Can I make it as a writer?

Can I do this? Am I able to pull off being a writer? Do I have what it takes?

A couple of weeks ago, I graduated from Stonecoast’s MFA program that consistently held me accountable for two years. There was always a deadline, always work to be completed, always someone waiting for something.

            Now— No one watches over me. No one tells me when my words don’t make sense. No one will write “Wow!” or “Slow down” on my manuscript. No one, except me.

            Now, I have to do this all on my own. In the past, I haven’t been great at keeping up with the activities I enjoy when I am the only one who’s watching. Taking running for example. I love to run. I love how my body and mind feel when I’m out there on the road, and I never regret a run. I’ve always wanted to be a real runner, someone who races and doesn’t come in last or someone whose name doesn’t appear on the walker’s list in the Lewiston Sun Journal. Even though I want to be a real runner, there’s something stopping me. Is it just me? I guess since I’m the only one involved. So how can I make it as a runner? How can I make it as a writer? The simple answer— “Just do it.” The difficult answer— the know-how is out there somewhere; I just haven’t found it yet.

Observing My Grandmother

As a writer, I’m constantly observing and remembering small details. Sometimes I have to write a few words down so I won’t forget them. I tried carrying around a little notebook for this very reason, but it didn’t take. So I tried a miniature journal and even a recorder, but none of that worked for me. The Notes App on my phone, that’s what does it for me.

Last week my family traveled two hours north for a traditional family Thanksgiving. It wasn’t a day to be missed. There was a lot of cooking, and talking, many loud female voices, and laughter coming from every occupied room. But the highlight of my day came with great sadness.

You see my grandmother is quite old and fragile too. She lives in constant pain and has a hard time walking, especially after she’s been sitting for a while. After hours of visiting, it was time for her to go home. My sister and I surrounded her, supported her weight, and guided her out the door. As she walked down the two steps into the garage, she moaned because of the pain radiating up her back. There was nothing I could do to take her anguish away.

At the car, my sister let go of our grandmother, and I guided her into the front seat where I buckled her in. As I pulled back to say goodbye, I saw the tears in her eyes. I didn’t know if they were tears from the pain in her back or tears from the pain of facing her first holiday alone since her husband of sixty-six years died in a brutal tractor accident five months ago. They also could’ve been tears of happiness, we don’t see each other often and reconnecting is always such joy for both of us. I found myself tearing up when she took hold of my face with her paper-thin hands and looked me in the eye before she spoke one word. She said, “Goodbye.” I told her I loved her, kissed her on the cheek, and nuzzled her neck; much like a child does to her mother. She smelled of French perfume and lipstick. Then I pulled away. She took my hands in hers and squeezed them.

I don’t know if her last word was a forever farewell or a gesture of hope that we will see each other again. But that doesn’t matter. This detail, this one word of finality carried so much meaning. Even though our inevitable goodbye will be heart wrenching, I can already feel the joy she feels when she thinks about reuniting her husband. And for that reason, our sadness is our highlight.

Close Reading of Ron Hansen’s “Wickedness”

Upon closer look of Ron Hansen’s “Wickedness,” there is much more meaning behind nearly every word than one probably realizes on the first read. In the opening paragraph about the schoolteacher, Hattie Benedict, Hansen is able to stir the reader’s emotional investment in the story through simple word choice. For instance, the use of one word tainted the character Hattie for the remainder of the piece for me on the first read. Hansen wrote, “She had been impatiently watching four girls…” The word “impatiently” is the one that sticks out. Impatient teachers are often mean spirited and through my own experience as a teacher, it conjures an image and feeling for Hattie Benedict that was unjustified. This one word caused me to judge her to be wicked just like the storm.

As Francine Prose stresses in Reading Like a Writer, writing is like composing music, every word has to be carefully planned and executed at the right time. A reader can pick out the wrong word just as a concertgoer can pick out the wrong note. If the reading feels off, the author most likely intended to cause a feeling of uncertainty. A writer’s words and sentences should be deliberately chosen to stir emotion.

For instance in “Wickedness” when Hansen writes about the storm, he made it a character (the devil: more on that later), and the storm is quite aggressive. Hansen is able to make the reader feel this aggression through not only the meaning of the words but also by using sound whether the words echo in the reader’s mind or while reading out loud. Every one of the storm’s verbs carries a hard consonant sound to make the reader feel like he got punched, “tortured… cracked… torn… socked… pounded… sucked… snapped… [and] jabbed”. Not one of theses words is soft and caressing. Also, Hansen has directed the sentence length just like a conductor waves his baton to guide his orchestra.

When discussing the long length of one of Virginia Wolf’s sentences, Francine Prose states, “Possibly the principal reason why the sentence so delights us is that to read it is to take part in the process… ” If the reader were to read Hansen’s long sentence out loud, he would have to rush through the sentence in order to finish before running out of breath. This creates tension like the tension Hattie feels, and Hansen probably felt while writing. So in a sense, the reader conjoins with the author and the character for the entire experience.

In Hattie’s opening paragraph, the sentences rise and fall in length:

            Hattie Benedict was in her Antelope County schoolyard overseeing the

noon recess in a black cardigan sweater and gray wool dress when the January

blizzard caught her unaware. She had been impatiently watching four girls in

flying coats playing Ante I Over by tossing a spindle of chartreuse yarn over the

one-room schoolhouse, and then a sharp cold petted her neck and Hattie

turned toward the open fields of hoarfrosted scraggle and yellow grass. Just a

half mile away was a gray blur of snow underneath a dark sky that was all

hurry and calamity, like a nighttime city of sin-black buildings and havoc in the

streets. Wind tortured a creekside cottonwood until it cracked apart. A tin

water pail rang in a skipping roll to the horse path. One quarter of the tar-

paper roof was torn from the schoolhouse and sailed southeast forty feet. And

only then did Hattie yell for the older boys with their cigarettes and clay pipes

to hurry in from the prairie twenty rods away, and she was hustling a dallying

girl inside just as the snowstorm socked into her Antelope County schoolhouse,

shipping the building awry off its timber skids so that the southwest ascended

unsteadily while ordering the children to open their “Webster Franklin Fourth

Reader” to the Lord’s Prayer in verse and to say it aloud. And then Hattie stood

by her desk with her pink hands held theatrically to her cheeks as she looked

up at the walking noise of bricks being jarred from the chimney and down the

roof. Every window view was as white as if butchers’ paper had been tacked up.

Winds pounded into the windowpanes and dry window putty trickled onto the

unpainted sills. Even the slough grass fire in the hay-burner stove was sucked

high into the tin stack pipe so that the soot on it reddened and snapped. Hattie

could only stare. Four of the boys were just about Hattie’s age, so she didn’t say

anything when they ignored the reading assignment and earnestly got up

from the wooden benches in order to argue ‘oughts’ and ‘ought nots’ in the

cloakroom. She heard the girls saying Amen and then she saw Janusz Vasko,        who was fifteen years old and had grown up in Nebraska weather, gravely

exiting the cloakroom with a cigarette behind one ear and his right hand raised

high overhead. Hattie called on him, and Janusz said the older boys agreed

that they could get the littler ones home, but only if they went out right away.

And before she could even give it thought, Janusz tied his red handkerchief over

his nose and mouth and jabbed his orange corduroy trousers inside this

antelope boots with a pencil.

The point in which Hattie realizes the storm is coming quickly, and it is going to be a great disaster, she rushes the children inside. Just as she closes the door, the storm hits the building so hard; it “ships” a corner of the schoolhouse off its foundation, causing the whole building to tip in one direction. This all happens in one sentence consisting of 95 words, which is a very long sentence when compared with the rest.

Hattie’s realization of the storm’s haste and severity is the climax of the first paragraph. Additionally, this sentence and those around it are filled with common words and images that conjure a sailing vessel lost at sea in a massive storm. Below is a graph mapping the number of words in each sentence of the first paragraph. Notice the similarity to pitching and falling waves.

While the sentence length adds definition, the words themselves provide the basic elements and components for the rise and fall of the emotional waves of the gravitating intensity. As noted earlier, the word “impatient,” can mean something completely different than I first assumed. It must be remembered most words have more than one definition. When examining this particular word more closely, I realized it was not only the word that needed a closer inspection, but the sentence and the paragraph called for just as much attention. The incoming storm caused Hattie to be impatient, nervous, like an animal can become anxious right before an earthquake or storm. “Impatient” was not the only word that had a much deeper meaning, in fact, there were many throughout the entire paragraph that carried much more significance than that which was on the surface. Before expounding, it is important for the reader to know more about the author, Ron Hansen.

Ron Hansen is a Catholic deacon who has attended mass almost every day for his entire life. In all of his writing, he integrates and blends morality and history into each piece of work. Since he grew up in Nebraska, it is no wonder he chose the real storm of 1888, also known as the Schoolhouse Blizzard, to write about. Hansen used factual details about three different schoolteachers and combined them into Hattie Benedict and Janusz Vasko, the student who volunteers to bring the “little ones” home.

Janusz Vasko’s name stands out in this story. It is not like the others. It looks and sounds different. Janusz is polish for John. There was a small polish community in Nebraska at the time of the storm. Poles were known for being hard workers, and the most laborious jobs went to them. In the story, Janusz and his nameless friends (they remain nameless so they do not distract the reader from Janusz) volunteer to take 12 children home to deposit them safely to their families.

Being a practicing Catholic, Hansen most likely chose this polish name because of John the Baptist. Through baptizing many people, including Jesus, John the Baptist was able to “save” the people and bring them home to God. The name Vasko is also significant because of the famous explorer, Vasco de Gama, who was the first man to sail from Europe around Africa and all the way to India. Due to stormy seas and pirates, this was an extremely dangerous route. Janusz could have also been lost in a sea of snow but he was triumphant and saved the “little ones”.

Nautical terms in this section support my reading of this name choice. When the wind tore off the tarpaper on the schoolhouse roof, it “sailed” for 40 feet.

Standing off in the distance, a group of boys were “20 rods away.” “20 rods” is a certain distance, but why did Hansen not just say 100 yards, meaning the same thing. The word “rod” conjures images of fishing poles.

When Hattie is rushing back inside, the wind hits the side of the building so hard, the schoolhouse is “shipped” off its foundation causing one corner of the building to drop six inches and “the oak-plank floor to become a slope”. The word “plank” will remind readers of pirates forcing victims to their death. The schoolhouse image Hansen has created is like a ship tilting in a storm.

The storm outside causes the windows to look as if they have been covered with butcher’s paper. Another image reminiscent of sailing, more specifically the sails. The butcher paper has a double meaning as it also reminds the reader of slaughter and death. 235 people died in the Schoolhouse Blizzard.

Hattie stands with her hands over her cheeks looking up at the chimney listening to it creek and fall away and the bricks walk down the roof. Her “ship” is being pulled apart by the wind.

Before Janusz and the other boys leave with the children, Janusz ties a red handkerchief around his mouth and nose. Hansen did not need to add this detail; therefore, it must be significant. First, it is an ancient Indian belief that tying a knot in a handkerchief is a charm against evil. Second, this is the first sign of any color in the story. Every other tint previously mentioned or implied embodies nothingness or death.

Hattie is introduced by describing the color of her clothes. We do not know what color hair she has because it is not important.  The fact she is wearing a black sweater and a grey dress is significant as it creates setting and atmosphere. In Writing Fiction, Burroway states a writer must create atmosphere in order for the reader to be engaged and for the “characters to be able to breathe.” The simple color Hattie chooses to wear is most important because black (her cardigan) suggests death or something ominous. Gray (her dress) is the color of ash, also symbolic of death. This sets up the whole story. Death will follow.

In the opening scene, Hattie is “impatiently watching” four girls who are playing with a spindle of Chartreuse yarn. Chartreuse is a light greenish-yellow color, similar to that of dead skin. Just as a side note, the spindle they are playing with reminds the reader of Sleeping Beauty, who pricks her finger and falls asleep for one hundred years. Hattie and the two children who are left behind fall asleep in the storm. Hattie is the only one who wakes up.

Another color presented is the hoarfrosted scraggle. Hoarfrosted means a frost so cold it looks gray. Additional dead grass around the building is yellow. The tin pail that rolls across the yard is gray. When Hattie looks off in the distance and sees the snow, it looks gray and the sky is dark, all colors representative of death.

Hansen describes the impending storm as “a gray blur of snow underneath a dark sky that was all hurry and calamity.” By Hansen’s use of the word “calamity” we know Hattie saw a great misfortune or disaster coming even though it was a “blur”: obscure. Hansen also writes it was “like a nighttime city of sin-black buildings and havoc in the streets.” He describes the storm as if it is alive and making decisions to sin, to kill innocent children.

Hansen describes the storm as alive at other points of the story. He writes, “…a sharp cold petted her neck”. The wind does not pet anything. Only a person is capable of petting something. Hansen also wrote, “Wind, tortured a creek side cottonwood.” He omitted the expected article the as if to make the element a person instead of a thing. How does the wind torture something? And how is a tree to feel something like torture? In this sentence every thing is personified. Thus the storm is a character, the protagonist and the antagonist.

The story’s name, “Wickedness” means evil or morally bad, sinful, extremely troublesome or dangerous, vicious, mean, distressingly severe, and my favorite, beastly. Beastly is most important because after reading about Hansen’s life and his religious influence, I suggest the storm is not only death personified but also the devil. The most notable personification of the storm phrase is, “a sharp cold petted her neck.” Petting is a form of caressing. It is considered to be a tender moment or even an amorous one. When a person thinks about a “sharp cold petting” the action does not fit the description. But if the reader is able to think about the sharp cold as Satan himself, then yes, one can understand why Hansen chose the word “pet.” Catholics believe Satan is always trying to lure the devout away from the church, away from God.

It is not just the storm’s name that is important, Hattie Benedict’s also holds great secrets. First, one must know Hattie is short for Harriet. The most famous woman who shares the same name is Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book which can be read as a story about freeing God’s children. Hattie allowed her students to go forth, to walk out into the storm. By this action, she freed her students thus giving them life. Those whom were not freed died. More obvious is her last name, Benedict, undoubtedly chosen for Saint Benedict, the patron saint of students.

As the story progresses, Hattie tends to a fire in the stove and uses slough grass. This type of grass comes from bogs, where death and decay reside. Also, the word slough means a condition of degradation, despair, and helplessness: the point Hattie has reached. The storm sucks the fire up the chimney, where it causes the soot, which is normally black (death) on the pipe to glow red (symbol of danger). A fire roaring up a chimney is an omen of a storm. The falling of soot is an omen for bad weather or a disaster.

Other symbols are actual numbers. Because Hansen uses so many numbers in one paragraph, it seems they are important, especially when repeated like the number four. There are four girls who are playing outside before the storm hits, and there are four boys who discuss taking the “little ones” home. Firstly, in the Bible, on the fourth day of creation, God finished making the material world. It is the material world that is wreaking havoc is this story. The fourth book in the Bible is the book of Numbers and the title is the “Wilderness.” In Hansen’s “Wickedness,” the storm is taking place in the wilderness, and the boys have to venture out into that wilderness to be tested in order to save the children.

In the book Numbers, the Israelites set out for the Promised Land, just as Janusz has done with his children.

Many Christians believe the most important parts of the New Testament are the gospels because they are the “good news” that Jesus Christ came down from Heaven to save humanity from their sins. According to scripture, when he died on the cross, our souls were saved. The gospels give hope to believers that they have the opportunity to live alongside Jesus after death. There are four gospels and they were written by four of Jesus’ apostles.

Ironically, the number of children leaving with Janusz is twelve. This is no accident as there were twelve disciples who trusted in God and were the ones who were to spread His word.

The number forty is used to describe how far the tarpaper flew when it was ripped from the roof. As stated before, this section has quite a few sailing references. When people think about a ship from the Bible, most would think about Noah’s ark. In that story, it rained for forty days and forty nights. Now that was quite a storm.

A Catholic believes God tests his people many times over. Israel spent forty years being tested in the wilderness. I have to ask, how is Hattie being tested? Or is “Wickedness” a story whose purpose is to remind readers we are all being tested? In the end, Hattie has to make a decision. She decides to go out into the storm to try and save the last two children. Was that her test? Or was her test that she has to live with the reality both of those children died because of her decision? When faced with obstacles, what we do and how we react reveal who we are. Hansen illustrates even a hero like Hattie can fail. Good people are not spared and sometimes they are the ones tested the most.

T.C. Boyle’s Drop City

For my annotation on Drop City, written by T.C. Boyle, I focused on sentence structure and metaphor. Boyle seems to love writing metaphors. Every page, nearly every paragraph has at least one metaphor, and they never seemed forced or out of place, although by the end of the book, I felt like he had written too many metaphors. He uses this technique when mostly writing about the hippie commune, Drop City, and their people. Whether the hippies were drugged out or jonesing for more, metaphors were a plenty.

I find this interesting because while on drugs people seem to experience life in an alternative way, and through Boyle’s lines he is able to remind a reader who has experienced the effects of drugs to relate or remember and he is able to help the inexperienced drug user understand what it feels and looks like. Upon first investigation, Boyle either did quite a few drugs in his day, or he researched the hell out of drug effects. For instance, one of Boyle’s characters is tripping on acid when he closes his eyes to escape a world of tracers and hallucinations and climbs into a world draped in front of a black curtain of swirling colors, fireworks, and explosions. This is one detail I believe everyone on LSD experiences.

While reading, I highlighted sentences that really stuck out in some fashion, whether they are difficult to understand, one the reader needed to ponder while high on weed or tripping their balls off on acid. For example, the first line of chapter one reads, “The morning was a fish in a net, glistening and wriggling at the dead black border of her consciousness, but she’d never caught a fish in a net or on a hook either, so she couldn’t really say if or how or why” (p. 3). This line sets the reader up to understand what kind of book they are going to read. If the reader wants to fully understand the book, she has to stop and think about what Boyle is saying, hence what his characters are saying. At the conclusion of each of his lengthy sentences, I can picture Star, Ronnie, or Merry saying, “Right on man.” During this time, a straight person may not follow or even want to follow.

If the opening line (see above) were stated by either of the female main characters, Star or Pamela, the line would have a different meaning. Star would be referring to the after effects of a night spent hallucinating and “balling” whomever her boyfriend wanted her to get with, and if it was stated by Pamela, it may imply something bad happened to her, like she slipped on a rock and was knocked unconscious. Even though this illustrates the two female characters are vastly different, they are able to connect in the same way Boyle is able to connect with his readers, whether they have done drugs or (I am guessing) have not.

Through the use of metaphor, Boyle has constructed complex sentences for the most complex characters. Star, the hippie, may seem like a simple character from the viewpoint of other characters, but she in fact is not. She illustrates the time period well, when a man could still dominate a woman even amidst the feminist movement. Boyle’s female characters, who were supposedly enlightened, still make and serve the meals. Only through Star’s inner thoughts do we start to understand her character. “Ronnie [Star’s boyfriend] had talked her into undressing in front of the other guy—or no, he’d shamed her into it” (p. 7). The word “shamed” tells the reader just how Star feels about undressing in front of the guy. It tells the reader how she is not very strong, does not stand up for herself, and it tells a lot about Ronnie’s character as well. In the end, Star never frees herself until Ronnie is dead even though she has not been conjoined with him for a great long while.

Contrary to Star’s inner fight to find herself, Pamela knows what she wants and goes after it. She does not care about feminism. She travels to backwoods Alaska to find a husband who can take care of her and marry him in a week. She cooks and cleans, but she also hauls trees and builds a cabin. Through out the entire novel, she is the free one, and by example, she is able to show Star how to be free.

Through Boyle’s use of metaphor he frees the reader of the shackles of conformity. His words do not line up all in a neat little row like those in a lot of contemporary novels.

Below I have listed some of what I believe to be some of Boyle’s best sentences and metaphors.

“She- the poet- let out a scream. And this was no ordinary scream- it wasn’t the kind of semi-titillated pro forma shriek you might expect from a female poet announcing a fistfight among hippies in a half-dug ditch in a blistering field above the Russian River; no this was meant to convey shock, real shock, a savage tug at the cord strung taut between the two poles of existence. The poet’s scream rose above the heat, airless and impacted, and everything stopped right there” (56).

Boyle could of just said, “On a hot day, she let out a blood curdling

scream.”

“Reba looking hard and old in the morning light, her hair like dried weeds, her eyes blunted and lifeless. When she smiled- and she wasn’t smiling now, because her lips were two dead things pressed on atop the other- a whole deep rutted floodplain of lines and gouges swallowed her eyes, as if she’d already used up her quotient of joy and from now on out every laugh was going to cost her” (124).

Boyle is able to describe her face perfectly, but he did not just say, “her hair stuck out everywhere and her eyes were glazed over. She looked like the walking dead.” He brought her ugliness alive instead of killing it.

One of the last lines in Drop City reads, The snow whispered at his feet, talked to him, sang out with the rhythm of the night” (449).

Here Boyle’s character Sess, a hardened Alaskan trapper, illustrates how he lives in the state of mind the hippies are always searching for. Sess is able to hear the snow sing. Through simple metaphor Boyle’s final statement not only creates a warm picture in a harsh environment, but it also teaches a lesson for those who have paid attention.

In Memoriam of the Visceral Kindergarten Sentence

I’ve decided to start on a new writing project in hopes of learning how to cope with my writer’s mind transforming. A lot of bat-crazy shit happens when locked away alone for hours day after day, week after week, month after month. “Start at the beginning” is the phrase most commonly heard out of a new therapist’s mouth.

Kindergarten, 1979, was the first time I remember falling in love with the sentence, not individual words mind you, they came much later which actually makes sense since my mother told me when I started talking I spoke in full sentences.

During kindergarten writing time, Mrs. Sawyer sat at her half-moon table in the front of the classroom with her sweet smelling black Magic Marker all set and ready to go. When not in use, she held it up like the Statue of Liberty holds her torch inviting her children to come forward and when utilized it glided across my manilla paper like a painter’s brush thick with paint strokes its canvas.

After completing a detailed drawing, I did the long-walk, squeezing between the tiny school chairs, to the front of the room, where my teacher’s wide grandmotherly bottom balanced on a five-year-old’s chair. As I approached, she smiled with her old-lady gums and gold arches holding in sections of false teeth. I suspected they wouldn’t come loose like my grandmother’s often did.

Before taking the final steps, I stopped and stared at my picture, processing the details, figuring out one sentence, and only one as that was all we were allowed. If chosen carefully, my words would have the power to awaken a world I had just created with 8 fat crayons. For that moment, I felt like God.

With the right words linked together, I opened my mouth and let each syllable loll through the air toward her ear. I could see it in her eyes, she knew my creation fulfilled me. She uncapped her torch and inscribed my sentence with the mindful accuracy only a kindergarten teacher with perfect penmanship could. Before me, her fine print exceeded my expectations. It was like the one present I opened on Christmas eve, chosen deliberately, shaking up and down, back and forth to understand weight, structure, and size.

In 1979, I carried my long manilla sheet, as if it were the Shroud of Turin, back to the table someone’s grandfather made from old plywood in his basement workshop because that’s what people used to do, and copied each letter in my best hand. Still shining with holy wetness, the scent from Magic Marker letters rose to my nostrils and filled me with heaven’s euphoria. Everything in my world was right.

No matter how much time passes, childhood honesty remains the same when I talk to my genius, my muse. My love affair with the written sentence is alive just as much today as it was when I sat in the last seat near the pencil sharpener in Mrs. Sawyer’s class.

With this love also comes fear. Fear of screwing up the feeling of the interlaced words. Fear of not relaying each of them with intent. The same fear that reared its ugly head while standing in front of my fellow first graders preparing to read Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Last winter, I nearly stopped breathing when reading a paragraph to my nontraditional college-aged peers. A lack of confidence forced me to opt out when given another opportunity by my ever supportive writing tribe. 

My transformation? The more I write, the less confidence I possess. I feel my skin shrinking inside my self. I don’t give permission for the mean geniuses to run amuck. But they still do. Stop, I say. For I too, shall pass on the words that float on the same current of a kindergarten class of long ago. I too, shall allow the good genius to tell her story. I don’t have a choice. I have to listen. I have to relay her sentence for she has a lot to tell.

Famous Antagonists

In the midst of writing my novel, Protecting the Girls, I needed to find out more about what makes a good antagonist because I was coming to the point when he would be introduced. I have since realized in another novel I am working on, when I introduced the antagonist, I stalled out and sought another writing venture. Just something for me to think about.

After conducting polls among family, friends, colleagues, Facebook, and writing forums, I found the three most well done antagonists are Nurse Ratched, from One Flies Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Joker, played by Heath Ledger, in The Dark Knight, and Alex Forrest, played by Glenn Close, in Fatal Attraction,

Last month, I attended a fundraiser for Maine Center for Creativity where they honored Glenn Close and her husband, David Shaw. During Glenn Close’s speech she said she never really felt like she played a villain, even as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction. I can see why she felt this way, but my poll group does not see the difference between villain and antagonist. Protecting the Girls has more than one antagonist, but I would not consider all of them villains. The Joker is a villain and an antagonist. Alex Forrest and Nurse Ratched are antagonists but not villains.

The Joker is meant to be frightening. His character not only gets under the skin of film watchers but also the actors playing The Joker. Jack Nicholson, a former Joker, warned Heath Ledger about the role. In interviews, Ledger admitted he was suffering form anxiety, depression, and insomnia, for a time never sleeping more than two hours a night, while acting in The Dark Night. Before the conclusion of filming, Ledger overdosed on antidepressants, anxiety medication, and sleeping pills, and ultimately died while playing The Joker. I have to ask myself how is it possible for The Joker’s character to dive so deeply into a person’s psyche.

The effective traits of The Joker start with his make up. Years before, when Jack Nicolson played The Joker, his make up was nowhere near as frightening. The Joker’s clothes, hair, and his entire costume are deranged. During the film, The Joker explains to different characters how he got his scars. His scars and make up are supposed to make it look like he is always smiling, which adds to the creepiness of his character. He looks evil. He looks deranged. The Joker laughs in nearly every scene, which again adds to the creepiness.

Some of The Jokers lines are very poignant and explain why he is so creepy and different from the norm. He’s not just a bad guy. He doesn’t just live a regular day life and go out and kill at night. We never see The Joker when he’s not interacting with people because he has to be at the height of derangement and evil when he is with others.

In The Dark Knight, The Joker doesn’t hesitate to kill. He doesn’t show any remorse. He explains, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” It is difficult to imagine that some men in the real world actually feel like this. But it is something that does not leave you after watching the movie. A person wonders if there really are men in the world who feel like that. It is certainly something that is not talked about outside a psychiatrist’s office. If we look at the mass killings, torture, the most evil acts in our world, we have to wonder if the people committing these crimes “Just want to watch the world burn,” or if they go home to families and consider this just a day job.

“The Joker has no rules. The hero has rules.” In The Joker’s mind, he can do whatever he wants. We never find out why he kills, why he steals; we just know he is amused when doing it. In the film, he burns a mountain of money because he can. The Joker wants to bring Batman to his knees. He kills the woman Batman loves, and he gets inside Batman’s head by telling him, “You complete me, to them you’re a freak like me.” Batman knows this is true. He cannot be a part of society just as The Joker cannot. The difference is The Joker does not have another life. We only see him as evil.

Towards the end of the film, The Joker tells Batman, “Madness is like gravity, all it needs is a little push.” This seems to be what happened to Heath Ledger; he appeared to be on the edge of madness and didn’t want to fall in. He used prescriptions to help keep himself from falling off the edge, but lost control and gravity made him fall.

The Joker’s madness is not the same as Alex Forrest’s in Fatal Attraction. Alex Forrest appeared normal. She was driven by her loneliness and desire to have what and whom she could not, a life with Dan Gallagher who was a married man. Alex is as much a victim in this movie as the accepted victim. Because we know the story about her fall from the world of sanity, we have compassion for her. As moral beings, we still know she is wrong and crazy, but we understand why she went crazy, even if in the same situation we do not feel we would not handle it the same way. Dan is intimate with Alex over and over again, filling the emptiness inside her. Right after, he rejects her, which creates the highs and lows her mind cannot handle. She stalks him, and her behavior becomes increasingly more frightening. It starts with phone calls, then escalates to throwing acid on his car, then visiting his wife, then abducting (but not harming) his child, to eventually breaking into their house, killing the beloved family pet, and trying to kill his wife and then him. In the end, it is Dan’s wife who kills Alex. She takes back the power, but seems to forgive her husband for having an affair and bringing this crazy woman into their life.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched works in a mental institution. Like the other films, the great antagonist is crazy in her own way. From the outside Nurse Ratched does not appear to be crazy. She is in complete control of her patients often using fear as a tool for submission. When her authority is challenged, she takes away privileges, including food and television. She drugs her patients to a point where they do not have the physical facilities to object. When this does not work with one patient in particular, she subjects him to shock therapy. When he still acts out, she gives him a lobotomy. She is able to enact this cruelty because her administrators see she has everything under control, something important in a facility.

Nurse Ratched’s most evil moment is not the lobotomy. She has a patient who is deathly afraid of her. He went against the rules, and she tells him she is going to tell his mother. The stuttering patient is even more afraid of his mother than the nurse and is presumably the reason he ended up in the institution. Nurse Ratched controls this character, Billy, through fear. Ultimately, he is so afraid, she drives him to suicide. Randle McMurphy, the patient bucking the system, tries to kill her after he discovers Billy is dead. His action is what leads her to order his lobotomy. In the end, she is still in control and has wiped out any threat. In the process of wiping out the threat, she has created more fear, which gives her more control. In all three titles, chaos creates fear and the one not afraid is able to create that chaos.

The Silence of the Lambs

I have to say for a person who scares easily, The Silence of the Lambs did not scare me. I am not sure if it was because I was dissecting the book while reading it or if it is just not that scary. I remember seeing the movie a number of years ago and being petrified, covering my eyes was a necessity, especially in one of the last scenes when Clarice Starling, the protagonist, is walking through the dark, gun at the ready, listening for Buffalo Bill, the serial murderer, who is watching her through night vision goggles ready but waiting to kill her. His game became Hollywood’s game.

I am still trying to figure out the entire reason why I was not scared while reading this novel. I am someone who can’t read Stephen King because I get too scared. I was even scared when I saw the movie Stand By Me and the kids are walking up on the dead body. Dead bodies freak me out. So why am I writing about such things? Maybe to face my own fears and no longer allow them to control me.  I am controlling them.

The only aspect of Thomas Harris’s novel I could pick apart was the fact I was not scared when I should have been. On the flipside, many aspects work very well and sometimes even border on the line of brilliance.

For instance, Harris is able to leave the reader wanting more at the end of every chapter. Occasionally a few of his chapters linger for a bit too long, but if the reader can just hold on until the last sentence or two, Harris will tip you upside down or at least turn you around. At the end of chapter three, Clarice has just started talking to Dr. Lecter about a murder case. No one else can get him to talk. She is a rookie, and he plays with her, like a cat with a mouse. But he gives her a present, information, which allows her to work the entire case. He knows she will continue to talk to him and give him information, the only thing he values and loves, evidenced by the jailer’s punishment that seems to work, taking away Dr. Lecter’s books.

Harris continues to drop clues at the end of each chapter. They make sense to what the reader knows about the story, but they also make the reader try to figure out who the killer is or where the killer will strike next. At approximately three quarters of the way through the novel, Harris switches POV. He tells the story from Buffalo Bill’s POV. Buffalo Bill has taken his next victim and he walks the reader through the abductions and preparations for creating a bodysuit, complete with breasts for the killer to wear.

The chapters from his POV are the most interesting because they include his thoughts and because Harris switches to the victims POV. This is not done very often in the novel because as, Mike Kimball pointed out, the reader does not want to relate to the murderer. But Harris has written these chapters in such a way that the reader does not relate to Buffalo Bill. He is a killer. His background is explained, how and why he started killing, but I do not have any compassion for him. When I listen to Hannibal Lecter, I care for him, even though he killed more people in the course of the book than the serial murderer did.

I believe Harris was able to do this because he built a relationship with the reader through the relationship that developed over the course of the entire book between Clarice and Dr. Lecter. She liked him, respected him, and treated him with respect. After his gruesome escape, Dr. Lecter let Clarice know he was not coming after her because the world is better with her in it. Harris did not build any sort of relationship between Buffalo Bill and anyone. He had a lover, but the reader does not get to form a relationship with the lover. He had dead bodies, but we never knew the people. He had a victim in his house, but he ignores her, and she is not all that likable. It is difficult to connect to someone who is portrayed as a spoiled brat even in the throws of her imminent death. He has a relationship with a dog but we do not know the dog. Through relationship building, or lack of, Harris is able to gain our trust. Clarice is an FBI trainee hunting down a killer. We trust her. Who did not trust the FBI before the X-Files was on the air. Clarice trusts Dr. Lecter. Since we trust her, and she trusts him then by default, we trust him, even though he bites the faces off some of his victims.

The reader has to have the time in order to build relationships with characters. Harris has proven this is even possible with the most heinous of killers. We have to trust our saviors even if they are the bad guy.

Character

I decided to include both Write Great Fiction – Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress and the chapters on character from How Fiction Works by James Wood because the two authors take on the theme of character in a different way. Neither appears to be wrong and bring up many thought provoking points.

The way in which Nancy Kress writes about character is broad based. She looks at the whole character and encourages writers to get to know their characters. At the end of each chapter, she also includes writing exercises to help writers learn how to practice what she is preaching. When Kress looks at a novel, she wants to experience it in a believable way and does not think this is possible if the writer does not invest “time, effort, and imagination” (3). It seems likely writers would do this automatically, but some may not, and they may not even know they are not doing it, like I have done.

During my second residency, a peer expressed how detached from my characters she felt. I had invested a lot of time into my characters, but I found it was not enough. An author needs to know her characters well enough to know how they would act or react in any situation. If the author does not know her characters thoroughly, she will not connect her readers to the characters and the story does not matter.

Kress states in order be believable, the writer has to become not only writer but also character and reader. I have found it easier to be writer and character but difficult to be reader. I know so much about my characters it is difficult to remember what I have previously written, cut out, or just thought about.

Kress goes on to discuss the importance of the emotional arc. She states in order for the readers to believe in the emotional arc, we have to believe the character is capable of change. To be successful the reader has to be close to the character, forming an intimate relationship. How does a writer give enough detail and not too much so the reader become attached and cares about the emotional transformation of the character?

Kress and Wood both address this issue. Kress states the character has to change in a way that is believable. If the character is kind, she is not going to murder someone for money. But if she is kind, she may be manipulated easily and another character could convince her to murder someone because that another character is going to kill a child or something horrific like that. If the kind character is being taken advantage of and is not the pathetic type, the readers may start to root for her, hence care about her; hence form a relationship with her.

Recently in the news, Kristen Stewart was caught cheating on her longtime boyfriend and costar, Robert Pattinson. Fans of the Twilight series uploaded countless videos to YouTube expressing how they felt emotionally betrayed. No one did this when Leann Rimes or Tiger Woods cheated on their spouses. One fan even said she would forever see Bella (the character played by Kristen Stewart) cheating on Edward (the character played by Robert Pattinson). These fans read the books, really devoured the books, because they became emotionally attached to the characters, so much so, some were unable to disconnect the characters’ lives with the actors in real life.

According to Wood, the writer needs to get close to the character. The closer the writer can get the better because if the writer is close, the reader will either become the character or at least walk next to her. Sarah, you and I had discussed this very thing in my writing. For instance when I wrote, “Elizabeth noticed” the words ejected the reader from the story. With this in mind, when I revised I deleted all forms of “She noticed, she looked”, etc.

We had also discussed rewriting the beginning of chapter one because it was too authorial. Wood elaborates on this point. When readers are reading the words of the author rather than the character, it again pulls them out of the story.  I am including two different opening pages, and I am interested to see if I accomplished staying closer to the character. Or do I need to get even closer? I feel closer to her.

Old Page:

The winter sun’s glare broke through the tall pines behind the young woman who stood freezing in her long skirt and tightly laced up Bean boots and reflected off the old asylum’s exterior back into her eyes. Elizabeth dug through her purse until she found a pair of sunglasses. She welcomed the curtain of anonymity even if it was only for a few moments before she climbed the granite steps to find help.

Elizabeth looked at her watch, an ancient gift from her mother. At twenty-five she still wore a Mickey Mouse one because after their trip to Disneyland, it was the last present her mother would ever give to her.

Seven fifty. Forty minutes early. It was going to be difficult for her to walk in to that building. So many times before she had failed, turning away at the last minute or never even leaving her apartment to catch the bus. Over the last two decades, there had been too many midnight emergency room visits. With the twenty-year anniversary of her mother and sister’s deaths approaching, Elizabeth’s symptoms had intensified. Her psyche couldn’t handle the uncertainty.

What felt like a lifetime ago, Elizabeth had experienced something traumatic, but she wasn’t able to pull the haunting details from her memory. Occasionally, she experienced what felt like flashback dreams where she looked down on her own body sitting in her childhood home. Twenty years ago, Elizabeth had locked away that little girl, a lone witness, in her parents’ bedroom. The time had finally come when she had to at least try to make the nightmares stop. She’d decided she’d take a pill, any pill, even if it meant never seeing her mother or sister in her dreams again.

“Can I help you?” a man in white asked.

New Page:

Chapter One

As she stepped off the bus, the Old Asylum sat at the end of the long drive. From this distance, five stories didn’t seem so daunting. As she got closer, the white walls reflected the sunlight back into her eyes. She stopped. Even though this place looked like something out of a horror movie, Elizabeth felt strangely comforted as she counted the windows on the second floor. Thirty-two.

Elizabeth pulled back her mitten to check the time, 7:50; forty minutes to go.

The ball of fire in her chest that had woken her at 5:50 am this morning flared again. Swallowing hard, she forced it down then walked around the garden in front of the building. On her forth trip around, a man in white uniform pants and a workman’s jacket stood in her way.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

His hair had been slicked back sometime in the last week with what looked like motor oil.

“No—thank you though.” Elizabeth tried to smile.

He shrugged his shoulders then walked off muttering. “Crazy” had been annunciated particularly well causing Elizabeth to stand perfectly still, like if she didn’t move at all, no one would see the crazy girl. She’d be invisible.

“Crazy?” she said out loud.

Part of her agreed with the strange man. Don’t say that. She continued to circle the garden. On her next trip around, she checked her watch again, 8:28. Lost time. Involuntary meditation rang in her head. Yes that was it. Psyche class maybe. Am I closer? Am I embodying the writer, the character, and the reader? Is the character connecting emotionally to the reader? Is there the promise or believable possibility of change? I hope so.

How Sybil Affected my Main Character

Sybil, written by Flora Rheta Scheiber, is a novel detailing one of the first documented cases of Multiple Personality Disorder, now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). It is debated whether or not the main character, Sybil, actually had DID, but that is not important for the reasoning in choosing this book. I chose Sybil because one of my characters, Elizabeth, has DID. Whether or not the book is fully accurate does not matter for the research aspect of my character’s traits because Sybil is believable.

DID is not believed to be hereditary; it is a disorder that is caused by severely traumatic experiences during childhood. No discovery has been made about why this disorder occurs in some victims of extreme abuse and not in others.

While reading Sybil, I found the first half of the novel to be ambiguous when the cause of her disorder is hinted at. It is obvious from the very beginning the main character has DID. The author did not try to hide this information from the reader. But it is not until the reader reaches the halfway point that the graphic details of the abuse is revealed. When reading this section, I needed to put the book down for a few minutes because the things that happened to Sybil as an infant and then throughout her childhood are unfathomable. In order to write about this topic, I must be fully knowledgeable about the severity of what kind of abuse in a person’s life can be so severe that it causes her personality to fragment.

For many years, Sybil did not know she had any sort of disorder. She did not hear voices or show any physical signs of illness. She simply blacked out when her alters took over the body. She thought everyone experienced the same type of lost time. She felt as though she was different but did not know she was until nearly having a nervous breakdown while away at college. Sybil had to start seeing a psychiatrist in order to fix the problem. After approximately twenty years of intensive therapy, Sybil and her alters were finally integrated.

While reading this novel, I asked a few people why they thought this book was so popular. The story is not suspenseful because it takes too long to get to the meat, as it took a long time for the alters to integrate. We came to the conclusion, that Sybil is a train wreck. No one can look away. As humans, our curiosity of evil behavior with tragic outcomes is mystifying. In general, people look for a dead body when passing a car accident, sometimes while saying a prayer that everyone makes it out alive. We are intrigued by the gruesomeness of the world, except (for most of us) when it comes to puppies and children.

If I had not been reading the Sybil for research purposes, I would have put it down about a quarter of the way through because there were many points when it did not hold my attention. The writing style is mediocre at best, and the author has certain ticks I found distracting.

For instance, there is a lot of dialogue, which is to be expected because it is a book detailing therapy, hence a lot of talking. But Scheiber habitually used tags on almost all lines of dialogue. So when approximately half of a 500-page book is dialogue, this becomes bothersome. For example, on page 361 (a random pick), Sybil is talking to her friend, Henry. The tags are, “he said softly”, “he asked”, “she replied slowly”, “he asked”, “she replied firmly”, “he protested”, “she repeated”, “he asked”, “she replied”, “he persevered”, “he asked”, “Vicky was thinking”, “Peggy Lou was fuming”, and “Henry said”.  These take place over the course of fifteen lines of dialogue, one for each.

Another tick evident was when a new alter presented him or herself. Scheiber described each one in the same manner, sometimes describing one and then another successively on the same page: hair color, eye color, shape of nose and lips, and whether they were considered to be thin or thick. What was left out in the description? The age. It is not until the resolution when the reader finds out how old most of the alters are, which I see as an important piece to this book because people of different ages react differently to the same situation and because the alters were created at certain ages when a traumatic event happened, never to grow older.

Aside from the conventions I have learned to avoid while reading Sybil, I found a few aspects that are vitally important to develop in my own novel. Dr. Wilbur, Sybil’s psychiatrist, had to form a trusting relationship with Sybil in order for her to feel safe enough to open up. My novel is not about integrating; it’s about the actions of the different alters and Elizabeth. But she still sees a psychiatrist who tries to help her. Their relationship waxes and wanes throughout the book, therefore their relationship has to be strong. My readers need to be invested in the characters.

It has been documented that people with DID share the same moral code with their alters, therefore it is important to establish Elizabeth’s moral code fairly quickly because one of her alters kills repeatedly.

Hypnosis was used as a method of speaking with Sybil’s different alters when it was

needed. I would like to use hypnosis, therefore, have to research the topic.

Even though I would not qualify Sybil as a great book, it was valuable in my research. I have to find a way for my audience to truly connect with a person with DID.