Monday, April 18, 2011

Lobster Tales

I always wonder what it will take to be published. The writer's groups and workshop leaders have traditionally been so discouraging. When I outlined the plot of my unpublished YA novel, Giving It Over, someone piped up and said that no one wants to read what it was like in the olden days. The story takes place in 1973, the year abortion became legal, and deals with the subject of teen pregnancy.

Yesterday, I had one of my classic pajama days, lots of tea, lots of cat time, pajamas, maybe a snack and a book. I recently read a review about a new book by Stewart O'Nan. I hadn't read anything by him, so I looked for him in the library and grabbed a copy of Last Night at the Lobster. The book seemed a perfect pajama day book, something that I could read in a day. And this is what I read yesterday.

Last Night at the Lobster was engaging, the handful of characters were well-developed and the pacing was perfect. Yet the story is not a big one, no one's earth is shattered. It reminded me of the sad clown, or Carol Burnett's washerwoman. Last Night at the Lobster is the story of a manager's last day at a closing Red Lobster restaurant. It's just before Christmas, and the restaurant should be packed with last minute shoppers, but a blizzard reduces the dinner clientele to a forlorn couple making their way to an unknown destination. The characters are restaurant employees and customers. The story takes place in this single day.

For Manny, the manager, the story is one of a man who has no control of anything in his life. He's an anonymous cog in a corporate wheel, dedicated, conscientious, and hard-working. With his employees, he's fair, thoughtful and generous. Every action Manny takes is an effort to do what is right, and the result is nothing. If I were to sum up the story's message, it is that integrity is worthless in this day. The corporation doesn't see Manny, the employees don't respect him, the customers represent the ugliness of American entitlement and fling at him their outrage for every minor transgression. Yet he conducts himself with professionalism to the end.

An enjoyable read, but, as a writer, I find myself thinking, if I'd written this book, the workshop leaders and writer's group participants and anyone else I deem to share my writing with, would say, yes, but... Yes. But no one cares about a manager at a Red Lobster. Well, that's rather the point, though, isn't it? Every contact I've had with agents sand blasts the same message into my forehead. The book must be marketable. It must be something an agent sees as a money-making proposition. It must be a worthy project that a publishing house wants to take on, must generate enthusiasm and excitement. How was Lobster pitched? How does a book like this get into print? Engaging as it is, I can't imagine a agent or a publisher doing cartwheels at the thought of how many copies this would sell.

Lobster isn't trying to be a blockbuster novel; it isn't trying to be anything other than what it is, a pleasurable read on a Sunday afternoon. We all have dozens of stories we could tell about endings of things that were destined to be short-lived. But who would publish them? Lobster is a story of our time. It addresses the disposable mindset of American culture and may even cause readers to consider that there are dramas playing out in all kinds of unsuspected places. The subject matter is commonplace. We've all seen, if not eaten at a Red Lobster. I even know someone who managed one a long while back. The recognizable signposts, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, shopping mall, all ground us in the story's familiar setting. I found myself filling with gratitude that I'd escaped the horrors of working in food service or retail. But most of all, I found myself, once again, wondering about the wheels that turn the publishing industry.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Turquoise Ledge by Leslie Marmon Silko

The Turquoise Ledge by Leslie Marmon Silko isn't a recounting of a life through linear time. This memoir stands apart from other memoirs and redefines the genre. Marmon Silko takes me into her private, inner world and shows me how the world looks through her eyes. I've never read a memoir more intimate and personal.

As I read, I fall into the rhythm of her habits and daily routines. I see magic and mythology, the cycles of severe desert weather and the travails of the arroyo near her ranch. I also see through the eyes of a woman who possesses a deep love and respect for the earth and all living things she shares it with.

I've read dozens of memoirs, but this is the only one I've read where, upon completion, I feel as though I know the writer. With other memoirs, I finish knowing if I share experiences in common with the writer. With Marmon Silko's, I know something much more valuable. I know where I share a way of seeing and revering the world.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids by Patti Smith is a rich journey into the relationship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. More than that, though, the book takes me through a fascinating period of time in New York, when Warhol's Factory was on the wane and the glamor of those days turned to pastel. Even in pastel, the color and excitement jumps off the page. Amphetamines fade and are replaced by pure, natural adrenaline. Hendricks, Joplin and Morrison each sing a tune and flash a smile before joining (or maybe founding) the 27 club. Many more ghosts join the permanent residents of the Chelsea Hotel.

I get to see Smith and Mapplethorpe go through years of being broke. They rise from homelessness to obscurity and eventually to fame.

I wish I knew whether Smith utilized a ghost writer for this memoir. The writing is crisp and full of flavor.

Memoir Reading and Writing

I've read a lot of memoirs over the past few years. For a while, I even dabbled at writing one, a sort of set the record straight document. While some fiction contains elements of life experience, writing a memoir relies upon one's fiction writing talents. When I read memoirs, I know, for example, that the writer is not remembering past conversations verbatim. Some license is taken in recording details, and I, as the reader, understand that what I am reading is being delivered in a manner to maximize dramatic effect. Memoir differs from autobiography in the delivery. Memoir is a story, autobiography is a recording of a sequence of events.

As I worked on my memoir, I attended some workshops and read some books to help facilitate the process. I learned a few things. First, a great many people believe that their stories are extraordinary and would have a wide appeal. We are right in that our stories are all extraordinary. Every life holds magic and wonder and transcendence. But we are almost always wrong about the wide appeal part. After I swam way out into the middle of the icy lake of my own story, and a little voice whispered, "Yes, Nancy. But what's the point?" It's a humbling event when one can't answer that question. What is the point, indeed. I keep hoping that some day there will be one. In the meantime, the memoir sleeps in a REM stage.

Second, where critique groups are concerned, submitting a memoir to a critique group places an unfair burden on the group. Group members find themselves in a position where they risk criticizing someone's life rather than the content or delivery. Readers can't exactly say that the story is not credible. In the end, I withdrew it as a project from my critique group because I felt as though my readers saw that I was soliciting feedback on a document of uncontrolled self-disclosure, when what I wanted to know was how it read as a story. Asking a critique group to read a memoir just ain't fair.

There's something so pleasurable about reading a well-written memoir, though. Getting lost in a life, and knowing that it isn't fiction is somehow more engrossing. I've read many wonderful memoirs in recent years. The Color of Water, The Glass Castle, Living to Tell the Tale, Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Warrior Woman are some of my favorites. The pair, Autobiography of a Face and Truth in Beauty especially captivated me as a story of a life and then another memoir of a friendship that looked on from a perspective that revealed a completely different story.

I've read many others, some I found over indulgent and bulging with ego. But enough great ones are around to keep me interested in the genre.

A New York Times Book Review reviewer published an article in recent months, stating that memoir is a useless genre. The writer was so scathing and pompous that he implied the only people more naive and boring than the memoir writers are the people shallow enough to read them. I believe that there are a great many stories worth telling and worth reading. Sure, we can flaunt our intellectual prowess by pigeon-holing them: The abused child memoir, The incest survivor, The adopted child, The teen pregnancy, The alcoholic treatment memoir, The coming out as a gay person memoir.. I've read memoirs by people who fit each of these categories. But I'm not jaded enough to believe that stories owning these natures are boring because someone else has told them. A story well-told will always stand on its own and need not strain to circumvent worn trails.

So, I'll keep reading memoirs. And maybe in the quiet of my office, I will keep a silent vigil over my own sleeping manuscript.