Writers on Writing

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If the writers I’ve been listening to lately are right, then I’m not really a writer.

The other day I saw an excellent movie titled The Wife, starring Glenn Close as the wife of a Nobel Prize-winning novelist. During the course of the movie, the idea is reiterated that writers must write – that’s it’s excruciating and horrible but that it’s almost an uncontrollable compulsion.

Author Judy Blume said much the same thing last Wednesday at the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner, where she was on hand to accept an honor for her body of work and to discuss the writing life with NPR host Scott Simon and fellow author Neil DeGrasse Tyson. During the conversation, Blume made the oft-repeated claim that writing was akin to breathing; she simply had to write in order to live.

I find this notion about writing to be a bit romantic. Writing is a decidedly tedious, unglamorous undertaking. Writer’s block and procrastination are almost as famous as the old saw that real writers need to write. For myself, it’s easy to let my other responsibilities and desires overshadow my urge to write. Maybe I just don’t want to admit to myself that I don’t have what it takes to be a real writer. But it seems to me that the way to determine if you’re a writer is simply to suck it up and write, no matter the exigency.

In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield describes the Resistance that afflicts all artists, and he prescribes a simple antidote: Get up, go to the computer, and write. Do it every day and don’t stew over every word as it leaves your mind and hits the screen. Thumb your nose at Resistance and get on with it.

For over four years, I have been faithfully writing a minimum of two blog posts per week. I have maintained this regimen no matter what the circumstances, whether sick or well, traveling or at home. It might not be much, but it tells me that I have some sense of the discipline involved in being a writer.

Do I need to write? No. But I acknowledge the reality. If one is to be a writer, one must write. End of story.

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Why Representation Matters

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I finally had the chance to see the blockbuster hit Crazy Rich Asians. I had been so excited about the film ever since learning that Kevin Kwan’s fabulous satire was being made into a movie.

I’m happy to say that the movie version of Crazy Rich Asians was as delightful as I’d hoped. I took my Chinese-born daughter with me, and her reactions after seeing the film highlighted for me why this movie with an all-Asian cast is so important. First of all, she found it gratifying to see so many Asian characters and actors in a movie. More surprising, though, was her comment that she’d like to visit her homeland of China some day.

This was a first for my very American daughter. As much as I’ve tried to interest her in Chinese culture over the years, she has always just wanted to be a regular American girl. She has even complained at times about her Asian middle name. Any time I’ve mentioned a heritage trip back to Anhui Province in China, where she was born, my suggestion has been met with indifference.

Such is the power of representation in popular culture. The characters in Crazy Rich Asians are not stereotypes or relics from a far too distant past. They are rich, modern, fashionable, and subject to the same foibles and machinations as the characters in a Jane Austen novel. At the same time, their Asian languages, customs, and sensibilities are important parts of their characters. In other words, Crazy Rich Asians is not just a version of Dynasty with an Asian cast.

When someone like my Chinese daughter can see herself represented in popular culture, whether in movies, television, books or music, it enhances her self-esteem and widens her expectations for herself. And for whites, minority representation helps tear down stereotypes and encourages us to see people of other races and ethnicities as individuals, not members of a monolithic group.

Years ago when my son was about 4, he asked me, “Mommy, can boys be doctors?” Score one for feminism, I laughingly thought to myself. But the question also gave me pause. In his young life, my son had never met a male doctor, so he wasn’t sure if it was a role that was open to him. I can only imagine how demoralizing it must be never to encounter professionals, actors, or even fictional characters that look like you.

The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians is so much more than just a coup for author Kevin Kwan and director Jon M. Chu. It is a sign, I hope, that we are hungry for stories about all kinds of people from all walks of life in all parts of this great big, beautiful world of ours.

Road Not Taken

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A Facebook friend posted an interesting article about how most people misread Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken.” The poem has been taken as an ode to individuality, to striking out on one’s own less common path. The final lines of the poem seem to confirm this: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.”

In reality, the narrator of the poem acknowledges that the two roads are virtually the same: “Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same,/ And both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black.” In other words, neither path was really an untrodden one, and the view that choosing one “made all the difference” is only seen in hindsight. It’s the story “I shall be telling … with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence.” In fact, there’s nothing in the poem that even indicates the choice was the better one – just that it was different.

We would all like to think that our decisions are momentous ones, and we give weight and significance to our choices because we desire more than anything that our life have meaning. The place we live, the jobs we take, the person we marry: all certainly force us to forgo other choices. Our biological children would not exist if we had not made certain choices in the past. While all of this is true, it’s not necessarily the case that we were meant for this path and this path only.

I’m a religious person, and I do think God has an overarching plan for my life. My faith provides an outlook that gives meaning and consequence to the twists and turns on the path I’m taking in life. But that does not mean there are no coincidences. It’s tempting to believe that God is literally putting joys and trials in our way as part of some divine plan for us. But that makes God more of a puppet master than a divine presence. Rather, our belief in God shapes the way we view our experiences. It imbues them with meaning instead of our concluding that, “All is vanity and grasping for the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

“The Road Not Taken” was written by Frost to tease a fellow poet and friend who was notoriously bad at making decisions when they went out walking. (“Robert Frost: ‘The Road Not Taken’,” Katherine Robinson, poetryfoundation.org) But it’s also a meditation on the fact that we all have to make choices, large and small. The narrator in the poem wants to go both ways, but he must choose only one. Like him, we all second guess our choices at times and wonder what our lives would have been like had we chosen the other path.

It’s comforting to realize, though, that however our lives turn out, we have the power through our own beliefs to give them meaning. And that makes all the difference.

The Power of a Story

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3722407_070718-cc-thai-soccer-team-imgThe fate of 12 young boys trapped in a cave in Thailand for over two weeks has captivated the world. Daily news about the boys, the conditions inside the cave, and the perils faced by both the boys and their rescuers made for a riveting story. When all 12 boys and their coach made it safely out of the cave, there was widespread jubilation.

Even though these boys are from a country across the world, Americans were on tenterhooks praying for their safe escape. Yet here at home, as many critics have pointed out, young children continue to be separated from their families after being apprehended at our border trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Why the difference?

The Trump Administration has refused access to the media and most other Americans to see the facilities where children and babies wail disconsolately for their mothers. Photos are scarce, and there is no opportunity for us to learn the stories of these would-be asylum seekers. Without their stories touching us, it is easy for us to shrug or turn away.

The power of a story cannot be overestimated. As a literature lover, I have always preferred to learn about history and about real people through fiction – or through riveting memoirs and other non-fiction such as the works of Jon Krakauer. Where the starkness of bald facts can be numbing, a story helps draw us into the experiences of others.

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A good example is the 2014 story of Boko Haram and its kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. The fate of the girls became an international news phenomenon when prominent people, such as First Lady Michelle Obama, took to social media with photos of individual girls who were missing and feared kidnapped by the extremist group. The pressure created by the girls’ story prompted the Nigerian government to go after Boko Haram more aggressively. Ironically, another kidnapping of 100 Nigerian girls by the terrorist group earlier this year has been barely a blip on people’s radar. Without a compelling story, the situation is unlikely to capture the world’s attention.

Since ancient times, human beings have been storytellers. Our oral traditions were our histories. Our imaginations help us to envision the plight of others and give us more empathy. Perhaps if Americans knew the stories of some of the asylum-seekers at our southern border, they would demand a more humane response and the immediate reunification of families. Like the scared and malnourished Thai soccer players in the cave, these children are just like our own. Shouldn’t we care for them as if they were?

 

Anne of Green Gables a Great Female Role Model

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Somehow in my childhood, I missed out on reading the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Written in 1908, Anne of Green Gables and its numerous sequels tell the story of a young, red-headed orphan girl who is mistakenly sent to an aging brother and sister who live on a farm on Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Last week, I watched two delightful Canadian mini-series based on Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, and I fell in love with Anne. While her story seems conventional enough and has a happy ending, Anne is a heroine to be reckoned with. Young girls would do well to use her character as a model for themselves as they grow into young women.

One trait I love about Anne is that she is not afraid to speak her mind. Even though she is an orphan and dependent on the mercy of the Cuthberts, who take her in on a provisional basis even though she is not the boy they had requested to help them with the farm, she asserts her opinions to the cantankerous Marilla and refuses to allow their gossipy neighbor, Rachel Lynde, to make her feel small. Later in the series, she continues her forthright and assertive ways, whether or not they lead her to trouble in school or to be fired from her position as a teacher.

Anne’s sense of self is especially impressive in her dealings with the opposite sex. On her first day of school in Avonlea, class hunk Gilbert Blythe pulls her red hair, and in response she breaks her slate over his head. Even though Gilbert insists he was only teasing, Anne refuses to back down and insists that his behavior is unacceptable (#MeToo). Gilbert is awed by Anne’s character and falls in love with her, not for her beauty, but for her brains. Throughout Anne of Green Gables, the two of them vie to be first academically.

In a rural 19th century environment, Anne is not content to be courted, settle down, and marry. She has dreams of bigger things and leaves the island to continue her education and be independent. Within the strictures of her time and place, Anne continues to insist upon following her own path, a path which eventually leads back to her beloved Avonlea.

But if Anne were simply an assertive go-getter, her value as a role model would be limited. What I love most about Anne is her unfailing kindness and respect for others. It is a respect born not of fear, but of compassion and empathy. In her young life, she too has suffered from others’ cruelty and indifference, so she refuses to be indifferent to the plight of others. A notable example is when she takes her first post as a teacher at a girls’ boarding school and wins over the cold and lonely spinster, Miss Brooks.

Watching the story of Anne Shirley unfold on the screen, I was pleasantly surprised to find a modern heroine in an old-fashioned setting. Far from being out of date, the stories in Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, and others in the series are just the ticket for young girls and boys to experience today.

For my part, I intend to correct the lapse in my youthful reading endeavors and pick up these timeless gems by L.M. Montgomery. Happy summer reading!

 

 

Great American Read

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Summer is the time for reading. There is nothing better on a lazy, hot day than to loll around in a hammock or beach chair and plow through a stack of good books. I favor more light-hearted reads and thrillers in the summer, but in the past, the summer was the only time I could master a tome such as War and Peace.

PBS is kindling an interest in literature through its program “The Great American Read.” Through a survey of random readers, it has culled a list of the most popular 100 books (or series) in America and is asking everyone to vote on their favorites. A series of television specials on PBS will explore people’s love affairs with the written word, and on October 23, the results of the survey will reveal the most beloved book or book series of all.

One of the things I love about reading is that it inspires conversation. I had been unaware of “The Great American Read” until my brother brought it up at a family dinner. What ensued was an animated discussion of various books. When Gone With the Wind came up, there was disagreement about whether it was a great novel. One sibling averred that it was a false and racist depiction of the South and America during the Civil War. Another countered that you can’t change history and that that was the prevailing sentiment in the South when the book was written in 1936.

The 100 book list is certainly diverse – not at all a snobby English teacher’s syllabus. I was personally appalled that Fifty Shades of Grey made the cut. I’m not a prude, but the writing style is atrocious. I couldn’t get through more than a chapter before I fell over laughing. On the other hand, some of my favorite novels are on the list: Beloved, The Joy Luck Club, To Kill a Mockingbird. And popular series such as Harry Potter,  The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones show that the list has mass appeal.

The list of 100 favorite novels for “The Great American Read” is posted on pbs.org. You can vote for your favorites every day from now until the final results are tabulated in October. You can also find out how many of America’s favorite books you’ve actually read. I was disappointed to find out I’ve only read 43 of the 100. I guess I’d better hop in that hammock and get cracking!

 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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I’ve been tricked into reading two books about zombies.

Mind you, I’m not a fan of The Walking Dead. I’ve never even seen the classic George Romero movie Night of the Living Dead, which opened 50 years ago to widespread thrills and chills. Let’s just say that brain dead human flesh eaters are not my thing.

But not long ago, I read a review about a dystopian novel with an intriguing opening. It depicted a young girl describing a typical day in her life, which comprised being awakened in her prison cell, strapped to a wheelchair at gunpoint, and wheeled down a corridor with other wheelchair-bound children for their day at school. “Don’t worry,” she tells her military guards. “I won’t bite.”

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey is about a virus that has decimated the planet by turning people into brain-dead “hungries.” But the children in the opening sequence are hungries with a difference: Their brains seem to be functioning perfectly well. Scientists speculate that these kids could be the key to unlocking a cure.

What I love about Carey’s novel is the inner conflict of various characters as they try to figure out what it means to be human in a scary and uncertain world. In his related novel The Boy on the Bridge, Carey continues to pursue this theme along with ideas about military authority and military decisions – and the movement toward autocracy in desperate times.

Reading these novels in Trump’s America gives them heightened resonance. As many in our country find scapegoats in illegal immigrants, questions arise about how to handle an influx of desperate Latinos fleeing poverty and violence. Children are being separated from their parents at the border. President Trump characterizes these people as “animals,” somehow not quite human. Like zombies?

As Matt Thompson of NPR states in his article “Why Black Heroes Make Zombie Stories More Interesting,” “The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.” (“Code Switch: Race and Identity Remixed,” NPR online, Oct. 1, 2013)

So I may have been “tricked” into reading about zombies, but M.R. Carey’s thoughtful, suspenseful dystopian nightmare made it worth my while.