Not Writing Is Still Writing

This is going to be a quickly written post and a lightly edited one, because if we all waited to perfect our post, we’d never write any, right? And because I promised myself I’d take a nap, and I’m due somewhere in less than an hour, so there’s not time to do both. Or is there?

Here’s the deal with “not writing”: I’ve been gratefully spending loads of time with my WIP (work in progress). Don’t get me wrong — I adore my MC and if she were here today, I’d hang out with her all the time, I’m sure. (I already talk to and for her, so why not?) The past day or two, however, she and I have been having a different sort of quality time. Instead of steady clips of time, I can only bear to write and/or edit for an hour or so at a time. At that it’s been deep, soul-searching stuff and I really couldn’t tell you what I wrote if you asked. All I know is that this MC is causing me to dig deeper than I thought possible. To tell her story is to tell mine, even though our lives and experiences are absolutely nothing alike. (Some day I’ll do a point-by-point of how different we are, just for fun.)

As I swam yesterday, however, I was writing but not writing. No, this isn’t the usual something comes to you and it takes all of your effort not to drop the vase you are holding so you can write it down. (I DID shush Barry today so I could write down a story idea. I do not normally approve of shushing, and I don’t think he appreciated it either, but in my defense it was a really good idea. But then they ALL are, aren’t they, in that first flush? So I hereby publicly apologize to Barry for the shushing. I would say I won’t do it again, but I know I will, especially at the movies.)

The kind of writing/swimming I was doing yesterday was allowing thoughts and images to flow without trying to hook them onto anything else. I allowed them to just come and go, my mind filling and releasing. I knew they’d still be there when I wanted them, and then I sat at my computer and I wrote. Truly, I’m not sure what I wrote, but I know it was important to my MC. Was it any good? I couldn’t say — I haven’t been brave enough to go back and read it.

So even if you don’t think you’re writing because you take a break from your scheduled writing time, if you believe in your current work and are determined that you will give it as long as it takes and will not compromise an inch until your MC’s (Sorry, non-writers. “MC” stands, of course, for Main Character. My apologies.) story is told. Every. Last. Word. Of. It. Just as she wants it to be.

So I would argue that if your MC needs you to stop writing your way (because she wants to say something in a different manner or if she feels pushed around), stop writing and see how else she wants you to write, because not writing is still writing, even if you don’t see it. And just as you know when a tomato is ripe, (If you don’t know, just ask. I’m that woman who will stop you from buying unripe ones at the market — it’s all in the amount of give and the smell, you know.) when you sit at your computer (or your lovingly rediscovered, Paris 016in my case, notebook and pen) it will be there, because knowing when not to write is an important part of writing. Right? Write. Sorry, Couldn’t resist. Let’s see…forty minutes before I must leave. No nap yet and I still have to fix my hair and makeup and put on my shoes. Rats. Well, I’ve always been a reluctant napper anyway. But never a reluctant writer. :-)

P.S. The photo is one I took of a fountain in Paris. Just because. Enjoy!

All “Write” Already! Be Professional.

Writers, a word, please. You know I love you, right? But I think we are being a bit too precious. I’m including myself here. Especially me!

Either we have “no time to write” while we watch TV, surf the net, and play yet another ridiculous game on Facebook, or we can’t get into our writing during writing time. What a load of hooey! (I’d rather say something besides hooey, but I’m trying to be somewhat PG.)

The truth is, whether we write for a living or for fun, we make time for what is important to us. Sure, your life may be overwhelming at the moment, but if writing is in your blood, even if you can only squeeze in fifteen minutes a day to write, you’ll do it. Only you can really say what you can sacrifice to gain that time. What I really want to focus on is WHAT WE DO WITH OUR WRITING TIME!

Many people have already written about how often writers procrastinate. We do so for many reasons — fear, anticipation, laziness, distraction.

So instead, let’s imagine, for a moment, that instead of writers we are chefs. You say to the server that you’d like an omelet. The server conveys your wishes to the chef, who says
A. I’m too busy to cook.
B. I’m too tired to cook.
C. I just can’t get into it.
D. I don’t think I can do it. Making an omelet is too hard. I think I’ll go back to being a _____.
E. No one appreciates good cooking anyway. It’s all just product to the owner. He doesn’t care about my creativity.
F. But I got a text and there’s this party.
G. Wait! I’m just going to watch ten minutes of this show first.

You get the idea? What would you do if you didn’t get your omelet? What would you think of that chef? Yeah, me too.

If we’re going to write, let’s be professional about it, please. You set aside writing time, and even if it’s total crap, you write. So what if you write in the wrong direction or if you hate it when you’re finished? Throw the omelet out and start over, or see if you can turn it into a frittata.

While writing CAN be a magical, mystical process (just yesterday I put in something as a placeholder until I could research it, and inexplicably my placeholder was exactly right, even though I KNOW I’ve never read that fact before), but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes it’s just grunt work and you just break those eggs, whip them, and put them in the pan. Because you can. Now, if you’re REALLY feeling it, you can get fancy and add spices, fry up some veggies, and even grate some fancy cheese.

We forget sometimes that we GET to write. It’s a privilege. Yes, it can torment us. It can haunt us and cause us to take long midnight walks to try to outrun the writing hound, but we also kinda hype all that, don’t you think? We writers tend to be a dramatic lot.

So what I am saying is, even if writing isn’t your 9 to 5, treat it as if it is. The Muse will respect you for it, and more importantly, you may discover you don’t need a stinking muse. Everything you need is in you, literally. Now just commit to getting it out, you pro, you!

You have my permission to print this and keep it by your desk, highlighting it freely. I know that’s what I’m going to do with it, because I sure could have used this earlier today before I gritted my teeth and just went for it. I’m happy to say I edited almost 20 pages in this manner.

All write, already!

Telling the Truth About Art By Lying About Paintings

I’m writing about paintings that don’t exist. Let me back up. I’m writing about an artist whose work has largely been lost. When a trusted mentor read my work, she suggested I write about the artist’s paintings. “Make them up,” she said. I was fascinated and daunted.

I’ve since gotten over my fear and have discovered that it’s freeing and fun to imagine what an artist’s work looks like. We only have one of her paintings to go by (as of yet, though I am hopeful that more will come to light), and some titles of her paintings that I fervently believe will one day be returned to the art world, so I do have something to guide me. And there’s my imagination, of course.

It starts with an image. I imagine her painting en plein air, and I look around and ask myself what would interest her. Or I think of where she is and what is happening. Is she in the city? Then she would be fascinated by the building going on. In the country she would adore the sheep, or so I tell myself. Then I allow the image to focus. I ask myself what the weather’s like. I try to “become” her: what is she seeing? Feeling? Smelling? What direction is the wind coming from?

I take it a step further by framing it. It’s not enough that there’s a girl with a lamb. I need to zoom in on one aspect, one angle.

The advantage to this, of course, is that I don’t need to ask the child to stay still. I can force this through my imagination. If the wind needs to blow in another direction, I can do that, too.

It’s powerful and great for imagination-building skills. I dare say it is probably helping my painting skills, though I haven’t painted for some time.

I have seen people become totally paralyzed when asked to use the imagination. It’s only by exercising it that it gets stronger, so if you need to apply this technique, just give it a try with confidence.

Let’s try an exercise, shall we?
Close your eyes. See a simple shape — a high-rise building, a four-leaf clover, or even the moon. Now build a painting. What color is the building? What do you see through the windows? Any signs on it?

That clover, where is it? What is of interest around it? Is a chicken about to eat it?

The moon…is it a full moon or a half? How bright is it?

To properly “build” a painting in your mind, you need to tell a story about it, so let’s keep going.

Go back to the building. What do you want to say about the building, or what story do you want to tell? Are you making a statement about how it looks just like the ten around it, or that it is different? Is it a monument to civilization, or is it competing with the tiny tree below?

The clover…are you highlighting its shape and the luck it supposedly gives, or that the chicken (if your picture has one) is about to eat luck, making itself lucky, or that the chicken doesn’t know that she is eating something “lucky”?

That moon…is it a persistent light despite a smoggy atmosphere, or is it clear and beautiful with the magic that only night can bring, the kind that makes you fall in love with yourself and everything that breathes just by seeing it?

Once you know what your CHARACTER would say about it, that makes things easier. For it’s not your painting. It’s your character’s.

My character equally loves progress and the country, so very likely her paintings would reflect the conflict between these worlds. How could I show this? I could have her painting a pastoral scene with the train running in the background. Or the smoke of a factory could waft above a lake on which a couple is rowing a boat.

Even if you’re not writing about art, this will serve you well when writing description and deciding what’s important to write about. Pretend you have a camera, and use it. That’s all.

Happy Lying!

Transcribing Bites! But It MAY Be Worth It!

It’s not an elegant title, but it tells the truth.

This is going to be a quick post because Barry and I have dinner plans with new friends and half an hour out from it, I am still in my bathrobe, so. But I really do want to kvetch about this.

Lately I have returned to writing in notebooks, long hand. There are several reasons I’m doing it, such as portability and to see if I write differently. (Yes, I do. I write more thoughtfully and philosophically, I think.) The only problem is that then said writing must magically find its way onto the laptop and into a Word file. Right.

The writing part went really well recently — I found myself quickly with 100 fresh pages of my novel. How fun it was to go from a coffeehouse with my light notebook to a park bench. How liberating! Until.

I have spent two days this week transcribing and whining. Whining and transcribing. I’m happy to say that I transcribed all 100 pages, yippee, and now I’m editing them. Editing, I don’t mind. In fact, I enjoy it, once I get started.

I whined about the transcription so much my husband asked why I didn’t just hire someone to type it in for me. Trust me, I was tempted. But it occurred to me there might be benefits to doing it myself. Just what are those said benefits, you ask?

1. It reminds you of what you wrote. Maybe I’m the only one who forgets what she wrote some days, but it happens to me. So transcribing places the story more firmly in my mind.

2. It’s an early form of editing. As you type, if you’re like me, you’ll whittle at that bad boy even as you’re transcribing it.

3. It enthuses you to write more. I found that after I had the new pages on the laptop before me, I was inspired to keep going.

4. It’s interesting to see if you do write differently when you write long hand. I think I do. You should try it!

5. I was easily able to add side notes and questions. Yeah, you can do this in Word, but it’s a little harder to make out, if you ask me.

6. I underlined things I questioned as I wrote that I might want to confirm or reconsider. Again, early editing without it seeming as if I were being overbearing on myself, so it was nonthreatening when I went back.

7. Cursive just seems friendlier and prettier. Maybe not my writing — I can write prettily but am usually too busy/impatient to — but cursive (or print, if you prefer) is romantic looking.

Maybe I could think of more reasons, but our dinner date looms and while I don’t think the restaurant has a dress code, I’m not sure a robe and slippers are acceptable attire.

So write by hand, and then transcribe. If you dare. It may be worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Telling vs. Showing: A Privilege of the First Person POV

Even though one is not supposed to wear the editor’s hat while writing a first draft, I found myself doing so yesterday, forcing myself to stop and go back and show versus tell. I did this in a couple of places before questioning myself.  Was the result of my pruning what I had really envisioned?

I also found myself freehanding long passages of exposition, telling’s nearly verboten cousin. Some of it will, of course, need to be weeded. I’m fine with that. But one of the reasons I enjoy writing from the first person point of view is interiority and all aspects of anything even approaching that.

What’s that? You don’t think telling and exposition are quite the same thing as interiority? Again, not exactly, but they certainly share traits. They involve explanation, sometimes at length. They hold up a mirror rather than a camera.

A few years ago my husband and I visited Rome. I had been so looking forward to seeing the famed Sistine Chapel. In my head it was going to be this small, remote chapel with a starry-skied, hazy ceiling filled with pews and walled with stucco. We would quietly file in, spend some time in the silent near darkness, contemplating the art.

Had I but looked once at it online I would have known this was not at all what we would encounter. The chapel is, of course, part of the Vatican. It is a loud, crowded room where you are shushed every two minutes and given the stink eye if you raise your camera. You are not at all encouraged to linger or meditate upon the painted ceiling.

My point is that somehow I got the impression of what I thought the chapel would be like from something I read, and that impression stayed with me until I was disappointed by reality. Telling has a charm that showing sometimes does not.

Telling is also where the “eye of the beholder” comes in. The picture the beholder can give us often trumps the actual place or experience, and sometimes it is more valuable to us. When I was a child, I used to pester my father to tell me what my grandfather, who was deceased, had been like. I was only three when he passed. My father’s description of him has left a longing and a vision of the man that I doubt would have been there had I known him, not because he wasn’t a lovely man, because by all accounts he was, but because no mere mortal can live up to the “true” stories that are doubtless embellished and inflated. I write because he wrote; I have always tried to play guitar because he did. This was all based on the stories my father told me about him, and on the photos of him playing guitar and the picture of me sitting on his lap. He looked utterly blissful to be holding me. (I should insert that photo here, but it may be at my parents’ home. TK, let us say, in editor speak.)

I’m a thought junkie. One of my favorite books is Of Human Bondage. I remember saying when I read it that I wished the man would stop with the story, already, and just talk to me! Because when he used (albeit not in first person, true) telling, he lit circuits in my brain. Give me beautiful things to think about and I’m yours! While showing lends us beautiful images, telling gives us ideas to consider.

So if you want my storytelling skills, you’re just going to have to be patient at times when I tell you, rather than show you. If I do it right, maybe you’ll even want to hear more and see less.  Or not.  But if I’m writing in the first person POV, rest assured that I’m going to take that privilege. Let’s hope it pays off.

Writing As If…Acting, Writing, and Living

frightnight

You won’t make fun of me, will you, if I tell you I sometimes act out what I’m writing? Usually I only do this in my mind, but if I’m having trouble choreographing a scene, I may well get up and see how it would work, pace it with the dialogue.

Sometimes when I am working with troublesome characters I will wear holes in the carpet while letting them talk, will argue with them. They use my hands to show me what they mean. Maybe that’s acting, or maybe that’s the extreme of active listening. (Insert smiley face here.)

At any rate, the best writers use their imaginations as much as they use words. They write as if they are the character, even characters they want to hate. (Caveat: we never hate any of our characters, not even the worst ones, because they possess a seed of ourselves and that’s how we are able to bear being who we are. Or that’s my theory.) If that’s not a kind of acting, I don’t know what is.

How can you despise someone after you allow yourself to feel with his or her hands? How can you not round a character (even if she is modeled after someone whose bed you’d like to short sheet) when you allow yourself to imagine what this playground scene would look like to you if you were this woman who had just had a miscarriage?

Come now, Dear Writer. Let us confess that the reason we write is to right our lives. Often we want to BE someone else, if only for a time. Perhaps we want to travel to a place or a time to which we have never been, and so we act as if we are there, witnessing every moment. It’s all acting. We never have to settle for what is when we can act as if, can write as if. We can live any life, love anyone, and try on any lifestyle we choose with no consequences.

So the next time you get stuck while writing, act as if. Write as if. Live as if. I can’t finish those for you. To turn those fragments into sentences is yours alone. Action!

P.S. In case you were wondering about the photo, there I am in my cat mask with my writer friend Shirley Jump and running buddies at the Fright Night race. Both Shirley and I came in third place for our age groups. Score!

The Monkey Mind and Reese’s Peanut Butter Hearts: It’s All Writing

I’m not writing a dissertation, so you might wonder why I recently picked up a book called Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker at the library. Of course it was the word “writing” that drew me. What kept me interested was its intriguing, fresh writing tips.

A few months ago I had the marvelous opportunity to teach a writing class at my church. When I surveyed the participants, I discovered they were there for many different reasons. “That’s okay — writing is writing, in many respects,” I said. Reading this book confirms this for me, because Bolker’s tips ring true to me, even though I am primarily a fiction writer.

May I recommend chapter six, “Interruptions from Outside and Inside”? Here she asks the reader to take a hard look at what is really outside of our control when it comes to writing. We all know about those “interruptions” such as social media and those fascinating, emailed newsletters that we just have to read right now. And don’t get me started on Pinterest!

She references an essay by Anne Tyler that I’d like to hunt down called “Still Just Writing.” Even though I haven’t read it, I can imagine (because I adore Tyler’s writing) what it says. I wonder if she’s been questioned about the legitimacy of her work as I currently have. I’ve been accused of being unemployed because I made the leap to full-time writing. Yesterday I ended up working thirteen hours with only a brief break or two. Unemployed? Hardly.

That is not to say that I don’t fall prey to those interruptions that others do: mail (I love all mail, email or snail), a phone call (although I try not to answer the phone while I’m working), and emails. So many wonderful emails to answer!

If you need a kick in the rear, Bolker will do that. She recounts the story of an advisee she had who was 8 1/2 months pregnant. Bolker told her that was no excuse for not finishing her dissertation, and the woman did! Tough love, but someone’s got to do it.

While it’s not the same, my last semester in the MFA program I attended I had the opportunity to present a novel for a novel-writing workshop led by an idol of mine. I quickly signed up for it, only to realize that the “novel” I had been working on was not what I wanted to present to her. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I didn’t want to waste it on something that was not the best, the truest writing I had in me. So.

So I decided that I would write a first draft of this newest novel (thankfully the subject of the novel called to me at this very time…not sure I believe in coincidence) in, oh, less than eight months.

I wrote in a dreamlike state, writing until my wrists ached. I think my maximum page count FOR ONE DAY was twenty three pages. This novel burned in me; this opportunity was truly that special to me.

I lost weight. I taught in a trance. I quit going places or hanging out much with friends. Our house became, shall we say, pleasantly cluttered as I struggled to do the most important things — dishes, laundry, cooking. My husband helped out as much as he could, but he was working long hours too.

The only thing I didn’t let go was my exercise regime. Most days. But that’s because that’s brain fuel for me. Yeah, yeah, I’ve told this before, but I just can’t believe I did it. I finished that draft. And a second. I am currently on the third draft and am still as excited about it as I was when I began.

I think Bolker would approve.

For me, perhaps the most meaningful section of Bolker’s book comes in her utter acceptance of an individual’s writing process. She suggests not fighting the monkey mind that wanders off, but to work with it. To either keep a list of those “I should” tasks that pop up, or to write what you’re thinking, no matter how off target it seems to be, and you might be surprised to see the connections your mind is trying to make.

What a relief! So my mind (which ping pongs) is okay? In fact, those thoughts that seem wildly out of line with my writing might actually be my mind’s way of trying to classify its thoughts? Monumental! I can’t tell you how freeing that validation is. She’s saying we should trust our minds! Yes, even our monkey minds.

She suggests “…instead of trying to push it out of your mind, try writing whatever is in your head”. She believes if you do this enough, useful patterns will emerge and themes. I love the idea that everything about us is connected and helpful. (I’d like to believe that my irrational fondness for Reese’s peanut butter hearts — or Reese’s pb anything — is not a weakness but helps make my writing better. Wait. I think we call that rationalization.)

Bolker teasingly jokes that the best equipment for a writer is a bucket of glue and a chair. Many others agree that all you have to do is show up. Regularly. (I’m ripping someone off, but who?)

If you’re not writing a dissertation, there are chapters such as “Your Advisor” that you can safely skip. I confess to doing just that. But if you need to feel better about yourself and your unique writing process, give this book a read. Who knows — maybe you’ll end up wanting to write a dissertation, even if you never do.

A Writing Checklist

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I wrote this recently and shared it with my husband. He asked if he could have a copy, which surprised me, because I didn’t know anyone else would be interested in it. But if any of you find it useful, feel free to make this yours as well. Just if you share it, give me credit. :-)

For me this is more my philosophy of writing than a nuts and bolts list, although there are a few of those on there.

A Writing Checklist

By Drema Drudge
1. Have I engaged all of the senses?
2. Have I built anticipation and tension?
3. Have I created a plot that leads to the answer of a question?
4. Have I resisted the urge to describe too much?
5. Does every word belong?
6. Have I considered the sound and cadence of my words?
7. Do my characters live?
8. Are my characters complicated?
9. Do they make us see the world in a new way or in a new light? Do they confirm something?
10. Have I created a world?
11. Have I done adequate research, if applicable?
12. Have I taught and/or entertained my readers?
13. Does this work of mine make the world a more complete place?
14. Have I portrayed a facet of truth?
15. Is this my best effort?
16. Have I been fearless?
17. Have I attempted to address any weaknesses in grammar, style, etc.?
18. Have I been open to criticism and feedback from my beta readers without compromising?
19. Is my work original in every way?
20. Am I writing work that engrosses me?

What is on your checklist, mental or written?

My Top Ten Tips for Organizing and Writing About Art: A Sneak Peek at my Ebook.

I’d already read Susan Vreeland’s books, and Tracy Chevalier’s wonderful Girl with a Pearl Earring. I fell for Of Human Bondage as well — it remains my favorite novel, even though I did throw it against the wall when I finished it because I was so distressed at Philip’s decision. But it wasn’t until I took a college class called “The Painted Word” that I considered mingling my twin loves of writing and art.

When we students were asked to write about art, I wrote a short story based on a painting by Matisse that turned out to be my first work of fiction ever published. The person who published the piece said I should write more about art. An agent who read the story agreed. So I’m fond of writing about art.

Writing about art shares skill sets with all writing, of course, but I do have some tips that can help you make the journey from yearning to write about art to actually doing it. In fact, I’m so convinced that there are hints and tips that can help that I’m writing an Ebook about it. Until it’s out, here are my top tips. While they can be used for writing in general, they are more art writing centered and because I write about historical art, can be applied to historical writing as well.

1. Print eight by ten photos of the main paintings you are writing about and put them in a binder. Print them on photo paper, not on regular paper. It will be so much more inspirational. Trust me.

2. Break out the old school notecards and rubber bands. There’s nothing wrong with using typical research recording methods for fiction. It just likely will not be enough.

3. Have a binder for essays as well. While you’ll make your notes on notecards, sometimes just revisiting old territory will yield a little gem you missed the first time around. Or perhaps you just want to capture the tone of the essay.

4. Keep a record of all of the books and websites you consult. You may not end up citing them all at the back of your book, but then again…in any event, you can always include them on your website. (You do have a website for your book, don’t you?)

5. Draw your notes, to make sure you keep your novel image driven — you’re going to want to do this with art, right? Seriously. Even if you’re not a great artist, try it. Bonus tip: as you read, pick out startling or vivid images to open and close your book with.

6. Google “art terms.” Learn them. Use them liberally in your works. Those who know them will respect you, and those who don’t know them will learn and be in awe of you. :-)

7. Make timelines of art and artists during the time period you are writing about. Because no one (or at least I can’t) can keep all of those dates straight without a little help. This is also a bit of an outline, brought to you courtesy of history.

8. Dig into all the key players and some who aren’t. While I’m certain that your main character is fascinating or you wouldn’t be writing about her, be sure to delve into the background of secondary characters to complicate your plotlines.

9. Consult any surviving family. It’s a longshot, but maybe…while the last two artists I’ve written about sadly did not marry or have children, you may have better luck. Even a cousin could be a great resource for family lore.

10. Make things up if you don’t contradict facts. I was actually told this in a workshop where I was gently chided for writing too timidly in spots where I had no information. I quickly realized my workshop leader was absolutely right, and I now make up anything and everything with abandon if there isn’t contradictory evidence. It’s quite freeing.

These are only ten of the top tips I have to share about art writing. While I don’t have a definite release date for my Ebook, I’m guessing it will be within the next three to six months. Look for The Grammar of Painting coming your way in, say, September. Or sooner! If you’re an art writer (or just a wannabe!), what do you need help with? I’d be glad to take a try at addressing your need in my Ebook.

P.S. Clearly the photo on this post is not of my forthcoming book. But it’s cool, because it’s a book from 1891 that shares the proposed name for my book.

A Backrub Book Review: Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement

Valley of Amazement

I adore Amy Tan. There. I said it. Call me biased, but there isn’t a word she has written that I don’t just love. And in case you doubted her coolness ratio, she’s also in a rock band!

Her latest novel, The Valley of Amazement was a Christmas gift from my husband, Barry. We were lounging in bed when I finished reading it, so I rubbed his back and talked about the book. I giggled and said I had just given a “backrub book review.” Alas, Dear Reader, I have no backrubs to offer just now, but I will gladly tell you what I told him.

As always, Tan wraps her readers immediately in a nimbly crafted world. She is a story teller bar none. Her prose is dainty and well conceived, but also rather invisible, as it should be. Her threads are silken, fine. While a large part of Tan’s appeal is the exotic nature of her tales, happily she addresses the universal.

Set partially in Shanghai in the early 1900′s, the book was particularly charming to read because I will be visiting Shanghai (accompanying my business-traveling husband) this year.

The main character, Violet Minturn, is brought up in her mother’s high class courtesan house, until circumstances cause Violet to be separated from her mother and forced to become a courtesan herself. (I can’t say too much more about how they become separated.) Violet, half Chinese, learns to embrace that newly discovered side of herself in order to survive the horrors of her life.

In this story of tragedy, misplaced trust, and, finally, quiet hope, Tan gives Violet a substitute mother, Magic Gourd, a woman Violet’s mother kicked out. Violet ends up at the house where Magic Gourd has gone, and the woman takes her under her wing, making her a well-sought after courtesan.

The story is nicely paced, beginning with a first person section in which we hear from a young Violet. This shifts to a clever second-person POV chapter titled “Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir.” It gives us all of the background information we would like about courtesans and their ilk without info dumping or trying to artificially fit it into dialog.

I must admit there was one spot where I stopped and shook my head a few times and asked Barry if he thought it was fair of Tan to reintroduce Violet’s mother after page 400 and tell us her backstory. For a few pages I fought it, but soon I was immersed in her story, and was rather sad to leave it to return to Violet.

I was also concerned that with only about two hundred pages left, Tan wouldn’t be able to satisfy her reader if she wandered away from Violet, but she did. I should never have doubted her.

Although he appears to be a shadow of a character in this book, I am more than a little interested in the artist Lu Shing. So forgive me if I shift now from a traditional review that you could get anywhere into a meditation on Lu Shing.

Violet’s father (a man Violet knows virtually nothing of), Lu Shing, is a second-rate artist who basically copies the work of masters and adds a detail or two, often at his customer’s request. Violet, having come into possession of two of his paintings, doesn’t like his work, but Magic Gourd keeps rescuing the paintings.

He figures into the story when Violet’s mother, Lucia, at the age of 16, falls in love with him in the United States, seduces him, and follows him back to China, while he protests continually that though he loves her, he will never be able to marry her or be with her.

Here’s the thing: Tan’s women are strong. They survive the grossest indignities, but they are their own worst enemies when it comes to loving men. They love unreservedly and ill-advisedly. In fact, their greatest passion in life seems centered around men, and it always causes them and those they love immeasurable pain.

In fact, these women often fall in love much more so of the idea of these men than the men themselves. That’s the case with Lucia and Lu Shing. We know before Lu Shing ever tells Lucia that his passion is for art, and that his passion even for that is pale.

The book’s title comes from one of Lu Shing’s paintings. The painting makes Violet feel uneasy when she finds it: “I felt certain now that the painting meant you were walking into the valley, not leaving it.” What she doesn’t know is that Lu Shing paints this same scene again and again, altering it at the whim of customers. She also doesn’t know that while the painting is a copy of an old master, the place is real, and it is a place she will visit and will have to escape.

Lu Shing seems muted, even when he paints. The women in the book ultimately take on this same muted quality when they are older. True, they survive. But they do so at the cost of vibrant feeling.

When Lu Shing is still in the United States he is asked “How do we capture the emotion in art?” His answer is telling: “The moment is altered as soon as I try to capture it, so for me, it’s impossible.” It’s also telling that he comes to the States as a young man to study with a landscape artist. There’s a stark, uninvolved, observer quality at work here that is, nevertheless, not without its own beauty.

There is no easy, happy ending to this book. Reunions happen, but not rosy, tearful ones. The strong women remain adamantine, and because of that, emotion is not something that they can afford to spare.

Just as Lu Shing has only walks through a life of shame at his weakness, so the women survive, but their connections seem both strong and tenuous. They are fiercely independent and yet devoted to the idea of one another. While we believe they stay in touch, the infrequent nature of their contact makes us believe they would survive just as well without one another. And yet this is a novel well worthy of a second read. What better message than that while we are connected, we are also strong enough to survive on our own?

Did you happen to catch the short story “The Frog Prince” by Robert Coover in last week’s New Yorker? What he writes toward the end of the story is true of this novel: “…and they found a certain contentment, living more or less happily ever after, which is what ‘now’ is while one’s in it.” I couldn’t sum it — or life — up better myself.

There is so much more to this book. I wholeheartedly recommend it. In fact, perhaps it’s time I read it again. Have you read it yet? Do you intend to read it? What else of Tan’s have you read?

P.S. I anticipate revisiting this book once I am back from China, so look for an update then.