No Cure for Ignorance (or Writing)

Most of the major projects I have undertaken in my writing life have been preceded, if not encouraged, by a sort of blissful ignorance. When I wrote my first book, Stories to Hide from Your Mother, for instance, I had no idea how difficult it would be to create and perfect 14 self-contained worlds, let alone how difficult it would be to sell a collection of stories to a publisher. With Ariadne’s Dream, my second book, I was happily unaware of the gargantuan task of keeping all of a novel’s details, characters and subplots straight, let alone the sheer laboriousness of reviewing 400 pages at every stage of the publishing process.

Having written and survived one novel, I felt primed to take on another one. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and all that twaddle… But instead of sticking even a little bit closely to what I had just taught myself to do, I chose to burden myself with an extra layer of difficulty without truly understanding what was I was doing. No, I didn’t write and entire novel without using the letter “e”– I mean, isn’t it challenging enough to tell a great story in beautiful language without excluding five of the last ten words, Monsieur Perec?

Due to that pesky thing called inspiration, which we all know is only 1/10 of the work involved in writing, so it can afford to be charming and frivolous, I decided to take on a historical novel, set in a time I knew almost nothing about, and about which there wasn’t much written in English. My third book, The Goodtime Girl, which is set in Greece and Asia Minor during the 1920s, took about ten years to complete. It’s safe to assume that had I known I would spend a decade working on one book, I would have chosen to do something, almost anything, else, like go to med school. In fact, I used to make fun of my novelist friends and their ten year prison sentences, as I called them. But I’d heard a song from the period that intrigued me, and the next thing you know I was researching music, fashion, drug culture and war, then writing character sketches and preliminary chapters, and by the time I realized what I’d gotten myself into, it was too late to bail (I tried, I’ll admit, but the story wouldn’t let me. It warned it would haunt me FOREVER!).

Don’t get me wrong, I love all my books like parents love their children, even after the teenaged years. I have no regrets. But I have to wonder, had I known how tough the process after inspiration and before publication would be, would I have persisted?

Possibly.
Probably.
Yes.

There really isn’t a choice when you have a story in your head that must be told, that takes over both your waking and dream worlds, that suggests lines to you when you are about to fall asleep and makes you turn on a light and pick up a notebook, all the while cursing, but also feeling a little exhilarated when the words appear, as if channeled, on the page.

No one ever said literature was easy–it’s just worked on until it looks that way. But there’s no use thinking about writing as a never-ending and unavoidable chore–like dusting. In the end, a bit of ignorance, willful or pure, is indeed bliss, and perhaps vital to my creative development. It allowed me to write three books, each one different and more ambitious than its predecessor, and a fourth (yes, difficult-to-sell short stories) is almost finished. As for the fifth, though I have sworn up and down over the last decade that I will NEVER EVER write another historical novel, the other day a reader asked me whether I was going to write a sequel to The Goodtime Girl, set in another place, another time. I have to admit I’m considering it.

It has to be easier the second time around, right?

Cross-posted at 49th Shelf

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Writing as Fortune-telling (starring Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

I was truly saddened to read yesterday that my absolute favorite author (in fact, I often refer to him as my literary god), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, has succumbed to dementia and can no longer write.  I never met him, but his books and stories have been my best friends for many years, and when I was writing my first novel, Ariadne’s Dream, I dreamt he chased me down the street trying to give me a pint of beer. I took this as a good omen. If every writer has a great mentor on his/her shoulder, guiding his/her hand, raising the bar to vault over, Gabriel Garcia Marquez has been mine.  His style, his literary magic and magnificence gave me something to admire, to envy, to emulate and, most importantly, something to aim for in my own work.

I’ve lost count of how may times I’ve read 100 Years of Solitude, and The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World can still bring me to tears.  Love and Other Demons, a slim novel that not a lot of people know, remains one of my favorites with its tragedy and passion between a young girl bitten by a rabid dog and the priest who comes to exorcise her of demons.  When I was in grad school, I opted to do as much work as possible on Garcia Marquez, and I’m happy to report that academe did nothing to spoil his fabulous tales for me.  They are so finely woven they resisted being unravelled and studied except in small sections–the whole is elusive–which makes them even more magical.

I’ve already used the word magic twice, and the label magical realist has long been applied to Garcia Marquez, though he always insisted that he had no imagination and invented nothing in his books, but simply recorded his observations and his grandmother’s stories.  I’ve always wanted to visit Colombia because if he truly recorded daily life as it existed, it must really be the most fantastical place on earth, where, no doubt, the handsomest drowned man would land.  Of course, seen through the eyes of Gabo, processed through his mind and his pen, it was certainly transformed in the manner only great art can achieve.  Though everything in his books may have been real, it was his reality, shared generously with us.

As a bit of a magical realist myself, not only have I never been that concerned with the boundaries between the real and the fantastical (it is all a matter of perception and expression), but I have always suspected that we create our reality as we write it.  More than once, something I have written has come to pass, sometimes sooner, sometimes later.  When I was first researching and writing my second novel The Goodtime Girl, whose central event is the destruction of the city of Smyrna in 1922 through fire, I visited the village of Zipolite in Mexico. On my last full day there, a large swath of the village burned to the ground after a kitchen explosion in one of its restaurants.  Like the citizens of Smyrna, the inhabitants of Zipolite ran towards the water, and we all watched helplessly as black smoke clouded the sky.  Now, I am not saying that my writing caused the fire in Zipolite, but it is quite odd to have just recently written about a cataclysmic and (thankfully) uncommon event, and then to witness a facsimile of it.

There are other examples of less dramatic events that have also manifested after being imagined and written. This has made me consider trying to write happy endings to some of my stories, so perhaps I could eventually experience one, too.  But my mind is as dark and complicated as some of my fictions, which probably accounts for why they mirror each other or are prescient–burning cities and villages notwithstanding. We are what we write and we write what we are.  It is a sort of fate, with an often predictable outcome.

Buddhists (and cognitive psychologists) believe that our thoughts create our reality; in The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde argued that life imitated art and not the other way around; and in his sunset years Gabriel Garcia Marquez has turned into one of his own characters: patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendia from 100 Years of Solitude, who became so mad he had to be tied to a tree in his own yard for his own (and everyone else’s) sake. Gabo has fared better so far.  Jaime Garcia Marquez has stated that dementia runs in the family, but that, luckily, his brother ” still has the humor, joy and enthusiasm that he has always had.”

But there will be no more books from his brilliant mind, which saw what was to come a long time ago,  based on history and the spells conjured as he wrote. Those marvelous visions will be forevermore reserved for his own enjoyment.