Where’s the Happy?

Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Sense & Sensibility, Jane Austen

Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood) & Alan Rickman (Col. Brandon) in Sense & Sensibility

Novelist Carrie Brown, in an essay in the Glimmer Train bulletin this month, advocates a reassessment of the components of conflict that writers incorporate in their work. Too often, she believes, less experienced writers, especially, lean too heavily on catastrophe. They include “too much dark and not enough light,” believing only the bad stuff is dramatic.

Bad stuff happening is the meat and potatoes of the genre I read most often—mysteries and thrillers. Yet even there, excess abounds. Authors feel compelled to pile up ever more bodies, to make the manner of death ever more grisly, to include female characters who might offer a hope of happiness only to put them out of reach, often because they’re dead, to give their protagonists’ souls so many dark places to hide that after a while, I wonder, “why does this character get out of bed in the morning?” When I start rolling my eyes, the author has lost me.

Brown believes “the mystery of people inclined toward charity or kindness has a drama as compelling as a story of decline and despair.” These positive forces are as powerful and as complicated as the impulses that propel other people toward evil. Jane Austen knew this. So did Dickens.

The key to presenting happiness well, she says, is to capture its complexity and contradictions. She uses an example “weeping with happiness.” Think of Emma Thompson in the movie Sense and Sensibility, crying with great, gasping sobs (see the clip!) when she realizes that Edward Ferrars is in fact not married. We are infinitely more moved by her happy tears than if she’d simply grinned delightedly.

It is not easy for people to be happy, and it is especially not easy for them to be happy when they have been beset by all the other fictional difficulties authors throw at them. But, Brown might argue, these characters can—and should—be happy for that precise reason. She says happiness depends “on the nearby presence of unhappiness to be felt most acutely. By necessity, it seems, the happiest man will also be the man most aware of unhappiness.” Going back to Sense and Sensibility, that would be lovely Colonel Brandon.

An example from Brown’s own work is her 2013 novel The Last First Day, in which a long-married couple—the headmaster of the Derry School for Boys and his wife—must face the declining health that forces his retirement. Said Reeve Lindbergh in her review of the book for The Washington Post, “Terrible things happen and have happened. These people struggle and are hurt. . . . Nevertheless, [the author shows] one can see with clarity and with appreciation for certain glimpsed miracles in every day, whatever else the day brings.” One is capable of a kind of happiness.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Ronit Elkabetz, Gett, Israel

Ronit Elkabetz and cast in Gett.

The Israeli movie Gett (trailer) is the story of Viviane Amsalem and her five-year struggle to obtain a divorce (gett) through Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical courts. The only roadblock: her husband says “no,” and under Jewish religious law, a divorce cannot be granted unless the husband agrees. The entire movie takes place in the courtroom and just outside it, as witnesses come and go and the couple and their lawyers face off, in confrontations that rapidly switch between absurdity and tragedy.

This may sound as if there’s not much action, but there is plenty going on emotionally. Except for the lawyers’ confrontations, much of the power of the film comes from the way feelings simmer (mostly) below the surface, through the outstanding performances by the wife (played by Ronit Elkabetz) and husband (Simon Abkarian). He is torturing her in front of the three rabbis who serve as judges, who alternately don’t see it, don’t acknowledge it, and don’t act when they do. This also makes the film a cautionary tale about the difficulties of male-dominated religious courts, intent on shoring up a patriarchic system and oblivious to individual and women’s rights.

Not surprisingly, in real life, Israel’s rabbinic judges claim the movie misrepresents them, which, as Israel’s oldest daily newspaper Haaretz says, “misses the underlying point: that the rabbinical courts will not approve a divorce unless the man agrees to it,” citing a 2013 survey that one in three women seeking divorce in Israel is “subject to financial or other extortion by her husband.” The term for these truly “desperate housewives” is “chained women.”

Lest you think the problems of chained women are confined to the Jewish State, in 2013 in New York, criminal prosecutions resulted when rabbis kidnapped and tortured several estranged husbands to persuade them to approve their divorces. (Although the United States regulates marriage, divorce, and remarriage through the secular laws, for these proceedings to be religiously recognized, Orthodox Jews must also have them approved in rabbinical courts.)

Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi directed the film, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards and won the Israeli Film Academy Ophir Award for Best Picture. Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it 100% positive ratings (47 critics), and audience approval was 87%.

Wild Tales

Erica Rivas, Wild Tales

Érica Rivas in Wild Tales

This 2015 Argentinian film (trailer), directed by Damián Szifron, is a collection of six unconnected short stories, with both comic and catastrophic elements and carrying the tagline “we can all lose control.” The six very different stories describe “how I would extract my revenge if only I had the nerve.”

The excellent ensemble cast keeps the unexpected happening . . . as people go to the surreal brink of absurdity and tragedy—and keep going. They carry out the vengeful urges we all feel in moments of betrayal, in flashes of road rage, facing overwhelming temptation, or confronting mindless bureaucracy.

The first very short tale involves a casual conversation between two airplane passengers, strangers to each other, who happen to discover they both know a would-be musician named G– Pasternak. One is a woman who once broke up with him and the other, a classical music critic who savaged Pasternak’s early work. A passenger sitting in front of them turns around, saying, “Pasternak?” She was his elementary school teacher, and says he certainly had problems. After a few more people who’ve wronged poor Pasternak pipe up, the music critic stands and asks, “Is there anybody on this plane who does not know Pasternak? And who paid for their own ticket?” There is not. I leave the rest to your imagination. And his.

The funniest story involves an explosives expert trying to reason with the local parking authority, and one of the most satisfying has a bride take her revenge on the groom who cheated on her. It’s a wedding no one will ever forget! Said Eric Kohn in indieWIRE, “While adhering to an internal logic that makes each punchline land with a satisfying burst of glee, the movie nevertheless stems from genuine fury aimed a broken world.”

Be sure to catch the opening credits, where the names of key cast and production crew members are shown with photos of wild animals reflecting on their personas. The director, I noted, was a fox.

An Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film last year, this is one of those rare movies where Rotten Tomatoes critics and audiences are in perfect agreement: 93%.

What Color Is It?

color, green

Emerald, Pantone’s 2013 “color of the year” (ijokhio, flickr.com, CC license)

The role of color in the creative process is one of those backgroundy things that no one really thinks about, and writers, filmmakers, artists, and fashionistas either get so right that the decisions involved seem invisible or perhaps intuitive, or so distractingly wrong that we forget that, somewhere along the line, a choice was involved.

Smart use of color hasn’t escaped web designers, either (some, of course, are beyond redemption; I’m thinking of those black backgrounds with tiny red and yellow type that mystery sites seem to favor). Most interested in color are designers of commercial sites that want you to “convert,” not in the religious, but in the wallet-opening sense. Their advisors cite data suggesting color is “85% of the reason you purchased a specific product.” And isn’t that just about the first question you ask when a friend buys a new car?

So, you might want to pay attention to these designers’ approach. Though brown is great in some contexts, research says women like blue, purple, and green (yes!) and not gray, brown and orange. Men like blue, green, and black, but not brown, orange, or purple. No red for anybody.

People designing brochures and adverts and a new color scheme for the living room might find some new thoughts in this infographic on color theory from designmantic. It includes the basic “meanings” attributed to each color and how colors can be combined successfully, for those throw pillows and whatnot.

Next time you look at a web page you particularly like, take a sec to see whether it’s because the color is just that exactly right shade of trustworthy blue. Thank you, Facebook.

P.S. Pantone’s “color of the year” for 2015 is Marsala, which the color company calls an earthy wine red that “enriches our minds, bodies and souls.” Looks like brown to me.

color, brown

(Frank Daugaard, flickr.com, CC license)


Concrete Images: Emotional Impact


(photo: Serena Epstein, Creative Commons)

Author John Thornton Williams, writing a recent Glimmer Train essay about his strategy for connecting readers with characters, touches on “one of the most important accomplishments of fiction” and one of the trickiest. Certainly writers receive plenty of advice not to come right out and say, “Mary was angry that Bethany was flirting with Ben” or “Dan felt sad when his dog died.” First of all, those feelings are pure obvious, given the situation, and second, naming a feeling doesn’t make the reader feel it.

An alternative, which Williams terms “a lengthy expository digression into the psyche of a character, perhaps accompanied by physical cues,” like “his stomach was in a knot, his throat was on fire,” he says, “generally proves detrimental to how I experience the story at hand.” It distracts him from the narrative, rather than immersing him in it. Or, as Donald Maass says, in Writing 21st Century Fiction, “when you supply everything readers are supposed to feel, they may wind up feeling little at all.”

Williams makes a third choice, especially for a story’s crisis moments, when emotions run highest and, often, at cross-purposes. He calls this approach “indirection of image.” To accomplish this, he takes into account how his characters would see a situation, based on their emotional state. “Something as simple as a car parked on the street surely looks different to a lottery winner than to someone who just got evicted,” he says.

His example recalls a favorite exercise from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: “Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing; then describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention love or the loved one.” This exercise is many times harder than it might appear, and it’s perfect practice for the “indirection of image” approach Williams recommends.

Indirection of image, he says, “is a way to take abstract emotions and project them onto something concrete.” This actually expresses our lived experience. How many times has a car or a piece of furniture or a particular shirt become more significant in our minds because of its symbolic association with a whole range of emotions, beyond what we can tease out and easily express? Our childhood home. The ghastly color of its bathroom tile. The relentless ticking of the mantelpiece clock. A dead wasp.

By giving readers space to project their own emotions into the situation, by leaving a little ambiguity, readers can experience the emotion on a level that connects with their own experience, Williams says. They can, in other words, get inside the character. Here’s a link to one of his stories.

*****The Fragrant Harbor

Hong Kong, city at night

(photo: c2.staticflickr.com)

By Vida Chu – I don’t usually review poetry, it being strictly a case of “I know what I like,” but my friend Vida Chu has published a lovely, evocative collection of 43 poems, The Fragrant Harbor (Hong Kong), and I like it a great deal.

Her poems recall the legends of ancient China and the terrors of the Cultural Revolution, the dislocation of being far from one’s roots and finding home, and the attenuation of family relationships across generations. In beautifully quiet images, she indelibly describes Hong Kong, writing (“Fragrant Harbor”):

The city’s colored lights and stars
Embroider the velvet water.

I especially liked the poems that recall the days of scholars and monks, Emperors and concubines (from “Things I Never Told You About Chinese Painting”):

That Wu Daozi once brushed a huge landscape
onto the palace wall. When he pointed to the grotto
and clapped his hands, the entrance opened.

He stepped inside the painting
and disappeared
in front of the Emperor’s eyes.

The family dynamics Chu describes in many of the poems are universal. What people leave unsaid, the haunting family ghosts, moments of joy (from “Wedding Rain”):

With rings on their fingers
The couple sobbed in each other’s arms
The heavens applauded with a downpour

Like all émigrés, always a bit out of time and place, and in a way that for her has sharpened her perceptions, Chu also describes her roots in America (from “Foreign Students”):

Our lives no longer can be packed in suitcases.
We return to visit as tourists.

We have grown complacent in the rich feeding ground.
We have lost the passion to swim upstream.

This is a collection to read time and again. A special gift for a special person. Yourself? Enjoy!

Movies on the Brain

Natalie Portman, Black SwanGreg Miller’s recent Wired article about how movies trick your brain into empathizing with characters begins by describing the scene from 2010’s psychological thriller Black Swan. In this intense scene, Natalie Portman, playing a ballerina vying for the role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, begins to believe black feathers are sprouting from her skin. “When people watch this scene,” Miller says, “their brain activity bears some resemblance to a pattern that’s been observed in people with schizophrenia,” according to neuroscientist Talma Hendler.

At a recent Hollywood event, Black Swan’s director, Darren Aronofsky, said he’d “be thrilled” if he gave audiences “a temporary taste of psychosis.” It may work that way through the activity in two brain regions shown by functional MRIs to be connected with empathy: one, she calls “mental empathy,” the classic, putting yourself in another person’s shoes feeling; the second, “embodied empathy,” is more visceral, the kind of weak-in-the-knees feeling I get when I see someone else’s cut or injury.

Having studied people’s reactions to emotional movie scenes, Hendler believes both types of empathy are important in shaping what they experience. Schizophrenics, however, tend to rely more on mental empathy. “It’s as if they’re having to think through the emotional impact of situations that other people grasp more intuitively and automatically,” she suggested. And in that scene from Black Swan, Aronofsky believes viewers’ minds mimic that, by being engaged in trying to figure out whether the feathers are real or Portman’s hallucination.

Aronofsky, known for his surreal and sometimes disturbing work, uses a filmmaker’s entire toolbox to shape the audience’s emotional reactions. He cited his film Requiem for a Dream, in which addictions cause the main characters’ lives to spin out of control (Ellen Burstyn received an Academy Award nomination). He began that movie with wide shots, graduating to tighter and tighter ones, “to convey an increasingly subjective sense of what the characters were experiencing. There’s always a theory of where the camera is and why it’s there.”

Life is a Riddle and a Mystery

By Linda C. Wisniewski, Guest Blogger

pen and ink, writing, memoir

(photo: c1.staticflickr.com)

At my Unitarian church, we sing a hymn with the repeating refrain, “Mystery, mystery, life is a riddle and a mystery.” I read lots of mystery novels, and I write and teach memoir. For me, the two genres are not that far apart.

Writing a memoir is a lot like unraveling a mystery. Where you think you are going is often very different from where you find yourself at the end. Good memoir writing, and I mean good for the writer as well as the reader, always involves the process of self-discovery.

Just as all stories begin with the main character’s motivation or desire, the same is true in memoir. The writer wants to discover something about his life, or the characters in his life story. Quite often the process of writing changes the motivation of the memoirist.

In my memoir, Off Kilter, I wrote that “I wanted to understand why my mother couldn’t protect me from my father’s verbal abuse. I wanted to know why she cut me down instead of building me up….She let herself be silenced. She silenced herself. More than anything, I want to understand.”

While writing is not therapy, it can be therapeutic. It wasn’t so much that writing helped me understand my mother, but rather that it helped me accept who she was. I discovered the answer to the mystery of my life: I held in my hands the ability to create my own happiness, as a grown woman, apart from her. After Off Kilter was published, friends suggested more ways I could try to understand my mother. Call relatives, research history, read self-help books. But I was no longer interested. My motivation had changed.

In his memoir, Elsewhere, Richard Russo comes to suspect his mother suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder and feels tremendous guilt, seeing himself as her “principal enabler. Because…like other addicts, obsessives can’t do it on their own. As they gradually lose the control they so desperately seek, they have little choice but to ensnare loved ones.” He holds this discovery for the very end, creating a powerful resolution for himself and the reader.

Years ago, I opened my lunchtime talk at a senior citizens center with the rhetorical question, “Why should you write your memoir?”

A tiny woman in the front row piped up so all could hear, “Yeah, why should I?” She made me laugh, but I totally get where she was coming from. I’ll bet her children and grandchildren were always telling her to write down the stories of her life. But she didn’t want to, and I was hard-pressed to convince her otherwise. I listed the mental and physical health benefits of writing about emotionally significant events, but she did not sign up for my class. And she had a very good point. She could see no reason to revisit the past.

Critics complain there are too many “confessional” memoirs, perhaps recalling the confession or romance magazines aimed at working-class women. In the New York Times Book Review Neil Genzlinger wrote a piece called “The Trouble with Memoirs,” in which he asked for a “moment of silence for the lost art of shutting up.” It caused quite a stir, but the conclusion can be drawn that he was complaining about badly written memoirs, of which there are many.

Stephen Elliott wrote in The Rumpus that “…celebrity memoirs are rarely interesting, despite how interesting their lives appear from the outside. The problem is not that they don’t live interesting lives, it’s that they’re not writers.”

Memoir writing is a risky proposition. “I see you in a whole different way now,” said my book club friend after reading Off Kilter. When I started to write seriously, I joined an online group called Risky Writers. We wrote and critiqued short pieces which involved emotional risk when shared. What would others think if they knew we had done these things? We learned to critique the writing, not the life style of the writer.

Despite the temptation to judge the lives of memoir writers, we don’t think of judging fictional characters. “She shouldn’t have done that!” Well, yes, she should have. That’s how she got into trouble, and why we keep turning the page, especially in a well-plotted mystery. Will she get what she wants in the end? Or does she discover something better?

Genzlinger ended his Times Book Review piece like this. “Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it.” I would add, don’t publish it yet. And don’t give up looking for the mystery.

Linda Wisniewski

Linda Wisniewski (photo: courtesy of the author)

Linda C. Wisniewski lives in Doylestown, Pa., where she teaches memoir workshops and writes for a local newspaper. Her credits include newspapers,  Hippocampus, other literary magazines, and several anthologies. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won first prizes in the Pearl Buck International Short Story Contest as well as the Wild River Review essay contest. Linda’s memoir, Off Kilter: a Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. Visit her at www.lindawis.com.

Tearful Fiction

snowy owl, Hedwig

(photo: wikimedia.org)

What happens when a book character you’ve come to love dies—or a relationship you’ve treasured comes to naught? Grief, that’s what. The five stages of fictional grief—rereading (“did I get that right?”), dismay, rationalization and hope, anger (throw the book across the room), and never getting over it—are explored in an amusing Bookriot post by Susie Rodarme. Anger is appropriate when characters are killed off randomly, to keep them from cluttering up the plot any longer.

We saw a manifestation of these stages on social media when Downton Abbey’s Matthew Crawley came to his untimely end. “I can’t believe it!” “Nooooooo.” “I’m not watching any more!” “Maybe he’s not reaaally dead?” For readers of paranormal fiction, there’s always a chance . . .

Tess of the D’Urbervilles was a real weepy for me. I read it several times and, once I knew the ending, began getting weepy from page one (delicious!). Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (review here) is the most recent book that prompted those “why did she have to die?” feelings, and true regret that left me down for days.

The comments on Rodarme’s post are interesting. Must be a youngish crowd, since most of their literary tear-blotting experiences are associated with Harry Potter, and repeatedly cited is the death of Hedwig, a character introduced this way: “Harry now carried a large cage that held a beautiful snowy owl, fast asleep with her head under her wing.” I’m guessing many of those who say they grieved long and hard over Hedwig, subconsciously at least, recognize her death symbolized Harry’s loss of innocence, and that’s what they regret, as well.

Creativity is UP!

Up, Navy Pilot

(photo: wikimedia.org)

Metaphors We Live By (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) is a classic study of the way metaphor shapes our understanding of the world. Published in 1980, it dismisses the idea that metaphors are strictly a matter of language, the frosting on the cake of meaning, as argued by various competing philosophical and linguistic traditions. In what I usually read, the search for truth is conducted not by academics, but by a fictional detective, so some of this was heavy going. Where the authors dig into the language, their examples are fascinating.

Lakoff and Johnson are not generally talking about literary metaphors, but rather about the ones so thoroughly absorbed into the language that we no longer notice them as metaphors. One fundamental set of such metaphors reflects “orientation”: up-down, in-out, back-front, and so on. Although some metaphors in this set appear to be more or less universal across languages, others are more culturally determined. In Western culture, many common phrases reflect the metaphor “happy is up” and its opposite, “sad is down.” Examples are:

  • That boosted my spirits.
  • I’m depressed.
  • It gave him a lift.
  • My heart sank.
  • Being up-beat.

Extending this pattern, health and life are up:

  • It’s time to get up.
  • He’s at the pinnacle of health.
  • Lazarus rose from the dead.
  • She sank into a coma.

More is up (this one, we even represent graphically):

  • My income rose last year.
  • The Dow reached a new high.

Having control is up:

  • He’s at the height of his powers.
  • She has control over the situation.

And so on. This metaphor is so pervasive, we don’t notice it. The other orientation pairs are embedded in the language in much the same way, and from the various concepts they signify, they form a coherent way of understanding our world.

Lakoff and Johnson also discuss how we depend on metaphor to help us structure inherently vague concepts, like emotions, in terms of more concrete things we may have directly experienced. Complex emotions, like love or anger, have inspired many overlapping (and sometimes conflicting) metaphors. For example:

  • Love (vague) is a journey (concrete).
  • Anger (vague) is hot (concrete).

The “love is a journey” metaphor underlies statements like: “We’re on the road to romance” (think Sinatra’s: “Nice ‘n’ Easy”); “It’s a rocky road to love.”; “We went in different directions.”; or “This relationship isn’t going anywhere.” The “anger is hot” metaphor leads to: “I was boiling mad”; “Cool it!”; and “in the heat of the moment.” (Icy cold anger is scary perhaps because it’s so counterintuitive.)

I’m trying to understand all this (which is the tip of the tip of the iceberg, you understand) in terms of writing. “We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor,” say Lakoff and Johnson. The orientation metaphors and their many variants perhaps explain why, a writer’s attempts to create a literary metaphor sometimes miss the mark. Perhaps they have violated this coherent, and implicit language system.

A linguistic exploration of the metaphors underlying emotion seems to me like an endorsement of the frequent dictum: “show, don’t tell.” Simply saying that a fictional character feels love or anger or happiness conveys little to the reader, because readers will have different ways—and many competing ways—of interpreting that emotion, depending on the metaphors through which they see the world. The metaphors underlying those feelings must be expressed—and in some fresh way that is consistent with the existing substrate (safer) or totally new, stretching both writer and reader.

Read more at: The Literary Link and, for some juicy literary metaphors, Welcome to the World of Metaphor.