Sunday, January 25, 2015

In Defense of Physical Books

I awoke this morning, thinking about why I still make physical books, when most book sales these days are eBook sales. 

Ebooks. Collections of electrons. Coded digital data displayed upon a screen. 

So ephemeral. 

The life can go out of computers, Kindles, iPads, Nooks. 

And we humans are physical beings, existing in space and time, albeit for a brief period in the grand scheme. Reducing a book to set type on a printed page is, for me, necessary to anchor my thoughts and expressions. To give them weight and heft. 

Until I have committed to that physical reality, it feels as if I'm still in drafts, as if things are still provisional. There's something about that Copyright Notice. Something about Cracking Open the box containing the freshly minted books . . ..

I touch the book I'm currently reading, one by another author. It is a good quality paperback with a nice matte cover and a professional cartoonist illustration on the front. It has a clever title. Creamy acid-free pages. Lovely. Though it is a fairly recent book, some parts of it are already out of date. Within the pages I find old technology. Archaic modes of speech. Some retrograde attitudes. 

That is fine--that the book is dated. 

Someone committed to that view in a specific place and time.

There is something consoling in that for me. With each book I read (and I am a slow, grouchy reader), it is as if the author were saying: "Here's what the view looks like from here." Whether it's Tom Sawyer's schoolhouse, or Jane Austen's country manor, or David Sedaris' French dentist's office, with his mouth clamped firmly open.  

A book is about the physicality of committing to paper a human perspective, a there and then, and what that person made of it all. 

It makes going to the library, walking up and down the aisles of books from different eras, almost surreal if you think about it this way: The voices all chiming in from different cities and towns, the human experiences of different centuries and civilizations. 

When I'm penning another useless sentence, I try and think of it that way. This, I think, is our contribution, from our place and time, right or wrong, early or late. What I have written is what we--what I--have made of it. 

Another lone voice in the timeless cacophony. 

Even if all the lights go out.

Photograph (above) is detail from the facade of the main branch of the New York Public Library, New York, New York. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Horror Show (That Is Starting To Write A New Book)

For me, starting to write a new book is mostly about grumpiness. My mental state has all the charms of hardened toothpaste sticking to the root bristles of a morning toothbrush.

You had your idea of what you wanted the thing to be about, right? But that's not the same as breathing life into a story. At the moment, The Thing (the literary object that you are working on) lies in pieces on the floor, stitched together in its intended parts of lined paper and journal entries like some Frankenstein's monster. All that's lacking is the thread and the needle.

You pat the project's ugly, misshapen head.  "There, there," you tell it. "We'll make it all better."

But how? What can hold together this hideous puzzle? Turn it into a dancing Cinderella?

I've been through this a few times before, so I actually know the answer, though I have to remind myself repeatedly.

The trick to breathing beauty and fluidity into the beast lies in voice and perspective. You must begin to hear the music that will charm the reader, and not just convey the information.

You want Juliet in a smart, sexy dress, not some stodgy plastic Halloween costume replete with powdered wig and garish makeup.

Ah, a fine, musical voice! That is what is required!

Still, what is this mysterious thing we writers seek, crave, lust after? The Right Voice.

Well, it's a little of this and a little of that. Scraps of insight and pretty description. Gobs of attitude. Motes of memory. Reams of reflection.

And, above all, the sound of music. Music.

Writing is a rhythmic and melodious thing. Sung as from the throat of a catbird at dawn. It is all warble and drama. No teenage rock musician can match a good writer for the backbeat of theatrics.

Here, for an example, is the literary voice icon, Lorrie Moore, from her early collection, Self Help, with the opening lines of her short story, "How to Become A Writer":

First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age--say, fourteen. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire.

Ah, Moore's wrist-back is pressed firmly to her forehead with outsized drama, where it has stayed planted throughout her long career. There is such entertainment in her studied, scholarly tone; such tunefulness in the repetitions and variations of her prose. But how does she achieve such inflamed, self-aware, ironic soulfulness?

Not to ape Moore too much, but you basically have to become disgusted, both with yourself and with your project, before you really get going--at least in my experience. There is often a period of deep grudge and self-loathing, followed by a great deal of housework, napping and rearranging of the silverware drawer.

It is at this point that I often resort to my bookshelf, which is distinguished almost entirely by writers whose voices I like, regardless of genre or topic. I will sit down with Vonnegut, Salinger, Moore, Sedaris, and Bryson in a single sitting. Why them? Why not someone else?

Well, I never actually know WHO I'm going to read and respond to when I start a project. It actually varies from project to project, and I seem to like WHOEVER the project needs at a given moment. Munro? Atwood? LeGuin? It is as if I'm defining the voice by reading others for motivation, and seeing who gets me moving and shaking.

With one of my early fiction projects (later published as my short story "Spice," available online) I found that I could not start working each day without first reading a few paragraphs of Donald Barthelme. There was something headlong in the voice I needed for that character and that I found in Barthelme's prose.

I always seem to look for reading touchstones like this, literary precursors who will help define each given project, and that assist me in achieving the appropriate voice.

I think perhaps that, if you don't do this kind of work, you won't stretch your voice in all of the flexible directions that it can go. I find that a good writer, like Bill Bryson, can make me reach for better details and active verbs than I would otherwise choose. Or David Sedaris might infuse me with that added shot of wry wit that my sleepy, ill-tempered self badly needs on an overcast morning in January, with its moldering Christmas wreaths.

When I take a really deep dive into my private bookshelf, I almost always get a jolt of writing energy that all the caffeine in the world can't supply.

Readers, who do YOU read for inspiration?  Please leave me a comment to read in my grouchy misery.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Leisurely Voice

An interesting thing happened in my workshop. A couple of my old students came back. These were participants from past workshops whom I hadn't seen in awhile. In one case, I hadn't seen the student for at least three or four years. And something wonderful had happened to his writing over that period.

He had always been a good writer, someone with a strong and fluent narrative voice. But previously it had felt like he was putting his stories together too consciously. He seemed almost to be coaching himself along. Okay, now some dialogue here. I guess I ought to work in some gestures there. Over a couple of years, though, his writing had transformed itself. He was no longer obsessing over choices like this. His moves were more intuitive, more confident.

Confidence, yes, that's the word I'm looking for.

There was something far more deliberate and authoritative in his narrative voice. And more than that, leisurely. As the words were spinning out, he wasn't afraid to have his narrator digress and say to the reader, Look, I know I'm talking about this one thing, but now we're going to go off on a little side-tangent over here. He trusted his readers to follow him.

I can always tell the fully mature narrative voices in my workshops, because they have this "leisurely" quality about them, this confidence, and an ability to digress, describe and explain.

Why is this important?

Well, as a writer, it's important to develop a certain intimacy and fluency with the reader. And as a reader, you need to feel that the narrative voice who is telling you the story knows all of the story's secrets and dimensions. It must be a voice that can take the time to explore and render the lyrical moments, so that they don't go by too fast, and so that the emotional nuances are brought out and explored.

It must be a voice that can wander off into sidelights that lend meaning and perspective to a story.  It is a common misperception that digression in writing is a bad thing. But the truth is, digression often builds energy in a story. Tension rises as the narrative arc is momentarily delayed or suspended while the narrator indulges some tangent. It takes a certain amount of confidence to hold a story in abeyance like this, and to wantonly digress. To tell a story not just with forward motion, but also with depth and breadth.

A couple of years ago, we had been cutting the digressions out of this particular student's writing, but now we were going with them. Why? Honestly, I think it was just a matter of that confidence and authority we've been talking about. Think of this as being like somebody asking you to follow them down a dark alleyway. If you are with someone who is nervous or uncertain, there's no way you're stepping into that dark hallway with them. But if you're with someone confident and strong, someone who knows where they're going, you won't hesitate.

It's a con, really, being  writer, a flim-flam. Who knows if we should follow your voice?

And where does this confidence come from? Who gave you, a mere writer that level of authority. How dare you? And, let's face it, many narrative voices are downright dangerous to follow. Think of Stephen King or Anne Rice. Or Joyce Carol Oates. Who would follow voices like that? And yet we do.  We can't help it. These voices promise to show us things; and they hold out mystery, knowledge, and allure. We may need almost to close our eyes, and peek through our fingers, but follow them we do. They are confident voices, authoritative voices, voices that understand the strange and complicated country they are showing the reader.

It takes time for a writer to develop this level of confidence and authority, as I have seen in my workshops. And time for him or her to gain a deep knowledge of the story being told. The only way to get there is to write, and to write a lot, many drafts, often over years.  Until you begin to feel that sense of confidence, and can spin out your tale with real authority--Till then, you haven't really mastered the game.

I'd love to hear comments from readers on this topic!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Art of Flashing Forward

Or, How Alice Munro Pulls Off Those Long Leaps Through Time

An interesting question came up in one of my workshops last spring, from a fiction writer. The question was about how to pull off jumps forward in time. "How do you do it?" this student asked. "Is there a trick?"

This is actually a common question, and one that usually comes from someone in my workshop who is writing from "too close" a perspective. It is certainly natural to want to do that, to be right there, up close with your characters. Writers love that feel of "immediacy." The extreme version of this is to place your prose in the present tense, which a lot of newer writers seem to want to do these days. The problem with this, though, is that it makes the act of moving through time feel very awkward and jarring. If you are firmly rooted in a single moment, it's harder to shift to another time period.

While there's no single "trick" to making leaps forward in time, the best thing you can do is to "back off" a little in terms of your temporal distance as narrator. Gaining some retrospective distance on your material makes moving around through time much easier. In fact, if you are going to be making a lot of long leaps through time, as Alice Munro often does in her stories, you will want to place your narrator (or the teller of your story) as far forward in time as possible, so that the narrator is looking well back upon events of the story.

That way, even if you leap forward ten or more years with your characters, they will still seem to be standing "in the past" as far as your narrative-perspective is concerned. This will make your leaps forward seem more natural, and more like ordinary human memory--where you might remember different events from various time periods in the past all in one thought.

Munro, you will notice, often uses a deep retrospective viewpoint to pull off her dramatic leaps forward through time, often called "flashing forward."

For great examples of such "flash forwards," check out Alice Munro's story collections. My personal favorites are Open Secrets and The Beggar Maid.

A Brief Tribute to Alice Munro

This week, Alice Munro was awarded the 2013 Nobel Price in Literature, a recognition that thrilled a lot of us women writers. Munro is one of the few working writers today who has really been able to capture the complexity of women's lives, our struggles for independence from our families and the orbits of men, the different stages that we go through in our lives (daughter, mother, lover, worker), and the many ways that others regard us as we go along, and the demands they make upon us. Munro has explored how we often become our own worst enemies, has charted the lusts and rages that consume and distort us, and, like no one else, has captured the bewildering flow of time which has a way of leaving us dismissed and marginalized beyond a certain age, our energies dissipated by obligation, our youth and beauty spent, yet holding in our hands the cherished and priceless gifts of perspective, memory, and understanding. Nobody else has quite managed to show women as they are the way Alice Munro has. There is such respect and curiosity, and fearlessness, in her portraits of women, assets that are visible from her earliest work, which by the way she first published when she was nearly forty. I hope that Munro serves as a bracing reminder to any writer--man or woman--who hopes to capture women characters in prose, not to succumb to the lazy stereotyping of women so often seen in fiction and memoir, but rather to treat women as full human beings, the way Alice Munro has done. --Kim  

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Poetry And Abstraction

What makes a work Poetry is the specific observation of the restless mind working. Frank Bidart did this in Watching the Spring Festival, and Rilke, too:


Inside the many ways to dance Giselle/The single way that will show those who sleep/what tragedy is.

Rilke, from The Duino Elegies (Mitchell trsl):

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels hierarchies.
For me, these passages become abstract, and lift the material beyond the strictly personal, beyond the reach of diary or note-taking, and allow us to attend to the universal, by which we mean the applicability to others, to the dreams and fears of others, that sense of waking up and of writing into ourselves and into understanding of what our lives are truly about. That we are the tragic Giselle.

I always worry about this with my own writing. That my journals are nothing but that, just journals, and they are. But if you keep working the language and attending to--what?--to what IS this poem actually about?--then somehow the larger elements of abstraction seem to rear up out of the material. And yet, I never want to stray all that much from the sweet and bitter Real--because, if I do, the poem disappears, and you lose that pungent physicality that makes all great writing sing:

A little more Bidart:

Many ways to dance Giselle, but tonight as you/watch you think she is what art is, creature/who remembers/her every gesture . . .. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Memory in Fiction and Memoir--"Peeling the Onion"

Something I see in manuscripts I edit (and in my own writing) is how layered and difficult the issue of memory often is. Unpacking a memory, especially a childhood memory or the recollection of a traumatic event, is a bit like peeling an onion. There is, of course, the original memory you hold in your mind, which can often be spotty and full of holes. And then there are the multiple layers of interpretation that have been stacked upon that original memory over the years. The things that have been forgotten, the various embellishments. 
As writers we need to acknowledge the imperfections in our own memories, because a claim to perfect memory simply isn't going to be credible for the reader. Also, our minds tend naturally to block out difficult or traumatic events. Here's an example of a writer sorting through the layers of a traumatic childhood memory. This is from Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club, where Karr is talking about being farmed out to a neighbor family when her mother "was adjudged more or less permanently Nervous":
I don't remember who we got farmed out to or for how long. I was later told that we'd stayed for a time with a childless couple who bred birds. Some memory endures of a screened-in breezeway with green slatted blinds all around. The light was lemon-colored and dusty, the air filled with blue-and-green parakeets, whose crazy orbits put me in mind of that Alfred Hitchcock movie where birds go nuts and start pecking out people's eyeballs. But the faces of my hosts in that place--no matter how hard I squint--refuse to be conjured.
It is interesting to note how sensual this memory is. It was famously observed by Proust how the senses can bring back to us, unbidden, memories we might otherwise not be able to recall. In Swann's Way, Proust samples tea and a madeleine (sponge cake), and his whole boyhood town of Combray is suddenly recovered by his mind:
As soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of my madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me . . . the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
As writers, we can look for these sensual "Proustian triggers" in our own work in order to summon the past into the present, such as with familiar smells, foods, places, and so forth. The important thing is to show the process of remembering. 

Once our original, spotty memory is unpacked, though, that is only the beginning, the core of the onion. Next there is the question of How something has been remembered. Often the way things are recalled can be influenced by current motivations, or by family myths and stories. Here's an example of this phenomenon from Vivian Gornick's wonderful memoir, Fierce Attachments. In this example, Gornick's mother is telling the story of how she was fondled by her Uncle Sol, a soldier who had returned from the first World War to live with her family, when she was sixteen. 
He didn't say a word to me. He picked me up in his arms and carried me to his bed. He laid us both down on the bed, and he held me in his arms, and he began to stroke my body. Then he lifted my nightgown and he began to stroke my thigh. Suddenly he pushed me away from him and said, "Go back to your bed." I got up and went back to my bed. He never spoke one word about what happened that night, and I didn't either. (p. 8)
Each time Gornick's mother tells the story to Gornick, "it is both the same and different because each time I'm older, and it occurs to me to ask a question I didn't ask the last time around." Gornick says, "The first time . . . I was twenty-two and I listened silently: rapt and terrified." (p. 7) The second time she heard the story, Gornick says, she was thirty:
She repeated it nearly word for word as we were walking up Lexington Avenue . . . When she came to the end I said to her, "And you didn't say anything to him, throughout the whole time" . . . "It just seems odd not to have uttered a sound, not to have indicated your fears at all." (p. 8-9)
The third time she hears the story, Gornick is nearly forty. She says, "Ma, did it ever occur to you to ask yourself why you remained silent when Sol made his move?" Gornick's mother angrily retorts, "Are you trying to say that I liked it?" (p. 9)

Whether or not Gornick's mother liked being fondled by Uncle Sol, this example shows how malleable and subject to reinterpretation memories are, especially family stories and myths. The way we recall things can be greatly influenced by the stage of life we are going through. So, for example, a wedding might be recalled one way by a romantic young teenager, and another way by an adult woman about to enter into her own marriage.

Finally, there is the outer layer of the onion: It is often necessary in our writing to leave room in the present for those who are still standing around to account for what has happened in the past. In Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, for instance, the narrator has retold the story of his troubled brother's death (in a fight) when they were both teenagers. Maclean and his father both recall in the book what a beautiful and skilled fisherman the dead brother was, but we don't hear them discussing the brother's death until near the end of the book, and something is still missing. At last they talk about the brother's untimely death, and their discussion includes this passage:
Once my father came back with another question. "Do you think I could have helped him?" he asked. Even if I might have thought longer, I would have made the same answer. "Do you think I could have helped him?" I answered. We stood waiting in deference to each other. How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?" . . . "It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us."
I guess the thing to take from this lovely passage is that the final accounting we seek of our memories often defies us. Still, it is important to ask these sorts of questions, and--when we are writing about the past--for us to show the struggle we go through to make sense of what has happened, even if--in the end--we are unsuccessful at doing so.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Point of View--Ironic Tone in Third Person

I wanted to talk this morning about point of view, and specifically about writing in an ironic or satiric tone of voice in the third person. This is an issue that has plagued some of the strongest writers in my workshops, and often surfaces during our point of view exercise, where I ask everyone to switch between writing in first person and writing in third person. If you usually write in first person, you are to rewrite a few paragraphs of your work in the third person. If you usually write in third person, you are to rewrite a few paragraphs in the first person. 

I often assign this exercise because the writers in my workshops are frequently writing rather autobiographical fiction, and I find that making them switch viewpoints can help establish a wider stance and "sense of perspective" upon the world they are creating. However, the more ironic, first person writers always have trouble with this exercise, and I thought it would be helpful to discuss why that is, and to get out a few examples of writers who have successfully used an ironic or "snarky" tone of voice. 

We are all used to the ironic or self-deprecating first person voice. To take a famous example, here's a snippet from the opening of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. 
Now we should be able to perform our "exercise" on this passage, right? Just convert from first person to third person. But watch what happens when we do: 
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where he was born, and what his lousy childhood was like, and how his parents were occupied and all before they had him, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but [I don't feel like going into it][or][he wouldn't want us going into it] if you want to know the truth. 
The trouble with this paragraph is that when you move from first to third person, you move from a narrator who is the same as the character, to a third person off-screen narrator who is not the same person as the character, and who now in fact sounds like he's "making fun" of the character.  

This can actually be a problem any time you write a bit ironically in the third person. The reader may begin to feel as if the narrator is beating up unfairly on the characters. The reader may also begin to question, who is this off-screen persona/voice who has all of these strong opinions? 

With a light touch, this sense of an opinionated off-stage voice may be quite pleasurable. However, handled badly (as in my example above), such a voice can leave the reader perplexed and struggling. 

Let's look at a couple of examples where writers have successfully used an ironic or snarky tone of voice in the third person:

Our first example is from the opening of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. "My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"
And so we go on to follow this mannered courtship drama. There are a couple of things to note here. First of all, a witty, ironic tone is fully in evidence--so it can be done in the third person. Next, while Mrs. Bennet's character will certainly come in for some rather unkind examination during the course of the novel, she is largely allowed enough rope to hang herself, and Austen generally takes a light and sympathetic tone with Mrs. B, and with all of her characters, and you never feel as if she's flogging anyone as in my example above. 

I think this point of sympathy is an important one. Narrators need generally to be sympathetic with their characters, though not in the sense of believing everything they say, but rather in the sense of being searching and curious about their situation. The narrator needs to find the difficulties of the characters worthy of serious, if playful, examination.

Here's another example, from an author who plays it closer to the line--This is a snippet from the opening of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which becomes a full-on social satire, and probably goes to the limit of how much fun you can make of characters without losing interest in them:
Three in the afternoon was a time of danger in these gerontocratic suburbs of St. Jude. Alfred had awakened in the great blue chair in which he'd been sleeping since lunch. He'd had his nap and there would be no local news until five o'clock. Two empty hours were a sinus in which infections bred. He struggled to his feet and stood by the Ping-Pong table, listening in vain for Enid. Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety.
Clearly there is a risk here of losing the reader--If Franzen does not step in and humanize these characters quickly (which, in fact, he does), we readers might start to say to ourselves, look, these characters are so pathetic, why should I care about them? So there is a delicate line we are treading here as writers. How much irony you think you can get away with must, in the end, be an intuitive decision as you write. And some of it is clearly a matter of taste. I personally love Franzen's writing, but I sometimes hear others complaining that his tone is "too much" for them. 

A couple more quick examples before I quit. Writers sometimes resort to the second person for an ironic or satiric tone of voice, and here's an example--A passage from the opening of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not.
The point about using second person is that it really writes like a subset of first person. You don't feel the presence of an ironic offscreen narrator as you do in third. Rather, for the reader, it is more like being asked to step into the shoes of the first person narrator. And the oddness of being in second person emphasizes the ironic tone and the strangeness of the situation. So second person can work well in this way. 

A final example, to show that in the third person it is important to distinguish between the narrator's ironic tone and character inflection, which is a very different thing. Sometimes the narrator can have a fairly neutral tone, but the character herself is being ironic. This is essentially a matter of distance: Are we up close with the character? Or farther out with the narrator and watching the character? You need to be clear about what distance you are working at in the third person. To illustrate, here's an example from the opening of Alice Munro's short story, "Royal Beatings" from her collection, The Beggar Maid, where Munro negotiates this relationship between narrator description and character attitude.
Royal Beating. That was Flo's promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating. The word Royal lolled on Flo's tongue, took on trappings. Rose had a need to picture things, to pursue absurdities, that was stronger than her need to stay out of trouble, and instead of taking this threat to heart she pondered: how is a beating royal?
Munro's narrator is reporting fairly neutrally, but the report is inflected with wonderful character attitude.

I hope these examples help clarify this difficult issue. Happy writing everyone!