Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Struggling with Material and Time

 I am writing a very complex novel, several stories intertwined. Most of them are based on historical research or stories I heard of neighbors' past in our old neighborhood of Los Angeles. All of them seem to work--and putting them together seems to work--except for the story line based on the character of me.

At first, she was too boring, so I have tried to up her tension quotient. That seemed to work, except then she was too whiny. My two critique groups said, "Make her more like you." I'm not sure what they mean. I was making her like me. I guess I should be grateful they can't hear inside my head, or they would probably think that I, too, am too boring and too whiny.

And anyway, I defended my character, who is, after all, not really me. My mother is not a Holocaust survivor. And her arc is also longer than the rest, stretching throughout the novel, which means it can't accelerate as quickly as those who are more distilled.

But now I'm thinking that there are other things involved. For one thing, I am Jewish. There is no "Jewish" personality that stands as a monolith any more than I could describe such an African-American "type".  The long standing joke is that you take two Jews and you get three opinions. Plus the reason, both theologically (God did this) and historically (the record shows that) for the destruction of the 2nd Temple was because we Jews could not get along with ourselves.

But one thing that our Jewish heritage almost universally leaves us with--I think this is fair to say--we think in questions.  And we tend, as a group, to be trained to look at both sides of those questions, so that when our thoughts are written, that series of questions can (according to my readers) seem like vacillation. Hence: whining and boring.

But also, all my other characters were conceived around some historical crisis or situation I wanted to dramatize, and thus are innately dramatic. For example:

What part of you is lost if you must hide who you really are in order to survive? Especially if you are very successful at hiding it?

What if a family member you had left behind in order to hide suddenly showed up on your doorstep, leaving you feeling guilty (for leaving them) and terrified (at being found out?)

What would it be like to have spent your whole life fighting bigotry successfully, only to realize that the line won can always be moved further out, i.e., I get my child in the public swimming pool and they close the pool; I get my child  in the good public schools, the white people move their children out and with them goes the financing; I get my family in the terrific neighborhood (battling legal obstacles and cross-burnings) only to have white flight and red-lining by banks--and a freeway bull-dozed through Black-owned mansions-- lead to a  failing neighborhood?

And what if, after all that, your children started calling you an Uncle Tom because you were still trying to fight your battles through the courts?

What if (as one of those children) you found that surviving the violent responses to non-violent methods of protest didn't make you a saint, but instead left you shell-shocked?

What if you were the great, great, great grandchild of freed slaves who had done so well even before the Civil War that they had owned their own slaves? What if you had been raised and lived your whole life looking down on those "other" Negroes, (those loud, uncouth and dark-skinned ones) yet were suddenly confronted with the way you had internalized the white cultures bigotry and imposed it on those around you all your life?

(Notice how I phrase all of these plot ideas as questions?)

But notice how they all have strong internal tensions? Most of them are even life or death. Except for Molly Lerner, my white, Jewish character, and that's because although I did include the drug-dealer take-down out of our back yard the day the moving van moved in (successful and ultimately safe) I left out the gang shooting my husband and son witnessed the day we moved out of the neighborhood and Los Angeles. (And yes, those two things really happened on those two days--life stranger than fiction--but the gang-shooting did not fit the plot.)

All this big picture thinking takes time. I only have three more weeks until the kids are out for the summer. Screw writing after that.  But during those three weeks, I am also fighting a deadline to apply for a mentorship program which I'm sure would help with the big picture stuff. Last year I was a finalist. It makes sense to try, but I have to work on the application--for example, choosing the work sample and writing "MY GOALS" for the mentorship.  And of course, I can't see any 20 pages taken out of context the way a raw page would.

Well, you know, we didn't lose our house in a tornado--although my office, filled with toys, dog fur, coloring pages, drafts and stuff I have to move to the basement, kind of looks like it did. I'll keep on keeping on. That's how I got this far, right? We all have to hang in there. And be kind to ourselves. And one another. We're mostly doing the best we can.
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