Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Truth is the sheer act of writing a letter in just this way to a person, placing it in an envelope, licking a stamp to it and mailing it, sadly, appears to be a dying art. And partly why I chose to write Letters Between Us as an epistolary novel, to recapture that art, just a little.
Now we have email, blogs, Skype, Webcams, instant messaging, and texting - so much faster, quicker, and more efficient. There is something to be said, however, about the act of holding a pen in your hand and writing to friend or family member, even if only to share a brief hello, a thoughtful remembrance, a declaration of love, or something more. It is embedded with the careful process of cogitative thought, let alone leaves a palpable imprint of the writer's energy. One day it might even be a treasure to be discovered amongst the long forgotten possessions of another. In addition, writing a letter in such a way brings to light a voice distinctively different from other genres of writing. Imperfect, unedited it is a reflection of the times in the raw.
What would we have done without the letters exchanged between loved ones during war time: the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, for example? From such letters we have the voices of a private history from long dead family members and/or friends in their own hand-writing importing a tone that we may never have actually heard them speak during their life time.
This happened after my mother-in-law died. We found love letters written to her on V-Mail (or Victory mail, which was the microfilming of specially designed letter sheets. So as not to waste cargo ship space with large bulks of shipped mail overseas, microfilmed copies were sent instead and then enlarge" at an overseas destination before being delivered to military personnel). My husband's mother, Martha, was affectionately addressed as "Toni" by her husband away fighting in the Pacific theatre during World War II. No one in the family understood why Marvyn Overman called Martha Overman - Toni? But there it was in the salutation in a facsimile of a letter-sheet reproduced to about one-quarter the original size: Dear Toni, My beautiful Toni, Beloved Toni. Toni. Toni - she will always be Martha to me - was back home in Hollywood, California raising her toddler son: my husband.
This little bit of information called to mind a young couple, they were 25 at the time, deeply in love and suffering from separation. The loving voice of this couple is one I never heard either of them use in the decades that I spent in their presence. Basically, they communicated by fighting, yelling and forgiving and then doing it all over again. Family dinners at their home were usually: eat fast, hold our breaths, talk a little, and hope Marvyn and Martha didn't do their "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" routine on that particular night. Once they began, all we could do was wait for a break in the action, and cut and run. And yet, they once talked of love and nicknames no doubt written and whispered to one another in days gone by. To this day neither my husband, nor his two brothers know the origin of this pet name for their mother.
Being separated by war is nothing new to this generation of 18-34 year olds. Computers and their full complement of audio/video software enable close circuit communication over many miles and multiple time zones. Families separated by the current wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere can talk to and see each other as if they were sitting in the same room. These conversations over thousands of miles have meaning and impact, don't get me wrong. But as far as leaving a written record as the letter I am completing to my unborn great grandchild (who exists only in my imagination and that of her potential parents: my son or my daughter) I can't help but wonder if she or he will prefer to benefit more from this piece of myself on paper, which wears my perfume and is embossed with traces of my own hand writing - or from popping in a portable drive that shows me moving and talking. There's no perfume in that.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
The other day my twenty-something son stopped by for a visit and decided to take a short swim in our pool. This was something unique, really, because he hadn't been a steady presence in our pool since he and his sister were of elementary school age. Then with only just the two of them, or with the addition of some sleepover friends, they would all play in the water for hours, and I do mean hours. Hunger, thirst, or my calls to exit the water because they were turning into prunes and needed to take a break did not deter this pack of four-legged dolphins to cease their joy for a minute.
Just before my son left to go back to his town house about 20 miles away, he commented: "Mom, I was thinking how when we were little, all we needed in the pool was ourselves and our imaginations to keep us happy. We didn't have to worry about work, errands, jobs, or anything. All that mattered was playing." Then he threw his hands up in the air as if accepting one of those light bulb moments, and we all have them, with great reluctance.
"Yes," I said, "we spend most of our adult lives longing to recapture those days of innocence."
And those days of my innocence have been lost for far too long. And that is partly why I undertook the task of writing my epistolary novel Letters Between Us. Spurred on by the death of an old schoolmate whom I had long lost touch with, I began writing Letters in full middle school teenage-ese the way we had in our childhood. The letters were not to anyone in particular, perhaps they were to my 13 year-old self, I don't know. I decided it would be interesting to write this series of letters the regular old fashioned way with pen and paper leaving in the mistakes, the scratch outs, and silly symbols kids often use for emphasis.
All I know is that the act of recreating those days of only caring about whether or not my patent leather shoes matched my patent leather clutch purse, whether or not I'd painted on my Twiggy style perfectly, and whether or not I'd had my bra snapped by the most "bitchin-est" boy in school mattered. Writing in such a vein re-awakened my long forgotten childhood again. Mind you we, my girlfriends and I, did not sound or act like Valley girls in the sixties. We sounded and acted like young adolescents desperately trying to fit in with the in-crowd. Often, I was assigned to the out-crowd, but even that was a crowd.
I can still recall the pangs of being told by a small group of in-crowd girls as I tried to catch up to them during lunchtime when they paraded around the quad checking out which of the cutest boys were checking them out being told: "Linda, we don't need you today." I immediately dropped out of step with them. I was dismissed and there was no appeal allowed or necessary. I was simply not "in" that day. I was deeply hurt, but I clamored for acceptance on another quad patrol day. And accepted I was because I was wearing a dress they all coveted. So simple really, no hidden agenda, no talking behind my back. It was a simple message reminiscent of the phrase, "....one day you're in and the next day you're out!" I did not need a memo, or a phone call, I knew exactly where I stood. If only boundaries were that clear cut over our entire maturing process.
In addition, during those times we were often bombarded with the exhortations of great democratic minds:
"Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country; Tune in, turn on, drop out; Do Your Own Thing; Love the one you're with; Peace now; Hell no, we won't go; Make Love not War." From the draft-card-burning protests of the Vietnam War, these are the slogans I remember the most.
How ignorant I was as to the true meaning of any of these slogans and their ramifications in the coming decades. Over and above all of those turbulent years, all I can recall is that when we are little, we either want to be a good kid or a bad kid. The sad part is that in the midst of it, we have no appreciation for the infantile challenges we face, like-getting up, getting dressed, brushing our teeth and even tying our own shoe laces without help, and all of those tasks that make us feel right in all their marvelous lunacy. When we mature and move beyond childish things, of course we pine for those days when we really didn't have much to fret about. Our parents woke us up, saw that we were fed, chauffeured us around, and made sure we got to school on time. We only had to make sure we didn't get into trouble with mom or dad, or our teachers. It was our playmates on the playground and who we hung out with and shared secrets with who counted.
The poignancy of such a time in any of our childhoods, notwithstanding the degree of just how dysfunctional a family we were raised in, is the beauty of existing in a state of such naiveté.
What still amazes me is how I miss it--the simplicity of being a child, the complexity of being a curious teen during a very unpopular war, and only needing to not be the last kid picked on a team for handball to feel alive.
My son called me about a week after his swimming visit to inform me that he had met up with his some of college buddies, about eight of them. They had all met at the beach and for the better part of that afternoon, they ran into the water swimming far through the waves, tossing, dunking and chasing after each other like the younger dolphins they once were.
"How did it feel?" I asked.
"Like it will never be that way again," he said.
"Yes," I said. "It won't."
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Saturday, February 7, 2009
"Oh come on, it’s all based on a true story isn’t it? Come on. Tell me. I know it is.”
I hear this comment often. And now that my novel Letters Between Us has been published by Plain View Press and is going out into the world, some of my preliminary readers, friends, and colleagues are certain that it is an autobiographical novel. Interestingly enough when readers take up works written in first person point of view an incorrect assumption is sometimes made that it’s the voice of the author speaking through the narrator. Because my novel is written in first person, other readers have suggested that I am using the narrator in the novel, Laura Wells, as my persona. After all, she attended Hollywood High School, so did I. She worked in television production, so did I long ago. There are other characteristics we do not share, but you’ll have to read the book to discover what those are besides getting to know me.
Amazing how readers read what they want into a work and believe they are correct no matter what I, or other authors might say about their fiction. My two main character’s names were actually inspired by Katharine (Hepburn) and her dear friend American Express heiress Laura (Harding).
Only because a writer friend of mine who had been close to Hepburn-helping produce some of her movies made for television-thought it would be a nice testament to them and their sixty year friendship. In fact, my two lead characters are nothing like Hepburn and Harding, but I liked the way their two first names looked on the page. Also, I admired Hepburn’s work in films and still relish watching them. So that may dispel any notion of autobiography there. Truth is that although the “I’ in the novel is the protagonist, that “I” is not me, but the voice of a completely made up character struggling with issues I did not necessarily struggle with, but that others may be able to relate to.
The fact is that fiction means “shaping” in Latin. So as an author of fiction I am shaping a story I am telling from a world I know, yes, but not necessarily a world I have lived in. Like any artist using the act of sculpting, I must know just how much to leave intact and just how much to pare down in creating a sense of reality, not my specific reality, but the reality of the characters in the novel. This of course is accomplished through manipulation of literary aspects such as setting, point of view, style, tone, imagery, plot, and so on with the assistance of description. And, as any writer knows, description is only an effective tool on the page if it brings alive the reader’s five senses to savor what has been written. But sometimes boundaries between fact and fiction are blurred creating what is referred to as faction.
I do write fiction and have written and published creative nonfiction so I agree that at times lines between the two become indistinct. And as a writer, I see no difference (as writer John Daniel has said) between what I do in creative nonfiction, narrative essay, dated journal entries, dialogue, faction, or memoir, using the same technical devices as a fiction writer might to tell a story. As far as I am concerned it is all acceptable as long as the text we are reading teaches us how to read it. However, not every reader wants to accept that lesson and prefers to put their own spin on what they are reading and its origins.
The important thing about this entire creative act and the result of its output is that the reader is getting a “good read.” As a reader myself, I want to get lost in someone else’s interpretation of reality, someone else’s rendition of another time, another place. I want to believe in those who populate that space. This so I can escape the pressures of my own world, pressures I desperately seek relief from at times. And through the act of purchasing a book, holding it in my hand, inhaling it, marking the place I left off at with a bookmark, leaving it on my night stand, and often, finding the imprints of rings from a moist steaming cup of tea on it, I can do just that. That for me is a good read. Isn’t the experience the book brings us what really counts?
Again, I hear an echo from a friend last week proclaiming that my novel is based on truth . . . and then adding, “Isn’t it?”
“No,” I answer and explain further that “the label Novel implies a work of fiction.” My girlfriend smiles and says, “Sure.”
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