The maverick within

Saturday before last, I went to see Russ Baker, an investigative reporter lauded by Dan Rather and Bill Moyers, author of Family of Secrets, America’s Invisible Government and The Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years. He had come to Santa Fe from New York City on a book signing stop and to raise funds for KSFR, our local public radio station.

Investigative reporters are a dying breed, sad to say. Whether one gives credence to the muck they rake, or holds their work askance, they embody the maverick American spirit. Further, they remind novelists like myself what our duty is: to examine the world around us with questioning eyes. Consequently, I welcomed the opportunity to hear what this renegade had to say.

Rather than get into the politics of the evening, which is not what this blog is about, I’d like to discuss the common element between that event and what draws me to my craft. While founding father Benjamin Franklin once said, “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority,” with regards to writing, I’ll twist it to, “It is the first responsibility of every writer to question perceived reality and perceived truth.”

We should bring to the page not only what we see with our eyes or hear with our ears. Far more important is to write what we know in our hearts, especially when it runs counter to accepted wisdom, because then we begin to think. Then, we learn something new. These are the revelations that cause the reader to say, “Ah ha!” These new insights—right or wrong—engage the reader and, if handled deftly, propel her into the story, compel her to read on. If they are not handled contentiously, but rather with an inquiring pen so to intrigue her, they will cause her to say “maybe,” or “I see.”

At the opening of chapter five of East of Eden, when John Steinbeck introduces Cathy/Kate Trask, asserting, “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents,” the novel transitions from a pleasant narrative to something darker. He wrote during a more accepting time, when the inner workings of people were viewed with less scrutiny and less information than today. Consequently, his assertion about monsters ran counter to accepted thinking. Even now, there are still those who believe the most heinous criminals are really no different from anyone else and can, with a little effort, be rehabilitated. They refuse to believe there is something fundamentally wrong with them.

That bold assertion Steinbeck made about Kate elevated the work to a new level. He then reinforced what he had done by making her believable, even sympathetic to some extent, though the truth he unearthed ran against the grain: the mark of a courageous author.

So, tell me: what twists have caught your attention? What authors have brought you to a new level? Two more that come to mind for me are John Updike and Herman Hesse.


6 responses to “The maverick within

  1. Christie Blatchford, who writes for the Canadian paper, National Post (she used to write for the Globe and Mail) is exceptional, and she writes on many subjects. Whether you agree with her or not, her writing, though sometimes caustic, is exceptional and precise. Recently, she was lambasted by media and citizens alike for her harsh article about the death of politician, Jack Layton.
    Below is just a snippet of her response to all the hate mail she’d been receiving via email.

    “What online appears to have done is give people a way out of the straitjacket of Canadian politeness. I’d never considered it that, but it’s clear many did. How quickly we have gone from a people famous for apologizing to lamp posts, who say sorry when others bump into us, and how dreadful a victory.”


  2. I write screenplays more than anything else, and I know you all love movies, so, I’ll concentrate my energy there. My mentor Stewart Stern always reminded me, you must show the character for what he is not just the pretty points, the good parts. You have to show all their scars and warts in order to best let the audience know who they are and in the end better appreciate them for what they are. He also taught me to look into myself and find out what pushes my buttons, and why—even those experiences we lock away in the deepest recess of our memory. Once you know who you really are, the easier it is to understand who your character is and how and why they act like they do. Hitchcock was great at that. Psycho still draws a crowd because it cuts to the heart of the character’s being. Another great in my mind is Robert Altman (Mash, Short Cuts), great character analysis. We are all different; no matter who you think is responsible for our being. And yes, things that happen to us, things we experience, do help form who we are, and some of us end up damaged by the experience, “broken toys.” But I truly believe some “Broken Toys” come straight from the womb the way they are—perhaps a tortured soul from a previous life.

    • Yes, Wally. It’s the scars and warts that reflect reality, rather than portraits of an idyllic world with the wrinkles pressed and the shoes shined. It’s the broken toy—at least the dented one—who perseveres in the face of adversity that makes the most endearing protagonist.

  3. “We should bring to the page not only what we see with our eyes or hear with our ears. Far more important is to write what we know in our hearts, especially when it runs counter to accepted wisdom, because then we begin to think. Then, we learn something new.”

    Yes, THIS!


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