The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If I’d pick up this book at the right time (less busy), I might have finished in a day, or three, which is rare for me. It caught me in that way books sometimes do when you can’t stop thinking about them, can’t wait to pick them up again. I started the book the last morning we spent in Port Townsend over a month ago. I remember opening the book while we waited for our breakfasts to arrive during what turned out to be a long wait.” Oh, oh,” I kept interrupting Chris’s Harper’s article, “listen to this sentence.” The novel begin with these three sentences:
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees.
In these sentences, Roy begins setting the reader up for a book in which everything is alive, ever object, every living thing, every thought, every feeling. The story will make you cry, perhaps it will make you sob achingly as I did as I finished the book this morning. The characters are so real, so human, sometimes grotesquely, that I suppose you could read this book and miss the at times biting environmental and social criticisms the emerge in a well-aimed narrative insight or a suggestive motif. Those messages existed, but did not overshadow the story of Ammu and her twins, their loves and their heartaches, their roles in their tragic human play.
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My seniors have spent the last several weeks reading excerpts from different styles and genres and responding to creative writing prompts. These seniors are IB students who work hard and who have now finished their testing for the year. They are just waiting to graduate. They’ve donned the apparel of the college they will attend in the fall and are playing cell phone video games, wearing slippers to class, and passing yearbooks.
Not all of them are thrilled that instead of having study hall or watching movies all class now that testing is over I am still making them read and write, but most are curious and willing to give it a try and a few have been waiting for a unit that lets them just play with words and stretch their imaginations, reaching for their own standards, not IB’s or mine.
Their final is to select one piece to read for the class in a planned, practice presentation that might include props and/or costumes. A student came in this morning to present to me. She explained how her favorite part of books is the description and that she’s always been good at writing description, but her challenge is trying to make a story out of her imagery. She worked on the piece she read extensively to move from imagery to actually having a story behind the description. Her piece was lovely, compelling, and rich in story. Her story, she explained, was a work of fiction in which she attempted to explore something she had been dealing with for the past several months: the inevitability of losing someone close to you at some point in your life (In her case, her grandparents who had both been in and out of the hospital).
We live in a world rich in story that is ours for the spinning and those stories are all deeply personal in some way. One can start with an image or a line of dialogue or an idea for a character or a theme. Why bother? Because our grandparents have been in and out of the hospital, we aren’t sure who we are anymore, or we don’t know how to get the attention of the person we think we just might want to spend the rest of our lives with—to name a few reasons. The stories that connect us are infinite and that matters.
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The first inkling that being a writer might fit me occurred when I was eight years old. Our prim, petite third grade teacher at A.J. West Elementary encouraged everyone in the class to write something for the Grays Harbor Young Author’s Conference that year, though only a few did. I wrote a story that I can’t even remember now, though I know that it lacked much and had only two or three sentences handwritten per blank white page, each with a childlike illustration below. I stayed after school to bind the pages together with blue yarn and made a laminated cover and a title page. Then, boook in hand, I proudly attended my first YAC the following Saturday, where I listened to Steven Kellogg explain how he wrote and illustrated his stories and attended workshops where we wrote to prompts and read our work aloud to each other.
Not once since that Saturday have I seriously considered the possibility that I might not want to write. The writing part is easy. I have boxes and boxes full of old notebooks and thousands of files on my computer that serve as evidence of my compulsion to write.
Flunking out of my first quarter of college wasn’t going to stop me. By that time I had four years of food service experience that felt like mastery and I worked as both a cook and a waitress at a diner. I didn’t need college to write. All I needed was a typewriter from the junk store and enough money to buy coffee and cigarettes. But my dream of being a female Bukowski died when I got pregnant at 20 and decided to have the baby and be a good parent.
If I had any hope of succeeding as a mother I knew I had to give college another go, so I enrolled in Poetry Writing and Arts and Ideas that first quarter, safe choices that would serve as a warm up for greater challenges to come, like Chemistry and Math 107.
And that marks the point at which writing became this hobby that I had to strategize to make time for. But I did strategize and I keep strategizing. I’ve raised a child. I’ve been teaching high school English now for fourteen years, and I’m still scheming away about how to write and be a writer.
This past school year has been a crap one for getting any writing done and I’m starting to stare at that $60,000 MFA on my wall and wonder what the hell I was thinking spending all that money on something that will never be more than a hobby when I do not have money to spare, have never had money to spare, had to borrow against my own optimism to pay for college in the first place. When I enrolled in a rather expensive private college as an undergrad, I thought teaching meant pretty big bucks and a comfortable life. When you are raised on government cheese, this is an easy mistake to make. I also thought teaching meant summers off and therefore plenty of time to write my Great American Novel. The truth is: teaching is challenging work that never ends and when you are by personality an ambitious person and a hard worker, you do things like decide to go for your National Board Certification the very year that might have been your first year without a school-aged child at home to care for.
But my NB portfolio is complete and I sat down last Monday to begin writing again.
I was going to write! Finally! I was going to write!
And then the sky fell. No chicken-little, about it. I shut my iPad, stared hopelessly at the wall and cried like a toddler who’d dropped her toy off the deck. I couldn’t even remember what it was I last decided I should be working on. At least four pots were simmering on the back burner and I couldn’t remember where I had left off in tending to them. Once I calmed down, I remembered that this problem I could solve. I opened document after document, read passages, paused to ponder, and finally picked up the thread of what I’m working on.
I’m back, hopefully stronger and more committed, and now with a plan that includes self-publishing my novel for reasons that I’ll write about in my next post about why I write and why I’ve come around to an idea that I previously shunned: self-publishing.
What are you working on? How is your writing going?
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I sat down to write, but wasn’t sure how to begin so I checked Facebook looking for inspiration. I found an article that expanded my knowledge of the Common Core and shared it. A teacher I know sent me a PM almost immediately mentioning a Times article that shed an ironic light on the article I had shared. I went to nytimes.com and read it.
All right, time to get writing, I thought, then sent a Tweet saying “Time to write! #focused”. I spent ten minutes arranging the words in that first sentence until I could read it back with pride, then I g-chatted my son: Good morning!
He didn’t ask me to, but I took the initiative to scan Craigslist for a job he might be interested in and sent him the links. I was just about to start writing again when my mother called.
Your Faithful Servant,
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There are some things I should have learned by now. This isn’t my first first draft.
This morning, approaching twenty thousand words, in the zone of the scene I was rendering, doubt interrupted. Wait? Did I make her sister younger than her in the last scene? And now she’s the youngest?
Rather than doing what I knew I should, I scrolled back in the document to find the earlier scene. I knew even while I was doing this that it wasn’t a good idea. I knew that in the first draft it’s best to just keep writing, knowing that you’ll clean up the details in revision.
Now, I am writing this blog instead of finishing the scene and I’ll probably eat lunch and shampoo the carpet before I come back to it.
I recall reading a book or an article once that talked about a division of mind between the creative mind and the editor’s mind, and it seems to me now that both are fueled by curiosity, which is why it is difficult to keep them apart. The curiosity that propels the first draft is forward-moving. The curiosity that propels the editing moves back and forth through story-time. The questions, though, are the same. Does this work? Is it compelling?
First draft reminder: Keep moving forward.
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One has to be comfortable with beginning again to stick with writing.
I am beginning summer again, that time when hours of time for writing open, which, paradoxically, can slow down my writing.
Sometimes, I begin new projects just to keep going, because I’m stuck in what I’m working on.
Sometimes, I have to begin a new draft in a blank document in order to honor the story over the precious phrases I’ve collected along the way.
I am beginning being single again, and when I say single, I mean my child is stepping out on his own life journey and I’ve got no one whose care I can use for an excuse for not writing.
I truth, I think one of the best choices I made as a parent must have been to begin really writing again with NaNoWriMo in 2005 (my son was 10). In ten years I had written in fits and starts, sometimes I would go months without writing at all. But that November I wrote a novel, well 25,000 words of a novel. Shortly after that I joined a writer’s group and started researching into MFA programs.
I have been working at writing pretty steady since then. I earned my MFA. I’m still in a writer’s group. As my son goes off to CA to pursue his dream to produce music, I smile that maybe my persistence somewhere along the way inspired him.
And why quit now? When I can really begin again.
Summer goal: Write every day. At least 700 wc.
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