Rhett, how you do run on…

Or: What I’ve Learned about Writing from Gone with the Wind.

I read this book at about this time every year, so often that the ink of my copy is rubbing away like the text of a newspaper. Every time I read it, I spend more time than I care to admit wondering whether I’m more Scarlett or Melanie… unfortunately, this year, I’ve come down on the Scarlett side. Again. Someday I’ll make it to Melanie, though.

But in addition to my sad, pseudo-pop-psychology analysis,  reading it so frequently has also taught me a number of things about writing.

Warning: what follows is a very long, pedantic essay.

1. Characters are people, not plot devices.
Although way too much time has been spent studying the archetypes in Gone with the Wind, dwelling on that analysis takes something away from the characters as individuals. Call me crazy, but characters — my own and my favorites in other novels — are real; I talk to them, admire them, interact with them… maybe I should consider this in my improvised self-analysis, eh? But if you spend too much time looking at them as archetypes, thinking about the inherent plot arcs and predetermined actions, you lose sight of some of the novel’s more touching moments. For instance, when Rhett lets his concern for Scarlett show, on a very few occasions, she responds meekly and lets him care for her… causing him, naturally, to tease her about it and her to demand his immediate departure. Still, those are  lovely moments, made all the more special because it’s unexpected to see such gentleness in a so-called seductress. My own protagonist, Eva, is cast in Scarlett’s mold, but I work very hard to create a childlike faith and stubbornness to make her more than a skeletal archetype.

This lesson has a part B. Midway through the novel, at the Scarlett’s lowest point, when she simply cannot carry the weight of the crumbling Tara and her collapsing family, Will Benteen comes on the scene. “Cracker”-born Will takes much of the burden from Scarlett’s frustrated shoulders, and, bluntly put, serves as the plot device that allows her to flit off to Atlanta and pursue marriage and money… But for Scarlett, those two things are redundant. Every time I read Will’s entrance I cringe, because he has no purpose as a person. He does nothing but enable the plot. I’m currently writing a character who I fear falls into this category. I may have to backtrack and introduce her sooner to avoid the Will Benteen fallacy.

2. Sometimes telling is good, too.
Basic writing lesson: Show, don’t tell. But Gone with the Wind might just be the exception. I could gush about Margaret Mitchell’s descriptive ‘telling’ passages, proof that skillful omniscient narration can work as well as showing through action or dialogue.  The opening paragraph speaks for itself:

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin — that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.”

In one paragraph, Scarlett’s appearance and personality meld, showing you not quite the whole woman but enough to compel interest. This style may not be in vogue anymore, but it sure as hell is effective. Careful choice of detail leaves no doubt of who a character is and where she came from.

3. Try to look at things in a new way.
This is the most revolutionary lesson, and the one most likely to earn me some hate mail. Gone with the Wind won the Pulitzer in 1937, not in part because of its treatment of the post-Civil War South. Although contemporary with Southern Renaissance writers and Southern Gothic writers like the far-more canonized William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Mitchell stands apart from those genre writers because, instead of focusing on the defeat and corruption of the South, she examines the perceived glorious past and the perpetuation of the Confederate identity.

Gone with the Wind has long been criticized for its racist treatment of the slaves and former slaves and of African-American identity generally. “Good negroes” stay with their masters after being freed, and they take pride in their service.The bad, “free issue” former slaves are encouraged by the Yankees into violence or indolence. This characterization is not okay, but it’s interesting because it makes us question if these attitudes ever existed. Were “good slaves” in the 1860s glorified by a long life of service? Is this attitude a relic of pre-civil rights era America, when Mitchell was writing?

Furthermore, the Yankees are portrayed as evil conquerors, while the Southerners are noble and unfairly downtrodden. This is not history as most of us learn it. But it’s an intellectual exercise, and one good for the moral constitution, that makes us consider a reviled point of view. “History is written by the victors,” after all. If the South had (infeasibly) won, what attitude would now prevail?

I think good fiction should make us consider an issue from another point of view. It should tell a story, but, more than that, it should turn that story inside out and make us think hard about the world it portrays and the world around us. This is what I’m trying to do with my own writing, although I make no claims to the importance of racial rights and American history’s most turbulent times. Still, it’s a way of effecting change through words.

Happy reading and writing, all.

PDR: Stories and Settings

Blame this article in the February 1 issue of The New Yorker about Dresden, but I’ve been thinking about cultural memory and the ‘story’ of history, and that comes out in the story we told in this week’s cards.

Who/Protagonist – Seven of Wands
A lone, cloaked figure stands guarding a portal, holding his (or her!) lit wand defiantly into the air. This character is a loner, a protector, someone who defends whatever it is they believe in, whatever lies on the other side of that portal. Interestingly, the figure is ghostly and appears to be dematerializing…

Who/Antagonist – The Magician
The magician (an alchemist?) holds an orb and lightning between his hands. He wears an expression of rapt concentration. His hands, as a side note, are deformed, with six fingers on each. In our case, this represents a person of vast power, one who can ‘magically’ effect change (oooh, the right effect, even, and in a blog post!).

Where – Five of Cups
A distraught young woman sits in the shards of three broken glasses, clutching the remaining two perfect glasses to her chest without looking at them. We saw this as a place or a culture (I’m again thinking Germany) so ashamed of or traumatized by its past that it cannot move forward, instead focusing on that trauma and failing to see the positive in its present.

What/Why – Two of Wands
Two wands frame two similar locked boxes; one key floats between them. It is unclear which box the key will open, and a choice must be made.

Story Possibilities
I’ll give you two possible stories to fit this scenario.

  1. In story number one, we have a culture like Germany (please forgive me Germans for abusing your cultural past), which has difficulty accepting a horror in its past. Out of shame, it cannot accept its past and has trouble moving forward. Our main character has spent her life defending her culture and getting them to accept the bad with the good in order to move forward. Just when she feels she’s making progress, a ‘magician,’ individual or group, enters the picture, offering a quick-fix and the ability to erase the nation’s cultural memory. He offers an artificially blank slate for the future: forget your horror and move on! Become a new country! So the nation must choose between the easy but false whitewash and the honest but difficult struggle to acceptance. The main character faces her own choice: continue to fight, or accept a whitewash of her own and wash her hands of the whole thing.
  2. Story number two lends itself to the popular postcolonial literature frequently found on college campuses and in Oprah’s book club. Also on the Nobel lists… Okay, it’s popular for a reason; it’s important. And this story touches on themes that are fundamental to this genre. In this scenario, our main character is trying to help a nation recover from a history of colonization, trying to integrate a native culture with the new hybrid culture. The magician appears, saying ‘Return to your roots! Pretend it didn’t happen!’ or ‘Start fresh! Make your culture anew!’ etc. The choices are similar to above.

My point, finally, is that stories with archetypal or deep-seated cultural themes transcend their setting. These can be contemporary stories, or historical, or sci-fi, or whatever suits you, because these are issues that humanity has faced since the dawn of time and that the cockroaches will probably face when we’re all gone. The tarot is a tool to help you access those themes, just another of the tools every writer should have, like grammar, metaphors, and a word processor, and lots of vodka… Okay, kidding on that last one.

Happy storytelling.

PDR: Storytelling

One of my very favorite tarot activities is story-telling: I draw four or five cards as “Who – Protagonist,” “Who – Antagonist,” “Where,” and “Why/What”. Generally “why/what” is a theme or a goal.  I do this as a creative exercise for me and as a fun way to draw my boyfriend into my hobby — without having to resort to strip tarocchi.

I’ll give a brief description and some thoughts we had of each card drawn tonight, and then try to outline our thinking process  and the story we came up with.

Who/Protagonist — Knight of Wands
The Knights in the Legacy of the Divine deck are portrayed as masks, the uniform of the enforcer, to draw on Ciro Marchetti’s metaphor from the book accompanying the deck. We named a few qualities (i.e. brash, passionate, adventurous), coming up with a dragon-slaying, knight-errant king.

Who/Antagonist — The Sun
This deck features a non-traditional sun, and the card depicts a priest standing in front of a large, mechanical mobile of the solar system. Keywords included enlightenment and revitalization — we thought of the new burning away the old facades.

Where — Justice
Tricky for a setting, but it gave us a mood. The card refers balance and the blind rule of law. In combination with the other cards, our story, then, takes place at a time when we’re trying to find balance between the old and the new, between passions and enlightenment.

What/Why — Eight of Cups
The key word mention here was “evolution.” The card features an octopus-man in the water, turning away from the cups (and his way of life) towad the moon. He is half of the water, half of the sky, not fully part of either world. (I’m trying to resist the Little Mermaid comparison here… oops, I failed.) In our story, we have a king caught between two worlds: his young, brash self and his older, wiser self; an old government and a new, etc.

The story
After some initial discussion, we thought we had a choice between two archetypal stories: the coming of age story bildungsroman, and the Fisher King or ‘wounded king’ Celtic myth. While that seems pretty standard and dull, we realized that our story in synthesizes those two fables into one. Here we have an aged king who began his rule in the brash, knight-errant style, now ruling at the time when his kingdom is being shifted from a feudal rule to a republican rule. His country is being ‘enlightened’ toward wanting a republican, the slow-acting, balanced government, the opposite of this king’s style. The king must allow the Sun to burn away his mask and let himself evolve into the monarch that his people will need. In this story, the eight of cups evolution is changing both the kingdom and the king. The old king must become the new king, but he also must face his trials and come of age as a grown man. It’s coming of age because the king must grown past his former self, but it’s a king replacement because he must slay his old self and begin a new rule.

Interesting, yes? Not material for a best-selling novel by any means, but definitely short story potential. If you enjoyed reading this, drop me a note and I’ll make it a weekly posting.