Thursday, July 31, 2014

Thank you, Jandy Part II (Overt Actions)

So I’ve spent the summer exploring the premise for a new manuscript, and this has included a lot of plotting.  Plotting for me is a combination of note-taking alternated with exploratory writing.  But plotting before a first draft can only go so far.  There are some anchor points, like the climax, which I can already visualize, but there are others, like my protagonist and antagonist’s momentous turning point.  A moment like this I am sure should be realized through an overt action, but I just don’t know what it should be yet.  So I thought I’d reread the crown jewel of YA novels which realize important plot moments through overt actions –Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere.

As always, this post is full of spoiler alerts, but if you haven’t read TSIE, you should stop reading this and go get the book immediately anyway!

I could write a doctoral thesis on the countless ways Nelson uses characters’ overt actions to realize key plot moments.  The characters’ interactions with plants, Lennie’s poem-writing, Gram’s box of letters to Lennie’s mother, and, of course, Lennie’s relationship with her clarinet are just a few.  Notably, each time a character executes an overt action, it is attached to a motif like the plants, poems, letters, or clarinet.  So much so that I’ve come to think of them as motif-actions.  For this post, I’ll focus on what Lennie does with her beloved copy of Wuthering Heights.  Interestingly enough, this is also a turning point scene.

After her ploy to cut a bouquet of Gram’s prized roses fails to win Joe back, Lennie is finally having her heart to heart with Gram.  Lennie realizes how foolish choices, including her own, prevent us from experiencing great big love while we can (Life is short.  For Bailey, it is already too late.)  But Lennie and Gram don’t just talk about it; Nelson realizes this turning point by having Lennie execute an overt action.  Lennie uses Gram’s garden shears to chop up her copy of Wuthering Heights.  This is Lennie’s favorite book, annotated and dog-eared over twenty-three readings!  Here is what I learned by highlighting all of Jandy Nelson’s references to Lennie’s doomed novel.

First, when it comes to big motif-actions like this, Nelson seeds them almost from page one.  The first reference to Lennie’s Wuthering Heights is right at the top of page two where she is scribbling a poem in the margin as Gram and Big worry over the Lennie plant.

Second, Nelson’s use of Wuthering Heights is never forced because she takes the time to establish Lennie’s relationship with this book.  Lately, a lot of YA characters seem to have favorite classic books guiding them, but Nelson’s use is by far the most believable because she establishes Lennie as a literary person.  On only page seven, Lennie describes her best friend, Sarah, as a literary fanatic like her, delving into Sarah’s darker reading tastes.

Third, Nelson uses Lennie’s interactions with her copy of Wuthering Heights to create an arc of development.  Early on, Nelson uses road-reading to establish Lennie’s starting point: “I like love safe between the covers of my novel.”  As Lennie’s experiences with Joe and Toby compound, her comparisons of real-life erections and kisses with the Wuthering Heights world are funny.  The book also becomes a vehicle for Lennie and Joe to get to know each other over lunch in a tree.  Later “Heathcliff and Cathy have nothing on us.”

Fourth, I learned that once you find that motif-action for your big moment, extend it further than you imagine you can.  After Lennie chops up her Wuthering Heights, she rakes her fingers through the remains while ruminating on her regrets.  As the conversation with Gram continues, she wants to scoop a fistful of book scraps to throw at Gram.  She also rearranges the words into new sentences, reflecting the mood of the moment: under that benign sky and so eternally excluded.  Then she wishes she could put the words back together so Cathy and Heathcliff could make different choices.  Finally, as her understanding of life and love has evolved far beyond the novel, Lennie sweeps the whole thing into the trash.

Fifth, by watching Nelson I learned to look for ways motif-actions can cross subplots.  After Lennie chops up her book, she hands the shears to Gram, and Lennie sees Gram has her own reasons to be angry.  Gram also has her own reasons to be ashamed, which we see as she sweeps the book scraps toward herself.  The pile of scraps jumps when Gram pounds the table with her fist forcing Lennie to hear her reality.  Later, Lennie writes a poem in which Cathy and Heathcliff’s stronger-than-death love becomes about Lennie and Bailey.  So as motif-related actions cross subplots, their meaning reverberates out across the story.

The last thing I learned may be the most important of all.  I’ve written enough to imagine Nelson developing Lennie’s growing relationship with her copy of Wuthering Heights.  I’d bet Wuthering Heights popped up in a freewrite about Lennie, maybe just a matter of characterization.  As Nelson continued drafting maybe she saw opportunities to draw Wuthering Heights through.  Maybe she even took a break from the story to write about what Wuthering Heights meant to Lennie.  Maybe the image of the shredded pages occurred to her then.  Maybe during revision, she played around with the remains of the book left on the table.  Maybe she went back and reread Wuthering Heights, wrote about Lennie’s favorite book some more, and realized how it applied to her relationship with Bailey.  Whatever the case, as long as I keep looking for the motif-action that could become my turning point, as long as I keep mining my current draft for accidental gems, as long as I keep journaling about my characters, it’s okay to proceed without knowing exactly what that turning point’s overt action will be.

 Observing Nelson’s use of Wuthering Heights has taught me something about the nature of the overt motif-action.  Like any seed, you can’t force it to grow, you have to keep nurturing the soil, and it’s definitely worth waiting for.  So thanks, Jandy, for freeing Lennie and for freeing me!

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