Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Statue That Doesn’t Exist

white block of stoneI was born and raised in the south, in north Georgia. My family is here, and my roots are here. My grandfather’s middle name was Jackson, because his own grandfather fought in the Civil War with general Stonewall Jackson. As a southerner, I’ve often heard, and still hear, people saying that Confederate symbols, like the battle flag or the enormous carvings on Stone Mountain here in Atlanta, represent “our southern heritage”.

The word “heritage” has positive connotations. When we talk about heritage, we mean something good worth keeping that has been passed on to us, some cultural practice or memory. A person with Irish heritage might feel a desire to visit Ireland because family came from there. If you have Russian heritage, perhaps you feel proud of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. Perhaps you eat caviar.

The claims that Confederate symbols represent southern heritage have multiple problems, starting with referring to them as “southern” in a broad sense. When people say that the Confederate battle flag is “southern heritage” do they mean to say that black southerners support a war that wanted to keep them in slavery, or are they saying that black people are not actually part of the south? The claim of heritage in this case, if it means anything, means “white southern heritage”. Such racism is usually just assumed—because, hey, the south is about being white, right?

If you have some basic capacity for rational thought, or analysis, or even just paying attention in school, you know that history often contains ugly things, but everything that happened in the past is history, whether we like it or not. History, however, is not the same as heritage. Does it require a linguist to explain that these two words are very different? Yet Confederacy supporters act as if they can’t tell the difference.

“We need to remember our history” they say, as if anyone has said otherwise. Of course we need to remember our history…but it would be nice for a change to look at it honestly. Pretending that the Confederacy was a noble undertaking, without seeing that its purpose was to maintain the thunderous horror of slavery, is twisting our history, not “remembering” it.

Occasionally, a different rhetorical tactic is used, so that instead of remembering our history, we are asked to deliberately forget it. In that approach, I’ve heard jaw-dropping nonsense about how the Confederacy was created and the war was fought in support of “states’ rights”. Even that phrase, however, contains a slippery lie with the plural “s” on the word “rights”. There were no rights (plural) being fought over, only one “right”—the right to own human beings. And no such right exists or ever did.

Slavery and racism are our history here in the south. It’s ugly, and it’s depressing, and it’s the truth. That’s my history, and I accept it as a history that runs through my own family, but I am not so pathetic or morally degraded as to say that a war in support of slavery is my heritage.

When you drive through Virginia on interstate 95, you see a sign for the “Stonewall Jackson Shrine” where he died. A “shrine” by definition is a holy place. Contrast this practice with the case of Denmark Vesey, a freed slave in Charleston, South Carolina, who tried to lead a slave rebellion in 1822, but who was caught and hung. There is no statue of Denmark Vesey, a man who died in support of freedom, but there are statues all over the south of leaders of the Confederacy, men who fought to keep the brutality of slavery.

Why is there no statue of a man who tried to lead people to freedom (something we claim to believe in here in America)? It’s a repellently easy answer. Because he was black. I honestly believe that someday, even white southerners will rise up from the sickness that has kept us enthralled for centuries. Until then, we still live in a swamp of racism, and it’s hard to drain the swamp when so many people look at it and think it’s a lawn.

When it comes to being southern, no one speaks for me. I speak for myself, and I say that Stonewall Jackson fighting to keep people enslaved is my history, but Denmark Vesey fighting for freedom is my heritage.

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Oh, You’re Such a Character!

Eccentric woman with cake and teaIf you’re reading a novel and people say to a teenage girl, “We’re going to take you and gradually do things that will cause you to die”—and she calmly agrees and actually cooperates, does that sound the way you would expect her to act? And if it’s a large group of teenagers and they all behave in that same passive way, do those characters sound like real people?

Last Saturday I attended a writing group, which I haven’t done in a good while, but there I was. Over the years I’ve found that in writing groups, people will give various kinds of reactions and advice, and among the types of feedback offered, one might find:

  • very specific reactions to things in the writing (“Why does Uncle Henry buy a dog after he said he doesn’t like animals?”)
  • general reactions to that particular piece of writing (“For the first half of the story she seems afraid of everything, but then she gets brave, except you don’t explain why she’s brave now.”)
  • broad advice about writing in general (“Don’t ever start a book with a description of the place.”)

However, I don’t mean to imply that people in writing groups always know what they’re talking about. You do hear a lot of nonsense, often firmly declared as a piece of absolute knowledge, like a rule Moses brought down from the mountain and forgot to mention.

This past Saturday I heard one person giving advice to another on developing characters. The thing he said that most struck me (not favorably) was that characters must be ideal. I think he did use the word “ideal”, saying that readers don’t want to read about characters with negative traits.

That advice sounded extremely oversimplified to me. I agree that I like a positive character more than a negative one, and if a character is disagreeable enough, I don’t even want to keep reading. Nevertheless, to suggest that characters must be “ideal” with almost no flaws—well, aren’t you sitting there disagreeing with that yourself? Real human beings are not ideal. We have flaws, and when you write about characters with no faults, you’re well into comic book territory.

If that’s the kind of thing you want to write, OK. But don’t sit in a writing group with me, because I want to write about actual humans and make them as real as my skills will allow. Using myself as an example, holy moly, look at all those flaws! And look how human I am. When I’m working to develop a character, especially the major characters who will take up most of the action, I deliberately try to put something negative in there.

It’s tricky of course, as to what that negativity can be. My protagonist can’t kick a dog off a porch or snarl at someone on crutches to quit blocking the aisle. One way I try to handle that trick (and I know other writers do this as well) is that rather than go for offensive personality traits, like racism, rudeness, and so on, I use weakness. Weakness makes the characters seem more human, and it might even evoke some sympathy from the reader.

For me, probably the single most important thing I do as a writer is try to write about real people. It’s hard. It’s hard as hell, because after all, every word they say, every thought they have, every move they make, comes out of my head, as if I am all those people. This takes tremendous thought and work. To do it, I spend a lot of time thinking about who my characters are and how they would really act in each situation. With the novel I’m currently writing, I’ve found that entire chapters have gone off in a different direction by considering what the characters would do, but it’s important that people behave as they really would.

On the topic of writing about real human beings, a friend this week asked me if I had read the book Never Let Me Go by the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro. Let me go on record as saying just how utterly I hated that book. It was also nominated for a Booker prize and made into a movie, so apparently I’m not in the majority opinion here. The main thing I hated was that the characters were incredibly unrealistic. If you accept the super-weird premise of the book, that all these young people are going to be slowly killed and they don’t object to it, then within that context, OK, the people are slightly realish.

Which ain’t good enough for me. So here’s my advice at the next writers’ group meeting: if you write a bizarre dystopian novel, make your characters real in spite of the strange situation you’ve put them in. That’s a rule.

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With These Words

Painting of a roadThis afternoon I spoke at the funeral of a friend, someone I was very close to in high school, though we had moved apart in recent decades. When I was asked to speak, I was naturally thinking of what one should do with a eulogy, what needs to be said, how it should be presented. I wrote notes out ahead of time, but since I was also speaking, the eulogy was a combination of writing and speaking.

This occasion made me think about situations where formal speaking is part of a regular ritual. Public speaking on important occasions has been a part of human culture everywhere in the world, as far as I can tell, as long as we have records to tell us. For a funeral we even have a special word for speaking, eulogy. This comes from Greek, from the roots “eu” (good) and “logos” (word), so by etymology we know that for the Greeks, a funeral speech was meant to say good things about the deceased. Which is how we still do it, of course.

Other formal speaking occasions that come to my mind include making a toast at any special occasion that includes drinks (a birthday, a wedding, completing something successfully, and so on), retirement speeches, or other speeches. I’d even include something like the words of a wedding ceremony, because in reality the person doing the ceremony could simply declare the couple married, without all that talk.

Thinking about these speaking occasions makes me wonder two things. I think about why we feel compelled to use language when it isn’t necessarily a natural thing to do. Sometimes a person trying to make a speech will get choked up, or cry, and find it difficult to talk. People at a wedding making toasts would often do better to sit back down and have another drink instead. Because these are all occasions of formal speech, the speaking is not even natural, so many people will do as I did, and write something out ahead of time.

The second thing I wonder is why we feel compelled to make these into such formal occasions. Is this need related to our feeling that language has magical properties (similar to spells and curses)? Whatever the case may be, the practice must be natural in some sense, in spite of what I just said, as it is ubiquitous throughout cultures and over time. My guess is that while speaking formally on an important occasion may not be natural for a single person, it is natural to the social group.

We might normally say that the purpose of language is to tell people things, but on these very important occasions, I don’t think that’s true. On every occasion I’ve named, including the funeral eulogy, not one of these instances has a main purpose of conveying information. Instead, this formal speaking seems intended to either create or intensify emotions. A eulogy should make you feel positive toward the deceased, a retirement speech to feel perhaps both glad for the person leaving and sad to see them go, a wedding toast to promote joy and happiness.

It seems to me that formal public speaking often serves the purpose of using one of the most quintessential facts about ourselves—our use of language—to bring a group together, to say, “We will all experience this emotion in the same place and at the same time.” The emotions vary, the occasions vary, but by taking part, we are showing that we’re part of a community, and language is the way we do it.

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Cover Me

papyrus scroll

But where’s the title?

Perhaps you’ve been saying to yourself lately, “I want to publish a book, but I wonder if I can’t just do this in seven easy steps?” Here’s my method.

1) Write a book.

2) Rewrite it.

3) Rewrite it.

4) Rewrite it.

Oh. That actually goes on for a while. It might be more than seven steps. Never mind.

Instead, let me jump over to step 81, but first, let’s consider papyrus scrolls. A scroll has many pages, as you probably recall, just like a modern book, except that when people back in the old days looked at that pile of pages and said, “What are we going to do with all this?” one of them said, “Let’s glue all the edges together like one really long page, then roll it up.” Obviously, someone thought that made sense, so they did.

Much later, another person said, “I hate these scrolls. Let’s stack all the pages on top of each other and sew them together along one side. That’ll make it so much easier to find page 56.” Voila, the modern book. You will have noticed, however, that individual pages can easily be subject to damage, if the cat sits on them, for instance. So people invented hard containers to put the pages inside, and thus we have book covers. With the great invention of a cover, it became possible to put cool stuff on it, like a picture of a man in a fedora holding a pistol and a woman in a bikini in the background.

If you happen to be publishing a book, step 81 is creating the cover. In the old days, a publishing company hired designers who created the cover, and you—the writer—might be able to say yes or no (but I doubt it). These days, if you’re going the self-publishing route, you have creative control, but you have to decide where the cover is going to come from.

Maybe you have a friend who can draw some and kind of use Photoshop, sort of, in which case your friend can create the cover for your book, although it might look like…you know, your friend made it. But if you’re putting out a church cookbook or publishing a memoire to give your kids, what the hell, get a friend to do it. Go cheap.

On the other hand, have you ever browsed through a bookstore looking at the covers? Some are really cool. Some are boring. Some are dumb. In the competition of a bazillion book covers all asking for the soft caress of your eyes, the cover is important. If you want a professional cover for a book, you can hire a professional. You can now get the same level of quality with a self-published book that was once only possible from a publishing company. You have to pay for it, but high-quality services exist.

When I put out the novel The Illusion of Being Here, I used an online company that was recommended to me. I never met anyone in person, but I sent them a copy of the manuscript, I gave them the ideas I had, and they came back with two or three sample covers. You can see on that cover that it uses a lot of blue and green, a color scheme that appealed to me. Based on content of the novel, I had the idea of using a Gullah basket with grasses growing from the edge. The designer took that idea, and since the book takes place in both Moscow and Charleston, South Carolina, she added symbols of both cities. I was very happy with the result.

For the book I’m now working to put out, a collection of short stories, I’m using a local book services company here in Atlanta, called Booklogix. This week I took off work a couple of hours early and drove to their offices (an hour’s drive, even without rush hour traffic), where I met with the head of the design department and the guy who will actually do the cover.

We talked about the book a bit, about kinds of things I like, about use of color (I HATE pastels), and discussed some very broad ideas. Because this is a collection of 13 stories, it seemed harder to me to know what to use, since there’s no single plot or theme to draw on. I wasn’t sure that what I had to say could be very useful to the designers, but before we met, I had spent some time on Amazon finding covers that appealed to me, and I sent them a page with about 10 links. I hoped those samples would give some sense of things I might like. From looking at those covers, the designer told me I seem to like rounded fonts. I hadn’t noticed that. I’m not even clear exactly on what that would be.

The next step—I guess that would be 82—is that they will send me two or three samples, and then we’ll talk about them. As long as there are no pastels and the fonts are rounded, we should be getting somewhere.

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