August Wilson

If your education was anything like mine, the only plays you were exposed to in high school were the Shakespeare you read in English class (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, maybe King Leer or Macbeth) and whatever your school performed for the yearly musical (Guys and Dolls again?). Maybe around senior year you got yourself a Death of a Salesman and/or Glass Menagerie. Once you got to college you picked those two up, some more Shakespeare, maybe Our Town or Die Fledermaus.

You know what, they're all good plays and there is a reason they are timeless (well, aside from that last which is technically an opera). But I will admit that I went through all of high school and all of college (earning a theatre degree!) and I never read a play written by a black playwright.

A couple years ago I saw Fences by August Wilson and was blown away. I mean, blown. away. I went from the Huntington all the way to North Station without speaking (and really, me anywhere not speaking is a bit of a big deal) because I was still reeling from the play's impact.

It is one of ten plays Wilson wrote, each representing a different decade in the 20th century and he African experience of that decade. Fences is set in the fifties after Jackie Robinson and World War II where America is beginning to integrate but hasn't yet reached the civil rights movement.

I wish I had read/scene this play in college. Hell, I wish I had scene/read it in high school. It was the single most powerful bit of theatre I have ever been exposed to and I think I would have approached my college experience entirely different if I had scene it first.

If you are in the New York area or will be traveling there, there is a play written by a black playwright while she was in residence at the Huntington. It's called Stickfly and I saw it when it ran in Boston. It's about black families on Nantucket island. It has some hard hitting dialogue and doesn't just sing a "I'm so persecuted" song. It challenges all its characters and is finely done. Give it a try if you have the opportunity.

The Drawl

I've mentioned before that I've been struggling on voice with JEHOVAH'S HITLIST. It's not so much struggling as I can't find it. It's struggling in that I keep changing my mind, so the narrative text is horribly inconsistent.

Here's where I've been flipping. Take a nice classic rural drawl. Change of to a, drop the Gs off of ING (remindin' me a somethin'), swap was/were (he were/they was), add 'n to the ends of certain words (if'n), and the like.

At first this was only dialogue, but a lot of narrative text focuses on Jehovah's thought process. We think the same way we speak. Someone's grammar doesn't magically improve just because they're speaking instead of thinking. But that's easier to choose to do than to actually do.

For one thing, a lot of us drop the G off of ING anyway, but seeing the apostrophe makes us slow down and identify what's missing. That can be a big distraction when reading narrative text, so that switched back to normal ING. The next was the was/were relationship. I've tried to maintain this, but no matter how actively you write your verbs, you'll still use WAS more than any other, sometimes multiple times in the same sentence. What was quaint and distinct to begin with became burdensome and distracting.

Jehovah were certain he'd a seen such a thing afore. The last'n had kill't Lil' Petey and ate off Rick Rick's right foot. That all made no nevermind here.

Quaint. Distinct. But for 90,000 words? I just don't know.

Speaking of 90,000 words: I'm usually one that says the book is as long as the book needs to be, but seeing just how depressed the sci-fi1 market is, this isn't something I want to thumb my nose at. The thing is, I thought I was coming in too short somewhere around 35k and kind of fleshed things out. I'll have to go back and chop some of that out because I'm actually at risk of going over 90k, which I'm using as a hard ceiling for this book.

Approaching the end, I reached the book's thesis statement. The exchange includes more than one racial epithet. And while both the character and the setting make it an appropriate word choice, as a writer, it is SO hard to include. A thousand and one times I started to just scrap the entire chapter, but forced myself to finish it. It still makes my skin crawl, though.

1 And in terms of genre, I wanted to bring up dystopian fiction, but will do so in a separate post later after I've gotten some work done. Interesting things. There will be questions, so all a you that have been quiet lately prepare yourselves to comment. :)

Struggling with Voice

As I get older and make a more concerted effort to write professionally, I do not write with the abandon that I did when I was young. A younger me wrote phonetically and with dialects whenever I wanted to express an accent. An older me mentions the accent, but only touches a few key words phonetically. It came from a discussion whether such abstract spellings were the best way to communicate the differences in language. Given that so many of my old stories were the quality of an inexperienced writer, I chose to go the opposite direction.

That's not the only reason. I like to include minorities. I lived in St. Louis city (demographically 66% black) and hung out in areas where I could absorb that kind of culture. Not wholly, of course, but enough I felt comfortable replicating it in words. People seem less willing to accept that, and the further I am away from living in St. Louis, trading it for the predominantly white northeast, I begin to question my own recollection of what was St. Louis living and what was from "The Wire." So, if I avoid using phonetic spelling or dialect, I avoid being called a racist or being laughed at (while they think I'm being racist but don't say it--I hate that one too).

I recently added THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN to my nook. Mark Twain is one of my literary heroes and reading the novel reminded me how much I've given up by not writing my characters speech the way they speak. I've become too scared of criticism, justified it by saying I don't want to support wrong thinking with my writing or that a person just revises the text to what they understand anyway so I'm just adding a step. But when I read the way Huck and Jim speak, I get more than the words. I get the person. I get how they think. What matters. How they process things.

THE TRIAD SOCIETY has a variety of accents, none of which I properly explore. I relegate it to urban being "it is" and rural being "tis," what I feel now is a ridiculous copout.

There is a lot of talk about the author's voice on blogs. Characters and characterization are part of that voice, but not the entirety. What I've found is that why I can maintain the novel's voice during description, I lock up when I express character voice. This needs drastic and immediate attention. Time to write with a little more abandon.

(And call me racist all you want. Go to St. Louis Ave. and Grand on May 1 [the May Day Celebration] and you'll think you've walked into a video. I shit you not.)

(If you're interested in a great people watching place for St. Louis culture, try Captain D's on Kingshighway. It's amazing how much happens at that place--or at least happened when I lived in St. Louis. If you want a darker side of the city that doesn't put you in direct gunfire, head down to the river and follow the tracks. There's some grim living down there.)