Thursday, November 27, 2014

Let Us Give Thanks for Louise Gluck, The National Book Award Winner in Poetry 2014

Faithful and Virtuous Nightthe latest collection of poems by Louise Gluck, is a National Book Award winner in poetry for 2014. A Pulitzer Prize honoree, Gluck dwells in the beautiful ambiguity that is poetry. She often contemplates loss, grief, and death. Her speakers suffer and endure. Here is one from a prior collection, one that may perhaps remind us to be grateful on this day.

April by Louise Gluck

No one's despair is like my despair--

You have no place in this garden
thinking such things, producing
the tiresome outward signs; the man
pointedly weeding an entire forest,
the woman limping, refusing to change clothes
or wash her hair.

Do you suppose I care
if you speak to one another?
But I mean you to know
I expected better of two creatures
who were given minds: if not
that you would actually care for each other
at least that you would understand
grief is distributed
between you, among all your kind, for me
to know you, as deep blue
marks the wild scilla, white
the wood violet. 

A wise, somewhat dispassionate speaker lays claim to despair that supercedes all others and their despair. This speaker, perhaps endowed with divine power, seems inclined to evict a man and a woman from the garden. They simply “have no place” there, “thinking such things” as they think, “deforesting” entire forests, “refusing” to demonstrate self-awareness and pride in clothing or hygiene.

The speaker declares that his or her expectation for those in the garden was greater; after all, they were “given minds” with which to understand, to comprehend that grief is a shared burden, not an isolated indulgence. Grief is as natural as the colors of flowers on the earth.

Naked Ladies, also known as the Belladonna Lily
So today, let us grant our shared humanity, our shared burden. Let us show compassion for one another even if we cannot speak to each other.

Reading Challenge:

Read any one of Louise Gluck’s poem, but take special note of those in her latest collection.

Writing Challenge:

Write an answer for the question: what might a god expect of his creations?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Toss Together a Cup of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a Teaspoon of Rizzoli and Isles, a Pinch of X-Files and Moriarty: ABC's Forever

Last week, I lamented the dearth of fresh, original programs. A Fall 2014 entry in the race to a complete first season on ABC is Forever, and after two episodes, I have set my DVR to “Record Series.” In other words, I was interested enough in the characters that I will commit to a once a week serving. Here’s why: the program is made of iconic stuff, but it has been stirred and brewed to something novel.

First, Dr. Henry Morgan has the mental acuity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock. Second, the series is not a standard police procedural with partnered detectives unraveling crimes; Forever is like the Rizzoli and Isles novels by Tess Gerritsen. A medical examiner and police detective forge a partnership.

The two recognize each other through a shared grief. Each has lost a beloved spouse. They also find life’s meaning and purpose in discovering the truth.

Detective Jo Martinez judges Dr. Morgan as honest, if eccentric, proving her own perspicacity, and her good judgment allows her to trust him. As Scully trusted Mulder in spite of agency derision, Detective Jo trusts Dr. Henry even though her own police supervisor warns her against doing so. 

Another nice twist in the program is the squad room supervisor featured in Forever. Like the menacing, political animals in The Wire, Forever’s police captain is all about data. Clearing cases is the Litmus test that leads to praise, positive evaluations, and promotions so Lieutenant Joanna Reece wants solved cases erased from the squad room board, but she doesn’t rant. Instead, she’s firm. She doesn’t threaten either because she’s not easily threatened herself. When Martinez pursues and solves a case that her Lieutenant warned her against pursuing on the basis of an odd medical examiner’s conclusions, Lieutenant Reece praises Martinez for trusting her instincts.
A Crypt in Georgia from 2011.

Forever even includes a nemesis like Doyle’s Moriarty, the criminal mastermind and foil to Sherlock. Dr. Morgan’s is apparently a kindred spirit whose knowledge of Dr. Morgan’s secret may endanger him. And that is the fifth element given a bit of a spin. Dr. Morgan has a supernatural talent. He cannot die. That is his secret and his purpose: to discover why he cannot die as he uses his many years on this earth to accumulate more knowledge about life and death affording him the genuius to solve crimes as if he had a sixth sense.

Forever boils all those elements together to deliver something borrowed, but not at all dull or cliché--at least not yet. (The episode airing November 18, 2014 tested me, however. I hope others are not as formulaic.)

Reading Challenge:

“Read” ABC’s Forever, the first two episodes, then sign on for more, if you like.

Writing Challenge:

Spin together some borrowed elements to invent something fresh.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

USA's Late Summer Series, Satisfaction

I try to watch as many first episodes of new programs as my time allows. I record them, often deploying the “Stop” button to delete after ten minutes. I have no tolerance whatsoever for recycled plots and characters. Even if the crime scene investigators set up shop in a new urban area or the stock uptight cop in the squad room is a woman, I’m just not interested. I seek fresh and original, not tired, old, and stale.

The Wire may have been, at its core, bad guys versus good guys, a TV staple and literary archetype, but just who were the truly bad figures and who the truly good? David Simon pulled complex, dynamic characters from different sides of the law and order paradigm, peeled back their artifice, and revealed their common humanity as well as their common criminality. In doing so, he elevated an old storyline into art.

The Wire’s great success and its staying power prove that viewers have not tired of compromised characters. We still enjoy stories featuring ordinary people beset by extraordinary circumstances, even if those seem far-fetched; we assess their choices as they try to overcome their circumstances. We cheer for those who triumph and wince when some cannot.

My search for another Wire has been in vain, but I’ve found other HBO programs that capture my imagination, and I loyally follow them. I’ve also noticed non-premium cable channels recreating themselves in the image of HBO. In a very unscientific study, I’ve considered the public’s taste, noting blue language and bare bottoms in prime time. This study led me to this summer’s USA series, Satisfaction, the tale of a man in the throes of a mid-life career crisis exacerbated by the sudden gut-punch knowledge that his wife has taken a lover.

Each episode put Neal in conflict with himself as he tried to navigate murky moral waters and rise above the baser instincts that can pull any one of us under. But Neal will, of course, triumph. His name, a Celtic one meaning champion, is our first clue. His desire to find peace through meditation, conversation, and humility is another. He may demean himself when he acts and reacts impulsively, but he self-corrects, changes course, and renews his quest to be a giving man, loving husband and understanding father.

The woman he married, the adulteress herself, in jeopardy as a consequence of feeling inadequate and having lost herself to domesticity and motherhood, is named Grace. How can any viewer doubt that she is the gift, the one who can lead Neal to what he may not deserve?

But Neal and Grace are impure. They’ve taken liberties with their duties. Neal is absent often in the pursuit of career, money, and himself. Grace leaves her teen daughter to fend for herself without a mother’s close supervision or guidance. Both Neal and Grace betray their marital vows. They’ve set in motion events that could have tragic outcomes, and as the series closed its first, and perhaps only season, the consequences of their actions is a man with a gun walking toward Neal and Grace who are standing in their empty swimming pool, a nod, perhaps, to another improvident character from film, Joe Gillis, the deceased narrator for Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard or to Fitzgerald’s improvident Gatsby. The twist, if intentional, is that dry pool. It cannot be Neal’s catharsis. His body cannot float as a warning to all men who make love to another man’s wife, a temptation Neal surrendered to and turned from, once more in the direction of Grace standing beside him, resurrected by her husband's forgiveness and love. Their hands are clasped, their backs to the harm coming for them. Will they triumph, or will they pay for their sins with blood? I just hope the network allows me to see the answer that the writers imagine.

Reading Challenge:

 “Read” USA’s Satisfaction.

Writing Challenge:

Consider other characters whose names are significant to the nature of that character. Make a list of character names that allude to character traits because of the stories in which they first appear. Here’s a start: Rachel, Ruth, Jezebel, Scarlet.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Writers, Trust Your Readers to Think Critically and Imaginatively

Tana French’s The Secret Place offers one more lesson for writers: trust your readers.

Photo by Al Griffin
Early playwrights did. They believed that audiences would willingly suspend disbelief, forgiving and forgetting that the fourth wall or any walls for that matter were absent. They did not demand absolute realism. They agreed that the mind is capable of leaps and bounds, of imagining those walls and props.

Early fiction writers were more reluctant. They strove to add realism. Chaucer, for example, created a cast of characters on a pilgrimage, each one charged with inventing a story to win a steak dinner at journey’s end. This Prologue to the Canterbury Tales was his solid fourth wall—his excuse for a string of stories to follow.

Emily Br√∂nte, several hundred years later, followed Chaucer’s paradigm. She added Nellie and Lockwood as a frame for her tale about love and revenge on Wuthering Heights. These two witnesses told Catherine and Heathcliff’s story, and like most fiction then, told it chronologically.

Several decades later, James Joyce experimented with internal and external dialogue interwoven in a coming-of-age story about artists, titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He was but one who pushed the boundaries of conventional fiction.

Today, writers trust their readers to be critical thinkers—well, some writers do, and for the most part, they are not writers producing popular fiction. They are not the Dan Browns on anyone’s best-seller list, but they are successful writers with their own set of devoted readers. They are Michael Chabon, Kate Atkinson, Dave Eggers, Cormac McCarthy, and Joy Kogawa.

Tana French reminded me of a writer’s faith in readers when she leapt from one place to another, one time to another, late in her more recent novel, The Secret Place. Holly Mackey is at home for a weekend away from Kilda’s, enjoying the camaraderie between her parents, reflecting upon friendships as her mother recounts meeting one of her closest pals from her own days at Kilda’s thirty years earlier. In the next paragraph, Holly is back at Kilda’s herself. French needs no transitional paragraph, no row of asterisks to delineate a change of scene within a single chapter (at least not in my electronic text). She doesn’t provide a narrator or break for a new chapter. She simply transitions from place and time into another place and time, and we follow.

Reading Challenge:

Read one or more of the National Book Award for Fiction finalists. Study the author’s techniques.

Writing Challenge:

Be clear, but trust your readers.