A Gut-Wrenching Excerpt

A much-repeated fiction mantra is the encouragement to “write what you know.” Personally, I’ve never tried. Whenever I’ve written fiction in the past, my work has been a heavy-handed attempt at escaping reality, not a deftly crafted reflection of reality. It has been soulless. This time, I’ve decided to try my hand at writing what I know. The following novel excerpt is laced with memories and emotions I know all too well. It is not so much based on my life as it is drawn from it. If certain people read this, they may be angry; I hope that is not the case. This bit is, first and foremost, fiction. I hope they remember that.

As always, I wrote this bit very quickly. It needs editing. It is perhaps the roughest draft I’ve ever posted. It is also the most difficult draft I’ve ever written. I do not have the literary faculties to put some things into words. Also, a nota bene: this excerpt occurs a bit later on in the novel than the past two excerpts. I’ve also left in a couple of editorial markings I leave for myself, because it’s still a work in progress. Enjoy =]

Excerpt III: Carlene’s POV

I trust people too easily.

As a child, it was an asset: I made friends with everyone, from the girl whose driveway I ran into on one winter morning while walking with my mother to the special needs kid who repeatedly hit his head on the jungle gym’s tin slide. On my  report cards, my teachers’ comments always highlighted my social ability. “Carlene is a joy to have in class,” they said. “She communicates openly with her peers and brightens any lesson with her eagerness to learn.” In junior high, the comments grew more three-dimensional, tainted with the shadows of a frustration that was always implied and never stated: “Carlene is a bright student with tremendous potential if she directs her energy correctly.” I was so upset by my teacher’s apparent newfound hatred of me that I marched out into our tiny backyard and attempted to burn the scathing synopsis of my behavior–and all my past report cards–on our propane grill. My mother, to my dismay, saved them all.

As I matured, I realized what I’d perceived as an asset was really a liability. My first serious relationship was torturous. I fell for him right out of high school. He was charming, with a smile as bright and as quick as the lightening that attracts you with its brilliance but burns you once it strikes. And burn he did, branding me into what he wanted.

I was in love, or so I thought; in reality I was taken in by a boy for whom I could never be good enough; to whom I would never quite manage to say the “right” thing; and of whom I would never let go, until he dragged himself away from me and into the arms of a garishly skinny redhead who shot photography, drank soy milk, and never, ever looked flustered.

You cannot hear a heart break, but you can feel it; like the tree that falls alone in the forest, it still splinters, even when no one is watching.

[Insert transition here]

It is a wrenching pain, a sharp ache, an all-consuming sensation that forces you into the fetal position and causes you to scream silently into a pillow.

It is knowing you are not wanted.

It is knowing that you will never be enough.

Over time, I have realized that heartbreak, for all its blinding pain, is never unexpected. It is the obbligato in the song of life, the given in the proof of humanity. I have learned to read the signs: to notice those moments of uncomfortable silence, the symptom of a festering discontent; to notice him looking at her and seeing the alternate possibilities, realizing what he could have instead. I can pinpoint the exact moment at which things begin to fall apart.

All this does not, for one moment, serve to explain why, when I roll over in my bed, still dazed from my post-coital slumber, I am surprised not to see Matthew laying next to me.

I trust people too easily.

A Real Nota Bene, and I Wish WordPress Had a “Gloss” Feature.

I’m a week behind on blogging–actually, more like a week and a half. That is entirely my fault, and I offer my deepest, sincerest apologies to you, my reader. I thought I’d compose a quick update to let you know what’s going on.

The past week, I’ve been incredibly busy. I work 30+ hours a week as a nanny, and by the time I get home at night, I’m usually exhausted. Scrambling after two toddlers takes a hell of a lot of effort. Along with work, I have a thriving social life that keeps me up far later than any person should ever be awake. And oh–did I mention I’m also knitting together a full-length novel in my literary womb? (Not my literal womb; my literary womb. There’s a stark difference!) Let me tell you: being book preggers is hard work! I feel like I’m always too tired to blog.

In addition to the book, I’m also working on a side project with a dear friend. Just as every good frontman needs his own musical side project, every talented blogger should have one as well. Keep your eyes open and your ears to the ground, people. Something lives, much the way Frodo does. (And yes, I do expect to see “Hannah’s side project lives!” painted on NYC subway walls in the near future. If you don’t understand what I mean, I’m terribly sorry. I would provide a bit of backstory, but there’s no “gloss” function on WordPress.)

I promise I’ll have an actual excerpt or essay or something for you guys tomorrow. Until then, much love!

Novel Excerpt II

Nota bene: like most of my work, I wrote this in about twenty minutes. It’s good, but it does need some work. I’m seriously unhappy with bits of it, especially the part about the French toast. Also, a bit of forewarning: this piece is the follow-up to the first pseudo-erotic scene I ever wrote. I’m still figuring out exactly how to write sex scenes. It’s not my forte, to be honest. It’s not that I feel uncomfortable depicting sex; I think in some cases it’s necessary for the story, and I’m okay with that. I’m just not particularly gifted at description in general, even less so at describing intimacy. Also, if there are any young eyes perusing this blog, they shouldn’t read this. It might raise a few uncomfortable questions.

As for names, they are all subject to change. I always use family names while drafting fiction; I rarely stick with them. “Matthew” might become “Ryan” in the near future.

Happy reading!

Excerpt II; Carlene’s POV

Before my stint in publishing, I was a writer. I wrote pieces freelance for a while, before settling in to a steady job at The Economist. I loved the rhythm of journalism: the deadlines, the all-nighters fueled by coffee and Chinese food, the research. India. China. The ASEAN summit. The Dharma Round. I used to travel, developing stories, spending each night in a different bed. The same was also once true of my love life. Both grew old–or maybe I did.

This morning, though, something is different. When I roll over, cringing at the noisy crispness unique to hotel sheets, I don’t feel like the man next to me is a stranger. I don’t rush to dress and leave, anxious to escape the shameful morning after, my customary ritual with one-night stands. Instead I just lay there, wrapped in the linens, unsure of myself. To sooth my mounting unease, I do what i’ve grown so accustomed to doing: I study. I study the curvature of Matthew’s back, how his spine twists slightly to support his absurd sleeping position: on his side, right arm flung wide onto my side of the bed, knees tucked up like a small child. The plane of his shoulder blade quivers just as I begin to study it intensely. As if the weight of my gaze were an unbearable burden, Matt rolls over and glances at me.

“Oh hey there, darlin’,” he purrs easily, as if he wakes up next to strange women all the time.

“Hey.” I’m not sure what to say.

“Seems like you and me had quite the time last night.”

“Yeah, well…” I feel a blush creep up my neck. “This is Vegas, right?” Humor. When one cannot escape an embarrassing situation, make light of it. I repeat this to myself as if it were one of Orwell’s rules. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short one will do. Never wake up next to a man you don’t know. 

He laughs lightly. “Carlene, darlin’, at least you know where you are. That’s better than half the people waking up in this hotel today.”

I shiver, but not at the thought of the hungover party animals in the room next door. He’s remembered my name. So much for this being a no-strings-attached hookup. Should I ask him to breakfast? Tell him to leave? Roll over and go back to sleep? My stomach answers for me, tightening at the thought of food. Maybe coffee will help me think. “You know, I think I could go for some coffee.”

“The restaurant in the lobby serves a mean challah French toast.” He grins gently.

“Oh? You stay here often, then?” How would he know what their French toast is like, otherwise? And besides–I’m hearing my mother in my head now–what would a goy like him know about challah? But my stomach knots itself tighter at the mention of French toast, and I know breakfast with Matthew is going to happen.

“Often enough,” he says. But his answer is obscured by my need for food. I nod my head slightly and rise out of bed.

“Darlin’, I must say, you look twice as good from this angle and in this lighting than you did last night.”

I freeze, halfway between the bed and the door.

Suddenly I’m scrutinizing my toes and wishing I could evaporate, like a superhero out the Marvel comic books I refused to read as a kid. Don’t move, I think silently. Don’t turn around. Whatever you do, don’t look at him. I study my toes, as if memorizing every crease and callus will make up for my shame. Just pull yourself together. Your clothes are on the nightstand. Just turn around, take them, and go into the bathroom. Maybe he’ll be gone when you come out, I think.

I am so busy thinking that I do not notice the arms creeping around my waist like vines, pulling me close to the solid trunk of a man I barely know.

“Mm darlin’, whatcha doing?” Matthew coos in my ear as I realize I’m wrapped up in him.

“Just thinking,” I say, all of a sudden distracted by the pleasant sensations of hot breath on my neck, hands on my thighs, chest against my back.

“Well stop that, darlin’,” he admonishes, rocking gently, turning me towards the bed.

And for once, I do.

How to Persuade People and Win Debates–but Not Necessarily Friends, and I Can’t Promise You’ll Influence Anyone

Note bene: I apologize for the poor, hasty quality of the following piece. If you want something more interesting (read: fictional), check back Saturday. I’ll post a new novel excerpt then.

Persuasion is a fine art–so fine, in fact, that there are volumes upon dusty volumes on it. My personal favorite is the Austen classic–ha! Whether on paper or orally, expressing oneself in a convincing manner is always a beneficial skill to master, even if you’re only posting controversial comments on your friends’ Facebook statii. But persuasion is also a complex art: it often seems an insurmountable task, especially in the thick of a good, heated argument. As a writer with a strong background in editorials and a competitive debater with an appetite for victory–not to mention a blogger with the pressing need to post decent content– I’ve distilled what I think are the six key facets of persuasion.

Firstly, organize your thoughts. There is nothing worse than an unorganized debater–except an unorganized writer. Ordering your thoughts provides a framework for your audience, whether they be readers or judges. It shows consideration for their unique needs; they aren’t mind readers but page readers. They can’t determine your point solely from your content. They need guidance. In some forms of persuasion–generally, the spoken forms–you should make this guidance explicit by “flagging” your points and providing a “roadmap” of your argument. In writing, however, this strategy is known as metadiscourse and is considered decidedly poor taste. Organization also lends emphasis to certain points, and you can use this emphasis to your advantage. For example, would Jonathan Swift  have made his point nearly as effectively if he started with the eating babies part, rather than the acknowledgement of political and economic repression?

Secondly, provide proper analysis. In the art of persuasion, one must always be assertive in manner, and never in content. Provide backing for your arguments. It enhances your credibility and demonstrates your ability to think not just critically but thoroughly as well. You must show the why and the how, not just the what; once again, your audience is not comprised of magical mind reading gurus. Depending on the format, the amount of analysis you offer your audience may differ; an op-ed in the local paper calls for much more brevity than a longer Toastmasters speech.

Thirdly, avoid fallacies. There is no fouler offense, no graver persuasive sin than to offer your audience empty fallacies and disconnected reasoning. In doing so, you offend your audience’s intelligence (by attempting to pull proverbial wool over their eyes) and denigrate yours (by not providing a solid, logical, well-phrased, well-thought-out point).

Fourthly, use analogies, and watch your phrasing. As the poet Robert Frost said, “Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.” You will be taken advantage of, he writes. Analogies are powerful tools for connecting with your audience; for example, it is far more effective to speak of the balance of power–conjuring images of a scale–than ramble on about how countries interact politically and diplomatically. It is better to refer to the proverbial piece of pie than throw economic statistics and financial indicators at your reader. And keep your language simple, clear, and concise. Do not distract from your point with fancy words. Furthermore, be aware of words’ connotations; do not use a word that brings a bitter taste into the reader’s mouth. You are likely to offend or, at the very least, spoil your own argument.

Fifthly: that said, you can and should use humor to your advantage. If brevity is the soul of wit, then wit is the soul of beating your opponent.

Finally, and most importantly, be gracious. An argument is not a fight. There is no easier, more effective way to ruin a good, soul-moving discourse (à la Plato’s Phaedrus) than by throwing out a thoughtless insult or ferocious ad hominem attack. Ad hominem fallacies do two things: they make you look unintelligent, because you’re not putting forth anything of substance, and they make you a bully; no one wants to take the side of a bully, now, do they? If you are ungracious, amazing rhetoric is but jewelry on a pig.

Persuasion is possibly the most difficult form of written or oral communication. It takes not only solid reasoning but adept social skills and rhetorical flair. You will try, and you will fail. You will feel awful for quite some time after each failed attempt at persuasion, and then you will feel worse. But eventually, as with all communicative skills, you will catch on–if you practice. So email me. Start an argument. And when you finally feel the endorphin rush associated with having succinctly expressed your thoughts on some controversial topic, it’ll all be worth it.

All the News…

This post is the first of two for today, so keep checking back. I’ll be posting actual substantive matter in a couple of hours, but right now there are some updates I need to get out of the way.

Firstly, why am I posting this at such an unholy hour of the morning, you ask? For this question I really have no good answer: I hate early morning. But I spent the weekend at my parents’ house on the Main Line, and now I’m headed back to the city. The commute is stressful but not terrible; it’s also entirely worth it. I seem to write better in my old room in the house I lived in during my high school years. I still keep a desk and chair up there, with plenty of floor space left for continuous pacing. It’s the room where I wrote 2,000+ words/week for three whole years–in case you didn’t do the math, that’s at minimum 312,000 words. It’s where I came of age as a writer. Needless to say, I’ve grown attached.

Secondly, I’ve put myself on a schedule. New content will be posted Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. Theoretically, this gives me ample time to work on pieces in advance; any of my friends will tell you, though, that I’ll do no such thing. Everything is written an hour or two before the deadline, and I don’t believe in drafting.

Thirdly, I’d like to hear what you want to read. I don’t do pieces on commission or take requests, but I am open to suggestions. In the next week or so, I plan on finishing up the Night-Table Library series, posting a new excerpt from the book-in-progress, and hopefully starting a series on grammar and style. I’m constantly thinking up new content, however, and guidance is always helpful.

Fourthly, I owe a few key people a major thank you. As I said earlier, I don’t have an official editor; I generally don’t draft. I do have wonderful close friends, though, who allow me to bounce ideas and pieces-in-progress off of them. They give awesome feedback, and I really appreciate it. So if they’re reading this, they know who they are. Special thanks to Keith, too, who helps me learn all the technical stuff and explains my blog stats to me, and who is also linked from The Dust Jacket.

Actual content to be posted in T-minus one hour.

Announcements and an Excerpt!

Not many people read this blog, but enough people kindly follow it to warrant some announcements.

Firstly, I’m writing a book. I guess you could more accurately say that I’m working on a book. It’s a lot of work. I’ve been at it for a month, and I only have a couple of chapters. That said, it’s one of those ideas that you either pull off or fail miserably at pulling off; I’m taking it slowly and praying for the best. For those of you who know me, it’ll be my fourth novel.

Secondly, I’ll be posting excerpts right here for everyone to read. Constructive criticism is always welcome. I don’t currently have an editing staff besides my wonderful friends and readers–okay, my friends and readers are usually the same people. Basically, I edit all my work myself, which usually works out alright; I like to think I have  a pretty good ear for words. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work out so well, and that’s why I appreciate any and all thoughtful feedback. (Ruminations on misplaced commas, my relationship status, or my bra size do not count as thoughtful and will be duly ignored.)

Thirdly, there’s a new header/tagline thinger. It involves the word “sexy.” I figure if I included the word “sex” or any derivatives thereof, more people would read my blog. (Kidding–I did it because it sounded amusing and very much like me.)

I’m posting just a short bit this time–really short. As usual, all words and stuff are copyrighted by me, and if you steal as much as an apostrophe, I will hunt you down and sue the living daylights out of you.

Carlene, Part I, Rough Draft

I love the way a much-read book resembles an old lover: the frequently thumbed pages,  worn where your fingers gently touched the margins; the way the story wraps itself around you, as you cling to its familiar curves; the quiet, comforting pleasure after you’ve finished. Books, in my mind, are better than people in some respects. They are constant companions, never leaving your side, or your shelf, or your nightstand. They are available always and rejecting never. They can never shut you out, never grow angry or tiresome. They allow you to love while affording you all the carnal pleasure you could ever wish for, all in one slim volume that will not, no matter how dog-eared and battered, grow ugly or fat. Best of all, they are indifferent: they will never prefer another reader, all the while leaving you alone to prefer other books. And while there are many books not worth a second glance or the ten dollars you’ll pay for them in the supermarket checkout line (whores of books whose sole purpose is to fulfill your wild craving for a good story, disappoint you, and then leave you wanting), a certain few will withstand your first onslaught–the first read-through, the honeymoon phase, when you devour the book with an insatiable appetite–and come home with you, where they remain, waiting to be fondled by your tamed hands.

Sometimes, though, I’m reminded of how much books can’t do. For all the joy they bring, they cannot once satisfy the ache of an unfulfilled heart. And that’s why I’m here tonight, on the balcony of a room I cannot afford, at a hotel I hate, in a town more loud and obnoxious than my native Manhattan…

Why Virginia Woolf Still Makes Me Mad

The first time I encountered Virginia Woolf, I was sixteen. A senior in high school, I was still reeling from my recent foray into stream-of-consciousness literature; a small taste of James Joyce was enough to send me spinning dizzily, inebriated by his excessively wordy, non-linear narrative like a literary lightweight. Truth be told, I hated Virginia Woolf from the moment I picked up my freshly-purchased copy of To the Lighthouse. I hated her guts. How dare she require so much of my attention for her so-called psychological exorcism of a book? How dare she write that which I could not understand and therefore could not appreciate? Her gumption in exorcising her personal demons through literature I had to study continued to appall me for a year and a half.

Then, midway through my freshman year of college, I revisited “A Room of One’s Own” while paging through my worn, blue Norton anthology. I distinctly remember pausing at the end of the story, grappling with the creeping suspicion that I had actually enjoyed reading it. Sure enough, I was feeling the lightening of the soul caused by a delightful literary encounter, and the overbearing remorse at its having come to an end.

But then I noticed another feeling seeping out from the corners of my mind. I was still mad. Woolf still made me angry. But this time I was not angry with her as an author; she had made me mad at the world. Her violent murder of the Angel in the House made me furious that society had allowed such a dark spirit to exist for so long. I began to see the Angel everywhere: in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge; in television programs; and especially in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

Every time I re-read Mrs. Dalloway (and I have done such every few months since learning to love Woolf), my anger increases. Let me be clear: I am not a hot-headed feminist. I do, however, understand why it was so necessary for Woolf to exorcize her personal demons through the scratching of her pen on paper. I cannot imagine being as stifled, as diluted, as locked away as Clarissa Dalloway. I know that in some sense, Woolf and Clarissa are one: an amorphous mass of repressed feelings and ideas in an estrogen pressure cooker.

I’m also proud, immensely proud, of Woolf’s violent and premeditated literary slaughter of the Angel. I’m almost disappointed she published her second conception of Mrs. Dalloway, rather than the original manuscript, in which Clarissa commits suicide during the party. I’m proud of Woolf because, as I sit and gaze contentedly at my over-packed bookshelf, I realize nearly all my favorite authors are male. They are male, and they are dead. Virginia Woolf may be dead, too, but her feminine moxy lives on: she shares sacred space on bookshelves across the world with the likes of Chaucer and Arnold.

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