Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Writing Truths Wrapped in Fiction

Anyone who has ever lost their muse or found themselves unable to write will identify with Helen the main character in Elizabeth Berg’s novel Home Safe (2009). Although it is fiction and the blurb on the dust jacket never once mentions writing, it is a story about writing -- why a writer writes. How a writer works. How stories are found in everyday life. As Helen reminisces about her ‘old life’ when she could write, she remembers going on errands and people watching. “…into her writer’s basket would go snatches of conversation, the sheen of someone’s long black hair, an exaggerated limp…. Natural events that she witnessed – furious summer thunderstorms, the oblique flight of migrating birds,…, the formation of fuzzy stars on frost against her window – all these seemed rich with potential for metaphor.”

From the opening – “One Saturday when she was nine years old, Helen Ames went into the basement, sat at the card table her mother used for folding laundry, and began writing.” – to the ending, which I will not reveal, the main plot, at least to me, is how a writer can resurface from the depths of despair to breath fresh ideas again.

Okay, so the book jacket emphasizes a stressed mother-daughter relationship and the discovery of her late husband’s secret withdrawals from their retirement account, but I still think that this book is more about writing than anything else. All her life Helen coped with difficult situations by writing about it. “Nothing helped until the day she took a tablet and pencil into the basement and moved the event out of her and onto paper…” How many of us can relate to that?

And when finances bottom out, who among us hasn’t thought about getting a “real” job? Instead Helen ends up teaching a writing class. As we sit in the back of the class, Berg lets us hear the throat clearing voices of a diverse group of new writers, which include a scary looking mechanic, an older man from an assisted living residence, a middle aged woman from the ghetto, and a Latino TV anchorman. It is a great lesson in voice and style as you listen to each student’s assignments, and I had to restrain myself from grabbing my pencil to make corrections.

Helen’s (or Berg’s) writing prompts are ones that you can tuck away for a day when your brain needs a jumpstart – Write two pages about a room that has special meaning for you. Write about your first kiss. Eavesdrop on a conversation and then use it to inspire a fictional conversation between two characters. Using only dialogue, let the reader see what each character looks like.

And if you really want to know what Elizabeth Berg thinks about writing, check out her nonfiction title, Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True (2009).

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