Friday, August 20, 2010

Getting Under Your Skin

Last Sunday, heaven equaled a rainy morning plus a Washington Post Arts & Style Section with a cover article about local artists and the books that inspired them. Art and books? Wowie – zowie! That’s the kind of news I like.

While I was slightly and unfairly disappointed that each profiled artist wasn’t transformed by a work of fiction, I was still thrilled that books of any flavor had inspired them and had affected their art. But it didn’t occur to me to consider which books had affected my art until I read the article on the next page about Kathryn Stockett. Stockett wrote The Help, a novel set in 1960s Mississippi and told through the viewpoint of a black maid. Stockett is white. And she has received some criticism for “stealing” the black voice and profiting from it.

The Help has sold nearly as many copies as Eat, Pray Love, or so it seems. I’m always happy to see a debut novel sell so well. I haven’t read it, but I plan to. Not so much because the story interests me, but because any book that has found its way into so many readers hands is one I can learn from.

Well, I should probably also read it because the main character in my book Scarred But Smarter has brown skin. Eden Tremay has a half black, half Native American father and a white Cajun mother. I am plain vanilla white, although I try to claim gypsy blood whenever I can work it into a conversation.

Why is Eden mixed-race? My answer has always been that is how she came to me in my imagination. That is just who she is. But why? And how can I dare to write about what I do not know? Well, it came to me after I digested those two articles. As a child, I read and was transfixed and apparently transformed by the book, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin.

I was probably 12 or 13 when I read it in 1978 in Durham, North Carolina. The book was written almost twenty years earlier. Here’s the description from Amazon and Barnes and Noble ( “In the Deep South of the 1950s, journalist John Howard Griffin decided to cross the color line. Using medication that darkened his skin to deep brown, he exchanged his privileged life as a Southern white man for the disenfranchised world of an unemployed black man. His audacious, still chillingly relevant eyewitness history is a work about race and humanity-that in this new millennium still has something important to say to every American.”

Griffin didn’t just imagine what it was like to experience life in another person’s skin. He did it. I can’t. Or won’t. And many would say it is a different world now. It is. But Eden has dark skin because I want her to. Maybe I want to experience some of what Griffin did only through fiction. I think it will enhance my experience in writing the story and the reader’s experience in reading. Will I get criticism about appropriating a voice that is not my own? Maybe. Probably. I have also written a short story from a man’s point of view, and I got no criticism for that. Although it may be easier to imagine changing sex than race.

I want Eden to be an outsider. I want to give some power to a mixed-race woman. As multicultural and multiracial as America is becoming, the power and the money is still held mostly by white men. That’s what crime fiction does best in my opinion, tip the balance of power and fix the world for a little while.

I’m ready for the criticism. Race is not a huge part of my story, but it poked its head up occasionally. I tried to do the best I could when it did.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

When the going gets tough, go harder.

In order to honor the blog's title, it's time for a swimming post. Late summer is the season for a lot of open water swim races around the world. And for just plain open water swims - where a swimmer with a support boat tackles a body of water by him or herself. No race. The English Channel (brrrr) is one such swim, as is the Catalina Channel (sharks!) in California. These days, the only seems to be a swimmers imagination and wallet.

The Daily News of Open Water Swimming posts daily news (yes, its title is quite appropriate) of the latest of these types of swims by some amazing people. I like visiting the site because of the inspiration it provides. And the videos. Any athletic or creative pursuit requires dogged determination and the ability to give the most when it hurts the most. For example, often when people who have completed the English Channel say some variant of: "Yeah, when I was about an hour from France, the captain of the support boat said I had to pick up the pace or the current would change and I'd never make land." So you've just been swimming for ten hours and someone tells you to swim faster? And you can? Wow. My hat is off to you.

Or maybe swimming freestyle is too boring and you want to do four laps of the San Francisco Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge, one each of butterfly, backstroke, breastroke and freestyle? The Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Butter, Back, Breast And Free In The Open Water:

These are regular people, albeit talented and hardworking regular people. Not freaks. They are doing the possible, not the impossible. I'll think about all that the next time I want to quit. The next time I think that writing three pages is enough for the day or swimming one more lap would just be too hard.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Writing Advice, part 2

The editing process is equal parts joy and pain. That may be true of all writing, and possibly true of life in general, but that's too heady a subject for a Friday afternoon.

Lately, though, I've had help with editing, or at least with a certain facet of it. A voice sounds in my head whenever I am struggling with how to add something I need to a pararaph that seems full. I don't remember where I first read or heard it. So I am paraphrasing, but this is the essence of what the voice tells me:

"You always have to be willing to let a good sentence be murdered by a great sentence."

Isn't that great advice? It is full of action and violence and hope and victory. I love it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lead Dog

I am fascinated by dogs and Alaska, so when I stumbled across the story of the 1925 Nome Serum Run , I was inspired to start a story:

It’s so cold my paws are frozen. My fur has icicles dangling from it. They clink together as I run. So cold. But I can’t stop. I won’t stop. I am in charge. Once the man gives the command to go, I am totally in control. Until he gives the command to stop. In between, it is me. All me. I can’t think about stopping. I have eight dogs behind me. They need me as much as the man does, if not more.

It smells like death. I can’t investigate. But I want to, and I’m hungry. The ground is so uneven all of a sudden. I can feel the sled twisting. I have to control it. I know the man is helping, leaning and righting the sled. I can’t see him, but I feel him. And I know he is good. We don’t usually go this far or until we are this cold. Something must be wrong. I will go on. I will go until we stop. But I am getting tired. I can’t see as well. The icicles are hurting my eyes. I can close them for a few seconds once we get to the field ahead. Or is that water? I think it is a frozen lake. Yes, it smells like that. I can’t close my eyes there. I must look and smell and feel for good ice and stay close to the shore. If I can tell where the shore is.

Am I pushing her too hard? Sam wondered if he should stop. He was frozen and knew Bear, his precious lead dog and the smallest of the pack, had to be cold and nearly dead from exhaustion. He could tell by the sun’s position low in the sky that they had been going for at least eight hours. His back was killing him. He knew all the dogs wouldn’t survive this cruel marathon. Was it worth it? He couldn’t think like that. This was his job, and he had to finish it. The lake was ahead. It would be good to get out of the forest where the branches hit him in the head, but the lake held its own dangers. He trusted Bear, though, and knew she could get them through this. The rest of the team was quiet and focused. They were too tired to bark, but their passage startled an arctic hare out of hiding. One of the younger dogs, he couldn’t remember his name now, tried to snap at the hare, but was yanked back into line by the forward momentum of the group.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

August's Experiment

Although the last time I took a science class was early in the Reagan era, I’m going to conduct a little scientific experiment.

I can be quite a negative person. Pessimistic. Sardonic. Sometimes even misanthropic. Irony I love so much I would marry it if I didn’t already have such a wonderful husband. I don’t really mind it, it’s who I am, but sometimes the negativity gets out of hand. So, for the month of August I’m going to try and refrain from hating things. It will be hard. I like to hate things. I like to talk about the things I hate with my husband and friends. We hate the same things, usually. It’s a bonding experience.

I want to see how a month with fewer negative thoughts will affect my creativity. Since I’ve finished Scarred But Smarter, I’m going to work on a short story then on a second book called Black Damp. I need to get a lot of work done, so I can no longer allow myself the luxury of rolling around in the toxic soup of hatred, which I do quite like, as I mentioned.

So, in an effort to purge the negative, here is a list of the top ten things I hate and cannot think about until September:

1) August. Yes, the irony is thick enough to cut with a knife. I love irony.
2) My cat Jekyll (see photo of my writing partner a few posts ago), for two reasons. One, she sits on the back of the couch and claws my scalp when I’m watching tv. Two, she plucks my post-it notes off my work and carries them around the house in the middle of the night, squawking as if she wants to go out. When you get up to let her out, she hides. Grrrrr.
3) People who own dogs but don’t know how to take care of them properly. And don’t care.
4) British Petroleum
5) Not living in Santa Cruz, California.
6) Still being a mediocre swimmer after years of work.
7) Rob’s inability to get the facts right in a story he’s telling me – that I’m really interested in.
8) My mother’s cancer doctor. It’s complicated.
9) Drivers who buzz me when I am on my bike. I understand they may be annoyed that I am sharing the road, but will killing me really make them feel better?
10) Poison ivy.

Ah, that felt good. If anyone wants to join me, I’d love to read your list!