Friday, March 25, 2011
A year later, on August 4, 2010, a piece of ice four times the size of Manhattan broke off that same Greenland glacier. Here’s the thing: Jason Box, our determined glaciologist, wasn’t looking.
When I read that part, I thought, Of course.
To the fiction writer, there’s no other way it could have gone. He had to miss it, the same way Gatsby had to fall in love with a girl who could never love him back. The way Captain Ahab had to be injured—but not killed, at least not in their initial encounter—by Moby Dick. And, Holden Caulfield’s brother had to die. He had to. (Each of these events, btw, happens before the story begins—a lesson in itself.)
We are fiction-writers. Our job is to save our characters. To swoop in and rescue them from the sort of big and small dangers we can all identify with. The very same things—lost love, missed opportunity, fractured families—we all fear.
In this way, we work like super-heroes.
Or--better--we give them a chance to save themselves. A means to right their own lives, to make their own peace with their pasts, to write their own endings. An opportunity to find, or to shun, redemption.
In this way, we work like God.
When novelist John Irving was a boy, he recovered the charred remnants of a poor, mentally retarded pig farmer from the deceased’s burned down barn. In the wake of the tragedy, Irving started spinning stories to his friends. The body, burned beyond recognition, wasn’t Piggy Sneed's body at all, he said. Piggy Sneed had escaped. He’d retired in sunny Florida. He burned the barn down for the insurance money. Yes, Piggy Sneed, whom everyone had looked down on, was the cleverest of us all. He’d had it planned all along.
He tells the story in his essay, “Trying to Save Piggy Sneed,” found in the same-titled book, and likens the event to his work as a novelist: “…I realize that a writer’s work is setting fire to Piggy Sneed—and trying to save him—again and again; forever.”
Okay, now, it's your turn. Set the fire, send the iceberg into the sea, kill the big brother. Go, do it. Create the catastrophe—and every catastrophe, I could argue, is ultimately the reckoning of loneliness. It could be that the only thing we really fear is being alone.
Create the doom, then, light the path. Make a way—any way—and give your character a chance to take the path. This is the dignity in fiction, that we treat characters humanely, decently: we let them choose.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
I'm working on my Kmart story. I wrote a bit about Michael Jackson, decided it was too intrusive, and cut it. Sigh.
Do you remember Hemingway's Iceberg Theory? He said, "If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing."
So, the Michael Jackson part, which I'm pasting below, will have to stay under the surface.
Probably the older sister of the Lost Little Girl Family was asking her mama to buy her one of the Thriller t-shirts. Michael Jackson, dead almost two months now from do-it-yourself anesthesia.The girl was probably holding up a t-shirt commemorating an album released years and years before she was even born. And then, there’s the rest of us, the ones who saw him dancing with the zombies, the ones who saw the first moon-walk, who remember the Pepsi commercial, the chimpanzee. The ones who clucked our tongues and shuddered, both amused and horrified, this pale, skinny man in silk pajamas coming to court to answer the charges. Pedophile.
But damn, I told Thalia when the news reports first came in, when they were hunting down his Beverly Hills doctor, damn, I told her, could he dance. The creepy little high-pitched woman-man with his weird marriages and his white fetish and his Never-Land giraffes, he could dance. Like nobody else in this world, that man.
How does a writer know what to cut? Instinct, I say. Plus, a sort of pitiless honesty. It's a decent piece of writing, but it simply does not work for the story.
Okay, now. Back to it.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Monday, March 14, 2011
I have my reasons. I think my story is about the glory and the riches of motherhood, and also, the large and small humiliations of it. As mothers, we are at once moon-walkers, unbelievably agile dancers, and haters of our own faces. We are crotch-grabbers one minute, sweetly soulful--the woman in the mirror--the next. We are all suspected criminals.
Also, readers of this blog will remember that I once proclaimed I should have married Michael Jackson. My own personal response to his death surprised me and there were certain aspects of it that were emblamatic of my own hardships that summer. I was going through an I'm-a-miserable- mother-and-human-being meltdown that July, the perfect set-up for feeling a bizarre sort of guilt over Michael Jackson's death. I felt guilty about how I'd once loved Michael Jackson--my first celebrity love in the fourth grade--and how, when I was in college, watching the TV shots of his arriving for his child molestation courtdate emaciated, in pajamas, too frail to even hold his own umbrella over his head. I'd outgrown him, and worse: I'd turned against him. I used to love him, and now, a snotty college kid, I couldn't believe my own past affections.
Of course, MJ gave his fans plenty of reasons to turn against him, and I'm completely disgusted by the allegations against him, but what I'm trying to say here is that my response to Michael Jackon's death had nothing to do with Michael Jackson. It was me, a person, a mother, a daughter, facing her own season of grief and regret. I looked at this man, so ridiculed and so loved, and I thought: if his memory could be redeemed, then surely I, the mother who couldn't mother very well anymore, had a chance at redemption.
This might be the first blog post ever that I'm hoping nobody actually reads. This is the part of the story--the story of the story--that writers rarely feel a need to expose. And sometimes, I think we writers don't even know this part of the story, or address it head on in our own private minds. It's a little terrifying and wonderful, too: the beauty of the subconscious, that we know Michael Jackson's death somehow fits into a story about a regretful cashier in a Kmart.
So, back to your story. This is one of the steps in Antonya Nelson's ten-step process: bring in an event from the outside world. This could be anything happening anywhere in the world at the time of your story, real or made-up. A hurricane, a war, a UFO sighting, an election, a celebrity death, any news item. Anything. Antonya mentioned 9/11, then said, if that feels too intrusive, make it the anniversary of 9/11. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. A made-up criminal escaped from jail.
What this does is bring another dimension to your story in terms of setting, conflict, and character. Once you bring something like this in, however glancingly, it brings with it the reader's connotations and, possibly, the reader's own personal memory or feelings about the event. Stored images. Regrets and sadnesses and maybe some bittersweet combination of digust, hope, admiration, and guilt.
Okay, tomorrow, I'll dive back into drafting, keeping in mind all that we've been talking about in terms of conflict, interpersonal and intrapersonal, good and bad epiphanies, and my outside force. My Michael Jackson. Stay tuned.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
(From Holman and Harmon's A Handbook to Literature, 6th edition.)
It seems important in our discussion of conflict and plot and the shape of a story: epiphany. I attended a panel debating the relevance of this particular device last month at AWP and found Josh Allen's take on the subject incredibly helpful. The other participants largely spoke against epiphany--too contrived, outmoded--but Allen argued there are two different kinds of epiphanies: good ones and bad ones.
Allen used the classic movie, The Wizard of Oz, to illustrate.
The Bad Epiphany
Surely you remember the moment? Near the end of Dorothy's tale, when the wizard's hot air balloon has taken off without her, and she's sobbing, oh no, she'll never see Auntie Em again. What should float down from the sky but a bubble containing a good witch who reveals the magic secret: It's been with Dorothy all along. And, the leading question: Dorothy, what have you learned? Why--big epiphany--there's no place like home. There's no place like home. There's no place like home.
And, just like that, all her problems are solved! She's home! Never to wander again, so profound has been her enlightenment on the wonderfulness of home, however simple, however un-rainbowish.
What makes this a bad epiphany is that, first, it is handed to Dorothy. She doesn't have to seek understanding, it simply comes drifting down to her. Also, it solves all her problems. Real-life truth--obtained in a instant or not--does not solve all your problems. Which leads us to...
The Good Epiphany
There's the first thing: she comes to the epiphany by her own hand.
Also, the truth, when she encounters it, does not make all her problems go away. In fact, the revelation that the wizard is no wizard at all complicates her situation remarkably. There is no easy way back to Kansas: What will she do now?
I think about Richard Bausch's wonderful story, "Aren't You Happy for Me?" The more that is revealed, the more complicated the father's situation becomes. Ultimately, what he sees is how distant his wife is, and what a difficult road his daughter has chosen.
Revelation, in some form, is vital to any story, but like so many other aspects of fiction we're discussing here, it should be about deepening the story and its characters. By showing how a revelation really impacts the characters, we're portraying their exquisite humanness. It's this quality, our characters' depth, that make them both heroic and flawed. They are curtain-puller-backers, they are in seriously trying situations, and we, the readers, identify. It resonates with us because it's real, because we're just as bummed (and intrigued) to see that Dorothy's journey isn't over yet...
But even in the movies, you can boil them down to conflict types. Good versus evil, of course, a classic. Along the same vein: light versus darkness. Justice versus injustice. Man (or woman) versus the natural world. True love versus obligation or tradition. Faith versus disbelief.
Look at the story you've been working on. What are the binary forces at work here? In one of my favorite stories, Lorrie Moore's "Which is More Than I Can Say about Most People," there is mother versus daughter tension, which is a symptom of the larger conflict in the story: fear of speaking versus being compelled to speak. Which you can boil down to the most basic conflict in any story: self versus self.
In just about any story, I think, the conflict is two-fold: interpersonal--person versus person--which almost always echoes the story's most graceful, most intriguing, most heartbreaking, and often, the most convincing thing about the whole story: the intra-personal conflict.
How is your character at odds with himself?
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
I was terrified.
My parents arrived the following Sunday, freshman-move-in day. Rainy, of course. I wanted them to see that I was okay, so I introduced them to some of the girls I'd met at the retreat (Look! I already have friends!) and tried to give them the bum's rush once they'd fed me and hauled all my junk up to my room. I needed them to leave. I was prayed-up and ready. It was now or never. Mom and Dad, thank you very much for raising me and buying me a new plastic broom for my new dorm room. For supplying me with everything I've needed and most of what I've wanted these past eighteen years. Thank you for lunch at Grandma's Pancake Barn. Thank you for putting up with cranky-baby-me, a terrible spitter-upper, four-year-old me, a terrible know-it-all, thirteen-year-old me, terrible all the way around...the only way to get to eighteen-year-old college-me standing before you today. In this cramped, hot dorm room on this muggy gray August afternoon.
But, I need you to leave now. Now.
My mother, however, insisted on making my bed for me before she left.
And, I do mean insisted, despite my begging her to go. I clenched my teeth. She laid out the foam egg-carton cushiony-thingy meant to supplement the standard-issue dorm-room quality mattress. She snapped open the sheets, smoothed them down, tucked everything in, and then left.
Here's what I'm saying: in life and literature, we're hardly ever fighting about what we're fighting about. We're praying our way through Amy Grant songs and making our college daughter's bed once last time. We are always, always negotiating our relationships, always always going through these different rituals, resisting them and welcoming them and moving beyond them, towards new rituals. We never fight, really fight, with another person, an outside force, without confronting some part of ourselves, without coming to terms something we know to be true about the human being we are, or the human being we're becoming.
We are always dealing with the Big Things, but we never call them that. We call them egg-carton cushiony thingees. We call them rainy days, long drives, getting ready for freshman orientation.
Monday, March 7, 2011
Love means paying attention.
Steve Almond, during a Tin House lecture on the relationship between the writer and his/her characters.
To me, it makes perfect sense to attend to conflict after so many other matters have been considered: point of view, setting, character, and, in our ongoing discussion here, props.
Conflict follows life. If you have fully dreamed up your characters, they will reveal the story's chief conflicts. Our job as the writer is to pay attention.
Also, I wanted to talk about the story's props before mentioning conflict because I think considering the story's props is a sneaky way of getting at the story's conflict. The tangible pieces of our stories exude the emotional/interpersonal ones. By thinking about cats and pencil cases instead of selfishness and coming-of-age, we are inviting our stories to address not just bald emotion and conflict, but the subtler, ever-slippery range of the unspeakables. This is the magic of fiction-writing: we can portray--with cats and bubble gum (see Nabokov) and pencil cases--unsayable feelings and truths.
And, since we started this story with a true story, there were a number of little tensions and such already in the material before we even began to shape any of it.
So, what we do now is look over what we have, take a long walk or go sit by the window for a spell and simply think about the conflict in your story. Get at it this way: What is my main character really after? And what's the problem? What's getting in the way?
When you return to your story, see if there are places where the conflict can be sharpened. Lean on it a bit. In one story I wrote a few years ago, for example, there's a dinner table scene where a teenaged boy is torturing a middle-aged, delicately arranged woman by haranguing her with grosser-than-gross jokes. I really liked using the jokes as the weapon because it's the perfect weapon for my teenage boy's brand of villainy, and it was exactly the worse thing he could do to this particular woman at this particular moment. I made the jokes as bad as I dared, but, more importantly: I zeroed in on the delivery. Gestures. I also got down to the nitty-gritty of this woman's response, getting as precise as I could in how her hands trembled as she smooth and resmoothed her napkin, how she kept looking at the door, hoping her husband would arrive home.
So, what I'm telling you, is look and see what's already there. Tighten it. Increase the stakes. Focus on the telling details, the tiniest of gestures. Shade the obstacles in, make them a little bigger, a little darker. The best kind of conflict, I think, is not easily defined. You want to think about helping your reader experience it.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
Ann Hood says the story must "flip." David Payne says if the flag on the mailbox is up at the beginning of the story, it had better be down by the end. Or vice-versa.
Here's a trick I've learned from what has to be the most widely anthologized story ever.
There is one prop in Flannery O' Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," that I believe is especially apt at facilitating movement in fiction. And, it also works as an example of Charles Baxter's rhyming action.
Pitty Sing makes three appearances in the story:
1. Early in the story, the cat--and the grandmother's doting on her--are useful in fleshing out the grandmother's character. She hides the cat in her basket when the family goes on their trip; this woman is deceptive and a little coniving--also selfish--but, at this point, in a sort of blandish, mild way. The grandmother's hiding her and bringing her along despite her son's wishes also provide the potential for conflict. The reader is thinking: hmm...What about when the cat is discovered?
Here, the cat is funny.
2. Halfway through:The cat's jumping out of the basket causes the crash which causes the Misfit to stumble upon the family. So, using our standard story-writing lingo: the cat provides the story's complication.
Here, the cat is trouble.
3. The end: The cat is the only member of the family who survives. In fact, just after the grandmother is killed, the cat rubs against the legs of the Misfit. Here, now, the only creature the grandmother has shown much of any affection for at all--otherwise, the closest she gets is teasing the children and momentarily playing with the baby--snuggles up to her murderer a half-second after she drops.
Here, the cat is chillingly ironic. This is the story's tragic ending. The cat has flipped--gone from funny to tragic--and so has the story.
Think about the props in the story you're working on. Put that prop on a spiral if you can, so that when the story turns, we encounter that prop again...the same, but different. Same prop, now on a different loop on the spiral. See if it doesn't help move your story along...
I'm kidding only a little. I mean, I really do love lattes, and I think they've had sizable impact on my life. My first pub credit was tiny, but it helped me feel legit.
And, I'm so completely addicted to GG, I've inflected my obsession on my eight-year-old daughter. I still mourn the loss of the show, years after its demise, and I own all seven seasons on DVD. On Sunday afternoons, me and Abby fix microwave nachos and return to Star's Hollow. Oy with the poodles already, I tell her whenever the situation arises. Which is surprisingly often. It's a great phrase. I hear they're even putting it on t-shirts.
This past Sunday, though, my GG fix led to a contemplation of something very literary, and so I feel my devotion to the show is completed warranted. It seems to fit in with our discussion of props in fiction.
Here's what happened: Sookie is getting married. At the beginning of the episode (season 2 finale), the main characters Lorolei and teenaged daughter Rori are helping Sookie pick the music for her wedding. She's stuck on Ella Fitgerald's "I Can't Get Started," insisting it's not too depressing, even though Lorolei points out: It's about a heartbroken woman: I've flown around the world in a plane; I've settled revolutions in Spain;The North Pole I have charted, but I can't get started with you
Fast forward to the end of the show: Lorolei has attempted and failed to connect with the man she's long loved, and the song plays again, Lorolei as maid of honor, completely torn apart.
This is rhyming action: "All ballads love repetitive actions, or cycles of double-events...Prophecy run backward, into rhyming action or deja vu, gives the participant a power of understanding...A reverse prophecy, a sense of rhymed events, is unworldly and has something to do with insight. It moves us back into ourselves." From Charles Baxter's essay, "Rhyming Action" found in his wonderful book, Burning Down the House.
Okay, the GG example is a bit overdone, but I really like what it does. The wonderful thing about it is that its two occurrences play perfectly against each other. In the first, it's ridiculous, funny, that anyone would pick such a song, almost suicidally sad, for her wedding. In the end, the irony is bitter and perfect. It shows so much about the relationship and what Lorolei is coming to understand, and it's just deeply satisfying to the viewer, to have the story bookended in this way.
I love how it spirals: at the end, we're exactly where we started, and yet also, at a different place altogether.
More on this tomorrow. And next week. Props and rhyming action. Oh, the possibilities!!
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
from The Great Gatsy by F. Scott Fitzgerland
It's the feather drifting about in Forrest Gump. The cat in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." The curtains-turned-into-a-dress in Gone with the Wind. Dorothy's red ruby slippers, Alfred J. Prufrock's peach. The cathedral, the disappearing rabbit. The fiddle, the walking stick, the streetcar named Desire.
In the theater, the difference between a decoration and a prop is use: a character lays his or her hands on a prop.
For our purposes, in fiction, a prop--a concept I'm borrowing from the Antonya Nelson talk I've been drawing from--is a thing used in the story.
Look back through the story you've been drafting. What are its props? What are the things used in the story? How do your characters use these things? How are these things depicted? What are their origins? Does the thing float into your character's life? Is it a relic from the character's past? Is it a far-off thing your character gazes at across a body of water?
The trick to making full use of props in fiction is to let them reverberate, allow there to be some meaning or layers of usefulness. Let them appear in the story more than once. Allow them to be utterly concrete: make them as physical and real as possible.
It's a good idea to search your story for props after you've been working on it for a while. The props should arise naturally, not be imposed on the characters or the landscape. First, simply look. What's there?
In the story I've been drafting, my props include: Kmart, a pencil case, a bralette, malox, and the Berlin Wall.
I'm wondering if I can't do a bit more with the pencil case. It's my protag's initial means of connection with the little girl. It's also one of those odd little wonderful things, in my view, of childhood, how important a thing like a pencil case can be, useful and also, kind of a prop within a prop: children use such things to signal how they see themselves, or how they want to see themselves. A shiny vinyl pencil case with a good, non-sagging zipper equates good student. Some level of responsibility. Age. It's also a container, a means to gather other things, carry them along.
I don't want to touch too heavily on the bralette, the malox, or the Berlin Wall, but maybe there's a bit more I could be doing with Kmart. Not essentially a prop, I suppose, but rather a degree of setting I'm not sure I'm making full use of. I'll keep Kmart, though. I like that Kmarts are sort of relics from our pasts. They used to be so ubiquitous, in our pre-Walmart days, and aren't so easy to find these days. It is at once rare and lack-luster. I like that using Kmart means I can naturally evoke Martha Stewart and Jaclyn Smith--all of these, I believe, if used sparingly, carefully, are shortcuts. I can evoke "it's a good thing" and "Charlies Angels" and everything such institutions connote easily and subtly.
Also, among the discount chains--Walmart, Target, the like--I think Kmart is seen as the lowliest. Walmart is a giant, Target is fashionable, but Kmart, to my mind, has the kind of sparse, almost desperate feel I like for this story.
I want to make more of it.
I might have to do a bit of pruning if I find there are too many props in my story. I need to think hard about how my protag sees the props and also what her counterpart--the lost girl's mother--sees in the props. Of course, it's not necessary to state any of this explicitly in my story, just points to ponder before I move on to the next draft. Considerations, questions, and better: possibilities.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
You’ve written your autobiographical snippet, and you’ve recast said snippet into fiction. You now have—drum roll, please—the first draft of a story. (Wild applause.)
Seriously, congratulations: You’ve created something.
Of course, the good news and the bad news is that you still have some work to do.
Usually, my first draft is about getting to know my characters and finding an ending, or at least, a nugget of an ending. What may come to pass.
But now, what I really must do before I dive in, restructure scenes or find my props, the tools my own story offers up, I have to do a bit more work with my protag. It’s kind of drudgery, now, to go back and ask my character all the old questions—what’s at stake here?—and some new, incredibly boring ones, too, but it’s necessary. I believe good characters are at the heart of good fiction, and so it’s (almost?) impossible for me to know too much about the people who populate my fiction.
So, I’m going to list some rather ho-hum character questions below. You don’t have to answer all of them, of course, and you certainly don’t need to incorporate the information you garner directly into your story. In fact, please don’t. Just set out to know your characters well enough to portray them as complete people...not just, as Hemingway points out in the above quote, skillfully created characters.
I’ve heard it said this way: I’ve never actually been stuck on an elevator with my husband, but I could probably make some good guesses as to how he would react. Why? Because I know him. I know him well. It should be the same with your characters: know them well enough that you could put them into almost any situation and have a pretty good idea how they’ll react.
(Of course, characters and husbands surprise us at times—and they should! But that’s another blog post, for another day…)
1. Where and when was your character born? What was the weather like that day?
2. How old was your character when he/she started school? Did she/he like school? Hate it? Bored with it? Did she want to marry her 10th grade chemistry teacher? Did he smoke pot behind the scoreboard during the Friday night games? Was he in the band?
3. Okay, your character’s house is burning down. Assuming loved ones and pets are accounted for, what does he/she save?
4. How educated is your character?
5. What are your character’s reading habits?
6. What are your character’s television-viewing habits?
7. Is your character passionate about politics? How so?
8. What are your character’s hobbies?
9. Who are your character’s friends?
10. Who are your character’s enemies/rivals?
11. Who are your character’s family?
12. Where does he/she live? Describe the building/apartment/trailer/houseboat/tent.
13. What is your character’s vocation? How does he/she feel about his/her job?
14. Does your character have a secret wish? Secret regret?
15. How old is your character now? This is an important question. Antonya Nelson says every story is a coming of age story—coming into any age or situation in life. In what way is this story a coming of age story for your character?
16. What’s your character’s favorite color?
17. Does your character know how to cook? What is his/her attitude towards domestic chores?
18. What kind of music does your character enjoy listening to?
19. Your character is chiefly an: introvert/extrovert. (Choose one.)
20. What are your character’s talents?
21. What are your character’s bad habits?
22. What three achievements is your character most proud of?
23. Which thing from #23 is a lie?
24. What would your character think of you if he/she were to meet you at a party?
25. If your character were a kind of car, what would he/she be?