Thoughts on Two Novels

Somehow, even as a lifelong fan of British women novelists, I’d never read anything by Jo Baker until this month. It’s especially surprising that I never picked up Longbourn, her riff on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of my childhood/young adult faves.

Based on my reading of Longbourn and Baker’s latest, The Body Lies, Baker has the particular storytelling gift of exposing cultural lapses in logic and compassion, and similar lapses in individual readers. In other words, she sets you up like a bowling pin for your own personal epiphany.

Longbourne  parallels the plot of Pride and Prejudice by prefacing each of its chapter with a quote from P & P. These function as a sort of shorthand for the where and when of the main characters of Longbourn: Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, Mr. Hill, the butler, Sarah, the ladies’ maid, and Polly, the char. The acts and concerns of the gentry, however, are as the acts of insects — utterly insignificant, except when they happen to sting. And sting they do, in surprising, devastating ways, often with less consciousness of cause and effect than an insect.

The focus is on the hearts and minds of the people employed by the Bennett family. It is their secrets, their desires, their thoughts, and their concerns that move the novel forward. In the precarious and changing economy of early 18th century England, these characters are as concerned with stability and security as the Bennett daughters, and they make a host of distinct sacrifices to stay afloat. This is a page-turner with a deeply embedded treatise on class division.

Reading up a bit on Jo Baker, I learned that she is a writer who tries something new with each of her books. The Body Lies is set in modern-day England, first in London, and then at a university in the north where the unnamed protagonist, a novelist, is hired to teach creative writing. In addition to weaving characters’ thoughts about the nature of fiction into this tale, Baker also takes on misogyny and violence against women.

This was a difficult read for me because the novel’s antagonist, also a writer, was so much like the man who battered me as a teenager. My experience of intimate partner violence was a textbook example, and Jo Baker nailed the charisma, the narcissism, the sense of entitlement, and the drama-queen gestures of the typical batterer. Readers who’ve been abused may want to know this ahead of time.

That said, the writing is brilliant, the narrator/protagonist is complex, and the book reversed some assumptions I wouldn’t have expected myself to have. In other words, like any great book, it taught me something about myself and about others.

Poets Resist

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Photo by chloe s. on Unsplash

Poets Resist began in 2017 in response to . . .  well, you can guess.

It’s a current events poetry project of Glass: a Journal of Poetry, which seeks “poetry that enacts the artistic and creative purity of glass.”

My poem, “Suspect,” appears there today. The poem confronts a few aspects of racism: assumptions, rationalizations, and inaction. The speaker of the poem both is and is not me; perhaps that’s one way racism inhabits even well-intentioned white people.

The poem begins like this:

Suspect

As many activists have noted, it’s well past time for white people to be reaching out to other white people to confront racism. I’m interested in thoughts that anyone might have about this, or about the poem, which can be read in its entirety here.

 

 

Fresh Confessions

Perhaps especially because I’m a native-born #FloridaWoman, it’s a delight to have my review of Leah Claire Kaminski’s chapbook, Penninsular Scar, in this month’s Tupelo Quarterly Review

peninsula_1024x1024The title of the review, “Fresh Confessions,” refers to an observation about how the nature of confessional poetry has expanded in the twenty-first century, as exhibited in Penninsular Scar.

Like Sexton and Plath, Kaminski employs a set of private symbols that may accumulate meaning over time for the reader who follows her work. “Cypress,” for example, appears in many of the poems as a strong, durable building material that nevertheless falls to the same destruction as the rest of Florida. Unlike the confessional poets of the 20th century, however, Kaminski proceeds with a distinctively contemporary aesthetic. The confessions contained in the poems, even those contained in conversations with “my therapist,” avoid a coherent narrative by questioning a sense of self at the center of consciousness and employing syntactical disruption.

Read the full review here.

What are Crackers?

Thank you, Twitter! Last year, I saw a tweet asking “What are crackers?” and, as someone who can claim the title, I replied. Later, this poem came around, and it got published in B O D Y Literature on April 1. 2019, the first day of National Poetry Month: https://bodyliterature.com/2019/04/01/michele-sharpe/

B O D Y Cracker

Crackers, most simply, are people from Florida, or people whose ancestors have been in Florida for generations. That would be me. But language is rarely simple.

“Cracker” can be a slur hurled against working class white (or white-ish) people.

Some might say that “cracker” is the Florida version of “white trash” or “trailer trash.”

Some might say that a cracker is any white rural Southerner.

Some students of language say “cracker” comes from Middle English or Gaelic “craic,” meaning boaster, braggart, loud talker.

Some historians say the first Florida crackers were landless cowboy types in the 1700’s and 1800’s who herded cattle in the Florida backcountry using whips (the crack of the whip) and dogs.

The term has been used to denigrate loudmouth people since Shakespeare’s time. Yes, I learned this and other things about the etymology of cracker from Wikipedia.

Child Sacrifice

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Possession of even a small piece of history can bring us power, whether it’s personal history or cultural history. Such possession can give us context for current situations, and a deeper understanding of motives and patterns of behavior.

I’ve been outraged to see so many people shocked at the government’s cruel treatment of children at America’s southern border. As if children have never been abused here. Please.

Children have always been the least powerful among us and they have always – in every country’s history – been subject to shameful cruelty and exploitation.

Writing poems and essays is one way I try to understand others and myself and to communicate my concerns. My poem, “Moloch upon Awakening,” recently published in the lovely Parentheses Journal, is an attempt to communicate the horror of both child sacrifice, and the very human complicity that makes it possible.

Click here for the full text of the poem.

Writing on Outrage

I had three wishes as a younger woman:

  1. I wanted to be an old woman.
  2. I dreamed of being serene, no longer subject to fits of anger and outrage.
  3. I longed for the wisdom of age that would stop me from making the same stupid mistakes, over and over again.

Only the first wish came true.

Anger, agitation, and outrage fuel my political writing.  I tone the rage down so it’s safe for public consumption, instead of being a chaotic string of expletives and, more importantly, I back up my rants with research and facts.

One of the many things that has pissed me off is how pundits and others minimize or dismiss allegations of sexual assault with “We can’t know the truth because it’s a he said/she said situation.”

Dipshits, I have news for you. All cases involve a he said/she said/they said dynamic. It’s called “testimony.” My latest for The Establishment, a fabulous feminist publication.

he said-she said

Writing Memoir: Scene and Summary

“A crowd dances in the street in Guelph with their arms spread, looking upward” by Nadim Merrikh on Unsplash

Time is the difference between scene and summary in any kind of writing.

Summaries compress time to deliver necessary information, often background information or transition information.

Scenes approximate real time. Action is described in a moment-by-moment fashion.

For me, summaries are easier to write than scenes. But summaries, as necessary as they can be, won’t carry a story. They don’t give the reader that sense of immersion that most readers crave. But they do help us skip over time that’s boring or isn’t relevant to the story, and they transport us from one scene to the next.

Scenes don’t come as naturally to me. Still, I force myself to slow down and write, as best I can, in a moment-by-moment way, but only when I’m at a particularly dramatic or emotional point in the story. It’s getting easier.

Here’s an example of an interaction between summary and scene from an essay about seeing my niece BeeBee for the first time since she’d been released from prison. The first paragraph is a summary giving background information about what I know (or think I know) about addiction. The next three paragraphs are my attempt at a moment-by-moment scene.

I breathe into the risk of places where people are mired in active addictions. There’s just no telling what can happen in those places. But I’m hopeful, too: I’ve read about studies showing the neural circuits that fire up during drug-seeking also fire up during prayer. Belief in God, or a Higher Power, can substitute for getting high. Prayer is certainly safer and healthier than meth.

I pull into the driveway of the discipleship house. It’s a two-story building that sits behind a small bungalow, just one block from the beach. This close to the ocean, there’s no oak canopy, no shade, and the light bounces off the pale concrete and sand.

When I shift the car into park and turn the ignition off, BeeBee is coming out of a door. I jump out and wrap my arms around her. In the embrace, I can’t tell if she is really off drugs, but I can tell all the things I absolutely need to know. She’s alive. She’s healthy. She can still love.

She’s anxious to show me her home, and she pulls me by the hand to follow her inside. The door opens onto a hallway with a poster assuring me “You are beautiful!” I like the affirmation. A tiny Yorkshire terrier yips happily from the stairs. “Angel,” BeeBee says, “this is Aunt Michele.” The dog is adorable, groomed, and ribboned. Someone has put the needs of this little animal above any need to get high. An excellent sign.

Chuck Wendig, who I’ve quoted before in this series about memoir writing, advises that “The scene should begin as late as possible.” By this, he means that the scene shouldn’t begin until something actually happens — something important.

Maybe I should cut those first two paragraphs.

Wendig’s craft book, Damn Fine Story is audience-centered; almost all of his advice has to to do with keeping the reader engaged. Much of his advice can be crystallized in these few words: “Don’t waste your audience’s time.” He does acknowledge that some scenes need time to build, and some need breathing room. For folks writing contemplative memoirs, his action-focus may not strike the right chord. But I agree that if we’re writing for an audience, we need to know them, respect them, and write in a way that appeals to them.

Writing Memoir: Against Procrastination

A sloth hanging out in a tree, probably just being a sloth and not procrastinating at all. Photo by Javier Mazzeo on Unsplash

Sloths get a bad name. They move slowly, it’s true, but they’re animals, for goodness sake. They don’t have deadlines or to-do lists.

I’m big on deadlines and lists when it comes to my writing. Although I don’t always live up to the goals I set down, my production would no doubt be lower without them.

Because writers love to write, just plunking down in front of the notebook or computer and getting a few words written is often enough to set the process in motion. The writer’s brain wants to write, like the runner’s body wants to run.

Setting precise goals has helped me overcome procrastination because they jump-start me. Most people who write do so because they love to write. It’s head-games like insecurity, fear of facing some truth, and impostor syndrome that make us procrastinate when we’re otherwise healthy and able to write.

Setting goals that are in tune with the current stage of writing is key. Stages of writing a memoir can include:

  • generating,
  • revising,
  • seeking feedback, and
  • submitting for publication.

The ambitious goal of “I’m going to write a memoir” can be overwhelming. It’s far more manageable when broken down into goals for the first stage: generating. Some general goals for that stage might be:

  • Setting aside time and space to write
  • Collecting materials like journals, diaries, letters
  • Enlisting the support of loved ones
  • Resolving to write for a short time each day.

Some writing coaches believe that writing at the same time every day can condition your brain and spirit to be ready at that time. And if procrastination is a habit, it stands to reason that a new habit can replace it.

Breaking my goals up into smaller goals — what some people call “chunking” has been helpful. For example, instead of swearing to “finish my memoir by X date” (although I do that, too), I’ve set goals about how many words to write in a day.

The words-a-day goal is great when generating new material. But since revision can and often should include cutting material, words-a-day doesn’t work well for the revision stage.

In the revision stage, I’ve turned to a minutes-a-day goal, and for me, that’s been 90 minutes, which is not terribly ambitious. On a few days, I’ve spent less time, but on many days, I’ve spent more than 90 minutes.

[Note: I quit my day a year ago and don’t have childcare or elder care responsibilities.]

I’ve written elsewhere about using a time tracker for accountability and for figuring out when I write best. When procrastination threatens me, though, I’m ready to chase it off with my goals.

Just 500 words now, I tell myself, or Just 30 minutes now. Usually, I end up becoming absorbed and plod past my goal — because I really do love writing.

Writing Memoir: Letters from Loved Ones

Last summer, I spent a few hours transcribing letters from my niece Christina, who died in 2013 at the age of 27. It’s been my habit to save the letters from anyone I cared about, and I’m grateful for that habit. The letters from family members who’ve passed away are especially precious.

Christina’s letters range from when she was quite young, 7 or 8, until she was 18. At that time, I moved back to the Southeast and we were able to see each other in person enough so that letters were less necessary. She became a mother then, too, so she was busy with her little girl.

My grief over losing her has made it harder for me to write about Christina than it has been to write about my other nieces, although I have many happy memories of her as both a child and as an adult.

Transcribing these old letters directly into my memoir manuscript can give me an “out” if I put them in a separate chapter or integrate them into other chapters. It would be a way to make her story part of my memoir-in-progress without the pain of crafting my memories of her into my own words. I’m not sure that’s the best decision from an artistic standpoint, but it was the best emotional decision to make last summer.

A helpful article, written by Amber Lea Starfire, answers some common questions about using letters in memoir, like whether to edit for spelling and punctuation, and whether it’s okay to use excerpts. She discusses making use of letters, whether you summarize from them or quote from them.

If you’re lucky enough to have source materials, such as journals and letters — either your own or belonging to key characters in your memoir — you possess treasure. Yet having these materials can also cause confusion. For example, should you include excerpts of these materials in your memoir or just to use them to verify details and solidify your recollections? And then, if you do decide to include excerpts, which ones do you choose?

I’m lucky to have many letters from Christina and from other family members. Sometimes, they’ve served a fact-checking purpose. In one case, I replaced my own faulty memory of why another niece, Brandi, was kicked out of a group home with part of a letter she wrote to me about the incident. I felt that using her words showed important parts of her personality, including how articulate she was, and how she’d planned her rebellion.

Amber Lea Starfire also has some good advice about deciding whether or not to include an excerpt from a letter or write a scene in your own words: experiment and get feedback.

If you’re questioning whether to use an excerpt or not, try writing your passage both ways. In the first, include the excerpt. In the second, include a scene that portrays the same message or event. Which one is stronger and works better for your purpose? Not sure? Get some feedback from your critique group or a friend who can be trusted to tell you the unvarnished truth.

I so glad I encouraged my nieces and nephews to write letters when they were kids, but today we communicate mainly through text and Facebook messages when we aren’t together. Still, the tradition of letter writing survives in my family, and families like mine, with loved ones in prison. Postage is still cheap. Cell phones are still forbidden in prisons and phone calls at many institutions are routed through expensive third-party carriers.

Letters can be touched and held on to. For all families whose loved ones are far away, having a physical artifact is comforting. For memoir writers, incorporating letters into our stories can establish our reliability as narrators, and it can also give voice to our characters. I’m looking forward to seeing what my critique group thinks about my choices.

Meanwhile, I’ll be thinking of Christina.