Emotional truth versus realism

A Poem from The Crossover

The existence of the novel-in-verse YA genre strikes me as so unlikely. Who would have thought such a specific form could exist let alone be appealing and keep winning a lot of Newberry Awards? Speaking as an ex-poet, I love how a novel-in-verse can give poetry a cohesive story and, in doing so, makes poetry feel so much more relevant and enjoyable. It also can strip away unnecessary description and maneuvering from fiction, streamlining the voice in this very powerful way. Inside Out and Back Again, Brown Girl Dreaming, Out of the Dust, and Crank are a few great novels-in-verse  I’ve enjoyed. So during a recent trip to the library, while lugging bags around containing honestly 50 pounds of graphic novels for my son, I spied The Crossover and gladly checked it out. Told in free verse, The Crossover won the Newberry Award in 2015. It’s a story of twins, Josh and Jordan, talented in basketball, and about their relationship to each other and to their father.   

The most powerful poem of The Crossover for me is “Questions.” Josh’s dad is in the hospital, Josh is angry, he’s just sat beside his father, and after the two of them stare at each other for 10 minutes in silence, the dad suggests they take turns asking questions but not answering them. While I can imagine characters thinking these questions, I can’t imagine characters speaking most of these questions out loud, and I wondered for a while whether the non-realism effects the powerfulness of the interchange. In the end I decided so what if this dialogue would never happen in reality: these words capture the emotional truth of the relationship and the situation so well that I don’t think extreme realism matters here.

This idea of capturing emotional truth rather than reality reminds me of several passages from Tom Bissell’s great essay about Warner Herzog, “The Secret Mainstream.” Herzog occasionally scripts dialogue or action for his documentary subjects who, at least in the examples Bissell cites, don’t seem to mind as the scripted parts get at the emotional truth of these people maybe better than their actual life does. Here’s one example as described by Bissell: In Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), Herzog’s astonishing documentary about the escape and survival of a German-American pilot named Dieter Dengler from a Pathet Lao prison camp in 1966, Herzog shows us Dengler entering his San Francisco home, whereupon he opens and closes the front door several times before entering. “Most people,” Dengler explains, “don’t realize how important it is, and the privilege that we have, to be able to open and close the door. That’s the habit I got into, and so be it.” Dengler did not actually have this habit. In fact, it was Herzog’s idea. While it embodied a real feeling Dengler had, it was not a real activity. Assigning to Dengler an activity he did not engage in is what Herzog has called “the ecstatic truth,” wherein literal accuracy cedes its ground to emotional accuracy, a subjective realm entered through manipulation and fabrication.”

Anyhow, here is the passage from The Crossover that I loved.

Questions

Have you been practicing your free throws?
Why didn’t you go to the doctor when Mom asked you?

When is the game?
Why didn’t you ever take us fishing?

Does your brother still have a girlfriend?
Are you going to die? 

Do you really want to know?
Why couldn’t I save you? 

Don’t you see that you did?
Do you remember I kept pumping and breathing? 

Aren’t I alive?
. . . ? 

Did y’all arrest Uncle Bob’s turkey? It was just criminal what he did to that bird, wasn’t it?You think this is funny? 

How’s your brother?
Is our family falling apart? 

You still think I should write a book?
What does that have to do with anything? 

What if I call it “Basketball Rules”?
Are you going to die? 

Do you know I love you, son?
Don’t you know the big game’s tomorrow? 

Is it true Mom is letting you play?
You think I shouldn’t play? 

What do you think, Filthy?
What about Jordan? 

Does he want to play?
Don’t you know he won’t as long as you’re in here? 

Don’t you know I know that?
So, why don’t you come home? 

Can’t you see I can’t?
Why not? 

Don’t you know it’s complicated, Filthy?
Why can’t you call me by my real name? 

Josh, do you know what a heart attack is?
Don’t you remember I was there? 

Don’t you see I need to be here so they can fix the damage that’s been done to my heart?
Who’s gonna fix the damage that’s been done to mine?

Two publications and a great book without words

Penny, The Sun, and The Only Child

I have a short piece out in Penny, a cool new journal that pairs a writer with an illustrator (the illustrator for my story was Brandon Reese), as well as offering interesting writing and drawing prompts. I started writing flash pieces about a year and a half ago, when I was bogged down in a slightly experimental novel about the Iraq war, and it was so freeing to work within a 1,000 or 1500 word limit. And fun! I mean, the revision process just can't go on for months or longer (one hopes) if your story is only a few pages long. Penny's limit is 500 words and it is such a pleasure to work within those constraints.

Also in the March issue of The Sun I have a short story "The Portal." Back in 2003 The Sun published my first real short story--about a girl who is trying very hard to be a miraculous saint. The story, and that acceptance, convinced me that I really could be a fiction writer (I was a poet at the time), so it was great to work that magazine again. Not to mention that in "The Portal" I finally got to channel my decades of longing for a real portal to open up and take me to another world. (Do most people outgrow this kind of longing? I might say I wish I could, but if I was totally happy in this world, I probably would give up writing.)

On the topic of longing for other worlds: Stella and I spent the last few days reading The Only Child (by Guojing), a wordless book told in heartbreakingly lovely pictures, and I really savored that time with her. Stella is in first grade and these days prefers long chapter books, ideally books with scary things in it, such as monsters, adventures, and danger (I'm glad I snuck in the Little House books with her when I could). Or, now that she is reading. she wants to spend our time reading Elephant and Piggy books to me. It feels like my days of reading great picture books to her (and maybe reading aloud to her in general?) are numbered. The Only Child was perfect for us though, as we took turns telling each other the story that was happening on each page - I told the story on the left page, she told the story on the right. It's about a child who is left alone one day because her parents need to work. The child leaves the apartment and takes the bus by herself, hopefully to go find her grandmother. But she becomes lost and enters a warm and compassionate fantasy world instead.  

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Random Thoughts I’ll Compile Here Since I Haven’t Posted Anything For Months

Writing about suicide: Adam Johnson's fabulous short story "Nirvana" (from Fortune Smiles) and the YA book All the Bright Places have gotten me thinking about the challenge of how to bring suicide into a story. Johnson does a great job of the narrator husband struggling to love his depressed and probably suicidal wife who can't stop listening to Nirvana (the band) and will probably be unable to get out of bed for the rest of her life. How do you create love in that setting? It's a powerful, moving story. Though honestly I could not put All the Bright Places down, I found Finch, the suicidal bi-polar boy, to be a bit too charming. What if he was just depressed? What if he wasn't so likable in his manic phase? What would the story be like then? It did feel like Violet (popular pretty girl who is struggling with older sister's death) only knew, and perhaps could have only loved, Finch as his manic self. Was it really love then? The thing about teenage love, I suppose, is that it has less strings attached than, let's say, marital love with house and kids. Though it's sad to leave it behind, you could more easily. Had Finch only been depressed, I'm guessing Violet would have never fallen in love with him in the first place (or if she had been able to fall in love with him, that would have been a very interesting and complex story). For my own writing, I was pondering if the least interesting point of view in a story about suicide was the suicidal person's point of view. Why would this be? And who to tell the story from then?  

YA tropes: though I love really, really YA, some of the repeating tropes are starting to get a little old for me. The cute outsider boy in a band. The boy who likes the girl who eventually likes him back. The awful parents. The clueless parents. The absent parents. The parents who are the cause of the characters' problems. Are parents of teenagers actually so terrible?

YA books that transcend those tropes: Picture Me Gone (a girl who has a close relationship with her parents, her parents are good, they do make mistakes but everyone works past that - it's also a great mystery); Tamar (historic World War II novel about resistance in the Netherlands. Parents make mistakes but it also shows the parents, or in this case the grandparents, at a young age making those mistakes, and it shows the complexity of how a mistake is made, and then having to live with those mistakes); The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (I don't remember there being any romance in this book, finally. Instead it is brutal, honest, breathtaking account of race and the American Revolution ); The Summer Prince (the prince loves the narrator's best friend (a boy) but also loves the narrator (a girl). In fact he has gotten some tech alterations and now loves everyone, including the city -- can that still be love? And the girl loves the prince....it was kind of mind-blowing to see a different set up of teen relationships here);  

Where are the YA books where: nobody likes anybody romantically; people like each other but then those people like other people for the entire book; people like everybody; the parents are good and doing their best; kids cause their own problems; there is not some revelation at the end and it's just really messy

Children Writing Books

Stella wants to be a writer / personal trainer when she grows up. Some nights she drags out my exercise equipment and encourages me to do the really complicated exercises she dreams up. Other evenings she spends working on her writing. Being a first grader, she's smack in the middle of learning to read / write / spell, which sounds like a magical time, when words stop being symbols and they start clicking into focus. She wrote some of her first independent sentences for this book she made in honor of her cousin Andre's first birthday. Seeing her work so hard on her word choice, and what happens next, and what she wanted to communicate to her reader made me think that writing when you're 6 isn't a whole lot different than writing when you're older, only my 6 year old seems less anguished about it. In fact she radiated pure joy every time she got down a sentence. I love the sweetness of her plot and how everybody in her story is happy. I wish it was possible to write like that as an adult. Here's the text / translation of Stella's story. 

hi
Clap clap cat said baby andre.
The baby andre had a cat. Did the baby andre have a dog? 
Baby andre did not have a dog. Hi stella said baby andre.
Little baby andre hid with stella.
Baby andre played with stella.
Baby andre laughed with stella.
Baby Andre pretended to fly. Stella did too.
Baby Andre climbed and ran. Stella did too.
Love stella

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Family Art

Hillerbrand+Magsamen, Clifford Ross, and a few other gems from the summer

My husband and I developed a nasty habit of really enjoying art museums when we were living in Minneapolis decades ago, and when our two children arrived, we weren't going to let the fact they existed make us quit. So we've been dragging our kids to museums ever since they were babies, learning a few things along the way, such as museum guards in big cities will probably be unkind so remember you're not there to see the guards, while museum guards in small cities will likely be nicer, and audio tours, especially audio tours for kids, are a godsend.

This summer we saw several exhibits that engaged the kids. I felt lucky to have the chance to watch my son and daughter experience, and lose themselves in, so much art. 

Stephen Vitiello’s All Those Vanished Engines

#1. Mass Moca, lodged in an old converted cloth printing factory in Massachusetts, was a treat, in part because the campus is such an industrial playground meant for exploring. Especially of note was Stephen Vitiello's All Those Vanished Engines, a sound installation taking place in the old boiler house building. While my husband called this perhaps the most dangerous art installation he's experienced (no unnecessary safety rails here!), the kids were thrilled with their ability to wander around the building on their own, and with Vitiello's sounds playing throughout, the once utilitarian setting was able to transform into something more sculptural, abstract, haunting (and haunted?), and timeless. I'm always grateful when art is taken out of its sacred guarded context and put in a place which encourages the viewer, and in particular a kid, to interact with it.

Capturing One’s Children in Art

sally mann family picturesSally Mann wrote a fascinating article back in April for the New York Times magazine explaining her reasoning behind photographing her children as they grew up, and how the critical and popular response to such photographs affected both her and her family. I thought she was eloquent about how, when a parent is capturing their child through art, the child they end up capturing isn't actually their own child: they are representations of a child, a glimpse of the child in a small moment of time. As I'm working on a more personal novella right now about parenthood, this idea has comforted me and also struck me as true. The process of writing is a process, even in memoir, of transformation of the subject, of turning a child, perhaps one's own child, into words, 

Andrew Solomon + expanding our ideas of pregnancy & motherhood

far-from-the-treeAndrew Solomon has produced some of the most articulate, intelligent writing about parenthood which hopefully is forcing us to finally expand our definition of what parenthood is. I've felt for a long time, ever since becoming a mother 8 years ago, that most literature is simplifying parenthoods' complexities. Solomon's book Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is an exception: at 976 pages (or 40 hours long for the audio version!) it more than captures the pain, sorrow, and love that I know as parenting, and it shows, likewise, that parental love can take on so many forms. And that trying to love can be as meaningful as loving. It was one of the most powerful reading experiences that I've ever had. I read it two year ago, but after my son was diagnosed with autism last fall, I went back to reread the autism chapter, and found the accounts even more moving, as I now was one of those parents trying to understand, accept and love a child so different from me. Solomon's discussion on neurodiversity as it relates to parents is especially rich-- do parents try to cure their child's autism or accept it-- as well as his description of the "autism parents' literature of miracles," whose draw is hard to ignore.  

"Two diametrically opposite fictions contribute to a single set of problems. The first comes from the autism parents’ literature of miracles. In its most extreme form, it describes beautiful boys and girls emerging from their affliction as if it were a passing winter frost, and, after wild parental heroics, dancing off into springtime fields of violets, fully verbal, glowing with the fresh ecstasy of unself-conscious charm. Such narratives of false hope eviscerate families who are struggling with the diagnosis. The other plotline is that the child does not get better, but the parents grow enough to celebrate him rather than seek to improve him and are fully content with that shift. This whitewashes difficulties that many families face and can obfuscate autism’s authentic deficits. While the lives of many people who have autism remain somewhat inscrutable, the lives of people whose children have autism are mostly avowedly hard—some, excruciatingly so. Social prejudice aggravates the difficulty, but it is naïve to propose that it’s all social prejudice; having a child who does not express love in a comprehensible way is devastating , and having a child who is awake all night, who requires constant supervision, and who screams and tantrums but cannot communicate the reasons for or the nature of his upset— these experiences are confusing, overwhelming, exhausting, unrewarding. The problem can be mitigated by some combination of treatment and acceptance, specific to each case. It is important not to get carried away by either the impulse only to treat or the impulse only to accept."

Portals & poetry

I'm been thinking a lot about portals lately--you know, the doorways that are always appearing to characters in books and taking them to more interesting worlds. Lucky them, I have always thought. But after waiting a lifetime for a portal to appear to me, it seems that isn't going to happen. I'm not sure portals appear often to adults to begin with and they certainly don't seem to appear to mothers of small children, a minor tragedy of fact I'm trying to fix in some future stories. (Side note: great list by Lev Grossman of his top 5 portals, and also check out this thoughtful essay about writing portals from io9.) 

Tangentially, I have fallen in love with a book of poetry, something I haven't done for about a decade, since I kicked poetry to the curb and took up fiction writing. The book is Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke, and the final poem of the book reads to me like a portal poem (if there isn't such a genre yet, there should be). "Home" is especially moving after reading the entire book, which is full of anguish, loss, and a lot of grief. I felt like I was holding my breath for the first 109 pages and then to reach this poem, on page 110, was like a long exhalation of air. Finally the narrator gets to arrive here, to somewhere she wants to be. It's worth noting this home is a place she has never been before but only dreamed about. The problem of how to get there is, unfortunately, not addressed. It makes me wonder what our own homes would look like if we got to create them.

Latest book obsession: autism

An Incomplete Autism Reading List

snow on windshieldWhen beginning a new story, I tend to go through periods of obsession with my reading. Race relationships in Chicago, cults, female veterans from the Iraq war, and so on. My latest reading kick is about autism. In part because my second grade son got diagnosed as being on the spectrum a few months ago and I really want to understand how he sees the world--meaning I want to understand why the world bothers him so much but also what he finds beautiful in it-- but I’m also working on a story that happens to be about an 8-year-old son (or thereabouts) who is on the spectrum. (The above picture, by the way, was taken by my little guy.)

The books on autism I've read so far have been engaging and insightful, and it's a relief to often see my son within their pages. The process of finding out what those with autism find beautiful--trying to understand how differently they see the world--has also just been very moving to me. I think some of us who are outside whatever spectrum of normal exists, whether by choice or not, can relate to the feeling of otherness that keeps surfacing in these accounts. In several books, I’ve read comparisons about how those on the spectrum feel like they’re visitors from another planet, or visitors from some other time, and I’m not trying to belittle the struggles that people with autism face, but I imagine many of us can relate to such feelings. Take this passage from Daniel Tammet's worthwhile memoir Born on a Blue Day: 

“I liked spending time among the playground’s trees because there I could walk up and down, absorbed in my thoughts, and not worry about being pushed or knocked over. As I walked, it felt for brief moments as though I could make myself disappear by standing behind each tree. There was certainly no shortage of times when I felt like I wanted to vanish. I just did not seem to fit in anywhere, as though I had been born into the wrong world. The sense of never feeling quite comfortable or secure, of always being somehow apart and separate, weighed heavily on me.”

Otherness sucks in a lot of ways, of course, but it also allows "the other" to witness or notice things most people can't see. My favorite parts of Tammet's book was where he describes his ability to recognize a beauty that probably isn't accessible to the rest of us--a beauty in numbers, for instance, or in silence. This is what I hope for my son: that in addition to all the struggles he has to face, he will get to experience his own moments of contentment, satisfaction, and beauty, and in those moments, he will feel such emotions more intensely and fully than I ever will be able to. 

The very sad ending to The Emerald City of Oz

Emerald City of OzStella and I finally finished reading The Emerald City of Oz--not my favorite book in the series but still worth a read, if only to understand how Dorothy, Aunt Em, and Uncle Henry are choosing here to never return home to Kansas (would you make the same choice? Would I? Hmmmm). The ending was a shocker though: Glinda makes the world of Oz invisible to everyone outside of Oz, including to us readers, and Dorothy soon after sends Frank L. Baum a letter written on a stork’s wing explaining we will never hear anything else from her again. There is something unfair about this. Many magical worlds at least leave open the possibility of us stumbling on in (like Narnia, for instance--if only we could find the right closet!).

This was supposed to be the last Oz book, though it's not: apparently Baum realized he needed the money and wrote several more. Still, even knowing there were more books to come, the ending was a little hard for me to read, in part because everybody in Oz, including Dorothy, is so happy about being cut off from our world. They have no need for our ordinariness. Probably they would find our lives a bore, and part of me thinks, who can blame them? But another part of me wishes they would pretend to need us, at least as their readers.