Tag Archives: Writing Style

Reconsidering Sentiment

My father and I build a snowman on the front lawn of the Ethel Street house that always occupied a soft spot in my heart. (Photo: Elsa Jurgis)

When I was growing up in Grand Rapids, my father liked to tell a tale about two men and an ass. Maybe it came from the Bible. Maybe it was Latvian folklore. Maybe he made it up. He was known to do that sort of thing, saying he was folk as much as anyone else. At any rate, no matter what combination the men came up with—one riding, one walking; both riding; both walking—someone always came along to criticize it. “Why own an ass if one of you has to walk?” And so on.

When I recall that tale these days, it is often in the context of my writing. You see, my stories have been criticized for eliciting too little emotion. And I suspect that if I ever wrote anything eliciting too much emotion, I would be criticized for that, too. But I always conclude that I would rather be accused of being too cold than of being too sentimental, so I do not put myself in a position to experience the latter, completely forgetting the point of my father’s story.

But even following my own logic, that makes little sense. If my response to one form of criticism (see “A Formal Feeling Comes”) is that shutting down is what people do in many of the situations—often involving war and displacement—that I portray, then I should be willing to respond to the other form, as well. Because there clearly are cases where such stressors have exactly the opposite effect. Which means that I need to risk telling stories that evoke strong sentiment. Even stories that could be considered to be sentimental.

One such story could come from the time when we were exiled in the Alps and my father had found work at a hydroelectric dam. Unfortunately, he was not suited for much more than a desk job, so he fell the equivalent of several stories and, luckily, landed on a ledge. Once he recovered, he looked for other work, but there was none to be found in post-war Austria. Since my mother was still employed, the decision was made that he should study law at the University of Innsbruck instead. So he packed pen and paper into one of his few remaining possessions—a fine leather briefcase—and took a train.

During this time, I was a toddler who was rapidly outgrowing her only shoes. Since there were none to be had in our area, my mother traced my feet and sent the outlines off to my father’s nephew, who had fled to England as a teenager. By the time that my new shoes arrived, they no longer fit. So my father took his briefcase to a cobbler and had him make a pair from the leather. Much the way—less the reciprocity—that the husband and wife in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” gave up prized possessions to give each other Christmas gifts.

The closest that I ever came to writing anything along those lines was “Ethel Street,” which was about the first place in the States my family lived after leaving our sponsor. While I always recall it with great fondness, I could not get as far as the first (and only) draft until two things occurred:  (1) I read James Joyce’s story “Araby,” which starts with the description of a quiet street and ends with the destruction of an idealized vision, and (2) I mentioned to my mother, then 90 years old, that the Ethel Street house was where I was the happiest and she responded with considerable amazement, saying, “That was the terrible place where the man upstairs beat his dog.”

Which gave me something cynical—and publishable—rather than sentimental. Perhaps even something perceptive about how the same experience can be so different for a child and an adult. Just not the story that I had wanted to write. Or that my father would have enjoyed, because he came from a generation that thought O. Henry was a wonderful writer. Of course, he thought the same of Anton Chekhov. Who is said to have said—I cannot find the original source—something like, “If you wish to move your reader, write more coldly.” Which brings me back to that tale of the two men and the ass.

Note: My father died nearly two decades ago, but I still celebrate his birthday, which is today. Sadly, this December 17 is also the day that the cousin who sent me the shoes is being buried. One day I will succeed in writing stories with the sort of sentiment that both would have enjoyed.

From Playing with Food to Playing with Words

“Crocodile” soup, frequently featured in my fiction, is first mentioned in “Making Soup,” published in TriQuarterly. (Photo: Ilse Munro)

“Making Soup” is the first story that I ever wrote and serves as the starting point for a collection that I currently call Cold and Hungry and Far From HomeIt is about, well, making soup. It is also about being bombed. And because there is not much that can be done until the shelling stops and the soup is ready, it is about telling stories, as well. The narrator is a one-month-old infant who imagines that one day she will not only be able to eat a soup similar to what her grandmother has prepared but also will be taught by her father to play with both that soup and the word that describes it. The link between the two becomes part of her narrative, which she passes on to her sole offspring in “The Disposable Woman,” set in her final years:

“In this case,” I said in an aside to my son, “the term ‘crocodile’ doesn’t refer to species belonging to the order Crocodilia, which includes true crocodiles and alligators as well as caimans and gharials. Rather I use it as my late father did when he taught my evolving self to play not only with food but also with words. He took the Latvian—not the Latin—‘krokadīle’ and substituted it for ‘frikadele,’ meaning ‘meatball,’ as we used Oma’s massive silver spoons to smack those suckers down in their soupy swamp.”

The teaching is based on what my father, a sometime writer, did and the playing is what I continue to do, now that I am also a writer. As I complete more stories for the collection and add to my novel, Anna Noon, it becomes increasingly apparent that playing with words has become an integral part of every aspect of my writing: content, style and process. And that food remains a constant source of inspiration.

My content comes from the circumstances of my life as well as the individuals that I have encountered. Many had a way with words and were not above employing the most predictable forms of word playpuns, double entendres, clever rhetorical excursions and the like. To portray these people accurately, I had to use some instances in each story. (The fact that I enjoyed doing this, of course, was quite beside the point.) An example is the following passage from “That Dress,” which—on the surface—is about the many ways that a refugee wedding in the American Midwest can go wrong. There, my narrator, now about 13  years old, provides the setup for a pun:

. . . Oma retaliated by expressing her sour mood through her cooking.

You see even under the best of circumstances Latvians liked their sustenance so acidic it could curdle your blood. Besides my beloved saldskabmaize there was rūgušpiens (buttermilk), skābais krējums (sour cream), etiķis (vinegar), skabputra (sour porridge), skābi kāposti (sauerkraut), skābenes zupa (sorrel soup), marinētas siļķes (marinated herring) and more. Fortunately no one ever forced food on me, so I rarely refused anything other than buttermilk, which tended to make me gag, and sauerkraut, which I wouldn’t touch on principle.

So when Oma upped her game by an order of magnitude, plopping a slice of aknas pastēte (liver pâté) on my plate and ensuring it was simply swimming in etiķis, I merely made a face and dove right in.

“Keep that vinegar well away from your ears,” my father said. “It can cause pickled hearing.”

Content came to influence style. Since I was already using words in ways that call attention to themselves, it was only natural to add elements such as metafiction that increased the “fictionality” of my fiction and intentionally undermined the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. At that point, play acquired a serious purpose. It served to remind the reader that I was not silly enough to think that I could adequately depict reality; the best that I could do was to tell a good tale. This seemed to be the most honest approach and aligned me with similar proponents, those frequently found producing postmodern literature and contributing to postmodern philosophy.

Style, in turn, affected process. I found that letting myself to play with words in the broadest sense made it possible for me to come up with anything from an unexpected sentence to a better idea of what the trajectory of a plotline should be or what an entire story should be about. In “Salt,” where my narrator, now a 21-year-old college student, decides to run away to New York after failing to obtain an illegal abortion in Ann Arbor, I allow her to participate in the process. It starts with a surly motel desk clerk refusing to look for the salt that she needs for a tasteless chicken dinner that she has had delivered:

I return to my room surprisingly upset. It’s his responsibility to help me. And salt is so essential. Sodium ions are needed for tissue perfusion and cellular metabolism and fluid balance and cardiovascular function. Sodium and chloride ions for nerve transmission and mechanical movement. Chloride ions for digestion and pathogen destruction. Strong saline solutions can even cause death and induce abortions. I know this precisely because I am a College Kid. Which might not get me any further in a Major Metropolitan Area that it did at the front desk. Something I suppose I should consider before making such a serious move.

I continually try to improve my process. My latest attempt, which again starts with food, is shown in the upcoming piece “From Food to Fiction.” There I consider what accomplished cooks can tell me about selecting the best basic ingredients, adding the most suitable seasonings, employing the best preparation techniques and devising the most captivating presentations so that I can extrapolate to the short stories and novel chapters that I still need to write. Where words fail me, there is a luscious slide show for both your and my edification.

Note: The above photo was taken for the Baltimore Kitchen Project at the behest of Rafael Alvarez, who is not only famous for culinary accomplishments but also for The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street scripts, inter alia. For more of my writing on food and fiction, see “Better Late Than Never,” my contribution to the “What You Eat” series posted on the website of the Little Patuxent Review, where I was the online editor. 

A Formal Feeling Comes

My parents’ wartime wedding in Valmiera, Latvia (1944).

As a new fiction writer, I wanted to learn everything that I could. That meant putting my work out for review before submitting it to literary journals. And only submitting to top journals (and the occasional new journal that caught my eye), lest I publish prematurely and delude myself that I was better than I actually was.

Fortunately, my early writing was deemed good enough to not only get me published in a few places that made me proud but also to elicit the sort of rejection letters from others that provided feedback on the specific strengths and weaknesses of a particular piece.

Interestingly, some seasoned editors’ comments did not differ much from those provided by some of my peers in the workshops that I attended. When I presented my first story, “Making Soup,” at my first workshop, Advanced Fiction at The Writer’s Center, nearly everyone liked my use of language and most had a hard time with my making the narrator a one-month-old infant. Then, there was this:

I think this is an interesting vignette of a family coping with the annoyances of war . . . This story seems to lack drama. Air raid sirens are dramatic, but there’s no sense that I should care about the characters. They seem bored by what’s happening, so why should the reader care about what is happening?

Fortunately, I was sufficiently experienced in other areas to be circumspect about such comments. A critique, after all, says at least as much about the person providing it as it does about the work itself. Clearly, most who came to such conclusions had never been in a war zone or had close contact with victims of war or displaced persons.

But I knew there was more to it than that. When people point out problems, what they say is amiss may not be so. But something, nevertheless, is. What I had wanted to convey but failed to do was similar to what Emily Dickinson had succeeded doing in three stanzas:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

I also wanted to show that once people lost everything they had, about all they had left was each other and their stories (and a few bad jokes). Being “dramatic,” I knew from my relatives, had little survival value. You had to keep your cool and maintain a low profile.

Instead of trying to satisfy readers, I made a deliberate effort to bring my style into line with the requirements of my characters. After “Making Soup” was named a finalist in a Glimmer Train contest but before it was published in TriQuarterly, I started “Winter Wonderland,” the most restrained, laconic piece that I have ever written.

That seemed to work. Selecting it for publication in Atticus Review, Editor-In-Chief Katrina Gray said in the introduction to the issue:

“Winter Wonderland” is a masterpiece. I’m not sure I’ve read another story that so brilliantly gives various perspectives of a suicide attempt, including the attempt-er herself, whose voice is not a crazy one, but steady, normal, kindhearted, and sensitive. The tone and structure are admirable, and the shifting points-of-view were conveyed effortlessly.

I still receive telling rejection letters. The one that arrived today concerned “That Dress,” a tale of a wedding that takes place in the Midwest of the Fifties but is undermined by one that occurred a decade before in war-torn Latvia. It is based in part on my parents’ 1944 wedding in Latvia. The editor said that the reviewers all liked it but felt that “there isn’t enough tension to keep the story moving.”

Maybe I will consult Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, which includes a girl about the same age as the one in my story and as much an “unjoined person” as mine. Who tries to insert herself into a marriage quite as much as my girl’s mother does. What I will not do is introduce hyped-up scenes that never could have occurred. If McCullers could create a compelling story in an atmosphere once described as both “numb and fevered,” I can learn to do so, as well.

That it could be a while before the piece is published does not concern me much. When it does, I will remember a remarkably bright but frequently disobliging Florentine oceanographer that I knew when I was working on NASA’s EOSDIS project. She had recently left to accept a new position, and we all wondered how that was going.

“How do they like you there?” one of us finally asked.

“They will,” Julietta replied.

What Causes Us to Cringe

An out-of-control baby carriage careens down the Odessa Stairs during a civilian massacre in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.

Much has been made of the numbing effect of our constant exposure to catastrophe and carnage by modern media. Whatever this means for society as a whole, such systematic desensitization poses a particular problem for writers. If, as Franz Kafka wrote in 1904, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” must the contemporary author resort to wielding an increasingly larger axe? Or are there more subtle ways to rouse the contemporary reader?

In 2008, I asked poet Judith McCombs to read early drafts of my story “Making Soup.” She made many careful comments in her delicate hand. In the margin next to my description of what the narrator, a ficticiously precocious one-month-old infant, had made of her mother’s recent nightmare, she wrote, “Eisenstein’s baby carriage.”

I immediately knew what it was that she meant I should do. While showing the extent of the tragedy–2000 dead and 3000 seriously wounded–an astute filmmaker such as Eisenstein likely knew that he also needed to add some small tragedy that his audiences could more readily grasp. I needed to do the same with my scene, the incomprehensible horror in Liepaja harbor that my family witnessed when we left Latvia in 1944. Since I already had an infant, I added a grandfather. This is how the revised version that was published read:

Farmers and those without gas for their vehicles arrived in horse-drawn contraptions. They tied the horses to posts and boarded ships. The horses tried to break free, rearing and neighing and foaming at the mouth. They had no water, no feed. Some effected an escape and ran crazed through the streets, trampling the dazed people who stood in their way.

Then the shelling, the fires began.

My father drove up in his cherry-red sports car. He tried to pull my mother in, but she fought him off. She shouted she had lost me, lost her mother.

As she turned from my father, a man who looked like her maternal grandfather emerged from the crowd. The same full beard and bushy eyebrows. He slipped on the blood-slicked cobblestones and was slowly, slowly falling, trying to protect something held in his arms. A dollhouse, the one he had built for her.

But it could hardly be him my mother, suddenly lucid, remembered. Her grandfather had died in his bed of influenza.

The old man hit the pavement with his hairy chin, and the dollhouse splintered beneath him on the street. The street that now looked as though it were paved with gravestones.

Since I am extremely visual, I continued to look to motion pictures for techniques to make readers cringe. (To good effect, of course.) I ruled out horror flicks and action films since they merely make me roll my eyes. But it seemed that there was something to be learned from thrillers, particularly the psychological, crime or mystery sort.

One consistently used technique seemed to be embedding the disturbing in the benign, increasing the impact by the contrast. Alfred Hitchock did it through bland settings–the blue skies and the yellow cornfield in his 1959 film North by Northwest–and humorous situations–the taxidermist attempting to save his swordfish in a struggle in his 1956 film The Man Who Knew Too Much. And both Terence Young and René Clément, in the 1967 film Wait Until Dark and the 1970 film Rider on the Rain, respectively, were able to get an actual visceral reaction from me by making me believe that the lady in each had evaded her assailant before delivering the devastating punch.

Similarly, my stories are often set in the most innocuous of places, the American Midwest. And are often told from the point of view of seemingly harmless characters: the infant, the child, the adolescent, even a Lutheran minister. The latter, for example, is forever slipping something into my novel Anna Noon that causes discomfort, as in this conversation that he has with his wife after taking an annoying call:

“Seems we’ve sponsored a spoiled brat,” he says, eying Winnie accusingly. “Babies aren’t the bundles of joy they’re believed to be, you know. Especially when they become bigger. Be grateful you were born barren.”

In this novel, in fact, I do everything possible to momentarily distract the reader from what lies right below the surface, including using a self-conscious postmodern style that signals–not to worry–this is merely a bit of fiction. In the preface, my unreliable narrator writes:

Vadim Voronin, who also knew Anna from that time, dismissed my story as nothing more than a fairy tale where an innocent comes close to being chopped up, cooked and served to a large number of guests, many of whom had accepted the invitation to dine merely because they were not otherwise engaged.

A few years ago, I asked poet Clarinda Harriss to help me compile a list of literary techniques used to make readers cringe. It was misplaced, but we can surely reconstitute it and get additional input, perhaps from you. There is enough material for several more posts.

Note: What initially prompted me to consider this matter more closely were words Caryn Coyle provided for “Concerning Craft: Caryn Coyle,” posted back when I was Online Editor at Little Patuxent Review:

I write what I fear. It is important to me that my work resonate with readers. A talented and valued mentor once told me that if I can make the reader cringe even one tenth as much as I did, I will have succeeded.