Life as a Canvas

When I write, I often develop extremely detailed histories for my characters.  I’ve always wanted to understand what makes people act and react the ways that they do, what in their past forms who they are, and my characters are no different.  So I create complicated lives for them and their families, and along the way I also acquire compassion for even the most unlikable characters.  I begin to feel empathy for them.

This exercise is nothing new for me.  I’ve always liked to sit in restaurants and make up convoluted stories about the people dining around me.  I do it for fellow airline passengers.  I do it for people I’ve never met, and for those I have met but just can’t seem to get a handle on.  It’s pretty lame as hobbies go, but most hobbies writers have are pretty lame in comparison to alligator wrestlers and sky divers and bullfighters.  We tend to play in our heads. (With the exception of Ernest Hemingway, of course.)

I decided to try out this little exercise on myself, treating Christy Strick as an undiscovered character.  Of course most of it is my history, known to me, but then I began to take known facts and turn them upside down.  I invented a new father, one who would not run away from the responsibilities of a family with four children under the age of 8.  One who loved me from afar though he couldn’t claim me.  (This little fantasy  would surely make my mother crazy.)

Most of my family contributed without me having to embellish, of course.  My mother, who taught me sacrifice and told me that I was special (which I still believe to this day, despite evidence to the contrary.) My maternal grandfather, whom I have mentioned before, who passed along to me his passion for learning, a lifelong curiosity, and a craving for travel as we read his National Geographics and World Book Encyclopedias cover to cover.  My paternal grandfather showed me what it is to be a courtly gentleman, a man’s man who smoked pipes and played golf and drank cocktails every evening.  And did it looking like an aging movie star.    My paternal grandmother who passed on to me a love of art, and beauty in nature, and the importance of good manners.  My maternal grandmother, who taught me about duty, and hard work, and determination as she slaved in a blue jean factory to make ends meet. And my great grandfather Bob, who lived to be 99, showed me the dignity that could be found in aging gracefully.  My aunts, Marie and Jerry and Carol, who always believed I was special and let me know it.  And lastly, my daughters, who are smart and funny and teach me things about myself every day.

Of course these are the good things.  I also learned from some of the people in my life to be wary, to not open up or trust too easily.

I think of life as a great big canvas, with people who touch our lives adding paint here and there, layer upon layer of interactions that change the picture constantly, sometimes with just one encounter, one stoke of the brush.  Each death, each love affair, each supportive teacher or mean girl, they all add color and depth to the canvas.  The only question is whether at the end of that life, the canvas will hold more yellow and blues and greens or more reds and black.

I’m thinking about painting a canvas about the character’s life I am working on right now, a sort of abstraction of life.  Maybe it will be the cover of this novel.  Maybe no one will ever see it but me.  But I’m visual, and I like the idea of making art out of a life.  Which is what we do as writers every day on paper.  The canvas is just my extension of that.

The Power – and Joy – of the Right Word

Many writers write for the love of story.  Many for the love of language.  But the best writers are those who strive for beauty in both the story and the language.  The story is not sacrificed for lyricism. It is told with language that serves the story, but that also often surprises us.

I’m currently reading Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, and as did his National Book Award- winning Let the Great World Spin, TransAtlantic reminds me over and over again of the power of the right word.  His descriptions are so clearly drawn, his word choices so strong and inventive, that it takes my breath away.

A few of my favorite lines so far:

TransAtlantic

“Sometimes it withered him just to keep his mind steady.”

“…an incidental skim of words across the surface of the day…”

“The children appeared marooned by hunger.”

McCann uses such beautiful, creative language.  It is the story that has drawn me in, that keeps me going on this journey with him.  But it is the way he tells that story – the language – that makes me love the ride so much.

When I read writers like McCann, I want to be better.  I want to challenge myself.  I begin to rethink my verbs, searching for stronger and more evocative ways of saying things.  I begin to play with my word choices.  And I remember again what is so much fun about writing.  I remember why I write in the first place.

Getting on My High Horse (and Helping Uncle Jack Off His)

“Capitalization is the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse and helping your uncle jack off a horse.” Unknown (thanks, Linda, for sending this to me)

I’m going to sound like an old fogey reminiscing about the good old days here, but I’ll risk it.  It seems to me that too little emphasis is being placed on learning the basics of English these days.  You know, sentence structure, punctuation, and capitalization.  Seriously simple stuff.  Either it’s not being taught or there are a lot of students who aren’t listening.

I once had an employee who randomly capitalized words in a sentence.  Or, as he would have written, “I Once had An Employee who randomly Capitalized words.”  Every email he sent made me get out my red pen.  I would print the email and, after marking it up, toss it on his desk.  When this didn’t get through to him, I had him take an English class.  But capitalization was not addressed in that class or he was absent the day it was, because his random cap habit was never kicked, and he continued to look like a dumbass.

We’re not talking only uneducated people here.  I’ve had writers tell me that they aren’t worried about that kind of stuff, that once a story is accepted for publication, the editors will clean it up.  Wrong.  It will probably never be accepted anywhere if the punctuation and capitalization are a mess.

My mother claims it’s a result of too much texting and tweeting.  I’m not buying it.  There are plenty of luddites out there who don’t know the basics of grammar and punctuation and spelling.  I think the problem is much deeper than that.  Many people seem to believe that it just doesn’t matter anymore, and that the rules no longer apply.  Not true.  Every time you send a poorly constructed, misspelled email, you are showing the recipient that you are too lazy or too stupid to communicate in proper English.  And forget landing an interview if your cover letter and resume are riddled with misspellings and incorrect usage.

As for any writer who is too lazy to make certain a story is grammatically correct, you can blame the editor who doesn’t want to spend his time teaching you first grade English for that rejection.