Monthly Archives: June 2015

Running in the Dark

city boys“We ruled Bayside. We camped up on the garage roofs. We lit a fire. We could see in all directions. We were ready for any attack.”

For a writer to describe adults going about their lives, and do it well, is difficult (to say the least). To describe the lives of children, and do it well—how much more difficult, to get into a world that in some ways is like a different universe from the one where we spend most of our lives. In that children’s world, the reasons for things are different from what adults know, there are mysteries created by the adults, and there is always the knowledge that power resides with the grown-ups.

In the novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the Irish writer Roddy Doyle has used first-person to create a narrative entirely in the voice and from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy. Paddy Clarke is no angel, but he does seem very human as he makes his way through the riddle of childhood.

There is no plot in any usual sense, nor really even a pretense of plot, a bold move by a confident writer, and it’s a decision that works. The reason to read this book is simply to be with Paddy, to follow him around in his world, listen to his thoughts, and feel his feelings. In doing so, the reader gets a rather remarkable immersion into the mind of a young Irish boy.

Listen to Paddy’s voice, as he refers to a bag of biscuits (cookies) at another boy’s house, to the desks at school, and to trying to get his father to do something:

  • “They were broken biscuits, a brown bag of them; there was nothing wrong with them except they were broken.”
  • “All desks smelt the same, in all the rooms.”
  • “I wished he’d done it the first time. It wasn’t fair the way he made you nearly cry before he changed and did what you wanted him to.”

Despite the absence of plot, there is a definite feeling of movement in the narrative. In part this comes from a sense of chronology, as we watch time pass. More importantly to the reader’s sense of involvement, Paddy closely watches (and is emotionally engaged in) the shaky relationship of his parents, and we see changes in that relationship as Paddy experiences them. We also get a feeling in the novel of seeing some emotional growth in Paddy.

Perhaps to keep us immersed in the boy’s world, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is written in a single flowing narrative, with no chapters or sections. Instead it is broken randomly into parts that immediately follow one another on the same page, separated only by a blank line to mark the change. A conversation Paddy has with his brother about their father, for instance, is suddenly followed by Paddy’s comments on the colors of the venetian blinds. For some sections, listening to the flow of Paddy’s thoughts can almost give a feeling of stream of consciousness.

Over time we see Paddy with his family (mother, father, and little brother Francis, who he calls Sinbad), and we see him at school, in stores, at church, and—in particular—all over town with friends, exploring constructions sites, in an old barn, or playing games in the street. Speaking of one of the construction sites, where a giant pipe has been installed, Paddy says, “Running through the pipe was the most frightening brilliant thing I’d ever done. I was the first to do it for a dare, run all the way down, from outside my house down to the seafront, in the pitch black after a few steps.”

These boys are at times juvenile delinquents in training, both cruel and destructive, torturing one another, stealing and breaking things, yet in the end they seem real, the way young boys might be. Paddy comes off sometimes as hard and mean, at other times as sentimental, and at still other times as scared or upset.

He is a boy trying to make sense of a very confusing world. In one of his interpretations of that world, he says, “Mister Quigley was dead and Missis Quigley wasn’t that old, so she must have done something to him; that was what everyone thought. We decided that she’d ground up a wine glass and put the powder in his omelette—I’d seen that in Hitchcock Presents and it made a lot of sense.”

Many other things do not make sense to Paddy, but in this book we can watch him try to deal with them.

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Except He’s White

south carolina flagsHorrible events, like the shooting in Charleston this week, produce understandable and necessary expressions of emotion, which we’re seeing now. They also bring the inevitable expressions of hideous stupidity. You could probably time it with a stop watch—how long does it take the NRA to tell us that guns are totally not a problem yet again—can you even count how many times you’ve heard the NRA excuse mass killing?

And sometimes a horrible event provokes unexpectedly thoughtful discussions. In an editorial in the Washington Post, Anthea Butler from the University of Pennsylvania writes about the different ways we talk about these killers, depending on their race and cultural background. In the news reports you’ve seen about this event, how many times have you seen the word “terrorist”? If the killer’s family had come here from Sudan and his name was Muhammad, how many times would that would that word have been used already? How we talk about things matters.

So let’s take Butler’s idea and go into a very imaginary world, to listen to this conversation between a news host and reporter on Fox News. Across the bottom of the screen, a line of text runs saying “Terrorist suspect caught in Shelby, North Carolina”.

Host: “And in the latest terror incident to hit the U.S., Dylann Roof is believed to have been the shooter who committed the atrocity inside an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. We’re joined by our reporter Walter Green, who is in Charleston. Walter, are the police saying why they believe this shooting occurred?”

Reporter: “They’re not saying too much yet, but we think the shooter clearly had a religious motive. He went into the oldest AME church in the south, where people were engaged in religious study, and he stayed there for a while before he began shooting. It seems pretty clear that religion was a factor in this terrorist attack.”

Host: “Do we have any additional information about motives?”

Reporter: “Yes, there’s also strong evidence that Roof had a racial motivation. In addition to comments he made before he began killing his victims, we’re seeing on his Facebook page an image of him wearing a jacket that has flags from the former white supremacist governments of South Africa and Rhodesia.”

Host: “Do we know if Roof ever actually visited one of those countries? Is it possible he left the United States for terrorist training, or did he even go to school in those places? Could he have picked up his radical ideas over there?”

Reporter: “We don’t know that yet, but it’s definitely possible. The police have not yet told us that they’re ruling anything out.”

Host: “From conversations you’re having with people there in Charleston, are people concerned about how a young man from the community could have become so radicalized? I think I was hearing earlier today that he was once a quiet young man, and now he turns up as an apparent radical terrorist.”

Reporter: “There’s a lot of concern. Yes. People are wondering how this kind of thing could happen. But there’s also a disturbing underground of radicalization here that most people in the United States probably don’t know about. For example the Confederate flag, a known symbol of racial intolerance, currently flies permanently next to the state house in Columbia, the capital of Charleston, and we know that Roof lived not far from Columbia. There’s no doubt he would have seen that flag. It’s hard not to think that would have been an influence in his radicalization.”

Host: “So is it possible that the shooter wasn’t just a terrorist lone wolf, but that he’s part of a larger network?”

Reporter: “I’d say it’s possible. He didn’t radicalize himself, so Roof may not be a loner in that regard. He at least seems to be part of a larger ideological network.”

Host: “Are you saying there’s active support for terrorism there?”

Reporter: “We can’t quite say that, but when you see their flag flying openly, and clearly with the support of some important people, you’re not sure what to think.”

Host: “That is shocking. And how are people in Charleston reacting to such a brazen act of terrorism in their midst by one of their own.”

Reporter: “They’re just stunned. That’s all I can say, and they really don’t understand how this young man could have become filled with these kinds of ideas.”

Host: “Thank you, Walter. That was Walter Green in Charleston, South Carolina. In other news, ironically, today the Supreme Court issued a ruling that the state of Texas can legally remove the same Confederate flag from its license plates. Perhaps this is one step toward fighting against the radicalization of these young people. And we’ll be back after this.”

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I Be

To be or not to be signA few days ago I was at a poetry reading with an open mic, and as one guy read his poems I was thinking, “Man, this is dull, uninteresting poetry.” There were various things the poetry did not have (imagination, playfulness, linguistic awareness), but there was also something it did have. As he read, I noticed how seriously he took what he was doing, how intensely engaged he appeared to be with what he was saying.

The poems were not about the words or the images and perhaps not even about the feeling they created. These poems were about the ideas—the poet had something to say, and it mattered to him a good deal that he say it. For whatever reason, he had chosen poetry as his way to present those ideas.

If this man was like most people, he would sometimes ask himself “am I any good at this?” with a self doubt that’s almost inevitable. I say it was brave of him to get up in front of a room full of strangers and read things that clearly came from his heart. Think about doing that. Not only would you show how you feel, but you’d do it in a way that will cause people to judge you for how you wrote.

What would make him, or anyone, do that?

When I drive to work every day, there is a spot where I sit sometimes for a few minutes waiting on a light, with two lanes of traffic passing to my left, and at that time of morning, the sunlight shows the faces of the drivers as they go by. I like to watch the drivers, and I find the variety interesting: old men, young women, construction workers in trucks, women with kids in SUVs, white, black, Asian—for a couple of seconds I focus on a person, and then they’re gone.

I always wonder where they’re going, what thoughts are filling their minds. For two seconds I think “here is a person whose world is as complicated and full of detail as my own, with worries, with plans, with something they’re going to do today” and then they’re gone. From this little game, I sometimes try to conceive of the fact that there is another person and another and another and another, until you get billions of people, each with a world that is complicated and full of detail. On the occasions when I can somewhat imagine this, it’s so overwhelming it sort of takes my breath away.

Everyone has something that needs saying. Of the billions of people on the earth, each of them needs to say something. Not everyone says what they need to, because some are repressed, some are oppressed, and some are simply afraid. Whether a person says what they need to say or not, however, everyone needs it.

People who want to control others take away their speech. Look at all dictators (wave at the camera, Russia and China.) When people do express their thoughts, it doesn’t have to be done in poetry, of course, but however it is done, by speaking—whether real speaking or symbolic speech—we gain both power and freedom.

So even bad poetry is a declaration of self respect and freedom. Sometimes it isn’t that we speak well, but that we are strong enough and brave enough to speak at all.

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Rigorous Rules to Write Gooder

john-kerry-confused

Uh oh, did I leave it on the plane?

A few days ago I was indulging in one of my habitual reveries on the delight of the writing life, and veering momentarily into reality, I thought that everything I ever wrote was so much better before I wrote it down. As long as my writing remained in the Platonic ideal of pure ideas, why gosh, it would make you simply weep from how beautiful and perfect it was. But then I would spoil it by putting it on paper.

Maybe my problem is that I never bought a rule book. On the other hand, the rule books I’ve seen always have dumb, vague rules like “Don’t use two words when one will do.” How am I supposed to know or comprehend whether I need one word or two? And what about that rule that a preposition is one thing you should never send a sentence with? Who thought that up?

I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, David’s a professional writer, or would be if anyone had ever paid him, so he could probably provide some truly practical rules in his blog.” Coming right up! I’ve even divided them into categories.

Punctuation

1) Writing should be exciting to read and should hold the reader and make them feel something, so always use plenty of exclamation points. People just naturally feel more excited when they see those things. Like this!

2) You should capitalize any word that seems Important to You Personally. Otherwise, how would the reader know, and the whole point of people reading you is to know your personal opinion.

3) When a word needs to be emphasized, use quotation marks, to show that you really mean it: My mother always prepared “delicious” food, and we were glad to “eat” it.

Style

4) You want your readers to stay engaged with what you’re saying, so at least once in every paragraph, end a sentence with “you know?” This makes readers feel that you’re asking their opinion, and they will think more about what they’re reading.

5) Also to keep readers engaged, mention things in your writing that people like, such as kittens, chocolate, or naps. Even in more formal writing, like journalism, this can still be done: Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Paris this morning for the donor conference, bringing a kitten for President Hollande.

6) Don’t let your writing get too heavy, which turns readers off, so if you need to write about serious topics, occasionally add phrases such as “he said smiling” or “she laughed”: “When did your family drown?” he said smiling.

Content

7) Write about what you know, especially if what you know is invasions from other planets, foreign spies who have infiltrated the American government, or lots of sex with really attractive people. OK, not that last one. We would know you just made that up.

8) Don’t write about high school, because I hate that, and not just because I got locked in the girls’ bathroom that time, and I was wearing pants. That was just a lie people spread.

9) If you write about famous people who are still alive, always make them one inch taller than they really are. They will feel flattered by this and will not sue you for writing about them: Tom Cruise, all five feet four inches of him, staggered drunkenly out onto the sidewalk.

Organization

Maybe I should have put this point first. Now that I think about it, though, I’m not too clear on what this refers to anyway, so never mind this one. You don’t need it.

So if you will follow the “rules” I’ve laid out here, you will end up with writing that says What You Wrote, you know? He said smiling. And held up a kitten!

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