Reading “What They Wanted” by Donna Morrissey as a Writer

I remember clear as yesterday those last days in Cooney Arm, the sea dying around us and taking Father’s spirit with it. And my, but he had fought. Long after his brothers and the others left he’s stayed, netting cod, netting salmon, spearing flatfish, hauling crab-pots, trapping eels and rabbits, hunting seals and turrs and boo birds, and landing capelin and squid and all else the sea hove at him.

What They Wanted by Donna Morrissey explores loss of home and all that means, of becoming lost while chasing survival. Memories haunt her protagonist and then one day she asks herself,

What of memory is truth? It was a staggering thought, and for a moment I felt a great fear, like those split seconds sometimes upon awakening when all sense of self is still caught back in the nether world of sleep and the eyes alone are opened onto the blankness of a room without memory. I clutched my arms around myself, needing to feel the solidity of flesh and bone, like the ghosts from Cooney Arm whose lives have been vanquished into time, leaving behind fragments of soul clinging to wood, no longer knowing what, if any of this, is real, and frightened of their invisibility.

In Newfoundland, Sylvie—a sister, daughter, and granddaughter— confronts “what is and what could be.” After a time, she follows her quiet brother Chris to the oilfields of Alberta. There, they face a different kind of fear from the old ghosts and guilts of childhood. Sylvie:

If I’d learned anything from this camp, it was that fear doesn’t necessarily present itself in well-defined situations; more often it’s that darker shade of red flowing through our veins, tinting our views and no doubt stripping us of the courage to make decisions along the way.

In Newfoundland, the graves and past was tangible, but in the oil fields of Albert, the fears were elusive shadows. Yet, decisions are made and consequences unfold.  To say more would be to give too much away and spoil your reading.

For the writers among us:

  1. As you read, pay attention to the details of place and culture. See how these play into and reveal character.
  2. Notice how Morrissey creates situations that, in turn, create the need for decisions, and notice how decisions often carry unforeseen consequences.
  3. Notice how she controls tension, keeping us turning pages.
  4. Notice also how an undercurrent develops, a movement beneath the thread of the surface story.
  5. All these things together lead to a story that we believe; it feels authentic.

Morrissey uncovers the human cost of loss while also revealing the power of family and love and  she does this within the specifics of a time and place that we recognize as also universal. It is what we aim for as writers.

If you have read What They Wanted—or when you read it—please share your thoughts on how Morrissey achieves moving the personal (particular) time, place, and situation of the novel into the universal so that we can each relate, regardless of whether we share the Newfoundland experience of dislocation.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: What They Wanted

10 Tips for Poets and Readers

“Tell the truth but tell it slant” (#1263, Emily Dickinson) continues to be good advice, but there are more.

Over the years a collection of writing tips have accumulated along with lessons learned while teaching creative and memoir college-level classes and workshops. Occasionally, I review, add and subtract. This is my current list of things for poets to think about:

  1. Write what you know
    • Experience life (do something out of your ordinary and see with fresh eyes)
    • Write about it
    • Avoid abstractions and ideas alone;
  2.  Ask yourself if your subject and theme are relevant to readers
    For readers to buy your poetry collection, you must create a bridge that joins you, and the subject and theme of your poem is what will attract and hold them;
  3. Choose the best point of view for your poem
    • It makes a huge difference whose perspective tells the story; find what best suits the poem (first person “I” or second person “you,” or third person “he, she, they”);
    • First write it with one narrator and then the same poem with another p-o-v and see the difference;
  4. Choose the best literary form for each poem
    From free verse to traditional forms like ballad, epic, ode, and sonnet;
  5.  Use accessible language and make every word work
    Choose only the perfect words for each poem (invest in a good dictionary and thesaurus);
  6. Create poetry that is clear and accessible
    Avoid being obtuse or vague;
  1. Use literary techniques
    • Create images, sounds (assonance, alliterations, repetition – read your poem aloud), and metaphors and similes;
    • Think about tone and mood and the importance of evoking emotion (and remember that even in the darkest place a sense of wonder often exists and, if you can create it, readers will feel rewarded for accompanying you on the journey – this does not mean happy-happy, but more awe to balance the awful, or perhaps simply wonder that the sun rises even after the nightmare);
    • Create echoes within a poem and across a collection (perhaps a symbol running through as A.F. Moritz’s sparrow);
  1. Look at your finished poem
    • Just as in story writing, you must hook your reader; then, you must maintain interest; and finally, you must reward them for reading to the end;
    • This has meant providing a twist, a surprise, something that builds within the poem but is still unexpected (perhaps it is easiest to see this in the three-line haiku);
  1. Invite readers into your poems by leaving the door open for them to find their meaning
    • As Jane Hirshfield suggests, “a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over….” Leave room for more than your personal meaning (a poem is not an essay) to the dilemma, situation, or question your poem raises.
  1. Read other poets
    • Learn as much as you can about the poets who created the foundation on which we write;
    • Read contemporary poets;
    • Read. Read;
    • Figure out what you like and don’t like and why; don’t copy or mimic but …
    • Learn how a successful poem unfolds.

Of course, this incomplete and inadequate list points to characteristics that I like in poetry and advice that I find useful. After you’ve been writing and reading for a while, create your own list. If you already have a list, share it with us.

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Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Paris Wife and who have not read other stories of Kenya’s colonial era, particularly Beryl Markham’s memoir or Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. It’s a juicy read but repetitive in many of its details and expressions. Writers of historical fiction will take note to examine how the author leaps from historical fact into juicy fiction. For writers of bibliography, Circling the Sun provides a cautionary tale. Beware that you can become so engrossed in your research and character that you may slip deeply into your material and repeat phrases and scenes that are iconic and recognizable, leaving this reader scratching her head.

When Circling the Sun by Paula McLain about the flyer Beryl Markham came my way, I could hardly begin to start reading. Having read Markham’s memoir West with the Sun, I looked forward to McLain’s take on this adventurous woman’s life. I had also read Out of Africa by Markham’s contemporary Isak Dineson / Karen Blixen, and watched the movie of the same name many times (partly because I love John Barry’s soundtrack, which captures my mood-memories from a month long visit I made to Kenya in 2010). Another contemporary of Beryl Markham, Idina Sackville, has been written about in Frances Osborne’s The Bolter. Besides these stories, a bookshelf dedicated to African writing and writers brims. So, I curled up in my favourite chair with a tea ready to learn more and perhaps have my eyes opened to a new take on the early 20th century era when Kenya was a British colony and change was rampant.

Circling the Sun focuses on Beryl Markam’s childhood, which is unique—even when compared to that of other settler children—but l learned little that was new, although perhaps a bit more detail. Markham’s young adulthood as portrayed in Circling the Sun is limited to troubled relationships—with both men and women. The bibliography takes us up to her early flying days but doesn’t examine her flight across the Atlantic or her life after the landmark adventure (perhaps McLain hopes for a sequel). The sun Beryl Markham circles in this book is not the one that follows her across the ocean; it is, I suppose, the sun of youth’s annual seasons.

With a publisher like Bond Street Books / Doubleday, I anticipated original information and new revelations about the woman, place, and time. Too frequently as I read, I found phrases and images that felt repetitive from my other reading and Out of Africa the movie. For example, “I was in real trouble now”; “ ‘Oh, Berkeley, I’ve got myself in deep this time’”; and “I…lay my hand on his chest, feeling along the slick buttons of his shirt and the perfect piped edge of the cotton,” which is pretty much what Karen Blixen does to Denys in the movie. Perhaps someone who is not familiar with Beryl Markham’s memoir and with other writing about Kenya, especially during the early 20th century colonial era, might enjoy Paula McLain’s take on Markham’s life. However, if you are looking for a light read about a fictionalized woman during an exciting era, Circling the Sun will entertain you.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Circling the Sun

Book Review: The Story of a New Name (by Elena Ferrante, tr. by Ann Goldstein)

The Story of a New Name is a great summer read. It will take you into Italy, a specific Neapolitan neighbourhood and holiday beaches. For those reading as writers, read to see how Elena Ferrante creates place and how she develops character. The Story of a New Name may be a great summer read, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a story worth reflecting on “how” the magic happens.

Elena Ferrante creates a time and place that is drenched in tradition: a neighbourhood in 1960s Naples, and two women’s struggles to break the chains of their roles and male machismo.

The Story of a New Name is narrated by Elena Greco who unravels her complicated friendship with Lina/Lila Cerullo throughout the 471 pages of the book (the second in a series). The close bonds the girls shared through childhood are broken when Lina/Lila marries Stefano Carracci. With that ceremony, Lina becomes a wife and all that implies in the traditional 1960s Neapolitan neighbourhood. Lina/Lila, however, doesn’t embrace expectations. Elena remains in school struggling for books and space to study, and to experiment in her own way with blossoming sexuality and unrequited love.

I understood suddenly why I hadn’t had Nino, why Lila had had him. I wasn’t capable of entrusting myself to true feelings. I didn’t know how to be drawn beyond the limits.

Ferrante is a master storyteller. Quickly we’re engrossed in the lives of the neighbourhood, the interpersonal entanglements, local politics, and money. But at its heart, this story is a story of friendship overcoming obstacles—many created by the girls themselves.The girl-women are opposites in many ways: Lina/Lila marries into relative wealth; Elena struggles for schoolbooks and space to study. Their temperaments and morals are also polar opposites. Lina/Lila goes after what she wants, recreates herself; Elena holds back and her transformation comes slowly. But like the yin and yang of self, they are bonded.

…Lila knew how to draw me in. And I was unable to resist: on the one hand I said that’s enough, on the other I was depressed at the idea of not being part of her life, of the means by which she invented it for herself. What was that deception but another of her fantastic moves, which were always full of risks? The two of us together, allied with each other, in the struggle against all.

The Story of a New Name took me in deep into a time and place unknown to me, but one clearly lived by the author who shares her name with the fictional narrator of this story. (For a story of friendship between men, check out What I Loved.

For those reading as writers, think about how Ferrante creates place and character, and how she builds the tension that keeps us turning pages.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Story of a New Name