Sunday, May 30, 2010

Art and Craft and Ass in Chair

Stephen King (or Oliver Stone, depending on your source) said writing equals ass-in-chair.

Its been months since my last post. Life has been working its insidious black magic, taking over with work and school and PTA, baseball and laundry and family crises, leaving little time or energy for writing. At long last, this morning, my hindquarters are planted firmly in a chair. And I'm learning, in a way I never have, that writing is not like riding. A bike, that is. Case in point: I just spent thirty minutes doing internet research for this post. Back in the heady days of weekly blog posts, Done Fell Out, and various short stories, I would grab a cup of tea, curl up on the couch, and wax at least somewhat poetic (humor me people) about some relatively engaging topic. And I did it with ease and in short order. I suppose, back then, I fancied myself a writer, an artist.

Laura is an artist. I've always known this. In the way she crafts story, thinks about characters, examines the novel from seventeen scenes ahead. And now she's embarked on a solo writing venture that is original and exciting and brilliant, not only sentence by sentence, but also for its creativity, on both a macro and micro level. Not only does it make me wonder if (a.k.a. feel terrified) she's been carrying the laboring oar on all of our collaborative projects, it has started me thinking about art versus craft. Folks much smarter than I have opined on this subject at length. I just read an essay by Susan Sontag, purportedly examining this topic, but it made my eyes cross and cramped my brain. Suffice to say, I don't expect to add much to the marketplace of ideas on art versus craft, but I do know this: I can craft a sentence with the best of them. I can both persuade a federal court judge and bring you to tears with words that, strung together, sound like song. Sure, I can do that. But that doesn't make me an artist; it makes me - to my mind - a craftsman, craftswoman. And there's pride in that, certainly. But it's not art.

Did I ever have art in me? I tend to think I did. The question is whether there's any left and, if so, where it went. Did it disappear into the seventeen loads of laundry I did last week, did I lose it on my fifth business trip in four weeks, is it caught in the family crises that takes up so much space in my house? I don't know. I guess I'll just have to start by looking for it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

What's in a Name?

Seventh Grade was a good year. I was allowed to wear a little bit of make-up (iridescent blue eye-shadow, naturally), I graduated from a plaid jumper to a plaid skirt (yes, I’m a Catholic school girl), and I had my first kiss (in the school library . . . he tasted like mustard). I also had one of the best teachers ever—Mrs. Light. She wore bright red lipstick, had a dog named Liesl (named after the character in The Sound of Music), and used long, skinny chalk-holders that looked as if they’d been plucked from the manicured fingers of elegant smoking baronesses in black-and-white films. Mrs. Light taught me something about writing I remember to this day—the importance of finding just the right name for a character. Think about it. Would Severus Snape or Lucius Malfoy seem quite as sinister, at first blush, were they named Sanford Smith and Lucas Melfry? What if Mark Twain had switched Tom Sawyer’s and Huckleberry Finn’s names? Could you relate to Bridget Jones if she had an exotic name, like Alexandria DuPont?

Kris and I took this notion regarding the importance of names to its extreme in The Pecking Order, with character monikers like the Pecker and the Blowhard. But we also spent a great deal of time considering the real names in the book. Adam, for example, was chosen as Abby’s husband because we wanted an “everyman,” and what better name than that given the first man?

You only need to attend a little league baseball game to see the significant thought given to name choice in real life. A few of the more unique names from my son’s recent game: Jasten, Cooper, Chase, Atticus, P.J., Jackson, Carson, Colton, and Houston (that’s my son). I also have nephews aptly named Drake (the dragon) and Stryder (ranger, elf-lover, and future king). I believe mothers and fathers pick names they hope will “fit” their children . . . names that sound good rolling off your tongue, maybe have personal meaning, and present well in the world. If we take the time to pick a fitting name for a child whose actions we cannot control and whose destiny we cannot determine, shouldn’t we take care to find the right name for our characters, whose very existence we hold in the tips of our pens?

Nineteen Cents

A man sat next to me at church on Sunday. I’d had a hard week, and I begrudgingly made room for him, rearranging the emotional baggage I’d carried in. He had baggage, too: a worn, heavy coat smelling of asphalt and nicotine; a filthy backpack; a bedroll. His hands, clasped in his lap, were cracked and caked with dirt. Every line in his face etched a tale of heartbreak and bad luck. He needed a haircut, a shave, and a good scrub. When he reached into his pocket, the air shifted and I struggled not to wince or wrinkle my nose. He pulled out a coarse, brown napkin—the thin kind used at establishments specializing in fried potato products—and dabbed tears from his eyes while the choir sang. His hand plunged into that pocket again when the collection plate came around. He dropped a dime, a nickel, and four pennies into the golden dish before passing it to me. I tucked my check on the side, hoping to bury with it the mild resentment I’d felt when filling it out.

He fell asleep in the middle of the sermon. I watched his chin fall to his chest and his shoulders melt away from his ears; I prayed he felt safe and secure enough to rest well. When the service ended, we filed out and I lost sight of him. I have no canned conclusions for you, no literary tie-in or moral imperative. I simply wanted to share that a man sat next to me at church on Sunday.