Short Saturday: More on Narrative Voice

We’ve just been talking about voice (and I think I may have more to say about it, but that’s another blog for another day), but this morning I want to show you two articles from two authors who discuss how they each found their own narrative voice.

Meg Rosoff starts by pointing to poetry as an example of strong voice. (My research turned up a lot of poetry as an ostensive definition of narrative voice, too; think Mary Oliver.) But Rosoff has a lot of interesting ideas about it.

In this article—“On Finding Your Voice”—from the Guardian, Rosoff also demonstrates she is of the It’s Magic School of Thought as regards narrative voice (“Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are”). She suggests your voice is a result of the connection between conscious and subsconscious.

Now think, for a minute, of your subconscious mind as the horse and your conscious mind as the rider. … In writing, a powerful flow of energy between conscious and subconscious mind will result in extraordinary occurrences. Characters will behave in ways you had not anticipated. Twists of plot will astound you. The part of your brain that concocts elaborate dreams while you sleep will emerge in daytime, informing your story in ways you might never have anticipated.

A book written with an exchange of energy between the conscious and subconscious mind will feel exciting and fluid in the way that a perfectly planned and pre-plotted book never will. Writing (like riding, or singing, or playing a musical instrument, or painting or playing cricket or thinking about the universe) requires the deep psychological resonance of the subconscious mind. It requires throughness and connection, and only then will the reader feel the surge of power that a clever borrowed voice never achieves.

At times it feels as if she’s conflating creative inspiration with voice, but it’s an interesting article nonetheless.

For contrast, read this NY Times article from Lev Grossman, “Finding My Voice in Fantasy.” Grossman writes about magic too—literally:

I published two novels, the literary kind, one in 1998 and another in 2004, but even then I knew they were missing something. They had a chilly quality. The writing came slow and hard. There was something inside me that just wasn’t making it onto the page. I hadn’t found my voice yet. I was starting to wonder if I even had one. …

The first time I wrote a sentence about a person casting a spell, it was like I heard distant alarms going off. … It felt good. Better than good: it was the most profound, intense writing experience I’d ever had. … Writing about magic felt like magic. It was as if all my life I’d been writing in a foreign language that I wasn’t quite fluent in, and now I’d found my mother tongue. It turned out I did have a voice after all. I’d had it all along. I just wasn’t looking for it in the right place.

Neither article tells you how to do “it,” but they do describe the feeling of knowing what it feels like to be writing with one’s own voice. Have a look!

Tweet: Is voice is a connection between conscious & subsconscious?
Tweet: Finding your voice is a lot like finding your writing sweet spot.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Creativity, The Writing Craft | Tagged as: , , , , ,

Have You Found Your Voice Yet?

In the same way that it’s hard to define what makes a great book, or what makes great writing, it is nearly impossible to get a definition of narrative voice in writing. Impossible missions, however, have never frightened Your Editor. Stand back.

What you hear most often is your voice is you. Your true self expressed on the page. Literary agent Rachelle Gardner says:

It’s a process of peeling away the layers of your false self, your trying-to-be-something-you’re-not self, your copycat self, your trying-to-sound-a-certain-way self, your spent-my-life-watching-television self. It’s like going to psychotherapy, delving deep and allowing the real you to emerge, only in this case you want it to find its way on to the page.

No prob! I use this blog as a tool to reveal my editing philosophy and who I am as a person (in case you wanted to know that). People who know me would tell you it sounds a lot like the me they know. (People who know me very, very well would say, perhaps, that I use rather more four-letter words than you see here.) It’s mostly me, but I do consciously add a little sass to my voice that isn’t there (or is different) in person.

Or I used to have to add it. If you go back and read some early posts you can see I was homing in on it but wasn’t quite there. I knew what I wanted it to be but I grew into it over time. Now, nearly five years later, enough of you have left me comments or sent me emails about my way of “speaking” (“no-nonsense,” “take no prisoners,” occasionally “funny”) that I know I have found my blog voice. It took practice.

But that’s not a definition yet. So let’s point at examples of writers with distinctive voices, and see if we can back into a definition. Stop me if you don’t immediately think, Oh, yeah. I hear that.

Nonfiction                   Fiction
Rick Bragg                            James Lee Burke
Joan Didion                          Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones)
Nora Ephron                       Kaye Gibbons
Christopher Hitchens      Georgette Heyer
Garrison Keillor                 Nick Hornby
Ann Lamott                          Stephen King
Ann Patchett                        Flannery O’Connor
Marilynne Robinson        Charles Portis (True Grit)
Mark Twain                         Marilynne Robinson :)
David Foster Wallace      Alexander McCall Smith

Hang on—did you see what I did there? I made a distinction between fiction and nonfiction … because I very often find journalists and essayists (and bloggers) being consulted for their thoughts on voice, when the process is, arguably, somewhat different for fiction.

Sure, the difference between having found your voice and not yet having found your voice is practice, whether you’re writing essays or novels. (Nora Ephron said, “I had been working as a journalist for nearly eight years before I could easily write in the voice that I turned out to have.”) Still, it’s somewhat easier to learn to speak as oneself, no?

So what are the elements one might cobble together to find one’s way to an authentic narrative voice? Because “being one’s true self on the page” isn’t enough of a definition for me. And I bet it’s not enough for a lot of people. It’s vague. It’s confusing.

When you start to research narrative voice, these are the topics that keep coming up:

Tone (for example: humorous/bitter, irreverent/misanthropic, light/dark, cheerful/melancholic, optimistic/cynical, zany/reserved, detached/involved, passionate/prim, and so on)
Diction (word use or choice: formal, casual, slang, dialect)
Style (the way the thing is written, syntax, but also other things, like a tendency to use parenthetical asides, or short sentences)
POV (first person, second person, third person, and subjective, objective, omniscient)
Tense (past, present, future perfect, and so on)

But wait, there’s more. Watch this.

Narrative style is comprised of tone and diction and syntax. And narrative voice is comprised of style, POV, and tense. Constance Hale, writing for the Times, says voice “refers to the ineffable way words work on the page. … Reflecting a combination of diction, sentence patterns and tone, voice is the quality that helps a writer connect with a reader, and it turns the writer into a narrator.”

Still with me? Narrative voice encompasses all those things. Tone, diction, POV, tense, and style all fall under the umbrella of narrative voice.

Yeah. Sit with that for a minute.

(Sidebar: You’ve probably heard it said that voice isn’t style, but calm down. There’s another type of style. You’ve heard it called house style or the style dictated by the Chicago Manual of Style. But the style thus referenced simply offers directions on when to capitalize or italicize words, and so on. These dicta bring your manuscript into alignment with publishing standards in the United States, but should rarely interfere with your voice. Chicago doesn’t tell you what tense or tone to choose. Confusion arises because there’s a difference between narrative style and publishing style. Now you know.)

So narrative voice is comprised of many elements. The way you tell the story (narrate) is made up of choices: POV, characterization, sure—but also word choice, tone, and style. And all of these things become the narrative voice. Ineffably.

(Did you note that ineffable earlier? It means “incapable of being expressed in words, indescribable.” No wonder we’re having such trouble defining voice—it involves a little bit of magic. And that’s why you hear things like “it’s your true self” and “you’ll know it when you start writing it.” Because you will.)

Some novelists have a style/voice that is consistent across all their titles—Cormac McCarthy, for example, or Stephen King, Kaye Gibbons—but generally you will let your narrator speak in his or her own unique voice on a story-by-story basis, like the fourteen-year-old narrator in Charles Portis’s True Grit, or the asthmatic eleven-year-old boy in Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Those voices exist only in those novels. The exception, of course, is series writing, in which you work with the same set of characters over the course of several books—like Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce stories, set in 1950 and told in the voice of an eleven-year-old English girl, or Precious Ramotswe (Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series), a Botswanan woman of “traditional build.”

See? Searching for your voice by being your true self on the page is fine when you’re being you (writing nonfiction), but when you’re writing fiction, you’re yourself acting as some other character. Think of telling a story—a single father, widowed with two kids, meets a woman who becomes his love interest, but his older child doesn’t like her. Now consider telling it two possible ways: from the POV of the child, or from the father’s perspective. Will you use the same voice? Of course not.

(Although it might be an interesting exercise.)

If you’re writing fiction, you can be your authentic self all day long but it might not serve your story very well. Thus you choose your narrative voice based on who is telling the story, why that person is telling the story, and what the person’s circumstances are relative to the story being told (meaning while the story’s happening? from a distance of time or place? and so on).

Does this help you understand what narrative voice is? Gosh, I hope so.

Tweet: What are the elements one might cobble together to find one’s authentic #narrativevoice?
Tweet: Narrative voice encompasses all these things. Tone, diction, POV, tense, & style.
Tweet: It takes practice to find the #narrativevoice you will use to write.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Inspiration Is for Everybody, Even Real Writers

A few weeks ago I saw this on Twitter—“Inspiration is for amateurs. Real writers write.”—and (as we say in the South) it just about made me lose my religion. Meaning it made me so furious I ranted about it on Facebook.

What in the world is this person talking about? And what do ridiculous pronouncements like this do to people who are earnestly trying to write? Gaaaah!

Oh, I have an idea what he might mean. You need measurable output if you’re going to call yourself a writer. The whole butt-in-the-chair, ten thousand–hours thing. Word count.

I get that. Back when I was still at work in the corporate world but copywriting on the side for extra income, I used to try to make sure I had a weekend before the deadline—because I was convinced I did my best, most creative writing in the morning.* I needed that Saturday morning. When I went freelance, I figured out that I could write any time—because I had to.

Or as novelist Chuck Wendig notes in a post with tips for creativity,

Work through fear. Work begets work begets skill begets talent. You build confidence by doing. Riding a bike for the first time is scary. Riding a bike for the seventh time, less so. The 70th time? Not at all. Art is not so plain as that—some fear will always be present, and doubt will forever be a goblin in your pocket. And some of that is good: it keeps you moving, keeps you making and working. But the way through is always to do, do, do.

(It’s a great article, but take note, Wendig uses strong language.)

The thing is, kids, you can’t create—write—without some sort of inspiration. Inspiration (an idea) is the thing that brings you to the keyboard, for heaven’s sake! You get that inspiration, sometimes, by hard work, as Chuck Wendig suggests. Sometimes you get it from what (in the privacy of my own head) I call “good thinking,” which sometimes looks like procrastination, but is that place of relaxed, creative thinking that is most useful for a project.

Years ago I needed some kind of white noise to get to that place—what worked for me was Gregorian chant. It both turned my mind off (all the need-to-do stuff) and turned it on to creative problem solving. See, you need something to occupy (distract) the parent so the child can play. (This is discussed in more detail in my post called The Waiting Is the Hardest Part.)

Nowadays I just get in the car. I live in a smallish historic town southeast of Nashville. For years and years I commuted to a publishing company there, so I still have lots of connections in Music City. I drive in probably once every ten days. And the minute I get behind the wheel, it’s like magic—some edit I’ve been working on becomes crystal clear and I see the key that’s been eluding me. Some people clean house, wash the dishes, take a shower (that one works for me too). But I drive.

Now, I don’t know what you call them, but I call ’em moments of inspiration. Sure, I’ve prepared the ground. Or, as Julia Cameron says in her book The Artist’s Way,

In order to create, we draw from our inner well. The inner well, an artistic reservoir, is ideally like a well-stocked trout pond. … Overtapping the well, like overfishing the pond, leaves us with diminished resources. … As [creatives], we must learn to be self-nourishing. …

Art [any creative endeavor] is an act of tuning in and dropping down the well. It is as though all the [many types of creativity] live just under the surface of our normal consciousness. Like an underground river, they flow through us as a stream of ideas that we can tap down into. We hear what’s down there and we act on it … We can learn not only to listen but also to hear with increasing accuracy that inspired, intuitive voice that says, “Do this, try this, say this …”**

The Twitter twerp who annoyed me so is not too long out of college and—though he claims to be a writing expert—is mistaking a bold statement that sounds like … something something … for Actual Writing Truth. Me, I’m certain inspiration plays a part in writing. I would say uninspired writing is for amateurs. Real writers know how to reliably access inspiration, day after day. Try it.

* Most of these articles for the blog are written after eight o’clock at night. But I get the inspiration for them at all times of day. Sometimes, you know, when I’m watching my Twitter feed. :)

** Transcribed by me from my personal tenth anniversary copy (paperback) of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992, 2002), from pages 20–21 and 118.

 

Tweet: Don’t mistake a bold statement that sounds like … something something … for Actual Writing Truth.
Tweet: Uninspired writing is for amateurs. Real writers know how to find inspiration, day after day.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Authors & Other Writers, Creativity | Tagged as: , , , , , , , , ,

Short Saturday: The Joy of Editing

I just sent back a first pass edit on a well-researched novel set in the Middle Ages. I can tell you this only because it rang true; the few facts I know about medieval life could dance on the head of a pin with room to spare for several angels.

But I knew enough to ask some good questions.

That’s an editor’s job, of course: to question everything. Still, it helps to have a little miscellaneous knowledge.* It makes the job easier—and more fun—as New Yorker editor Mary Norris noted in this piece about copyediting that ran online a month ago:

One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, Midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey. And in turn it feeds you more experience. The popular image of the copy editor is of someone who favors rigid consistency. I don’t usually think of myself that way. But, when pressed, I do find I have strong views about commas.

The article is what these days is called a #longread, and if you enjoy the fine details of editing—whether you’re doing the editing or being edited—it’s worth every minute of your time, not least for her discussion of Dylan Thomas’s poem “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

Oh my.

* I wrote about this a few years ago, but it doesn’t hurt to remind oneself.

 

Tweet: It helps to have a little miscellaneous knowledge when you’re an editor.
Tweet: Editing “draws on the entire person”—your life experience and knowledge helps.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Where Do You Get Your Story Ideas? (Part Seven)

We’ve talked a lot about the ways story ideas pop up. Interpretation of artwork, old family stories, historical or current events … Stephenie Meyer’s claim that it all came to her in a dream is the least interesting method to me, mostly because I don’t really believe it. I mean, sleeping dreams are pretty crazy, y’all.

But when you’re awake … that’s another story.

Stories are all around, if you’re alert to them.* An author friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that she was taking a few days off to spend spring break with her daughter. “But I’ll be carrying my little black book with me,” she wrote, “for jotting down ideas!”

Exactly! When you’re out and about, running errands, meeting friends, or whatever, don’t turn off your idea radar.

Here’s an example: In 2012, I traveled around Ireland with a friend, and on a lovely day in Cork, we asked for a restaurant recommendation and were directed to the Café Paradiso.** We stepped inside just behind a tall, slim man, early forties. The restaurant was packed, but immediately a woman a few tables in leapt to her feet, smiling hugely, and came toward him. They embraced and held hands back to her table. As it turns out, we were seated right next to them—the tables were so tightly packed, I could have embraced him without leaving my seat at all—and we “eaves-watched” them for the next two hours. (Between the noise of the restaurant and the accents, the conversation was impossible to discern.) She was about the same age, also tall.

They were really, really into each other. No PDA other than that spontaneous, excited hug, but—the eye contact, the animated conversation, the leaning in, the leaning back, the laughter, the smiles. Oh, my goodness, the rest of us might as well have not been there at all! Honestly, it was lovely.

And I imagined a million different stories for them. Can you?

Were they a happily married couple just meeting for lunch on a busy workday? Old college friends (perhaps they’d once dated) meeting up for the first time in fifteen years? Were they just embarking on a love affair? How would it end—with marriage, or a broken heart, or …? What was going on here? You tell me!

Like my author friend, I carry a notebook with me and scribble things down if I don’t want to forget them. I wrote this story into a blog post later that day when I was reviewing my photographs. Not that I will ever forget this couple—they were electric!

So look around. Carry your notebook. Write it down. Think imaginatively. You never know.

I tried to take a surreptitious photo, but it doesn’t do either of them justice.

I tried to take a surreptitious photo, but it doesn’t do either of them justice.

* Another author friend of mine regularly uses the phrase “stories are all around us”—and she has a wonderful story about a used book she helped to find its way home 130 years later. Read this and this, then the followup: this and this. It’s lovely!

** The meal, by the way, was spectacular. If you’re ever in Cork …

 

There are other articles in this series: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Tweet: Where do you get your story ideas? Just walkin’ around!
Tweet: I imagined a million different stories for them. Can you?
Tweet: Stories are all around, if you’re alert to them.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Poetry of Place

It’s that time of year when one’s thoughts turn to Ireland, even if one isn’t married to an Irishman—so when mine sent me a link to a recitation of Louis MacNeice’s poem “Dublin,” I decided we were about due to talk more about poetry. National Poetry Month is coming up, you know.

It’s lovely. Watch.

Grey brick upon brick,
Declamatory bronze
On sombre pedestals —
O’Connell, Grattan, Moore —
And the brewery tugs and the swans
On the balustraded stream
And the bare bones of a fanlight
Over a hungry door
And the air soft on the cheek
And porter running from the taps
With a head of yellow cream
And Nelson on his pillar
Watching his world collapse.

This never was my town,
I was not born or bred
Nor schooled here and she will not
Have me alive or dead
But yet she holds my mind
With her seedy elegance,
With her gentle veils of rain
And all her ghosts that walk
And all that hide behind
Her Georgian facades —
The catcalls and the pain,
The glamour of her squalor,
The bravado of her talk.

The lights jig in the river
With a concertina movement
And the sun comes up in the morning
Like barley-sugar on the water
And the mist on the Wicklow hills
Is close, as close
As the peasantry were to the landlord,
As the Irish to the Anglo-Irish,
As the killer is close one moment
To the man he kills,
Or as the moment itself
Is close to the next moment.

She is not an Irish town
And she is not English,
Historic with guns and vermin
And the cold renown
Of a fragment of Church latin,
Of an oratorical phrase.
But oh the days are soft,
Soft enough to forget
The lesson better learnt,
The bullet on the wet
Streets, the crooked deal,
The steel behind the laugh,
The Four Courts burnt.

Fort of the Dane,
Garrison of the Saxon,
Augustan capital
Of a Gaelic nation,
Appropriating all
The alien brought,
You give me time for thought
And by a juggler’s trick
You poise the toppling hour —
O greyness run to flower,
Grey stone, grey water,
And brick upon grey brick. (1939)

“To know who you are,” Carson McCullers wrote in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, “you have to have a place to come from.” Our identity is tied to place, whether we loved it or hated it, whether we can appreciate it or not. Place—our place—evokes a strong emotional response. “Dublin made me,” the poet Donagh MacDonagh said, “and no little town …” William Butler Yeats wrote, “I am of Ireland / And the Holy Land of Ireland …” and you can almost sing it, can’t you!

Louis MacNeice, poet, playwright, wasn’t even born in Dublin (Belfast, 1907) but it’s clear he knew the city well by the time he wrote this poem in 1939. (Though when MacNeice wrote of “Nelson on his pillar / watching his world collapse” he couldn’t have known former IRA volunteers would blow up the hated monument in 1966, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising.)

Poems about place are easy to love, easy to understand, to feel—and while some poets are known for a particular place poem, like William Carlos Williams (“Paterson”) or William Blake (“London”), others are known for a body of work closely identified with a city or region, like …

Wendell Berry: Kentucky
James Dickey: the American South
Robert Frost: New England
Seamus Heaney: Ireland
Robert Lowell: Boston
Walt Whitman: America

There’s not a Dubliner* today who wouldn’t recognize the “seedy elegance” MacNeice notes, or the grey stone and brick, especially in this in-between season, not quite winter, not quite spring. It could have been written yesterday. Dubliners love this poem.**

Do you have a poem of place that speaks to you? Tell us about it in the comments! Éirinn go Brách.

* The reader in the film, Dubliner Stephen James Smith, is himself a poet.

** Don’t believe me? Watch this.

 

Tweet: A recitation of Louis MacNeice’s poem “Dublin”—by an Irish poet.
Tweet: Place—our place—evokes a strong emotional response. Particularly in poetry.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Words & Language | Tagged as: ,

Short Saturday: I Am Not Editing Our Conversation

No, really. I’m not. Not outwardly, not inwardly. Promise.

The Old Editor Says … Edit to live, don’t live to edit.*

It’s not your job to correct other people’s speech. It’s not your job to correct menus or public signage. It’s not your job, however much it may appeal to you as an avocation, to be a self-important, officious, pedantic, uninvited proscriber.

Your job is, when invited, for pay or pro bono, to examine texts submitted to you and make them conform to the standards of accuracy, clarity, and precision appropriate to the subject, the audience, and the publication. That ought to be enough.

John E. McIntyre, from his book THE OLD EDITOR SAYS: MAXIMS FOR WRITING AND EDITING © 2013

* I keep telling y’all this. So relax!

 

Tweet: I am not editing you—not in my mind, not in my speech, not in a house, not with a mouse.
Tweet: I only edit what I’m paid to edit. Honest.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Your Editor Says … | Tagged as: , , , , ,

The Great Irish Lit Wallow

What is it about the Irish? That they are a nation of storytellers seems to be borne out the minute you get in a cab in Dublin (though it probably helps that you have an American accent), but the fact is, whether it’s a pub culture that encourages the art of the story well told, a history of political strife retold and retold in oral histories, a well-established cultural mythology, or something else entirely, you know many Irish writers because you read them in school: William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett …*

But there are others you should know about.

I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Ireland, and I believe with all my heart that one way to understand a country or a culture** is to read its literature.*** So a couple years ago I wandered around Dublin from bookstore to bookstore with a list in my hand, bought a bunch of books, and proceeded to read many of them in 2013–14.

The Gathering / Anne Enright
Langrishe, Go Down / Aidan Higgins
Good Behaviour / Molly Keane
TransAtlantic / Colum McCann
The Land of Spices / Kate O’Brien
After the Rising / Orna Ross
The Spinning Heart / Donal Ryan
The Blackwater Lightship / Colm Tóibín

Here’s a brief look at them:

The Gathering
A grown woman, Veronica, attends the wake of her beloved brother Liam (who has committed suicide) and reflects on her family’s troubled history to make sense of the present. Enright reviews Dublin life in the 1920s through the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s as well as the current present, casting an acid eye on how Catholicism affected men, women (Veronica’s mother experienced nineteen pregnancies, and it broke her body and mind), and families in those decades.

Daddy grew up in the west—he always knew the right thing to do. He had beautiful manners. Which, if you ask me, was mostly a question of saying nothing, to anyone, ever. ‘Hello, are you well’, ‘Goodbye now, take care’, the whole human business had to be ritualized. ‘I’m sorry for your trouble’, ‘Put that money away now’, ‘That’s a lovely bit of ham’, ‘It is your noble call’. It bored me to tears, actually: all that control.

I’ve experienced enough of Dubliners to have recognized what I know in the rhythm of Enright’s dialogue. The last thirty pages are just stunning, and very satisfying. There’s a good reason this book won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. (I transcribed this bit from page 42 of a paperback published in 2008 by Vintage–Random House UK.)

Langrishe, Go Down
In the late 1930s, three reclusive middle-aged spinster sisters live on their run-down family estate in Ireland. I’ve been reading a lot of lit from this period between the two wars; the Celtic Tiger is not even a gleam in anyone’s eye, and life is just plain hard. Enter a pompous German graduate student who rents lodging from the women—and one of the sisters embarks on a passionate affair with him, until she realizes he cares nothing for her.

The first chapter was a lovely read but then it was so, so bleak, so sad, grim. In addition, the novel—which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1967 and was turned into a movie with screenplay by Harold Pinter. Harold Pinter, Nobel Prize–winner!—is just difficult: experimental literature that was probably over my head (or, perhaps, simply read at the wrong time). I wanted to love it but I just couldn’t.

Good Behaviour
By the time I got to Good Behaviour, I was in the middle of deadlines and not taking a lot of time to make notes, but I’ll tell you this: it’s set in the 1920s among the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy—which is to say the formerly wealthy Protestants of English heritage who had once been overlords. The New York Review of Books said:

After the treaty, some stormed out shouting at the receding Wicklow Hills. Those who stayed on resorted to irony; for centuries they had been a caste in decline on a poor island-within-an-island in Britain’s oldest colony. They stuck to their wild passions for huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, the turf, drink, and, above all, genealogy, as the damp rose in their fine but decaying houses. Debts and mortgages gathered around them, but they had long settled for not knowing history socially except when it presented itself in the form of family trees (sometimes done in tapestry) going back to the Normans, the Elizabethans, or even to Charlemagne. The snobbery approached, as Stendhal would have said, the Sublime.

This, then, is a book of manners, particularly about the concern for good ones, in the face of horrible, unspeakable events. It is hilarious. Also sad, and made me a little squeamish at times—which, as far as I’m concerned, is the mark of a great book. Published in 1981, Good Behaviour was shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize.

TransAtlantic
I’ve written about Colum McCann’s fabulous book already, so I’ll direct you there.

The Land of Spices
Published in 1941 but set in 1905–1914 Limerick, this novel by one of Ireland’s most famous writers is considered a classic. The action happens almost completely within the walls of a girls’ convent school, with two protagonists—the Mother Superior and a young student. This may not sound like much, but the characters draw you in quickly and then in the last quarter of the book—bam! bam!—it punches you right in the gut, twice. It’s an allegory, really, of the “new” Ireland—the Republic—rising up and leaving the old attitudes (particularly about women) behind.

In the story, a girl of sixteen, a scholar from an impoverished family, has won a scholarship to enter college. Her grandmother, who has been supporting the family, doesn’t believe in the “education of women” and announces that the girl will decline the prize. The confrontation between this woman and the Mother Superior at the convent school is worth the price of the book. It’s not my normal fare, but I seriously loved it.

After the Rising (originally published by Penguin Ireland as Lover’s Hollow)
The Irish Civil War—which followed the war of independence from England that established the Irish Free State—is also called the War of the Brothers, because families were horribly and tragically divided, some supporting the Republicans (who wanted to be completely free from England) and some supporting the Free Staters. The Irishman tells me that—less than a hundred years later—feelings about this war are still very raw. (And in fact, I asked him so many questions he soon mailed me a history book.)

The story—set in a small village in County Wexford—bounces between present and past; the cover copy tells us …

When Jo Devereux returns to Ireland after an absence of twenty years, the last person she expects to meet at her mother’s funeral is Rory O’Donovan. The bitter conflict between her family and his, full of secrets and silences, was the one constant of Jo’s childhood. … [She] … embarks on a quest, uncovering astonishing truths about her mother and grandmother and women’s role in the conflict known as “The War of The Brothers”, the Irish Civil War of 1922. And also about a killing with consequences that have ricocheted through four generations.

I was completely caught up in both stories, and went on to read the second book of this series, Before the Fall. Once projected to be a trilogy—and my copy of Before the Fall reflects that plan—it now appears the author has moved on to other projects.

The Spinning Heart
Donal Ryan is the youngest author in this company, and has written only two novels to date. The Spinning Heart … was gorgeous, just gorgeous. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, it won the Irish Book Awards Book of the Year and the Guardian First Book Prize, and, yes, it definitely deserved to be in that company.

Set in an Irish village just after the economic crisis hit in late 2008, the book is twenty-one short narratives by different characters affected by the collapse of a local building contractor’s firm. Oh, it’s stunning, really different and special because of that. It seems as if they’re each just telling their own story but as you turn the pages you realize there is a complete story arc developing, and it packs a wallop. The setting is contemporary, so the dialogue is modern, and these were voices I recognized, voices I’ve heard.

The Blackwater Lightship
Helen, a school principal in suburban Dublin, has a husband, two sons, and a brother, Declan, with whom she is close. Now Declan is dying of AIDS, and he asks Helen to break the news to their mother and grandmother, from whom they are both estranged.

Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, this novel hits all the notes: family, friendship, forgiveness. It’s an interesting comparison to The Land of Spices in this scene of a grandmother and nuns:

“Oh, the nuns loved her,” her grandmother went on, “and when she was in her final year … they called us in, and they had never looked up or down at us before, oh they were very grand, the nuns, a French order. And Mother Emmanuelle, the grandest of them all, told me that she believed Lily had a vocation. I smiled at her and said that would be the happiest thing for us. It was all smiles until I got out to the car and I said to your grandfather that I was going to pray to God to stop Lily entering the convent.”

“And did you not want her to be a nun?” Paul asked.

“Lily? Our beautiful daughter? Have all her hair cut off? And a veil and draughty old convent and only doddery old nuns for company? I did not! And I lay awake every night thinking about how to stop her.”

Over the Christmas holidays Lily (Helen’s mother) is sent to the next town to visit with her worldly cousins who taught her about boys and the latest fashions. And that was that:

… “So she went back to [school], and … we were called in before we took her home for Easter, and we were told that she was becoming a bad example to the other girls, and she had changed completely. Oh, I said to Mother Emmanuelle, I said, we haven’t noticed any change. It must be something in the convent, I said. Oh, she gave me a look, and I looked back at her. And she knew she’d met her match. And that’s how we stopped Lily becoming a nun.”

This scene (transcribed by me from pages 150–51 of a 1999 Picador paperback) made me laugh out loud. Tóibín is very, very good with dialogue: I can hear the Irish cadence here without even trying. And though reviewers have tended to like others of Tóibín’s books better, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

During the period of my Irish Lit Wallow, I also read Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and Nora Webster, both of which were fabulous.

***

Am I finished? Nah—I still have a few more to read: James Plunkett’s Strumpet City; Tóibín’s The Master; McCann’s Let the Great World Spin; Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer (a followup to The Woman Who Walked Into Doors); and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (and also her memoir, Country Girl). And I’ll be trolling Dublin bookstores again this June, so no doubt I’ll add to the list.

If you haven’t read outside  your usual haunts, give Irish lit a try. And if you have, please tell me about your favorite title!

* Four Irish writers have won Nobel Prizes for Literature: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Seamus Heaney.
** Does this mean I will never commit a cultural faux pas on my visits to Ireland? No. You can take the girl out of the States but you can’t take the States out of the girl. Though one does try.
*** For a more complete list of the Irish lit I’ve read in the last few years, go here.

 

Tweet: Irish lit: You’ve read the classics—now try titles you may not know.
Tweet: I wandered around Dublin bookstores with a list in my hand, bought a lot of books…
Tweet: The Great Irish Lit Wallow!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Study This: The Sea

I was cleaning my office the other day (it gets so cluttered that eventually I just have to stop and straighten up; in this case, I needed to reclaim some space in the shelved closet and on the desk) … and a dusty page from a notebook fluttered onto the floor.

Wow. It’s a list of words (and the page on which they’re found*) from Irish author John Banville’s 2005 Man Booker Prize–winning novel, The Sea. I knew immediately what it was. I’d been so impressed by Banville’s word use, I started writing the words down. The list is … long. Some of them I knew; some I recognized but wasn’t sure of the meaning; some of them I simply had no clue.

plimsoll 11             ichor 114                 boreen 188
apotropaic 13      maja 117                 refection 193
losel 19                   maenad 125           stodge 193
louring 24             Avrilaceous 129    jeroboam 200
womby 60            rufous 129              bombazine 204
minatory 65         shaly 132                 plosive 205
eructation 70       groyne 136            caducous 209
gleet 70                  cinereal 137           congeries 216
scurf 70                  horrent 138           knobkerrie 245
quotidian               supination 153     assegais 245
bathysphere 71   prelapsarian 156  cerement 248
marmoreal 74      glair 159                 plangent 251
integument 85      quiff 162                littoral 255
etiolate 96             torsion 168           anabasis 255
revenant 98          lucent 169              crapulent 258
louche 104             cretonne 170        aperçus 260
vertiginous 104   ovine 172              vulgate 260
dyspeptic               costive 175            reticent 261
apotheosis 107    Mitteleuropan 179
cicatrice 114          crepitant 184

I have a pretty large vocabulary, and I’m pretty good at grokking unfamiliar words and concepts in context, but as I read and read and read on, I was astonished at the variety of Banville’s verbiage, so casually and aptly dropped into these beautiful sentences.

Now, we’ve talked about voice, and we’ve talked about using simple and elegant prose. We’ve also talked about the overuse of the thesaurus; showing off—or trying to show off—usually outs itself. Best to be yourself.

But Banville is being himself here. His word choice is very precise. (The Paris Review says, “he is committed to language and to rhythm above plot, characterization, or pacing”—and I believe it.) His prose is perfect—and perfectly beautiful: on the beach, watching “the water racing in over the flats swift and shiny as mercury, stopping at nothing.” Can’t you just see that?

The interview in the Paris Review reveals an interesting writing technique:

Occasionally I will leave behind a sentence that I know is missing a word, and I’ll go back to it later. I wrote a sentence like that yesterday. A man is talking about his wife, who’s a singer. She has just woken up in the morning, and he says, “Even half asleep like this, she sounded a true, dark note, a thrilling . . .” I put in “cadence,” but I know it’s not the right word—so the sentence is just sitting there, waiting for me to find the right, the exact, the only word.

I use this method myself. When inspiration is hot, I get the sentence and paragraph down, even if there’s a word amiss; I’ll mark it with an asterisk and come back later to tweak it. Often it reveals itself as I write on; sometimes I have to look for it another time.

Banville has lots of interesting things to say—in this interview, and in The Sea. And you can learn from reading him. Give it a whirl.

Tweet: Vocabulary: best to be yourself. But Banville is being himself here.
Tweet: A dusty page from a notebook … it’s a list of words from a book I read years ago.
Tweet: I was so impressed by Banville’s word use, I started writing the words down.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Short Saturday: Memoir Reading and Writing

I’ve always enjoyed a good memoir (and if you’re not sure what one looks like, check out Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club). I’ve reviewed more than one here (Michael Hainey, Eddie Huang, Michael Paterniti), and I’ve written about what makes a good one.

If you’re also a fan of memoir, you may be familiar with Alexandra Fuller, who’s recently published her third critically acclaimed memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come. It’s been called a divorce memoir, but it’s much more than that. It is lovely and loving—and raw and harrowing.

The divorce got difficult and antagonistic in all the usual ways. Charlie and I both felt betrayed and wronged and misunderstood. Nevertheless, long after the divorce was final, and I had sat with that decree on my lap for a full afternoon feeling immovably weighted with grief, I experienced his removal like the earth itself had been taken from under my feet. You can be the perpetrator of your own emptiness, it can be the very thing you need, and it can still undo you. … It is not anyone’s job to make another person happy, but the truth is, people can either be very happy or very unhappy together. Happiness or unhappiness isn’t a measure of their love. You can have an intense connection to someone without being a good lifelong mate for him. Love is complicated and difficult that way.*

It’s also some incredible writing. That line “sat with that decree on my lap for a full afternoon” is a nice example of showing (as opposed to telling) emotion. And there’s more where that came from. Highly recommended.

* Transcribed by me from Leaving Before the Rains Come (Penguin Press 2015).

 

Tweet: “I had sat with that decree on my lap for a full afternoon feeling immovably weighted with grief.”
Tweet: I’ve always enjoyed a good memoir. You might like this one too.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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