Saturday, March 7, 2009

My book's been out for awhile, so I wanted to post some of my favorite reviews before they vanish from the web entirely.. This one below came from Tad Simons, the art critic at Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine: The Best of the Twin Cities. The review came out months after the book was print and was a wonderful surprise. The other book feaured is Warren Read's The Lyncher in Me, which I still look forward to reading.
Hang Time

Two of the most notorious incidents in Minnesota history provide the backdrop for books that grapple with our collective shame in very different ways.
April 2008
By Tad Simons

When it comes to lynchings, Minnesota does not have a stellar record. More than a few times in our state’s history people have opted for the expedience of the rope over the plodding rule of law, and each time it has happened, whether the motive was to hang a few black men or rid the prairie of Indians, a wave of shame and guilt has rippled through Minnesota’s collective conscience.

Minnesotans are good people by and large, not given to bursts of vengeance, but these tragedies are part of our legacy, and though we might wish otherwise, all of us share the responsibility for making sure such things never happen again. One of the ways we do this is by continuing to tell the stories of these unfortunate events; or, as two Minnesota– bred authors have done in their new books (one fiction, the other nonfiction), tell the story behind the story.
Thomas Maltman’s novel, The Night Birds, is set in the prairie outside of New Ulm in the decades before and after the infamous 1862 Dakota uprising, which resulted in the massacre of scores of white settlers and the subsequent hanging in Mankato, after a hasty tribunal, of thirty-eight Indians and sympathizers—an event that still holds the United States record for number of people executed simultaneously in one day. Though the massacre is central to the tale, Maltman wisely lets the horror of that day burble in the background, creating a slow, seething tension that builds for nearly 300 pages before he even mentions it.
In the meantime, the narrative shifts back and forth between 1876 and the late 1850s, telling the story of a German immigrant family that settles in a valley outside of New Ulm, across the river from a band of Dakota Indians. Through much delicate and beautiful writing, the saga of the Senger family unfolds and their relationship with the tribe of Indians on the other side of river grows more complicated. The children play with each other and occasionally fight; the adults have an uneasy but respectful friendship; and when push comes to shove—when one or the other is sick or in need of assistance—they act like neighbors and help each other out in order to survive. But they are not the same. Both sides know it, and their differences eventually lead to bloodshed.
There is nothing didactic or cloying about The Night Birds; it is simply a first-rate tale of historical fiction that rings true with every word, amplifying one of the most horrific episodes in our history without exploiting or sensationalizing it. However, Warren Read takes a far more personal and confrontational approach to history in his memoir, The Lyncher in Me: A Search for Redemption in the Face of History.
During a random Google search, Warren Read discovered an awful truth: That his great-grandfather, Louis Dondino, was the man responsible for inciting the riot that led to the infamous Duluth lynching in 1920 of three black circus workers accused of raping a white girl. Starting with the seed of this unsettling fact, Read does a brilliant job of showing how his grandfather’s shameful legacy (the men were later proven innocent) was not an isolated event, but rather part of a pattern of violence and bigotry that extended through the generations to his own abusive, alcoholic father all the way to the present and the hatred Read himself has felt as a once-married man with three kids who is now openly gay.
Read doesn’t just tell his story, though—he attempts to make amends for his family’s ignorance and brutality and in the process fashions a kind of heroic template for how a thoughtful, conscientious person can take active responsibility for their own life, however uncomfortable or inconvenient the facts of one’s life may be. Read can occasionally be faulted for polishing his own halo a little too brightly, but for the most part he presents the facts of his personal life and the back story of the Duluth lynching with unflinching honesty and a great deal of effective, poignant writing on a subject that Minnesotans, try as they might, can’t seem to forget.
The Night Birds, by Thomas Maltman, Soho Press, 2007. 370 pages, $24 The Lyncher in Me: A Search for Redemption in the Face of History, by Warren Read, Borealis Books. 208 pages, $24.95

Sunday, March 1, 2009

I am always on the hunt for good books on writing so I gave this one a try based on the recommendation of a good friend. I liked it so much I assigned the book for my fiction workshop last fall and I'm glad to report that students responded well to it, too. I've included some of my favorite quotes below, along with my comments in italics.

Quotes from Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird

“Publication is not all it’s cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part.”

Writing is a lonely business filled with rejection slips and disappointment. For most of us, it just won't pay the bills. Publication does matter, however, but Lamott is right in pointing out that there's more to strive for. We should try to make art with our writing, something lasting and true. We should savor those rare successes, a publication, an award, but the key thing is to keep up with the daily struggle of writing and growing in our craft.

Getting Started

“The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth” (3).

“But after a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat. Some lose faith” (3).

“Flannery O’ Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life” (qtd in Lamott 4).”

“You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively” (6).

I love the Flannery O'Connor quote. I recently had my students complete an activity where they draw the floorplan of the first house they remember living in--an activity inspired by Janet Burroway's great introductory text Imaginative Writing. Once the floorplan is complete they trace the map with their fingers, marking places of special significance. The bathroom mirror where they invoked "Bloody Mary." The spot on the white carpet where they spilled kool-aid. It's always surprising to hear the memories that rise to the surface. We then talk about the O'Connor quote and how each of us has experienced the requisite emotions--sadness, joy, betrayal--the raw working material of good fiction.

Daily Work

“What’s real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you’ll get better” (14).

“It reminds me that all I have to do to is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame…just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her” (18). “E.L. Doctorow once said that ‘writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way” (qtd in Lamott 18).

I love the idea of the frame. Not everyone can write Stephen King style--2000 words a day. For busy parents, for those who teach, Lamott's idea of a frame is more practical.

First Drafts

“Now practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts” (21).

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people” (28).

“I think that something similar happens with our psychic muscles. They cramp around our wounds—the pain from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood, the humiliations suffered in both—to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out” (30).

“Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth’” (qtd in Lamott 32).

“Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t—and, in fact, you’re not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is supposed to look like until it has finished developing” (39).

On Character Shaping

“And finally as the picture comes into focus, you begin to notice all the props surrounding these people, and you begin to understand how props define us and comfort us, and show us what we value and what we need and who we think we are” (40).

“Knowledge of your characters also emerges the way a Polaroid develops: it takes time for you to know them. One image that helps me begin to know the people in my fiction is something a friend once told me. She said that every single one of us at birth is given an emotional acre all our own […] One of the things you want to discover as you start out is what each person’s acre looks like. What is the person growing, and what sort of shape is the land in” (44-45)?

“Go into each of these people and try to capture how each one feels, thinks, talks, survives” (46).

“One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can’t” (47).

“Someone once said to me, ‘I am trying to stay in the now—not the last now, not the next now, this now. Which ‘now’ do your characters dwell in” (48)?

On Hope
“In general, there’s no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this” (51).

Plotting Your Work

“Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen” (54).

“Drama is the way of holding the reader’s attention. The basic formula for drama is set-up, buildup, payoff—just like a joke…Drama must move forward and upward, or the seats on which the audience is sitting will become very hard and uncomfortable…The climax is that major event, usually toward the end, that brings all the tunes you have been playing so far into one major chord, after which at least one of your people is profoundly changed” (59-61).

“…which goes ABCDE, for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending. You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, what is going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they most care about. The plot—the drama, the actions, the tension—will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean” (62)?