In Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, cultural geographer Dr. Carolyn Finney painstakingly investigates why African Americans are underrepresented when it comes to enjoying “the Great Outdoors” and environmentalism. Finney draws on a blend of scholarly works, close study of popular media,[*] field research, and personal experiences[†] to provide a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of how the natural world has different, racialized contexts for black people and white people. Aimed at both experts and “just folks”, this scholarly book dispels the assumption of African Americans disinterest and reveals how underlying structural racism bears the responsibility for this disparity.
Dr. Finney, conscious to emphasize the diversity of African American culture, background, and experiences,[‡] nonetheless discusses several pervasive barriers to black people’s meaningful engagement with nature, among them (I’ll discuss three briefly) the painful legacies of slavery and segregation that continue to negatively shape attitudes toward natures. Far from seeing forests as a source of spiritual connection as white people might, African Americans may instead view such places as sites of violence (eg, lynching). When early white conservationists (several of whom promoted eugenics ideology) campaigned to protect natural places, they also deliberately barred non-white persons from these places. Unsurprisingly, this exclusion creates the impression that nature is for white people, causing many African Americans to avoid unwelcoming areas that may prove dangerous for them. Representation, too, plays an important role. Finney demonstrates that there is a dearth of black faces in media representation, whether it is an advertisement featuring only white people performing outdoor activities or a magazine that fails to include African American activists and leaders in a green issue. These instances are examples of missed opportunities to inspire black people to use the National Parks or join green organizations—something which also preserves the status quo. And it cannot be emphasized enough that the lack of diversity in these organizations contributes to instances where black individuals and communities are forgotten or ignored on environmental issues.
While much of Black Faces, White Spaces examines these barriers and many others, it is not a grim treatise but a hopeful one. Finney’s work looks to understand such barriers so that they can be effectively dismantled. In addition, she often highlights African Americans who are currently working on creating a more inclusive experience in natural areas (eg, when the National Park Systems included slave narratives in plantation tours) or forming their own environmental action groups to ensure issues important to black communities get the representation they deserve. Black Spaces, White Faces significantly contributes to the ongoing conversation about making the Great Outdoors and the environmental movement more equitable.
Part of what we can do to change our perception about the issues that Dr. Finney outlines is to educate ourselves. In this spirit, I am providing a short list of articles (by no means complete or exhaustive) that highlight the black (mostly, African American) environmentalists making a difference.
Book Networks: African American studies podcast, Finney explains that she
chose to include these non-academic sources, because African Americans often
are excluded and underrepresented in scholarly works. Popular media, however,
often conveys messages about dominant cultural narratives as well as their
underlying intentions. Since popular media can be accessed by all people,
Finney also could address a wider audience than just her fellow academics.
includes her own family’s experiences, as they served as the caretakers of an
estate in upstate New York for 50 years. When this estate (where they no longer
lived) was donated for preservation, the white owners—not the Finney
family—were praised for their stewardship.
takes great care in being clear that she does not speak for all African
Americans or for other non-white groups who may share similar experiences of
exclusion from natural areas and the environmental discourse.
Meet NaNoWriMo’s low-key Spring and Summer virtual writing retreats.
Last year (as you may already know), I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. Of course, I knew a fair bit about the month-long event in which one attempts to write a novel (or, at least 50,000 words towards one) in November. But there were several things I didn’t know beforehand,[*] among them that the NaNoWriMo team also hosted additional events in April and July[†] called Camp NaNoWriMo. Since my November was packed long before I agreed this ambitious writing goal, I skipped clicking onto that link. And by the time NaNoWriMo finished, I exhaustedly signed off my account and decided I’d investigate it later.
Much later, as it happened.
Somewhere around early to mid-March, I started receiving a few gentle emails about upcoming April session. Soon after, my spouse mentioned it. Taking the hint at last, I decided to look into Camp NaNoWriMo. Similar to NaNoWriMo, it features word sprints, write-ins, daily inspirations, word prompts, and more. Unlike its well-known counterpart, participants have the option to be sorted into cabins (thus creating a small writing community) and, more importantly, set their own writing goals. And that can be word counts, chapters, consecutive writing days, or revision/editing. Or, in my case, 3500 new words for my novel. Billed as “an idyllic writers retreat smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life”, Camp NaNoWriMo aims to help writers complete smaller, focused writing tasks.
While NaNoWriMo excels at getting writers working on their novels, the quick pace leaves little room for refinement. During Camp NaNoWriMo thus far, I’ve had time to tweak what I’ve already written, and a stronger narrative is slowly emerging as I add new material. While my progress is slower, my novel reads better—making Camp NaNoWriMo an ideal follow-up to its November predecessor. For those who declined writing for NaNoWriMo because of its intense deadline but wished they could participate in its associated activities, Camp NaNoWriMo provides a good blend of self-determined writing, support, and challenges to motivate writers through small projects that just might inspire them to give the main event a whirl. Or to keep on camping!
TLDR:[‡] Camp NaNoWriMo provides the best of NaNoWriMo’s events (writing sprints/marathons, prompts, and daily inspirations) with the added bonuses of allowing participants to set their own writing goals and, should they so desire, connect with fellow writers.
how I would manage writing roughly 1666 words. (Hint, it’s sleep deprivation at
the month’s end!)
means if you’re running too late for April, you can instead plan for July. And
I’m seriously thinking about signing up then, too.
rolled out a new feature in my last post, which appears here again. TL;DR
(better known as “too long; didn’t read) is a quick summary guide that will
feature in most-to-all of my upcoming posts for people who want to get right to
…the only way to honour her [Finn’s Italian paternal grandmother] as she deserved to be honoured, was to completely piss off his social-climbing mother, subvert his turgid middle-class upbringing — and commit entirely to the role of misunderstood artist. Which he’d done with fervor until the pretence and reality had become inseparable.
The fact was his tutor didn’t know one end of the paintbrush from another. He didn’t need permission from an uptight spinster to paint what he wanted to paint….The picture was clear….He should be out there with the people…not hanging around here, being misunderstood and dragged down by these pretentious losers.
from The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor
From the outset, The Backstreets of Purgatory promises its readers “art, insanity, and Irn-Bru”. The Glasgow-based novel, which follows the tribulations of its protagonist (Finn Garvie) and those of his overlapping social circles, initially might come across as the latest entry in the familiar tale of the tortured artist. However, it’s soon apparent that author Helen Taylor intends to take this story in a rather (darkly humorous) different direction. Early on, Taylor presents the ironic situation in which Finn, having devoted a considerable portion of his life to playing the “misunderstood artist”, decides to decamp from his art school before earning his coveted Master’s degree on grounds that he was “being misunderstood”.* And given that Finn is funded (perhaps reluctantly) by his middle-class parents, he isn’t exactly the sort one pictures when imagining an impoverished but gifted artist descending into madness. But that’s rather the point here. The relationship between suffering and great art is at best a murky one, and it’s clear that The Backstreets of Purgatory intends to challenge what readers “know” about art and mental health.
As a character-driven novel, The Backstreets of Purgtory delivers with its lovingly drawn if all-too
human ensemble. Taylor’s empathetic narration (split among four narrators) provides
a multifaceted portraiture of the core characters that is nonetheless a very
much warts-and-all approach (not unlike Carvaggio’s style of realistic painting†). As a result, we might see a character
valorized in one chapter (eg, Finn rescues an inebriated Maurice from sleeping
rough) but later witness their more ignominious side (in Lizzi’s case, when she
forgets her professional ethics in a misguided effort to protect Finn). The
three other narrators (intriguingly, all female) also provide alternative (and
arguably, corrective) perspectives to Finn’s narrative—and sometimes, to each
other’s viewpoints. Since their relationships with Finn range from intimate to indirect
connection, we get a sense of how Finn affects not only him, but people close
to him but also their larger community,‡
a refreshing change from the tendency to observe mental illness as though it occurs
within a vacuum.
For Finn, the appearance of Purgatory parolee, Carvaggio (his artistic hero and alleged ancestor) seems to be an answer to his artistic conundrum. Coupled with the inspiration provided by Kassia (an au pair from Poland), Finn is hopeful that he’ll finally paint something meaningful. However, Carvaggio’s arrival instead marks a period of crisis for Finn and company, attributable to misleading appearances, hasty assumptions, miscommunication, and, often, Finn himself. As Finn and his friendships deteriorate, Finn also finds that both muse and mentor are less helpful than hoped, with Carvaggio living up to his hellraiser reputation. Nonetheless, the shocking conclusion, complete with its untidy (though very realistic) resolution, will leave readers unsettled as they ponder the underlying issues that contribute to troubled persons’ faltering sanity or sobriety long after they finish reading this novel.
Summary (TL;DR):The Backstreets of Purgatory is both a profane and darkly humorous novel that examines several weighty issues, ranging from mental illness, substance abuse, and gender inequality.§ An immersive read with well-drawn characters that builds to a devastating finale, the reader will feel this book’s impact long after they finish it.
*Arguably, Finn hasn’t been misunderstood but understood all too well. Finn’s reaction—one of outright rejection of criticism from a more learned woman coupled with expecting to be top of his class—is a neat mixture of fragile ego, entitlement, and underlying misogyny suggestive of toxic masculinity.
†While this novel includes discussion of a famous artist and his body of work, it’s not necessary to be well versed in Carvaggio’s oeuvre, as the novel provides sufficient background information. For those interested in his biography or the artworks whose names are used as chapter titles in The Backstreets of Purgatory, I recommended checking here.
‡Described in visceral detail that brings the city to life, Glasgow (particularly its West End) seems to function much like a village in that everyone either knows each other or knows a friend of a friend, giving it an atmosphere that ranges from close-knit to claustrophobic. It’s partly due to this cozy sense of community that Taylor succeeds in making it plausible that many of the major characters, regardless of their divergent backgrounds, meet and interact.
§Throughout the novel, several incidents demonstrate how women (regardless of class, race, or finances) receive unequal treatment ranging catcalling (street harassment) to increased domestic workload. For example, Dr. Esme Blythe’s relative security (in terms of finance and family) does not prevent her from being among the many working women who complete the majority of household and child-rearing tasks while her spouse idles on his phone (a fact made more heinous since he’s content to let her do the washing up despite her severe eczema).
This year’s review features books I didn’t choose but read anyway, procrastination, and, as always, the new year’s reading list.
At this time of year, I normally like to compile a list of notable books that I’ve read over the past year as well as create a reading list for the year ahead. However, there’s been a change in plans this year, because I have already shared my shortlist of notable books from 2018 elsewhere. As you may know, I belong to the Women Writers Network, which is a volunteer group running a Twitter account that focuses on supporting and promoting women writers. Helen Taylor (one of the founder members and author of The Backstreets of Purgatory) compiled our favorite reads of 2018. Since my top six books of 2018 appear on this list (you can find the list at Helen’s web site), I thought I’d focus on some very different reading highlights from the past year before presenting my to-be-read list, which I eternally hope to complete by the year’s end regardless of how faithless I was to the previous year’s list. But I digress. Let’s get back to last year’s reading adventures.
The Alternative Reading Highlights of 2018
Over the past few years, I’ve participated in both reading and book photo challenges (you can view my entries to the Reading Women Month book photo challenge and Bookriot’s #Riotgrams here). Although I’ve never per se “won” a challenge by completing all the categories, it’s fun to see what fellow book lovers share. Generally, the highlight of my reading challenges is that they inspire me to stretch outside my reading comfort zone or discover more diverse perspectives. However, this year’s Reading Women Challenge inspired me to stop procrastinating and finish the book that’s lingered the longest on my reading list. I’m pleased to announce I finally read Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller. Despite it being a more challenging read, this fascinating early feminist tract makes a strong religious argument for woman’s self-sufficiency and expanded rights. Partly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Fuller’s work in turn spurred suffragists in the United States to demand the vote.
Most Unlikely to Be Read
Book challenges influence my reading greatly, as do Twitter chat suggestions and personal recommendation. One of the more whimsical books I read this year is one I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, even had any of these sources suggested it. Though a difficult to categorize book, Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen: a Guide to Eating, Drinking and Going with Your Gut proved to an enjoyable read. Part sentimental, part hilarious, part memoir, and part cookbook, it left me bemused but feeling upbeat. While I’m not sure I’d attempt some of the recipes, I’d definitely read it again.
Most Unexpected Source of Reading Recommendations
Speaking of books I wouldn’t have selected without an outside influence, I curiously have Netflix to thank for my discovering the Phryne Fisher mystery novels by Kerry Greenwood. Halfway through the first episode, I already suspected it was based on a book (Cocaine Blues), and the credits proved me right. My thoughtful spouse picked up the first three books for me, which I then read in short order. Reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s work (roughly the same period, different country, very different detective), these flapper detective novels were a great change from stuffy male detectives. Since the television series diverged a fair bit in places from their source material, I’m glad I saw it before I read it—I happen to be one of those people who usually takes a strong dislike to films/television shows when I read the book first. Either way, I intend to check out the credits in the future, in case they point me to a good book or two.
Hopefully, you’ve found some reading inspiration here, regardless of the source. Here’s to the new year and happy reading!
2019’s Reading List
That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina Life of Pi by Yann Martel Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney Barracoon: the Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecroft Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) Claudine at School In: Colette: The Complete Claudine by Colette (Translated by Antonia White) Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawkes Pachinko by Min Jin Lee Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw) Waymaking: an Anthology of Women’s Adventure Writing, Poetry and Art (Edited by Helen Mort, Claire Carter, Heather Dawe, and Camilla Barnard)
 My review of The Backstreets of Purgatory is here now available here! (Updated: 10 March 2019.)
 Remarkably, I only missed four, one of which was a planned re-read. For the curious, these books are Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw), Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Little Women was my re-read, because I wanted to see if I still enjoyed it as an adult.
 In itself, a great way to get reading recommendations.
 These reading challenges include the Black History Month Reading Challenge (two books), Women in Translation Month (2 books during that month, 3 more later), and roughly half (around 13) of the Reading Women Challenge. I’m still working on making my reading more diverse.
 This book was a gift from my oldest brother who chose it because it reminded him of my food-based coffee table books (ie, The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s by Wendy McClure and The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks). Thanks, Jon!
Messy Middle? The Mid-Month Slump? The Ides of November? Whatever you called it, the halfway point for NaNoWriMo going into week 3 is where it gets challenging to stay the course.
When I last posted, I promised to dish on what it was like to encounter the midway point of NaNoWriMo. At the time of the post, I was nearly on target with the expected word quota, and I felt like all was going well despite the difficulties in carving out writing time every day. However, I’d been warned by my spouse about the “messy middle” or the mid-month slump, that, when it arrived, would mark the slowing of said progress—quite rightly, as it happens. Once we hit the Ides of November, the effort to stay on track or even get a bit ahead shifted into a race to catch up.
Between writing my last blog post and the onslaught of more activities, my daily word count dropped significantly, though I wrote each day. Perhaps I should have expected that several days would end up being rather unproductive when I had so little downtime. Even when the words seem to flow effortlessly, writing is mentally demanding. I felt exhausted when I contemplated what I would next write while my to-do list was competing for mental space. Since we also were traveling most weekends, I soon discovered that I’d much rather chat with my spouse than wrestle an unfriendly, new-to-me laptop. Particularly when it decided to have technical issues while said tech support was negotiating the NJ State Turnpike. Even on a train, the urge to nap instead of write was sorely tempting when I already was overtired.
There is a reason why some writers attempt to write as much as they can during their first several days of NaNoWriMo. In a sense, it acts as a form of insurance against losing their momentum at a later point, whether it’s fatigue or other unforeseen difficulties that interfere. For most people I met,1 participating in NaNoWriMo became increasingly difficult past the halfway point for various reasons that could be summarized as “life”. So, days with low word counts went from manageable to daunting for me, neatly accompanied with the worrying sensation that I was not writing my best. And the sure knowledge that 50,000 words was merely a good start for a novel.
Despite reminding myself regularly that the goal was to get a novel started at all, I knew my tendency towards completionism would rear its ugly head: I was going to make my life difficult to finish those 50,000 words by 30 November. And so I did. For the remainder of November, I wrote more than 1667 words on most days, often late at night. And, at the end of November, a full day behind my spouse, I finished.
Well, I finished 50,000 words in a month, the novel writer’s equivalent of a marathon. The draft itself still needs to be completed. And I’ll probably need to write several better drafts, for that matter. That aside, the idea that seemed like it would make a fun short story somehow stretched itself into a grander writing endeavor, and I’m looking forward to writing the rest of it (at a more reasonable pace). I don’t know if I’d attempt NaNoWriMo again or if it’s given me any great insights into writing more habitually,2 but I’m grateful that I undertook this challenge to transform this kernel of a story into an actual work in progress. It rather makes me wonder whether I should attempt a less rigorous challenge come the New Year in lieu of a resolution. Until then, I’m going to enjoy the break from my novel and the holidays!
I attended my local region’s after party, which proved to be quite enjoyable. And despite writing drastically different novels, we all seemed to have the same sort of repetitive stress injury from striking the space key. What a coincidence. ↩
Since I committed to participating in #NaNoWriMo 2018 (and potentially talked others into doing so as well), I’ve had no choice but to sit myself down and get writing.
Since I committed to participating in #NaNoWriMo 2018 (and potentially talked others into doing so as well), I’ve had no choice but to sit myself down and get writing. Signing up on the NaNoWriMo web site, finding writing buddies, and announcing one’s intentions on social media near-legally obliges one to take part, regardless of how many demands already exist on one’s time. But when is there ever a good time to squeeze more of any activity into any schedule? If I want to prioritize my writing more—specifically, time spent writing fiction—I need to find opportunities to write more. What better way to do so than taking on such a demanding schedule for a month? I imagine finding writing time will seem much easier after NaNoWriMo. So, with some trepidation, I began to write this November. For your amusement, I kept a few notes on my first few days to let you know how it went.
Prologue: 31 October, Halloween
I’ve managed, overnight it seems, to irritate several muscle groups in my back, which does not bode well for spending long periods sitting in my office chair as I type what I hope will morph into a novel. I spend the day engaged in Halloween events (ie, the school parade and classroom party). Following an appointment after school and an early dinner, my son and spouse head off to trick-or-treat, while I vainly keep an eye on our door in the unlikely event the doorbell rings.1 After they return and my son heads to bed, I decline my spouse’s suggestion that we start writing at 12 AM, knowing that I’m already overtired from Halloween activities and sorting out the upcoming birthday details that were my responsibility. Tomorrow afternoon will have to be my starting point. My spouse, determined to write as much as possible during the first week to build up a surplus should he miss a day, decides to start at midnight anyway. Overachiever.
Highlights: We got one trick-or-treater this year!
Word count: No need to worry about that yet.
Day 1: NaNoWriMo Begins
Despite (or possibly because of) a successful Halloween haul, I now have an overexcited nearly 9-year-old child to ship off to school. Today, I join him there, since I volunteer at the school library on Thursday mornings. Which means I won’t be doing any writing until after 12 PM, when I’m done with my shift. On returning home, I field several phone calls related to said child’s upcoming birthday party that results in making post-party dinner plans on the fly. Once I’m finished, I wolf down my late lunch in time to fetch child from school. I attempt to combine writing with monitoring his homework session and end up failing at the former, once I manage to dump roughly 8 oz. (~237 mL) of water into an open desk drawer.2 After dinner and bedtime (9 PM), I race to my now drier desk and make my second start at writing. It’s probably the worst prose I’ve written in ages. And yes, my back ends up hurting more than it did before I started. After indulging in some speculation regarding how our household will manage with both adults participating in NaNoWriMo, I call it a night.
Highlights: horrific prose, dumping water in my desk drawer. Oh, and back pain.
Word count: 1730
Day 2: Finances and Broken (Insincere) Resolutions
It’s Friday morning, and I need to sort out the finances (it’s payday). I also get phone calls at odd intervals about various things I need to address, ranging from flight details for my brother to confirming various appointments. It ends up being one of those days where I spend time running errands and feeling as though I accomplished little. Unexpectedly, my parents decide to visit. They were in the area,3 so they dropped off their updated address book so that I can print out labels for their Christmas cards That wasn’t on my agenda but it is now. After the youngster’s bedtime, I power through roughly 1700 words as midnight approaches again. Being a night owl, I don’t mind the late-night writing jams. It’s the 7 AM wake-up call that I find difficult. Nonetheless, I feel better about what I’ve written today, particularly since I also fixed up a few areas of the previous day’s poor writing. So much for not editing until later, right?
Highlights: Surprise visits, lessening back pain, and somewhat better writing. Honestly, though, I was going to edit as I write.
Word count: 1771
Day 3: Birthday Party
Today, I anticipate writing nothing. Between my brother’s imminent arrival from Texas and readying ourselves for the party (we didn’t put together the treat bags until that morning), I assume correctly that I will have enough to keep me busy. The party proves to be quite successful. Afterwards, we eat dinner at a local restaurant—no cooking or dinner dishes for us! My expectations of writing nothing is met, as I start falling asleep by 10 pm. On the bright side, my back pain seems to be resolving and I fall asleep at a reasonable time. Although my spouse is an early bird, he chooses to stay up late once more so that he can meet his daily word count. Apparently, he’s worried about losing steam halfway through NaNoWriMo and suffering from the“Muddy Mid-Month”. It seems that the Ides of November (that’s a thing, right?) are known for slowing one’s writing. I rechristen it the Mid-Month Slump, but he’s not into it. Either way, I’m in bed before midnight.
Highlights: Party is successful, so now I only need to get through the child’s actual birthday in a few days. Writing does not happen.
Word count: 0
Day 4: Lazy Sunday
Daylight savings time means I slept (or at least was in bed) for roughly nine hours, which feels like a victory after a long day of socializing. We enjoy a lazy morning with my brother before taking him to the airport. During the morning, my spouse’s distressing plotter tendencies manifest further, as he’s created something like a personal Wikipedia for his story world that includes the maps he created for his world prior to November 1st. I spend the afternoon sorting out laundry and other household chores, while the spouse goes grocery shopping. We both settle down to more writing after the kid goes to bed.
Highlights: Family time and a clean(er) house.
Word count: 1671
Day 5: Birthdays Redux
After I fall asleep near midnight on the 4th, I awaken a few hours later. Not feeling sleepy, I decide to read a few chapters of The Backstreets of Purgatory. Perhaps this is not the best choice, as I’m approaching the ending and the novel is clearly ratcheting the tension up towards some big finish. Of course, I can’t put it down, and I end up staying up far later than I planned—and it’s completely worth the sleep deprivation combined with a rambunctious birthday boy. At breakfast, I insist that my spouse must read this book, too. Despite the rain and the ongoing birthday fun, I get my son to school on time and dry, with birthday treats for his class in tow.
Mondays, as a rule, tend to be the most difficult for writing. Among other things, there are after school activities and appointments. If I can snatch moment, I write little notes about my WIP or current blog. Today, I jot down some notes about what I think needs to be added to make my WIP more complete. At present, my scene lacks description that would be helpful for immersing the readers into the situations and visualizing the characters. With that completed, the youngster is retrieved from school. We get several calls from well-wishers, and he open his presents from us. In the evening, after sending the tired birthday tyke to bed, I do the bulk of my writing for the day.
Highlights: Birthday presents and books, plus casual plotting on the fly.
Word count: 1673
Day 6: Election Day
Tuesday is the mid-term elections. Since school is closed, we’re planning to visit a museum or two in Philadelphia in the afternoon. For the morning, though, we’re meeting up my parents at a book store, where they’ll be sending the kiddo off on a birthday book buying spree. Despite the torrential downpours, we return home with a stack of books and I vote before we get to Philly. After a few hours marveling at dinosaurs and brains, we return home, and I start writing earlier this evening. Even better? I hit a good stop pointing well before midnight!
Highlights: Dinosaurs, the human brain, and more books. Steady writing progress.
Word count: 1813
Day 7: Wednesday Walks
After dropping the kiddo off at school, I manage to take a walk around my neighborhood, which is glorious in its fall colors. Feeling refreshed, I spend some time thinking about where my book is headed as I tidy up the dishes. So far, there’s a lot of conversations and a few arguments; I suspect that most of it will end up cut when I add more action. For now, it’s helping me establish the voices of some of the characters, their relationships, and background. I also come up with surnames and, in a few cases, first names for parents/grandparents. I’m committing to setting the timeline to Philadelphia and its suburbs in the early 2000s, which means I’m going to need to do some research at a later point to make sure my writing matches the reality for that times (namely, salaries and rent from that era). I even manage to do some writing before school pick up.
After an afternoon appointment, it’s a long slog through homework time as there is a time-consuming assignment that requires more than the usual parental oversight and support. Exhausted, I send my child to bed (late) and take a half-hour nap before writing. Here’s to exceeding that word count before midnight!
Highlights: Enjoying a sunny afternoon and meeting writing goals!
Word count: 1846
And there you have it. Word counts were (mostly) met! Now, all I have to do is catch up a bit on both sleep and the word quota for that one day. And do it every day until November ends. No problem, right? In my text post, I’ll pop in to discuss making it to the midway point and beyond.
Over the years, we’ve realized that trick-or-treaters skip our street for a reason. Where our street joins the main road, there is a poorly lit stand of mature trees on one side that extends to a curve in the road where you can just see the first house but none of the others. On the opposite side of the street, there is a large property on the corner with a deep backyard lined with more tall, mature trees. From the street, it once again looks like there’s only the corner house followed by a dark stand of trees. Can’t imagine why the kids don’t want to go past, dark spooky trees to see if we’ve got candy! ↩
I have a history of watering my office. Having once dumped a water bottle on my laptop whilst completing a freelance gig, I subsequently moved all beverages in my drawer. Since then, I’ve had no problems—until I bought a personal humidifier. It, regrettably, is not clumsy proof. Despite my best efforts to secure it, it’s tipped over in my drawer twice now. I’m beginning to think the universe wants me to dehydrate. ↩
Since my parents live an hour’s drive away, I never expect them to drop by house without warning. Luckily for them, I was home. ↩
My spouse has long thought I should give this writing event a whirl. I, on the other hand, am less enthused. And not just in the usual introvert-not-interested-in-joining-groups way.
As you may know already, NaNoWriMo challenges it participants to start writing a novel over the course of a month. The goal, of course, isn’t to produce a polished novel, but a first draft—or at least 50,000 words into that draft. Therefore, writers should aim to write at least 1667 words every day of November. While approximately 2000 words seems a reasonable amount to write in a day, I worry about whether I can do so every day.2 Like most writers I know, I squeeze my writing in whenever I can. Committing to a daily word count in practice sounds fine but sustaining that effort for weeks despite other obligations seems intimidating. As far as months to devote oneself to writing go, November is hardly ideal for me.3 But my ability to maintain this writing pace aside, I’m more concerned about, well, writing a novel. Until now, I’ve only written short stories and poetry. While I think my current story is a much longer one, I’m worried that I might not have enough material for a novel.
Despite my concerns, however, I am taking the NaNoWriMo plunge this year. Nothing, I find, motivates writing more than a deadline. As a potential side benefit, I’m hoping that the pressure to meet this goal will inspire me to discover opportunities for writing alongside other commitments. I wouldn’t mind walking away from NaNoWriMo with a better writing schedule. With my writing buddies to cheer me along this month (thereby keeping me accountable), I think I’ll be more likely to keep at the keyboard. But the final push for committing to NaNoWriMo, however, stemmed from my decision to prioritize my writing more and worry less about whether it fit a certain category. Regardless of my story’s final word count, I’m just going to write it. If it proves to be much shorter than I hoped, I’ll start another one. And, as I’ve been delighted to learn, many others look at NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to work on writing short fiction or poetry, while others use this time to edit their work. Although it may not be the official way to participate in this event, it achieves a larger objective: to get out there and get writing. And that is certainly a goal worth accomplishing.
Good luck, fellow Wrimos!
National Novel Writing Month, for anyone who doesn’t know. ↩
My favorite advice for keeping pace with the NaNoWriMo writing goals involves the JUST WRITE mantra, meaning that one should skip both revising and editing, with it being suggested that one should ignore both spelling and grammar errors as well as typos. Ignoring the latter alone would make my draft illegible. (Never mind what the professional editor in me thinks about leaving even glaring errors unchallenged.) ↩
Every Saturday (and one Sunday) is already booked. In addition to two family birthdays (one of which is mine) and American Thanksgiving, I also will be attending a few family events that involve travel. ↩
“But Macabéa in general didn’t worry about her own future: having a future was a luxury.”
Although Clarice Lispector’s final novel, The Hour of the Star (translated by Benjamin Moser), is a slim volume, no less than the creation of the cosmos serves as its opening. Author Rodrigo S. M. (the book’s narrator), unable to decide where he should begin recounting the tragic tale of his young character, Macabéa, chooses prehistory. It’s all the more a remarkable place to start, given that the narrator emphasizes how insignifcant Macabéa is: she could be readily replaced by any other girl like her. But in Lispector’s contemplative work, this signals the novel’s philosophical concerns with poverty, identity, and existence itself. Because if Macabéa is practically interchangeable with countless other poor, northeastern girls of Brazil, she also symbolizes them and becomes something akin to an archetype whose ancient roots are difficult to pinpoint. Rodrigo seems to ask: Have girls like her existed since life has?
“Make no mistake, I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.”
From this perspective, it’s little wonder that Rodrigo suffers as he writes about Macabéa’s humble life. Lispector’s dichotomous characters illustrate both the difficulty in truly understanding another’s existence and with communication.1 In many ways her opposite (well-educated, clearly older, and affluent), the narrator anxiously strives to pare down his linguistic excesses, because they don’t suit Macabéa’s circumstances. Yet, Rodrigo often fails to retain this simplicity as he expounds on his writing process or as he struggles to explain Macabéa’s “delicate and vague existence”. His attempt to bring himself closer to the virginal Macabéa’s level—by swearing off sex and sports—is undermined as he dines on fruit and sips on chilled wine, luxuries unavailable to her. Here, Lispector entertains the possibilities of empathy while delineating its boundaries. Though pained by his efforts to relate Macabéa’s tale, Rodrigo acknowledges that he writes because he “has questions and no answers”. Macabéa, in contrast, questions nothing and is happy simply because she believes, though not in any specific deity, person, or thing. Rodgrigo’s attempts to define this young woman and her elusive grace seems only to cause him to question himself instead (“Am I a monster?”).2
“But Macabéa in general didn’t worry about her own future: having a future was a luxury.”
As the unlovely Macabéa’s tale finally takes shape, her existence proves to be as undernourished as her body is: orphaned as a child and suffering from rickets, raised by an indifferent aunt, and transplanted from her rural town to Rio de Janeiro, where her life (once her aunt dies) is a lonely one. This young lady’s life is also circumscribed by its material lack. Possessing only three years of education, listening to the radio is a source of unexpected beauty (when she first hears opera) and confusion (when radio hosts discuss unfamilar words/concepts such as “culture”). Lispector’s point that she resembles thousands of girls like her, underscored by Rodrigo’s ineffective guilt that he should do something for this fictional girl, makes a grim point about the haves and have nots.3 Unfortunately for Macabéa, no forthcoming rescue or deeper connection forged with another occurs. Although she briefly attracts the attentions of Olímpico (another northeasterner), he leaves her for her more attractive coworker, Glória. Glória’s guilt prompts her to help Macabéa in some way, but this assistance unintentionally imperils Macabéa. Without revealing too many details, Macabea’s life explodes into that of a “thousand-pointed star” as she departs it, leaving behind Rodrigo—an author powerless to save her—attempting to divert himself from thinking about his own eventual demise.
The Hour of the Star recalls a certain adage about judging books by their appearance. As someone new to Lispector’s work,4 I wasn’t sure what to expect from such a slim book (under 80 pages), but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this serious meditation on life, death, poverty, writing, etc., complicating a seemingly simple story. The Hour of the Star is a must for a thinking readers, as it gives its audience much to mull over long after its cover is closed.
In Macabéa’s case, she often is misunderstood or unheard even when speaking quite clearly (eg, “As for the future.”). Also of interest, Rodrigo reveals here that he lived in the northeast as a boy. ↩
Lispector can be somewhat playful in considering identity. Rodrigo, in observing that no one would miss a poor girl like Macabéa, realizes he, too, could be replaced—but only by a man, since a woman “would make it all weepy and maudlin”. Certainly, it’s an amusing idea in an unsentimental novel written by a woman, one that also permits Lispector to draw a line between herself and Rodrigo and subtly indicate that, though they’re both from the northeast, they are not one and the same. ↩
In keeping with Lispector’s desire for empathy (whatever its limits may be), Rodrigo encourages wealthy and middle readers to step outside themselves and attempt to experience her life. He assumes poor readers will need not do so. ↩
Only an inciting incident can and should transform the protagonist’s life.
For me, storytelling fundamentally begins with an interruption. At one point in a story, something occurs to interrupt the flow of the main character’s everyday life. This moment is often described as the inciting incident or inciting event of the story. The inciting incident represents a decision, action, or event that introduces the story’s main problem/conflict, thus triggering the rising action of the story. When it comes to writing a story’s inciting event, however, the process isn’t always as straightforward as its definition suggests. Whether a writer diligently plots their story before writing or discovers it as they write,1 creating an interesting inciting incident and inserting it at the right moment can be difficult. Since stories hinge upon their conflict, it’s critical that writers understand how the inciting incident operates in stories (for my purposes, fiction). To this end, I’m going to review some of the general guidelines for writing an inciting incident (with examples of what they look like in practice) as well point out a few tips to identifying whether a story’s inciting incident works well.
Placement: In the Beginning…Somewhere
When formulating a short story or novel’s inciting incident, there are two guiding principles that should be kept in mind. The first is that the inciting incident must occur somewhere in the story’s opening. This point is nonnegotiable. If the inciting incident doesn’t occur in the early portion of the story, there isn’t a conflict to generate the rest of the story. The actual placement, however, is debatable. Some advice places the inciting event roughly halfway between the narrative hook and its first plot point (around the 12% mark of the story). While the placement proffered here seems about right (particularly for writers using a three-act structure to plot their tale), there are stories where the inciting event occurs close to the story’s first plot point (the end of the story’s open) or even much earlier. An excellent example of the latter case is the first lines from Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein):
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced he wanted to leave me….Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.”
Here, Ferrante uses Mario’s desertion as both her novel’s inciting event and narrative hook.2 While this instance demonstrates how writers can be flexible about where they place the inciting incident in the novel’s opening act, most stories will require some exposition to explain why this inciting incident creates conflict for the main character. For example, the narrative hook in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”) appears as the first line of the novel, whereas the inciting event (Maxim de Winter’s rather rushed and unromantic marriage proposal) occurs in chapter 6. This pacing makes sense, partly because the narrator needs to shift from present to past (most of the novel is a flashback) and partly because the characters need to meet and become acquainted before an engagement can occur.
Impact: Reacting to Life-Altering Change
The second general principle of the inciting incident involves its impact on the main character/protagonist. As I noted above, stories begin with interruption but not just any interruption will do. The inciting incident must have a significant impact on the protagonist’s life, one that forces them to react (in some cases, eventually react when the stakes are raised) to their new circumstances.3 In Days of Abandonment, Mario’s decision to end his marriage with Olga has obvious, life-altering consequences for her. In addition to dealing with this unexpected and unexplained dissolution of her relationship, Olga is also left to care for the couple’s children and home on her own. She essentially transforms from stay-at-home parent and wife of 15 years to single mother. Regardless of how she chooses to react to this situation (in the novel, initially with disbelief), her life is now headed in a new, uncertain direction.
Tips for Assessing Inciting Incidents
Identifying an inciting incident in a published work is one thing. Creating an effective one in our own work, however, is a different matter. Although I can’t claim to have an exhaustive list of strategies that provides specific suggestions for creating the perfect inciting incident (placement of this moment, for example, depends on the story), asking these questions while plotting/writing a tale can help determine whether its inciting incident hits the mark.4
Is my inciting incident in the story’s opening?
Does the inciting incident divide the story into before (backstory) and after?
How does the inciting incident transform the protagonist’s life?
While the first of these questions is more of a checklist item, the others give some guidance on how to interrogate a work-in-progress’s inciting incident. Since one of the hallmarks of the inciting incident is that it cleaves the story into before (backstory) and after (events that occur in response to the inciting incident), we should be able to distinguish them. And the story should be divisible, as the last question indicates, because the inciting incident upsets the protagonist’s status quo.
Backstory events are, of course, necessary for developing the story (the narrator and Maxim de Winter from Rebecca clearly wouldn’t have wed without having first met in Monte Carlo), but they materially change little for the protagonist (following this first encounter, the pair part and go about their usual business). Similarly, the inciting event causes the remaining events in the story (the narrator and Maxim wed but only because he first proposes). Only an inciting incident can and should transform the protagonist’s life.5 If it’s unclear where the division between before and after occurs in a story, the inciting incident is likely weak or absent. When a work-in-progress’s inciting incident fails to alter the main character’s life in some meaningful way (sadly, a problem I discovered in a short story I’m revising), then that incident needs revision. Alternatively, if there are two or more events that could alter the status quo for the protagonist, then the writer needs to choose which option best suits the story and revise accordingly.
When working with fictional stories, there are numerous moving parts to get in order to before a story is sound. Getting a story underway is challenging though necessary, as the opening gets the readers invested in the tale. And the inciting incident is critical for kicking off conflict in a story. With a firm grasp on how the inciting incident works and a few tactics for detecting whether these story elements work or become wayward, writers should find it easier to get their stories on course.
On occasion, online writing advice conflates the narrative hook with the inciting incident, which is perhaps understandable since both occur early in the story and need to be compelling. And, as the Ferrante’s novel shows, they can be one and the same. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the narrative hook presents an intriguing scenario that baits the reader into reading further by making them wonder what occurs next; inclusion of the story’s inciting incident is optional but not required. ↩
Reaction seems to be the main character/protagonist’s fate when it comes to the inciting incident, a point discussed well here. ↩
This method works also well for identifying an inciting incident in other writers’ works, too. ↩
Maxim’s hasty proposal changes the narrator from a lady’s companion to the fiancée of a wealthy man (placing her on the same level as Rebecca, his deceased first wife). Given that Maxim neglects to declare his love for the narrator when he proposes, her envy of Rebecca (she wishes she could have the intimacies she assumes Maxim’s first wife share with him but believes a relationship with him is impossible) to jealousy, since she fears that he only wishes to wed her so that he’s not alone with the grief for his first wife. ↩
And the reason I purchased this book had less to with it being a well-regarded translated novel and more to do with it being a book everyone seemed to love…that just happened to be translated from another language.
I think the first translated book I consciously chose to buy, a book I knew beforehand was translated, was Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (translated by Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen). It was by no means the first text (either prose or poetry) I’d read in translation, of course. As a young child, I read Pippi Longstocking, likely unaware that Astrid Lindgren wrote it in Swedish.1 As a tween (or thereabouts), I understood the classic tales I read in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology were written in Greek or Latin originally, though I didn’t appreciate what translation entailed. Through my studies, my awareness of translated works grew and I gained insight into how translation might affect a text’s meaning and the reliability of interpreting it.2 And of course, that also meant I bought many translated works as a student. What differentiated Esquivel’s novel from these other works, however, was that it was (then) a contemporary novel I selected for leisure reading. It had not been assigned reading, as both Wislawa Symborzka’s poems and a heavily abridged version of Les Misérables initially had been. It was not yet a “classic” work that significantly influenced/shaped literature or even a book that a sibling discarded.3 And the reason I purchased this book had less to with it being a well-regarded translated novel and more to do with it being a book everyone seemed to love…that just happened to be translated from another language. It’s this latter distinction that strikes me as important.
I’ve made a point to include translated novels in my reading recently, because (as I observed last year) I realized that I typically overlooked such books in the past. Expanding my reading horizons remains important to me, but I’d be mistaken in not acknowledging that most translated novels generally tend to be well written. For publishers to undertake the risk associated with printing a translated novel, that novel must achieve a certain level of acclaim or popularity for people to champion its translation. My experience of attending a twitter chat focused on reading women in translation was enlightening: so many people passionately recommended novels they’d read, attesting to how great, insightful, or thought provoking these books were.4 And I think it’s this promise of remarkable writing that compelled me to read more women’s writing in translation. Two (very different) favorites emerged from those recommendations: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith) and Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Megan Backus). While I can’t claim to deeply love every translated work I’ve read since (personal tastes vary, after all), I generally found reading them all rewarding.
But there is one remaining thought that haunts me when I consider reading women in translation, works that one day may be hailed as classics. As I’ve selected books to read or discuss during Women in Translation Month, I found myself thinking about what my intellectual life would be without the many translated works I’ve read. Losing The Odyssey alone would leave a huge literary crater: Neither The Aeneid nor The Penelopiad would exist without it. Translated works shape how we think and how we in turn write just as much as works written in our native language(s) do. I cannot help but wonder what deeper insights we might be missing when we bypass these works. And given how infrequently women’s writing is translated, I suspect that difference here could be significant. It’s among the reasons I intend to continue reading women in translation year-round as well as rate, recommend, and (when I can) review translated works written by women so that I can help publishers and fellow readers see what they’re missing. And the more often we all do so, the more available these excellent works will become to everyone.
At that rather young age, I treated title pages, the locations where both authors and translators get mentioned, as filler to be skipped past quickly. ↩
One of the advantages of older siblings is that their discarded books become your books years before anyone would think to hand you a copy. Mythology was over my head in some places, but I love and appreciate it more and more every time I read it. ↩
In this case, the 2016 Women Writers Network twitter chat for #witmonth. ↩