A month ago today, I launched my experimental novella, The Italics Are My Own. (Click the title buy it for 99 cents.) I wanted to explore some of the reasons behind it, some mechanics and some themes.
Needless to say, if you plan to read the novella but have not done so yet, this post contains some spoilers. You may want to read this later, though given the experimental nature of the piece, I’d guess one could still enjoy it after reading these thoughts on same. It may enhance the experience for a few of you, I can’t say. But the warning was only fair.
It’s also longer than my average blog post, for those who prefer shorter ones. But I feel by talking about this project, I may shed some light on the creative process itself, and hence potentially help others.
My foremost goal in writing The Italics are My Own was to play with my own use of language. The prose in this novella is different from that in most of my fiction in a number of ways. It’s more circuitous, flowery, internal. Much of writing is in knowing what not to include. Each writer utilizes a different metric to determine such matters. I wanted to set aside the metrics I tend to use, thus allowing, as some critics say of dense literature, “writing that sounds like writing.” Something closer to poetry over more pages than is my norm. (Though it cannot be classified as a poem.)
I alternated this approach, seen mostly in the segments dedicated to “The Trio,” with segments that deal exclusively with dialogue, as in a stage play. (The Sam and Bobby segments.) In these segments, especially near the start of the piece, I also released the chains of writing discipline I often utilize. But in this case, in the reverse direction; I allowed myself an simpler, perhaps even an elementary of juvenile style. I cleaned up less often. The desired effect, (I leave to the reader, as always to determine if I achieved it) was over simple one moment, and if not too complex, at least more artful the next. Two sides of a spectrum of writing, avoiding the usual comfortable median.
My contention in doing this is simple; legitimate stories can be expressed on any given level of language, even in the extremes. A child’s rambling recitation of what he did at the park or the descriptive meditations of a bard. And all in between. Not all styles will be to our liking, but we ignore at our own detriment the possibility of worthy narratives existing anywhere, in any style.
And stories do not exist in a vacuum. One story effects another. An author influences other authors. The telling of stories has an impact on the telling and hearing, of many other stories. This overlap of stories and tales in our world is the other major theme that evolved in writing this novella. Alternating between the Trio’s adventures, and the conversations of Sam and Bobby is one such demonstration.
How do they overlap? It may not be immediately clear upon reading it, but Sam and Bobby are engaged in presenting the stories of The Trio. This is the “mission” they allude to several times throughout their segments. When it is Sam’s “turn,” the writing is at its deeper, more intricate. When it is Bobby’s turn to speak of the Trio, the language is more direct, even jarring. Most notably, Bobby violates the often stated rule of writing, which is “show, don’t tell.” He does indeed tell more than he shows, even opting not to include dialogue, in favor of just telling the reader what a character said or did, or even thought.
Sam shows us far more often than he tells, reflecting his more mature approach.
Yet, if I have done my job, the nature of what the Trio is doing on any given page remains clear, whether it is Sam or Bobby that is the storyteller. Once again, a story can still be found despite the breaking of many so-called “rules” of writing fiction.
This narrative overlap is multi-layered, however. Not only are both Sam and Bobby protagonists of my first abandoned novel, (written in childhood), but the Trio, and eventually Reginald represent protagonists of three other abandoned novels of mine from adulthood. All make a comeback here, away from their own original tales, so as together they might make up this new tale of mine. Again, stories influence other stories. Even fragments of stories we try and fail to tell can become parts of other stories elsewhere.
Not that it is only the written word that tells stories. The settings in which the Trio finds itself, are based on some of my favorite Impressionist and Post-Impressionist oil paintings. Paintings, especially of these eras tell stories, evoke emotion, and so on. The influence once again the telling of someone else’s stories, in this case, my own. (Can you determine which paintings I used?)
Even the title itself is but an overlap of an overlap in the ever bubbling and boiling world of story. Each italicized section-title one finds in the book is in fact a word-for-word recreation of someone’s elses notes in the margins of a copy of The Aeneid I bought at a used book store.
Virgil wrote an epic story thousands of years ago. It inspired some modern student to scribble their own thoughts on it. Those thoughts in turn influenced me to compose a story around them. In other words, the italics were in fact not my own, until I made them so be incorporating them in the narrative I chose to tell in this novella–a narrative both borrowed and original, as all stories truly are in the end.
Stories evolve as time goes on. Storytellers do as well. I not only tried to make the Sam/Bobby exchanges more mature as the work went on, I gave more of the lines to Bobby, fewer to Sam as the former came closer to the latter in his maturity as a storyteller himself.
In the end, Sam and Bobby, (From Time Travelers), The Vice-President, (from the untitled Nanowrimo #2), Otokar (from The Third Fountain), King Richard, (from King Richard II: An Adaptation) and Reginald (from The Calico Killjoy) live again in The Italics are My Own. That is, if they ever ceased to exist in the first place. Those partial stories, the unfinished artworks, the attempts and patchworks and corrections and experiments and alternative mediums are all part of not just my creative journey, but everyone’s.
If you like my author page on Facebook, (and I kindly ask that you do so , please), you already know I’m less than a month away from releasing this:
On February 1, it will be available, in ebook form only this time, for 99 cents.
I consider it experimental in nature, though on the spectrum of literary experiments, most would probably place it on the “tame” side. But experimental is in the eyes of the author to a certain extent, and this is certainly out of the norm for me.
Though there is a hint of a narrative, it is more about imagery, language and themes. To that end, this short work isn’t so much a story in its own right, as it is a brief exploration of stories.
Funny how even though I set no patterns for this piece ahead of time, even eschewed certain recognizable beats, am organic tendency to impress certain orders upon the work sprang up from time to time. I listened to the impulse at certain points, and ignored it at others. After all, I was interested in writing something different than my norm, not in writing something so inaccessible as to be incoherent.
So while this novella, (my first), is unconventional, and lacking the most logical of progressions, I believe, certainly hope, that at any given chapter or page, there is writing to be enjoyed by most readers who enjoy language, and who seek out less obvious themes. (One day I may fully explain all the inspirations behind it.)
For now, final edits and publishing for the start of next month. Hope you’ll give it a try.
Originally posted on this site on Christmas Eve, 2010.
Due to it being the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the history of the English language (verified), most people, regardless of their faith, are familiar with this piece, known now to history as “Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus.”
Unsigned at the time of its publication in The Sun in 1897, it was of course written in response to a letter received from eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas. Though over time there has been some amount of scholarly doubt as to whether or not an eight year old actually penned the letter bearing her name (appearing as “Virginia O’Hanlon” in the paper), the woman to whom the letter has been attributed lived a life that was rather well documented. Her Wikipedia page, as well as other more legitimate sources cover her life in plentiful, if not meticulous detail. Virginia herself received fan mail for the rest of her life, to which she graciously responded. She indicated near the end of her life that the attention she received as a result of her famous letter had effected her life in a positive way.
Several movies, animated specials, and other works have been created that tell the story of Virginia and her letter. She has become a rather integral part of the Christmas zeitgeist. At least in the United States.
Coming in a distant second to Virginia in this story, in regards to eventual fame, scholarly investigation, dramatic presentation in various media, and inspiration to generations of Christmas lovers? One Francis Pharcellus Church. Who was he? Nobody special. Just the man who actually wrote the editorial itself.
I don’t want to go on and on about that. But I did think it worthy of mention that the author of the words which move so many of us that love Christmas, and the work of whom sparked the most popular editorial of all time seem almost to be an after thought.
“Oh yeah,” folklore personified seems to say. “He took care of that whole writing part of the Virginia story.”
Folks, nothing against Virginia, but in the end Mr. Church was the story. Mr. Church is the story.
Yet his section of the link I provided is basically just his picture. His Wikipedia entry merely mentions he wrote the piece, where he went to school, that he died childless and where his body is buried. It’s barely longer than the piece for which he is (not so) famous.
Now I am not beating up anybody over this. Virginia deserved some attention and admiration. However I do confess it has over the years annoyed me a bit that though it is Mr. Church’s work that instantly captured that hearts of millions, it continues to be Virginia’s story.
So, that being said, allow me, on this Christmas Eve of all days, to talk a little bit about what this work of Francis Pharcellus Church says about him, and about writing.
Set aside how famous it is. Really think about the piece. The prose is eloquent but concise. Touching on a multifaceted and deep spiritual truth in a manner that is accessible to an eight year old without boring an adult reader. It both confirms the truth about “Santa Claus”, without blowing the mystique of Santa Claus. It upholds the magical in a child’s Christmas experience without telling one single lie or half truth. On top of it all its magnificent diction makes it perfect for easy recitation or performance.
In other words, it is a brilliant piece of writing that accomplished its mission. And far, far more.
There is much we will never know about the circumstances of Mr. Church composing this editorial. We cannot know what exactly Mr. Church was thinking when he wrote the piece. We probably have no way of knowing if it was assigned to him as opposed to being a request he made to write it. And certainly his muse, like those of all us writers, will remain a mystery. Certainly more of a mystery than what Virginia went on to do with the rest of her life.
Still I think we can make a few assumptions safely. It is safe to say that this was more than a staff writer cutting his pay check. There is a superior quality of soul within the words. I find it hard to accept he didn’t believe each and every one of them as he wrote it.
Safe, also, is the assumption that Church had no idea of the impact he was about to have on an entire nation’s holiday experience over the next hundred-plus years and counting. Anybody who sits down to pen something with that as a goal needs to be locked up someplace.
He did know, as we know, one thing; he was a writer. It was his job to write, and to do so well. To live up to the standard’s expected of him by his employer and by himself. Pursuant to that, he sat down (as so many of us have before and since) with a goal, a resource, his experience, his talent, and his words. And he penned something. Something to which he could not (or would not) attach his name originally. And as a result of his gift for words, he changed not only Virginia’s life, but millions of others. Perhaps even Christmas itself to some degree. And all of that would be true whether or not the “Virginia” letter was really written by an eight year old.
This is why I write. This is why I seek out places and opportunities to make use of this talent I apparently have to assemble words in such a way as to effect, inspire, change, entertain, inform, provoke, and perhaps on occasion save other people. It is why I chose to be a starving freelancer for now. (Unless some perfect staff writing position should show up.) It is why I do my damnedest to write even though I know that nobody is reading. Why, despite a hiatus here and there I muster up within myself time after time that exhausting, that perplexing, that frustrating, that miraculous and inexplicable component within my spirit that accounts for me being a writer.
This stuff isn’t easy, folks. But it can be worth it, when you get it right. Even more worth it when the right people read at the right time what a writer composes. Just as they did for Francis Pharcellus Church. Just as they still do 113 years after he submitted it to the paper.
Was that ubiquitous yet beloved editorial a fluke? Did Church merely get lucky, and strike a cord or two, or a million? Maybe. But I think not. He was, as history tells us a “veteran” journalist, which means he had been writing large amounts of copy for at least quite a few years. That experience may have sharpened him and his words over time in just the right way to make his tapping into the consciousness of a whole culture more likely than it otherwise would have been. But that isn’t being lucky. That’s showing up. We get rewarded for showing up.
Thus far I have shown up to write far more often than I have been rewarded for same. And I get weary of it. Sometimes I even step away for weeks at a time. But the knowledge that showing up can lead to that one moment, article, sentence, speech or novel that changes everything eventually brings me back to the bottom of that hill, ready to push that bolder ever upward. I wonder if Francis Pharcellus Church ever felt that way.
As I mentioned, we know Church died having had no children. But did he? If children be extensions of ourselves and our love, while also taking on a life of their own as time goes on, I say perhaps the man did have at least one child. That child was an unsigned editorial in the September 21, 1897 edition of the New York Sun. And look at how many children, of all ages, it has touched in the decades since.
All because there was once a writer who showed up.
Several writers in my so called “circle” have, in the last three or four years, met with financial success. For some it came fast, others it came after a while. Some of them, yes,had connections, from what I have since learned that I have no doubt helped their careers happen. Others, as far as I have ever heard, lacked such connections.
This particular small, anonymous group have in fact only two things in common beyond their current level of sometimes impressive success.
1) They were each, at some point in the not too distant past, in some level of my social circle.
2) I have heard nothing from them since their respective success.
Let;s get a few things out of the way, first and foremost, before your assumptions lead you in the wrong direction.
I’m aware they don’t owe me anything, and I don’t begrudge them their success most of the time. There is some professional jealousy in anyone with enough of an imagination and desire to share same when others succeed so close by, but on the whole, it’s folly to get too pissed off about someone “making it,” even if they did so with help not available to most of us.
That being said, it’s difficult to do backflips for the success of people that were cordial before success, and now are “too busy” to be so afterward.
We, those who have not achieved our artistic goals yet, or often counseled to “be happy for them!” And to not let their success change our view of them. Fair, on the surface. But if we are not to change our view of them, is it especially odd to expect the same? If the professional thing to do is to care about, inquire of, encourage those of our writer brethren whom we know personally during our long journeys, should it not continue once one (or more) of them attain that success?
I don’t want to suggest that no highly successful author has ever kept in touch with the so called “little people.” I’ve no doubt that it has happened. But let’s all be just a little bit frank here; a star’s interest in our personal projects is usually quite diminished, or vanished entirely as compared to the level they showed in us when they were still not where they wanted to be along with us.
All by way of saying; I accept the advice from this side of the tracks, usually. But should you, or I, attain success in our literary labors, let us remember to maintain our interests, our affections, our overall connections with those writers within our “circle.” We may not be able to maintain the same schedule, but let’s put some effort into encouragement and curiosity and advice for those who haven’t made it yet. Not every stranger who becomes a fan, and not someone you feel is stepping coattails, but colleages. True colleagues before and after your “number is called.”
Because in the end, success is no better reason to leave colleagues out in the cold than failure is.
My announced plan over the last few weeks was to offer all of my ebooks for free download for the reminder of the 2019 holiday season. That is still the plan.
Despite being an indie author for several years now, there are still aspects of the business and distribution angle that I am getting used to, and trying to master. Among such concepts is the timing of actions, particularly when it comes to Amazon. (Which just about always takes longer.)
I did think I would be able to have everything set and ready to go by today, (Black Friday.) Most of it in fact is so, and most of my ebooks can be found on most e-retailers for free right now.
Not 100% of them in all places as of yet, however. Amazon included, though I await that.
I have considered the advice of others who tell me to stick only with Amazon. But because of many of the restrictions in place there that I don’t have to deal with in other major outlets like Kobo or Nook, I hesitate to dive into the Amazon-only camp just yet, despite the advantages.
That day may come, but that day is not today. So while everything did not open up exactly as I envisioned on this Black Friday, things are well on their way to there.
I ask that you keep checking back here on my webpage, in the “My Books” page to see if what you want is free yet in your preferred format.
As time goes on, I will learn better timing, better distribution options, and so on. That’s always been a steeper learning curve for me. Yet as long as my actual writing is high quality, (and I work hard to make sure that it is), I’ll not be ashamed.
Thanks for your patience and understanding.