Saturday, March 30, 2013

How To Name the Butler (and Everybody Else)

Naming characters is one of my favorite chores as a writer.
When I wrote stories as a kid, I was heavily influenced by my father, who was passionate about Charles Dickens.  I thought characters in books were supposed to have funny names.  This explains the title of my first novel (written when I was ten), Mrs. Wimpimple’s Trip around the World.  And I remember a short story I wrote around this time, featuring a butler named Smedley.

As I got older, I realized that funny names were best left to other writers.  I began to learn how to analyze fiction, and came to believe that characters’ names were supposed to mean something.  (I remember lots of conversations in high school about the significance of  "Hester Prynne" and "Arthur Dimmesdale.")  But the more I read, the more I realized that this wasn’t always true.  Sometimes characters were named Mary, and it wasn’t a heavy-handed reference to Christ’s mother.  It was just a name.

Writing as an adult, I realized that every action a writer takes (as a writer) is significant.  While characters' names may not be weighted with heavy symbolic meaning, they are chosen for a reason.  So, for example, in my novel The Hard Kind of Promise, Sarah is the girl who is interested in clothes and dancing and boys, and Marjorie is the girl who wants to direct science fiction movies and says things like, “I’m a little gassy” in front of the popular girls.

This is not to say that every "Marjorie" is socially awkward.  In fact, the two girls I’ve known named Marjorie were quite popular and socially adept.  But “Sarah” is a rather common name these days, and was therefore well suited to a girl who wanted to conform to social norms; “Marjorie” is old-fashioned and relatively unique, as was the “Marjorie” in my novel. 

Similarly, in Prettiest Doll, I needed a name for my protagonist that served several purposes and came up with “Olivia Jane.”  Olivia calls herself Liv, which I liked because it sounds strong, and Olivia is tough.  But Olivia’s mother (Janie) calls her Olivia Jane.  I wanted to make the point that Janie lives through her daughter and sees herself when she looks at her, and this was one of several ways I tried to accomplish this.

Right now, I’m working on my first fantasy novel.  I’ve assigned old-fashioned names to the characters that live in the small town where the story begins: April, Sebastian, Penelope.  I want the novel to have the feel of the classic fantasies I read as a kid, such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Five Children and It.  Of course, I decided to make up names for the characters that live on the enchanted island where much of the novel takes place: Philian, Zoolie.  This, as countless readers and writers of fantasy know, enhances one’s sense that the new world is unfamiliar and perhaps magical.
Making up names is a lot of fun. 

But someday, I want to write a book about a butler named Smedley.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Five Stages of Watching Really Bad Reality TV Shows and What It Has To Do With Being a Writer (With Apologies to Elizabeth Kubler Ross)

I hereby admit that I have watched a fair amount of bad reality TV.  I watch while I am exercising.  Really.

Over the years, I have seen shows about drug addicts and alcoholics, young women who drink bleach and eat deodorant, people who hoard, people who discuss their peculiar sexual predilections, people who speak to the dead, people who cook, people who make clothes, little girls who compete in beauty pageants, little girls who compete in dance competitions, little girls who compete in cheerleading competitions, people who sell real estate, people who hunt ducks, people who rehab their houses, people who try successfully and unsuccessfully to lose weight.  And housewives who yell at each other.  In different cities.

Of course, I am embarrassed about this.  Of course, I want you to know that I never watch anything with Kardashians in it.  And I want to assure you that I also watch “Downton Abbey” and “Girls” and “Southland.”  Lest you think that all I do is watch TV, I want to add that I read voraciously and run and write and just generally have an actual life.

I was thinking about all this recently, and it occurred to me that there has been a certain emotional pattern to my reality-TV-watching career.

Boredom: I was doing kickbacks and there was nothing else to watch except “The View.”

Incredulity: How can you drink bleach and live?  How can there be a dead cat in your living room and you don’t know it?  How can you not be embarrassed to be yelling at your close friend because she said you aren’t really Italian?

Fascination: The mothers.  I can’t get enough of the mothers of little girls and the things they say, without any trace of irony or embarrassment.  I used to be the mother of a little girl, and I never said things like, “She’s so clumsy” or “Why can’t you be like her?”  I didn’t even think things like that, but if I had, I certainly wouldn’t have said them on national television.

Compassion: Some of the people who endure terrible anguish and embarrassment in front of millions of people captured my heart.  Like Ruby, a morbidly obese woman from Georgia who allowed cameras to follow her as she attempted to lose weight and deal with her (erstwhile) private demons.  Her show was cancelled, so I don’t know what became of her.  She had such a sweet and joyous soul.  I hope she is all right.

Empathy: Ultimately, I have started to feel that reality TV’s greatest “contribution” to the culture may be the way it encourages us to see that we aren’t all that different from each other.  The mothers of little girls on dance teams are about as obnoxious a group of women as I can imagine, but they all love their daughters and believe they are doing right by them, just as I would like to believe that I have done right by my daughter.  I don’t get hoarding At All, but I do get feeling so bad about the loss of a loved one that you lose your way.  The wealthy Orange County housewives may overdo the Botox and dress like hookers, but they’re really just trying to find a little happiness.  What’s not to understand about that?

Empathy is important to writers: it allows you to imagine what someone else’s life is like.  You can’t really be a good writer without it.  Maybe John Updike and Saul Bellow didn’t need reality TV to create believable characters, and maybe I don’t, either, but if “Duck Dynasty” is on and I’m doing crunches, then I’m going to watch it and not be embarrassed.  Really.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On Riding a Bike

Since I tore a ligament in my foot (which is really just another way of saying I sprained my ankle, but a torn ligament sounds so much more sports-injury-y), I’ve been riding my bike for exercise.

Every morning, I get up and go for a ride.  I ride through my own neighborhood, then walk my bike along a very short dirt path under a railway trestle and ride in another neighborhood for about an hour and a half. 

It’s a good work-out, but I don’t like doing it nearly as much as I like to run.

Today, as I rode, I tried to figure out why this is.  I remembered living in Berkeley when I was nine.  Every day after school, I would retrieve my three-geared bike from the garage (which I remember feeling at the time was an arduous procedure) and go for an afternoon ride.  I would pack a snack in my bike pack (a thrilling accessory purchased with my own money) and ride to the end of a court right above and behind the Claremont Hotel.  There, I would ride down a narrow dirt path to a cement staircase that rose high into the Berkeley Hills.  I would sit at the base of the stairs and eat my snack and watch the workers behind the hotel load food and ice into the kitchen.  And listen to the eucalyptus trees groan in an eerie, magical way as their trunks rubbed against each other.

Back then, I didn’t ride my bike for exercise.  I rode because I loved the intentionality and the power involved in getting myself somewhere on my own.  Riding back home, I took the descending hill at full speed, out of the saddle.  I didn’t use my brakes, and I didn’t wear a helmet.  I felt completely invincible.

Now when I ride, I wear a helmet.  (Of course I wear a helmet: I’d be a moron if I didn’t.)  I track my miles on an app.  I use my brakes liberally.  I worry about hitting one of those hard little eucalyptus gumnuts that litter the roads after a storm and losing my balance and ending up unconscious in the middle of the street. I futz around with one of twenty-one speeds.  I buy special bike-riding clothes.  I stop at stop signs.
It’s more fun the other way, the way it was when I was nine.  But I’m not nine anymore.  I don’t know how to go back to that other way.