IWSG—A new lease on my writing life

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group convenes the first Wednesday of every month, and lets participants share their worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears. This month’s question is:

As you look back on 2017, with all its successes/failures, if you could backtrack, what would you do differently?

I can’t change the fact that my depression and other mental health issues created much lower than usual wordcounts for much of the year. I do wish I’d backed up the most current version of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees before the shocking disaster of August. At least I “only” lost maybe 2,000–5,000 words and a week or so of research, not the entire document.

I didn’t think I’d get anywhere close to 50K this NaNo, given how dismal my wordcounts have been for much of the past year. I felt the only way I might get there was by being a rebel working on several different projects.

This represents blog posts, my last day of work on my IWSG anthology story, my 29 November journal entry on George Harrison’s 16th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), the list of 2018 blog post topics I put together, and a WIP.

Because I gave myself permission to fail, and decided to have fun doing whatever I wanted, I won with my quickest speed ever. My final wordcount of just under 81K still isn’t the best I know I’m capable of, but given my wordcounts during most of the past year, I’ll happily take it.

Writing and researching my blog series on The Jazz Singer at 90 gave me back my writing mojo. The infectious charisma and personality of Al Jolson, which was responsible for making the film such a wild success, worked that same magic on me. So thank you, Jolie!

I only started my IWSG anthology story on 29 October, and almost gave up on the second day. I’m glad I found the willpower to push through, even if I don’t win. I really enjoyed researching projected far-future developments, and finding sci-fi-sounding names.

I titled it “Birkat HaChamah,” after the Jewish blessing of the Sun which takes place every 28 years. It’s happened twice in my lifetime so far, 1981 and 2009. I’ll have a future post re: how to write about this rare ritual.

47K came from Anne Terrick: A Bildungsroman, which starts in September 1840 and is told in diary format. I thought I’d shelved Anne forever in 1992, but she was meant to be if I never forgot her all these years. She was created (as Ann-Ann) when I was all of 5-6 years old.

Going back to the 19th century after so many years is like learning how to write historical all over again. It’s also strange to write in first-person again, but the diary format of yore just seemed right. This story wouldn’t work in third-person.

I came up with so many great ideas for characters and storylines from the previous final form of Anne’s story (which is in storage 900 miles away). I also moved her from Plymouth to Boston. Now, only her double-cousins and grandparents live in Plymouth.

I’m delighted with unplanned secondary character Pastor Winterbottom, her minister and catechism teacher at her hated boarding school. He’s not a sympathetic character, but he’s such great dark comedy, and keeps getting better.

The local writing group was neither as active nor interactive as my writing group back home (which I’m still officially registered with). I’m used to much more chatter at write-ins, several write-ins a week at fixed locations, and weekly write-ins the entire year, not just in November.

For my 29 November journal entry, I counted my handwritten words (499) and entered them into a lorum ipsem generator. Also in honor of George’s Jahrzeit, I made a desktop picture with his last words (right) and one of my favorite lyrics (left).

392279 01: (FILE PHOTO) Beatles guitarist and singer George Harrison performs December 3, 1963 during a concert. It was reported November 8, 2001 that Harrison is undergoing cancer treatment in a Staten Island, N.Y., hospital. The 58-year-old ex-Beatle was diagnosed with lung cancer and a brain tumor earlier this year. (Photo by Getty Images)

WeWriWa—In memory of George

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. In loving memory of George Harrison on his 14th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), this week’s snippet comes from my contemporary historical Bildungsroman, Little Ragdoll, Chapter 27, “Letters to and from Lucine and Emeline.”

It’s the fall of 1964, and 12-year-old Ernestine, 10-year-old Adicia, and 5-year-old Justine have written letters to two of their older sisters, 18-year-old Lucine and 16-year-old Emeline, who both ran away from home to avoid their black-hearted mother’s schemes to forcibly marry them off underage. Lucine is now a first-year student at Hunter College, and Emeline is a high school junior at the same Yorkville boarding school Lucine attended, a school for disadvantaged young women. The Episcopal priest and his wife running the school are now the adoptive parents of oldest sister Gemma’s birth son Giovanni, the unwanted product of her own forced marriage.

Super big brother Allen knows their address, and has let his little sisters write from his address so their evil mother won’t discover what really happened to her vanished daughters. Though Ernestine left home underage and now lives with some friends, Adicia and Justine are still at home. Emeline, near the end of her letter back, explains why George is her favorite Beatle.

George Harrison through the years.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images. My little brother has a kind of creepy resemblance to a young George Harrison.

To answer Ernestine’s question, yes, I do like The Beatles (and I can’t believe she’s old enough now to have celebrity crushes!).  Maybe I’m a little too old for them, but it’s not like I’m one of those screaming young girls who’s only thinking about how cute they are and can’t even hear them singing or playing their instruments.  Liking somebody’s music has nothing to do with how cute they are, though it does help if someone is good-looking in addition to talented.  My favorite is George.  I guess it’s because he’s the baby of the group, and it makes me think of my own dear little sisters and how the baby of a family needs special mothering, love, and protection.  Is it a good or a bad thing I feel such a strong mothering instinct at only sixteen?  Besides, I know how it feels to be pegged ‘the quiet one.’  That label sticks, and people sometimes don’t expect much of you since they think you’re not talkative.  But boy, will I prove to anyone who thinks I’m just another quiet, bookish girl that still waters can run deep when I go into the world and make something of myself!

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Not only does George’s music mean more to me than I can put into words, but he’s also one of my spiritual mentors. He was such a good person, with such a sincere, beautiful heart and soul, doing so much for the world, with such a strong belief in the power of humanity to change the world and improve ourselves. I often think of his profound last words, “Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot wait, and love one another.”

POV and Tense Choices

It seems like I’ve fallen into a small minority of writers still using third-person omniscient. That used to be the default and norm, along with the past tense. Now it seems like every other book, esp. in YA, is in first-person, and about 90% of YA books in the last 5-10 years or so have also been in the present tense. I really have no idea where this came from.

One should always choose one’s mode of narration and tense for a reason, and a story should feel natural in both of those areas. For example, I love the little-known 1920s Russian dystopia We, by Yevgeniy Ivanovich Zamyatin, which is in first-person. I also love Mark Twain’s memorable narrators, and a few months ago enjoyed the classic YA Annie on My Mind (which does have short wraparound segments in third-person). All those books felt absolutely perfect in first-person, and I couldn’t think of them with another POV.

I first discovered present tense could be used for fiction when I read the late Ida Vos’s Hide and Seek for the first time in late ’92. It was such a revelation to me, made the action seem so much more compelling, gripping, and immediate, that I chose to write my Russian novel in the present tense. When I began my discontinued original first draft of Adicia’s story in July of ’93, it also felt natural to use the present tense.

I never saw, to my recollection, first-person present tense (at least for book-length narratives) till I read Pearl Abraham’s The Romance Reader in the fall of ’97. The book came out in ’95. At the time, it was a pretty uncommon narrative device, and I immediately got into it. It fit with the story and felt natural. I’ve also, as I’ve mentioned, read some Shoah memoirs in first-person present tense, and that choice also feels right for that type of story.

Now fastforward to today, when that’s no longer such a novelty or seeming conscious decision, but something that’s extremely common. I have such a hard time getting into it for longer pieces of fiction, it’s like my brain freezes up and I can’t get lost in the story, or I try to convert it to past tense in my head as I’m reading.

It’s nothing personal against anyone who uses first-person, or who uses first-person present tense in particular, but since it’s so oversaturated these days, it takes a really compelling story for me to get into it and not feel so distracted. It has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the strength of the concept, but just burnout from seeing it so often. A good story should always feel like it’s in the right tense and POV for the type of story it is. It shouldn’t leave the reader wondering why it’s not in third-person, or why a different tense wasn’t chosen.

It’s also harder for me to distinguish first-person narrators these days, since it’s so common, the voices start running together after awhile. I feel closer to characters in third-person, because there’s more of a narrative distance. I don’t think I ever felt like first-person were more personal and intimate.

Looking back, I now remember I wrote a lot more first-person when I was younger, maybe since I was more familiar with it from the JA/lower YA books I read. But from junior high on, everything switched to third-person. And outside of my Russian novels and my contemporary historical family saga about the Troys, the Ryans, and their friends, past tense is my default. It just feels most natural and familiar for everything else, though sometimes when I’m doing past tense after a present tense project, I’ll inadvertently slip back into present tense.

First-person present tense

(I wrote this in May and would finally like to move it out of my draft folder!)

To my shock, I recently remembered that I’ve used first-person present tense myself, in spite of how weary I am of it in today’s market. It’s just been so long that I’d honestly forgotten about it.

Billions of people all over the world, in all religions (not just the Indian and Eastern religions), believe in reincarnation. Many of them have past life memories. It’s a complete myth to claim that most people say they were famous people like Cleopatra or Joan of Arc. The vast, vast majority of people who remember past lives, either in fits and starts or vividly, remember ordinary lives. Even if they lived in extraordinary times, they were still ordinary people. One of my reincarnation books says that a large survey group, when regressed to the first century (forget if it were BCE or CE), primarily recalled lives in Turkey and the Indian subcontinent, and a few other places. That totally blew the researchers’ theory out of the water, that most of the people would claim lives in the Roman Empire or Israel, the two places most people associate with that era.

I began having vivid nightly nightmares about my past life at the age of three. When I was fifteen and the dreams returned (this time complete with xenoglossy, fluent dreaming or speaking under hypnosis in a language one does not know when conscious), it dawned on me that I had had a past life in Germany during the Shoah. Those nightly nightmares from age three, which I still vividly remember to this day, the nightmares that gave me such intense pyrophobia, were of Krystallnacht. And the second part of that nightly nightmare was of a concentration-camp. Tell me one good reason why a three-year-old would be having nightmares about either of those things, or even know they existed. And give me one good reason why a high school freshwoman would start dreaming in fluent German about life in Germany during the Thirties and Forties.

So in the fall 0f 1995, when I was starting my sophomore year of high school, I began writing down these dreams and memories, in fragmentary form, in my journal of the time, Cecilia. In my junior year of high school, I began writing past life freeverse poetry. The first of these poems, “‘Zug'” (“‘Train'”), won third place/honorable mention in the junior class division of a poetry competition at my high school, and was included in a school-published book of the poems and displayed in the school library, which also serves as the general library for that town. I also regularly did a meditation/regression exercise at night, which helped me to recover more memories, including my old surname, Estermann.

The poetry and the prose memories were all in first-person present tense. I admit I was influenced by the style of Isabella Leitner’s own Shoah memoirs, the most haunting, unforgettable book I’ve ever read. Isabella also wrote her memoirs down in short fragments, in the present tense. Some years later, I read Livia Bitton-Jackson’s several Shoah memoirs (including books covering her life after the Shoah, which unfortunately many Shoah survivors’ memoirs don’t cover in enough depth). She also wrote in the first-person present tense. Who knows, perhaps I’d come to associate that style with Shoah memoirs told in fragmentary or vignette-style chapters, as opposed to memoirs such as Aranka Siegal’s.

I think it works because the narrator is writing these events as though they’re unfolding right now and she’s reliving them in her mind, not dispassionately looking back on past events. Example:

We freeze. Someone has heard the tiny sound Lorelei made when she turned over in her sleep. Why couldn’t we just stay in Switzerland? Are we about to be arrested? Will They torture us by prolonging the attack?

I catch Lorelei’s eye as I walk with Dorchen, Bettchen, Ilse, and Erma to work duty. Can it be that only a week ago I had hair and was dressed in real clothes? Now I look like a hideous monster, a bald, ageless, sexless hag clad in rags and wearing wooden clogs, while our beautiful Lorelei gets to keep her hair. I will never forgive Them for turning my Lorelei into a prostitute.

Perhaps it feels more natural because the narrative is focused on very big things, and Oda only happens to be the one relating these haunting memories? It’s not a self-centric story. And when you choose first-person for fiction, as opposed to memoir, it can be self-defeating if there are high stakes involved. You know the narrator survived to tell this tale.

One day I’ll return to collecting these scraps of memories and put them all together under the title What Oda Remembers: A Reincarnated Memoir. My name was Oda Estermann, and I believe I lived from 1926 to 1953, dying in Australia shortly after childbirth. Oda was unable to overcome her traumatic memories. Only in this life was I able to heal and come to terms with them. Perhaps that is why I almost never dream of Oda anymore, since I’ve made peace with my soul’s past and don’t really need her anymore. I even returned to my soul’s birthright thanks to her.

My relationship with first-person narration

Off the top of my head, I can only think of one occasion when I wrote something in first-person that wasn’t told in journal format. It was one of the books of a discontinued series that was my attempt at writing a 1980s and 1990s version of the Little House books.

Every year, the family would move to and live in a new state. They had four daughters, Anna, Amy, Sally, and Kelly, and in the book about Montana, Mrs. Thomas, the mom, had twins, Davy and Emerald. The one first-person attempt in this juvenile series was the book about Illinois. So many years later, I can’t even remember why I decided to try that particular book in first-person. I still have those few pages, in the cornflower blue 5-subject notebook where I wrote the majority of the rough draft of Saga II of Cinnimin.

Boy, is it appallingly awful. Completely NOT in the sweet, innocent (if immaturely-written) style of the prior books. The other book in that series I still have (also never finished) is about Utah, and similarly seems out of style with the earlier books (really more like novelettes) I’d written. I probably aborted that series because I just realized my heart was no longer in it and I wanted to write longer stuff, with more mature themes. It wasn’t right to have these wholesome characters suddenly acting like my Atlantic City characters and doing really goofy, loopy stuff besides. So I moved on.

I’ve naturally always gravitated towards third-person omniscient, and will occasionally do third-person limited to an extent. But writing in first-person just doesn’t come naturally to me. I feel closer to my characters because they’re in third-person. I think of them by their names—Violet, Kit, Cinnimin, Max, Eulalia, Daphne, Portia, Justine, Adicia, Allen, Lenore, Lyuba, Ivan, Boris, Katrin, Kat, Nikolas, Eliisabet, et al. I get to know each of them as individuals, instead of a constant stream of I-I-I-me-me-me-my-my-my-mine-mine-mine.

When you’re writing a long, complex, sweeping saga with a very wide plot trajectory, many characters, and numerous subplots and storylines, third-person omniscient is the only way to go. And third-person limited works if it’s a book of a lesser epic scale but you still want introspection and world-building. Most of my third-person limited so far has been with my Shoah characters, in the collections of stories I’m expanding into full novels. When you don’t have an ensemble cast and the story is more focused on just one character, third-person limited can work very well.

I just can’t make the psychological leap of writing in the first person and pretending I’m a fictional character. Attempting to write an entire book, unless it were in journal form, in first-person when that’s not really my voice, would feel really fake and forced. I’d be extremely unhappy if I attempted it, since that’s just not who I am. I don’t want to pretend to be someone I’m not (i.e., a first-person writer, not a fictional character), and never will be. The old-fashioned third-person omniscient has always worked just fine for me.

Lately it’s harder for me to get into a first-person book, because it seems like 90% of all books nowadays, esp. YA, are first-person. I don’t remember nearly so many when I was a young adult a generation ago. I’ve enjoyed quite a few first-person books (most recently the classic Annie on My Mind), but because they were well-written and I liked the subject matter, not because I felt closer to the protagonist based on narrative choice.

But I have enjoyed writing limited first-person sections, in the form of letters and journal entries. It’s fun to write from the POV of just one character for a few pages, but I couldn’t sustain that over hundreds of pages.