One of the things I most appreciate about major league pitchers is their ability to throw a variety of different pitches. They have an entire repertoire at their disposal – the knuckle ball, spitball, slider, fast ball, curveball, change-up – and the pitch used varies depending on the need; however, it is possible for a pitcher to master a particular pitch, to become known as a career expert at throwing the fastball, for example.
Much like any other creative endeavor, the day to day of life on the mound is a variation between art and form: the action of art — the pitch — stays the same; but the form, or the way the pitch (the art) is expressed, can change based on need or change in circumstance. This practice presents a valuable lesson for writers trying to write through the curves their own lives. Too often, perhaps, we cling to a rigid practice of form when we might experience less stress and greater productivity if we allowed ourselves greater flexibility of form as the circumstances of our writing lives change.
Writers staring down the curveballs may become depressed or discouraged when they find they can no longer maintain the same momentum in their writing project. This is understandable. But like the pitcher that doesn’t give in to frustration because his slider isn’t working to strike out the batter he’s facing down, perhaps the answer lies in trying something else, in writing something else.
In my case, the parts of my brain required to build the world of my novel and live there for any length of time with the characters has become increasingly hard to access. This is largely due to the type of health problems I’m having, but there are other reasons as well, some of which I have alluded to in this series and all of which have escalated, hence the reason why the series is not yet finished. My own personal challenges here aren’t really relevant. The operative point is upheaval has changed my writing life to something unrecognizable. So what do I do? How do I keep writing when what I’m used to doing clearly won’t work right now? Like the pitcher, I continue on with the art of writing, but I feel free to change the form – I continue to work on my novel at less of a fever pitch, with less drive and force than I have been until now, and instead allow myself to write something else now and again. Like the pitcher, I don’t give up writing, I simply throw a different pitch by writing something else, by writing some other way. With the curveballs, it seems to me more important that I simply CONTINUE TO WRITE. As long as I am writing something, I’m in the game. To not write at all would be the death knell.
We use different parts of our brains for different writing tasks – kind of like you use different muscles for different exercises or sports. Writing something else – a poem, a short story, an essay, a letter, a blog post, a book review, a lesson plan, a writing journal, etc. — can be a relief, especially if that other form comes easier for you than the one you typically work in. For me, writing nonfiction is like breathing, while fiction writing is new and more difficult. At this challenging time in my life, as long as I can fall back on the form of writing that comes easiest to me and keep my mind and imagination limber, while still making time to engage my fiction, I am being faithful to my call to write.
So if things on your plate are roiling like a maelstrom, try writing something else – blog posts, essays, poetry, journals, letters to people you know or would like to know. The important thing is to keep exercising those muscles, keep writing. Something is better than nothing at all and your project isn’t going anywhere. It will still be there for those moments when you are able to attend to it.
My friend, Ruth, posted an enlightening and insightful comment about Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife in which she elucidates the subtle but singular light she found at the end of the novel. Amidst all of the discussion across several blogs and comment threads, Ruth’s analysis shines brightly and casts at least the end of the novel in a favorable light. The difficulties are still present, and I stand by my critique of the problems the novel presents. As a follow-up to our Literary Wives Discussion of the novel, I showcase Ruth’s comment here as a worthy perspective on the light, or moment of grace, at the end of A Reliable Wife. It is something one must dig for, certainly, but this light is crucial to a work of literary art and, as Ruth writes it, is an important and meaningful accomplishment. Thank you, Ruth, for finding and taking the time to articulate the bright spots!
Although this wasn’t my kind of book, Angela, and I can quite see why you didn’t finish it, I did manage to get to the end. I’m actually glad I did make it to the end as there was a little ‘light’ there. As you say, there are a number of difficulties, but as I have a bit of a policy not to say negative things about writers, I’ll offer this thought on the conclusion and the title. I felt there was redemption, after a fashion, for both Catherine and Ralph by the end of the book, but Catherine in particular. I thought it telling her comment on pg 286: ‘She had agreed to marry him without realizing that marriage brought a kind of simple pleasure, a pleasure in the continued company of another human being, the act of caring, of carrying with you the thought of someone else.’ That Catherine made it to this place, after all that had gone before is redemption and grace I think. It seems a simple thing to know and understand, but the fact that this was new to her shows the terrible place she was in. Her creation of the garden is also telling. Plants represent renewal, beauty, things that need care and cherishing and this becomes her focus. She travels the farthest in the book I think, because she had the farthest to travel. Maybe in this sense she does then become ‘A Reliable Wife.’ The parameters of the novel are so far from the norm that I think it’s impossible to compare with normal life. But in terms of her life, she definitely makes some positive progress.The characters are all deeply damaged, though, and, as such, it’s not a pleasant read!
I regret to say that I did not finish A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, though I made it through 3/4s of the book and so feel I can say I gave it my best shot. The book may appeal to certain readers, though I am not one of them. I offer little here by way of critique or review of the book except to say that the difficulty I had with reading it came from marked flaws in the realization of believable characters.
The plot, briefly, is of a wealthy man, Ralph Truitt, who “purchases” a mail-order bride, of sorts. This woman, Catherine, turns out not to be who she says she is, but rather an imposter intent on killing Ralph for his money. I am not spoiling anything by telling you this, as it’s pretty clear from the start that this is her plan. What I won’t tell you is how she is luridly and intimately involved in Ralph’s past in a way that is beyond distasteful. To find out, you’ll either have to chance it with the book or perhaps look for more information in the posts my co-hosts write for this novel (see links below).
As a far as plot goes, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it. A skilled writer could do something interesting with it, and there are flashes of that something in this book — unique turns of phrase, some interesting twists. But there is way too much repetition, and not enough action happening over the course of more than 100 pages to warrant the page count. However, plot aside, my struggle with the novel is the lack of credible character development – this was a deal-breaker for me.
For starters, Ralph is a shallow character with a textbook case of sexual obsession…could be interesting, except Goolrick doesn’t go there. Why is Ralph this way – is it a choice or is it a mental disorder? And what does he suffer by struggling with his obsession? How does he grow as a person through his obsession? What is his moment of grace, the moment when he can choose to change and become something other than what and who he is? These are all worthy questions to explore. However, none of them are investigated. Ralph is sexually obsessed as a child and grows into a sexually obsessed adult. He never apologizes for it or questions it or seeks to restrain it; he simply revels in it. This is hard to like. Nothing about him is attractive or sympathetic, in spite of the useless and tired old saw that he had an overly religious, borderline abusive mother, an overly indulgent if disconnected father, and a skewed image of God. Over and over again, we read is that Ralph is thinking about sex, about his past sexual exploits, and about all the people all around him having sex. How is this supposed to compel me to care about this character, much less continue reading? It seems to me Ralph chooses to give in to his compulsion and never thinks critically about it. If he is mentally ill, then the book should be about grappling with this form of mental illness. If he is simply a sex addict, then it should be about that. But it isn’t about either of those. I’m not quite sure what the book is about, but it isn’t about the reality of what it is to live as a sexually obsessed, psychologically damaged individual. For the record, I tend NOT to gravitate towards books that have a central focus on sex, and this one absolutely has that focus, across the board, for all the main characters. Had the lack of adequate character development not been so glaring, it is quite likely this focus on sex would have been the next reason in line for why I didn’t finish the novel. It is entirely possible that the emphasis on sex overshadowed the need to develop sound character — this seems to me a common, though no less depressing, problem in popular fiction. Moving on….
Via an odd flashback, we learn that years earlier, Ralph meets a woman in Italy, Emilia, whom he falls in love with and brings to America. He builds an entire world for her, but she is shallow and unfaithful and loves only his money. Ralph’s choice of Emilia in light of his sexual obsession and her shallowness is entirely inexplicable. There is nothing about her character that would warrant either his choice of her as a mate, nor such a dramatic change in his character – full-throttle libertine to chaste spouse in one fell swoop? No way, not for someone like her. Also inexplicable is how Ralph is duped by her disguised greed – his worldliness would seem to make this an impossibility. Also inexplicable is his grief at her death and his subsequent sublimation of his previously physically compulsive sexual obsession for a no less active mentally compulsive sexual obsession. None of this makes any sense, nor does it ring true psychologically.
Fast forward to the present and Ralph’s weird liaison with Catherine. I’m not even going to discuss Catherine except to say that she is a very sorry excuse for a woman. Ralph’s contract to marriage with Catherine is also a ruse, in more ways than one, and does nothing to soften him – or her – and make him even remotely likeable. What is a wife in this book? How is she defined? Based on the portion of the novel I read, a wife is 1) cold-hearted and fanatical, 2) unfaithful, 3) a schemer, 4) greedy and selfish, 5) a murderer, 6) a whore, and 7) vengeful. Entirely too much negativity for me. I have a lot of compassion and empathy, but the cold-blooded plan Catherine cooks up with her lover to murder Ralph for his money and the appalling abuse she takes at her lover’s hands are beyond sympathy. Nor did I really care much for their sick sordid relationship and what they were plotting, simply because I didn’t really care about Ralph. The whole triangle is a mess and left me feeling page after page like I was reading a novelization of All My Children or As The World Turns. I kept wondering, “What is this book about? What am I supposed to take away?” There were simply no answers… when I read I’m looking for more – more depth, more complexity, more realism, and more psychological richness.
It is hard for me to be critical of Goolrick. As a writer myself, I know how extremely difficult it is to create believable characters with psychologically sound motivations. Writing anything well is hard work. I do not say he is not talented; however, these faults in character development, at least for this reader, were deal-breakers. I simply needed to stop the car. Perhaps the last ¼ of the novel shatters all of my 3/4 view impressions and, if so, I’d be happy to stand corrected. But who am I anyway? The critics loved this book. I leave it to more erudite readers than myself to determine its value. I abandoned it with a slight pang because I felt I might be letting my co-hosts down with a lackluster discussion. But that was quickly relieved by losing myself in a book that did have what I was looking for – the next book on our Literary Wives list: The Aviator’s Wife, by Melanie Benjamin. Hope you’ll be back in August for the finale to this segment of the series.
Did you read this pick? What did you think?