Cynthia’s Column April 2009
Here are a few things new to me that I thought might be of interest to you.
I recently came across a book while browsing a book shop (which we should all be doing weekly if we want to keep these dear friends around) and I came across a book with such an original and delightful conceit that I laughed out loud and then had to buy it. It’s called “If on a winter’s night a traveler” by Italo Calvino, a Cuban “fabulist” who was raised and lived in Italy. Can you imagine having a career as a fabulist? Cool, huh?
Chapter One of this book is speaking, not just in second person, but directly to you. Or in my case, me. It starts like this. You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door, the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice. They don’t hear you. “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!”
Okay, this is fun for a start, but then what? How is he going to follow up this first chapter which is basically just advice on how to read the book. Stretch your legs out. Put your feet up. Get comfortable. Then you turn to the next chapter, titled as the book, “If on a winter’s night” etc. Hey, I’m writing in Calvino’s style. Did you notice that right there? Cool. So here’s how he tops that. This new chapter begins like this:
The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station café odor. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences.
Then he proceeds to pull us into the story while continuously reminding us that it’s not real, it’s nothing more than writing: chapter, paragraph, sentence, words. He names the main character “I.”
I am the man who comes and goes between the bar and the telephone booth. Or rather: that man is called “I” and you know nothing else about him.” Then a couple of pages later: “If you, reader, couldn’t help picking me out among the people getting off the train…this is simply because I am called “I” and this is the only thing you know about me, but this alone is enough for you to invest a part of yourself in the stranger “I.” Just as the author, since he has no intention of telling about himself, decided to call the character “I” as if to conceal him, not having to name him or describe him…still, by the very fact of writing “I” the author feels driven to put into this “I” a bit of himself…Nothing could be easier for him than to identify himself with me.
Huh? Who is “me” if not the author? Reading this book is like hanging around backstage with an old magician who shows you the hidden compartment in the top hat where they keep the rabbit, only it turns out to be a dove and the hat turns out to be a red silk scarf. And the magician himself turns out to be you yourself and by then we’re all getting a bit dizzy, but delighted. Me, the author of this column? I’m happy to know there are writers who are fabulists and fabulous.
Something else new (not just to me, but in the world) is my sister/novelist Laura Whitcomb’s new book which came out last week from Writers Digest Books: Novel Shortcuts: Ten Techniques that Ensure a Great First Draft. It is a sequel to the popular book Your First Novel that Laura co-authored with her literary agent Ann Rittenberg. (Also from W.D. Books.) Novel Shortcuts is a magical backstage tour of the novelist’s creative inner mind in which Laura shares all her amazing tricks to get third draft quality work in a first draft. Her tips and tricks include how to create “cross-hair moments,” and turn them into great moments. “The 10 Minute Heartstorm.” How to create a “plotweb” to organize the many complex characters, subplots, and themes of your novel. How to find the shortcut to the scene. The Fast Track to deeper emotion. And what to do if it stinks. Seriously, she’s got a gold mine of helpful tools here in a handy 6X9” package for only $16.99. You should snap one up and start using some novel shortcuts.
Other news: In case you haven’t heard, our quirky comedy Holidazed was such a big hit for Artists Repertory Theatre here in Portland, that they’ve scheduled another production for next fall. So, you know, YIPPEE! Did my emailed “Holidazed Recipe” with ten reasons why ART should revive it work? Who knows? Apparently it didn’t hurt. Willamette Writers is going to sponsor another night where we can buy discounted tickets, hang out together and eat cake. On the other coast, my new play Santos is a semi-finalist at the Eugene O’Neill New Play Festival.
And my writing cruise has filled with a dozen happy writer travelers. I’ll be writing more about that adventure when it comes to pass in April and May. If you’re desperate to join us, you can still get a balcony cabin. (The cheap ones have sold out on the ship.)
So at our house, we’re happy. Or as my buddy Marc Acito says, “We’re HAPPY!”
Keep up the good work, campers! Remember our motto: Good things come to those who write.