Category Archives: Tools of the Trade

Are Contemporary Novels Too Reflective? A Case for Visceral Writing

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Alice Hoffman

I recently read  Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and what I’m loving best about it is the depiction of early Manhattan:

When the grid of Manhattan streets was created, in 1811, a grand project that would forever change the city, filling in the streams, ridding the map of meandering roads, Ninth Avenue cut through the center of Moore’s estate. The scholar was so appalled at the way the future had swooped in to claim the farm he so loved that he donated much of his land to the general Theological Seminary and St. Peter’s Church. He left open sixty lots of orchards, assuming this gift would ensure that Chelsea would never be completely overtaken by mortar and stone. But after Moore’s death the lots were sold, with most of the trees hurriedly chopped down. Only the churchyard and garden remained the same…(56)

As a writer, she has improved a great deal since she wrote Practical Magic where the magic felt cute but extraneous to the plot. In this novel, the magic is so integral to the plot that you wouldn’t really call it magic. But I’m finding the plot slow. Moore, mentioned in this fascinating except, isn’t a character in the book, though some might argue that Manhattan is. Certainly this development of
Manhattan feels as though it will be central to the plot eventually. But even though almost every line is beautifully written, reading the novel feels more like work than pleasure. In my opinion, she is doing more “telling” and reflecting than she needs to. She is relying on flash back rather than letting the present-day action carry in it the traces of the past that shaped it. But I’m not criticizing her. This novel is a triumph.

I simply want to raise a question. We demand that short stories be efficient, that they externalize the conflict wherever possible, but in many novels, this admonition is thrown to the winds. Why? Why shouldn’t novels be as taut as short stories? I’m finding many novels a bit of a grind to push through, but I have always blamed this on my slow reading habits, my physical restlessness, my intellectual laziness.

Yezierska_Lima_News_July3_1922.jpgYet I find writing in Anzia Yezeirska’s novel The Bread Givers refreshing. A Polish immigrant, she wrote this novel circa 1920, about a Jewish immigrant family. With the novel, she captures the Yiddish cadence and sentence structure. There is very little reflection, very little back-story. It’s all plot and dialogue. It reads quickly and pulls me convincingly into that world. And yet, Yezierska wasn’t considered a great writer until recently, and then by a discerning few.

Plot-driven novels have long been considered sub-literary. “How can you develop character without backstory and flashbacks?” asks my colleague. It’s a rhetorical question for her. “My favorite novelists, like Faulkner, are all reflection,” she adds. Yet, Yezierka succeeds in conveying depth of character all with present-day action. Hemmingway was renowned primary for his externalization of conflict.

I want to be clear that I’m not talking about pot-boilers. The reason these aren’t good isn’t because they are plot driven, it’s because the characterization is shallow and the word choices trite.

Homer_British_Museum.jpgMy mother says lack of reflection and explanation was something Plato hated about Homer. He criticized the Illiad and the Odyssey for being all action and no explanation or interpretation. I’m too lazy to read Plato and Homer to see if she is remembering correctly, but she should know: she’s a world literature scholar and is a walking encyclopedia.

This type of storytelling – where plot and action is ascendant — belongs to the oral tradition, she says. And perhaps that’s why I love it so much – why I became a storyteller/performer for 15 years. Storytelling showed me that a story can be beautiful in the very shape of its plot, so that it almost doesn’t matter what words are used to convey it. When the tinker turns out to be a prince, we feel the rightness and truthfulness of that idea. When Hansel and Gretel have to ride alone on the back of a duck to get home, we unconsciously know why.

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Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s Tracks does a beautiful job achieving beauty through plot. For this reason Tracks is my favorite novel of hers, yet it may be one of her only novels that didn’t win an award. It is a novel that is told by two competing storytellers who alternate. The writing is beautiful, but the beauty comes from the shape of the story, rather than from verbal gymnastics: ““Men stayed clear of Fleur Pillager after the second drowning. Even though she was good looking, nobody dared to court her because it was clear that Misshepeshu, the water man, the monster, wanted her for himself” (11). Though this is, in fact, a flashback, it is all about the “facts” – about what people said about this character. It’s all very direct and visceral.

I’m surprised to find myself on this end of things. I, who have always been accused of being overwrought, I who love words, and who my poet friends accuse of being a poet. And I’m certainly NOT writing a manifesto for what all novelists should be doing in the 21st century. I’m simply doing what Judith Johnson, my writing teacher from SUNY Albany told me all writers need to do, define their genre, carve out a place for themselves in the literary world and name it. I’m going to call it visceral writing.

 

Hook Them With Your Opening Line, but. . .What I Learned at the GrubStreet Shop Talk Happy Hour

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opening linesI was late to the GrubStreet Shop Talk Happy Hour, for which I had paid $75 to talk with an agent and editor. Dan Loedel, a lanky young man with a goatee and black-rimmed glasses, who works for Scribner, scooted over to the black window bench to make room for me. I introduced myself and tried my “pitch” on him: “After her mother spontaneously combusted on the Altiplano between Bolivia and Chile, Fallon struggles to make to grasp her identity and reality. Fifteen years later, her brother, who is bi-polar,” I could hear him sigh at this point, but I pressed on.

He sat back and wrinkled his nose. “Your pitch is too plotty. As an editor of literary fiction, I’m less interested in plot and more interested in language and style. What are your “comparables?” That’s shoptalk for authors you might compare yourself to.

I suggested magical realists like Aimee Bender and Karen Russell. That was strike two.

“People in the publishing industry don’t call Karen Russell’s or Aimee Bender’s writing magical realism.”

“What would you call it?” I asked.

He thought for a moment. “I’d call it literary fiction that pushes the boundaries of reality.”

Okay, I admit it. I was discouraged. I was hoping people would say, “Wow, fascinating, send it to me” or “Sounds original, ground breaking, Pulitzer Prize winning.” After all, little grandiosity goes a long way towards getting a person to stick to a project for many years.

Part way through the happy hour we were supposed to mingle. Dan introduced me to an editor from William Morrow, and she agreed. She said, “spontaneous combustion” raised so many questions about whether I was I or joking, talking about reality or metaphor, that she couldn’t listen to the rest of the pitch. She thought I should simply say, “After the mysterious death of her mother . . .”

My friends all groaned when I told them this later.  They love that opening line.

But later, at the GrubStreet Manuscript Mart, where agents and editors read the first 20 pages of you manuscript and comment, Laura Biagi from the Jean V. Naggar Agency agreed that I should start with something less confusing, or go into more detail about the combustion,  or start in real time in the present with the main character and give us enough about her that we start to really care about her.  Here’s the former first paragraph:

          After her mother spontaneously combusted on the altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, Fallon turned her head, saw herself reflected, beautiful and male, in the face of her older brother Ovid and fell in love. Fifteen years later, navigating her way across the crowded floor of the North Star Pub to serve drinks to tourists and Wall Street brokers, she was still struggling to disentangle herself from both events.

         Ovid had called her again yesterday.

I told her I was making a bow to the opening line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”  She pointed out that the his novel then goes into that scene of the discovery of ice, whereas my first paragraph starts in the past, brings us too briefly to the pub and then goes the previous day.  Too much too fast.

I’ve been hanging out with poets too much, damn it, who like compressed language, and I’ve been writing a lot of short stories where things have to happen fast. But in a novel, apparently, we need to start a little slower.

Peter Blackstone from Grove also agreed that my first paragraph was front loading the novel too much.

So, I learned a valuable lesson. Start your novel with a hook but don’t give people whiplash.

Course, a friend of mine who works for GrubStreet would say, “You’ve also learned that the big publishers aren’t adventurous.” They say they want something different, but not that different. After all, it has to be something that 100,000 people would like. He had personally given up on them, claiming that the best work is coming out of small presses. I can attest to the small press and magazine exuberance and inventiveness at the AWP (Associated Writers and Writing Programs) bookfair.

But if you want to quit your day job so that you can write more, you have to please the big publishers.

I’ve vowed to give it a shot. Then I’m going to the small presses.

 

 

 

Writing and the Reverse Gravity of Waterfalls

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Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park

Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park. This fall has steps.  Wedding Veil, which I’m talking about below, doesn’t but is a thinner trickle.

My husband, Charley Brown, mugging for the shot.

My husband, Charley Brown, mugging for the shot.

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When you get into the crevasse of a mountain’s waterfall, there seems to be some kind of reverse gravity that sucks you up into its breast. I was reminded of this recently as my daughter and I scrambled over boulders up the tiers of the Wedding Veil waterfall in Yosemite National Park, California last month. You have to place your hands and feet carefully on the rocks and leverage your weight as you climb up into one pool, then in the one above. You strategize the best path to take, lest you climb into a spot you can’t get down from, and with each step and hand hold, the view changes and new plans have to be made at a moment’s notice. The activity is mesmerizing, fatigue falls away, and you climb faster than you should, driven to get up to the top by physical magnetism.

It’s a lot like finishing the definitive rewrite of a novel, which I did recently. As you get closer to the end, the drive to finish overtakes you, even as the fear of finishing fights you, and you find yourself spending all day, writing, writing, writing. Of course I’m not finished, finished. Still have to ask my writing group and other friends to read and give feedback, still have to tinker with sentences here and there, and proofread several times for errors. But the big work is done. Feels good and a little scary. Unlike climbing to the base of a waterfall, where you sit and bask in the mist and power of falling water, you get to the end of a novel and feel a little lost, as in, what now?

Find a different waterfall to climb, I guess.

The Strange Life of Words or Why I Write

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I dreamt once that words were people, refusing to speak as I walked by. The image neatly sums up my lifelong conflict with language. I adore words. I want to stroke them and live inside their bony curves. A variety comes to me easily, when I’m talking to friends or teaching. It’s a joy to be able to stretch out my hand and have the exact word appear, with the right heft and color, reverberating with history. Yet when asked to define a word, like “fluent” for example, I can’t.

A strong physical sense arises. I know exactly what it means, my hand wants to gesture, but the words to define it stumble out. How is it possible to know and love a word, but not be able to define it with words? How can I love something that is so difficult? Aren’t we supposed to be drawn to the things we are good at?

This paradox has only grown more pressing as I’ve devoted my life to the teaching of writing. I might be walking outdoors, and words will parade through my mind like children playing dress up, trying to shape themselves into silver willow fronds, or simulate the taste of late afternoon sun. But when I sit down before a white page, they scatter.

It happened just the other day, as I walked my dog down our dirt road. I came to a bog pond where a blue heron lives. What I thought was him standing in the water turned out to be a few dry stalks with an orb spider web illuminated by dew. Just beyond the periphery of my vision, the actual heron launched himself silently into the sky, huge, blue-gray and prehistoric. My first impulse – to run home and write it down, to hone the words until they leapt – was followed immediately by doubt. It takes so much time that might be better spent on students, family, and community. Surely writing should only be reserved for obsessed geniuses – or at the very least, for those to whom it comes easily.

I remember my first story like an alcoholic remembers her first drink. Even then conflict was present. I was six years old. I had just returned from Germany to my hometown. Having learned to read and write in German, I was having difficulty spelling in English. My second grade teacher set me up with a tutor.

I sat at the cafeteria table and the tutor’s words floated down from somewhere up above like bubbles. “Vowels,” she said. “A, e, i, o, u.” They bounced over my head. I stared at the gray table uncomprehending.

More words floated down. “Why don’t you write your own story?”

These words electrified me. I sat up straight and looked up at my tutor’s mouth. I could write my own story? The idea whirled inside me. All those stories my mother read to us that ended terribly. I could change that. I could create a whole new world.

That very night, in a room I shared with my two brothers, I huddled at the end of my bed, enfolding myself in my curtains. I stared at the stone tower of the church across the empty street, bathed in the colors of the traffic light, now red, now green, now yellow. Velvet mystery infused me, and I jotted down my first few lines. For a half hour I flew, my heart large. I had a beginning – the townspeople had trapped a monster inside a church, nailed the roof down on him like a coffin lid. But the huge flathead nails were coming loose. How would it end?

No answer. I sat with for a child’s eternity. The abyss yawned. My wings collapsed.

That’s how my love of writing began – stemming from difficulty, offering liberation and ending in angst.

Ironically, it is that very difficulty that called me to the teaching profession: it helps me help others overcome theirs. More importantly, the undeniable force and magic of words keeps calling me back.

Years ago, living in Paris trying to be a writer, I sat alone in a tiny white-walled apartment at the top of a spiral stair. I tinkered with a piece of writing that later got published. It was a tortured process, a steeping of self in words and wordlessness, a game of hide and seek with a host of internal critics, a dance to catch stars in my skirt without burning a hole in it, a leap into and over the abyss. Under certain conditions, if we strike the right words against each other in just the right way, they catch fire. A piece of writing emerged incrementally with elastic between each word so taut that if I pulled on them, they snapped. All else fell away and a stark truth emerged. This was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather do.

Even though I’ve quit writing many times over the years, I kept returning. And finally I have come to accept the fractiousness of writing. Writing is a set of diverse and sometimes opposing mental and emotional operations. Wild and often unbiddable, it requires that we leap back and forth between the different sides of our brains. On the one hand we must free associate and on the other hand we must choose, discard, catch and order. And it doesn’t stop there: we must be emotional and rational, verbal and spatial, personal and universal, private and public.

Worse yet, it comes with no map. We might draw a map, hold the teacher’s map in our hands, but the road changes with each new sentence, sprouting new paths. The possible routes are endless, and yet some paths work and others don’t. Forget asking why.

Even more threatening, writing is an exposure – you are committing a part of yourself to permanence for the eyes of others.

Complicating everything, some of us think more verbally while others think primarily physically, in a cocktail of chemicals and images and physical sensations. Stuffing that felt-sense into the linearity of language is a devilish challenge and changes the originating impulse. But that very transformation is what we seek. As with a foreigner writing in a non-native tongue, the alien perspective lifts language to new heights. In just this way our difficulty with language gives writing its beauty.

Writing by its very nature requires that you throw yourself out over an abyss and hope that the act of jumping will force new wings.

I’ve come to the conclusion we writers are like flowing water. Some of us, like Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, are waterfalls as big as Niagara. And some of us are creeks. We have less to say, or it takes us a long time to say it, we meander all over the place, and we dry up seasonally. But we’re all part of the watershed; we all end up in the same place, the great, deep ocean, the clouds, the sky.

So – what I’m left with is this, I don’t write because it’s easy or because I’m a genius. I write for that moment when we physically inhabit the world and let the structure of the galaxy or the chemistry of a leaf come into us. When the brilliance of the universe comes through our brain’s synaptic cocktail into words that transport others, it is a spiritual moment, a connection to something greater than ourselves. Our words are the sun-crusted spider web, earth-bound, reflecting light, that sometimes turn out to be a great blue heron launching us out of the bog into the air. It’s a blessed moment. A moment we all need.

 

Note: I wrote the following essay for the SUNY Adirondack English Division blog. It was the vehicle I used to break through a three-year writing block. Later, this essay inspired the story, “The Intensest Rendezvous,” which is still looking for a home. The story came out on the fly, I later realized, because I had outlined it in this essay. Whenever I stop writing for a period of time, I now know how to get back into it thanks in large part to Rosann Bane’s Around the Writer’s Block.

Five Principles to Combat Writer’s Block

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Everyone experiences writer’s block at one time or another. Some experience it only for a few minutes, some for years at a time. The resistance to writing can get particularly strong when you sit down to write about painful autobiographical events.

I have quit writing hundreds of times. But not long ago I had a breakthrough. The blocks melted away and I wrote daily for a period of three years producing my second novel, all while raising a child and working full time. It was such a euphoric and long-lasting revelation, and such a shift from my previous m.o. that I wrote down the principles that enabled me to keep writing so that I could revisit them when the resistance built up again, as it inevitably does.

I’ll be presenting this and more with Dave Kalish this Saturday in our GrubStreet Muse and the Marketplace session, “How to Turn Personal Tragedy into Entertaining Fiction.”  For more info click here and in the drop down menu select A La Carte Session A and scroll down to Option 4.

Meanwhile, here are the 5 principles absolutely free, a gift from me to you. Please leave a comment if they help.

Principle One: Write only because you want to and because it brings you joy.Don’t try to be brilliant or marketable, or meaningful. Write only because you want to. You don’t need anyone’s permission. You don’t need to pass a writing test. You don’t need to be useful. When you really want to write and write what you really want, it may turn out to be brilliant or marketable or meaningful, but if you set out with that goal, more often than not, it will lower your enjoyment, which will lower your drive to write. This principle can be applied to all things in life. Joy and desire are the linchpins of the universe. They provide the energy to create.

 Principle Two: Create a well-protected space for rough drafts. First writings are tender and can only occur in a well-protected space – a space that is safe from all criticism and all demands, both internal and external. This builds the first principle. Writing that stems from a desire to be great, or a desire to find god, or a desire to teach a lesson is already under pressure. Let go of all demands and pressure. For this reason, I also would not recommend soliciting publishers before the book is finished. Rejection may discourage you from finishing, and acceptance may create too much pressure to enjoy the writing. Protect yourself in these early stages. Write what you want and trust that it is needed, even if you can’t see how.

Corollary A: Warm up before you write. Never launch right into something unless inspired – it’s too much pressure. Generally, inspiration has to be cultivated gently and without pressure, by writing other things first. A journal is a good warm-up, either a personal journal or a writing journal where you state your intentions for that session…or work out a problem…or, if generating material, do a writing exercise. I find journaling works better when beginning a piece. When I’m well on my way, I can warm up by editing the previous day’s work.

Corollary B: Choose carefully when and to whom you show your writing. In the early stages generating stages, show it only to a trusted few, and be clear about what you want from them. If you want only positive feedback, ask for that. When you get to your later drafts, you will have to suck up some courage and show to a wider audience and withstand the storm of self-doubt that this will bring. But in the beginning, give your work over only into the gentlest of care.

Corollary C: Choose a subject that springs from your core concerns, values, or challenges.You know you have found the right subject when you have a lot to write about it. If it isn’t flowing, perhaps the subject isn’t right – isn’t of real interest and joy to you (springs from a false desire to impress or be smart or teach). Find the subject that is intrinsic to your very core and write about that. Write about a topic that you need to write about. Write to bring it to life. I think my second novel generated itself fairly easily because I was writing about something that I’d thought about all my life: death and what happens after. I also wrote the character I needed to be and this helped me write past blocks. Every once in a while I would struggle with whether I should do research (pursue analytic thought) or trust my intuition. My character had to learn to rely on her own intuition as well, so I took a cue from her. I wrote good medicine for myself. Joy Harjo once said that she writes a poem to heal something, like a sore throat or a broken heart. As long as that motive doesn’t weigh you down, go for it.

Corollary E: Imagine an audience you feel comfortable writing for. If it isn’t flowing, perhaps the audience isn’t right. Try writing a paragraph for different audiences, an audience of children, teenagers, all women, all men, all African Americans. As you try this out, pay attention to your energy. When your writing starts to pick up speed and spill out easily, that’s how you know you’ve found the right audience. Again, forget about marketability – the goal is to get it out, not get it published.

Corollary F: Choose the narrative voice that excites you. If it isn’t flowing, maybe the narrator needs to be older, younger or someone else. Try a few paragraphs in some different points of views and then trust yourself.

Example: I when went from third to first person, I found a sixteen year old voice that I loved. Then asked myself if it would be more interesting or sophisticated if I wrote in an older voice at a greater distance from the events. Immediately, my energy slumped. In the past, I might have agonized about which way to go. But in this new unblocked place, I stopped intellectualizing and took my energy level as my cue. Joseph Campbell wrote “follow your bliss.” Another way to think of it is follow your energy surges.

Principle Three: If you can’t write it, write about it.When you feel blocked or nervous about approaching some aspect, write about what you want to achieve. If you ask yourself questions, the answers will come. Sometimes they don’t come right away. Sometimes you have to carry the question around and think about it while you go on walks or do chores. When you do this, it is VERY important to turn the critical voice into a visionary or goal-setting voice. Instead of writing, “Why can’t I write dialogue?” ask “Where can I get help on writing dialogue?”  Instead of writing, “I’m don’t know how to end this thing,” write, “I want this novel to end with a rich image and just a whiff of mystery.” The more you describe the way you want to write, the more likely you are to slide right into doing it without even noticing. This is great a parenting technique—tell your kid what to do rather than what not to do. Works well in relationships, too.

Principle Four: Listen to the writing block. Even the writing blocks are telling you something important about your writing… And no, they’re not telling you to stop writing. I’ve spent years berating myself every time I got blocked – “See, you’re not a writer. You’re f-d up.” That was just a distraction. Lately, when I get blocked, I think, “Something about what you are doing is bothering you. There’s a problem that you need to work out.” Then see Principle Three, if you can’t write it write about it. Sometimes you can work it out just by writing, “What is bothering me about this?” Here’s an example. I was trying to write a character sketch on my main character in first person, but suddenly everything went flat. This told me that she was more private than I thought – especially when she thought she was being evaluated. So I abandoned the sketch.

Other Suggestions:

  • When the writing goes flat, it may indicate that this scene could be summarized. Listen to the voice that says, this is boring, I want to get to the good stuff. Go ahead. Skip this part. Writing is like magic. Want time to pass? Write, “Three years later….”  and voila! Get right to the good stuff…don’t torture yourself. Maybe it’s flat because the reader doesn’t need this kind of detail either. Summarize it and move on. You can always go back and fill in the gaps later if you need to.
  • Is it flat because you are scared of it – scared you can’t live up to the drama of the moment? Well…either wait until you feel inspired and work on something else…or rough it out and come back to it later.
  • Is it flat because you need to start the story in a new place?

Principle Five: Trust your process. Trust your outcome. Or, work on what you feel like working on when you feel like working on it.When I began my second novel, I started by inventing my own theory about ghosts. I didn’t even have a plot. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. But I was so into writing that. Later I was glad it was written, because I didn’t want to write it. It had become boring. Instead I was all about plot. The novel doesn’t have to be written in order. Jump to the scenes that interest you when they occur to you. I wrote the climax right after I wrote the opening paragraphs, because the inspiration struck. Later, as I approached the end of the novel, I became more and more worried about whether I could pull off the ending. When I finally came to it, I re-read the climax I had written almost a year before. I ended up revising it, but that first draft gave me the courage to hammer out a new ending.

Corollary A: Digressions are maps. Even if you are writing things that are digressions or not that interesting as scenes, write them anyway, because you need to write them in order to understand your plot or your character. You can always take them out later.

Corollary B: Bad writing leads to good writing, or it’s good enough in and of itself. Even if you are writing sentimental, schlocky crap, trust that you need to write it this way to get to the good stuff, or else that there is a valid place in the world for sentimental, schlocky crap, and your job is to supply it.

Corollary C: Give it time to rise. When you make bread, you never just mix the ingredients and put it in the oven. You give it time to rise. Likewise, there comes a point in all writing where you have to take a break. You get too close to it; you can’t see it. No writing is finished until you’ve rested, forgotten about and returned to it with fresh eyes. When you finish the first or second draft, you may think it’s perfect, or you may think something isn’t right about it, but you can’t tell what. Take a break. Put it down and don’t re-read it for long period of time, a week, a month, a year, maybe more. When you come back to it, you will be amazed at how clearly you see what it lacks and what it needs.

All of the above works better if you accept the following philosophical underpinnings loosely borrowed from Buddhist thought:

  • We each have the brilliance of the universe inside us, since we are made of it. We just need to get out of our own way.
  • When connected to ourselves in a balanced way, the world benefits from us, if only in a very small way.
  • We each have a gift to give, and no matter how small, it is essential that we give it.

Good luck, and keep the faith.

P.S. Since I wrote this article I’ve found two books very helpful:

Around the Writers Block by Roseanne Bane and The Seven Secrets of the Prolific by Hilary Rettig.