The Writer’s Essential Tool: Curiosity

Question

photo: Barney Moss, creative commons license

Award-winning fiction author (and fellow U-Mich alumna) Danielle Lazarin’s recent Glimmer Train essay tells how she probes the depths of her characters and their dilemmas by questioning everything, large and small, from the shape of a character’s existential dilemmas to what she wants to be called and by whom. The scribbled questions that litter her writing notebooks, she says, “aren’t signs of confusion or desperation but of sufficient curiosity on my part to propel a story forward.” Curiosity that manifests itself as questions.

In New York City recently, we took two tours. A robotic one that sounded as if it never deviated from the memorized script by so much as a syllable and one from a young guide at the Tenement Museum who was introducing her group to three post World War II families who’d shared a specific two-bedroom apartment.

She asked lots of questions. How did the Jewish couple manage to instill a sense of family tradition in their daughters, being the only ones left from their families? Why did the Puerto Rican mother insist her sons start the pot of beans on the stove when they got home from school? How did the four children of the Chinese family manage to all study (and graduate from high school and college) at the same tiny desk? While our first guide seemed notably uncurious, everything about those families’ lives interested this second guide. She was a perfect illustration of the interrogatory mind-set Lazarin endorses.

When a story idea seems too preposterous, Lazarin expresses it as a question, “easing myself into a space I’m likely afraid of exploring.” The question mark asserts her tentativeness toward the idea that makes it more comfortable. She can “sit with it and remain skeptical.” That idea leads to further questions about the how and the why, as she excavates layers of meaning and the detail that make them real. Two-time Booker Award-winner Hilary Mantel has said that when she’s having trouble capturing a character she imagines interviewing them.

As I write, I compile a list of all the questions I believe the story has raised, large and small. Reviewing this inventory of questions from time to time may suggest where the story needs to go next, how different characters coming at the situation from their different perspectives—and their own knowledge and, indeed, questions—can interact, reinforce, or thwart each other in unexpected ways. When I reach the end, I check to make sure all the questions have been addressed.

While stories generally answer the specific questions they raise, Lazarin says a story also asks a fundamental question of the reader that invites a personal response. Examples she cites are: do people require hope; how do we grieve; why do we continue to disappoint others? The author cannot “answer” that question without coming across as polemical; readers must arrive at their own, individual responses. Careful attention to all the questions integral to the story, Lazarin believes, can “take readers into a space where they can ask the big questions, too.”

Danielle Lazarin’s book of short stories, Back Talk, was released earlier this year to stunning reviews.

ICYMI: American Folk Art Museum

American Folk Art MuseumThe free American Folk Art Museum at 2 Lincoln Square, shares its modestly sized space with the Manhattan temple of the Church of Latter Day Saints, across from Lincoln Center on Columbus Avenue at 66th Street. This location is one of the Museum’s two outposts. The other, in Long Island City, displays items from the permanent collection, whereas the Manhattan space has  rotating exhibitions.

When we visited recently, the exhibit was a fascinating display of “self-taught” art, along with the artists’ written commentaries about their work. Twenty-one artists from the United States and numerous other countries are represented, and the exhibition will be on display until May 27.

What the works have in common, over space and time, is the intensity and focus of the artistic vision applied. Many of the artists struggled with mental illness and art may have been a way of coping with and an expression of their challenges. Collectively, the exhibition catalog says, the artists through both their works and what they say about them demonstrate the “idiosyncratic structure of their lifelong, intricate, and nonlinear narratives.”

The first set of pencil drawings we examined, by artist James Edward Deeds, Jr. (1908-1987), was mounted so you could see both sides of the paper on which his drawings of steamboats, horse-drawn carts, and circus wagons were created. The paper on which they were created was unused forms from the state mental institution where he lived for 37 years. A few years after Deeds’s death, a curious teenager rescued the artist’s 283 drawings from the trash.

I was drawn to a display of more than a hundred 8 x 10-inch topographical drawings and paintings fitted together like a map—“Journey to Another Dimension” (photo below)—by Michigan artist Jerry Gretzinger, The full set of almost 3500 of these panels could cover the floor of a basketball court and has been shown in its entirety only once (on the floor of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). A fascinating video shows Gretzinger talking about his elaborate, random process for revising individual panels, which allows for organic change in the set.

There’s a group of 80-year-old drawings of children by Henry Darger (one is featured on the Museum website) that at first look playful until you read the captions; Spanish artist Josep Baqué’s fantastical creatures; and a pattern on paper that looks like dots. The museum conveniently offers a powerful magnifying glass to let you see the dots are very, very teensy words.

It’s fair to say that all the works were intriguing, some even startling, but perhaps not as much as the inspired minds behind them. I hope to go back regularly to see what this museum is up to! A fantastic gift shop, BTW.

Gretzinger Map

photo: Nicholas Helmholdt

The Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Academy Award, Oscar

(photo: David Torcivia, creative commons license)

Do whatever it takes to see the short documentary films nominated for Academy Awards this year! All five involve thought-provoking situations and introduce you to some remarkable Americans.

Traffic Stop (Kate Davis & David Heilbroner for HBO, 30 minutes)
The filmmakers gain access to police dashboard camera footage showing a white Austin, Texas, policeman aggressively subduing a black woman stopped for speeding. He loses it. She loses it. The woman, Breaion King, is an elementary schoolteacher, and we see her in the classroom and in her dance class, and learn what kind of person she is. I wish we had the same 360° picture of the officer. Even so, it’s complicated, with tons of subtext. (See it here.)

Edith + Eddie (Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wrights, 29 minutes)
This film should be marketed as a cure for low blood pressure (trailer). The filmmakers were recording a charming pair of 95-year-old Alexandria, Virginia, newlyweds just as their lives fell apart. A daughter living in Florida finagled a court-appointed guardianship for her mother, and the guardian—paid out of Edith’s estate—demanded that the elderly woman be flown to Florida against her will “for evaluation.” The guardian concluded without seeing Edith that she was not safe living in her own home with her husband. (More about this hair-raising issue here.)

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (Frank Stiefel, 40 minutes)
In this extraordinary film portrait, artist Mindy Alper describes her struggles with mental illness and her commitment to pursue her art. Both through her art and in fascinating, surprisingly upbeat interviews, she communicates in a unique way. She has had a succession of gifted teachers to support her artistic development, and the film shows preparations for a gallery show of her work. One piece, a large papier-mâché portrait of her therapist, brought tears to my eyes for the compassion and love it shows. (See the documentary here.)

Heroin(e) (Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon for Neflix and the Center for Investigative Reporting, 39 minutes)
Huntington, West Virginia, is the epicenter of U.S. heroin drug deaths, and this film (find the trailer here; view the film on Netflix) shows three heroic women fighting for the community. Jan Rader, a nurse and EMT, attends five or six overdose cases almost daily. Thanks to Narcan, not all are fatal. The city’s drug court is presided over by judge Patricia Keller, both compassionate and no-nonsense. Her goal is to get people back on track, whatever way she can. Necia Freeman started her “brown bag ministry” to help women selling their bodies for drugs. All three are amazing rays of hope in a devastating situation. (More about West Virginia’s epidemic here.)

Edwin's, restaurantKnife Skills (Thomas Lennon, 40 minutes)
The Cleveland restaurant, Edwin’s, and its culinary training school were started by Brandon Chrostowski (see the documentary here). He had early brushes with the law and used a judge’s second chance to turn his life around. Edwin’s hires former prison inmates and trains them for jobs in the kitchen and front-of-house. It trains about 100 ex-prisoners a year, who are taught the fine points of haut cuisine and learn about wines and cheeses. This kitchen is not three guys with a microwave, it’s chopping  and deboning and saucing and plating, and the workers mostly love it. So do Cleveland diners. Oh, and recidivism rates among Edwin’s trainees? Extremely low.

The Rouge: Industrial Architecture Icon

The Rouge, Michael Kenna

photo used wall-size to open the exhibit – © Michael Kenna

The Princeton University Art Museum’s exhibit of evocative photos of the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, remains on display through February 11. British photographer Michael Kenna became enamored of the Rouge in the early 1990s—past the time when auto manufacturing there was at its peak. At that time and before automation, the plant employed some 100,000 workers a day—including my grandfather, his neighbors, and several of my uncles.

Kenna especially liked to photograph the Rouge at night and in frigid weather, when the temperature turns the heat and steam into clouds whose buoyancy contrasts with the solidity of the structures. The museum has a large collection of these photographs, which, in documenting this famous landmark by industrial architect Albert Kahn (“the architect of Detroit”), shows today’s Rouge and its “complicated status as a symbol of industrial decay and endurance.”

The Rouge was a mile long and took in raw materials from massive Great Lakes freighters at one end, and finished automobiles rolled out the other. It had its own steel- and glass-making plants, and its eight-towered Powerhouse produced enough electricity to serve a city of a million residents. My grandfather walked to work at the Rouge every day, and my father and his sibs swam in the Rouge River (not recommended).

As Kenna photographed, “Parts of the Rouge were active and quite dangerous with moving cranes, trains, and enormous containers of molten steel and slag. Other parts were disused and quiet, rusting and decaying, with vegetation growing in and around long-abandoned machinery.” Some of the vegetation is purposeful. Land around the Rouge has been turned into sunflower fields, with the flower-heads harvested to make oil that is used in today’s manufacturing processes.

It isn’t a huge exhibit, but the photos are so powerful, you can almost smell hot metal and hear the hissing steam and clanking machinery.

Can Robots Write Science Fiction?

pen, writing

photosteve101, creative commons license

Canadian writer Stephen Marche presented the results of his recent experience with “algorithm-guided” writing in a short story published recently in Wired (December 2017). The algorithm was developed by the research team of Adam Hammond and Julian Brooke, who use big data to illuminate linguistic issues. We know automated processes have been writing newspaper stories for some time, so far only basic business and sports stories, using a program developed by another Hammond, Kris. But pure creative work, Lit-ra-ture?

In a nutshell, Marche collected 50 science fiction short stories he admires and gave them to the researchers. Their software analyzed the stories for style and structure, then gave Marche information on what they have in common.

Could this advice help him write a better story?

The analysts first presented Marche with style guidelines to bring the new story he was writing into closer sync with his 50 favorites. Examples of such general guidelines are:

  • There have to be four speaking characters
  • 26% of the text has to be dialog

From there, the analysts developed 14 very specific rules to govern the new story’s content. The usefulness of the rules, though, depended totally on the 50 stories he selected. One rule encouraged greater use of adverbs and even set a quota for the number of adverbs needed in every 100 words of text. That rule probably reflects that, among the 50 stories, were several from decades ago, when adverbs were less frowned upon by editorial tastemakers. Choosing only contemporary stories would probably eliminate that prescription.

Similarly, another rule limited the amount of dialog that should come from female characters—another artifact of an earlier era, one hopes. This, even though the late Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” was included and stories written by women divide dialog almost equally between male and female characters. Those by men (at least the ones he close) clearly do not. Marche was limited to 16.1%.

What did the algorithm “think” of his story?

Marche wrote a draft of his story, submitted it to his electronic critique group of one, and began to revise. As he worked on it, the software flagged areas—words even—in red or purple where Marche violated the rules, turning green when he fixed it properly. (Sounds soul-crushing, doesn’t it?) Marche says, “My number of literary words was apparently too high, so I had to go through the story replacing words like scarlet with words like red.”

I particularly admire Rule Number Six: “Include a pivotal scene in which a group of people escape from a building at night at high speed in a high tech vehicle made of metal and glass.” Could authors reverse-engineer these rules to help them avoid cliché situations and themes? Would it be possible to violate all of them, consistently? Bring new meaning to the phrase “purple prose”?

Submitted to two real-life editors, Marche’s story was panned as full of unnecessary detail (those adverbs again) and implausible dialog—I guess because the women didn’t speak—and pegged as “pedestrian” and “not writerly.”

Marche’s human editor was more upbeat: “The fact that it’s really not that bad is kind of remarkable.” You can read the results here and decide for yourself. But the fact the software could be helpful at all has me watching my back!

The Cheese Course

Cheese pairings

Recently, I took a local class on cheese appreciation. Great, something where I already have skills! Having a husband from Wisconsin, how could I not be? Look up Olsson’s Fine Foods online and you’ll find that the owner, Dutchman Rudie Smit, teaches numerous cheese appreciation and cheese-making classes. He’s a fount of knowledge and lot of fun. Highly recommended.

Our small group of enthusiasts learned the history of cheese—which became popular in part because the originating people from the Tigris-Euphrates area were lactose-intolerant, and cheese is easier to digest than plain milk—why certain cheeses are the way they are, how to pair them with wine or with sweet and savory accompaniments, and how to design an appealing cheese plate. This came in very handy over the holidays, when I inflicted elaborate cheese plates on a succession of dinner parties.

But who would have thought the class would provide inspiration for my crime-writing? Such as:

  • What really happened up when Pietr was alone up at the mountain hut, supposedly making the cheese?
  • Did Lady Fauxpas seal her fate when she insisted blue cheese be served with the bottle of fine champagne?
  • Where was the characteristic tweed pattern on the rind of the “manchego” that poisoned G. Lutton?

You see the possibilities. Say cheese!

The Craftsman

Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665

The world premiere of Bruce Graham’s play The Craftsman, held over until December 17 at the Lantern Theater Company in Center City Philadelphia, explores a thought-provoking dilemma from the fine art world.

You may remember the post-World War II scandal created by an exceedingly minor Dutch artist (Han van Meegeren) charged with high treason for stealing his country’s cultural heritage. He’d sold hitherto undiscovered paintings by Johannes Vermeer out of the country, one of them to German Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. The crime was the more heinous because of the very small number of Vermeer’s works. Only 34 of his confirmed paintings survive.

At his trial, Van Meegeren mounted an unexpected and now-famous defense that shook the art worlds in The Netherlands and beyond. He claimed he painted the “Vermeers” he sold himself. The critics who’d authenticated the works wouldn’t back down, making the trial a legendary showdown.

The Craftsman, directed by M. Craig Getting, covers the arrest of van Meegeren (played expertly by Anthony Lawton) by former Dutch Resistance officer, Joseph Pillel (Ian Merrill Peakes), flashbacks of the scathing criticism of van Meegeren’s own work by noted art critic Abraham Bredius (Paul L. Nolan), and the trial.

In this small theater, a clever L-shaped set, designed by Meghan Jones, effectively works as van Meegeren’s cell, Pillel’s office, and the courtroom. Janelle Kauffman designed projections of Vermeer’s paintings and the disputed works that turn the walls into an art gallery, enabling the audience to consider for itself the controversies the case raises.

If you saw the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, you will recall that Vermeer’s characteristic style, as the “master of light,” has engendered admiration for hundreds of years, and special exhibitions of Vermeer’s paintings draw record crowds.

By exploring the van Meegeren episode, The Craftsman asks a series of interesting questions: “what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer?”; what are the limits of connoisseurship (a timely question, given the recent $450 million sale of a painting that may or may not be by Leonardo da Vinci); and, for that matter, how is the value of any creative work established?

Can’t Get to Philly?

The Art of Forgery, by Noah Charney, profiles van Meegeren’s escapade, and many other famous forgeries throughout history, reviewed here.

Tim’s Vermeer, an entertaining documentary about how a non-artist used a camera obscura in an attempt to duplicate Johannes Vermeer’s technique, reviewed here.

Girl with a Pearl Earring: A Novel, by Tracy Chevalier, a romance about Vermeer’s most famous painting; made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson.

Good Storytelling Works, Regardless of Genre

draft

photo: Sebastien Wiertz, creative commons license

Genre fiction is no longer disparaged as the poor stepchild to literary (i.e., “real”) fiction. In some ways, writing it can be harder. Jennifer Kitses for LitHub recently discussed why genre fiction is not necessarily easier to create and, more to the point, what lessons it teaches all writers.

The elements of noir she thought of as genre-specific—“high-stakes encounters, a mystery to solve, a protagonist in danger”—are key elements of good storytelling, regardless of genre, she says.

Readers of this blog will recognize in her words the sentiment of late Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, which appear on my website’s home page: “Every good story has a mystery in it.” Think Hamlet—a murder and a ghost story. Think Macbeth—a murder and an inciting female. Think the Greeks.

Kitses cites seven lessons from attempting her own crime novel:

1) don’t be afraid of adding tension – and remember that what ramps up the tension is not necessarily some violent episode. It can be a character’s own ongoing situation. A perfect example is Gin Phillips’s recent Fierce Kingdom, in which the tension is almost unbearable, while all the protagonist is doing is hiding herself and her four-year-old behind a rock. That situation may be internal, as when Melissa Scrivner Love’s Lola has to turn on her own brother.

2) give the reader a chance to breathe. Personally, I had to put Gin Phillips’s book down from time to time because of 1). This is one aspect of pacing, and many authors give their readers a break by introducing humor, typically among the detectives or with secondary characters. Tami Hoag is excellent at this in her Kovac and Liska novels.

3) chapter endings shouldn’t feel like endings. The last lines of one chapter should carry your readers into the next, keeping their curiosity piqued through artful (not cheesy!) cliffhangers.

4) let your reader know whom to root for. Thrillers commonly use multiple points-of-view to present the story. Poorly handled, that can dilute your readers’ focus. Tammy Cohen’s recent They All Fall Down keeps her character Hannah front and center by writing the chapters from her point of view in the first person, whereas chapters from other points of view are third-person, filtered through the narrator’s voice.

5) love your secondary characters. It’s great when they’re real, and not just moved onto stage like cardboard cut-outs. Nick Petrie’s character Lewis is a good example; I grinned when he showed up in Petrie’s second novel, Burning Bright. SO glad to see him again!

6) keep research in perspective. Research can be a way to avoid actual writing. Because I like research, I have to avoid the Too-Much-Already quicksand. What works for me is to do enough to start sparking ideas. After that, I confine myself to just-in-time research as I go along. When you do begin to write, your reader doesn’t need every detail. Feel free to hit the highlights and feel confident about the firm base underneath.

7) remember you’re writing fiction – just jettison plot developments that aren’t working. Characters too. I’ve swept up

characters from the cutting-room floor and put them in short stories. Lessens the pain.

How to Write: Chair, Door, Goal . . . Truth

typing

photo: Kiran Foster, creative commons license

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft describes how this mega-best-selling author became a writer. Along the way, he gives common sense advice about writing that benefit anyone seriously interested in becoming a better author. The process he follows is just the start, and here it is.

Like most people who dispense advice to the novice, he emphasizes the virtue of writing every day, despite the pull of other responsibilities and distractions. Otherwise, he says, “the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people . . . the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade.” The excitement King talks about is what gets me out of bed every morning before six.

He also insists that you shut the office door, “your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business.” Eliminate distractions—phones, beeping email alerts, insistent cats—anything that takes you away from the page. In my case, cats.

Goals are important, King thinks, and he tries to write 10 pages a day—about 2000 words. I’m a fan of powering through and getting a completed draft. I try not to get mired in all the inevitable issues and lapses and problems, but fix them in rewrite. Maybe make a note of them, if I see them, so my mind lets them go, and I can move on.

Ass-in-chair, closed door, goal. Adhering to these basics, King believes, makes writing easier over time. “Don’t wait for the muse to come,” he says, write. So many would-be authors talk to me about needing inspiration, as if it sprinkles down from the clouds rather than up from the mind’s carefully plowed field. King says, “Your job is make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day.”

By the time we’re adults, lots of other people’s words, many not very good, have passed into our brains from books, tv, and movies. When a phrase or scene comes too easily for me, almost unconsciously, my mind is simply replaying someone else’s words—they’re not original any more. In my story, they’re false.

So now King gets to the hard part. You have to tell the truth. Your story’s truth. “The job of fiction,” he says, “is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies.” Even when we love the characters in a book and we really, really don’t want it to end, if the book has told the truth, we feel satisfied when we turn that last page.

Despite how hard it may be to find and express a story’s truth, King says that even the worst three hours he ever spent writing “were still pretty damned good.”

Travel Tips: Central Ohio Destinations

A recent two-day visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park (never heard of it? You’re not alone!) was the perfect jumping off place for several other lesser-known attractions in the Ohio Region.

Warren G. Harding Tomb & Home

Harding home - Marion Ohio

photo: uberdadofthree, creative commons license

Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding ran a “front-porch” campaign from his Marion, Ohio, home, giving speeches—newly enfranchised women, laborers, African-Americans, Native Americans, and many other citizen groups—numbering as many as ten thousand individuals at a time. They arrived by train to undoubtedly overwhelm this small town. His neighbors rapidly saw the opportunity, however, and set up lemonade and baked-goods stands.

Years before, when he was 18 years old, he’d bought a struggling local newspaper with three friends. He made a success of it and was a prominent newspaperman before running for state and national office.

A handsome man, he was notoriously unfaithful to his wife, Florence Kling, five years older than he. In recent years, DNA testing has proved that he fathered an illegitimate child and disproved the persistent rumor that his great-grandmother was African-American.

The origin of the phrase “the smoke-filled room” as a place where political decisions are made refers to how he was selected to receive the Republican party’s 1920 presidential nomination. Many considered him a weak candidate, and his reputation has been further tarnished by numerous scandals in his administration (Teapot Dome scandal being the best known), the extent of which emerged only after his death.

Harding died in 1923, partway into his first term, and was buried in an elaborate tomb at the city’s cemetery, with Florence now alongside him. A sign says the tomb is maintained by a local technical college, but the grass inside was in need of cutting and weeding. It was shameful, really.

The Mazza Museum

University of Findlay, Ohio

photo: Alvin Trusty, creative commons license

About an hour north of Marion is Findlay, Ohio, home of the University of Findlay, a private liberal arts college with more than 4,000 students. Its best-known programs are in education and equestrian studies [!].

In keeping with the campus’s emphasis on education, its Mazza Museum houses what at first may seem an unusual collection: artwork from children’s literature. The museum has some 11,000 illustrations, collages, paper sculptures—indeed, works in every medium—that have been used over the generations in children’s books. About 300 of these are on display at any one time.

Although weekends are crowded and during the school year, classroom groups frequent the museum, when we visited, we were the only visitors. It was really fun, with an enthusiastic staff member to show us around.

If you’ve shopped for a child’s book any time in the last five decades, you may have noticed how beautiful and effective the artwork is, but perhaps, like me, you haven’t thought much about it. A visit here is an astonishing visual treat!

Distances:

From Toledo, 47 miles to Findlay (45 minutes) and 97 miles to Marion (1.5 hours); from Cincinnati, 160 miles to Findlay (2.5 hours) and 145 miles to Marion (2.5 hours)

Read-Along:

You can order any of these books through the Amazon affiliate links below (yes, I get a few cents if you do!):

  • Warren G. Harding by John Dean – a 170-page bio that tries to refute Harding’s reputation as “worst ever” president
  • Beloved by Tony Morrison – the legacy of an African-American slave’s flight to the free state of Ohio; winner of the Pulitzer Prize
  • June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore – a novel set in small-town Ohio in which a terrible mistake changes a family forever
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – a classic collection of interlocking short stories that de-romanticize small-town life; published in 1919 and now considered one of the last century’s best novels