Mar 24 2010

The Imaginary J.D. Salinger

 “‘Writing is different,’ Salinger insists.  ‘Other people get into occupations by accident or design; but writers are born.  We have to write.  I have to write.  I could work at selling motels, or slopping hogs, for fifty years, but if someone asked my occupation, I’d say writer, even if I’d never sold a word.  Writers write.  Other people talk‘” (Kinsella 109).

I’m reading Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella right now.  Being a huge fan of the movie Field of Dreams, it was only a matter of time before I picked up the original text.

I didn’t know that the fictional, reclusive writer Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) was originally written as none other than J.D. Salinger.  I’d always simply assumed that he was based on the writer, as they had a number of obvious similarities.  Both had books that were simultaneously banned and hailed as classics; both were seen as literary heroes; and both were mysteriously withdrawn in later life.  I don’t even think that the film tries to hide the parallels between the two writers, aside from changing the name and the race.  

The jury is still out on how I feel about the book on the whole.  Sometimes I feel like I’m trudging through an excess of heavy-handed figurative language (“Shoeless Joe Jackson glides over the plush velvet grass, silent as a jungle cat” [17]; ” “a moon bright as butter” [265]; “the strangle of grass, bent by evening breezes, peers inside” [135]).  Other times I’m moved to tears by the nostalgic, magical quality of the writing. 

Either way, the segments featuring Kinsella’s imagined version of J.D. Salinger are fascinating.  It’s like Kinsella the writer is giving himself–and his readers–an opportunity to answer all of the questions that we have about a legendary, puzzling figure in American literary history.  Why did Salinger retreat into solitude?  What happened to his prolific writing career?  What was he LIKE?  Especially given Salinger’s recent death, it’s a timely piece of reading.  Fictional, of course, and pure fancy, but engaging nonetheless.  I feel like I’m cheating, somehow; like I’m kissing a Paul Newman impersonator or dancing with a mannequin dressed as Patrick Swayze.

Ray Kinsella grills Salinger, asking him all of those burning questions we want answered.  As they travel the country together on a mystical journey, Salinger becomes increasingly likable and down-to-earth.  A man I imagine to have been withdrawn and curmudgeonly is portrayed as easy-going and gentle.  At one point, Ray asks why “Jerry” never talks about writing.  The writer replies that talking about writing is different from discussing any other occupation (quoted above).

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I can talk about just about anything…including my writing.  And I’m not sure it’s fair to say that other people aren’t born into what they do, because I do think that there are born mechanics and teachers and CEOs.  But the point about writers being writers regardless of publication…Now that I agree with.

About two years ago I visited my best friend, Sarah, in New York.  My last night there, she took me to a party where I met a guy who had recently graduated with his MFA in creative writing.  He was working on a novel. 

When I asked him what he did, he replied, “I’m a writer.”  Just like that.

When he asked me what I did, I answered with the same.  “I’m a writer,” I told him simply, like I’d said it a million times before.  It slipped out before I could even contemplate its truth.

Maybe it was the fact that I’d had a few too many drinks that night, or maybe I was just repeating his words like a lame parrot.  But when I told Sarah, she asked me, “Don’t you think that means that writing is your true calling?” 

So the point above is well-taken, and it made me sigh with relief when I read it.  Writers aren’t defined by publication, they’re established at birth.  Like me.

Mar 19 2010


My current manuscript began as a third-person narrative.  But when I realized that I was losing the thread of the plot and central conflict, I shifted to first-person.  I feel like I’ve picked up that thread again.  I feel like the story is stronger; firmer; right.

One of the main obstacles in this change is the struggle to establish my protagonist’s voice as authentic and believable.  She’s a 15-year-old girl, and it’s clear that my former omniscient narrator used vocabulary that may not occur to a teenager.  Some critique partners pointed this out, and I agreed with their assessment.  So I began to adjust my diction to fit the voice of an adolescent girl, which turned out to be yet another challenge.  I use those big words naturally; removing them from my vernacular isn’t easy.  I don’t even notice them most of the time, and when I do I wrestle with how to remove them.  What words do I use instead?  What would Taylor think here?  Say there? 

My research–primarily reading young adult novels and watching popular teen soaps–would indicate that kids actually appreciate the big words.  They respond to them.  The witty, intelligent teen banter is engaging and clever.  Granted, teenagers may not truly talk like that on a daily basis, but there’s no questioning the popularity of Twlight, Hunger Games, Dawson’s Creek, The Secret Life

So I wonder:  Should I force my own hand to make different word choices?  If my character speaks to me using these words, should I force her to stop?  Or is that, in fact, condescending to my audience?  Kids are so much smarter than we often give them credit for.  Even if these words don’t come naturally to the average teen, kids can follow the lingo.  They understand.  They appreciate it and they grow from it.  Maybe that’s my job–my obligation–to let my character speak for herself in the way that she speaks to me.   Or perhaps I just need to make clearer choices about who my protagonist is.  Regardless, Taylor’s voice is a work in progress.

Mar 17 2010

Vampire Boyfriends

An old high school boyfriend, Aaron,* recently looked me up on Facebook.  Our relationship was a total cliché; he was the quintessential “bay boy” to my “good girl.”   Even though I’m now happily married to an entirely wholesome guy, I can’t deny that hearing from Aaron brought me back to the thrill of that relationship.  Even my adolescent self knew that I was never going to marry him or anything, but Aaron sure made my heart race.

I remember that he always smelled of cigarettes.  Despite the fact that I’ve never smoked, and in fact can’t stand being around it, the smell of Aaron’s smoky breath on my lips was like an aphrodisiac to me back then.  He lived in my neighborhood, and we often stole away to make out in the woods, unbeknownst to my parents.  His house was always filled with a crew of semi-relatives, including a young niece born to his older half-sister when she was just a teenager herself.  Aaron was more experienced than I was.  He was athletic, but his grades, his temper, and his lack of self-discipline generally kept him off most organized teams.  He was in my English class sophomore year, but he rarely attended class.  When we became a couple he came to class more often, which only drew me to him further.  Wasn’t that proof that I could save him from himself? 

My level-headed best friend, Sam,* would tell me, “You’re just so much smarter than he is.”  And of course I defended Aaron to her, insisting that he wasn’t stupid, just troubled.  Indeed, we were the ultimate cliché.

Above all, Aaron was always kind to me.  He put me on a pedestal; he treated me with respect.  I expect that he was drawn to me because I was different from him…Essentially the same reason I was attracted to him.  The catch was that I dreamed that I’d fix him, heal him, while he took steps to ensure that he never changed me.

Shortly after we broke up Aaron dropped out of school, and soon after that he overdosed on some ill-advised combination of street and prescription drugs.  I remember visiting him at home when he emerged from rehab, but by then our relationship had ended, and I was no longer fool enough to think that I could change him (or the circumstances that made him who he was).  

By now you’re probably thinking, “Thanks for the diary entry, Colleen, but what does this have to do with vampires?”

Let’s just say that there’s no doubting the appeal of The Bad Boy.  James Dean.  Mark Darcy.  Edward Cullen.  Dylan McKay.  The sideburns!  The furrowed brow!  The emotional damage!  They practically beg to be loved.  They make our hearts beat madly in our chests as they quietly brood behind rough exteriors.  The worse they are for us–the more dangerous, the more tortured–the more irresistible they become.

Especially for bookish girls who typically play by the rules, the appearance of these characters in literature is an escape, a fantasy.  Sure, good girls dabble with bad boy relationships in real life, but most settle down with someone safer, kinder, healthier.  Books are an ideal way to vicariously experiment with bad boys, consequence-free.  The teenage bad boy/good girl relationship is perfectly tantalizing–and perfectly rooted in fiction.  From Bella and Edward to Jane Eyre and the rogue-ish Rochester, girls can run away to something treacherous between the pages, between the stolen kisses of the characters.  It’s not a new paradigm; it’s an old one that spans genres and time. 

My girlfriends and I have recently dubbed our own personal bad boys our “vampires,” after discussing the Twilight Saga debate over Edward and Jacob.  Who should Bella choose? we muse.  Being a vampire, Edward is virtually unattainable, dangerous, and literally cold.  Jacob—half-dog, of course—is loyal, warm, and emotionally available.  If the werewolf is the sweet, genuine boy next door, the vampire is the unequivocally risky and alluring bad boy. 

As an adult, I fall firmly in the TEAM JACOB camp, but as a teen I certainly lost my heart to a few vampires.  My main bad boy–my vampire–was Aaron.

I’m not writing a bad boy character right now, but maybe I will.  Maybe I’ll draw on the memory of Aaron’s clandestine kisses, his tortured past, his experience and obvious sex appeal, to write a boy with some vampire qualities.  Someone equally perilous and protective, captivating and riddled with angst. 

I would never go back.  If anything this brush with my past has confirmed for me that I’m happy with the decisions I’ve made.  But talking to Aaron has reminded me what it was like to be a high school good girl, drawn to the adrenaline rush of the vampire bad boy. 

*false name

Mar 16 2010

You know you’re a writer when…

…the word “vacation” means “unadulterated time with my journal.”

Mar 15 2010

Okay…so who am I?

The last time I called myself a writer was in junior high.

Okay, maybe once or twice in college when I chaired the Poetry Circle and bore the label “Spoken Word Artist.”

But since then I’ve mostly worn other titles like “athlete,” “teacher,” “academic.”  And these were strong titles.  They were stable, and easily defined.  They were based on what I did rather than who I am.  Which begs the question:  Who am I?

Well, if I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t have bothered asking the question.

There’s something scary about calling yourself a writer by definition.  It’s like saying that you’re a singer-songwriter if you haven’t actually sold any music, or an actor if you can’t name anything you’ve appeared in.  For a long time I’ve operated under that fear.  I’ve written bits and pieces of a dozen different things, squirreled away in my house like Emily friggin’ Dickinson.  Well, I’m no Dickinson.  I’m not nearly that reclusive…Or that talented, for that matter.

I’ve recently “come out of the writing closet,” so to speak.  I’d always thought of myself as a writer, and now I have the guts to actually use that title.  I’ve found a community of people in this amazing city who embrace the role, and who support each other in their writing endeavors.  Some are published, many are not, but they’ve helped me be more fearless.  It’s so easy for others to roll their eyes when they hear that someone is working on a novel–I mean, isn’t everyone and their mother “working on a novel”?–but I’ve found the strength to ignore the nay-sayers.  I’ll listen to the critics and the constructive feedback of my peers, but I’m not afraid to proudly wear the label of “Writer” anymore.  Because even if I’m still figuring out who I am, I know that one thing is for sure:  I am a writer.  

I mean, published or not, I always have been.

Mar 10 2010

A true Gemini

Yes, it’s true, I’m actually two people.

Looking at it from an athletic perspective, it kinda makes sense.  Growing up, my first sports were individual.  In particular, I was a competitive gymnast until junior high, at which point I shot up several inches and it became glaringly obvious that I should find other outlets.  (My feet were hitting the mats on my giants–you know, those swing-around-the-bar-things).  Luckily my parents had convinced me in fourth grade to try softball, which I immediately fell in love with and began to play religiously.  The teammates!  The comaraderie!  The dirt!

And so it was that I had two different athletic careers.  I spent the first twelve years of my life focusing on my own inner monologue; quietly pumping myself up for competition; competing, in fact, with my teammates.  And then I went another twelve years focusing on teamwork and collaboration and socializing.   (And let’s not forget the keggers in college and “bonding” with the men’s soccer team.)

It makes sense that when in social situations now, I’m an extrovert.  I love being the center of attention and making new friends.  I’m a pretty decent chameleon, easily adapting to new circumstances.  I enjoy most people, and I’d like to think that I get along with just about everyone.  I’m pretty damn loud, too.  (This is something that I get from my mother:.  I’ve actually seen the woman keep talking as someone is rolling up the car window in her face.  We are a family of talkers, no doubt about it.)

But then there are the times when I want nothing but simple, unadulterated quiet.  I don’t want anyone to talk to me.  I want to retreat into my head and hide there, indefinitely.  My husband knows to leave me alone at these times.  When I go to the gym or to yoga at the end of a long day, I enjoy it because I’m, well, anonymous.  I don’t know anyone there, and I don’t have to pretend to know them.  I don’t make small talk or introduce myself to people.  I avoid the machines at the gym that are occupied.  Even if I need that piece of equipment right now, I just change my plans.  Why would I ask that person to share with me or when they’re going to finish?  Why interrupt the blissful isolation of me, the music on my ipod, and my sweat?  When a particular yoga instructor shows herself to be a fan of “partner assisted poses,” I generally find a new class.  (Why would I want some sweaty, smelly stranger talking to me–touching me, no less–when I’m trying to do down dog?) 

Now, don’t think me a snob.  I really do like people, and it’s not that I think I’m better than anyone else.  It’s just that sometimes I need to go to my quiet place.  When I think about leaving teaching, I think, “But I’d miss the people!”  And when I think about how much I love writing, I think, “Ah, the lovely solitude of me, my coffee, and my laptop.”

At this year’s Oscars, Robert Downey Jr. and Tina Fey presented the award for best screenplay.  On the relationship between writers and actors, Downey said,  “It’s a collaboration between handsome gifted people and sickly little mole people.”  Maybe that’s me, minus the handsome/gifted part.  Perhaps inside I have a little actor and a little writer.  I’ve embraced the fact that I’m a gemini–at once social and introverted.  I’d like to think that it makes me a better writer.  Cheers to the Twins.

Mar 6 2010

Does the poet need the pain?

I recently told a friend of mine that I wished I could be as zen as he is.  I’m so frequently anxious, annoyingly introspective, and easily agitated.  “Things get to me so much,” I said to him.  “I’d be happier if I could let things roll off my back like you do.”

But then again, what kind of a writer would I be if I were more laid-back?  Someone once said “the poet needs the pain.”  (Who was it who said that, anyway?  It could have been Shakespeare or friggin’ Bon Jovi for all I know…)  If that’s true–and I’m thinking (well, hoping) that it is–then I’m in good shape as a writer.  Even when things appear lovely on the outside (and I’m great at making them appear so), my mind is always going.  My six-word memoir could read, “in trying to play, she thinks.”

Where is the conflict in just being chill all the time?  I’ve read books that don’t have any central plot, conflict, or character growth.  They’re snooze fests.

Another teacher/writer friend of mine said that he finds that when he is least satisfied with his life, and his teaching life in particular, he magically finds more time and motivation to write.  And that makes sense, doesn’t it?  Writing is such an outlet, such an escape from and reflection of the outward conflict of our lives.  Even when I’m writing fiction that doesn’t mirror my life in an obvious way, it is still a representation of who I am and what I’m going through.  Or, for that matter, what I’ve already gone through.  It may not be a literal diary, but it is a documentation of me as a person and my life.  Sure, when I’m in a good, healthy place I still write.  And I still enjoy writing at those times.  But the best writing that I’ve done–the stuff that is gritty and real and interesting–comes from some of my most challenging moments.