Thursday, June 23, 2011

Introductions Part 3 - Voice

I hate my voice.

Or, at least, I used to. Even at 30 years old, I can still get away with telling telemarketers that my mom's not home. My voice is high and thin and sweet. It's the kind of voice that can't be disguised. I'm a hopeless prank caller. My first uttered word gives me away.

When I was sixteen, I worked as a receptionist at a car dealership. I frequently had to page the salesmen out on the lot over the intercom system. My little voice was magnified and broadcasted all the way down to State Street. When things were slow, the salesmen got kicks out of mimicking my pages over the intercom. I would shrink in my desk, their imitations of my voice ringing through the quiet sales office, wishing I could disappear.

I went to high school with a guy who had an even worse voice than mine. His voice was kind of like Kermit the Frog's - only more strained and higher pitched. He was bright and kind and funny - but his voice distracted people from noticing those things. I ran into him a few years after high school, and, lo and behold, when we started talking, he had a different voice. Startlingly different. His voice was low and smooth and easy - a man's voice, the kind of voice he should have had. Turns out, he had actually had some kind of vocal therapy to change the way he talked. His new voice suited him.

About this time, I was thinking of being a high school teacher. When I'd tell people this, they would usually smile politely. However, one of my friends flat out laughed when I confessed my ambition to her. "You can't teach!" she'd laughed, "There's no way you could control a classroom with that voice of yours."

Ouch. My voice is a disability, I told my dad. It limits what I can do. It misleads people into thinking I am sweeter than I am. It grants me no authority. I told him about my friend and his voice lessons. And then, sincerely, my dad asked me if I would be interested in something like that. Ouch, ouch. He was serious.

I still haven't gotten around to taking those voice lessons. I guess I probably never will. As much as my voice limits me, it also defines me. Like it or not, my voice suits me. I think my sugary sweet voice helped me develop an unlikely sarcastic sense of humor. I like that my friends know who I am when I call them on the phone. There's something comforting in being recognizable, identifiable.

And not having to talk to telemarketers isn't so bad, either.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Favorite Book Challenge Blogfest!

Today I am participating in a blogfest hosted by Teralyn Rose Pilgrim. The wonderful object of this blogfest is to provide a list of your 5 favorite books, with a one-sentence synopsis of each and a one-sentence explanation of why they are so adored.

The challenge, of course, was picking only 5 books. The books below were selected primarily because I do love them, but also because I have read all of them more than once. I figured that must mean I really, really liked them...

1. East of Eden, John Steinbeck: A modern-day retelling of the Garden of Eden story, the story centers around the family life of Adam Trask, his beguiling and cruel wife Cathy, and their two sons, Cal and Aron. I am not skilled enough to do justice to this book in one sentence - but, I loved it primarily because it so beautifully explores the fallen state of man and the redemptive power of our ability to act for ourselves.

2. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery: The precocious, indomitable Anne finds her home with the Cuthberts on Prince Edward Island. But I don't really need to tell you this, do I? I loved this book when I read it as a child, and I loved it when I read it as an adult - both for the innocent, simpler setting it takes place in, and for the wonderfully alive characters Montgomery creates.

3. The Street, Ann Petry: Set in Harlem in the 1940s, the novel follows Lutie Johnson, a single black mother, as she struggles to find a way to move her and her son out of their dead-end environment. The novel turns on its head the notion that all it takes to succeed is hard-work and education; it is a powerful, emotional, engaging story.

4. 1984, George Orwell: The classic dystopian novel follows Winston Smith's fight against, and ultimate acceptance of, Big Brother. My husband and I recently listened to the audio book, and we were blown away by the fantastic writing and were so engaged in Winston's attempt to resist Big Brother - when the narrator read the last line of the book, we both were yelling in disbelief.

5. The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger: An untraditional love story between Clare and time-traveling Henry. I love this book because it is like no love story I have ever read before, and I loved how it explored time, self, and agency.

I'm always looking for new favorites. What are some of yours?

Good Grief

One final comment on setting, for now.

When I lived in Indiana, I was lucky enough to belong to a book club that was graciously hosted by a woman who is simply wonderful. Turns out, she has a wonderful daughter, Christine, who is currently living with her husband and children in China.

Christine writes about the challenges of living abroad on her blog. A few months ago, she posted a link to an article she had written for Catapult magazine. In light of my musings on setting, I am posting this link here. Please, do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to read this article.

In the article, Christine writes of the grief that is inherit in having a home away from home. But then, she takes it a step further and speaks to the grief we all feel in having been displaced from our True Home, our heavenly home.

She concludes the article with this moving thought: "What to do then with this uncertainty of place, this longing that finds some measure of peace here, but knows there is far better there? It keeps me fresh, awkward, on bended knee, flushed with the goodness that remains but uncomfortable with the way things are, and always tightening my grip to the hope that they will not always be so. And with a groaning that is echoed throughout all of creation, my soul joins in the chorus that cries out for that Day when all our homes, and our children, our friendships and distant families find their final resting place in a land where longings do not cease, but instead never cease to be fulfilled."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


A few months ago, I awoke at night to the sound of my daughter crying. At two years old, she is still small enough to fit comfortably in my lap, and as I lulled her back to sleep in the rocking chair, my head resting against her own, I had that rare sensation of being completely present. As she drifted back to sleep, I wanted nothing more than to be tethered to that moment, that present - to listen to her steady breath and feel her hair against my cheek, hair so soft and so fine it could have been spun gold.

And then, out of nowhere, I was assailed by other memories, other moments, other presents. I remembered another night from years earlier, when my husband and I had lost ourselves on a quiet Indiana road. We had driven helplessly beneath a glorious Havest moon, through endless cornfields and rusted, shuttered towns. The memories continued to flood my mind, all startlingly visceral. I remember thinking that they were taunting me, those memories, that they were whispering to me in the darkness that, even if I tightened my hold on my little girl, I couldn't make that moment stay.

There is something painful about the way our setting is constantly changing. Even if we never leave home, home has a way of leaving us. Parents die, children grow up, customs change, ideologies shift. The place we stand is not the same place we planted our roots. At times, it seems the principle of compounding, while wonderful for our finances, doesn't apply to life experience. We invest ourselves in places, only to see not a multiplying of self, but a dividing. When I long for those places in my life that I no longer occupy, it feels like I have been fractured into bits and pieces.There is the bit of me lost among the Indiana cornfields and Harvest moon, and the piece of me holding my little girl with hair like spun gold, but nothing whole, nothing complete.

We all experience this grief and longing to some degree. I think this is why, both in fiction and in real life, there is a complexity to setting. We nearly always reside in multiple locations at once - outwardly in our physical place, and, clandestinely, in those hollowed out past spaces insides ourselves.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


My kids and I have been listening to Snack Time by the Bare Naked Ladies. On the album, they have an ABC song that was so original and refreshing I just have to share it here. It's a non-phonetic alphabet song, which, in a way, is kind of useless, but also kind of entertaining.

A is for Aisle
B is for Bdellium
C is for Czar, and if you see him would you mind telling him?
D is for Djinn
E is for Euphrates
F is for Fohn, but not like when I call the Ladies
G for Gnalry
I for Irk
H is for Hour
J for Jalapeno, good in either corn or flour... tortillas.
K is for Knickknack
L is for Llama
M is for Mneumonic
N is for Ngomo
O is for Ouija Board
P is for Pneumonia, Pterodactyl, and Psychosis
Q is for Qat
R is for Argyle
S is for Saar, a lovely German river
T is for Tsunami, a wave that makes me quiver
U is for Urn, and not like earning money
V is for Vraisemblance, from French and therefore funny
W is for Wren, Wrinkly and Who
X is for Xi'an, an ancient Chinese city, ture
Y is for Yperite, a very nasty gas
Z is the final letter, and by final I mean last

Monday, June 6, 2011

Damn, we're in a tight spot!

We've been talking about tension. And setting. Well... okay, you haven't, but I have. Anywho... I've been thinking about the two, and how the setting of a story often times is what produces the tension in the plot. In How to Grow a Novel, Sol Stein writes that, if you want to create conflict in your story, place your characters in a setting that they can't escape. Or, as George Clooney so perfected the phrase in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a tight spot. This "tight spot" could be as literally confining as a prison cell, or something more metaphorically confining, like a small town with it's mentality and prejudices, or a dysfunctional family, or a loveless marriage.

I recently read Room by Emma Donoghue, a novel where the setting is a major factor in both the character development and the plot. Narrated by five-year old Jack, the book takes place in a one room shed where the boy and his mother are being held prisoner. Jack has never been outside of the "room," and the author does a fantastic job of exploring themes of identity, place, space, and the mother-child relationship .

Another book I enjoyed where the setting played a key role in the story is Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The majority of this book takes place on a shipwrecked raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where the protagonist Pi is fighting to survive not only the elements, but also his sole companion on the boat - a Bengal tiger.

Both novelists trap their characters in a tight spot - which keeps the reader turning the pages just to find out how, or if, they will be able to escape. In each novel, the setting alone produced tension and an interesting storyline, and also provided an interesting lens to develop the themes of the novels.

So, I guess my writing advice for myself (and for you, if you want to take it), is this: try putting your characters in a tight spot. And then, try to write them out of it.

Where are some of your favorite novels set?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I can't resist....

I read this Elizabeth Bishop poem in high school and instantly fell in love with it. And, considering the waiting room theme of my last post, I thought it would be appropriate to share this here:

In the Waiting Room

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited and read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
"Long Pig," the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn't. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I--we--were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
--I couldn't look any higher--
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How I didn't know any
word for it how "unlikely". . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn't?

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.