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When novelist Laurie Albanese and art historian Laura Morowitz began collaborating on a novel about the 15th-century painter Fra Filippo Lippi, they discovered that their biggest challenge was to make the truth seem believable.  Laurie Albanese explains:

When my good friend Laura first handed me a book of Fra Filippo Lippi’s 15th-century paintings three years ago, she opened the door to a world as intriguing as it was unknown to me.

The paintings and frescoes were vivid and arresting: A stunning blonde Madonna surrounded by irascible young angels who looked as if they’d been plucked from the cobbled streets of Florence.  A cloaked man handing an infant to a maid in a hidden doorway, two women whispering to one another as John the Baptist’s head was carried into the room on a platter.

“They had a love affair,” Laura said. “Fra Lippi, the painter-priest, and the young nun who posed for the Madonna painting.”

Laura brought years of art history scholarship, boundless energy and skills, and a zest for research to our collaboration for our novel The Miracles of Prato. But the task of the novelist is markedly different than that of the historian.

Imagining myself in Fra Lippi’s Prato 1456 studio, I was faced with a variety of challenges:  First, to conceive and convey the internal life of a man who was both a celebrated painter and a scandalous monk.  Second, to put myself into his mind as he created the enduring fresco series in Prato that reflected his inner and external turmoil, his natural talent, his faith, his pride, his arrogance and his fears. Third, to understand how Fra Lippi, an orphan who’d been sent to a Carmelite monastery before his tenth birthday, might feel about the church as his protector, his sustainer, and his jailer … not to mention how he might actually find the place, the time, the nerve and the charm to successfully seduce a beautiful young nun.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction:  Lippi had done things that were implausible and even unimaginable. But he’d really done them, and so we had to make them seem believable.

Laura and I had no diaries, no journals, only a few scant letters, and no definitive record of the painter’s life. Everything but the barest outline of the story had to be invented.

It was equally challenging to imagine what would drive the gorgeous Lucrezia Buti into the arms of a painter-priest who was twice her age and nowhere near as attractive. What would compel her to risk scandal and scorn? How would she deal with the opposing tugs of sin and virtue, love and duty?  We could hardly ignore the fact that in Renaissance Italy, as elsewhere in Europe at that time, a woman had few options once she left her father’s home: she could be a wife, a nun, or a whore. Lucrezia Buti would not have been in a position to envision any other trajectory for her life. And yet, she found one.

In literary fiction, plot grows out of character. If your readers don’t believe that your characters would act the way you’ve imagined them acting, your novel will be as thin as a piece of deli Swiss cheese, and as full of holes.

Laura and I wrote long, imagined histories for Fra Lippi and Lucrezia – passages from their childhoods, stories and details that never made it into the book but that allowed us to get to know them better. We wrote lengthy scenes of internal dialogue and reflection, trying to puzzle out what they might have been thinking – this nun and this priest – when they recognized their mutual attraction.

We studied Fra Lippi’s paintings for clues to his psyche. To imagine his young life, we visited a monastery in New Jersey and the Santa Maria del Carminchurch in Florence where Lippi had lived and studied under the famed early Renaissance painter, Masaccio.

For clues to Lucrezia’s interior and exterior reality, we read up on daily life in Florence and devoured a nonfiction book, Iris Origo’s The Merchant of Prato, based on the life of a prosperous 13th century Pratese, Francesco Datini, then visited Datini’s well-preserved palazzo (now a museum and archive) in Prato.  We imagined we were nineteen again, with all the hopes and aspirations a nineteen-year-old girl might have for a happy future that is suddenly snatched away.

We climbed to the top of the bell tower in the Cathedral of Santo Stefano – the same bell tower that stood over the city when Lucrezia and Lippi lived there. We would have liked to visit the Convent Santa Margherita and Lippi’s studio, but those places have been swallowed by time and so we had to build them in our minds and map them out on paper, literally drawing out the convent grounds as we imagined them, acting as architects for Lippi’s simple studio quarters – the kitchen hearth here, the curtain across his studio chamber there, the sack of egg yolks, chemicals and powdered dyes for mixing paints on a crude wooden shelf beside his easel.

At some point we began thinking in archetypes: Fra Lippi as the passionate, tormented artist and Lucrezia as the vulnerable virgin beauty. From there we invented two other fictional characters who rounded out the dramatic action and also served as counterpoints to our characters.

These were Sister Pureza – a wise woman/crone – and Prior General Saviano, a corrupt patriarch.   We gave Pureza an herb garden to tend, and Saviano an appetite for rich wines and other things.  (I spent many pleasant afternoons wandering the paths of the medieval medicinal garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters in the Bronx.)

Once we knew that Lucrezia loved blue silk and had learned the art of silk dying from her father; that Fra Lippi understood the relationship of sinew, muscle, bones, flesh and spirit from early years in his father’s butcher shop; that Sister Pureza had taught herself the many natural properties of rosemary, thyme, nettle and so on under great personal distress; we had our characters. And then we were ready to let them tell their stories.

The Miracles of Prato is a Summer 2010 Reading Group List selection of IndieBound, the American independent booksellers group.  Laurie Albanese talks about writing, life, and walking at her blog My Big Walk.

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In anticipation of the paperback release of my latest novel, Bird in Hand, my friend Gretchen Rubin invited me to answer some questions about happiness for her wonderful blog, The Happiness Project.  One of her questions is, “Is there a happiness mantra or motto you’ve found very helpful?” I do have one — which I’ll write about for Gretchen (and link to here!) in a few days — but I love the answer to this question given by Larry Smith, creator of the brilliant Six-Word Memoir Project (“Fall down. Get up. Repeat process.”):

“My motto for writing (which is a big part of my daily existence and own happiness), one that I think applies to life as well: “Write drunk, edit sober.” Not that you should actually be drunk (the inebriated writer is a silly, antiquated idea, among other things), but that you should just get the words down whether you’re writing a letter, a report for work, or the story of your life, in six words or 60,000. Put the words down, don’t obsess over them, just effusively spill them down onto the page. Then step away—for an hour, a day, a week, whatever you need. And then edit. Edit like crazy. Be hard on words and yourself and make it better. And when you think you’re finished, edit it one more time.”

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“Someone once said, ‘If you go for the universal, you get nothing; if you go for the specific, you get the universal.’

“There is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

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The Portuguese writer Clara Paulino thought she’d never find another language that could express the depth and nuance of her experience.  And then she did:

A few months ago I made the momentous discovery that I can write in English.

Strange discovery, one might say, given that I have lived “in English” for the past seven years and teach Art History to American students. Yet it was the sound of Portuguese that welcomed me into this world, and English is not even my second language. I was introduced to it at the rather late age of fourteen in Porto, Portugal by the intensely British Ms. Symington, who started every class by frightening us. “Picture each word as a scalding hot potato,” she’d say with glee.

In spite of years living in different countries, I never felt confused. Other languages did very well for most things, but only in the warm diphthongs of Portuguese could my inner self step onto the page – or so I thought. The creative impulse, too elusive even for Freud, must surely resist anything foreign to the earliest experiences!

For years I filled page after page with cedillas, tildes and circumflexes (Portuguese on the page resembles a cross between words and music), publishing widely in books and magazines.  Then I moved to the States to teach at a university in South Carolina. Suddenly I fell into a state of linguistic confusion and creative paralysis. “Why don’t you just translate your Portuguese stories?” asked my American friends.

But I couldn’t.  It is tricky to put anything other than a short note into a new system. A language has a peculiar, slightly odd (to unaccustomed eyes) geography, archeology, even time. It swells into hyperbolic mountains, retreats into timid valleys, blends deserts and forests in disconcerting oxymora – all in its own inimitable way; it lives on layers of semantic sediments; it stretches and contracts in rhythms as varied as the rumba and the waltz. A language breathes like an animal and winds its way towards meaning like a plant towards the sun.

If a word is planted in foreign soil, it either dies or adapts – and adaption is only another word for change. Good translators know this. They look at each word from different angles and consider all the contexts while looking for the right niche to move it into. It is painstaking, often thankless work because so much of it is invisible.

Publishers want the book out, and it needs to be readable, but does “O poeta é um fingidor/Finge tão completamente/Que chega a fingir que é dor/A dor que deveras sente — by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa –really mean “The poet is a faker/Who’s so good at his act/He even fakes the pain/Of pain he feels in fact (published translation)?  Not quite.

“Not quite” is the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I am for the translation of texts, all texts, from memos to Shakespeare. The idea of not reading Tolstoy because Russian is a closed book to me is frightening. But I wish I could read it in Russian not only to hear its time, including the silences between the words, but its sounds too. Sound is important; sound carries landscapes on its fluttering wings, and at least for me, reading is listening. Anna Karenina in the original language conjures up a world imaginatively and sensually so different from that of any other version! Language conveys so much more than plot that, to be good, translators have to be magicians.

And though I have translated other people’s work – rarely, and with the utmost reverence – my magic tricks fail abysmally when I try to translate my own work. Sentences turn and twist in the oddest directions, and soon a text is born that carries the original only as memory. Exasperating, yes – but also a reminder that meaning is more than semantics, that it rests in form more than one could ever imagine.

So it was indeed momentous discovery when I found that places and characters came to life in English as mysteriously and miraculously as they do for me in Portuguese. I realized how well I know this language now, how lovely it is to explore its wild and secret places, how capably it translates my foreign experience.

Clara Paulino was born in Portugal and educated in England, Germany and the U.S. She has degrees in English and German Literature, and a Ph.D. in Art History, and has taught at universities in Portugal and the U.S. In Portugal she wrote articles for various magazines as well as Danças com Gémeos, a fictionalized memoir of a professional woman raising twin girls.  She has worked as a freelance translator and interpreter and is currently editing a 19th-century Women’s Travel Writing Series for the London publishers Pickering & Chatto. She is also working on a memoir about growing up in a nation under Fascism.

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The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, photo by Bernard Handzel

A small, bare room.  An old lamp, an upholstered chair, a wooden desk by the window.  Cows and trees beyond.  No papers to grade, no phone calls to return.  All the things that distract me, keep me from writing fiction — the to-do lists, children’s schedules, work-for-hire, committee meetings — are gone, gone, gone.

Some people are here at the Virginia Center for the Arts for six or eight weeks.  Me? Only one.  And carving this week out of my busy life with three kids, teaching, and editing was like chipping a cave out of rock.  But I was determined to do it.  For this reason: to winnow my life down to one simple thing.  I know from experience that if I can leave this place with a sense of clarity about my novel-in-progress and a handful of pages, I’ll be able to keep going, even in the midst of my busy life.

The day stretches ahead.  My choices are few, and therefore simple.  I am here to write.

What are your writing conditions today?  How do you plow through the clutter to find a clear space in your head — and on your desk — to write?

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The writer Lisa Gornick revisits this vexing question — and digs a little deeper:

A few weeks ago I posted on this site an account of writing — and ultimately deciding not to publish — an essay about my teenaged son. Most of the responses were questions about whether the caution I took with my son should extend to other categories: siblings, spouses, parents, nieces, nephews. These questions pushed me to reflect more deeply on various threads of my decision.

The first thread was a creepy feeling I’d had reading certain pieces, often beautifully crafted and insightful, about painful and disturbing events in an author’s child’s life. I understand the impulse to record these moments because I have it, too: the dramas we share with our kids are gripping and soaked in emotion. They matter to us; at times, they occlude everything else. As writers, we want to fashion these experiences into narratives that will help us both to understand our children and ourselves and to believe that we’ve made lemonade from our lemons.

But here’s the rub:  Good writing and good parenting aren’t always compatible. Good writing requires casting a cold eye on the other and on the self and then telling the truth about those observations. Good parenting requires casting a warm eye on our children and then employing tact and prudent boundaries about what we express. The creepy feeling arose when it felt as though the parent was riding shotgun to the writer.

The second thread concerns the notion of consent. Whereas all sentient writers — journalist, biographer, memoirist, novelist, poet — struggle with the impact of their work on those about whom they write (directly or indirectly), most do not believe that they require the consent of their subjects. To complicate matters further, in relationships with significant imbalances of power, consent cannot truly be granted: children cannot grant consent for sexual relations with adults; patients, compromised by transferences and vulnerabilities, cannot grant sexual consent to therapists. In these relationships, a sacred trust is conferred by the less powerful onto the more powerful. What implications does this have for the writer and her child?

These threads came together for me reading Michael Chabon‘s charming and at times philosophical collection of essays, Manhood for Amateurs, where we can find a model for how to write about our kids without — and there’s no other way to say it — harming them. Chabon’s children in these essays are the well-loved, self-assured kids that inhabit hip, urban, affluent communities. In “D.A.R.E.,” Chabon’s thirteen-year-old daughter apprehends listening to the Beatles that there are allusions to pot. Over dinner, she shyly raises the subject with her father, who, as the household expert on the Beatles and, his daughter now recognizes, on marijuana too, confirms her observation.

“Wait,” Chabon’s ten-year-old son demands. “You mean — have you actually smoked marijuana?” Ambushed, Chabon struggles to uphold the vow he and his wife made to be honest when this question inevitably arose.

By the close of the essay, we know that Chabon’s thirteen-year-old daughter is experiencing an explosion of understanding, but not if she dreams of being a dancer or has a crush on her science teacher. We know that his ten-year-old son has antennae up for everything, but not if he cried seeing the Katrina photographs or gloated when he got a home run. We know that his six-year-old daughter struggles with her daunting older sibs to be part of it all, but not if she has been reading since three or still sucks her thumb. If you put me in their respective Berkeley classrooms, I couldn’t pick out a one of them. The children, lively as they are, remain safely flat, their inner selves shielded, because Chabon’s essay is about himself: his attempt to uphold the pledge he’d made with his wife that when the time arrived, they would talk honestly with their children about drugs.

As parents, we have no problem sharing photos of our little kids with bubble bath beards or with their faces smeared with spaghetti sauce because adorable as these images are to us as parents, to an audience, they are clichés. They reveal nothing unique or private about the child. When our kids reach adolescence, sailing into the red light and velvet darkness, to use Chabon’s metaphor for crossing from innocence to knowingness, from simple childhood goodness to complex adolescent transgressiveness, they do not want their parents deciding which of their many faces to make public. They do not want their parents writing their travelogues.

Or do they? After the first blog post, I forwarded my son a link. A few days later, I asked if he’d taken a look. “Yeah. Nice, Mom,” he said with about as much enthusiasm as if I’d inquired how he liked his cereal. Serves me right, I thought. Teenaged boys have other things on their minds than their mother’s scribbles.

He headed down the hall to his room, calling over his shoulder, “You should have published that essay.”

Lisa Gornick is the author of a novel, A Private Sorcery (Algonquin), short stories in various literary quarterlies (including a Best American Short Stories distinguished story of the year), and numerous academic articles.  She has a PhD in clinical psychology from Yale and is a graduate of the writing program at NYU, and is currently working on a collection of stories and a novel.

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Get Inspired!

Recently I shared some exercises I use with my students at Fordham for revising fiction and narrative nonfiction.  But a lot of us need inspiration at the other end of the process, too — right at the beginning.  So below are some of the best writing prompts I’ve used over the years.  Some I made up, some I gathered from other writers, and some I found in books.

You can approach these any way you wish: write about yourself, another person, or a character you’ve created.  Don’t think too much — just start.  Here’s an idea from Monica Wood, in The Pocket Muse:  “Set a timer for forty-five minutes, and don’t get out of the chair until the timer dings.  Even if you sit staring at the page the entire time, you’re ingraining the habit.”  And another piece of advice from Monica: “Tempted to quit early?  Make yourself this promise: One more sentence.  Say this every time you want to quit early:  One more sentence.”

So — to write!  Here you go:

  • Write about your hidden talent.
  • Write about the first time you felt dispensable.
  • Write about a disagreeable person who, for whatever reason, you have an attachment to.
  • Write about a photograph that means something to you, and why.
  • Give me your morning.  Breakfast, waking up, walking to the bus stop.  Be as specific as possible.  Use the five senses.  Take it slow.
  • Write about “leaving.” Approach it any way you want. Write about your divorce, leaving the house this morning, a friend dying, packing for a trip.
  • Everyone has a secret — some dark only because hidden.  Give a character a secret and a reason for hiding it.
  • Write about a family story.  The one you don’t like.  The one your mother always tells on a third glass of wine.
  • Write a story about two overlapping triangles in opposition, the most obvious being two lovers and their four parents.
  • Finally, a great one from The Pocket Muse: Almost any situation includes insiders and outsiders.  Most human beings, no matter what their stations, consider themselves outsiders.  Write about being an insider.

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