Thursday, February 24, 2011

It's a Small World

A few months ago I was presenting at a conference, and at the final luncheon the conference speakers were asked to say a few words about the most influential book from their childhood. Mine is/was a dull choice—Little Women, a predictable selection for many female writers. And every time I’ve heard another writer explain why she chose Little Women, it’s always the same thing: Jo March was a role model. I’ve usually cited that reason too.

But the book did far more for me than provide an admirable girl protagonist, something I didn’t fully grasp until I stood up at that luncheon to yet again extol Little Women (at the same time confessing I now find it unreadable). The book’s real influence on me I now understand is that it established early on a preference for domestic stories and nurtured a belief that the dailyness of life is novel-worthy.

I thought about this recently as I was browsing the YA shelves at my local chain bookstore where the quotidian hasn’t been evident for a long time, not unless your day-to-day involves curses, vampires, angels, etc.

Not to sound a lament, nope. There’s some marvelous stuff being written and published; even better, much of the student work I read is infused with similar veins of crazy, brilliant imagination.

But when she works with the ordinary, a writer has to find subtler ways to create drama. I’ve been thinking about how to shake up the dailyness--my own and the fictional dailyness that I am creating on the page--but without resorting to fantastic measures. For example, a bird feeder might seem an odd writing inspiration, but it’s proven so to me. Thanks to a new feeder in the front yard, I now every day watch a hawk swoop in and scare the crap out of the sparrows and chickadees and juncos, sometimes even scoring a lunch outside my living room window. Is it a coincidence that the protagonist in my work in progress has gotten sharper tongued these past few weeks?

I have a small backyard, currently snow covered. In summer there are a few chairs, some slabs of stone that serve as a patio, a small perennial bed. It’s a pleasant enough place. Lately I’ve been thinking about building a bottle wall. Cement and glass--how ordinary! But with any luck, my little project will get out of control and before I know it, my children will be calling each other and wondering if Mom is okay and who is going to step in and do something.

I had similar thoughts while writing last night. I said, “Oh, I can’t do that. Better not. Stop now.” Then I went ahead and did it. Even the quotidian can be full of surprises.


  1. Good point. This is the same quality that makes Ramona books so powerful--entire chapters revolving around misunderstanding what the teacher says, or losing new rain boots in the mud. I still loved Little Women when I last read it about five years ago. Why can't you read it now?

  2. Donald Maass in WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK suggests thinking of something your character would never do, then writing a scene in which the character must do that very thing. Works for writers, too.

    And Andy Goldsworthy, a visual artist who builds his ephemeral sculptures out of such material as ice, leaves, driftwood, says in the documentary RIVERS AND TIDES that sometimes when he builds a work he likes to take it to the very edge of collapse.

    Thanks for helping us remember this, Marsha. Even in my very quotidian life, there are edges to which I could go. Maybe even go beyond.

  3. Cheryl, the last time I read Little Women I was overwhelmed by the goodness, mostly Marmee's preaching. The Pilgrim's Progress theme seemed to dominate my adult readings. Maybe I should try again.

    Phyllis--I'll have to check out the Goldsworthy documentary, thanks for the tip. One of my favorite PBS shows is Art in the 20th Century--have you watched those? Episodes are available on the PBS site. So interesting hearing visual artists talk about their work.

  4. Andy Goldsworthy is fantastic. Love his stuff. One of the interesting things about his work is that it's not meant to last; the pile of stones falls over, leaves decay, marks in the sand are washed clean by wind and water. He works outside the artificial sense of permanence offered by galleries. His books of photography are phenomenal.

  5. It's fascinating to visit LMA's original home in Concord, where you can see the simple desk where she wrote. You can also view the well, in the basement, where they drew up water for the household. Like Marsha, I was put off, on a second reading of Little Women, by Marmee and by the novel's ending, but when I thought about the daily drudgery that Louisa endured--while still finding time to write as many books as she did-I remain impressed by her output and stamina. Has anyone read Marsh, the new book about her father? It sounds interesting.

  6. Geraldine Brook's "March" is fantastic. I really love her writing and can't wait for her new book this spring. In March she tells the story of the father in Little Women, who, you will recall, is absent most of that book. It is the story of his chaplaincy in the Civil War -- his ideals bumping against the reality of war etc. It is beautiful, harrowing, and fascinating how she does this. I believe part of her research included reading the journals and letters of Alcott's father.

  7. Oh: so that's the title! No wonder I couldn't find it online. Thanks.

  8. I'm going to have to read Little Women again soon. I remember having the reaction you describe to reading Swiss Family Robinson as an adult. As a young reader, I loved the adventure and ways in which the family was resourceful. Perhaps I tuned out--or just didn't get--the preachy parts. As an adult, I could barely make it through the first chapter.

  9. I, too, love the ordinary. I don't seem to have the knack for the fantastic. When I look at my books I see a kid in foster care, a stoner who goes to high school and a first baseman who misses his mom. In a new book, the main character lives in a small Midwestern
    town just like the one I grew up in. On the other hand, there's a ghost! But, it's a very ordinary ghost.