Playing Hopscotch Between The Permitted And The Forbidden

Ian McEwan’s Atonement touched me deeply. It reminded me of how much, as a reader and writer, I am drawn into characters who hopscotch between the permitted and the forbidden. Many readers and writers are interested in novels that do this. If they’ve not thought about it this way, some might discover that it’s one of the qualities of some of the stories they’ve enjoyed.

As in Atonement, the line that writers with this interest compel their characters to cross is often about intimacy. They might be urging their readers to give” unconditional acceptance” to those who violate social norms in serious ways. McEwan does this in Atonement and his other novels with extraordinary grace. In The Kite Runner, Khalid Hosseini does it every bit as well. I like to try it in my writing, too! The challenge seems to grab me.

In Boundaries I wrote about a lawyer and a client who crossed ethical boundaries in more than one way. In the rough draft of Third Floor, I am trying it with a moral boundary of an even more troublesome nature. Using four POV characters – mother, father, and twin sister and brother – I am again reaching for unconditional acceptance with, thus far, varying degrees of success. From this you can tell that, as both writer and first reader, I am hoping the former will win over the latter! I must persuade myself if I am to persuade you.

I am putting the rough draft of Chapter One of Third Floor on this website. You can find the icon for it in the menu column on the left. I’d love feedback from you whoever you are – reader or writer – to see if you get the drift of the story and to hear your thoughts about the role this approach plays in what you have read or written.

Happy reading and writing.

Jim

How One Story Dealt With Forgiveness

Near the dramatic end of “The Kite Runner,” Khaled Hosseini has his main character say, about his struggle for redemption, that forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unnoticed in the middle of the night.” These words helped draw this wonderful story, so filled with sadness and delight, to a fitting close. Isn’t that the wonderful contradiction of serious fiction?

There was suffering for the POV character for his failure to love. There was even greater suffering for two, a father and his young boy. At different times the POV character had hurt them with that failure. At different times both saved him from extreme suffering or even death by committing identical acts of violence. For the POV character and the young boy, their paths to forgiveness and redemption were beyond arduous. For the boy we see only the smallest beginning – his first slight smile – with no suggestion of a guarantee.

I read and write fiction for the experience of such insight. I prefer to find illumination in story, not discourse. When a storyteller really shows you something, it takes only a sentence to summarize it, and sometimes that’s not necessary at all. Lengthy explanation is never required. When something true and important is shown through a character’s internal struggle and the acts he takes to replace hurt with help, it has such great power.

A story that does this is a pleasure every time, no matter how dark.

What have you read or written recently that does this?

Jim

Dreams: Pages From The Past

Last night in the bathtub – a fine place for encouraging the muse – a story came to me in vivid detail: the characters, the dialogue, the setting, and a story arc that I rode right to the end. I never spoke a word aloud. It was if I had sat down to watch a movie.

The story began when two people from my past who had never known each other appeared together in a place I did not recognize. That alchemy is a gift from my imagination. I would never have thought of bringing those two people together. Perhaps it was old unfinished business, but my imagination saw it as grist for the mill before I could begin to ponder its meaning. The finished story, enriched by the freedom I give it, will tell me the meaning, if there is one. There doesn’t always have to be.

What I have now is a note in a folder. When I return to it, those two people who had never met will, when I follow them, take me somewhere different than the dream. To try to recreate it would limit it. Instead I shall follow my nose. Therein lies the joy of fiction.

It reminds me that when I write I am my first reader, full of curiosity about where the impulse to write – to follow – is going to take me. If the journey remains interesting to me, it has the best chance to be interesting to my readers.

Have you had dreams that bring surprises from your past? Odd combinations of people, events, and circumstances? What do you do with them when they come? Journal them? Fictionalize them? Find their meaning?

Jim

Our lives are like books. They have front and back covers.

 

It occurred to me the other day that when I read or write fiction, the characters are not often pondering their mortality. They are too busy dealing with the dilemmas and disturbances of their lives and enjoying the times that feel free and unburdened. They avoid what I have done for too much of my time: dwell on what the far side must be like, a most anxiety-producing enterprise. Of course we are often shown characters contemplating the experience of dying – or being in that experience – but rarely do we see them pondering what it’s like to be dead.

Recently I have found that, approaching seventy, I don’t contemplate my death as much as I have in the past. This change has been an unexpected and pleasant surprise, a relief I had given up on. It was about time.

Today got even better. An epiphany frayed many of the remaining shreds of my anxiety about being dead, about experiencing, knowing and remembering NOTHING, a real possibility. I realized that our lives are like books. No great discovery there, just an awareness that has escaped my consideration most of the time. Today it hit me like a cool breeze.

Our lives have front and back covers. On the pages in between are stories filled with much to celebrate, commiserate over, and much to cause concern. Sharing all of it matters. Telling them is, I think, the best way to know ourselves, each other, our culture, our history, even our future.

Today I realized that if I hold on to seeing my life as a story, someday the last of my anxiety about not being here – about missing out – might disappear. I could become just like my characters. I rarely grant them time for regarding their inescapable demise. It is too interesting to watch them being busy living. The prospect of this becoming the primary color of my life is getting easier by the day. Again, it’s about time.

 

Stories are living things. To me they have a pulse I rarely find in books that analyze in order to conclude, explain, and persuade. Those books sometimes feel more like constructions in need of good old-fashioned faith to believe in. A good story doesn’t require that. I know I’m being too hard on a respected way of getting our hands around experience. It works for many people. But a well-told story with real and imagined characters doing things – dealing – goes straight to the heart of a matter and stays there. It leaves no doubt.

Stories help us pass along the threads that tie us together through time, even the time we are not here. That they grow tall in the telling is of no harmful consequence. A few lies sprinkled here and there, even great ones, might actually enhance their truths and meanings. As a good friend likes to say, “It’s all fiction, and it’s all true.” To that I will add that it all matters.

For the rest of my days I want to remain alert between the front and back covers of my story, free of concerns about what comes after.

A blessing and a prayer to those whose circumstances stand immovably in the way of such divine freedom.

Jim

 

 

 

Difficult Characters Navigating Difficult Relationships

When Elizabeth Strout discussed her new novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, on “Well Read,” she spoke of her “difficult characters navigating difficult relationships.” This struck a chord in me, going right to the heart of what I enjoy as a reader and writer of fiction.  I hope the idea interests enough of you to generate conversation around my virtual coffee table.

Much – perhaps most – of what I read involves disturbances the characters must deal with at least in part because of their natures. To name a few: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. They are filled with characters who make poor choices that hurt themselves and others. They do not always appear likable, but they struggle to make amends, choose better ways, and heal, finding this a most difficult enterprise. In these and other books, I have enjoyed being challenged to care about fallible characters whose struggles are with themselves as well as others.

In my first novel, Boundaries, a brilliant, remote lawyer’s inability to control a surprising new passion leads him into difficult relationships with his client, his office, and the legal community in a small, insular city that resents outsiders. My short stories gravitate in similar directions as if a magnet is pulling me. It is doing so now in the first draft of Third Floor, my second novel, which you might see serialized here at some point. In this story each of the four POV characters -mother, father, sister, brother – make life difficult for themselves and others in very troublesome ways . (Hint: it begins with the twins using deception to create a hideaway in an upstairs room to escape parental dysfunction.) Everyone in the family makes bad decisions that drive them apart. When circumstances make coming together paramount, they are faced with their greatest challenge.

What draws you into the stories that keep your attention whether as a reader or writer? What stories based upon seriously challenging behavior have drawn you in? What have you liked and not liked about the ways the authors dealt with this?

Jim

 

Fiction Versus Facts

In a recent tweet, Keith D. Dolley quoted Tim O’Brien saying that fiction is “for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” This is such a simple way of saying that fiction gets closer to the heart of the human condition than forms of discourse that attempt to explain it. Writers of fiction prefer to describe the experience of being alive. They allow the reader to draw his own conclusions and find his own meaning.

The wonder of fiction lies in the way it draws a picture of what the writer finds inside his made-up characters, of what they say and do in places and situations that can be seen and felt, and of their reflections about what concerns them. I believe that most lovers of fiction prefer understanding that comes without explanation. They feel it goes deeper. This one – who loves to read and write it – questions the entire enterprise of trying to prove something. Perhaps that is unfair of me!

Tim got to the heart of this subject so much faster than I did!

So, a question for you, whether you read, write, or do both: Do you think that creating an imagined set of characters in imagined relationships and situations is more or less likely to discover truths and meanings about the experience of being alive than a discourse aimed at making conclusions?

I’d enjoy hearing what you think?

Jim

 

 

A Story From” Last Night At The Vista Cafe”

I have put the story “Bones” here on Follow Your Nose Fiction. You will find it on the menu. It’s a story about closure. I’m hoping it might lead to conversation in my cyber kitchen. Or is it my cyber living room? I’m not sure. Perhaps you can help me decide.

I have chosen the title because the point-of-view character, Sankey, has received a phone call from Maggie, his ex-wife, telling him that she has discovered the bones of Chester The Cat in the storage space under their former bedroom. His little skeleton is resting in nearly perfect condition on a box of dishes Sankey had forgotten to remove when they ended their marriage. Maggie thought Chester had gone into the woods to die.

They talk about Chester, about what to do, and about the dishes, but there is a subtext: they have not had closure on their relationship. Chester has provided them with an opportunity.

I gave Maggie and Sankey the resiliency to reach for closure well after their marriage had ended without it. It might also be about making amends, and it’s not entirely clear how well they will succeed.

I’d love for you to read “Bones” and share experiences you might have had and stories you might have read or written about any kind of closure that has touched you.

“Bones” lives in the collection entitled “Last Night At The Vista Cafe, Stories.”

Fiction Is Usually Not About Safe Places.

Recently I have been enjoying the work of Neil Gaimon, an Irish writer of very fanciful stories. In his introduction to “Trigger Warning,” he asks, “Are fictions safe places? Should they be safe places?” Very good questions, I think.

He says a resounding, “No,” and warns us that his stories to be about upsetting things that may even involve helplessness or overwhelming odds. He wants to show the lives of characters who are vulnerable and in the presence of others who are of little or no help, some being part of the problem.  Only then, he says, does fiction provide the reader with an opportunity to find meaning, to experience connection, to have real feelings about life evoked in him from the words, to actually experience the story and be affected by it.

The stories I like to read are not about safe places, nor are the ones I write. They are often – perhaps nearly always – about people seeking safe places, or at least safer places without the expectation that they will find them. Sometimes they do, at least in part, but most often what they find is only a bit safer and only because they have become stronger at dealing with something that has remained imperfect. Stronger but still imperfect, as we all remain.

This is how stories shine a light on the resiliency of the human spirit. It’s how they reflect   life. It’s how they become serious.

What is your favorite story of struggle and success, however partial that success? It may be a story you’ve read, or it may be part of your own experience. I hope you will tell us about it. I hope you will help make a conversation about this.

Jim

 

 

What Does Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman” Evoke in You?

I had to read Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman” in spite of all the hype and controversy about it. With “To Kill A Mockingbird” remaining my favorite story after all these years and Scout my favorite POV character, reading its prequel was a foregone conclusion. Being an early draft of something set aside, it’s a bit rough, but it’s worth the read. I’m not quite finished, but I have been taken in and find myself wondering how other readers are responding.

Here is what comes up for me. Scout (she’s still Scout for me, not Jeane Louise) no longer fits in Maycomb or with her father. Though the relationship between blacks and whites there had changed since her childhood, that alone is not what provides “Go Set A Watchman” with its emotional power. It’s that what Scout saw in her father during her childhood is in such polar opposition to what she is seeing in him when she returns as an adult.  Coming back, she brings with her the memories of Atticus that made him her hero and set her expectations of him, herself, and the world. Now, in her mid twenties, returning to a changing Maycomb – but not all that much changed – her father seems a different man – to Scout less of a man. She is deeply disappointed, even disgusted with the man she revered. The man who shaped her.

Many POV characters are haunted by ghosts of the past. Scout – okay, Jean Louise – seems haunted by a vision of a perfect man. For me, finishing the story means seeing how she reconciles the image of Atticus she can’t give up with the man who has let her down with such a crash.

I’m looking forward to seeing now Jean Louise – no Scout – reconciles her treasured image of Atticus with what she is now seeing through the lens of a young grown up. Can she bring to a comfortable new place an image of her father she doesn’t want to give up? Can you, the reader, do this?

I’d love to hear from other readers of “Go Set A Watchman.” What are your thoughts?

Jim

 

CROSSING BOUNDARIES: How often does this theme appear in fiction?

When I began the rough draft “Boundaries,” I didn’t know that it would be about just that – crossing boundaries. Only when this occurred to me in later drafts did I come up with the title. It’s an example of what can happen when a writer follows his nose. He discovers what he didn’t know: what his story is about on the deepest levels.

Now I wonder how many other serious works of fiction – both novels and short stories – are about people crossing boundaries they shouldn’t and those they probably should. In my story one of the two POV characters withholds his identity from a client and begins and affair with her before she knows he is to be her attorney – a transgression for which redemption becomes his challenge. Later, after his client retains him as her attorney because she has no other realistic choice, they become so passionately involved in her very difficult child custody case that they begin a pattern of violating legal boundaries together. My struggle as a writer (even before I knew it) was to encourage my readers to follow their story without judgment and even to find compassion for flawed human beings. The story also finds them struggling to cross personal boundaries that are important to cross – the resistance to sincere intimacy as a consequence of difficult past experiences.

I’d like to hear from readers about novels and short stories that have this theme or similar ones. I’d like to hear from writers about their work as well.

Happy reading and writing to all of you.

Jim