On Writing: John Steinbeck, the Grapes of Wrath, and my Dad’s Stories.

My Dad was born in 1921, and as a young kid, knowing that he grew up during the Great Depression had always fascinated me. During the Great Depression, times were tough for Dad’s family, I’m sure, but I would learn in Social Studies class that other families had it much worse during that time, particularly farmers, and especially in the United States. That is the setting of Steinbeck’s major novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”.

Of Mice and Men, Grapes, and my Dad…

Back in high school English class, we read “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck. At the time, I remember thinking how old the book seemed, in terms of the language the characters used, and also how much the character Lenny’s mental slowness frustrated me.

I think that in my young mind, I was invested enough in the story to feel empathy and frustration at the behaviour of the characters, but back then, I couldn’t really evaluate the story or the writing – I just reacted to what I experienced in the book.

I’ve read “Of Mice and Men” again a couple of times over the past three decades, most recently a year or two ago. As I did, I began to enjoy Steinbeck’s voice, style and depictions very much indeed. So I decided to finally crack open “The Grapes of Wrath”.

My Dad and the Great Depression

My Dad was born in 1921, and as a young kid, knowing that he grew up during the Great Depression had always fascinated me. I used to ask my Dad what it was like for him, growing up in Prince Rupert back in those days. He’d tell me stories, like the times when he and his brothers would go down to the docks and ask the fishermen to give them their leftover fish heads. Dad said that his Mum would cut the cheeks out of the fish heads and make the family a nice fish soup.

I’d ask him if his family were poor, and he’d say no, but they weren’t rich either. His Dad worked for the Prince Rupert Telephone Company, most often splicing cable, up on a telephone pole, soldering cable with a little blow torch. Times being what they were, he shared his job with another man, working different shifts. In a house with five kids (Dad, his three bothers, and one sister), and with their Father working only part-time, I’m sure the Love family of Prince Rupert had to tighten their belts a bit. Still, there were still lots of trees for the local Mills, and still lots of fish in the sea, even if the economy had gone to crap. Everyone in the Love family worked, kids and all. Dad always impressed upon me the importance of working for a living, and the value of a dollar.

The Grapes of Wrath

During the Great Depression, times were tough for Dad’s family, I’m sure, but I would learn in Social Studies class that other families had it much worse during that time, particularly farmers, and especially in the United States.

That is the setting of Steinbeck’s major novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”. The Joad family, Oklahoma sharecroppers for generations, are wiped out when the “dustbowl” (drought) wipes out their crops, and they become too far in debt to the bank. Their little farm, along with many others in their area, are taken over by the bank, and turned into industrial farmland. So, the whole clan (Grandparents, Parents, and brothers and sisters ranging from preteen to adult) head West with all their possessions strapped onto the back of a jury-rigged truck.

Along the many thousands of miles journey west to California, they enounter cold, heat, starvation, death, violence, kindness, cooperation, prejudice and eventually, some forms of redemption.

If you’ve seen the movie by John Ford, you’ve got a little taste of the story, but only a little. The novel is so much more than the movie. Steinbeck takes you into the hearts and minds of each of the family members in turn, over the course of a journey that must have only been a few months chronologically, but experientially was much more difficult than the miles traveled and the days spent.

Here are a few of the significant themes from this incredible novel:

  • The Mother is the provider of life, the supporter, nourisher and guide; the centre of everything. The sheer amount of work and responsibility that Ma takes on daily impressed me throughout the story. To a lesser but still significant  degree, Rose of Sharon represents the mother, being pregnant and on the edge of bringing new life into the clan.
  • Rose of Sharon and her Grandparents also represent the frailty – and sometimes the futility – of survival.
  • Tom Joad is the angry young man, fighting against injustice, and suffering because of how his fighting spirit and moral outrage places him potentially at odds with the capitalist farm owners.
  • Pa Joad and his brother represent the impotence and powerlessness of the old male generation – still able-bodied, but wracked with guilt or turoil from many challenges, and with their family authority essentially tossed aside and taken over by others. This represents how the former sharecroppers had their authority or rights taken over by larger interests.
  • Communism (or Socialism) vs. Capitalism.

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On Narrative: A Story runs through it…

It’s amazing how pervasive the concept of “narrative” actually is. Now, wherever I look, I see a story being told, or something in front of my eyes that is trying to communicate with me. But Non-fiction has an inherent narrative of its own too… What About text in Interactive Environments? Does it contribute a narrative as well? Perhaps we’re back to Marshall McLuhan again…

It’s amazing how pervasive the concept of “narrative” actually is. Now, wherever I look, I see a story being told, or something in front of my eyes that is trying to communicate with me.

Obviously, a story, a narrative, is the basis of written fiction, and creating an effective and engaging narrative is more difficult than I had originally imagined when I set out to write “Owe Nothing” back in 2002.

Works of Fiction, obviously…

Works of fiction (and I’m thinking primarily of the “paperback novel” genre) have a common narrative structure which introduces characters and a situation, presents the characters with a problem to solve or a challenge to overcome, and after trials, successes and failures, brings their story to a close with some sort of resolution and reflection. All of this (if popularity to an outside audience is the author’s goal) should be emotionally or intellectually gratifying to the reader in some way, or provide some sort of entertaining escape.

“Voice” in fiction can be first-person (like any hard-boiled detective caper by Raymond Chandler), where the reader is effectively transplanted into the skull of the main character, seeing things (usually) exclusively through his/her eyes. Or itr may be third-person, where the narration of the story seems to come from a camera or invisible observer which is observing the thoughts and activities of all characters, everywhere.

But Non-fiction has an inherent narrative of its own too…

Non-fiction works also have their own kind of voices that “tells a story” of sorts as well. In instruction or technical manuals, both the first-person and the third-person voice shows up quite commonly.

First-person is used when your Instructor is talking to you, the Reader directly, or when the author is citing some personal experience that is relevant to a lesson or point of procedure.

Third-person, in my experience, is used when the manual (or in my most common experience, a user guide) has no one particular person named as the “author” per se, but is ostensibly written by a corporation for their customers. In that case, the voice that is narrating could be composed by multiple unknown, uncredited authors, blended together (“fingerprints removed”, if you will) by a technical writer.

What About text in Interactive Environments? Does it contribute a narrative as well?

In a word, yes. In my opinion, every word on a web page, including the text in links, navigation buttons, mottos and tag lines, all provide context that reinforces the narrative at hand, so almost in effect becoming part of the narrative itself. (This is my story, and I’m sticking to it.)

The major difference with a visual medium (in this case, the user interface of a web site) is the use of graphic visual language that adds the extra dimension of inferred meaning or context to the wordy narrative.

Parsing photographs, words, icons, and interpreting (feeling) colours in a design is all part of “reading the page”. The designer of it has infused their own cultural symbols, values or expectations to some degree, so that the audience can relate to it more effectively.

Perhaps we’re back to Marshall McLuhan again…

If the cover of your favourite book, or the navigation controls on your favourite eBook Reader, have become strongly associated with the words in the text, then I’d say that the medium will have indeed become entwined in the message.

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Meditating on Now, the Past, and Raw Material…

Sometimes, a good moment in the present helps you to reflect better on the past, or plan for the future. In my case, a yearly summer vacation to a lovely ocean-side spot near Parksville, BC provided a welcome chance to unwind and reflect.

I also started reading Craig Ferguson’s biography, “American on Purpose”, and even after just a few chapters, the man’s wit, silliness, and achingly honest description of his family and his life have inspired me. Craig’s description of his parents in particular, and the almost glamorous impression they left with him was strikingly familiar to me. He describes his father’s handsome, slender appearance in one instance, and in another instance after his father has become drunk, his biting sarcasm or bitter authority.

This depiction of two-sided grace resonates strongly with my own memories of my parents. Probably everyone wants to remember their parents in a positive way if they can. Children (at least the youngest ones) tend to idolize at least one parent, and place them high on the idolatry scale. I think this must be related to bonding and learning by example. It can be heartbreaking and devastating to find out just how weak-willed, vulnerable or unworthy a parent can be. As kids, it can be hard to  watch our parents (or any significant adults in our lives) act badly or make all-too-human mistakes.

Like Craig Ferguson’s Dad, my Dad was tall, good-looking and smelled of Brylcreem. Like Craig Ferguson’s Mum, my Mum was a physically beautiful woman whose image haunts me. I’m convinced that my Dad was an extremely intelligent man, who was often frustrated by the idiocies he saw perpetrated around him, and possibly convinced that he was smarter than most of the people around him. I don’t doubt that he was right either. Dad was proud, smart, and independently-minded.

My Mum had multiple creative and artistic talents: singer, musician, actor. She also struggled with manic depression (bipolar disorder) and alcoholism, throughout her life. She had a light within her that I never really got a chance to see.

Both of them, at their best, loved to laugh and quote silly humour like poems by Ogden Nash, phrases from Groucho Marks, or sing along to silly songs with lyrics like “Boop Boop Diddim Daddum Waddum Choo! | And they swam and they swam right over the dam!”

Maybe life ground them down more and more as they went through middle age – maybe depression took over. Maybe the silly little joys just evaporated from lack of practice. Maybe happiness gradually gave way to depression, and light-heartedness just transformed into tension and pressure.

Perhaps “unrealized potential” is the term that describes my Mum and Dad best of all: feeling trapped in a life that seems to be preventing you from doing what you want, or getting to a point in your life where you feel like all your dreams have gone past you and all opportunities for success have been spent.

I think that with more care and more support in their lives, perhaps my parents might have been able to shed their alcoholism and self-destructive tendencies and might have had more of a chance to have a real life together. I often imagine a mythical Jim and Angela, healthy, smiling, talking together, traveling together and living together – living lives that are similar to the life I enjoy with my wife. I guess that means that I am happy. I wish they could have been happier too.

For me, the lesson I take from them is that one must make one’s own opportunities in life, and find or manufacture ones own happiness and fulfillment. The saddest people either forget this, or feel that they will never achieve it. The happiest, I think, are those who strive for it in spite of any obstacles. The best of us are those who help others to achieve their bliss in some way.

What I have left is a number of photos that prove that once upon a time, my folks were indeed happy and bright, and optimistic about the future.  Once, they ran a small household, went on driving trips through the western provinces, camped in a camper truck, and visited their relatives.

Maybe for some people, happiness appears to be a limited time affair. I’m not a recovering alcoholic like Craig Ferguson (thank god). The stats say that I should be. But, I do believe that Craig and I have something in common: a belief that happiness is tied to personal growth and health, and is a daily work in progress.

Anyway, nice book Craig. Truly.

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Is an eReader or Tablet in Your Future, or mine?

I read this 2010 Survey of Book Buying Behaviour that gave some interesting stats on eReader adoption rates among book buyers. Compared to buyers of printed books, eBook purchasers are a small lot, but growing every day.

The survey said, among other things, that of the 9800 some-odd people surveyed…

  • eReader owners represent about 7% of all book buyers. (7% doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a percentage of a very large number!)
  • That number could grow to 12%-15% in the next two years.
  • 15% either already own an eReader or a very likely to purchase one in the next 6-12 months
  • 16% didn’t own an eReader but were somewhat likely to buy one in 6-12 months
  • 60% of respondents who already owned an eReader would buy 1 to 10 eBooks in the next 6-12 months
  • 47% of eReader owners would pay anywhere from less than $10 to almost $13 for an eBook
  • 14% of eReader owners would pay between $14-$20 for an eBook.

My impression of book marketing is that my message is effectively a pebble thrown into the ocean. I must make a much larger splash for my ripples to be noticed out of all the rest of the masses of motion in the ocean.

One article I read said there are 1 million books being published in print each year. That is a massive number. A publishing house employee was quoted as saying “that’s too many books”.

So, as an Author and book seller, it makes some sense to move out of the ocean and inhabit a smaller body of water, where there is less competition. In other words, to some degree, become a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Publishing for eReader platforms seems to be a simpler and more economical way to accomplish that, while at the same time, giving an Author an inexpensive (and almost immediate) publishing platform. And, distribution is to an audience who can control what they want to see to a greater degree than their bookstore-visiting cousins.

Similar to an opt-in email list, an eReader (or a Smartphone or PC running eReader software) is an opt-in platform. It displays content and content categories that are largely defined or controlled by the reader. The online bookseller (say, Amazon) wants to facilitate a sale quickly and easily, by feeding the eReader user book suggestions that match their interests. So not only are eReader users a smaller audience, but they are potentially a more focused, loyal audience, because their personal needs are being discovered and cultivated in real-time. Online content is catered more to their needs, and delivered in almost no time – barriers to entry are very low…

Is an eReader or tablet in your future, or mine? I think it’s very likely. What do you think?

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