The Writer’s Nature

I was trying to figure out if there is such a thing as a writer’s nature, and the Aesop fable of the scorpion and the frog came to mind.

Interestingly, the writer Aesop himself is under question. Was Aesop Greek, was he a slave, or was he Greek but ethnically African? And did he, in fact, write Aesop’s fables? Hmmm…sounds like the Shakespeare controversy.

But I digress.

The gist of the story for all two of you who haven’t heard it is that a curious scorpion ventures out to learn about the world. Sounds like a writer already, right? He comes to a river (and that’s not metaphorical?). Of course, the bank on the other side of the river is always greener with more story potential, but alas, the scorpion cannot swim. When he implores a frog for a ride across the river, the frog’s obvious question is, “What’s to stop you from stinging me once we are mid-stream?”

The scorpion replies, “If I sting you, we both die.”

The frog, logical creature that he is, agrees to transport the scorpion. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. As paralysis sets in, the befuddled frog asks why.

The scorpion shrugs. “I’m a scorpion. It is my nature.”

I’ve heard of people shocked to find their personal stories set down in pen and ink for all the world to see, and the writer’s nonchalant rejoinder, “You knew I was a writer before you talked to me.”

The writer’s nature and all that.

I’m not a scorpion; in fact, I know stories I won’t publish simply because of the sting that would cause others about whom I care. I began wondering if there is another writer type and I conjured up the caterpillar.

The caterpillar is the antithesis of the butterfly. The social butterfly flits; the social caterpillar sits.

That would be yours truly.

I listen better than I speak. I write better than I mingle. I do almost everything better than I mingle. At a party I tend to cling to a spot near an indoor tree or dining table, beverage glass pressed to my thorax. There I can munch away, caterpillar-style—unobtrusive but ever-present.

Surprise! People gravitate to me. They talk. I listen. Here’s a quote I like from bad boy playwright raconteur Wilson Mizner: “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he knows something.”

This is true.

People have regaled me with the intricacies of stamp auctions, the machinations of startup corporations, the policies of peanut-allergic people boarding airplanes. (This latter information I can put to use in a future novel.)

So, talk to me. I’m easy to spot. I’ll be the anthropod with the big ears.

Now tell me, in the world of writing (and life) are you butterfly, caterpillar or scorpion?

A word of warning—the scorpion eats the butterfly and the caterpillar for breakfast.

Book Review: The Keep

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Ghost Novel Review: The Keep by Jennifer Egan

I had gone in search of A Visit from the Goon Squad for Laurie’s book group. My library didn’t have it, but I stumbled upon The Keep instead. Intrigued by the title, I picked it up and read the jacket. The only other Egan book I had read was The Invisible Circus, which I liked but didn’t love, yet I decided to give The Keep a try—possibly because of the hint of a lurking ghost. I had your best interests at heart, you see.

The Keep is a delight, both from a reader’s and a writer’s perspective.

What’s in it for the reader? The reader will find flawed but funny Danny, damaged by the burden of past cowardice. (As a teen, he’d once participated in a prank that left his phobic cousin trapped in a cave.) Then there’s the phobic cousin transformed years later into one of the beautiful people, sufficiently magnanimous to hire damaged Danny to help him restore a crumbling medieval castle. But can Danny trust Howie, or has Howie set a revenge trap? And what’s with the Baroness? On the surface she’s an alluring young aristocrat who devolves into a black magic wielding octogenarian.

The author deftly manipulates this motif of surface and depth. One certainty yields to its equally plausible opposite like the mysterious pool in the center of the castle that offers both reflection (as in you see what you want to see) and depth (you plunge beneath the surface in search of truth).

dreamstime picture castle keep

And for the writer? There’s so much going on here—the exploration of guilt, the possibility of redemption, the faux gothic setting. And, in fact, this setting does allow for a ghostly rendering. But not in the way you imagine. Trust me.

Egan provides some in-jokes for us author types—the narrator is a fledgling scribe in a prison inmate creative writing course. Much discussion about tackling tricky techniques such as point of view switches and dialogue exchanges. The narrator inserts both himself and his yearning for the sexy, pensive teacher into the story in a metafictional sleight of pen. Check out this author interview in which Egan describes her process.

Even the title is elusive. Obviously, the keep once served as sanctuary for citizens in time of attack but in the twisty way writers love, can morph into a trap. And because the author plays with form, the reader can ponder which portions of the narrative to keep, as in accept at face value. Because everything spirals in on itself, including, in the end, the two stories.

V. S. Naipaul vs. The World, Or Why I Vacuum

Mad Woman Vacuums

(image via Dreamstime)

I’m vacuuming mad, thanks to V. S. Naipaul.

You know, that kind of mad that impels you to vacuum at 11 pm? Nothing will do but the vigorous thrusting with the handle and the vicious roar of the machine even though you should have been in bed already?

That kind of mad.

Have been ever since I read The Guardian article about the esteemed author V. S. Naipaul in which aforementioned esteemed author bashes women writers.

Oh, he’s not the first. Before him there was Dr. Samuel Johnson who, upon hearing of a female Quaker orator, compared her to a dog “walking on his hind legs. It is not done well,” he explained, “but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Then there was Nathaniel Hawthorne who decried the emergence of a “damned mob of scribbling women.” Should I love The Scarlet Letter less? I confess I adore Hester Prynne, a writer of sorts, who said everything with her one exquisite letter—the A.

But back to Naipaul. He claims not only to be a great writer, to be above contemporary women writers, but also, crime of crimes, to surpass the stellar Jane Austen.

Let me consider that.

I began Naipaul’s first book The Mystic Masseur at my brother’s urging (Brian is a Naipaul fan), but I couldn’t finish it. The novel had its moments of clever satire, but eventually I grew annoyed and bored. In the interest of fairness, I checked out Goodreads to see what others had to say about The Mystic Masseur. Many readers commented on the satire and humor; many pointed to this debut novel as promising but immature, indicative of future talent.

Would anyone describe Austen’s debut work Sense and Sensibility as immature, merely “indicative” of future talent?

Probably not.

By the way, my current list of favorite ethnically Indian authors includes Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Thrity Umrigar. Turns out all of them are women.

Oops.

Can we separate the author from the writing?

In my MFA program, we debated theories that a text may or may not be read as separate from the author, as in the author is absent. I wavered, ever the undecided. For instance, I cannot separate the arrogance from the author of The Mystic Masseur. Should I decide to read Naipaul again (and I actually think I shall), I will borrow the book from the library or buy it used (or pre-owned; don’t you love car industry euphemisms?) as I don’t want a penny of my discretionary income to fall into that man’s coffers.

On the other hand, I do separate Naipaul from his work to the extent that the work must speak for itself; ergo, don’t tell me you’re a great writer.

Years ago, PBS offered a children’s art program with historian/nun Sister Wendy. I’m not ashamed to admit watching this program even after my children had left the room. One of Sister Wendy’s profound utterances has never left me. As I remember, she said, “Don’t ask an artist what his painting is about. He can’t tell you. He can only tell you what he wanted it to be about.”

In other words, it is to the observer to decipher the work and its value, Naipaul’s “helpful” hints about his innate genius notwithstanding.

His genius, so he claims, enables him to determine in one paragraph whether an author is male or female, the premise being that male is superior. Naturally.

At the end of The Guardian article is a quiz you can take if you click here. The quiz consists of blind entries equally divided between male and female authors and allows you to test your ability to discern male from female writing.

I took the quiz. I scored 50% accuracy—the percentage of pure chance. The irony is that one selection I pegged as female was penned by Naipaul’s own hand. Think I should tell him?

It’s interesting that a decade ago Francine Prose explored this issue of gender writing in her essay “The Scent of a Woman’s Ink.” She also included writing samples—some by men of an emotive nature and some by women replete with tough talk. Prose’s point was that although the writing style is not inherently gender specific, the publishing industry is. And always has been. Why else would Jane Austen publish anonymously? Or George Sand and George Eliot assume male pseudonyms? As Francine Prose notes, male authors take up far more of the publishing ink than her gender-blind experiment would justify.

Regardless of how V. S. Naipaul justifies his gender bias, in my mind he has committed a transgression against the writing and reading community. It is only fitting that, like poor Hester, V. S. be made to wear a scarlet letter of shame. But unlike her, he would not wear his letter over his heart. Instead, his letter A could be affixed to a rather more nether region. He should appreciate the brevity of such a dispensation—the A representing at once both his personal trait and the anatomical part it covers.

Guest Review: The Haunting of Hill House

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Publisher: Penguin Classics, 182 pages
Format: paperback
Source: Guest review

Hi Everyone,

Today we are hearing from one of our dedicated readers, Allegra Johnson, who is offering her thoughts on a classic ghost novel. Thank you, Allegra, for sharing your insights!

From Allegra:

My path to reading The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, a long-time favorite of mine, really started with a movie—a bad movie at that.  I’m not above saying that I saw this movie with a friend primarily because Liam Neeson played the doctor and we spent the movie ogling and giggling.  The movie seemed pretty cheesy with a decidedly hokey ending, but it planted a seed in my mind.  The way the producers portrayed the house, its dark paneling and foreboding shots, caught my imagination.

The book begins with a description of the house as an entity in and of itself—alive, dark, and evil.  It hungers for something, perhaps companionship?  It’s interesting that only our main character, Eleanor, seems to feel the underlying pressure and need.  But I’m jumping ahead here.  I went home and told my mom that the movie was a disappointment and she suggested I watch the older version of the film.  We rented the video and while it was  significantly better than its remake—especially the ending—it still lacked something.

The image of the monstrous Victorian house still in my mind, I did what a teenage kid with way too much summer free time would do:  I turned to the book version.

The narrator of this story is Eleanor Vance, a thirty-two year old woman who spent most of her adult life taking care of her mother, who comes to Hill House with two other guests at the invitation of a Doctor Montague.  The doctor wants to study paranormal activity in the house and has chosen his fellow guests, Theodora, a bright and carefree young woman with some psychic ability, and Luke, a future heir to the mansion, to help him in his study.

Eleanor is the only of these characters who has no life in the outside world.  Caring for her mother enveloped her entire being, it’s entirely who she was.  Eleanor states many times that she has been waiting for something to happen to her, waiting for her life to begin and “could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair.”  In short, Eleanor knows only what it is to be needed and Hill House needs her.

After a series of escalating paranormal encounters, it becomes clear that the house is interested entirely in Eleanor.  There are no bogeymen to jump out at the reader from around corners, or any gruesome slaughters, but rather a sense of fear and quiet intensity building to the conclusion of the story.  There are, of course, the mandatory “bumps in the night” because what’s a haunted house without those?

There is no doubt that the house is both haunted and evil.  But even at the end, I find myself wondering about Eleanor.  Is she acting of her own volition?  Like the house, is she insane?  There are moments and thoughts that suggest she is in control of herself and actions.  Alternately, is Eleanor possessed by the house?  Claimed by its sinister presence?  Or, is Eleanor the unwitting cause or source of all the paranormal events surrounding the house?  The author seems to leave the answers to the interpretation of the reader.

From beginning to end, I found the story to be absorbing and every now and then my mind wanders back to its ambiguous climax…What was going on with Eleanor?