Monday, November 23, 2009

State of the Book

I have just hit the 20,000 word mark. At this point you should know if a book is working or not. You've established enough of the story so that the general trajectory is fixed to a point and the characterizations are fairly fleshed out. In other words, you've reached the point where you know if you have a viable concept. Yes, we are cooking with gas, kittens!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Do you know what I love about writing? It's not static. Just as much as a reader is at the mercy of the writer, the writer is at the mercy of her/his id. Each book I've written has been different, and by that I mean the process has been different. Some of this is due to circumstance, some of it is that my ability to write has improved, but I think it's because every book is a treasure hunt, for the author as well as the reader. That's why it's so cool. The first book was the endless rewrite. Part of that was because it was such a horrible book and HAD to be rewritten to make it into an intelligent whole. The second book was the book that I thought I'd never finish--that little ovarian cancer scare--but also, and I think this is fairly common with a second book, I lost my confidence. I had to get it back paragraph by paragraph. It was extremely painful emotionally, but it's amazing what being told you don't have stage four cancer can do for your productivity! Who cares if it's horrible? I'm here to write it!

This book is an interesting mix. I see a rewrite in front of me (mostly the beginning, always the hardest part for me), but I also have that confidence, that sense, oh, let's just have fun here, shall we? Yeah. I'm having fun.

But mostly, and, obviously, I don't think this is true for everyone, but I'm coming at this as a wreader. At some point you should surprise yourself. That a paragraph or a scene pops out of nowhere and you type away not sure if it's going to work and then it's sit back and go, whoa. It's as if I were channeling that scene not writing it. You sit back, reread it, and then, hopefully, smile and say to yourself: I like that. Don't know where it came from but YOWZAH!

Of course, there's always the YOWZNOES! The snake pit of cliche that dogs every writer. Those phrases that one tends to use to death. I've found that phrase cloud pretty helpful. I now have a list of words and phrases I am not allowed to use.

Some day, I'm going to make a map about the writing process. Sort of like a Candyland for writers (I overuse "sort of" ALL THE TIME). The "cliche" spot where when you land it bumps you back to the "Land of Snores." The "Doldrums" where you can't get out because you're writing but not going any place constructive in the book. It's only when you draw a "Delete last chapter" card that you get free. Wow. I think I have a really good idea here!

See. The Id. So sneaky. So fun.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Any book that opens with the author having to undergo a hysterectomy has me hooked. I had one and nothing says ma soeur like matching scars.

Aside from the nascent bonding over major surgery, Rhoda Janzen’s memoir of her Mennonite childhood also rings a lot of similar bells. I didn’t grow up Mennonite, but I did grow up the child of immigrants, and I share many of her social disconnects. Ms. Janzen fills this memoir with many references to dishes that are particular to Mennonite culture. My mother’s refrigerator never had a can of Coke in it until she bought a six-pack in response to my children’s request for “soda.” She grew up in dairy country in Ireland where beverages consisted of either milk or booze. Since she wasn’t in the habit of pouring her children a pint, we drank milk at all three meals. I imagine Ms. Janzen can relate. In addition, she has a mother that sounds a lot like my mother. My mother isn’t religious but she might as well be. Ms. Janzen’s mother hands out hugs with jars of strawberry jam; my mother hugs and then knits, whatever, for whomever. And yes, my family have the same sort of inbred discussions that she has at her family table: the obligatory rehashing of old gossip, with a fresh helping of new gossip, what the relatives are up to, what the neighbors are up to, etc.

So much of this memoir I connected with on a fundamental level.

The good: Clearly this writer is smart and adept at writing. I feel the need to say this because, alas (she uses that construction as well; how much we have in common in terms of style is a little creepy), good writing is in short supply these days. She salts info dumps on Mennonite culture throughout this memoir and yet they don’t feel like info dumps. The snippets glide and out of the general story and by the end of the book, by golly, you know a ton about Mennonite culture. This is shockingly hard to do, and I very much appreciated the skill it took to not make it seem like Mennonite 1A. Part of this deft slight of hand is accomplished because she’s damn amusing. Yes, this book is funny, witty, and well written.

The bad: This book scored many points as I chuckled through paragraph after paragraph and yet. It starts off the hysterectomy. The admittedly difficult husband proves to be quite adept at dealing with ensuing medical nightmares, only to abandon her for another man. The joke about her getting dumped by her husband for another guy gets far too much play, especially when we realize three-quarters of the way through the book that this husband had a sexual relationship with another man before they were married. At that point all those previous tee hees about and “Bob” seem a little hollow.

Post dump she spends her sabbatical with her parents. The disconnect between the humor and the reality in this book creates a gap that the author has trouble filling. We have many pages devoted to lovely and funny family interaction during this sabbatical. (I mean really funny; I snorted milk through my nose reading about the Scrabble game and you can believe that the next time I play Scrabble, I’m going to present lionhairs as a legitimate word). As the memoir progresses, however, the previous humorous asides on the husband cannot hide how toxic this marriage was. I came away wondering, why did you abandon these charming people for that asshole? I don’t believe she ever answers that question successfully. Because it was obvious that while married she must have lived a compartmentalized life, visiting her family without the uber controlling, disapproving, judgmental Nick. I’m reaching here, but I guess the point is that it worked both ways. By marrying him, she escaped the family dynamic that wouldn’t have readily accepted her as the intellectual free spirit that Nick approved (and leeched off of).

As the novels progresses, the ugly truth about her marriage arrives in drips and drabs. By the end of the book we are madly in love with her family, and she finishes the book with the conclusion that she's come “home.” In light of the charming portrayals of her family (even the odd childhood isn’t that odd; I, too, wore weird clothes because my mother didn’t know any differently and bought me weird clothes), by the end of this novel we’re asking ourselves, “What in the hell took you so long?” There is no clear understanding why she hitches her star to this handsome, charming, bi-polar jerk. I found myself looking for clues that she didn’t provide. I suppose it was because he offered an escape. Someone who would support her determined quest that was in flagrant opposition to everything her Mennonite culture championed. It was also someone who reinforced the strict hierarchical, paternal construct she grew up with. I was looking for—and didn’t find—her own epiphany that her parents determining what she wore as a child and teenager in homage to her Mennonite tenets was no different—at least in my eyes—to her husband picking out her wardrobe in homage to his dictates about what was chic.

It is not until the last third of the book do we see how truly grim her marriage was; their relationship and his subsequent flight isn’t really the stuff of humor. I think that there is another story lurking here that isn’t funny at all. A story about a woman who is caught between two worlds destined to collide, the collateral damage a given. Only once is there a scene where her lack of faith and chosen lifestyle is an issue, and that's with brothers that she admits are practical strangers. I think that since faith is such a driving force in her immediate family that less effort might have been paid to the lying about being allergic to raisins versus being an agnostic with a father who she acknowledges is the Mennonite equivalent of the Pope.

She ends this book with the conviction that she’s come home, but I’m not sure that she made a compelling argument as to why she had to leave.

Thanks to Ashley Pattison of Henry Holt and Co. for the ARC.