A Fitting Place – A Metaphor

 

A Fitting PlaceMay 1 was the big day—the release of my first novel, A Fitting Place. 

Since I began to use my book cover to promote the book, people have asked me about source of my title. The one that actually made me laugh out loud came from a friend who buys his athletic shoes at a local emporium called “The Fitting Place.”

I assure you, I didn’t have a shoe store in mind when I picked the title. On the other hand, a place where you can try something on to see if it fits is not so far off the mark.

So, herewith, some thoughts about my title, which serves as a metaphor on several different levels.

A Fitting Room – In the days when I still liked to shop for clothes, a fitting room was a great place to try on a new persona while I was trying on a new outfit. I’d never worn purple—how would it look with my skin? Would I feel sexy or tart-y in a sequined dress with a plunging neckline? Those dressing rooms coughed up some unexpected treasures that delighted me for years. But more than once, my “new-persona” purchase languished in a closet until I carted it off to Goodwill.

The dressing room is a metaphor for Lindsey’s love affair with a woman. The relationship offers an intimacy she has always ached to have, an opportunity to try a different way of living and loving. But will that same-sex relationship stand the test of time, or will it founder just as her previous relationships with men have foundered?

The Biblical Notion of Fitting. The term “fitting” appears frequently in both the Old and New Testament, usually referring to actions or events that are suited to the circumstances. It stands in contrast to events or actions that are seen to be “right” in some a priori or moralistic way.

For most of her life, Lindsey has been determined to do or say the “right” thing, based on the societal values, including gender roles, with which she was raised. She routinely subordinated her needs to the whims and desires of others, or to what she assumed was expected of her. This approach to life has left her with chronic anxiety and stomachaches that sap her energy.

It is only when Lindsey begins to take responsibility for her own actions based on her own needs—to do what fits the situation rather than what she thinks someone wants—that her anxiety level drops and her stomachaches ease. It is the beginning of  maturity.

A Jigsaw Puzzle – Have you ever had the thoroughly annoying experience of working on a jigsaw puzzle with a piece or two missing? Have you ever had the rather more distressing sense that there was a piece of information missing from your life, a crucial insight that would make everything okay if you knew what it was?

That’s exactly how Lindsey has felt for years. But the missing pieces were largely of her own making, a result of her effort to live by what she assumed other people wanted, a consequence of her tendency to withhold information about herself and to dole out only what she thought people “ought” to know.

The pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place as Lindsey began to acknowledge her own needs and, in the process, discover that what her friends and family really wanted from her was quite different than what she had assumed.

How does the metaphor of A Fitting Place apply to your life?

 

Writing for My Readers – Part II

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarly in this series on recurring themes in my novel A Fitting Place, I mused on the need to create characters that resonate with my readers … to make my readers shiver with recognition as they follow the hopes and fears, the defeats and triumphs of fictional individuals whose life situations may be very different from their own, but whose emotional responses they recognize instantly.

The need for resonance from my readers looms large in my mind as I complete the final draft and incorporate the insightful suggestions of my editor.

It is a bit of serendipity that this final phase of my writing coincides with a semester-long course in the Philosophy of Art where we have repeatedly asked how to determine if a created object rises to the standard of art.

Herewith a few thoughts on how selected theories of art apply to getting resonance from my readers:

  • An early approach, going back to Plato and Aristotle, was the theory of representation, which required that art imitate life. While the focus of the theory was on the intentionality and skill of the artist, it implicitly required that the viewer—or the reader—recognize and appreciate the aspect of life being portrayed.
  • This theory went by the boards with the arrival of modern (e.g., abstract) art, to be replaced by the theory of expression. Here, the artist/author had to be motivated by an emotionally significant experience and transmit the emotion to the viewer. There has been ongoing debate about the need for the viewer/reader to experience exactly the same emotion as the artist/author, but without some degree of emotional resonance, it cannot be considered art.
  • A third approach is the theory of aesthetic emotion, for which the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant was a key proponent. In Kant’s view, appreciation of art is a wholly subjective experience that we assume others will share, but which cannot be defined or explained in conceptual terms.  In other words, adhering to the rules of the writer’s craft matters not if my readers don’t respond with a sensory feeling connected in some mysterious way to the meaningfulness of life.
  • My personal favorite is the theory of the text, proposed by Roland Barthes, a 20th century French literary theorist and critic.  Barthes makes the case that meaning is not created by the artist, but by the reader. In other words, it doesn’t matter what story I intended to tell, or what emotions I intended to convey.  What matters is whether my readers, as they engage with the words on the page, experience that shiver of recognition, that moment of aliveness that comes from being in touch with the universal human condition.

As I worked on A Fitting Place, I have pored over dozens if not hundred of articles about the craft of writing … things to do and things not to do.  The serendipity of the philosophy course, coming at this particular moment in time, lies in its timely and frequent reminder that, however skilled the craftsman, it is not good writing unless it touches the reader’s soul.

What do you think is required for writing to rise to level of art?

 

This blog continues the discussion on themes related to my novel.  I welcome comments and guest blogs from my readers based on their own experiences.  Let me know if you’d like join the discussion by doing a guest blog. 

 

A Meaningful Life

I am traveling in California, a leisurely break from my pursuit of a meaningful life as a writer. My travels make getting a weekly blog written out of the question. Instead, I offer a lovely piece from Sunday’s Brain Pickings Weekly … excerpts of advice that Hunter S. Thompson, the renowned journalist and philosopher, offered to a friend when Thompson was a mere 20 years old.

Question-Mark-820x1024How to Find Your Purpose and Live a Meaningful Life

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles…

“And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect – between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming…

The answer – and, in a sense, the tragedy of life – is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you.

[…]  “As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective. So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? 

[…]  “To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors—but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires—including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. 

[…] So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know—is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

 

To see the article in full, see Brain Pickings Weekly.

 

Being Your Own Worst Enemy

 

Swapster-ArrowsThere are several times, in my novel, A Fitting Place, when both of my major characters are their own worst enemy.

A typical definition of being your own worst enemy is acting in ways that are self-defeating, that prevent you from getting what you want or meeting your goals. But the definition that drives my characters has a slightly different focus: you are your own worst enemy when you are driven to action by two or more incompatible objectives.

For example, you can’t insist on being independent and self-sufficient, and still criticize people for not volunteering to give you assistance and/or support. You can’t complain that others take advantage of you if you’re unwilling to say “no.”  You can’t take pride in being eccentric and then be offended when strangers are uncomfortable around you or question your decisions. 

This last one I know from painful experience.

For many years, I was told that I was my own worst enemy but nobody seemed able to explain it to me in a way that told me what to do differently.

And then one afternoon, when I was in my late 20s and thinking I was well on the road to a successful career as an economist, my boss walked into my office and settled, unsmiling, into the chair across from me.

Only moments before, we’d left a meeting in which senior staff had grilled me on a paper I’d recently written. For nearly two hours, I’d had to explain and defend it, almost line by line. Apparently, my defense was sufficient, as they’d accepted my paper for publication. 

What had I done wrong?

“Mary, do you realize that you’re your own worst enemy?” Peter said. “For a moment, I thought you were going to cry.”

“Why did they have to be so hard on me?”

“Your paper challenges some long standing views held by respected PhD economists who’ve been in this field for years. Your idea was new, and its significance wasn’t as obvious to everyone as it was to you.” 

“But their questions were brutal—”

Peter interrupted me. “You should be flattered they took two hours out of their day to discuss a paper by someone barely two years out of an MBA. If you want to poke a stick in their eye, it’s your choice. But you can’t expect them to like it.

Well, of course you can, but as strategy, it’s pretty much guaranteed to make your own worst enemy.

The painful truth is that, thirty years later, I still have to temper my reaction when people don’t understand a point I’m trying to make. But at least now, I no longer take it personally.

Have you ever been your own worst enemy?  How did you get over it?

 

This blog continues the discussion on themes in my novel.  I welcome comments and guest blogs from my readers based on their own experiences.  Let me know if you’d like to do a guest blog on one or more of the issues relevant to A Fitting Place