Write What Comes

In AWA workshops facilitators are trained to encourage participants to write what comes. Sometimes I’ll notice a writer cringe or look startled after contemplating the prompt. That’s my queue to gently remind them that, “What you write today is what you’re supposed to write.”
A few weeks ago, I had to swallow my own medicine. It was bitter, and I had to fight like hell to keep it down.
The prompt was: Begin with a twinkle in someone’s eye.
I imagined I’d see a kind, elderly old man, or a cherub like child smiling and ready to tell his or her story of love, happiness and butterflies. Nope. What came surprised and frightened me. In our 25 minute writing period, I had to fight with this man who would not go away. So, I took my own advice and gave in.


He hated when she looked at him that way; dark grey eyes twinkling with the beginnings of tears. Tears that would puddle in the corner of her eyes, and then slide down the sides of her face. She never sobbed or wailed or whimpered. She was the calmest crier he had ever known. After he finished, after his last blow, he would step back, dazed with anger and rage, mad more at himself, and unable to remember what had set him off. This time.

She, his wife, would look up at him and not utter a word. He would later swear to himself that sometimes she looked like she was begging him for more. But he knew that couldn’t be true. So he would keep staring, his chest heaving up and down, his fists clinched. He never knew what else to do.

His mother; now that was a woman who knew how to put up a fight. When his pop came at her, usually after a night of drinking and god-knows-what, his mom would pick up the nearest frying pan, broom stick, shoe, or whatever she could get her hands on and defend herself.
“Get away from me you sonofabitch!”
Pop usually got it as bad as Ma, both of them waking up the next day with bruises, scratches and sore throats from all the yelling they done.

Love is a fight and you do hurt the ones you love. He learned that early. He needed to teach his wife that same lesson.
****

This is a first draft and, if you asked me today, I would tell you it’s the last draft too. I have no desire to come back to this story, this monster. But, I suspect, he will appear in another story, or as I continue work on my second novel. Since I confronted him this time, I think I’ll be better prepared to deal with him—or someone like him—next time.

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True Grit and Cat Throwing

A few days after Christmas, the 1969 version of True Grit was on TV. I watched it with my mom. About five minutes into  the move, right before Mattie’s pa goes off with the shifty Tom Chaney, Mattie’s mother looks at her daughter and says, “You can still throw a cat through the south wall.” She was trying to illustrate the sorry state of Chaney’s living quarters, and also hoping to get her daughter to feel a little sympathy for poor old Chaney, which turns out to be a bad judgment call on the mother’s part.

Right after the mom spoke,  I turned to my mom and said, “I bet they cut that line from the movie. Can you imagine the backlash if that line was still in? The Cohen Brothers would be attacked by the SPCA every other Cat Lovers  MeetUp group from Los Angeles to New York.”

Well, not that I am even sure the Cohen Brothers would actually care, but that first part of the story was cut out all together. Mattie gets the audience up to date with a thirty, and cat-throwing-free, retell of the beginning of the story. The  movie opens with Mattie and her servant viewing father in his casket. 

One of the first lessons we get as fiction writers is to “write freely” and to not censor ourselves. But what if we create a character who says, quite naturally, “You could throw a cat through the south wall”? What if our character can’t help but refer to that strange man in her building as “retarded”?  What about all those teenage characters who still use “gay” as a negative?  

I know that my fingers have halted over the keyboard whenever I sense a character going into non PC territory. I stop. I ruminate. I worry.

But then I remember something Flannery O’Connor (my hero) said. After a book review editor accused her of “scandalizing the ‘little ones,’ Flannery, a devout Catholic, sought advice from her priest. After musing over it a bit, she comes to this conclusion:

When you write a novel, if you have  been honest about it and if your conscience is clear, then it seems to me that you have to leave the rest in God’s hands. When the book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that the writer to worry about this is to take over God’s business . . .

 

I’m not Catholic, so I tend to substitute “Universe” for “God.” But the meaning is still the same. When we write honestly, we have no need to censor, to worry. Let the Universe handle it.

By writing honestly I mean writing without an agenda. A few years ago I read the fiction submissions for an online journal. I often came across stories that had the writer’s personal beliefs all over it: this writer hates men; this writer is a card-carrying member of the NRA; this writer thinks global warming is a myth; this writer is pro-choice. It comes out in the characters, which are typically presented as one-dimensional.  And the plots usually conclude with these characters either happily learning from their mistakes, or suffering because they failed to learn their lesson. 

Another lesson we learn in fiction writing is to make our characters “real.” Real people are never one-dimensional. Real people are contradictory, possessing both positive and negative qualities.

Understanding the complete picture by fleshing out your characters and discovering their past, helps to create a ‘whole view of things.’ “The fact is that in order not to be scandalized, one has to have a whole view of things, which not many of us have.” (O’Connor) 

Here’s how to get a whole view of things:

  • Follow your characters around all day and take notes about what they do and how they do it.
  • Interview your character’s family members,  their coworkers and neighbors.
  • Make a list of their vital statistics: birthdate, address, income level, education, etc.
  • Fill out a job application for you character, or an E-Harmony or Match. Com profile. (Don’t actually do this–make a real page for a fictional person – they frown on that.) 

Whenever I go through this list with students, I usually hear a few groans. Yes, it is a lot of work  but if you care about the people you are writing about, it should be enjoyable, not a chore. And please don’t expect to use everything you discover in your final draft. The key is to make the reader believe that you, the writer, know more about this person than you are revealing on the page.

 So, getting back to the woman in the building and her strange neighbor, she may call him “retarded,” but she also volunteers at the homeless shelter three times a week, and spends the other four days delivering library books to the homebound. Or she was raised in a family where the term was used with endearment: “Come here you cute little re-tard!”

Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn because he has “true grit.” She wants someone who will hunt down her father’s killer with a fearless vengeance. As writers, we need to have the same sort of fearlessness when we explore our characters. What we discover will surprise, shock and delight us, and our readers too.

 Quotes from, Flannery O’Connor; Spiritual  Writings. Edited by Robert Ellsberg. Orbis Books, 2003.

Huckleberry Finn in 2011

The year is 2011 and America is still grappling with the issue of race. The election of Barack Obama, two years ago, was a historical event that shook the sleeping beast of racial tension. Now, in 2011, that beast is being riled again by the decision to publish a new edition of  Huckleberry Finn without its “offensive” words.

Professor Alan Gribbon of Auburn University is the man behind the decision. He states that without the change, people simply won’t read the book.  By people he is referring to the teachers and college professors who shy away from assigning text. And he is right. There have been cases where parents have  sued to have the book removed from reading lists. Teachers, already overburdened with budget cuts, larger classes and fewer resources, should not be blamed from shying away from anything that would add to the stress of their job.  But I believe there is a solution.

The offensive word is, as everybody knows, nigger. This is my favorite line from the book : 

 “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger.”

I guess the line could work with “slave” inserted instead of  “nigger,”  but I believe the bigger question is: Does it have to? Isn’t America old enough to be able to read this wonderful story, in the context in which it is supposed to be read, without anyone becoming offended or put-off? The key word in my question is “context.”

When I was getting my teacher’s credential, we learned a little concept called “front loading.” Basically what this means is that before we presented the main content, whether it be fractions or a new story, to our students, we had to make sure they had enough prior knowledge, or context, on the subject. Front loading makes sure the students are prepared to receive the information.  For example, before reading “The Old Man and the Sea,” my students learned about the island of Cuba, marlin fishing, what a skiff looks like and more. When they finally began to actually read the story, I was sure they had enough context so that the deeper meanings or themes of the book could come through.

Of course deconstructing a skiff is nothing compared to deconstructing the word nigger, but is it a challenge we  should shy away from? Can that word even be deconstructed to a point where it is not offensive?

Yes! 

I would like to suggest that anyone concerned about this read Toni Morrison’s book, Playing in the Dark; Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press, 1990). This nonfiction text was the subject of my master thesis. I used her academic “map,” to deconstruct the use of the word “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn, and another story, “The Artificial Nigger,” by Flannery O’Connor. Another great writer who has, I feared, been shifted to the margins in a misguided effort to not offend.

Below is the first section of my critical paper. In it I write about my own experience with forced censorship in Huckleberry Finn, my reactions to it, and how it really needn’t be that way.   

***

During my undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to reread Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The class was American Literature; 1895 to the Present. During our discussions of the novel, the instructor would often call on students to read certain passages aloud. Before this happened, he informed us that he found the “N-word” offensive and that whenever we came to it in the text, we were to substitute it for the more acceptable, non-offensive, “African American.” No one disagreed, and we all dutifully followed his directions. Passages such as: “I liked the nigger for that; I tell you, gentlemen, a nigger like that is worth a thousand dollars . . .” read like this: “I liked the African American for that; I tell you, gentlemen, an African American like that is worth a thousand dollars” (Twain 402). As I sat there listening to this new offensive-less version of Huck Finn, I definitely felt that something had been lost in this politically correct translation. I sat there racking my brains trying to formulate an objection or at the very least, a sophisticated question that would cause the professor to change his mind.  

At the time I thought that this change was unnecessary and, well, silly. I am sure the intent to not offend was the genesis for the mandate, and for that I give him credit. No one would disagree that “nigger” is a politically charged word and just the mention of it, in whatever context, had the very real potential of veering the class into a discussion of racism, bigotry and the horrors of slavery. As Kennedy states in his essay “Who Can Say ‘Nigger?,’” “Nigger is the all-American trump card, the nuclear bomb of racial epithets” (86). By changing Jim from a “nigger” to an “African American,” my instructor was doing his best to avoid turning his classroom into another Hiroshima.  

Speaking as an African American, I wasn’t offended because I understood it to be the vernacular of the time, and more importantly, I knew Mark Twain was not referring to me. I believe what the instructor failed to do was understand or consider what the usage of the term signified or represented in Huck’s world. The emphasis should have been on that, not whether 21st century readers found the word “offensive.” Changing Jim from a “nigger” to an “African American” reduced his persona to someone who just happened to be non-white and catapulted him into the politically correct 21st Century. But Jim wasn’t an “African American.” Not to Huck, the Widow Douglas, Tom or any of the other characters, and certainly not to Mark Twain.

 The class discussion continued with Huck, and “African American Jim” sailing down the Mississippi River with the vital and deeper meanings in the text sailing not too far behind them, and then me, silently exiting the classroom, not knowing how to verbalize my concerns or questions over this new form of censorship. Three years later, I would happily find an answer in Toni Morrison’s, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. In this nonfiction text, Morrison successfully, albeit inadvertently, tackles what professors, literary critics and readers have struggled with for centuries: how to interpret, deal with and deconstruct the “niggers” that appeared on the pages of early American literature. Morrison skillfully lays down new and wider boundaries in which to study, deconstruct and interpret these characters in early American Literature.

Unlike others, her “target of attack is not the obvious one of racist stereotypes and language” (Fishkin 629). Her text does not address who should or should not say “nigger,” or even whether one should be offended by it. Instead, Morrison “tackles” the deeper, often ignored discussion of the relevancy, portrayal and symbolism the black characters or “niggers” in literature written by and for white Americans, and her “map” sets forth the guidelines and boundaries of exploration into this area that has been largely ignored, glossed over, or censored by critics and academics.

Like Playing in the Dark, this essay is not about offensive language or censorship. That topic has been beaten to death and new adventures await the literary students, teachers and critics just over the horizon of offensiveness. In this essay, I will show how Morrison uses her map to deconstruct Twain’s usage of “the nigger Jim,” showing it not to be a racist or offensive text, but a truly revealing text that shines the light more on Huck’s whiteness and less on Jim’s blackness. I will then use the same critique or lens to deconstruct another icon of American Literature: Flannery O’Connor. I believe Miss O’Connor has been a victim of the same fate that has censored Mark Twain. To counter this, I will use the parameters of Playing to show how O’Connor’s strategic use of the word “nigger” should be neither censured, nor dismissed as mere racism. By using the literary lens set forth in Playing, analyses that are both startling and revealing rise to the surface, shedding new light on novels and stories that have been the mainstay of college literature.