Tuesday, July 27, 2010

If a Story Opens on Christmas, Somebody Better Die

In our workshop at Tin House, Ann Hood spoke of an important guideline in story-telling: if a story opens on Christmas, someone better die by the end of the story. (She mentioned who had said this, but I didn't get the name down. Maybe somebody reading this post knows?)

She went on to discuss how a story must move from positive to negative or vice-versa. The narrative must "flip." I remember how one of my instructors from grad school, David Payne, used to illustrate this same point. He said, if the flag on the mailbox is up at the beginning of the story, it better be down by the end. So, if you begin with happy, happy Christmas morning, you'd better head straight to a funeral.

Ann gave some examples from her own novels and explained that this principal of story-telling allows her to know something crucial about the ending once she writes the beginning. For example, in The Knitting Circle, the protagonist's hands are empty. A little detail the reader will sail right past, and that's the beauty of rich story-telling: while the reader intuits on some level what the writer's up to, it is artfully subtle. Mary's empty hands point to emotional scarcity and loss in her life. In the last scene of the novel, Mary's hands are full of yarn--she is now a woman of abundance. The literal mirrors the emotional. The story flips.

Ann's novel begins on the down beat and moves to a more positive place. The funeral, so to speak, happens right off and the rest of the narrative builds to Christmas. This if often, though certainly not always, how fiction works. The beginning of Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge portrays Henry, Olive's husband, driving alone to work. He and Olive are so separate, physically and emotionally, Olive is literally off the page for that first scene. Yet, the last scene is one of her physically drawing close to the man she falls in love with after Henry's death. This is the movement of the story, the arc. John Updike's Rabbit, Run begins with Rabbit shuffling home from work, stopping to watch some kids play basketball. He's stalling, he's inactive. And while the ending is hardly emotionally positive, it is at least on one level, a flip: now, he's running.

But it's not just the beginning and the end of the piece that makes this kind of postive-to-negative shift or vice-versa; it also happens at the beginning and end of chapters and in scenes. Ann shared with us a revision method she uses: after the draft is completed, she prints it out, then goes through and marks the beginning and close of each scene with a plus sign (+) or a minus sign (-). Next, she looks for any scenes that have the same sign at the beginning and end: these are, she said, flat scenes. There's no change. She then determines if the scene is necessary; it could be the information could be given in summary. Or, if she decides to include it, she re-works it, giving it more emotional range.

It's important to note: the concept of positive and negative is relative to the piece. A positive doesn't really have to be all that positive--as we might, outside of the work think about "positive"and the same with the negative: the scene/chapter/book must simply step up or down, regardless of where it is on the staircase.

There are a million ways to do this, especially at the scene level. It's a mistake to equate positive with happy and negative with sad when applying this. As in the John Updike example, the shift might simply be a change in energy. Or, a change in setting: something as simple as light dimming or the temperature changing. A scene might begin and end with contrasting images or concepts.

Since I've been home from Tin House, I've gone a little +/- crazy, picking up books off my shelf at random and seeing if this holds true. It usually does, though it's not always easy to see it. For example, the prologue to Michael Cunningham's The Hours begins with Virginia Woolf putting stones in her pocket, preparing to drown herself, and ends with a mother and a son standing on a bridge, watching a group of soldiers march by. Even though Virginia's corpse is there, under the bridge, in the water, it's interesting to see how Cunningham uses the image of an excited little boy and his mother in an otherwise completely bleak scene. Similarly, in Kent Haruf's Plainsong, twin boys sneak out in the middle of the night to investigate a mysterious light in the woods and are deeply troubled when they find a teenage couple having sex and arguing.

This notion is timely for me, as I'm working through edits in my novel. My friend Karen had already advised me on this when I bemoaned to her the fact that my editor was calling for "a little more joy." She pointed out that what a story really needs is range. You just can't keep hitting the same notes. And while I think most writers find this range instinctively, bringing it to the practical level is helpful for me. Often, I find I've written a scene that refuses to come to life and I just can't figure out why.

Ever happen to you?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Home Again, Home Again

Did anyone catch my last post? The one where I bewailed how my Tin House workshop went? I took it down less than a day after I posted it--it was too whiny and self-indulgent and maybe just a bit too confessional.

I had written about the workshop before I had processed it, which, ironically, might be the most important writing lesson I learned last week. One needs space to write and this space takes on a number of dimensions: a physical space and space of time in which to write, but also psychological space. I cannot write about the things that have happened in my own life until I've processed them, or at least, until I've processed how difficult it is to process them.

My daughter says she sometimes feels like she is falling while she is sitting still, and I know exactly what she means. In part, that's why I think I want to branch out into nonfiction. I want to write about how hard it is to know your own life. I'm not so interested in writing about the life lessons I've learned but rather about what I've failed to learn, or about how murky the thinking gets when you try to step out of your life and examine it.

Abby meant it literally, but I'm speaking of a different, meta-emotional place: I am falling and sitting still at the same time. Exactly.

Despite everything, I feel it's important to own up to how very tough that workshop was for me. Steve Almond presented a lecture on the second or third day--all the days are running together--about what they don't teach you in MFA programs. He said a number of things, but what really stuck with me was this: you are going to care about your stories.

I have a lot more to say about Tin House and my struggle to write nonfiction, but I got an email from my editor last night and though she said she was just checking in to see how my summer was going, clearly she's looking to see how the revision of Goliath is going. So, while I want to transcribe every one of my Tin House notes here, and I will, it might take me a while.

I have long loved a quote from poet Gwendolyn Brooks. She said, "What else is there to say but everything?" Even writing from my boring life, my ordinary experiences, and although even in fiction, there truly are no new stories, but only infinite retellings, there's still everything left to say. Everything.

Monday, July 12, 2010

More on Getting Started: A Report from Tin House

I'm at Tin House Writers' Workshop this week, taking in lectures and workshops and cocktail hour. I have vowed to attend every lecture...except the one I'm missing now, typing away...

So far, my toothbrush has been stolen, the weather is blessedly cool, and I'm luxuriating in all this writing-talk and creative minds zapping about.

May I share a bit of what I'm learning?

Ann Hood, my workshop leader, says you must know the setting and the frame of the story before you begin. I'm okay with setting as a vital first ingredient--it seems natural that you have to begin somewhere specific in time and space--but I was really interested in what she said about the frame or the container of the story. This is basically the time-period of the story, be it a single afternoon, or a pregnancy, or a decade. But, she says, be specific: so-and-so's illness and eventual recovery, the summer so-and-so learned how to ride a motorcycle, the day so-and-so jumped off a bridge. I like the idea of calling it the container: it's the time period that holds the story.

Every scene should open with the setting and the conflict. Or, how she states it: We need to know where we are at the very beginning and why we are there. I love thinking of it that way. The conflict is our reason for showing up in the scene.

Stay tuned...

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Carnival-Planning Committee: On Getting Started

A carnival-planning committee gathers in my brain every time I start a new story.

The first to talk is always the wide-eyed girl in a plaid jumper--JCPenney catalogue circa 1979--who wants nothing more than a Ferris Wheel. Make it the highest, truest, most devasting and wonderful Ferris Wheel in the World, she says, hand to heart. The tiny, overly made-up woman with the massive hair-do disagrees: What we need is pizazz! Lights! Sparkle! Her accent is strong but hard to place; she could be from Alabama or London. The quiet boy in the back mumbles, Oh, the humanity. He wants a house of mirrors. A snake pit. Fire. Lizard-lady. There's the farmer who makes a case for tons of livestock. Every kind of animal. Do-it-yourself milking exhibitions. And frozen lemonade, he adds, mopping his forehead with his handkerchief. What we really need, he says, is local flavor.

Ms. Big-Hair is again calling for excitement: We've got to draw them in! Special effects! Wonders! The boy speaks up: Pirates, he says. Ghosts. The nerdy girl clasps her hands together: Oh! This could be so good, if only we could get started! There's a guy in a suit who consults his watch. He doesn't know how exactly he got wrangled into this meeting. He speaks up to say he supposes they could use a tilt-a-whirl of some sort, like every good carnival has, and he wonders, consequently, how long will this production take to put together? The boy groans. You can't rush the perfect carnival. Ms. Big Hair pops a pill. She has a headache, she wants to give up. The boy rolls his eyes. The spectacle of it all, he sighs. The farmer pours more coffee. He examines his fingernails and frowns at a thought he's not willing to express.

And suddenly, they all have places to go: The farmer has something to feed or mow. The Suit is always busy. Ms. Big Hair wants to go check what's on ebay, what might the committee buy? You know, to get inspired? The boy shuffles away to play music, take a rest. Who needs this? Aren't there enough shitty carnivals out there, taking up space in the world?

And the earnest little plaid-jumper girl is finally left alone. She herself has chores to do, emails to check, but if she stays a minute, she just might come up with something. She might be able to shake off all the other suggestions, forget the little boy's angst, the big-hair woman's anxiety, the suit's practicalities. She longs to return to the Ferris Wheel of her imagination. She longs to begin.