Saturday, January 28, 2017

Narrative Voice: McCourt, Kafka, or Stephens?

I thought that this week it would be nice to get back to my normal subject: writing. But I should quickly report for those who are wondering that Mom continues to make progress. She is walking well and seems to be becoming more engaged as time goes on. Thanks for your thoughts and prayers. 

And now, back to my writing process. I thought it might be interesting to talk about a challenge I'm dealing with at the moment as I work through the first draft of my work-in-progress, tentatively entitled EJ. In case you don't regularly read my blog, the protagonist is named Elizabeth Janeway and is known by all but her mother and one other close friend as EJ. As with many stories, it starts in the middle, goes back to the beginning, and then passes the point where it began roughly halfway through the story arc, finally ending a number of years later. In this case, EJ is sixteen as the story opens and then it immediately flashes back to when she's six, with the plan to have her be a young adult, probably less than twenty, at the very end. 

Frank McCourt
So my initial choice was point of view. Was I going to go first person from EJ's perspective? She is, in her mother's words, quite precocious, even borderline brilliant, for a youngster, but did I want to write in a voice that changed as it aged? It worked well for Frank McCourt in one of my favorite books, Angela's Ashes. Granted, he was writing a memoir. Yes, he could have written it as a memory told by an adult, but part of the brilliance of his writing was that he wrote it in an ever-evolving voice that grew and changed as he matured. The first chapters read just the way we would imagine a young Frankie would talk, with long, roaming run-on sentences and sudden diversions brought on by a highly thoughtful, observant child.  But by the end, as a teenager boarding a ship for the United States, Frank's mind is more disciplined and mature, as is, by extension, the narrative. So he was never writing in exactly the same voice. I've always been intrigued by the process he must have gone through. But, to be honest, I'm just not sure I could pull it off with the memorable flair that McCourt, with his lyrical Irish rhythm that sounds like poetry, seemed to accomplish with no apparent effort. I decided I wasn't brave enough to try. 

Franz Kafka
So that left third person. But I still had decisions to make. Was it going to be fully omniscient or just reveal the thoughts of one character? I considered EJ's mother, allowing her to marvel at the old, thoughtful soul she'd somehow brought into the world. But the story arc is such that this just wouldn't be possible to carry through the entire book. So I then considered changing whose thoughts the narrator revealed partway through the book, a la Franz Kafka in The Metamorphosis, a tale that tells the thoughts of Gregor Samsa from the morning he wakes up to find he's been changed into a giant dung beetle until the day he dies of self-imposed starvation. After Gregor's death, we suddenly begin to hear the thoughts of his parents, who, sadly, have not learned anything from their son's tragic life and death. 

I wasn't scared of that. But I found I wasn't intrigued by it either. I still clung to the idea of telling the story from EJ's point of view. So I decided I would split the difference. My third person narrator is a separate voice altogether, but only EJ's thoughts are revealed. And, in a lot of ways, I have the best of both worlds because when I want to, I can lapse into sections in which I allow EJ to take over the narrative, so to speak, and use her voice when it suits me, going back to the patterns and cadence of the narrator when it doesn't. This is where the challenge comes in. I need it to be a conscious choice when I move from one to the other. Otherwise I run the risk of falling completely into one or the other partway through. Either one would work if I chose to do it that way. I trust that the way I am doing it, with a balance between the two, will also work. But I have to stay consistent. Slipping unconsciously into EJ's voice and staying there won't work at all. Neither would starting by allowing EJ to slip through occasionally and then just forgetting that as the story progresses. Either of those would make it apparent that I didn't maintain the narrative voice I planned to adopt. That's just sloppy writing and good readers won't buy it--in the literal or the literary sense. So I can never stop asking myself if I'm speaking as the narrator or I am allowing EJ's voice to filter in. As I said, she's quite precocious and tends to talk even when I don't want her to.  

One of what I imagine is most authors'
favorite haunts
I hope you'll forgive me if I sounded less like a writer and more like a literature teacher today. I find that my work as one definitely informs my work as the other. After all, if I weren't an avid reader and teacher of good writing, I wouldn't know about all the narrative options from which I can choose. Then again, if I weren't an avid reader, there's every possibility I'd never have been interested in being a writer anyway. I guess they exist, but writers who don't like to read seem rather chimerical to me. 

I hope you enjoyed this little trip into the tangled web that is my brain as I write, or at least as I think about and plan my writing. I'm one of those folks who doesn't really fully understand what he thinks until he writes it down and then reads it, so even if it wasn't helpful to you, it helped me make sense of some things. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Finding A New Normal

Normal is just a dryer setting PIN or MAGNET - 1 inch normal pin, normal magnet, pinback button, celebrate being different, fridge magnetThe concept of normal is a tricky one. I don't mean normal vs. abnormal, as in psychology, etc. I mean normal as in normal routine. How long does something have to happen before it becomes normal? And how do we deal with it when our old normal is replaced with a new one. I guess when it comes to something large enough, it forces us to reevaluate our priorities.

For me, the old normal started changing when Mom started showing signs of Alzheimer's, though it was a gradual thing. I tried to be home more and started doing my own laundry (Mom had always insisted, against my protests, that the housework was her job.), and some cooking. But it completely changed twice when she had her stroke. Once when she went in the hospital and again when she got home. I knew the first change was going to be temporary in that she was, we hoped, going to come home sometime, which was when the real change to a new normal took place.
Mom and Dad

Now, instead of getting up and quietly having tea, doing my devotions, and mucking around on the Internet or writing every morning, I'm responsible for Lola, our dog. I get up, take her out, feed her her breakfast, have my breakfast, get in and out of the shower as quickly as I can, and get ready for work before they get up so Dad can have the bathroom for Mom. If they get up in time before I leave for work, I make them breakfast. After school is another big change. I used to take my time coming home or not come home for supper at all when I had things to do in the evening. Now, I go straight home so I can take Lola for a walk before making supper, followed by cleaning up the kitchen. If I have time and energy left, I work on school stuff or read. But most of the time, I just have time to watch a little TV before passing out.
Don's in the center.

The key word in all that is responsible. It isn't lost on me that, until recently, I've had it awfully good, with nearly no personal responsibilities around the house beyond what I volunteered for. Now, I guess I'm still volunteering, though my services are a lot more vital than before. I just hate to think of how hard, maybe impossible, Dad's task would be if he didn't have my siblings and me to help. I know there are many folks out there in that exact situation and my heart really goes out to them.

Barb helps constantly despite
the fact that she lives far out
in the country and has a farm to
tend to. 
So I've had to re-prioritize, cutting back on some things, like going to my students' sporting events and other performances, and stop others, at least temporarily, like writing for ClutchMOV. Oddly enough, I have found time to work on my book and somehow got a couple thousand words written this week. But there's no routine for that like there used to be either. I just have to write when I find a little time here and there and be okay with not having hours to sit at my keyboard at a time. I'm happy to accept the disruption when it means I still have my mom.

Mom's been home for a week and, though it doesn't feel like it yet, I guess this is the new normal. Or at least it will be until my brother Dave gets here this week. He'll be staying here to help as long as he can, which will mean yet another new normal. So maybe normal is a tricky concept because it just doesn't exist. Maybe I need to quit thinking about keeping things normal and just take each day as it comes. It would probably be less upsetting each time something changes.

I just want to say that I'm not writing all this to complain about anything or for recognition. I have nothing to complain about and deserve no admiration for doing what any adult child should be doing for his aging parents. I'm so completely blessed to have, at age 53, both my parents still living. And my mother has spent her whole life since her kids were born dedicated to doing for us, so it's a privilege to have a chance to pay even a little bit of that back. I just hope reading about these experiences can help someone who's going through the same situation with a loved one.

Dave and Barb
And I don't want anyone to think that I'm alone in this. My brother Don and my sister Barb are here an awful lot--pretty much daily--and they bring so much food that there are many days when I don't have to cook at all. But all of our efforts pale in comparison to the time and effort that Dad gives. Except for short little snippets when one of us stays with Mom so he can go get a haircut or go shopping, Dad is with Mom every minute of the day. He checks her blood sugar before every meal, makes sure she takes all her medicines on time (she takes pills or gets eye drops five times a day), takes her to her physical therapy, takes her to the bathroom--I could go on and on. All the rest of us help when we're not busy with something else. For him, there really is nothing else. And though I know it's got to be wearing on him, he never complains. I'm proud to be his son. There's no question about it: God gave us a double portion of love when He chose us to be Dave and Nancy's kids.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Sometimes Love Takes Precedence

Mom absolutely loves dogs.
I had some ideas for what to write about today, but none of them seemed worthy of my time. You see, my mother is coming home from the rehab hospital today. She had a stroke about a month ago and she hasn't been home since. She spent about a week in the hospital followed by three weeks or so in a rehab facility, relearning how to talk and walk and use her hand. Some of that has come along very nicely, other parts not so much.

What I can't get past, though I know I have no choice but to get used to it, is the fact that, even if her hand, which is lagging behind everything else in terms of coming back, gets better, Mom is 81 and has what appears to be pretty rapidly advancing Alzheimer's. So even if she gets completely well physically, her mind will continue to deteriorate until one day she'll not recognize her family. And there's not one thing I can do about it.

We all knew this was a possibility. Her sister died of the disease several years ago. So it was always a spectre that seemed to follow us around. Early in 2016, though, I started to realize that she was asking the same questions over and over and not remembering conversations we had just had. I wasn't sure if anyone else noticed, so I asked my dad. At first, he chalked it up to the fact that she's 81 and, to be fair, has always been pretty absentminded. I definitely inherited that. Just ask my students, who are constantly having to point out my glasses or my coffee cup when I can't find them. But then it got so pronounced that there was no denying it any longer; she was losing her short term memory. Well, there was denying it for her and she was none too happy if anyone mentioned it. Mom and Dad had a number of arguments, all borne, I'm certain, of Mom's fear that the spectre had finally arrived and wasn't going to leave until it was done with her. I can imagine I'd be the same way: deny it and it's not real.

Mom and Dad at a
family beach trip
from a couple
summers ago
Dad finally bit the bullet and kind of tricked Mom into letting the doctor do some tests. She didn't do so well, so the doctor put her on medication that, at best may slow the progression of the disease. We don't know if it's helping because we don't know how much worse she would be without it. It certainly hasn't made her any better.

Then the stroke happened. It was what's called an ischemic stroke, which means that a clot formed in her heart and moved up to block the blood flowing to her brain. The good news was that Dad was right there and got her to the hospital quickly and the clot-busting drug started working immediately. Her speech came back within a couple of hours and her leg is almost as strong as before. I was wondering, but didn't want to ask, if maybe there had been a partial blockage all along that could account for her memory issues. The neurologist said as much, so we all got our hopes up for a bit. But then the radiologist, an old friend of mine, told us that the MRI did indeed show the telltale plaques that denote Alzheimer's. There is still the possibility that a blockage had been exacerbating it and she's not as advanced as we thought, but the reality is that, at least as it stand at the moment, she has shown no improvement. The doctors say it still could happen, but we shouldn't assume it will.

And even if she's not as advanced as we thought, that just kicks the can a little farther down the road. The can is still there. So what do we do? We do what I constantly tell my students to do: live intentionally. Make memories. Treasure every minute we have with her so that there will be no what-ifs or I'm sorrys after we've lost her. That may mean bypassing some writing time, or at least rearranging so that I do it when she's asleep or busy at doctor's appointments or such. And it may mean not spending as much time with friends or at my kids' activities, or even deciding that the hours
Mom and my sister Barb on a different family trip
I often spend grading papers in the evenings is just not as important as being with my mom while I can be.

Why am I telling you this? Because deny it as much as we will, we're all terminal and we don't know how much longer we have. So treasure your loved ones. Hug them. Tell them you love them. Maybe decide that ball game or work you brought home isn't so important after all. It's overused, but only because it's true--you don't know when the last chance you had to say I love you to someone will really have been your last chance. Don't look back and realize you didn't take advantage of it.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

My Writing Process--Writing With Abandon

Lola doing what she does best: being
a bit odd.
This week, to be honest, I haven't gotten much writing done. For those of you who don't know me personally, my mother had a stroke a few weeks back. I live with my parents and so, in addition to my regular work chores, which were pretty crazy until Wednesday when grades were finally finished, I'm kind of in charge of our house now. I do all the cooking and what cleaning gets done while I'm at home. I'm also the main caretaker of my folks' dog, Lola. In between all that, I spend as much time as I can at the rehabilitation facility where my mom is working toward recovery. When I'm not doing all that, I spend some time thinking about silly things like mortality and the reality of someday having to live in a world without my parents, the two most important human beings in my life. So, frankly, writing hasn't been high on my list of priorities.
film strip photos photography images vintage oldschool That being said, I am finding at least a little bit of time to add to EJ's life story. And I find that I'm telling the whole darn thing, in surprising detail. Knowing full well that, just like movie directors shoot hours of footage that will ultimately end up on the cutting room floor, I will probably end up cutting out several of the pages I'm writing right now. And that's okay. Many of those pages are more for me than the reading audience, or at least they're for me more directly. What I mean is that I'm creating an entire world and life for this young lady that will be more meaningful to my readers if I am telling a story I know in great detail, even if I don't end up sharing all those details with the public. By writing with abandon, without worrying about whether this particular anecdote will end up in the finished product, I'm getting to know these characters so well that every detail I do share will be more real, more important, more impactful. 

road rural country trees afternoon travel roadtrip For instance, right now I'm telling about the time when EJ and her mother are stuck on the side of the road, having just bought what they thought was a reliable used car. Out of cell range, they are hoping someone they know will stop so they don't have to hike several miles home. Someone does stop, but it's not who they're hoping for. It's a man with whom they had a run-in just a couple of days after they moved to Bramblewood and pretty much the last person they would want to see. I don't know if the whole scene will make it into the final cut of the book, but their conversation as he gives them a ride is filling in more details about EJ's mother's life. And that's important because EJ is coming into a town that her mother Charlene grew up in but that she, EJ, knows little of. 
The trick with editing is what to leave in and what to take out. It's a balancing act between giving the reader too much detail, which can make for a ponderous, boring read, and too little, which can leave the readers feeling like they missed something. But the beauty of where I am in the writing process is that I don't need to worry about that right now. I can just tell the story in all the minute detail I want and leave that other stuff for the editor to worry about. I know I'm the editor, but I'm not the editor right now. I'm the writer and I don't care that in a few months when I start the editing process I'll be calling down the wrath of God on that crazy writer who just couldn't keep his mouth shut. That editor guy is a merciless hack who wants to kill my babies, so he deserves the angst I'm causing him.