Reading Outside the Box

DSCF0545Sometimes we don’t notice the self-constructed boundaries we live within. Often it takes stepping outside the box to recognize the limitations we’ve unconsciously imposed upon ourselves.

My reading tastes lean toward biographies and classic novels rather than contemporary bestsellers. I can’t stand a movie like Coyote Ugly. And I wasn’t going to read Eat, Pray, Love simply because of my physique—it’s hard to relate to someone needing to travel to Italy to eat pizza and pasta for the main purpose of gaining weight. Never gonna happen to me.

As you might guess the creator of those two works, Elizabeth Gilbert, is not in my reading circle and I didn’t expect to put any of her books on my “want to read” list.

So it was through happenstance—a free ticket to hear her talk and a borrowed copy of The Signature of All Things—that forced me to step outside my normal reading box.

As a narrator, Gilbert is a bit heavy-handed, but she’s got a confident voice with an excellent command of language and imagery. Her style is too verbose at times—three similes where one would do fine. Yet I often found myself admiring her firm hand as a storyteller. The thread of ideas, the history and deep-dive into botany, biology, and the psyche of an inquisitive intellect give the story a rich feel. Which is a real feat considering the main character, Alma Whitaker, is dull of face, thick of body, and has a sharp but unimaginative mind.

Born in the late eighteenth century, half English, half Dutch, Alma grows up in a small, but prosperous Pennsylvania family. Living a largely cerebral life as her father’s companion in his botany trade, it is only late in life (post menopausal) when she meets Ambrose Pike. He’s much younger than her and while there’s an instant connection between them, the attraction is unbalanced. The failure of their relationship is what drives the plot forward.

It was the sexual element Gilbert wove into the story that caught me by surprise. I’m not a prude by any stretch but the self-gratification of her main character was creepy, and the word quim was especially disturbing for some reason. The homosexuality was awkward too. None of it felt authentic to me.

Perhaps it’s because Gilbert couldn’t quite eliminate the 21st century sensibility in her narrator’s voice. Or perhaps it’s because the women of science and exploration that I’ve read about all seemed to lack a strong sexual side. I might have mistakenly assumed it’s necessary to be a scientist first and a woman second to be successful in the world of scientific study. My personal bias didn’t want to give room to Alma’s sensual side. This was probably more my fault than Gilbert’s.

The story ends in Amsterdam in a form of reconciliation with her mother’s family whom Alma never knew. The ending is inventive and provocative, culminating in Alma playing a hidden role in the discovery of natural selection. This is the twist in the story that was particularly satisfying to me. It’s so true that women have been and continue to be an unseen force behind the exploration and discovery of science and nature. Many of the important advances of man stand on the shoulders of a woman’s work. Rosalind Franklin and the structure of DNA is an example from recent history.

This is why The Signature of All Things played to one of my fondest musings—that there’s a trove of unknown women explorers, adventurers, scientist and true lovers of knowledge out there just waiting to be discovered.

And, what’s really amazing is that the same author responsible for a fluff piece such as Coyote Ugly produced an interesting novel about an intelligent, pragmatic virgin.

Step outside your box. You might just discover something new about yourself.

Using Story Forge for a jolt of creativity

Story Forge

Story Forge Idea Cards

Sometimes your brain gets stuck. Might be on a character, a plot point, or maybe your whole darned story. We all have our tools and techniques to get us past our sticking points or writer’s block, but let me introduce you to a new one: Story Forge.

Story Forge is a deck of custom cards. Each card has an idea on it like an occupation, a view, an action, or a role. The positive version of each idea is facing one way, and the negative faces the opposite way, so depending which way is “up” when you draw a card it will have a different meaning. It’s quite a bit like Tarot cards, if you’re familiar with them.

The instruction book comes with different layouts. You pick a layout (or make your own), deal the cards, and then ponder how they apply to your story. That pondering is the best part.

The cards are a creative tool, but the value comes from breaking you out of your patterns. If you deal a layout and then toss it away because it wasn’t what you wanted, you’re missing the point. Let the cards push you in a whole new direction, and really explore it. You may not use it in your final material, but at least you followed the path to see where it lead.

Writing a Film Noir short

We recently used Story Forge in our writing group. We dealt out a hand to the Film Noir layout, and several of us wrote a story piece around it. I included a key with the image (click the image to zoom in).

Story Forge - Film Noir

Story Forge – Film Noir layout (click to zoom)

It starts with a Betrayal, but there is a Manipulator at work. He wants a Disguise, and eventually a double cross comes to light by way of a Compulsion. And what Film Noir would be complete without a Tragic Outcome?

Definitely not my normal genre, but our whole writing group took the layout and each wrote our own story. The results were all wildly different. Just looking at the cards above, where do you think this takes place? Who is the protagonist? What is their occupation? One of the great things about this exercise is everyone will flesh it out their own way.

Get your own Story Forge

You can purchase your own Story Forge deck for $20. It comes with a wide range of cards, and a few blank ones so you can add in your own favorite items. Whether you want to just break out of a rut, need a source of new story ideas, or want help with writer’s block, Story Forge is a great tool to have around.

Next up on the blog – our stories from the above layout!

Literacy Rant: The Estrogen Version

Hollywood, California. Young woman standing on...

Image via Wikipedia

There was a decidedly testosterone slant to Eric’s list of “must read” books, probably because it was intended for a young man, the one affectionately referred to as the Idiot.  But what if you were making a list for a young woman?  Not that any of his recommendations were specifically unsuited for the female psyche, but suppose this young woman only reads fashion magazines, and she’s never picked up a book for pleasure?  Perhaps she’s entering the work world, the one still dominated by those with a Y chromosome.  Maybe she’s searching for something more than surface-skimming, page turning best sellers that are forgotten as soon as the last page is read.  What would your reading recommendations be?

Well, here are mine.  None of them are considered high art, a couple might be classics, and at least two are definitely in the pulp fiction category.  A few mirrored the cultural shifts that affected women during a particular era, some even contributed to the changes.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has a wonderful opening about the Tree of Heaven that only grows in cement.  It’s a poignant coming of age story:  a smart, observant young girl struggles to make sense of life with an alcoholic father in a household forever battling poverty.  Getting an education was the underlying theme and that’s an especially vital message to women.

Gone with the Wind has the most memorable and well-known female character of the twentieth century, mostly because of the movie.  Reading the book, though, gave me a deeper appreciation for the tragic nature of Scarlett’s blind infatuation.  There was a brief, intimate scene that wasn’t in the movie.  It showed Scarlett’s vulnerability with Rhett and drove home the message that if you open your eyes, you might actually find you have something better than what you thought you wanted so desperately.  Or, maybe I recommended this one because I just love it and think any young woman who reads it will get hooked on reading.

Valley of the Dolls exposed the sick depravity behind the glamour of Hollywood and Broadway.  It made a splash in the ’60’s for its tell-all approach to sex, drugs, and the power struggle within all relationships — not just the ones between men and women, but also the ones women have with each other and with their own bodies.

Fear of Flying was a liberating soft porn novel that arrived in the early ’70’s.  Its legacy was the phrase “zipless f**k” which is how the author, Erica Jong, described a chance sexual encounter on a train with an anonymous stranger.  She tapped into the secret longing for sex without emotion or attachment that many women harbor.  But the book had a creepy, bleak view of life and that’s probably why her subsequent work never commanded the same level of excitement.  Without hope, it’s hard to pull off a second act.

The Group by Mary McCarthy was a disturbing portrait of eight Vassar women pursuing love and work after graduation in the early ’30’s.  The story reveals many of the traps that can destroy a promising future.  The characters were all bright, educated, upper income women, yet oddly, the underlying message was that while an education is important, it’s not a guarantee for success in real life.

The important questions in all these stories evolved from a woman’s relationship with the men in her life — drunken fathers, lost lovers, and disappointing husbands.  Every generation seems to grapple with the same universal questions about education, marriage, career, and motherhood.  Their choices may be nuanced by the time and place they were in, but essentially the questions are the same.  I think each of these novels offered a take on the contemporary feminine narrative of their day.   Sometimes it’s easier to see the potential consequences of our choices when we live it vicariously through a well told story and an engaging character.

Fiction can be for more than entertainment, it can be a thread that links one generation to the next, offering a nugget of insight into life.  And, it’s cheaper than therapy.

What great novel for a young woman do you think I missed?

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The New Kindle 3

I love books. And, normally I’m one of those late adopters when it comes to new products, especially electronics.  For me any new invention or innovation has be tested, used, abused and given a certain length of time to discover any life threatening properties before I’ll try it.  That’s why it’s a bit surprising that I was one of the first to get the new Kindle 3 – the slim delicate one that lets you read outside. 

What I like

  • The battery seems to run forever without needing a charge. You don’t even need to bring the charger along with you on a trip which is very impressive.
  • It’s small enough to slip into a purse without adding any bulk or weight.  That makes traveling with Kindle much simpler except on a plane.  When going through security, Kindles are treated like electronics and the flight attendants make you turn it off during take-off and landing.
  • You can find hundreds of classics from Amazon for less than a dollar.  It’s so easy to fill your Kindle library by downloading for ten dollars recently published books, and everything else costs even less.  There are other ways of finding pre-1922 books, but it takes quite a bit of searching to find the best edition, and more software to remember and manage.

 What I miss

  • It just doesn’t feel right.  That visceral sense of reading a book is completely lost.  With Kindle there’s no physical perception of how long, how important, or how old the ‘book’ is.  Sure, there’s a numerical sizing system with Kindle, but how long is a 10,000 unit book?  With Kindle, the books are imaginary just like the characters and story.
  • There’s really not much need to go to a bookstore or a library anymore.  Wandering the bookshelves and picking through the discount table appeals to me as a reader.  It’s as though I think something serendipitous will happen and just the right book with jump out at me, demanding to be read.

After I finish the stack of paper books I’ve already got, I suspect I’ll be mostly a confirmed Kindle reader.  I just wonder if in ten years time they’ll discover that the electromagnetic waves emanating from the Kindle alters the structure of your brain or ruins your eyes.  I guess that’s the price of progress.

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Missing In Action – 20th Century Iconic Romantic Heroine

Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been wracking my brain to come up with an Iconic Romantic Heroine for the 20th century.  Soliciting advice from others, more often than not, I received the suggestion of Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind.   She’s an iconic character no doubt, but of the Anti-Heroine variety.  While Scarlett’s embedded in our cultural psyche, ultimately she’s a tragic figure.  The ending to Gone with the Wind was intentionally vague and certainly not in the “happy” category.  So, I quickly dismissed Scarlett and continued my search.

Next I considered Lucy Honeycutt from Room with a View by E.M. Forster.  This was an early 1900’s novel published during the narrow era of the Edwardian age.  She was a heroine who exemplified the transition for women coming out of the rigors of Victorianism but before the full effect of the 20th century took hold.  She was more transitional than iconic, so I moved on.

Finally, I had to realize that the suffrage movement, which culminated in the USA with the passage of the 19th amendment, was a distinct pivot point that changed the way women viewed their place in society. A new perspective challenged the notion of dependency on men for a woman’s sense of happiness and fulfillment.  Not surprisingly, within ten years of women getting the right to vote, there was a new heroine on the block – Nancy Drew.  Ostensibly written by a female author, Carolyn Keene, the books were actually written by a collection of ghostwriters, both male and female, working under the tight strictures of a single editor.  Nancy Drew became the strongest female role model for young girls in that large swath of the middle to late twentieth century.  Her original persona was a spunky, independent young woman with a boyfriend comfortably in the background.  She was updated in the fifties to offer a less threatening, more submissive role model.  Her character make-over is a prime example of the pendulum that swings with the conflicting desires of  the female audience.  Ultimately, Nancy Drew is a heroine but with no romance, so she too fails the test for the iconic romantic heroine.

In the seventies a new subgenre emerged in the historical romance trade.  The realities of the sexual revolution with reliable, female controlled pregnancy prevention and the opening up of higher education to woman produced a new need to fill – how to romance a woman who wasn’t supposed to rely on a man to fulfill her destiny.  The answer was one of the biggest ironies of feminism – the glorification of rape fantasies and unwanted pregnancy.  The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss was one of the first in describing sex with intimate detail.  Soft porn became the essential ingredient for a successful historic romance novel in the ‘70’s.  The modern romantic heroine now needed to be skillful between the sheets and willing to tell all about it.

In the nineties there was Bridget Jones as the bumbling, ditzy, slightly slutty heroine.  She may endure as an iconic heroine but more than likely she’ll be one of the countless characters that sparkle for a few years and then pass into oblivion when the next new swing of the pendulum comes round.

There was another heroine that came close – Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone.  She was pure and modest, and had the perfect job for a modern woman – romance writer.  It was an entertaining story, but it too falls into the transient category.

I finally came to the conclusion that the Iconic Romantic Heroine may have met her demise in the 20th century, or at the very least she’s still Missing in Action.   If there is a 20th century iconic heroine out there, who gets her man and a happy ending, I’d love to know.  Please tell me if you think of one.

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