Sunday, September 26, 2010

After These Messages, We'll Be Right Back

I am wearing my favorite pajamas and sitting in an empty house with my laptop on my lap and a cup of coffee at my elbow. I'm three episodes in the sixth season of Grey's Anatomy and a little over a hundred pages into Freedom. We're in week four of this year's homeschooling--it's multiplication tables and the Crusades at the moment--and my son's preschool class is working its way through shapes and colors. Tomorrow is brown oval day; he's bringing a potato and a dead leaf from our magnolia tree.

My manuscript is open to page 265 of 348 (and counting). I'm revising, rewriting, drafting new bits, implementing a number of edits my editor has requested. Tidying things up a bit. I had hoped to be ready to send it to her by October 1.

October 1 is five days away.

What I want to do is blog. I want to talk about Steve Almond's quote, about how we can/can't convert the non-reading sector of our population and whether or not we should try. (Thank you, btw, to those who commented on the matter here and on FB.)

I want to share with you this wonderful, wonderful post on narrative momentum from Bruce Black who blogs over a wordswimmer. I've been wanting to share this with you for weeks. Sigh.

I want to talk about Richard Yates and Gesture School (as in how to make your characters do more than drink coffee) and I want to share with you what I learned from Antonya Nelson's talk this year at Tin House, and I have more coming from Steve Almond and I want to talk setting as a means to jump start or merely suggest conflict and I want to talk about luck and writing and why writers should be very careful when it comes to throwing midgets off the train and whether or not it's okay for me to write about the place where I live, even though it's not my place--I didn't grow up here--and to ponder the use of the word desultory--is it me or are writers using that particular word too often?

I want to talk about what Robert Olen Butler calls "writing from the white hot center," and a friend of mine who recently, brilliantly, accomplished such a feat here.

But, more than anything, more than a full-fat latte and office supply shopping and sleep, I want to finish my edits.

So today is a non-blogging day. I'm sure you understand.

PS. Go write.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Our Job

Steve Almond posted this at the Rumpus recently:

Our two-fold: to focus on our own failings as writers. But also to speak more forcefully as advocates for literature. Books are a powerful antidote for loneliness, for the moral purposelessness of the leisure class. It’s our job to convince the 95 percent of people who don’t read books, who instead medicate themselves in front of screens, that literary art isn’t some esoteric tradition, but a direct path to meaning, to an understanding of the terror that lives beneath our consumptive ennui. It’s hard to make this case, though, if all we do is squabble with each other and lament our obscurity.

He posted this in response to the death of Kevin Morrissey at the Virginia Quarterly Review, and while that loss is beyond tragic for so many reasons, what I would like to address here is Almond's notion of what our job as writers is.

So, then, let's consider what he says our job is: first, to "focus on our own failings as writers."

Take the plank out of your own manuscript before you point out the speck of dust in the rejecting editor's/agent's/workshop leader's/reader's eye. Or something like that. Focus on your own work. Blame no one but yourself for its weaknesses.

All right. I'm with him there.

Next, he says we should devote ourselves to "speak more forcefully as advocates of literature." We need to convince the majority who don't read, or who at least don't read literary fiction, of its value. And, I love what follows--how right he is about literature's ability to battle loneliness and the "moral purposelessness of the leisure class." A thousand yeses. I couldn't agree more.

A million yeses. Yes: let's show the world what good fiction can do. I'm so with him.

One question: how?

Readers, help. Any thoughts? Honestly, I'm asking: what can I do (or you do or any of us do) to get people to read more anything? And especially: how do we get them to read more literary fiction?

Or, should we even try? Is it our job, afterall, to both write fiction and try to get others to read fiction?


I keep a rock from when I went caving some years ago on the book shelf above my writing desk. It appears to be somehow sliced open, and while the outside is ordinary grayish-brownish-rough-like rock, the slice reveals its insides: black and smooth and cool as glass.

Like so many things, my caving rock does double duty. I like the heft of it in my hand. I love the fact that it's a rock, a thing that's been around a very long time. If I could rewind time, watch everything I own morph back to their origins like rewinding video feed, so many of my things--including myself--would disappear. My books would wing back to the printer's, and then to trees, and then, to carbon dioxide, light and water, and then to seeds, and then, all the way back to microscopic slips of information: tree DNA inside a parent tree inside a parent tree inside a parent tree.

And, of course, the other part of the books, the words inside them, would lift off the page, return to the mind of the authors, and there, go through all the things that brought them to be in the first place. Whatever those origins might have been.

But my caving rock would survive this far, the walls of my house disassembling, the cinder-blocks in the walls going back to cinder, the trees that were here before re-growing, and on. I'm no geologist, but I'm pretty certain it's been a very long time since my rock has changed.

It's been with me--on my shelf, in a drawer, in a box--for seventeen years. That feels like a very long time to me; not so much to my rock.

We writers spend our days in the physical world, examining a number of psychological and spiritual and interpersonal spaces, writing about physical things that don't exist.

Of course, we don't need these things. These talismans. But, I think it helps, some fragment of this physical world. It holds me in physical space and inspires me as well. The cave itself was beyond magical. I remember a particular passage--called "the birth canal" by our guide if that tells you anything--which was so narrow and short we had to crawl through. But then, it would open up and suddenly, we were standing up in a cathedral-like open, underground space, the stalactites glistening down. It didn't feel like planet Earth. Like real-life.

So, I keep the rock on the shelf above me to remind me of those spaces. To remind myself that I used to do such things--go traipsing through caves. To remind myself, also, what I'm trying to do here, and also to remind myself that the real world, actual caves, exist. It's both a relief and a means to keep everything in perspective: there are spaces beyond my own brain, my own made-up stories. The rock will outlast every one of my ideas.

What about you? Any evidence of the real world you like to keep handy while you write?

Arthur Turock's Wife

Try this: shine a light on the character next to the one you're trying to portray.

From Thomas Cobb's Crazy Heart:

Bonnie Turock is a large, horse-faced woman in a floor-length print dress. She is from Macon, Georgia, and has never made the switch required of a record company executive's wife. At cocktail parties, she serves home-baked pie. Maybe Arthur has hung on to her because she has the homey touch he doesn't. Around Bonnie, Arthur Turock could pass for a real human being.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Look to the Character

In my last post, I spoke on faith and writing, and in particular in how you have to lean on the story--believe that it's there, beneath your fears. I encouraged you to step out on it in faith, test its soundness even when the shape of the story isn't clear. Rely on it. Know it's there.

Now, let's talk about how you do this. How do you find the story, especially if it's amorphous and sort of slippery at the moment. You know it's there, you just can't quite get a handle on it.

Too often, when a story is stuck or growing too many subplots or the main plot is drying up on the page, our impulse is to prop it up a little. Add one more subplot or another character, or (my favorite) kill somebody off. Change the setting, make someone commit a felony, add a bizarre catastrophe or something. Bees. I love to add bees. Or a pregnancy to a shaky marriage. Add cancer, divorce, or a tidal wave.

I'm speaking of myself: I do this. Especially the bees.

But, there's a better answer. Listen to Charles Baxter: "Instead of making our narrative events and our characters more colorful, we might make them thicker, more undecidable, more contradictory and unrecognizable. (From his essay, "On Defamiliarization" in his book, Burning Down the House.)

I find such comfort in these words. No need to go to any odd or confusing lengths to save the story. Simply look to the character instead. Almost always, whatever the question or the fear or the confusion, it is the character that brings me back to focus.

I know we all have a million character exercises, but here are a few I really love. And, they're not so much exercises as they are points to ponder:

1. Listen, again, to Baxter: "Sometimes--if we are writers--we have to talk to our characters. We have to try to persuade them to do what they've only imagined doing. We have to nudge but not force them toward situations where they will get into interesting trouble, where they will make interesting mistakes that they may take responsibility for," (from "Dysfunctional Narratives, Or: 'Mistakes Were Made,'" again in Burning Down the House.) Work your way through this: first, ask your character what they've only imagined doing. Next, figure out what would make them do it. Then, there will be the aftermath, and suddenly, your story has shown itself.

2. Three questions to ask your character. This came from a workshop I once attended with Quinn Dalton: Have you ever been close to death? What do you know about the circumstances of your birth? Have you ever been wrongly accused of any crime or wrongdoing?

3. This one is from Elissa Schappell: If asked, what are three things your character would say he/she is proud of? (Write these down before continuing.) Now, which one is a lie?

4. And finally, here's something I wrote in an essay a few years back: "Inside every character, even the most ordinary—boring, even—there exists the exquisite, the invaluable, the suffocation of normalcy, the brilliant and the ugly—the something that longs to be expressed." I've never met a person in real life who wasn't, at some level, suffocating normalcy, or who wasn't exquisite or brilliant or ugly in some way. It should be all the more true for our fictitious characters, shouldn't it? In what ways is your character both exquisite and ugly? How is he/she suffocating normalcy?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Faith in the Story: Believing What You Don't see

In this writing life, you will encounter fear.

It may come to you in any number of incarnations: fear of giving too much of yourself away, fear of rejection, fear of tripping upon little bits of your deepest darkest self you'd rather not see. Criticism from others, however well-intended, can be crippling. I've feared writing would make me crazy. I've feared not writing: what if I woke up tomorrow and simply couldn't do it? Or, what if I keep writing, but no longer enjoy it? What if, in my pursuit to always, always write better, I start to really hate it? What if, the harder I try, the worse I write?

And, each day, I face a particularly harrowing fear: I'm going to open up the document to whatever I'm working on, and, upon reading a few lines, discover just how much it sucks. More than anything, we fear failure, but, don't you think it's actually fear of exposure? Fear others will see the truth about me and how incredibly stupid and naive and untalented I really am?

Fear, as I've seen it, is a crisis of faith. And this, in my world, is where religious faith and writing faith converge. My bible tells me to be still and know that God is God. In my worst bouts of writer-fear, I have to summon the same brand of faith: be still and know that the story exists. The story knows what it's doing even when I don't--sometimes, especially when I don't. I can't see the story at this moment--just like I can't physically see God--but I have to trust it. It's there. Lean on it, risking falling, or, as E.L. Doctorow says, hazard yourself, and only then can you trust its soundness, how very sturdy and there it actually is.

And, maybe the particular document I'm staring out really does suck. Maybe it's unsalvageable. Maybe I really am incredibly stupid and maybe I've wasted over a decade of my life--more--pursuing this writing-thing.

This is flawed thinking. We as a culture are too worried about so-called "wasted" time on pursuits that don't measure up to money or attention. A topic for another post, perhaps, but I really think we all need to evaluate exactly what we mean by the word success. And, on a personal note, I firmly believe that writing is an act of worship in the same way that cabinet-makers worship God by carving wood: any time I use a thing God has given me in the way he intended me to use it, I am worshipping him.

And even if you can't quite do the God-thing with me, and if you're not quite willing to change how you see success, I'm hoping you will grasp the immense beauty of creating. Fear is about me, but the work is about the work. Even if my creation is ultimately no masterpiece, I've done this much: I've made something.

But, also, let's remember the story. It's spirit rather than flesh, but it exists. I believe in it, don't you? I think that's where we let our fears carry us away, where it separates the cabinet-maker from the wood, we are distracted by how much we suck or how much time we're wasting and we forget why we're here: it's all about the story.