the weight of police more loyal to that power than to their own oaths. Willis’s enemies include a high-tech team of world-renowned, remorseless, greedy killers. He’s not even armed at first, but he outwits and stands alone against them all.
•    Once the maverick beats all opponents and delivers his own body count, he’s welcomed back into the company of men and especially women. Murphy finds two good friends in two bumbling Beverly Hills cops and earns a nod of respect from his gruff Detroit captain. McQueen returns to the arms of his woman who has finally glimpsed what he does for a living and for what he will die. Willis throws his arm over his wife’s shoulder to help himself make his way away from the mayhem that he subdued. Her pride in and possessiveness of this man are evident.

What we infer from these and other similar stories is the maverick as hero. This character, usually male, goes his own way even before he finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. He’s never been ordinary at all. And he’s well-acquainted with loneliness because few friends and associates line up to stand with mavericks. Others insure their own easier paths to security and power by following the rules, never speaking truth to power, and dodging culpability.

The maverick’s intimate relationships are often endangered or long over. Being so dedicated to exact justice and so well-acquainted with man’s dark heart steel the maverick; he has a scarred heart because Time and injustice have inflicted a thousand tiny cuts. But wives and lovers need an open, soft heart, one not afraid of being betrayed, one determined to spend more time in love than in pursuit of justice. Thus, mavericks are cut from the herd, forced to live alone.

By story’s end, however, the herd makes an opening and welcomes the maverick after he’s borne the heartache and the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to (Hamlet 3.1). Battered, bruised, and nearly beaten, the maverick triumphs, lonely no more, cheered by those who were unable to be mavericks themselves.

Reading Challenge:

Read Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Bullitt (1968), Die Hard (1988), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012).

Writing Challenge:

Explain why Maya, the female protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty, does not enjoy being welcomed back into the group, as are Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop, Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, and Bruce Willis’s Die Hard hero, even after she bears heartache and shocks to deliver justice for the world.