Ambivalence

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A white heron on the bank of Uji River in Uji City, Japan

 

My last blog, sometime ago, was a short discussion of ambiguity as a literary device that brings depth to a work be it poem, story, or novel. With this post, I’d like to turn our attention to a related concept: ambivalence—contrasting attitudes or feelings occurring simultaneously. What are some examples? The housewife who loves her family but feels trapped. The student who loves school but hates to study. The young girl who desires a wedding but loathes her fiancé.

This contradictory and very human trait serves us writers well. Ambivalence is dramatic. This phenomenon can go a long way in one’s creation of character. We receive the advice, and good advice it is, to give our protagonist a flaw. Miss Goody Two-Shoes needs to have a dark side or at least a doubtful side, therein lies the heart of a story. We all get tired of the “she-never-makes-a-mistake” character. Perfection is boring.

But what about the flip side? The antagonist? Should that character be thoroughly evil, totally cruel, stunningly bad? Well, sure, why not? There’s plenty of role models in fiction and real life. We have Rome’s Caligula; Shakespeare’s Iago; Russia’s Rasputin; Milton’s Satan; Germany’s Hitler; C.S. Lewis’ The White Witch of Narnia; J.K. Rowling’s Lord Voldemort. The list goes on and on. All of the above are bad folk—what good there might have been is erased by their wicked ways.

Isn’t it interesting? We writers are warned against creating “pure” good characters, but urged to create “pure” evil ones. Well, that’s something we can discuss later!

So, what about a villain whose villainy is mitigated via ambivalence. The non-pure villain is, for me at least, much more interesting than the villain shot through with hatred. I would argue that to invest your villain with a deeper presence, then show him or her in a moment of doubt, a moment of uncertainty, a moment of tenderness. The problem is that you can’t go over the line of evil. If you make your villain too endearing then he’s no longer a villain. But give that bad boy or mean girl a moment of hesitation, a qualm, and you may deepen the reader’s experience. The human condition is seldom easy to define. We’re messy. We make wrong decisions. We make right decisions then do the wrong thing. We’re a bundle of wonderful errors. Reality is a tangle of emotions that refuses to be trapped in a good/bad construct.

So what are your thoughts? Have you used ambivalence as a character-building trait? Do you shy away from it? What are the problems?

Japan, 2017

Here’s a few moments from our trip to the land of the rising sun, Japan.

IMG_6521Having just boarded in Dallas, Sadako and I, do a “selfie toast” on the plane to Narita International.  We look happy, even though we have 14 long hours to go. Must be the champagne!

fullsizeoutput_b33Some twenty hours after take-off, we enjoy a steak dinner at Hotel Gajoen where we’ll stay for a few days. Here’s the chef getting our steak ready to cook.

IMG_6538We end the meal with a birthday plate for Masako-san, Sadako’s mother, who is eighty-three years young. Doesn’t she look great?

IMG_6574Later the next day in the hotel lobby, we all posed for a picture. Super nice! Totally decadent–I really need that every now and then.

DSC_1747That afternoon Sadako and her mother went shopping. I headed for the bookstores!

DSC_1748And of course here’s a sign I love to see.

IMG_0795Back at Gajoen, we attended an Ikebana show– Ikebana is the art of flower arrangement. Here’s a lovely sample.

DSC_1671An outdoor performance at Yasukuni Shrine where performers wore traditional Edo period costume.  Drummers.

DSC_1724And dancers.

DSC_1842Of course what would a trip to Japan be if you couldn’t see Mt. Fuji. I got this shot when we visited Lake Ashinoko, a short bus ride out of Hakone. The day before was rainy with hard wind gusts. I was afraid we might not be able to see Fuji-san which has a well-deserved reputation for being shy. But next day, the sun came out and …ah!

DSC_1611 (1)We then train traveled to Osaka. Of course train travel means crowds and

IMG_0916salary men at the ticket machines, and

IMG_0879on the train, folks reading, meditating, and sleeping while traveling.

IMG_0884Finally we got to Osaka and met up with friends where talk and laughter rules!

DSC_1759Not every body is happy though. This young lady on her way to school gave me a look I’ll not soon forget.

IMG_7097Here’s some of the dishes I enjoyed: Sushi! And yes, that’s my sweater, getting tight about the waist.

IMG_6939Pork cutlet and curry-rice.

IMG_7098Steamed eel on rice

fullsizeoutput_b2bTraditional Japanese breakfast…excuse my fingers at the top left.

photo-2 Dinner with fried oysters in the shell.

photo-4Topped off with a bottle of chilled Sake!

And finally here’s a mixed bag of favorite moments.

IMG_6789Early morning at our hotel in Hakone: a lovely mix of western and Japanese style architecture.

DSC_2087A shrine to The Tale of Genji author, Murasaki Shikibu, in Uji, Kyoto.

IMG_0902A scene in the lovely Kenrokuen park in Kanazawa. It was raining which added to the quiet beauty.

IMG_0887In Osaka, a lady folding a silk Kimono. It was at this Kimono store, we bought some silk for my sister in Tennessee.

DSC_2094Meeting with some terrific students in Kyoto. The young man in the center asked me to say something so that he could hear the English language. I rolled off a few sentences extolling him and his friends. He stood back and said “Wow.” Again, it was one of “those” moments.

photo-3Here I am in one of the malls in Osaka. I love these malls. There’s no doors. You simply walk in from the street and here you can find everything from bicycle repair to vegetables. That’s my new hat–I think I look more like a writer now!

IMG_7243We met up with some more friends–Ichida-San and his family. Allow me to introduce everyone. Moving around clockwise: Ichida-san in the check shirt, his sister, Akiko, holding a peace sign, then Akiko’s daughter, Ai, then Ichida-san’s son, Koki who sits next to his mom, Yoshiko, then Sadako, next, yours truly, then older son, Yuto,  Ishida-San with his wife, Yoshiko, and his two sons have lived here in Decatur, Alabama for the past three years. They have just moved back to their home in Osaka, Japan. We had lunch at a pork cutlet restaurant, which turned out to be super-great!

IMG_7232Sadako and I one evening had a fun time at a Yakitori-ya where we drank hot sake and ate tons of yakitori. Here’s a few patrons and the owner/cook.

DSC_2098We had a great time, but you know, how it is, sometimes folks just get tired, and they need to talk things out…       Sadako and I had just gotten off the train when we came across this rather tender scene. It was perfect. And thus, our trip came to an end.

It all goes so fast, but the memories last forever.

I hope you enjoyed.

 

 

Ambiguity

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When asked about the creative ability of a recent winner of a literary prize, the critic leaned back in his seat. “He’s ambiguous,” he scowled.

In the above the very use of the word ambiguous is ambiguous. As writers we are told that it is best to avoid being ambiguous because it’s confusing. It annoys our readers, makes them uncomfortable. The constant editorial demand is to be concise and to the point in our writing. In short, DON’T BE AMBIGUOUS!

I’m not so sure. Ambiguous means to be suggestive. An ambiguous word or phrase presents the reader with several meanings. This is not always a bad thing. Being ambiguous can add depth to a work, imbue it with layers of meaning that allows the reader to consider possibilities that she may not have thought otherwise. It is, in its own way, an interaction between reader and writer.

I have always thought the line—“I have promises to keep.”—from Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening as an excellent example of ambiguity. Does he mean he’s bound to return to someone? Or does he mean he has something to do elsewhere? It’s ambiguous. Even the word “sleep” which ends the poem is highly ambiguous. Does he mean sleep literally or does he mean to die? We don’t know. It all depends on how you understand the whole poem.

Being the imperfect creatures that we all are, we tend to be ambiguous in our communications with each other. Hence, one of the most intriguing ways to use ambiguity in your writing is to use it as a vehicle to build character depth. For instance, your protagonist is one who is unsure of himself, shy, withdrawn, prone to fantasy—as many of us writers are! He has sent to a young lady, whom he loves, flowers for her birthday, and she responds with a text: I have received your beautiful flowers. I love the close feeling that comes to me from just looking at them.

How does he respond? Is the close feeling for him or the flowers or indeed for someone else? Is the close feeling a way of expressing her desire for intimacy or is it her way of expressing a simple response to the pretty flowers? What feelings are evoked? The protagonist’s reaction to the text could send him on an emotional journey that leads him to love and fulfillment or to misery and self-knowledge.

So what are your own feelings of the use of ambiguity in your writing? Does it work for you? What are some of your own favorite examples of ambiguity from other works?

 

Harvest Moon

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The moon over North Alabama, October 6, 2017.

The earth rolls eastward, away from the moon, the lovely full moon. All night long, it illumes not only the vast plains of middle America, the mountains east and west, the lakes and the valleys, but also, the small spaces of my back yard, the rose bushes in the front, the steps, the floor of our bedroom. It relaxes our minds, calms our hearts, and pours silver blessings upon our sleep.

This morning I sat on the front steps, a slight autumn chill in the air, and sipped my coffee. I gazed at the moon as it slowly descended into the western sky. People in Japan look up and smile to see the same moon rising above the lakes, the hills, the trees into their soft evening sky.

The same moon. We see only that one side, albeit different phases, but always the same side—the bright side. I sipped my coffee. I thought about that “other” side—the dark side. The side that steadfastly holds communion with eternal night. That other half that never shares, but forever turns away. It must. Locked into infinite silence, it meditates upon the quiet existence of boundless space; the deep enigma, serene, mysterious. It sees into the very heart of all that is, beyond the noise of earthly turmoil and boiling sun.

How like the moon we writers are. We wheel about in our circular lives: laughing with those we love, crying over those we’ve lost, sharing with friends, our hopes and fears. But we maintain that hidden self: the meditative side that feeds the imagination—that murky realm where those visions, those feelings transform into language, always imperfect, always slightly off. But we strive, constantly, in that quiet world of the mind, to tell the story, to communicate a truth, to bring understanding to all those who want to know what they cannot see.

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To all my blogger friends, I hope this harvest moon brings you love, joy, and writing success in the years to come. Do you have special feelings toward the moon? Do you sit out at night and gaze? Do you mention the moon in your narratives? Can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

Out of the Mist

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Alabama fog in September

Recently I’ve been “out of it,” as it were. In a fog. Trying to find my way. One morning I decided to watch a motivational video on YouTube. It was great! The male voice was well modulated. The visuals were awesome. The music—hypnotic. At the end of it all, I found myself “fired up.” So, I watched another one. Then, another.

One particular message outdistanced all the others, and the first speaker to deliver it was none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. “You must have a vision,” he said. “A dream.” He’s right. In another video, Steven Spielberg made the same statement. As did Morgan Freeman. I concur. Who can argue with that?

The dream, the vision, the goal is what drives us all toward some desired realization. It’s all the foggy in-between stuff that causes problems. With high-octane visuals, the motivational films addressed the stops and starts, the failures and successes. Fueled by a dream, we see a fighter, jabbing the dummy, a runner, pulling up a hill, a young girl, flipping through the air, the ice skater, rising off the floor, twirling, with folded arms and closed eyes.

We witness a visual montage that documents not only the long, tough hours of training, but also the painful mistakes, the blunders. We see them fail time and time again, crumpled on the floor, crying in pain, or sprawled in the dirt, hands clawing the choking dust, and then—teeth set, muscles straining, strong arms pushing against the agony—they rise. They start over, make the effort—one more time. I couldn’t take my eyes from the screen. “You got to WORK for what you believe in!”

After plowing through video after YouTube video, I sat back in my chair and started doing what we writers do best, I analyzed. I realized I had seen only a few quick images of intellectual struggle: a student taking notes in a classroom, a young girl reading a book, an older man’s hand, holding a pencil, poised over a sheet of paper. The image doesn’t include his face. And the paper’s blank. Bummer.

The fact is, dramatic images of physical endurance and strength vastly outnumbered images of intellectual/imaginative efforts. Pictures of boxers, a lot of that—you know, punching a bag, sweating. Tons of sweat. One video showed an African American football player running full tilt down the sidelines. Slow-mo! It was hypnotic. The guy is running, looking over his shoulder, straining, pumping; suddenly the defensive guy is right there, running, inches away from the receiver…then the outreach of arms, hands, the football spinning into view and the receiver touches it, flips it, catches it! The defensive player staggers out of bounds. The receiver curves back in. The ref’s arms go up. The fans are screaming! Thousands of fans! I’m practically falling out of my chair. I don’t even watch football anymore, but that clip was awesome. Push yourself! Hell yeah!

Ah, but one click of a keyboard key, and I’m back to Word, back to reality, back to my WIP! There’s the soft lamp, the silent screen. There’s no sweaty workout, no coach yelling at me, no thousands of Sunday afternoon fans. There is only me. Alone. Desk. Lamp. Computer. Blinking cursor. Quiet.

We, writers, are not performance artists. We are solitary workers: the last light burning after everyone else has gone to bed, or the dim morning light as everyone else still sleeps, or both. Our motivation comes from those wonderful, silent books watching from the shelves. It comes from other writers, struggling as we struggle. It comes from the many publications that remind us, over and over, don’t give up! Don’t quit. Stay the course. Be like the ice skater, the boxer, the runner. Work through the failures, the misery, the despair. Push yourself towards the goal. I’m glad I watched those videos. I’ve set my goal. What is it? My goal is simple: To write the best novel that I alone can write–alone. I take a deep breath and get to work.

So, my good blogger friends, what motivates you? What’s your dream? Your goal?

I look forward to hearing from you. It’s been too long since my last post. End of summer blues…difficult times…hard times, but the fog has lifted. We’re moving on, eh?

The Mystery of it All

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Gazing at the Spring 2017 issue of the Writer’s Digest Yearbook: Writing Essentials, I was struck by the young lady pictured on the cover. (passive voice, I know). My first thought was to acknowledge how very good looking she is. She smiles a beautiful smile, beautiful white teeth. Her hair cascades wonderfully down her shoulders and over her cool, off-white jacket. She has rolled up the sleeves, revealing slim arms. She’s slim, physically fit, sexy. She runs every morning in the park. Notice the white sign that shamelessly states: “NO EXPERIENCE” blocks her third finger, left hand. Interesting.

To the left and even with the top of her head is the headline: SUCCESS BEGINS HERE! So, it appears she’s happy because she is a successful writer, a thought which begs the question: Is she a writer? I mean a “real” writer? I look on the inside cover and find out that the cover image is credited to Yuri Arcurs, who is a professional photographer. I Googled.  The pictured lady is unnamed.

I checked a few other magazines I had lying about. It seems when an actual writer is highlighted on the cover their name appears as well. For instance, the July/August 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest features a marvelous picture of Heather Graham, and again, in the March/April 2017 issue of Poets & Writers, we see a bearded George Saunders on the cover. He’s sort of leaning into the center—towards his name, in large white letters.

Now both Graham and Saunders are writers, and just by looking at the pictures one can easily surmise that they are both over thirty. Why do I mention that fact? Well, let’s return to our first picture. The young lady shown is a twenty-something. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to rant and rave about young writers or young, incredibly-good-looking writers. No, no. I’m interested in this cover image for another reason…no, not that one either!

The reason is this:

Our anonymous young lady is a fiction. The whole set-up is a fiction. Let’s see what we can make of this. The Artist as a Young Woman is sitting at her desk. She’s sitting in one of those cloth swivel chairs, no arms. That’s why she’s leaning on the desk. She’s leaning towards us as if she’s about to speak or perhaps waiting for us to say something witty. I don’t know.

It’s a clean desk. You don’t see “stuff” lying about, such as old post-it notes or books or a pile of useless USBs or a few unpaid bills or a piece of a dog biscuit the dog didn’t eat last night. She leans toward us a bit. Her hands are clean, no calluses. Her unpainted nails are neatly manicured. No gaudy finger nail polish here. As previously noted, she’s wearing a very nice summer jacket—perhaps because the air conditioning is too high there in her study. Is it her study? We don’t know.

Beneath the jacket she dons what appears to be a t-shirt? Difficult to say. We see just enough cloth to know that she’s wearing something! Ah, and no earrings. I had to pull out my magnifying glass to check. There seemed to be something in that right ear, the one we can see. Something. What is that? What the hell? It looks like a kernel of corn…. I swear. Maybe she’s not even human. Ah, but no. It’s probably just the light. Maybe my nerves. Her left eye (She has brown eyes.) is larger than her right eye, as if she’s on to something. She knows something we don’t.

Oh—what was that? I thought I heard a sound. Maybe not. Back to the picture.

You see the corner of a laptop. Now the laptop in and of itself is not so much, but when we study the position of the computer in relationship to the non-writer, writer, we realize that she’s not very much involved with the screen. It’s at an odd angle. It’s actually turned away from her stunning gaze. Hmmm.

The computer also appears to be sitting on top of a white desk pad. Don’t you find that a bit disturbing? It echoes all that “whiteness” behind her. As if she’s in a white room, a sterile room, a room without end. There’s no writing on the desk pad, and it’s pushed quite a far piece back from the edge of the desk, a fact which I find odd. And why is that computer turned away? Why? Was there a second chair? Where is it? Who was looking at the computer, if not her? Who indeed? Just above her head are the letters: AL. Who is Al? Is that the missing person, the writer who has vanished? Is that a desperate message? Hold on Al.

We also see rising up, as it were, from the bottom of the cover, a glass. At this point, I thought to wax philosophical and ponder whether the glass is half full or half empty. Unfortunately, the glass in question appears to be absolutely empty…period.

But here our fiction takes a dangerous turn. There’s a second glass! Look carefully, there in front of her is—another glass. It’s empty as well. There’s a chill in the room. She’s holding a pen. She’s happy. She has sharp dog teeth. The glass is empty. Has she been drinking? Is that why she’s happy? Or is it something else, something even more sinister?

Someone is missing from this picture. Maybe it’s the real writer—Al somebody—the missing person, the absent chair. Or deeper than that, she is the real writer. The ghost writer. Al’s a fake. Maybe that’s why we don’t see the third finger. Eh?

She knows something. It has made her incredibly happy. We see her joy. We feel the bliss, the delight. She has succeeded. Indeed, the very headline tells us: SUCCESS BEGINS HERE! What success is that? Examine the key words: “finished novel.” Whose, I ask? Yours? Mine? Al’s? “Find more time” Oh, hell no. She definitely is happy about “more” time. “How to submit” OMG! Yes, indeed, I rest my case, dear blogger friends.  Here’s some real skullduggery if I ever saw it.

I think I might even subscribe.

I don’t know why I did this. It was fun! Hope you enjoyed.

The Writer, the Novel, the Ending

Two guests from afar.

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I want to talk about “novel endings” but first a bit of history. Back in the nineties, I taught a course in Modernist Literature. Here’s the reading list.

  • The Sun Also Rises                                     Hemingway
  • Ethan Frome                                               Wharton
  • 1984                                                              Orwell
  • The Trial                                                      Kafka
  • Invisible Man                                              Ellison
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God               Hurston
  • The Great Gatsby                                       Fitzgerald

While I don’t want to spoil a possible “first” reading of any of the above, I will repeat one student’s question before we started our final novel, The Great Gatsby. The young lady raised a weary hand and asked, “Is this another depressing story?”

I tried, half-heartedly, to evade the issue, but let’s face it, the Modernists weren’t into the “feel good about yourself” narrative. As it turns out, much of the Modernist harangue is still with us. We still hear from well-intentioned writers, Hemingway’s advice to “kill your darlings.” And publishers continuously echo Ezra Pound’s maxim: “Make it new!” And don’t forget Anton Chekhov’s famous command to “Show, don’t tell.” Finally, there is that lingering Modernist theme that REALITY is a stained, dirty note reminding us all that life sucks.

Even now, we receive tons of novels that deliver “gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, tragic endings.” I usually steer away from them. I no longer need my heart broken or my gut wrenched. But I do enjoy novels that make me think or give me some insight into human nature—sans tragedy.

Novels chronicle struggle, the necessity to overcome some barrier to gain a desired state of being. Now we know that life is a relational experience: I am happy because I know what unhappiness is. The depth of your understanding of “happiness” may well depend upon your experience with unhappiness or misery. Your ability to research and/or empathize broadens this knowledge.

Beneath the lamp, you write and write. You intensify your protagonist’s struggle through a series of conflicts. Finally, thousands of words and hundreds of pages later, you arrive at the crossroads—the point of ultimate action, the climactic point. Now, something has to give, and you write your ending—happy with success or sad with failure.

The ending of your novel, I believe, has to do with your writer/audience relationship. Here’s two examples:

First, as a writer you compose with a strong desire to expose your readers to the wrongs of the world, but leaving them with a conquering/successful/fulfilled protagonist, that is to say, a “feel-good” novel that ends happily. Your goal as a novelist isn’t to lead your audience into a nightmare that deprives them of sleep for the next week or drives them into a three-day drinking binge. Indeed, you want to mitigate the horrors they already face as citizens of a cowardly, old world.

OR

Second, as a writer, you perceive your goal as one similar to Kafka’s, who said the novel should be “the axe for the frozen sea within us.” That is to say, your novel liberates readers from their hide-bound comforts and forces them to face the terrible and difficult issues of our human existence. Your narrative ends with separation, confusion, terror and/or loss. You recognize the hard realities of life, and you want your readers to do the same.

The two above possible endings reflect self-vision. The first: you are a writer who stabilizes. You are an ever-shining beacon that guides the anxious reader through the storm and safely into port. The second: you are the writer who interrupts. You are the storm that roughly and without apology smashes the boat and tosses the hapless reader into the raging foam, into the swirling dark.

What are your thoughts blogger friends? What’s your preference: happy or tragic endings? How does it affect your own writing?

Now, here’s a happy ending–from my own back yard!

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