Thursday, November 16, 2017

Politics and Religion? Seriously?

Zestful Blog Post #238

Writer’s Digest magazine has just published a feature I wrote called “Should You Go There?” It concerns writing about politics and religion in your fiction—how to decide if you should do it, and how to handle it if you want to give it a go. As we in the U.S. are about to celebrate Thanksgiving—a holiday when families meet, eat, and sometimes squabble, I thought it would be appropriate to excerpt some of the article for today’s Zestful Writing post:

Most of us learn fairly early in life that starting a discussion about politics or religion with a stranger will lead to one of three things: cheerful agreement; silence ranging from uncomfortable to icy; disagreement ranging from mild contradiction to fisticuffs. The odds vary.

But what if you’re a writer of fiction? If your work gets out into the world, it/you will be ‘talking’ to strangers all the time.

Why do so many authors shy away from dealing with politics and religion? Several good reasons:

► Those subjects are loaded with strong emotion. Many of us picked up religious and political tenets at a young age—or rejected them. In maturity, you figure things out for yourself, and it can be a complex road.
► It’s hard to be well informed, and impossible to be perfectly informed. Nobody has witnessed every conflict, read every history book, examined every religious text, and prayed to every god.
► Religious and political references—especially political—can date a work of fiction. Which can be fine if you’re writing a Civil War romance and somebody swears “by the President’s beard!” But if you’re writing a contemporary novel and a character condemns “that guy in the White House”—well, in a year or few, nobody’s going to be sure who that character is talking about. And using the names of real political or religious leaders timestamps your work from the start.
► Readers can become alienated if they feel pressured or manipulated. They might also write a nasty review or ask for their money back.
► Doctrine can be tedious. Hammering on the rightness of your beliefs in your fiction—by putting your pet dogma into the mouths of your characters—gets predictable, and therefore boring, fast.

That’s the downside. What’s to be gained by embracing themes of religion/politics?

► Let’s say ten people read your book today. If five of them are either left cold or ticked off by your biases, you’ve risked losing them. However, if the five that remain are precisely the demographic you want, well, then, that’s different. When readers find an author whose work resonates with their ideology, they can become loyal, die-hard fans.
► If you lead an active, engaged life, you feel the impact of political ideas, of government, of the movements within your particular faith or of the movements within other faiths. Therefore, if you want to write about your world, you may feel moved to explore such themes in your art. After all, we artists are supposed to be pursuers of all things true and real. We must find things out for ourselves—and art is our vehicle.
► These themes, if done with sensitivity and restraint, can bring great depth and immediacy to fiction.

Let’s look at some fiction that successfully navigated these dual minefields—what they did, how they did it, and how you can do it too.

Realize that the issue is not by itself the story.

Upton Sinclair’s progressive-era novel The Jungle exposed the dreadful conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry around the turn of the 20th century. He hit lots of targets in this one, and became famous. But the reason the book sold so well was because he wrote a good story. The plot follows one man, a dirt-poor Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis Rudkus, as he makes his way into the dangerous ‘jungle’ of inhuman working conditions and slum life of his new country. Sinclair took pains to make Rudkus sympathetic—a good man caught in a nightmare of false promises and treachery. However, Rudkus does make mistakes. He permits wishful thinking to overcome his judgment, he takes to drink and self-pity—and thus is not entirely angelic, and not entirely blameless for his pain. Everyone can relate to this!
The takeaway: Trace the story of one person against the odds, and don’t make your hero unrealistically perfect for fear that readers will reject the story, saying, “Huh, look, he wasn’t as smart as he should have been.” Perceptive readers will not throw the baby of your story out with the bathwater of realism; they will appreciate reading about a flawed hero thrown against a series of challenges.
Also read: The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor, The Yellow Wallpaper (short story) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.


[Good old research can always help when tackling these subjects. Here be the reading room at the NY Public Library. How can such a grand place feel cozy at the same time?]

Challenge the status quo by seeming to support it.

Flannery O’Connor was, personally, as religious as they come, and religion infuses much of her work. But she never set out to tell readers what to believe. In the enduringly disturbing novel Wise Blood, she explores mysticism, madness, courage, and cowardice. Although the thirst for redemption is a major theme, O’Connor also rams home the ugly turns faith can take: hypocrisy, violent fanaticism, and self-justification/self-deception. The journeys of the disillusioned preacher Hazel Motes and the terrifyingly clueless and increasingly unhinged Enoch Emery are compelling for their unpredictability and backwoods brutality. Faith is questioned throughout, and answered in varying degrees of certitude. When one turns against one’s own tribe, humans know on a very elemental level that trouble is just around the corner.
The takeaway: Let your characters plunge down their spiritual paths, even if zealotry is the end game. Allow them crises of faith. In real life, believers question themselves; nonbelievers question themselves. A life-changing event can shake a foundation, or create one. Also, be aware that faith and religion are not one and the same. Characters can have lots of spiritual adventure figuring that out.
Also read: Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.

For the rest of the article, hike out to your local newsstand...

What do you think of exploring politics and religion in fiction—as a reader or a writer? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [Photo by ES.]

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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Guilt-Free Procrastination

Zestful Blog Post #237

No day in history has provided humans easier or more plentiful ways to waste time than the one we’re living now. I don’t have to begin to enumerate. Writers, I believe, are more vulnerable to time-wasting opportunities than other tribes, because OMG, blank pages. Therefore, anything we can do to save time and make life more efficient, we should do. And an easy way for a fiction writer to save time, have fun, and even procrastinate guilt-free (!), is investing an early chunk of time on character naming.

When you’ve got a fairly solid idea for a story or novel going, and you’re starting to flesh things out—either with an outline or just a bunch of pages of stormwriting—that’s the time to create a list of ready character names. Because it’s no good to keep writing ‘Cop A’ or ‘Politician B’ or even ‘Ingenue’ or ‘Hero.’ For one thing, it’s boring, and for another, there’s no personality to it. It’s like eating a handful of flour along with a raw egg and a little sugar, instead of cooking up a nice little pancake. Sure, you might create a name for a character only to later think of a better one. But at least start with some semblance of a usable name.

[This is what I think a Norwegian Elkhound probably looks like, or should.]

A name with a little possibility to it helps you visualize the character as you write. That’s valuable, because it helps you bring that character to life with more verve and efficiency. And for the same reasons it’s so easy to waste time these days, it’s never been easier to quickly come up with appropriate character names. You can search on popular Latino boys’ names, traditional Irish surnames, popular Norwegian Elkhound names (yes), American female names of the 1920s. Of course, if you want a character who is 25 years old in the 1920s, search names given to babies in the 1900s. You can get a surprising lot from just fifteen minutes’ worth of research. Which will stretch easily to half an hour. Come up with twice as many names as you think you’ll need, because minor characters. It’s a good investment.

The benefit is, when you start to write about a fictional person, you’ve got a list to glance at, choose something from, and keep going. No more discomfort with a generic non-name, and no more interrupting your flow to hurriedly think of a name to plug in, over and over. Then when your story is more firmed up, you can dig deeper and toy around with character names. And needless to say, any names you don’t use this time around might prove worthwhile the next.

Do you have any favorite strategies on character naming? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Good Practice for Writers

Zestful Blog Post #236

If you’re a writer, you’ve got a beautiful field of resources that will take you far beyond books on technique and motivation: the work of literary innovators. Reading literature that you find fabulous / moving / amusing / iconoclastic represents your continuing education. Here’s a good practice for a professional author:

-        Assemble a soft pencil, a sharpener, and a few index cards.
-        Get hold of a book you’re interested in.
-        Read it.
-        Underline passages of special interest and make notes as you go. (You’ll find that soft graphite is easier to erase if you ever want to, doesn’t dig into the pages, and is more pleasurable to use in general.) Write in the margins and on your cards. Make little stars and ticks next to passages you find inspiring, impressive, instructive.
-        If the book is wonderful, reread it, carefully.
-        Make further notes, or expand on the ones you have already.
-        If your book is not made of paper, use whatever digital tools you have at your disposal.
  

Am definitely a Blackwing fan. Sharpener hinge failed; repaired with duct tape. (Yeah, pink duct tape! Home Depot, I think.) 

Your notes will be different from anybody else’s notes. Your marginalia may express enthusiasm, surprise, skepticism, or humility. You won’t remember everything about the book, or everything about your notes. But here's the thing. The very act of attending to the book this closely will feed and build your inner well of creativity, facility with words, and understanding. This is one of those things that are good to do for the sake of the thing itself. Sure, you can read a book just for kicks. But it doesn’t take much more effort to really learn from it. This is also known as scholarship. And that's all there is to it.

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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