does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, August 21, 2010

It’s Been Quite a Year

My Pilgrim Soul adventure started August of last year with a post about the similarities between authors Chinua Achebe, Ron Rash, and, I hoped, one of my novels. To my delight, blogging introduced me to a richly rewarding online community. What's more, for the first time the publishing decision about my writing was, for better or worse, entirely mine. Wow, what a privilege.

So here’s a great big thank you to those who have been with me on my pilgrimage as it evolved from focusing solely on my fiction to embracing broader issues of culture, religion, writing craft, and heroism. Because most of you were not here at the beginning, I am sharing an updated version of one of my earliest posts:

“How the Rediscovery of My Father’s Words Led to My Writing Fiction.”

The first novel I ever wrote was birthed in a time of great upheaval in my life. I had walked away from my business career the year before. My marriage had ended. My father died soon after. In retrospect, it is not surprising that I might try something new like writing fiction. How it actually happened though still astounds me.

After my father's death, I began transcribing his poetry, essays, and sermons to distribute to family and friends. It was challenging work for several reasons. Many of the audio tapes were of abysmal quality. Despite that, his familiar voice still rose above the scratchiness, and I grieved that I would never again hear him speak directly to me. More than once, I almost abandoned the project, convinced I was only prolonging my grieving.

As if that weren’t already challenging enough, my father’s sermons were all in Spanish, no longer my primary language. I found myself rummaging through his huge unabridged dictionary, trying to find words no one used in ordinary language. At least I never heard them. It was often frustrating as I was never sure I had heard a word correctly, given the sometimes awful quality of the tapes.

Several months later, having listened to the final tape and transcribed the last sermon, I sent out the material to family and friends. That was when I realized that, instead of prolonging my grieving process, my transcription project had actually eased my transition into a world in which I could no longer pick up the phone to talk to my dad.

That was not the only surprise. I woke up one morning with the lines of an unfamiliar Spanish poem swirling in my head. I wrote down the poem and, for the next few months, found myself writing poetry in Spanish, something I’d never done before. And, no, I’ve not looked at those poems recently. I’d rather keep alive the memory of how magical a time writing those poems was rather than think about editing.

The period of writing poems in Spanish lasted about half a year. One morning, as surprising as when it first appeared, the impulse to write poetry vanished. Soon after, though, I found myself, again, waking up with material sloshing in my brain that seemed to want to be written down. That turned out to be the beginning of a novel. And for the first time in my adult life, I felt I was exactly where I should be, writing fiction.

In the years since, my writing craft has improved, and I have come to appreciate how the hard work of creating a novel or story involves taking that initial magical spark of inspiration and, through dogged hard work, transforming it into something in which story, characters, dialogue, conflict, and style cohere. I wonder, though, if any of my subsequent novels and short stories would have been written had I not undertaken transcribing my father’s work.


Thank you, papi, for your marvelous gift of prompting me to write fiction. Thank you, readers, for sharing my pilgrimage over the last year.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Ladies’ Gallery by Irene Vilar, a Book Review

A review of this memoir had been planned well before the author’s legendary grandmother Lolita Lebrón died in early August. I almost cancelled the review as a result. I did not want this to be viewed as yet another eulogy about the woman who in 1954 led a small armed group into the visitor’s gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives. There, after a cry of “Long Live a Free Puerto Rico!” Lolita Lebrón and her companions opened fire, wounding five lawmakers. For that act, which I do not condone, she served 25 years in prison.

Then I realized that I probably would not have read The Ladies' Gallery except for the fact that the author was Lolita Lebrón’s granddaughter. The book is a commendable addition to the body of mental illness memoirs, but what makes it unique is the behind-the-scenes insight into the family of a mythic figure in Puerto Rican history. This memoir is, at times, disturbing because suicide and mental illness figure prominently across generations. It could also be considered a cautionary tale about the perils of pursuing zealously a consuming dream; in Lebrón’s case, the independence of Puerto Rico.

In The Ladies’ Gallery, Irene Vilar alternates italicized sections focused on the author’s prior mental illness with non-italicized sections focused on her unique family history. We discover that when Lolita Lebrón moved to New York in 1941, she turned over her infant daughter Gladys to her mother and then barely saw her again. Thirty-seven years later, Gladys herself will abandon her own daughter Irene Vilar by throwing herself from a moving car. The author, then eight years old, would try to stop her mother, only to be left holding a remnant of lace. Vilar later navigates her own journey with suicidal depression.

The Ladies’ Gallery is a sometimes emotionally raw voyage into desperate mental illness. It also provides a unique view of the lasting impact on a family when a member becomes a controversial and iconic public figure. The intertwined tale of three generations of women is told with honesty and pain. Lolita Lebrón looms large in this tale. About her grandmother, Vilar says, “My grandmother obviously saw herself as a martyr for the liberation of Puerto Rico.” The cost of that martyrdom for Lebrón's extended family was huge. In the end, Vilar compares her grandmother, mother, and herself to Homer’s Sirens, about whom she says, “The song of the Sirens is the great paradox that suicides and madmen know.”

Of potential interest:

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Short Story Took Over My Life

An idea about a woman in conflict came to me, and I immediately recognized its potential for the basis of a short story. I was concerned, though, about taking precious time away from my work-in-progress novel, which already had to compete for time with daily life obligations.

It’s a short story, I told myself. With a brief leave of absence, I could write the story and then return to my novel.

I immediately banged out a reasonably complete 1200-word story. I liked what I saw. It had all the necessary components of a story: conflict, setbacks, resolution, etc. I had even created multi-dimensional characters.

The next morning I read the story with a sinking feeling. It was a good story, but incomplete. So I added emotional shading to my protagonist. I printed the new version, read it, and thought, Great! Then I went off to take care of Life.

The story was there when I approached my computer the next morning. This time, I discovered that the order of the paragraphs (read action) was clumsy. I fixed all that, printed the story, liked what I saw, and moved on to Life.

I arrived the next morning with the intention of researching potential markets for the story. Except I read the story again and discovered that I didn’t like this adjective here or that verb there and, by the way, the woman’s husband had no sympathetic qualities. This meant that the reader’s identification with the female protagonist was in jeopardy because what worthy woman would fall in love with such a flawed man? That happens all the time in real life, I know, but as the writer I had to communicate why she was attracted to him. So I worked on adding dimensionality to the husband. And, yes, printed the story, liked it; you must be seeing a pattern here.

I won’t describe in more detail how this process has repeated itself for the last three weeks, during which time I have not written a single word for my novel. I finally achieved, though, a 1985-word short story which looks to be in more-than-decent shape. And, yes, I feel this way after successive morning readings.

I still couldn't get back to my novel, though. I now had to allot my writing time quota to thinking about where to send my newly minted short story. I opened my literary review files, only to be blasted away by the sheer number of potential reviews to which I could submit my story. Mind you, that master list has long since been culled to include only what I consider to be suitable/desirable markets for my type of writing. That was when I realized that this part of the process was going to take more time away from ... yeah, my novel.

I asked myself if I even remembered anymore what my novel characters were doing and realized I had better reread the work-in-progress novel to find out. I started doing that, only to discover that there is so much to fix, it's not funny. So now I am tearing apart the early chapters of the WIP novel. In other words, I still am not writing new material. At least, though, I am in novel mode, I console myself.

But I haven’t sent out my short story yet! And Life Obligations are grumbling about being ignored. OMG. Isn’t this supposed to be fun?