Tag Archives: Writing Style

Private Parts

Me in my standoffish mode, sitting on a dock at Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids, Michigan during the early Fifties. (Photo: my mother, Elsa Jurgis)

The most fun I ever had with my mother occurred after she came to live with me in Maryland following my father’s death. We often did silly stuff. Sometimes I made up songs or modified existing ones to suit the situation. (Neither of us could carry a tune, so it worked out well.) In my car, I would sing “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Backseat” each time she said something like, “Keep you mind on your driving, keep your hands on the wheel / Keep your snoopy eyes on the road ahead.” Once I got to “Kissin’ and a huggin’ with Fred,” I tickled her stomach. “Don’t touch my private parts,” she said. “What are your private parts?” I asked. “All my parts are private parts,” she said.

I recently related this anecdote to my niece, Mara Miske, who found me a few years ago through this site. Although we had never met and she was decades younger, our connection was immediate. And, much as we insisted that we were not real Latvians, both her parents and I were that by birth and it accounted for much of our natural rapport. And why it was harder to achieve with those who had negligible ties to our native land. The latter became abundantly clear while she was coaching me on how to approach the middle-aged man who likely was the baby that 21-year-old me gave up for adoption at birth and whom Mara had located  through DNA data posted on the My Heritage site. Being the more maternal of the two of us, she said, “Give him the warm-and-fuzzies he needs.” After which we laughed, knowing that most Latvians are simply not wired that way.

Not that Latvians are cold, although I have certainly heard that said. And read about a study–led by a researcher from Michigan State University, of all places–that ranks Latvia and other Baltic States near the bottom on  empathy. Rather, it seems to be hard to find the right word. One that gets the point across without being perjorative is”self-contained,” which is defined as “quiet and independent; not depending on or influenced by others.”  Another is “introverted.”  Some liked that one so much it became the basis of a long-running, award-winning campaign–#IAMINTROVERT–to promote Latvian literature. (Never mind that it was launched at the 2018 London Book Fair, where the market focus was on the Baltic states, including Latvia, and where the large crowds and absolute unavoidability of social interaction must have made it an introvert’s worst nightmare.)

While the campaign gently pokes fun at what could be considered a national trait, it also highlights some positive aspects. Namely, that there is a link between a preference for solitude and creativity.  In one article, Anete Konste, a humorist integral to the campaign’s success, notes that introversion is prevalent among authors, artists and architects as well as others working in creative fields. The  piece goes on to state that psychologists have suggested that creativity is an important part of  Latvian self-identity and, as such, a priority in the government’s educational and economic development plans. The European Commission has thus reported that Latvia has one of the highest shares of the creative labor market in the European Union.

How Latvians got that way, of course, is anyone’s guess. If pressed, I would say that it started with some particularly brutal forms of natural selection: the wars, occupations and displacements that have plagued the Baltic region throughout history. The introverts–or, as I prefer, the self-contained–kept their heads down and their emotions in check, trusting only themselves. Thus, while my maternal grandfather was murdered by a paramilitary mob during the Russian Revolution for defending his factory (see “The Face-of Extremism”), my maternal grandmother, pregnant with my uncle, quietly took my two-year-old mother back to Riga, sold sausages on the street until she turned herself into a successful business woman and–two world wars later–died in a hospital bed in America at age 90. A lesson my mother, who played her cards close to her chest, learned very well.

The trick is getting others to understand. Both the horrors that you have encountered and the damage they have done. My mother’s solution was to not even try. Her experience was so far removed from that of her American acquaintances that she let them believe what they wanted. Which, once she arrived here in Maryland, was that she was a cute old lady from somewhere they could not quite place. Every morning for years she–legally blind and crippled by arthritis–and her English Springer Spaniel walked the steep, winding loop that took her to her beloved Trolley Trail and back again. I feared for her safety, especially after the dog died, but refused to leave her staring at walls while I went to work in DC. Somehow, she always attracted a crowd. And, inevitably, someone would say, “You have an interesting accent. Where are you from?” And my mother would say with a smile that only a few would see as anything but sweet, “Michigan!”

I emulated my mother until I was17 or so. Then, while having a hard time writing a paper on “The Waste Land,” I downed most of a bottle of vodka, lost consciousness in a pool of vomit and was taken by ambulance to an emergency room in the dark during a blinding snowstorm. (See“Winter Wonderland.”) Perhaps binge drinking–so common in Latvian social circles when I was growing up–is as instrumental as solitude in turning introverts into creatives. All I know is that after the ranting and raving I did alone in my second-story room while falling-down drunk, I found my own voice. And, decades later, after I retired and my mother died, the time to devote to writing essays and stories and novels and, eventually, the development of this site. I truly believed that if I could find the right words to string together, the world would come to understand me. Even my long-lost son would, once I gave him his family history. (See “Why I Write.”)

Whether my communication style made me better understood than my mother is up for debate. Particularly when it comes to inferring my feelings. Take the case of the  man who might be my son. (The qualification only means that a definitive maternity test conducted by a certified medical laboratory has yet to be done.) Before Mara could school me on warm-and-fuzzies, I had inundated the poor guy with data designed to quickly fill the gap left by my decades-long absence. Posts and pages from this site, published and unpublished works and material that I generated just for him. How was that to be taken? How would you know without being told that the poem about loneliness and the sea written by the the cartoon character of an introverted Latvian below started as an attempt to write a love letter?

NOTE: To read more about my own self-contained writing style, see “A Formal Feeling Comes.” And for more on one of my minor contributions to Latvian literature, see “A Book About Sentient Beings, Great and Small.”

 

The #IAMINTROVERT campaign team at the 2018 London Book Fair.
One of a series of cartoons created by writer Anete Konste and artist Reinis Pētersons.

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.