Monday, January 4, 2010

Be a Generalist

One of my very favorite passages of any work of fiction is when young Mary, the protagonist of Rose Tremain's Sacred Country, is out on a swing, pondering the metamorphosis of tadpole to frog. It echoes the theme of the book--Mary is on her way to becoming Martin--and, the motion of the swing, back and forth, back and forth, along with these thoughts, drives at a broader notion: life is change.

I love it when a writer pulls off this kind of magic, drawing a delicate ribbon of subtext simply by mentioning a science fact or an ancient myth or a geographical wonder. Another of my favorite novels, Jenny Offill's Last Things, accomplishes this subtle, gorgeous shading of her protagonist's story by weaving in her mother's retelling of African myths. What's really extraordinary about it is that it is both on the surface, just laid out there, and of the subconscious. It's about creating something more than what's on the page, a thought, or the hint of a thought, you can't get to with mere words. It's the images and the connotations those words bring. The connotations the reader isn't even fully aware of as she reads. Everything melds together and carries the reader to another place--a place the story alone just isn't able to evoke.

Years ago, I read a book on creative nonfiction writing, Beyond the Writers' Workshop by Carol Bly, and I remember one specific piece of advice she gives: Be a generalist. Read everything. I think this is important for fiction-writers as well. These days, I read The Smithsonian and Einstein for Dummies. I search Wikipedia for rare neurological disorders and creation myths. I study phenomena in space and bizarre deep-sea creatures--I recently discovered an article on an iridescent sea spider. Amazing. I indulge my curiosity with every faith that the benefit is double: I'm learning, and my fiction will be the richer for it.

Be a generalist. Sound advice for the writer and the non-writer alike. Know things. Search everything. Read. Learn. Understand.

1 comment:

press53 said...


Great post, and great advice. Bill Roorbach said in his book WRITING LIFE STORIES that he spends an hour each morning reading about something he knows nothing about, for this very reason.