The Writer’s Life

The writer: even in these modern times it is a designation that evokes romantic notions, harkening us back to the role of the storyteller, sage, and historian; all roles which have mended the path of human history. It is no surprise that, to this day, the perception of the writer gives rise to fanciful visions of an individual slumped over their work, head in hand, arising from self-imposed solitude to be peppered with a slew of questions to the likes of “What are you working on?” or “What have you published?” Within this imagery is the irony of the writer, seeking the shelter of their world to escape the public eye—that same eye that writers turn to for approbation.

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, by Pieter Claesz, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

These are questions that stab at progress and its quantification. It is a mark of the human psyche to count achievements as the only concrete marker of a task’s performance to its ultimate terminus. It is a method to qualify the writer in terms of traditional language. But do writers care for such things? Is publication the end game to why we write, and if so, why carry on and risk reputation with the publication or rejection of another work? I put forward that the answer is no. Why writers write is an exercise much deeper than the mechanics of performing.

A writer bridges the awkward divide between artist and non-artist. It is peculiar that many writers fail to consider themselves artists, and to view what they create as art. Writers first, we put ourselves outside the very realm that gives us the breadth of discretion to exercise our creativity. We do more than string along countless words to convey thought and imagery that appeal, please, and stimulate. Writing done well is far greater than that, it is an art form that can rouse the introspective self to engage in the canvas of words painted by fine prose, the concrete structure and symmetry of a poem sculpted with finesse, or verse, when read aloud, that carries through the air as notes composed to perfection. Writing is as captivating as any art form, and likewise is borne of the writer’s essence.

The writer is far from a mythical being bent over the page, hand combing through ragged hair, consecrated before a drained coffee cup. This is but a portion of the story, the culmination of many hours spent living, reflecting, and reading. A writer’s end product encompasses all that is experienced: trauma, grief, joy, isolation; their inspiration bears those emotions onto the page. We are there: in the coffee shops, restaurants, and stores you frequent. With dedicated eye we examine the idiosyncrasies of human behavior that become the vehicle for our expression. We may be introverts by nature, but we seek to be heard. Our pens become our voice in the crowd, a voice saturated with emotion borne through seeing the world as only can be understood through the eye of an artist.

We do not possess mythical energies; we are as human as the next person. What we do possess is that uncanny power to transform emotions and states of mind to palpable form. Emotions that under ordinary circumstance defy explanation, or visions that may appreciably be too revolting to comprehend. Writers broach the taboo and bring it into the politest of company. In doing so we sometimes find the good fortune of opening doors to issues where before none existed. In this, then yes, there maybe is a certain amount of magic—and duty—wielded by our pens.

Within the mystery of the writer’s craft is where the power lies. A writer has the extraordinary ability to usher forth the reticent tear, unleash a hurricane of laughter, or bring reconciliation to a hurt. This is a power that we exert with care, without regard to deadlines or profits, as long after the page erodes into the earth the thought it once carried will continue on in the reader’s mind. A writer influences emotion and reaction by making a very personal connection to the reader through the conveyance of words. In turn, the reader grants the writer a unique invitation to occupy a corner of their mind, where influence can be powerful. This is the symbiotic existence between reader and writer.

Through that invitation we invite the reader to experience all that is the writer’s life: the solemn hours paining to find the precise word to convey meaning, the hours spent observing the human condition in order to construct our characters, and opening the door to a very intimate part of our selves that is certain to be dissected; done in the hope that perhaps just one person will understand. The writer draws on their emotional reserves like any artist with a tireless resolve to help bring about an understanding of the human condition, all the while entertaining and edifying in a manner that at its best is apolitical in appearance.

The writer’s life is a calling that knows no ethnical, political, or religious boundaries; the writer exists across all cultural divides. Unique to none and embraced by all, it emblazons the human condition extrapolated from our collective consciousness. The writer foregoes the inherent fear of exhibition to make our emotions and their scars available for all to behold and comprehend. The writer’s lifestyle is that of life rendered to the page to explain what cannot be explained, to say what was thought best to be left unsaid, and to find catharsis in what life witnesses to each of us.

Next time you read, or happen to meet a writer, forego the image of the drawn individual spilled across a keyboard. Instead, see before you the lifetime of emotion and attention to artisan craft coupled with the desire that exists within all of us to be heard. And perhaps, just maybe, you will hear your voice calling out as well.

Originally published in the October 2016 issue of Literary Arts Review Magazine.

Finding Fact in Fiction: Fathering Fears and Tending Truth

Again. It was happening again. The boy cringed and pulled the covers over his head, a narrow slit the only opening in his thin armor. The streetlight sickled the night and latched onto the faux crystal door knob, its prism shattering the beams to a million glints of light peppering the room. The door fell open into the bedroom and he felt the intruder’s feet pulling the carpet with him, the leaden steps echoing distant thunder. The boy could feel his breath, taste the bar, and inhale its staleness. He could feel his stare undress the thin veil that feigned protection, the only barrier between them. Fearing for his life, the boy found the grip of the worn steak knife, his constant companion in slumber tucked under his pillow. His white knuckles trembled at the thought, a thought that wouldn’t see its own fruition that late evening. The intruder withdrew, but his point was made: his arrogance dulled the boy’s every possibility to fight back.

But wait – this wasn’t supposed to be a fiction piece. And it isn’t. The above scenario was real, one of many violent or psychologically intimidating incidents throughout the victim’s childhood. The victim was this writer. Odd timing brings this piece to light, with Father’s Day bearing down as I write. For many years after those incidents, celebrating any parent, or even the institution of parenthood, was a sore point for me. Because, I am a survivor of domestic violence in the form of child abuse.

Why mention this? Often readers assume my writing – and perhaps any writer’s work – to be autobiographical. This in some cases would be rather pleasant, and in others – well let’s just say not so much. Whispers in the Alders is no different. Many readers have asked, “Is this based on your life?” To which I answer, no. As a writer, I take in all I have experienced, witnessed, and read, and recycle them through my imagination to create my fiction and poetry. These are all products of my imagination, although at times they can seem quite real to the reader, and even to this writer.

There were points during the writing of Whispers in the Alders where the scenes were so vivid, so painful to even write, that I questioned penning them, wondering if I was crossing a line. As has been the case for most of my life, I looked to the bookshelf flanking my desk for answers. At eye level was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which sits on my desk as I write this piece. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison recounts horribly abusive situations towards children in as tasteful a manner as can be committed to paper. Still, those scenes haunt me. I knew I hadn’t come close to crossing any line in Whispers in the Alders, as tragic and heartbreaking as some of those scenes came to be written.

So why come out about this now? Simply because it has come up numerous times in conversation following the release of Whispers in the Alders. I have always said that Whispers in the Alders is a story that needed to be told. But it’s not just my story, it’s also the story of Aubrey and Tommy, and countless other children who suffer through the cycle of domestic violence in their childhood. Whispers in the Alders is their story as much as it is mine. However, I am not a psychologist. I am educated in the Humanities. I have no true standing to explain away the psychological chaos wrought by abuse except for the fact that I survived many of those situations myself.

This is not to say that survival was any easier than losing my life to abuse would have been. For years I suffered from the post-traumatic stress of physical and psychological abuse. I didn’t even know it, thinking I had escaped, only to later learn that the past has a funny way of keeping pace with the future. In the end, you have to confront the past to survive it. Sometimes those memories were just as frightening as the events themselves. The depression was deep, an enveloping darkness that dulled the senses. It was like a drug, except there was no high.

Where did Aubrey and Tommy end up? Those answers are within Whispers in the Alders. I’d like to say I was the perfect Aquarian like Tommy, and always optimistic, but it’s not true. Like many survivors of childhood abuse, I faltered for years in all my relationships. To my surprise, the models of behavior I abhorred resurrected themselves within me. I was traveling a path to become as abusive as those who abused me. Destructive behaviors became the norm, and I hurt many people along the way, some of whom may never find the means within to forgive me. While I have always accepted responsibility for my actions, this is the legacy of my childhood. I never fully understood the trauma I had undergone from childhood into early adulthood until I was in my thirties. The pain of therapy was near crippling, but it was the first of many challenging experiences that allowed me to begin healing from my past. I am still a work in progress, and always will be. As long as I keep that in mind, I can stay honest with myself, and to those who love me.

Whispers in the Alders is a story for anyone that has suffered, or is suffering, from child abuse. It’s a story of how to weather the circumstances of an unfair childhood. It tells society why it is failing its children, if it should choose to listen. It’s a story about finding love in friendship and having the courage to place your faith in another human being even after all others have failed you. That is the most difficult position that many survivors of abuse face: placing trust in others.

This Father’s Day, I’m quite lucky to have a father-in-law that has accepted me as his own, and filled the role of father without even being asked. I no longer have fear of the man lurking outside my bedroom, wondering whether or not a rusted blade will save me. It took years of hard work to reach this point in my existence. I’m not alone in this struggle, although for many years, the struggle was lonely.

It is my hope that Aubrey and Tommy’s story will keep this dialogue going. That is why Whispers in the Alders is a story that needed to be told. It’s not one person’s story either – it is an entire generation’s story. And unfortunately, this is a story retold generation after generation. Is it getting better? Perhaps it is, but not better enough. There is a spring to the human mind, and that spring is childhood. Without it, imagination and hope wither in the winter of human pessimism. I’m certain that there are many who can empathize with Aubrey and Tommy, and many more that should learn to have empathy for their situation. Empathy that can begin to be felt in the pages of a book.

 

 

Don’t Knock the Vernacular

I read (again) The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams. I was reminded how Williams assembled a small group of simple words. They were just words, but imported great meaning in a brief space. Williams, a pediatrician, became inspired to write the poem while making a house-call for a patient. Did the chickens represent payment for his services? Could payment even be considered as his thoughts also lingered over the condition of his patient? We may never know, but what we can infer, is that nothing in this poem is insignificant. Every word is dependent upon the other, much as the imagery in this piece is so dependent upon what happened that day—the details that none of us will ever totally know.

As a writer, I know at times that I fall short of connecting to my audience through the vernacular of common language. This is the same vernacular that bred me. I’ve experienced the same hardships endured by many other people. It’s what connects us on a human level, and it’s the connection that literature creates between writer and reader. Good writing is not meant to be a mere exhibition of fine-tuned grammar and an assemblage of words that boast of our education and prowess. It is an instrument that gives hope—something that has gone missing in recent time.

Williams’ poem is far more than a simple collection of words. These are words styled with care that demonstrate a dedication to craft tailored to keep the audience in mind. On its face the words of “The Red Wheelbarrow” are simple, but all words when singled out can be described in that way. Williams has taken these words and portrayed a scene that could evoke any emotion, or none at all. In its simplicity lies its complexity, showing that the writer’s gift is making that connection to the reader, whether the metaphor is accepted or portended to be something else.

The vernacular is lost by writers attempting to string words across the page that separate themselves from the world they interpret. It is not the writer’s cause to give meaning or understanding to circumstances, but insight. That is what words do when assembled with care and disseminated for all to appreciate. Word size and counts don’t matter. Substance always takes the prize in the literary arts.

Art can teach or alienate. The writer has failed when their art strays from the point of entertainment or enlightenment and caters only to a small fraction of society. The writer’s purpose is to take their perspective and make it accessible. When that accessibility is denied, the medium falls flat and loses influence and credibility.

We’re at a turning point, a time of great change, in history. Many are anxious, and wake to the fear of what the day will bring; security is escaping from the segments of society that need it most. Recent events have disturbed us from the comforts we knew too well for eight years. Trying as the future may seem, for the writer it is a time of opportunity, a time to connect with readers struggling to come to terms with an uncertain future filled with fear.

These are the times when the written word exerts its utmost power. Sometimes metaphor isn’t necessary, and sometimes a grammatically superior sentence stifles its own message. Simple words, crafted with care, can convey the complexities of emotions being felt across a nation turning its eyes to the future. It’s the vernacular that writers can wield with power and make a connection only few others dare to attempt.

Reminiscing of Hardy Country

river-frome-dorchester
River Frome, Dorchester.

There is nothing quite like bringing a story to life by walking in the footsteps of its characters, taking in the sights that they too would recognize. I had the fortunate opportunity to do just that not too long ago, touring Hardy Country, the area surrounding Dorchester that English author Thomas Hardy called home. Better known as “Wessex” in his writings, the area provided the back-drop to many of his stories.

hangmans-cottage-dorchester
Hangmans Cottage.

 

 

The literary tour of Dorchester proper highlighted various landmarks used by Hardy. At the site of the old prison, I learned of how a young Hardy witnessed the hanging of a woman. Later, this woman would serve as inspiration for Hardy’s character, Tess, from Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Many other references to Hardy’s works could be seen throughout Dorchester, including the Hangman’s Cottage which appeared in “The Withered Arm.” Viewing these sites was more than a backdrop to the works of Hardy; it gave perspective. In such a bucolic setting, it was hard to imagine the traumatic events often written about by Hardy. This is in part his genius, I suppose, underscoring that beneath the surface there is always a dark side waiting to be exposed.

Nestled in a small valley outside Dorchester, I happened upon the Hardy family cottage where the author spent his youth. The location was remote even by modern standards; in Hardy’s childhood it must have felt as if it were one thousand miles from anywhere. The simple thatched roof structure, with its low ceilings, clung to the valley as a morning fog, melting in with the surroundings. More than just a great example of Hardy’s humble beginnings, it also delineated the progress of technology in his lifetime. From a simple cottage in 1840 to his home at Max Gate, the effects of technological change were very clear. In essence, the trips between Hardy’s childhood cottage and his home at Max Gate showed the dramatic changes in society witnessed by Victorian England.

max-gate-garden-from-hardys-study
Hardy’s study overlooking garden at Max Gate.

My final stop was at St. Michael’s Church in Stinford, where Hardy’s heart (sans body) is interred. The parish graveyard was small; enclosed by a stone wall it was quiet and demanded respect. This old cemetery felt hallowed by the age of the tombs and those buried there, and in some respects has its own Poet’s Corner of sorts – buried within feet of Hardy is Cecil Day Lewis, former Poet Laureate of England and father of Academy Award winning actor Daniel Day Lewis. Hardy chose to be in the same grave as his first wife, and his second wife was later buried atop both of them, an eerie ménage-a-trois for the afterlife.

Dorchester and its surroundings are alive with the life and foils experienced by Hardy and his characters. As I turned my back to the town, I felt a bit of passing nostalgia knowing that I may never return, much as the Mayor of Casterbridge must have felt as he enacted his exile from the town that came to disregard his existence. But a visit there is no further away from the bookshelf. When I read Hardy, I’m taken back to Dorchester, the imagery of his words bringing the town and its people to life again, my memories resuscitated with each turn of the page.

#Amquerying

If I were to tell you that the query process has been pure fun, I would lose all credibility. In the moment, it was anything but an enjoyable process. The business side of writing is tedious work. Somehow I endured, through countless revisions and rejections, endless edits to my synopsis and multiple versions of my query letter. Still, no matter how prepared I felt, there was always a sense of dread after hitting send, releasing my work out into the world to be judged.

And there were many judgments made. Slowly they trickled in to my inbox, each highlighted in red on my spreadsheet, mocking me each time I opened the document. There was also the apprehension of how my work would be received, the horror stories of other writers warning me of the cold and impersonal nature of the query process. There were also the tragedies—yes—the offer that I never received, which I learned of long after the fact, and had been rescinded for lack of a response. Somewhere out there it became tangled in the web and siphoned of all its promise.

But there was one thing no one mentioned to me about the query process. Sure, it is daunting to approach established agents and publishers, knocking at their doors and asking for a moment of their precious time. The reception I received from many agents and publishers was far from cold, in fact it has been quite the opposite. There have been many rejections, but the feedback has also been generous. Many have been kind enough to offer a personal response, even compliments. I won’t mention any names, but to all the agents and publishers who responded, I give you wholehearted thanks. Each one of you made the process that much easier and offered a glimmer of hope during the process.

Are you still scared to query? Don’t be. Remember that writing is a people business. Today’s rejection and your response could open the door to tomorrow’s acceptance. Follow-up with your submissions when allowed, be professional and courteous, and always remember you are asking someone to invest in you and your writing.

It’s the people that make the business side of writing the pleasure it can be. As writers, we are always working to build relationships with our readers but shouldn’t neglect those relationships that bring us to our readers, namely those we develop with other writers, literary agents, and publishers. If you’re reading this, chances are that you’ve already surrounded yourself with fellow writers. It’s the first step in getting your work out there, and the solid support group needed to survive the wilderness of querying.

Querying isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be—it’s the step in the writing process that separates the writer from the hobbyist. It’s the first step in opening your work to criticism and learning how to accept that criticism—and the surest way to grow as a writer. Put your work out there. Forget the horror stories and prepare yourself to be amazed by the all the talent that exists within the world of writing and publishing.

As for my queries? Let’s just say it’s come to a happy ending. But that is another post all its own.

Happy writing,

H.A.

 

Topping Off

Writing dialogue is challenging. It can be painful. It is odd how something that occurs so naturally in our daily lives can be so constricting to our writing. Sometimes we, as writers, put far too much thought into the act. Dialogue that conveys a character’s demeanor or personality can be deceptively simple. So simple that we overthink it as we work through a scene.

Writing one evening, I decided to top-off my cup of coffee. That simple act brought me back to my sole stage experience. Somehow someone saw something in me – something that said “He’s the one,” where I was fortunate enough to be cast as Atticus Finch. My greenness illuminated the stage in those early rehearsals. It wasn’t my body language; I didn’t upstage myself or my fellow actors. No. It shone through in my dialogue, through the simple act of speech. Memorized lines spilled out of my mouth with dulling monotony. They were only broken up by the director constantly calling me out: “Don’t forget to top-off the dialogue!” Her frustration with me was evident.

The solution to my acting woes was something I now use in writing my dialogue to this day. I learned to top off my dialogue, to have a real conversation, not a rehearsed soliloquy of syllables.

Dialogue is conversation, real conversation that flows, and sometimes overlaps as the speakers anticipate one another. At times there are delays when questioned. Sure, dialogue plays other roles and is more than conversation – it builds characters and develops the story. But in the end it is conversation, and when written well, should show and tell without effort.

Sometimes the best way to break out a scene is to escape the writing desk to the real world.

The local coffee shop is my favorite hangout for this exercise, but it works anywhere. Take your spot, open the laptop, grab a cup and settle in. As people interact, take part in the conversation. Think on the fly and respond – anticipate their responses – because after all you are now part of the conversation. How would your character answer? This is the time to find out. As you do you’ll come to understand the pacing and formulation of natural dialogue, and work that in with the telling of your story. Many drafts later that scene will flesh itself out on the page as if it really happened.

Because, in a way, it really did.

Rebooting Atticus

There are some characters in literature possessing the uncanny ability to drive lasting social change. The most notable in American literature is perhaps none other than Atticus Finch. He is among those rare literary characters to have inspired many to enact social change, whether it was through activism, the pursuit of legal careers, or by simply allowing the readership to engage in a mindset allowing advances in social concerns to take hold.

The author, cast as Atticus Finch, in To Kill A Mockingbird.
The author, cast as Atticus Finch, in a stage production of To Kill A Mockingbird.

Whether or not a character such as Finch has his flaws is not being questioned. It can be argued that this character, bred of a pedigree tracing its roots deep in the antebellum South, allowed his own prejudices to beset his representation of Tom Robinson. However, Finch was the right character appearing at the exact moment needed to inspire a shift in mood because he could connect with white Americans on a level they understood.

The question to literature now is this: does a contemporary literary character exist with the potential to drive social change for the next fifty years, or longer? What is for certain is that, in America today, the time has come to shed the patriarchal voices of the past for those set to foster the seeds of progress planted over the past five decades. Slow to grow, these seeds have only begun to sprout, and seek a tender of their garden to ensure they do not fallow. The answer may be that there is not any one such character. Instead we may look to the multitude of voices flowering through the American literary scene to take the helm from the endpoint of Finch’s devotees.

There is a risk to putting forth a character that challenges societal comforts. Even the most liberal thinkers can fall into that comfort zone, oblivious to the protections afforded them through privilege of either race or class. The challenge then, to writers, is to take that risk and chance reputation for the opportunity to birth a character ready to move this nation into a deeper dialogue. The canon waits for those writers ready to recognize the power flowing through the pen, a power that is indeterminable until unleashed. Powerful as it may be, it is the risk that makes such an act not only a true mark of artistic merit, but a leap of faith by the writer not to abandon those words that have given rise to their story.

In 1960 that risk was taken. The rewards were immeasurable.

Descent of the Written Word

The written word is like a river, meandering and banked by the instrument at hand. Its headwaters are within the author, whose inspiration gives rise to its flow like in spring, the melting mountain snows. The words move at their own pace, staccato here and there, inspiration and inhibition forming the current of thought they embrace.
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