Wednesday, February 24, 2010

BIG QUESTIONS: Marcelo in the Real World

In her blog post about her first reading of the manuscript that became Marcelo in the Real World, editor Cheryl Klein described what impressed her in one of the scenes in which Marcelo and Rabbi Heschel are talking together:

It was the ambition of it, the way it reached for the Big Questions and caught them. It was the reality and humanity of it—that I could genuinely believe this anguished young man in the button-up shirt and this older woman in the neon-green-framed glasses lived and thought and felt up somewhere near Boston. And it was the way the religious issues chimed within my own heart, my own complex internal stew of Big Questions and small actions and deep longing.

There are Big Questions, all right, threaded throughout the novel. Big Questions like:

  • “How do we go about living when there is so much suffering?” (p. 166)
  • “Am I supposed to put my father ahead of everything?”(p. 211)
  • “What if doing God’s will hurts the people we love?” (p. 279)
  • “Only how is it possible to live without being either numb to [pain] or overwhelmed by it?” (p. 302)

So many questions, that Jasmine asks, “Do you always ask so many questions?” (p. 260)

I became fascinated by the way Stork, through Marcelo, asks the Big Questions, questions lurking in us all, yet the story never becomes weighted down by them. Initially Marcelo resists the Real World, yet he is thrown into it by his father’s demand that he work at the law office. Marcelo confronts the challenges he faces from a foundation anchored in religion. “My special interest is God,” he tells Jasmine on his first day working in the mailroom. “Religion. What humankind has said and thought about God. I like to read and think about that.” (p. 57)

In an interview of Francisco X. Stork posted by Martin Wilson just a few days ago, Stork discusses religion in the novel. Wilson asked:

Martin Wilson: Ideas of faith and religion run through the novel. But it’s a unique, personal kind of faith that Marcelo has. Is your faith very important to you? Were you trying to say something about religion in this novel?

FXS: Yes, my faith is very important to me. It’s what gives meaning to my life. One of the things I wanted to say about religion in the novel is that religion needs to be looked at the way Marcelo looks at it. He is interested in all religions. He is a Catholic who visits with a rabbi every week who names his dog after a Buddhist prayer. Marcelo has an innate sense of the universality of all religions.

In his book The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, Donald Maass says:

Originality can come only from what you bring of yourself to your story. In other words, originality is not a function of your novel; it is a quality of you.

Later, he adds,

Where so many manuscripts go wrong is that, if they do not outright imitate, they at least do not go far enough in mining the author's experience for what is distinctive and personal. So many manuscripts feel safe. They do not force me to see the world through a different lens. (p. 133)

Marcelo thinks about right and wrong, good and evil, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, trust, justice, friendship, and God—“large talk,” as opposed to “small talk” (p. 75). We look at these issues through the lens of Marcelo, and the issues are clarified. Marcelo realizes: “I can do justice for Ixtel” (p. 278). Righting wrong: that’s power.

Maass says, “Having something to say, or something you wish us to experience, is what gives your novel its power. Identify it. Make it loud. Do not be afraid of what's burning in your heart. When it comes through on the page, you will be a true storyteller.” (p. 249)

Maass suggests some exercises to help us writers focus on what’s burning in our hearts:

  • What in the world of your story makes you angry? What are we not seeing? What is the most important question? What puzzle has no answer? What is dangerous in this world? What causes pain?
  • Where in the world of your story is there unexpected grace? What is beautiful? Who is an unrecognized hero? What needs to be saved?
  • Passion is expansive. It sweeps us up, carries us away. What is your passion? Get it into your story, especially through your characters. What angers you can anger them. What lifts them up will inspire us in turn. Ordinary people don't need to be bland. They can be poets, prophets and saints. Their world is a microcosm. Why else are you writing about it? (p. 250)

I’ll give the last word to Stork, from an interview posted by

TRC: Toward the end, Rabbi Heschel gives this advice to Marcelo: “Trust the sense you have that you are traveling the right direction because, when it comes down to it, that and the ability to tell the difference between a dried-up fig and a pomegranate is all you have.” A poignant quote. What does it mean to you personally?

FXS: What it means to me personally is that I have to trust I am able to hear the “right note” if I care to listen. And then I have to trust that the “right note” is right enough for me to follow. The sense of “the right note” was placed in us for a reason, and we should make it work for us. But we are not alone. Others can help us, traditions, wise or holy persons who have traveled this path before us, all can guide us. But in the end, the ultimate test of whether the note was right is the fruit of your action. Did you increase love and lessen suffering? If you did, your note was the right note.

StorySleuths Tip # 49: Write your passion. In the words of Donald Maass, from the exercise above, “Passion is expansive. It sweeps us up, carries us away. What is your passion? Get it into your story, especially through your characters.”