Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Healthy jealousy?

The book I just finished reading introduced me to an intriguing concept, "healthy jealousy:"

"I think there's a difference. Mean jealousy pulls people down so they'll be on the same level with us, or pushes them down on our way up. But a healthy jealousy is sometimes just the push we need to jump for ourselves. Sometimes we need to look at someone who is doing something difficult, or dangerous, so that we know we can do it too. It's that sense of 'I want what you have,' that makes the risk seem worth it." --Allison Vesterfelt, Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage

I think she means that if jealousy inspires us to take action, to move toward a goal, and not to do it at anyone else's expense, it can actually be a positive motivator. I'd never thought of it that way before. Can jealousy or envy be a good thing sometimes?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Side doors

Some books have what I think of as side doors, entry points to parts of the story that are suggested rather than shown explicitly. They're not part of the main plot flow of the story, but they hint at an intriguing backstory or side journey. Sometimes they point to another book in the author's oeuvre; sometimes they foreshadow upcoming events in a series; and sometimes they let the reader connect certain dots and wonder at the rest. I imagine they could be great jumping-off places for fanfiction.

One example is in Gone with the Wind. If you read between the lines, putting together certain information, it is strongly suggested that Rhett Butler had a son with Belle Watling, and the son was living in New Orleans. I've always thought that hidden subplot had a lot of potential--what if the son came to Atlanta when he grew up?

Another example, from children's literature, is in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Headless Cupid. For fun one day, the kids in the book are testing their psychic abilities with playing cards. None of the kids displays any such ability, until the last child--but just when he shows a glimmer of psychic aptitude, there is an interruption and the scene goes in another direction. This child's ability never really becomes a major plot element, but remains a subtle thread, making us wonder about its influence on the story.

Then there are the characters from books who make appearances in other books. S.E. Hinton's Tex is best understood after reading her earlier That Was Then, This is Now, in order to make the connections between Cathy and Miss Carlson, between Mark and the hitchhiker. The implication is also that Tex is Mark's half-brother, and I've always wondered if Tex was written partly to provide the redemption that Mark never achieved.

In Marilyn Sachs's The Truth About Mary Rose, a young girl wonders about the deceased aunt she was named after, Mary Rose. The plot revolves around the difficulty of interpreting history, and how differently people see and remember the same person. The book's narrator concludes that she can never know the whole truth about Mary Rose. But readers have access to some materials that the younger Mary Rose doesn't: Sachs's earlier books, in which the original Mary Rose actually appears (albeit as a secondary character), especially Veronica Ganz.

I use "side doors" in my fiction all the time. An example is in Try Not to Breathe, when the main character, Ryan, and one of his best friends, Val, visit their other friend, Jake, at a time when Jake is in serious distress. There are these two lines, from Ryan's POV: "When I came back into the dayroom, Jake was bent over Val's lap, hanging on her, while she stroked his hair. I hung back, watching, and the way he clawed at her made me wonder if maybe I hadn't been the only one in love with Val all this time."

It made me wonder, too. In the book, it becomes clear how Val and Ryan feel about each other, but Jake's feelings are left murkier. Does he love Val? Does he maybe love Ryan? I would have loved to explore those questions--and I did, but not on the published page. They would have dragged the story off course. In essence, they were more part of Jake's story than Ryan's, or maybe they were part of what would be a sequel if I ever wrote a sequel for that book. As it stands, these lines are just a side door for readers who want to speculate and carry that story further in their own heads.

Do you ever notice side doors in the books you read? Do you follow where they lead?

Friday, October 24, 2014

The heart of the matter

"With every encounter, we might be changing who we are forever, and when it is over, we might never see each other again."
--Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Hiroshima in the Morning

This, maybe, is at the core of stories; it is why they are worth telling.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The MFA question, and live and let live

Writers sometimes wonder if they should get a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing: is it worth it? Will it make them better writers? Lead to jobs in the industry? Give them valuable insider connections?

Over at Three Guys One Book, Joseph Rakowski interviews Jennifer duBois on the subject. It's a good interview if you've been considering an MFA. But I also love this statement of duBois's at the very end, which can apply to so many more issues and questions beyond the scope of the MFA topic:

"... other people’s choices or lives are not necessarily a rebuke to our own—-they may, in fact, have nothing to do with us at all."

Saturday, October 18, 2014

OCD Love Story

One of the most memorable YA books I've read recently is Corey Ann Haydu's OCD Love Story.

The title is its own synopsis, I think.

It was refreshing to meet characters and situations that haven't been overdone in YA. The character Beck was a treat--a nice guy with big problems, a love interest who is not arrogant, a big muscular guy who is not an overconfident jock straight out of Revenge of the Nerds. The ways in which he and main character Bea struggle to support each other in the face of their respective compulsions are by turns endearing, wonderful, and sad. Sometimes it seems they're perfect for each other; other times you wonder if they'll just make each other worse. Also rounding out the book is a complicated best-friend character with her own problems and her own blind spots, and a therapist who is saved from seeming unrealistically wise and perfect by a few moments when Bea (and we) see her hit a wall of frustration and fatigue.

Haydu got so much right about anxiety, obsession and compulsion: Not everyone with obsessions and compulsions washes their hands constantly or adheres to a military-style neatness. You can't just reason your way out of it, even when you see that you're behaving illogically. Fears often grow from a seed of truth and reasonableness--for example, driving really is dangerous statistically, and merging onto a highway is one of the trickier driving moments--into a situation that makes no sense, as when the protagonist drives 35 MPH on the highway, or repeatedly circles a block to make sure she hasn't run over a child playing in a yard near the street.

In novels that reach into the land of psychology and psychiatry, there can be temptations to patness both in describing the source of an illness (connecting mental illness directly to an early-life trauma) and in its treatment or cure. OCD Love Story veers close to this at some points, particularly in the case of Beck, but in the end opts for realistic changes and improvements rather than magical cures, and Bea acknowledges that many of her behaviors cannot be neatly explained or traced back to an identifiable root.

The one note of caution I will include here is the possibility that some readers with OCD may find this book triggering. From browsing online reviews, I see that this was so for some readers, while other readers with OCD find the story more of a relief.

source of recommended read: library

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Special Today

"There was always a sign proclaiming Special Today with nothing else written on it, which I interpreted as [the restaurant's] announcement that these Sundays were important, that this today was a Special Today."
--Floyd Skloot, In the Shadow of Memory

Friends, are you having a Special Today? If not, I hope it's a Special Tomorrow.

Monday, October 13, 2014

On letting go of perfectionism

"... I feel now so far beyond that perfectionist streak which would be flawless or nothing--now I go on in my happy-go-lucky way and make my little imperfect worlds in pen and on typewriter and share them with those I love."
--Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963, ed. by Aurelia Schober Plath