Saturday, September 26, 2015

Write. Recover. Revise.

I’ve been working on the memoir manuscript for the last month despite my ardent desire to work on the lighter, breezier novel manuscript.  I am averaging 6-8 hours of writing, 4 days a week (sometimes more). 

The days when I produce new non-fiction chapters are the most draining.  This is no surprise, but the completeness with which I feel drained does surprise me.  I can sleep 10 hours after writing a new chapter, and I still feel exhausted the next morning.  It takes days for me to recover and start writing new chapters again.  I know my diet isn’t draining me because when I’m writing, I eat crazy healthy.  Ninety percent of what I’ve consumed this month has been raw/sautéed vegetables with clean protein and gluten-free whole grains (e.g., quinoa and buckwheat).

During my recovery days, I revise previously written chapters.  I may revise a chapter 20-50 times over the course of a year before I am okay with it.  Sometimes I’m still not okay with it.   Even the revision process can be taxing when I have to revise a chapter that involves trauma or a painful revelation.  Last week I revised a chapter about a deceased relative.  After I finished, I felt good about the chapter, but I also felt cranky as hell.  I kept wondering why.  I was having a good, productive day.  Then I started smelling that relative’s perfume.  That hadn’t happened in umpteen years! I was unknowingly transported back to all the pain that person caused me, and it didn’t hit until after the revision.

I completely revised the dialogue for a chapter that I wrote and revised a year ago. The chapter is not emotionally difficult, but it is technically and analogically difficult for me.  There’s quite a bit of dialogue and exposition, and I finally feel like both are equally strong.  The over-arching analogy is quotidian, but the significance for the non-fiction characters is anything but.  I want the chapter to unfold in such a way that the reader thinks, Why are they arguing about this little object? Then, much later, perhaps even after the reader is finished reading the book, I want her/him to see that the character that is introduced in the next chapter is not the impetus for change, but that little quotidian object is. 

I’m working on subtly.  Kym Ragusa, one of my professors in grad school, used to tell me not to bludgeon or overwhelm the reader.  My work, like my personality, can be so fucking intense that it overwhelms.  I don’t have a little smile; I have an electric smile.  I don’t have a quiet laugh; I have a bombastic laugh.  I’m learning to ease people into me.  Give a little intensity here and a little intensity there, so when the power needs to be unleashed, the reader can bear it because I’ve trained her/him to anticipate it in my writing style.

When I write trauma chapters, I handle each word with kid gloves.  Also, I never type trauma chapters (as opposed to writing about the events in my journal) unless:  
  1.  I have had enough distance from the events;
  2. I have reflected upon the events extensively; and
  3. I feel at peace with the situation. 

There’s a scene between my mother and 30-year-old me where my mother reveals something I always knew but never wanted to believe.  This chapter bleeds with tenderness.  When I read that chapter, I don’t even recognize myself.  It was not written by Scrapper Angèle who has busted her ass to get to this creative/emotional place but by Spiritually-Rooted Angèle who is still fairly new to me (i.e., She’s only about 9 years old. I started meditating and gradually changing my eating habits 9 years ago).  Scrapper Angèle is a relentlessly honest fucker.  She temporarily took up jogging after her mother’s revelation.  This was an alternative to cursing her mother out and punching her fists through walls.  In the years after my mother’s revelation, Scrapper Angèle wrote journal entries that were so scathing and frenzied that she occasionally tore through the page with her pen.  Scrapper Angèle vented and kicked her legs in therapy like a petulant child.  Who the fuck says that to her daughter! she once yelled to her therapist.  And thank God she did all the drudge work.

Had Scrapper Angèle not processed through that rage, she could not hand over the experience to Spiritually-Rooted Angèle to make of it a tender narrative.  Spiritually-Rooted Angèle took the experience, meditated on it and contemplated it as she drank her green juice and green smoothies.  She evaluated hundreds of sweet, little everyday experiences and choose one that she could juxtapose with the painful one, all so the reader wouldn’t feel bludgeoned or overwhelmed.  Who knew dissociation could come in so handy?

Friday, September 11, 2015

Notes on The Book of Night Women

Marlon James won the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for The Book of Night Women.  However, many of the reader reviews I read were greatly disparate.  People either loved or hated this novel—there was no in between.  Sometimes this is a good sign, so I went to the library to check out the book.

I re-read Chapter 1 three times (another good sign) because: 1) the narrative voice is written in patois, and it took effort for my American mind to adjust; 2) the content is hauntingly powerful, and it took effort for my mind to adjust; and 3) James inundates the reader with such depth of imagery, plot and character development that the reader is thrust head first into the world of Montpellier Plantation and 18th/19th Century Jamaica.

After the third read of Chapter 1, I looked up from James’s book and thought: Where am I?  What is it?  I love that feeling!  That’s how it should be when you’re reading a book—like falling in love.  I was sitting on the patio of a coffee shop on a sunny morning.  It was a Saturday.  I was not a slave girl on a Jamaican sugar plantation.  I was not longing for a mother who was not my mother, as Lilith, James’s protagonist, is.   I also remember thinking: I have to finish this book, but reading this patois is wearing me out!  Indeed, the patois narrative voice was a consistent complaint in the negative reader reviews.

Writing in a non-mainstream narrative voice is always a gamble because…well, readers seem to think it’s impolite.  It distorts the power dynamic between the reader, the author and the book.  Readers read because they want to be told a story (My use of passive voice is purposeful.).  The average reader wants to passively be taken away by the story (and, in effect, by the author) to a kinder, gentler place.  To catapult the reader into, for instance, the South and a southern drawl, as Mark Twain does in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is to infringe on the reader’s comfort level and force him/her to view the world through the narrator’s eyes.  This process, when done well, cannot display a kinder, gentler world because the narrator becomes real to the reader, and real people exist in a world that is often mean and abrasive.  A strong narrative voice is rarely a mainstream one.  Because Twain understood this, he is revered as a master of narrative voice.  With The Book of Night Women, Marlon James has also earns the reverence of narrative voice master.

I bought the audio recording of The Book of Night Women and this allowed me to experience the book with ease.  James does not over-simplify plantation life and black-white relationships the way Kathleen Grissom does in The Kitchen House.  He demonstrates the racism and dehumanization of slavery and allows readers to see how these factors were integral to white dominance and the country’s economy.  Through the experiences of his characters, readers have the chance to understand that slavery, with all its racism and dehumanization, destroys black people and white people, though in drastically different ways.  As expected, this novel changed my life.  This is another book that is so raw, so true that it gives me permission to be raw and true in my own work.

We may read books of literature, in part, because we want to escape, but we also read books of literature because we want to somehow change for having read them.  Each day that I played The Book of Night Women in my car, I experienced the full spectrum of human emotion.  Strangers in vehicles beside mine witness me yelling, crying, laughing, and covering my mouth in utter disbelief.  For the rest of my life I will remember Lilith, and the Johnny-Jumpers, and Homer, and Quinn, and the revolt, and the blood, and the sheer power of Marlon James’s writing.

My 3C’s rating is as follows:

Competent Writing: 4
James’s writing is lyrical and exceptional.  I place this book in the company of Anna Karenina, Beloved, The Famished Road, Revolutionary Road and Sula.

Character Development: 4
James’s character development is outstanding.  The female characters love, kill, seduce and fight for freedom.  The male characters are equally strong.  Even the secondary and tertiary characters are completely believable.

Content: 4
The plot is enthralling.  Gotta love a slave revolt!  James’s tone is urgent and authoritative, yet he unfolds details in such a way that you never feel that your intelligence is being insulted.  You trust that you will be surprised and frightened and overwhelmed and calmed and then the emotional roller coaster starts all over again.  There are so many themes in this book!  Familial relationships, same-sex platonic relationships, black-white dynamics (platonic and sexual), black femininity and masculinity, white femininity and masculinity, sexuality, power and dominance, slavery, race, gender, interracial relationships, economics.  I could go on all day!

Total 3C’s Score: 12/12

This is one of the most exceptional books I’ve ever read!  I recommend The Book of Night Women for writers, Intellectual Readers, Casual Literary Readers, Elitist Literary Readers.  I think it should be required reading in high schools and college African-American studies classes, Caribbean studies classes, literature classes and women studies classes.  

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Lessons from Tropic of Capricorn

Tropic of Capricorn is one of the books that changed the way I looked at literature.  I read it back in 2012.  Tropic of Capricorn is a fictionalized account of Henry Miller’s life.  Although the book was published in Paris in 1939, it was banned in the U.S. until 1961.  That’s how I came to read the book.  I was curious as to why it had been banned.  Why were the reviews I’d read so polarized?  People either adore the book or abhor it.  Well, now I understand. 

The main protagonist is, quite simply, loathsome.  He’s a white male who cheats on his wife and resents marriage, fatherhood and humanity in general.  You can’t get a more unsympathetic, unlikeable character than Henry Miller.  I hate this fucker!  The fact that Miller named the fictional character after himself only annoys me more.  He, the character and quite likely the author, is a dick wad, a ho, a racist fuck, a sexist douchbag! 

Despite this, I was (and am) riveted by this book!  I cursed myself for reading it.  I’m pretty sure my moral IQ dropped to zero just by allowing Miller’s words to enter my retinas and transmit signals to my brain, yet when I left the book to sleep or work, I could think of nothing else.  I dreamt about the Western Union shop.  I kept wondering, Why can’t I stop reading this damn book?  Even after I finished Topic of Capricorn, all I could think about was Henry Miller and the contempt he projected.  He’s such a fuckhead that I hate the secondary and tertiary characters in the book because they associate/have sex with him.  How can anyone say those things about black people?  And how can a person have sex with so many women…while he had a wife and baby at home, no less?  His poor wife!  That poor baby!  I mean, if you want to stick your dick into any remotely-moist hole you can find, why get married in the first place? 

I rolled this book over in my head for days after I had finished it, and finally, I understood why I felt consumed by and finished a book that I hate (yes, hate).  I don’t need to like a book.  I don’t need to like its plot.  I don’t even need to like its characters, but I do need to read books that stimulate my mind even if they push my buttons and piss me off, and I need to feel passionately about whatever book I read.    

I passionately hate Henry Miller.  I passionately hate damn near everything he does in the book.  I passionately hate (almost) everything he represents, except one thing—the thing that makes this book so pivotal in my reading life and my life as a writer—honesty.  This book affirmed that I have the right to be honest in my work, brutally honest if I choose.  Miller is honest as a motherfuck!  Dude don’t like black people.  He don’t like women or their tendency to love and hold those they love close.  I don’t think he likes anyone, but he loves hisself some pussy, and he loves writing, and there you have it. 

The protagonist (or antagonist depending on how you look at it) doesn’t want to lie about who he is any more (Who the hell can’t relate to that?).  The central conflict of this book is man versus society.  Henry Miller (racist, sexist, whore extraordinaire) versus a wife who wants him to be loyal and make good money so that she and the baby can have a comfortable life; versus a job that he hates; versus black people in general; versus women in general; versus an entire nation that tells him to pretend that he wants the wife (and no other women), the kid, the job, racial equality, and gender equality.  On the one hand, you could say Henry Miller’s acceptance of himself is a coup; on the other, you could say it’s a failure for social equity.  Some reviewers espouse that Miller has a spiritual awaking by book’s end.  I need y’all to stop!  Ain’t nothing spiritual about this fool!  He has a penial awakening and a literary awakening, but that’s it.  I do think this book offers a great analysis of maleness and whiteness in America.  Tropic of Capricorn is Miller’s ode to base-level, low-brow white-American masculinity.  Miller is every feminists’ worst nightmare.  He’s the Paul Gauguin of American literature.  He’s the literary white-American P.I.M.P.!   

As for the 3C’s, I rate this book as follows:

Competent Writing: 2
Miller’s writing style is clipped and utilitarian.  He creates a strong sense of urgency, but his writing style is nothing special, at least not for anyone born after the 1960’s.  I can see how this writing style may have blown people’s minds back then, though.

Character Development: 3
Miller conveys the characters’ actions, motivations and desires well.  I felt vested in the characters and, despite hating them, I believed them.

Content: 3.5
The plot is competent, and his tone is powerful.  The book is definitely multi-thematic.  It addresses: age, gender, race, economics, sense of self, sense of duty or lack thereof, and many more themes.

Total 3C’s Score: 8.5/12  
So yeah, even though I hate this book, I’m recommending it to writers (I know.  I’m somewhat ashamed as well.), but the deal is if you’re gonna write, you gotta be honest.  You gotta write fearlessly, not recklessly, but fearlessly.  You gotta say, Fuck, everybody else and be you (Naturally, this requires you to know who and what you are, which is no easy feat).  If you’re insightful enough to know this already (like know it for real, for real in your core) then there’s no need to read the book.  If you’re scared to bleed on the page like I was in 2012 and all worried that people are gonna think you’re crazy, you should check this book out.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Being Ready

Every writer has a Reader, with a capital R, someone whose literary opinion the writer trusts completely.  My Reader is also a close friend who I met some 12 years ago in a writer’s workshop.

She and I were talking the other day, and I told her that I feel like I can’t write fiction until the memoir is finished.  I told her my fiction was not ready or perhaps I said my fiction wasn’t good enough.  In any case, she said she disagreed.  She said, “You are ready.  It is good enough.  You just need to finish it.”  Sometimes you just need a champion.

I’ve been working these last few months on fiction and non-fiction.  I’ve been alternating between developing a detailed outline of a novel (I’ve devoted 72 hours to that task, and I’m still not done.) and drafting chapters for a memoir.  Lately, the memoir has been more demanding and unyielding, so I give myself to it. 

Funny, I’m reluctant about giving myself to anyone.  I kick and I scream and I push people away, but I willing give myself to creativity.  The last three chapters that I’ve written have been painful…hell every damn chapter has been painful even the light-hearted ones.  After I wrote last Thursday, I felt debilitated for two fucking days.  But I gotta get this done, and I gotta do it well.  I keep telling myself: Be raw.  Be true.  Damn, I wish I had one of those normal childhoods people keep talking about.