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. ↩
Thinking I have hours stretching before me, I’ll occupy myself otherwise only to discover how little time I left myself for writing.
Summer starts for me mid-June, when my child’s school year ends and the promise of long days beckons. We spend more time on adventures and work on projects instead of rushing to school and completing homework.1 There are trips to the pool and beach, with an occasional pajama day celebrated. For us, summertime always seems to be a bit more. More social invites, ranging from weddings (the bride was lovely, of course) to vacations. Several family and friend birthdays are also sprinkled through the summer, providing yet another reason to get together at a barbecue and at poolside.
But all this more does tend to mean we seem to spend much of our time on the go (particularly weekends), punctuated with the rare, lazy pj day that has a way disappearing with little accomplished. As for those pool and beach days, they also tend to consume an entire day, leaving one exhausted and, perhaps, a bit sunburned). Throw in the odd head cold/seasonal allergies, and it seems that summer evaporates with very little writing done. Whatever happened to summer’s more-ishness?
Summer did. Distractions abound through the year, but beautiful days coupled with the prospect of visiting friends, summer activities such as sports and music lessons,2 as well as road trips makes it easier to slip away from a keyboard. There is also the slipperiness of time itself. Freedom from a fixed schedule, while it promises more opportunity to play as well as to write, curiously unmoors my sense of passing time. Thinking I have hours stretching before me, I’ll occupy myself otherwise only to discover how little time I left myself for writing. Rather unfairly, having more unscheduled time seems to leave more pages blank than when I barely have a moment between activities.
I suppose there’s nothing like the pressure of deadlines and multiple tasks looming to motivate one’s writing. There’s something unpalatable, however, about the notion that one could only really write under some (but not too much) pressure. Surely, one can relax a bit and still write? After, some many say that writers should be in the habit of writing. Perhaps, it’s habit that helps us overcome distraction, lacking motivation, and the notion of “I’ll do it in a bit”. What this summer might need (however close its end may be) is a writing schedule.
Once I get back from my weekend at the shore.
Homework becomes a group effort, when you’re obliged to check it. ↩
I’m pleased to announce that my child now plays the trumpet instead of the recorder. My ears are endlessly relieved—and our canine guests are marginally less dismayed. (Recorder music strikes terror in the heart of arthritic terriers, causing them to—unprecedentedly—leap, run, and hide.) ↩
Travel acts as an agent of change, relocating characters and propelling them into new situations.
If reading is akin to journeying into the perspectives of others, then it’s little wonder that some of those vantages will include actual voyages. Travel1 in writing fascinates, because of its seemingly endless vistas, encounters with fascinating folk, and potential for adventure, adversity, and the unexpected. For fiction writing (our focus here), only the writer’s imagination serves as the limit: travel can acquire fantastic elements (ie, time travel, interstellar exploration) or mirror the more mundane to remarkable expeditions currently within the realm of possibility. However, travel’s role in fiction isn’t limited to bringing characters in contact with new places, people, and experiences. Travel also quietly influences some of the less overt areas of storytelling. Here’s three ways in which travel more subtly shapes a story.
Hooked on Travel
Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse opens with the Ramsay family discussing a possible expedition to said lighthouse, the train in “The Story-Teller” by Saki (more formally, H. H. Munro) is already en route to its next destination as the story of a bachelor and three bored children starts, and Yosiko Uchida’s “Tears of Autumn” introduces us to Hana Omiya as her long trip across the sea concludes. Countless stories ranging from the classics (The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer) to children’s literature (The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett) mention travel in their story hooks for a good reason: travel intrigues readers, because it evokes notions of discovery, exploration, and escape. When people travel, they alter their routine, and readers become curious as to why. Consider Uchida’s character, Hana, who watches the American coastline approach in the beginning of “Tears of Autumn”. Whether readers accurately assume that she’s an immigrant or guess that she’s a visitor, they likely will ask why she chose to venture so far from home, where she is headed, and what she expects to do when she arrives. And that’s what hooks are meant to do: present scenarios that intrigue readers and leave them with questions that will motivate them to read more.
In the Mood to Meander
Travel’s most discernible effect on storytelling occurs in the setting. Setting, of course, depicts where the story occurs, and travel obviously allows writers to use multiple settings.2 As Courtney’s Carpenter’s article reminds us, setting also conveys critical background information about (to name a few) a story’s timeline, its climate, and, importantly, its mood. Mood is the oddball of setting. While most other features of setting provide concrete details that establish an impression of a specific place and time, the mood instead evokes feelings about that place within the reader. Fortunately, travel creates natural opportunities3 for writers to describe their setting and its associated mood as characters survey their surroundings. In “Tears of Autumn”, Uchida describes Hana arriving on a “small ship that shuddered toward America in a turbulent November sea. She shivered as she pulled the folds of her silk kimono close to her throat and tightened the wool shawl about her shoulders….” In addition to leaving clues that suggest Hana’s homeland (Japan), her approximate location (ship approaching west coast of North America), the weather, and an idea of when she sailed (probably before the 1940s4), this excerpt gives readers a feel for this place. Uchida’s wording here—“turbulent…sea” and the small boat’s shudder echoed by Hana’s shivers—suggests a cold, unsettled environment. The combination hints at apprehension, thus neatly prefiguring Hana’s worries about her new homeland and husband. Whether the mood concurs with the viewpoint character’s feelings (as occurs here) or counters it, travel lets writers move their characters while setting up the story’s emotional undertones, thus giving readers a sense of the story’s upcoming conflicts.
Motivation: The Why Behind the Wander
Travel acts as an agent of change, relocating characters and propelling them into new situations. Behind these journeys, however, exists some goal or desire. Falling under the umbrella of character motivation, such goals provide rationale that explains why characters exit their familiar environs. Within this context, the underlying motives for travel can profoundly affect the story regardless of whether (a) travel is central to the narrative and (b) is the character’s primary motivation/goal in the story. And fictional characters, much like real people, roam for myriad reasons. While such motivations can be straightforward, some tales obscure character’s true motives. In Rebecca, author Daphne du Maurier introduces Max de Winter and the narrator, the future Mrs. de Winter, while they’re traveling. The narrator’s reason for being in Monte Carlo is transparent: she works as a paid companion. However, most people assume that Max travels to distance himself from his grief, an assumption that appears to be confirmed when states he want to forget his past. Although it’s true he wants to escape his memories, it has nothing to do with sorrow.5 Lacking this insight, the narrator misconstrues Max’s behavior throughout the novel and becomes convinced he wed her solely to avoid being alone.
Neither misdirection nor complication, however, are uncommon when dealing with characters’ motivation. Writers frequently compel their characters to undertake journeys for several, nuanced, or even complex reasons. Hana Omika’s ostensible reason for sailing to the United States is to get married. Of course, one needn’t cross an ocean to wed. Clearly, this independent-minded young woman seeks more than matrimony, namely greater freedom than her family and village would otherwise allow had she remained in Japan. Finally, it’s important to remember that, since travel can be transformative, character motivation may alter in response to events occurring on a trip. This effect is most clearly observed when adventures take disastrous turns. In such tales, characters’ former reasons for travel are swept away as their goal becomes survival (eg, the shipwreck in Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch). Even in less dramatic instances (eg, when Macon Leary’s bad back inadvertently leads to him confronting his lifelong inaction in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist), the results are the same: the character’s desires change. No matter where the will to wander leads characters or how circumstances change its direction, characters reasons for setting forth helps shape how the story’s conflicts and plot unfold.
Travel allows writers a broader landscape in which they set their characters afield. But in the subtler aspects of storytelling, they also can incorporate details that captures readers’ interest, direct their feelings, or show them the desires that launches these journeys. As these example show, stories gain depth and direction when writers focus their efforts on both evident and understated features of their travel stories.
While we tend to think of travel in terms of vacations, travel technically encompasses many types of journeys of varying lengths and import. Travelers can be sailors, refugees, holiday makers, pilgrims, explorers, commuters, soldiers, pilots/air stewards, business people, etc. ↩
In fairness, these locations may only be mentioned in passing or implied (in the sense that a traveler had to come from somewhere). ↩
Traveling excels at making people observe the surrounding when they are on the move or when they arrive somewhere. In fiction, therefore, nothing seems more natural than when a narrator or a viewpoint character takes a moment to comment on the scenery as they pass by. ↩
Since Hana arrives by boat, there’s a strong likelihood her flight occurred before the 1960s when flying started to become more accessible. Her travel, however, likely occurred before the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II (1941). As it happens, the United States and Canada both severely limited Japanese immigrants in 1907/8 under the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Japan. In the United States, “picture brides” such as Hana were permitted to immigrate up to 1924, after which all Japanese immigration was banned until 1965. ↩
Max likely wants to escape a bit more than his bad memories. Since most believe he and Rebecca were happily wed, he has no reason to dispel the notion that he mourns her. He’s the sort who would choose to keep his marital distress private in any case, but he certainly has additional cause to maintain appearances. ↩
As Carson readily points out, most pesticides and herbicides do not solely target the intended pest but harm all life in the area.
Without fail, each Earth Day brings mention of Rachel Carson’s most famous work of nonfiction, Silent Spring1—a book renowned for its role in forwarding the modern environmental preservation/conservation movements. Although published more than 50 years ago, this book, meant to raise awareness about the dangers of pesticides and herbicides commonly used in the early 1960s, continues to resonate with readers today. There is good reason for this continued interest. While one might reasonably expect a book discussing such a serious topic to be a dry but dire treatise, Carson surprises with her eloquence, her clear but never tiresome description of scientific knowledge, and her passionate reproofs of shortsighted policies.2 And while our worries for this world may have changed (and indeed may have worsened), many of her concerns remain relevant.
Water must also be thought of in terms of the chains of life it supports— from the small-as-dust green cells of the drifting plant plankton, through the minute water fleas to the fishes that strain plankton from the water and are in turn eaten by other fishes or by birds, mink, raccoons— in an endless cyclic transfer of materials from life to life.
To discuss impact of pesticide and herbicide usage, Carson needed to dispel the notion that such chemicals found in household products and applied to lawns, gardens, fields, and forest were “safe”, an impression conveyed by the manufacturers and government agencies alike. Carson, therefore, had to educate her audience about how ecosystems function, how chemicals agents operate and spread through various environments into others, and how exposed species (both human and non-human) were affected. She happened to be ideally suited for this task. Science and writing were Carson’s twin passions, and she utilized both professionally at US Bureau of Fisheries (later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service) and when writing for the Baltimore Sun. She eventually transitioned to writing about science full time, publishing articles in the Atlantic and The New Yorker as well as bestselling nonfiction books about maritime species and environments. With this experience, she painstakingly (but never condescendingly) translated the technical scientific data underwriting her contentions into the crisp prose seen in Silent Spring.1, 3, 4 Indeed, one of the achievements of Silent Spring is that it serves as an excellent layperson’s primer for environmental studies.
How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?
The picture Carson paints, beginning with the imaginative exercise of small town suffering from an ecological devastation to the actual places suffering devastating drops in beneficial insects such as wild pollinators,5 bird, fish, and other animal populations—not to mention pet and human life—is a disturbing one. As Carson readily points out, most pesticides and herbicides do not solely target the intended pest but harm all life in the area. Pesticides either infiltrate ecosystem food chains and the surrounding soil and waterways, indirectly poisoning or killing other living beings. These chemicals, shown to persist long after application, continue to do damage as they chemically alter and/or combine with other pesticides used, potentially magnifying their destructive capacity. And the damage continues into the next generation, as reduced reproductive capacity is also seen among exposed creatures.
While this may seem like a regrettable necessity to protect crops or to decide between protecting trees or birds (to use her example), Carson reveals that the benefits of pesticides are remarkably short lived as they require repeats applications, often with increasingly deadlier pesticides since the surviving pest insects are immune to previously applied pesticides. Instead of eliminating pests, a pesticide-resistant species is bred. To further illustrate the futility of this exercise, Carson describes several, more effective methods for controlling pest species (both plant and insect), among them employing less broadly toxic and safer pesticides (eg, pyrethrin), using appropriate fungicides, selective (versus blanket) spraying, introducing predator species, and increasing biodiversity; she also points to promising approaches in development. Not content to count the loss in terms of life and beauty, Carson also points out the dramatic costs involved with using chemical versus the usually less expensive, more successful alternatives she suggested. She is also quick to add another economic cost associated with destroying natural habitats: tourism is negatively affected by blighted vegetation and dying birds and fish.
The key to a healthy plant or animal community lies in what the British ecologist Charles Elton calls “the conservation of variety.” What is happening now is in large part a result of the biological unsophistication of past generations. Even a generation ago no one knew that to fill large areas with a single species of tree was to invite disaster. And so whole towns lined their streets and dotted their parks with elms, and today the elms die and so do the birds.
Lyrical Writer, Passionate Defender of Nature
Although Carson’s book focuses heavily on the damage wrought by indiscriminate pesticide and herbicide usage, readers can readily discover passages describing the beauty of the natural world she loved throughout her text. Her imaginary small town that “lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields” evokes numerous rural places found throughout the United States (Carson 1). Her description of the western grebe is similarly vivid:
the western grebe…is a bird of spectacular appearance and beguiling habits, building its floating nests in shallow lakes of western United States and Canada. It is called the “swan grebe” with reason, for it glides with scarcely a ripple across the lake surface, the body riding low, white neck and shining black head held high. The newly hatched chick is clothed in soft gray down; in only a few hours it takes to the water and rides on the back of the father or mother, nestled under the parental wing coverts (Carson 47).
Carson’s compelling imagery enchants, just as the juxtaposition of dead animals (the western grebe were decimated by DDD [a chemical cousin of DDT] in the 1950s) and wasted swaths of vegetation shock. When we witness this beauty and contrast it with the results of indiscriminate pesticide and herbicide use—agents that often cause much harm with few results—it’s easy to understand why Carson felt compelled to speak for the wild places and their inhabitants.6
The Continuing Call
As biographer Linda Lear notes, “Silent Spring compels each generation to reevaluate its relationship to the natural world.”3 It also reminds us that we are very much part of that natural world, which means the decisions we make for nature our ones we make for ourselves and future generations. It’s difficult to read Carson’s words and disregard the potential for harm we may do, should we not heed her call.
I used this copy of Silent Spring as my primary resource: Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Kindle ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. ↩↩
At points, such reproofs are savage. She purposefully defines eradication to make the point that a government agency’s multiple “eradications” of gypsy moth are in fact glaring signs of pesticide failure: “Eradication” means the complete and final extinction or extermination of a species throughout its range. Yet as successive programs have failed, the Department has found it necessary to speak of second or third “eradications” of the same species in the same area (Carson 157–8). ↩
Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise involved with properly reading Sylvia Plath’s novel,1The Bell Jar, is discovering how a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1953 manages to seem contemporary even as it remains so firmly rooted in its own period.2 Undoubtedly, there are timeless aspects to story arcs that move characters from innocence to experience, just as we find that the issues women grapple with in this book (the double standard, for one) are all too familiar. But what makes The Bell Jar so relatable is its captivating protagonist, Esther Greenwood. Esther is witty, sensitive, occasionally angry, often funny—and not at all what a reader expects to discover in a novel renowned for its suicidal heroine.3 But as The Bell Jar often proves, our assumptions don’t always match our expectations.
“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”
The Grim and the Glamorous
From the outset, the sharply observant Esther is aware of how appearances might mislead. Plath’s narrator, an older Esther, describes the morbid thoughts she had about executions and cadavers when she spent part of her summer in New York City at age 19. But from the outside, Esther’s life seems to have all the hallmarks of an American success story: Hailing from an impoverished middle-class background, she’s a “scholarship girl” who wins a position as a summer intern at women’s magazine—an incredible opportunity for someone with writing aspirations—where she attends parties and receives gifts. As she explains, anyone would assume she was “having the time of [her] life” when she instead struggles to get “[her]self to react”. Just as Esther wryly undercuts the image of the glamorous party the interns attend by pointing out the male guests were hired for the photo shoot, Plath exposes the invisible illness haunting a smart young woman’s New York adventure. Plath’s handling here is sure: stereotypical portrayals of mental illness4 are eschewed by showing Esther as nearly indistinguishable from the other smiling interns (significantly, they’re dressed alike) in the magazine spread. In doing so, Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.
“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”
Psyche Under Pressure
Having stripped away Esther’s smiling veneer, Plath better acquaints the reader with Esther’s background and aspirations. Esther, as magazine editor Jay Cee quips, “wants to be everything”: writer, academic, editor, traveler, lover, wife and mother. And while they are the most socially acceptable choices, Esther feels most ambivalent towards marriage and motherhood. Raised by a widowed working mother, Esther sees the pitfalls of marriage (financial vulnerability, drudgery) more clearly than fellow intern, Betsy, a naïve Midwesterner who wants a traditional marriage. Doreen, in contrast, rebels against deadlines and social mores alike in her quest for adventure in New York. While Esther shares Doreen’s cynicism and humor, she finds Doreen’s seemingly violent sexual encounters repellent and untenable given her limited means. Esther is left with uncertainty, as neither model suits her.
This pattern holds true when Esther examines her options for the future, since her unconventional ambitions don’t mesh well with social expectations for women in the sexist 1950s. Evoking the image of a fig tree with diverging branches, Esther sees her choices as being mutually exclusive. Certainly, the various people attempting to influence her future path imply as much: instructors indicate family must be sacrificed for career, her mother pressures her to learn a marketable skill (dictation) instead of gambling on a writing career, society and family insists her proper role is that of wife, and chauvinist Buddy Willard, the boy she’s dating, insinuates a few kids might cure that urge to write poems.5 Coupled with her ongoing pressure to excel academically,6 Esther appears to experience herself almost as two fragments: the outwardly cheerful achiever and the angry hidden self who chafes against her limitations. Approaching her final year of school, she finds herself filled with crippling indecision and feels that her successes thus far are meaningless outside college.7 While there’s no definitive explanation as to what precipitates depression, Plath could be arguing that society is what ails Esther.
“I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason.”
The Bell Jar Descends and Lifts
It is, however, apparent that an attempted rape rapidly followed by a serious academic disappointment serve as the triggering events for Esther’s mental health crisis. Although Esther’s breakdown is foreshadowed, the change it brings in her startles: she stops bathing, sleeps poorly, and, alarmingly, cannot write. Plath spends the latter half of the novel exploring misconceptions and stigmas surrounding mental health issues as well as critiquing how this illness is treated. Mrs. Greenwood, for example, fails to understand that Esther’s condition is not a choice and believes Esther could get better if she just tried or instead helped out others suffering greater misfortunes. As a layperson, her erroneous views are understandable, whereas Dr. Gordon (her first psychiatrist) disinterest in discussing her issues almost seems negligent, particularly after her prescribed shock therapy is administered incorrectly. Esther, desperate to avoid another traumatic shock session and convinced that her case is impossible, attempts suicide. Still alive and agitated, Esther is placed in a series of asylums. As it becomes clear to Esther once her scholarship sponsor pays for her to move to a better institution, money determines the quality of the patient’s care.
Not long after Esther settles into the new asylum, Esther meets Joan Gilling. Not only do they share the same hometown, church, and acquaintances, but they’ve both dated Buddy (neither are fans) and attempted suicide. While foils Betsy and Doreen represent extremes of sexual values, Joan serves as a near double to Esther since her journey through mental illness darkly mirrors Esther’s own until Joan succeeds in killing herself. While it’s never clear why one lives and the other does not, Joan’s death reminds readers and Esther’s alike that might also have been Esther’s fate. Esther, however, continues improving. And though some remain wary of her or wish to move on as though nothing happened (her mother in particular), Esther accepts that her illness is an important part of her history that she cannot ignore as there’s no guarantee that the bell jar wont’ descend again. It’s with this sobering, but clear-eyed acceptance that Esther moves toward whatever her future holds.
Unlike the first time I picked it up and partially skimmed it during a busy term (I was studying abroad), which really didn’t do it justice. ↩
And that includes the period’s casual racism and homophobia. Significantly, Esther kicks the only non-white character, a black worker at a mental institute, with little provocation. While her disturbed mindset plays a role in her aggression, she nonetheless appears to have at least some latent prejudices regarding race and sexual orientation. ↩
While The Bell Jar is Plath’s roman à clef, I won’t be discussing making any comparisons with Plath’s life (something which has been done extensively anyway) as it tends to divert attention from discussing the book. ↩
Plath makes this point repeatedly, particularly after Esther is institutionalized, that the mentally ill do not appear different from saner individuals. ↩
So much is wrong with Buddy. Presented to Esther as a desirable marital prospect, he acts like the spiritual heir to the physician doctor from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” when Buddy tells Esther that her stuffed nose is psychosomatic and claims she’s neurotic. More reprehensibly, this “fine and clean” young man who focuses so much on Esther’s minimal sexual experience happens to be a hypocrite since he’s actually had a sexual affair. Although Buddy’s hypocrisy incenses Esther, it’s his paramour who is described as “some slutty waitress”, a detail suggesting Esther’s internalized misogyny. ↩
Fearing that she will fail a chemistry course, Esther manipulates her image as a good student to escape taking this course and earns accolades for her intellectual maturity, something which she later feels crushing guilt for doing. ↩
Esther potentially suffers from impostor syndrome: she describes an incident in which Jay Cee questions her focus and career plans as unmasking her. ↩