Stephen S. Hall’s recent article, “Last of the Neanderthals” http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/10/neanderthals/hall-text
in the September issue of National Geographic suggests we still have more questions than answers about Neanderthals. Were their tools more than rudimentary, did they paint with colorful pigments, or simply use black, did they ornament their bodies with bone or ivory, and the biggest mystery of all: did they mate with Homo sapiens? In fact, their brain volume was, on average, slightly larger than ours today.
My previous impression of Neanderthals consisted of speechless lumbering ogre-like creatures. Evolution’s misstep. But even the reasons for their demise are mysteries. Were they hunted to extinction? Did they die out because they were less advanced, less clever? What the hell happened to the Neanderthals?
I mention this because last night I shoveled the sidewalk and driveway three times, even as the snow continued to fall, and cars continued to get stuck, fish tail, slam into snow banks, slide backwards on the Maple Street Hill and generally disappoint their drivers. Wearing gloves, Goretex boots, a down coat layered over my fleece, I ached with cold. My fingers stiff and burning when I finally came inside. The snow is still falling. We’re all indoors with the heat going, and our slippers on, sipping hot beverages. Civilized. Safe. The storm just so much scenery on the landscape.Read More
One of the reasons that I dig the animated Sleeping Beauty is that Maleficent is such a great villain. She has horns and a fabulous voice and calls upon all the forces of hell to transform into a medieval dragon. Love it.
Or Peter Lorre playing a freaky child killer in M, a beautifully shot German film from 1931.
The villains that really get to me play their roles with such delight, because they have conviction. And this is the most troubling thing about them: they believe they’re doing the right thing. They believe they are righteous.
Think of Geoffrey Rush in Elizabeth as the advisor Walsingham. The dude was seriously frightening. And more than anything it was in his eyes—the pierce of them.
So often, in modern literature, the flawed hero is the stand in for the villain. Your own worst enemy logic. Or some corporation or government agency with a series of insinuating characters to provide an evil face, like the Smoking Man in X Files.
I’ve been thinking about villains because I really don’t want to murder anyone. In this new novel, I’ve decided to have my teenaged protagonist struggle against a different kind of conviction. Because the righteous are everywhere, and rarely do they wear black hats.Read More
I was one of those kids who lectured for her stuffed animals. I’d line them up on the bed, and the chairs, and on the sofa, and use the chalkboard at the front of the “class” to illustrate my lessons. Arithmetic and spelling exercises, story time, History, flashcards, lots of lectures on animals since I planned to be a veterinarian (and many of my pupils were animals).
From the second grade, I wrote stories, and newspapers, and handed them out to the neighborhood kids. I conducted interviews and wrote editorials. To my pets, and stuffed animals, and little brother, and all the kids in the neighborhood, I told the most fantastic stories. The thief who lived in the moon. The crocodile who slept every night under my bed, but had once been a girl who could fly.
I invented lives for everyone and everything: the kids and their families, our buick, my bicycle, the stuffed dog we’d bought in London, the smokestacks in the industrial part of Mainz. When I was frightened, I told myself stories. Stories of my valor, and triumph. Stories of my tragic and notorious death. Stories of my crimes.
Do all children do this?
And if so, does it stop for some children? The ones who become bankers and lawyers and business executives? I’m not talking about the kind of self-delusion humans use to get themselves through the meaningless busy work of cubicle life. I’m talking about the world of invention. A place where everything–everything!–is alive with possibility. Endless and animated possibility.
Do you know it? Do you remember?Read More
In a Greek History class in college, the professor had us read the Iliad and Odyssey, and we’d discuss the cultural clues to Greek life apparent in the text. That class happened to coincide with Latin where we were translating myths and poems and speeches. The overlap was startling. Since it was Latin 101, we were only working with fragments of text: shards of story, and because it was Latin, these were frequently re-interpretations of the Greek myths. At the same time, I read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Steinbeck is tender with his characters, their sad lives, their seeking, and each of their stories is important, interconnected to the others. Another step again.
I began to think of story as it moved from its oral mode—the minstrel, the wandering storyteller, the instructive and theatrical aspect of story—to works like Canterbury Tales and the Decameron, the tales of pilgrimage, and story as entertainment, and the first hints of characterization. Or to make a more drastic time leap: how the Moderns could not have written their books if the Victorians hadn’t written theirs. Writers had to learn that everyone has a story, and each of these stories has some appeal before they could learn to delve so deeply into a particular consciousness that they could examine every aspect of character, identity, self. The part as a sliver of the whole, yes, but you must build the whole first, in order to shatter it.
I am thinking of Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus. Set on a plantation in Australia, the landowner’s beautiful daughter will marry the person that names every species of tree on the property. A degrading venture, and a mythological one. The book is an exploration of the power of language and name and love. How we are bound to place and home, and how we are free to imagine something different. How story will save us.Read More
I got sick when I was twenty-five. Actually, the story must begin differently. I want to tell about the time I went to Pipeline, my first summer in Hawaii, with my family and some of our friends. I’d swum out maybe twenty feet when a wave rolled me, and held me under. I came up in time to be nailed and pinned by another. Over and over. I’d fight up in time to be taken down again. How long this went on, I’m no judge. Finally, I realized I’d have to go down rather than up. I swam down, against every instinct, felt the sand, dug in, and dragged myself out. I might have been six feet from the beach. No one had noticed I’d been gone. No one had noticed anything.
So, I’m twenty-five, explaining symptoms to doctors, who tell me that it’s probably just stress, but they’ll run some tests. Then I’m sent to specialists for more conversation, more tests, different drugs. The dialogue always begins with, “It’s probably just stress.” I hear them, of course, saying that it’s my head that’s sick and not my body. But even as they’re saying this, the tests and procedures keep finding blood where it shouldn’t be. Ulcerations. Spasms. Faulty mechanisms. This kind of thing.
I see an acupuncturist. Practice yoga. Meditation. Search for my calm. I read an article in the New Yorker about hypochondriacs. Worry I am one of these. Vegan, I have given up alcohol, and for a time, gluten. I have kept food diaries.
When I am twenty-eight, my anger is volcanic. My mutinous body. This thing must have a name. This thing must be named. And I go to a specialist on my own. He listens very quietly, and then, as he begins his examination, he talks to me about Kurt Vonnegut. I am instantly calm. We are discussing literature. Everything is new.
A month later I have had a surgery that is painful beyond expression. A recovery that will require months. I will lose weight I cannot spare. It will be weeks before I can sit without trembling, sweating. By January, three months after the surgery, I can walk the dogs for forty minutes, only pausing once to catch my breath.
In February, I return to my regular doctor. Tell her that I am sleeping twelve hours a day, have dropped back to part-time at work. I ask for a blood test. She has my file in her hands, knows all they have found, and what has happened to me medically. An intern is in the room with her: tall, blond, too young. My doctor looks up from my file, to smile at me, and say, “Tiredness is the number one complaint among young women.”
And it is clear to me, as instantly as that day at Pipeline when I knew to swim down. The doctor orders a blood test, though the test misses what I know. What I am certain of. On the way home, I stop at the grocers. Buy a test.
My mutinous body. Oh, my marvelous mutinous body. My son was born in October of that year.Read More
One mind: I’m the middle child of modern feminism. My older sisters broke ground, are radical, and kind of stiff, and like to give lectures. My younger sisters are dressing like Johnny Rotten and can take their girlfriends to prom with the wholehearted approval of their parents, teachers, and peers. And me, I keep my head down and work jobs alongside guys for the same wage and vote and play competitive sports. The assumption has always been that I can do whatever I have a mind to.
The other mind: Sure, it’s exactly like that. Good work with the historical detail. And now we have nothing to strive toward, is that your argument? We’re all good with equality in marriage, and adoption, and foster parenting. Women pay the same as men for comparable health insurance. No one ever harasses you about having a girlfriend.
One mind: Of course there’s work to be done. I’m just trying to figure out how I fit in. LGBTQI sounds like the artist formerly known as prince to me.
The other mind: It’s an effort to be inclusive.
One mind: Right, this box is bigger than that one.
The other mind: So find another way to think about it.
One mind: But this is my problem. I don’t even have a language for my struggle. I’ve always identified as bisexual, and taken criticism from everybody.
The other mind: Can you blame them? Pick a side already. You want to have your cock, and eat cunt too.
One mind: Don’t make me laugh. I’m upset.
The other mind: I get that. You’re upset because your language is failing you.
One mind: The old stories don’t apply to me. They aren’t about my experience.
The other mind: Write new stories. Ignore your lizard brain tendencies of dark=monster and cold=starve and write new stories.
One mind: Ignore context?
The other mind: Much as you are already.
One mind: And then?
The other mind: Start here, right? And walk until you’re there. Once you’re there, walk a little further.
One mind: Baby steps? This is your strategy?
The other mind: Ground gained is gained ground.
One mind: A bigger box.
The other mind: Think of it as a garden. Another few inches for the zucchini.Read More
Brooke is a fan of the StoryPeople. For a while, I couldn’t think of them without thinking of her, and this made it impossible for me to consider them objectively. This last week, while she was out of school, we found a box of StoryPeople prints at a store, and panned through them. Whimsical, sentimental, new agey, clever. I found myself enjoying many of them.
Previously, I had been discussing bounded rationalism with a friend, and struggling against this theory of the limitations to our rational problem-solving capabilities as humans. This dude Simon posits that humans are not only limited by their own minds, but by external considerations like time and opportunity. In any given situation, we will consider multiple solutions to a problem, but rarely will these solutions be exhaustive, or even the best solutions.
Yeah, maybe. But maybe the best of us is evident in our limitations. Our shortcomings. Our failure of imagination. If we could think of everything all at once all the time, what would be the point of relationships and seeking and love? Our tumbles, our frailty, these are the moments I love. The unrelenting weakness in us, that cannot ever get it quite right, but carries on anyway.
Bett Norris shared this poem with me this morning. It’s a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and illustrates my point. Rationalism is all well and good, but frequently beside the point.
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food. It well may be.
I do not think I would.
We tell ourselves stories. Stories of our own achievement, of our limitations, of our potential. Stories to keep the monsters in the shadows on the walk home at night. Stories of love and devotion, stories of the winner in a particular argument, stories of our parents’ betrayal, stories of our cowardice. I’m too inexperienced. I’m too old. I’m not ready. I’m not good enough. We have myths of a garden, of spring, of a flood, of harvest and death. We have myths for the birds and horses, for snakes and spiders. We have myths for ourselves, a past of heartache and disappointment, or acclaim long forgotten.
The stir of it—of story—is everywhere. Pregnancy and physiology exams, grant awards and experimentations in the second person. It’s a time of incongruity: Percy Jackson, modern demigod, grappling with a Cyclops on an island off the coast of Florida; the crew of the spaceship Serenity, 500 years in the future, riding horses on an outpost planet.
The past, lifting you in its weary arms, and trudging forward, whispering a tale of what is to come.Read More
This month on the New Yorker podcast, A.M. Homes reads The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. Homes calls Jackson’s piece an iconic American story. Why American? Because the writer’s American? Because the work is read prevalently in America?
I read The Lottery in junior high, high school, and college. Like Wuthering Heights, it was part of the curriculum of each new school. Unlike Wuthering Heights—a pubescent, overblown work—I’ve always found The Lottery deeply unsettling. And hearing Homes read it, I found it particularly creepy. In spite of the fact that I know how it will end, what each masterful detail builds to, in spite of that, I hear it in a new way each time. As a teenager, the rage and hypocrisy were the most striking elements. In the story I saw the dangerous girls in the hallways, the ones who yanked out chunks of one another’s hair, or tore skin from each other’s faces in fights it took several boys to break up. I saw every church my dad had ever pastored. The twisted lies of inclusiveness and neighbors.
Now I’m struck by the use of the word “village” and the youngest son being given a handful of pebbles so that he, too, can participate in the ritual. But why American? It’s a human story, surely. And when I was a teenager, I saw each of us in it: Romans, conquistadors, Puritans, townships and community centers, every sailor who screwed a Tahitian woman in exchange for a nail.
I hope to be other, but I know better. There is no other. Only this. A black box with scraps of paper. A drawing. An army of boys with machetes. Another rape camp. Female circumcision. Rituals we call archaic, but allow to be perpetuated.
There is no other. As a kid, I had nothing but conviction that I would never participate in such brutality. Never join.
On the trail as I listened to Homes read the story, I found myself thinking, improbably, of high school basketball. The coach who made us run suicides on the court for an hour, and then, when two of the girls fell and stayed down, she let us drink water, walk for three minutes, and then sent us around the court for another hour. The last girl having to race to the front of the line lap after lap. How, at sixteen, I hated that woman. Cursed her under my breath at practice, and loudly anywhere else. How we despised the weak ones among us, who couldn’t keep up, who made mistakes that drew out the laps. How we all returned, day after day, for every brutal four-hour session. How we took it as discipline, as purposeful hardship, as a team.
Val McDermid said that characters don’t tell stories, writers do. And, of course, this is true. The characters are a writer’s creation, after all. But, my impulse to bicker with this statement comes from a difference in writer brain. I’m going to divide writers neatly into two categories: those who write to plot/structure, and those whose work is character-driven. McDermid, a mystery writer of intricate, layered plots, is the first. I’m the second. Is there overlap? Of course. Mysteries don’t matter if you’re not interested in the character, and character-stories die without a good plot. I’m simplifying matters to get to my point.
My point: my characters surprise me. They’re mine, I invented them, they are a product of my imagination, but they surprise me. During the re-write, one of my characters relayed a memory that startled me. I just sat there, staring at the monitor, re-reading her confession. I typed it, and so it came from my brain, but still, I wasn’t conscious of it. I didn’t deliberately set out to relay this memory. I’ll be sweeping, or booking bank statements or walking the dogs when I hear a conversation between two of them. That’s how it feels, like eavesdropping, like they have lives beyond what I have created for them. And isn’t that art? Shouldn’t the creation exist beyond the scope of the creator? Even, perhaps, from its inception.
A couple of years ago, I had an idea I was excited about, and a character with a fascinating back story, and tension, and conflict, etc. I sat down to write her and she just wanted to sit in her living room reading magazines and smoking. It took weeks before I gave up on her. She wouldn’t budge.
For me, writing is less like being god, and more like being mom. I hope the best for you, I nurture and love you. But, in the end, your choices are as important as mine are.Read More