Monthly Archives: July 2009

Discovery and structure

Whether they’re brooders or plungers, all writers suffer the same problem, how to discover and recognize their good stuff or even to find their true subjects. Writers lament how much material they must produce and then cut. Writing can seem so wasteful, and that’s painful: the useless work! Art seems to rely on having lots to select from, but getting bogged down in the swamp in the middle of the pathless forest can dishearten: Where is this thing going?

For writer Heather Sellers, the key to strong content and to reader and writer interest is structural: she advocates Sellersinterweaving multiple stories. As she points out in “Use Braiding to Layer Your Story Line,” in the current issue (July/August 2009) of Writer’s Digest magazine, this works because it fosters discovery and juxtapositions. And it mimics the way people discuss several topics with each other at the same time.

It also reflects how we think. I realized the other day, while taking a long walk on the bike path with my terrier, that I was thinking about at least three different things. Sellers says she judged an essay contest in which ninety percent of the pieces failed because they concerned one predetermined topic. “No room to wiggle around . . . discover the interesting, previously unnoticed thing,” she writes. “Art relies on surprise. In order to engage the reader (and yourself as a writer), you have to braid. You can’t be confusing, but you can’t spell it all out, either. The human mind, when it reads, needs something to figure out.”

In her current project, a memoir about her neurological disorder that impairs her ability to remember faces, she’s interweaving three narratives with images that refract off each other: childhood, problems from her condition, and her marriage and divorce. “When I tell the story of my Florida childhood, divorce will be in some of the images,” she writes. “Marriage is about recognizing another person, deeply, profoundly.”

Her structure works to discover her material: “[T]he book teaches me what it is about as I write it. That’s the best way to write a book: to follow a structure that allows you to discover wise insights, images, and a natural organization as you go along.” She adds for emphasis: “You need more than one thing going on at a time. And you don’t need to know how everything will work out. When you braid, happy accidents occur . . .”

I intuitively braided my essay “Remembering Paul,” which was a breakthrough for me. I’d been worrying, as I drafted my memoir of farming in Appalachia, how to write about the death of my hired hand. I feared it would feel arbitrary and heavy-handed to just launch into it. One day when I was cleaning out the barn, Paul’s image came to me—it was the first time I’d done that chore without him—and I got a notebook and recorded such memories as they arose throughout the day. My essay was embedded in the present, in the scene of me and my feisty terrier in the barn (he was killing rats) but was intercut with stories of Paul. The main barn setting resonated with loss of its own—my energy, animals’ deaths, disorder and entropy—that was deepened by Paul’s loss and by my seeing what he had meant.

A more instructive essay, and a better one because its past thread is shown so vividly as an unfolding parallel story, rather than told in expository anecdotes, is Sellers’s own “Tell Me Again Who Are You?” collected in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I, edited by Lee Gutkind. Her story of undergoing face-recognition testing in a scanner at MIT is intercut with a narrative in the past of going away to college and finally breaking away from her crazed parents. There’s a lot going on in the essay but it’s always clear where she is physically and in time. A sad motif arises as she calls her husband nightly to report her ordeal at MIT and he can’t remember she’s not still there for a writing meeting. He’s not impaired, just doesn’t care.

Sellers says she uses braiding as a revision strategy, too, believing that simple pieces won’t come to life until they’re “spark fed” complexity with two more braids. And she uses braiding in teaching. She has students take three unrelated topics to construct an essay. Since undergraduates can struggle with one story, this sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I think the key is her instruction that the elements must “mean a lot” to them. Thematic connections will surprise and delight. Even so, such essays will tend to be segmented—three discrete chunks—and as a reader I prefer stories like Sellers’s memoir essay where one thread is a through-line that provides cohesion in a layered narrative. Her MIT adventure in the story’s present is related to her trials shown in the flashback narrative as an odd little girl with “criminally insane” parents and her poignant first experiences at college, including failing to recognize her date after she returns from the restroom.

Her Writers Digest essay was excerpted from her book on writing, Chapter After Chapter, which is about how to live the writer’s life, in the vein of Bird by Bird and Writing Down the Bones. But in the middle of Sellers’s encouragement and her rules and her tough-love advice (she’s made all the mistakes herself—has faded away on books and has dud books under her bed), is that amazing chapter about her favored construction.

Braiding is just a term some now use—call it flashbacks, story lines, backstory—but words for the same technique have different implications and can inspire. Someone else’s nomenclature and her examples can help a writer see his true task.

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Magical discovery, mundane craft

Writers who admit to having more than a hunch as they launch a new essay, story, or book nevertheless are often paradoxical in their advice about initial composition: they may have a plan before writing, a sketchy outline and a destination—even the exact ending, word for word—but say their powerful material is discovered en route as they veer into the intuitive realm of the brain.

Perhaps it is simply that, as the late Donald M. Murray observed, writing creates thought as well as captures it. Some of the exciting surprises, the stuff you didn’t know you knew, may exist buried from conscious knowledge. And some of the magic may arise from writing itself: one sentence sparks another. Wherever it originates, discovery in writing is itself an addictive mystery.

In an interview with Diana Hume George in Chautuaqua, Dinty W. Moore, whose most recent book is the memoir ChautauquaBetween Panic and Desire, says, “If you want to write anything worth the effort, the cognitive part of your brain is the enemy—you have to trust the inexplicable, the instinctual, the impulsive—you always want to get back there—it’s where all art comes from.”

Moore continues, “Really, anything I’ve ever written that endures beyond the month or so after it comes out of the printer is from that place, from finding secrets inside of myself that are as much a surprise to the writer as they might be to the reader. . . . To me, craft is structuring and making sense of primal insight without destroying what is so alive there.”

In Conversations with E. L. Doctorow, the novelist says his beginnings are uncalculated, searching: “Then I find a voice or an image or some idea or feeling—and the true work begins. . . . The act of composition is a series of discoveries. You find things just as you turn the corner. Eventually you reach the stage where it becomes an editorial, cerebral act as much as an intuitive thing. The further along you go, the more inevitable the course of the book.”

Outlining after writing an essay has worked well for me. A jot outline to begin, then a simple grocery list of what’s there, to see patterns and connections, holes and repetitions. Again, Don Murray, who wrote Pulitzer-winning newspaper editorials, magazine articles, poetry, and fiction, advocated post-writing outlines in his useful books, which include: A Writer Teaches Writing; Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem; and The Craft of Revision.

I would not think of writing a whole book without a preliminary structure, though; who knows what Doctorow actually does after he hits his sweet spot and gets more “cerebral.” In her superb book on craft, Write Away, novelist Elizabeth George says she’s by temperament very organized and needs an extensive plan on paper so that she feels free to create. She makes her exciting discoveries (regarding plot, theme, and what she needs to research) in early analyses she writes on each of her characters. As she writes her first draft, more inspiration strikes: unforeseen material “will emerge.”

To me, discovery implies even more than tapping unforeseen springs: it suggests content that cannot be explained. Not because the writer is withholding answers, but because she doesn’t have them. After all, the things we think about our whole lives are things we cannot explain. The secrets and mysteries. Or we learn that our understanding was partial and temporary, that the insights change as we do. Look at the lively art children make—paintings, poetry, vignettes—and what does a child “know” compared to an adult? Maybe enough for art. Adult writers add craft and endurance and experience, but I wonder if in essence they’re merely rediscovering childhood’s experience of wonder and mystery.

In my next post I’ll explore the link between discovery and craft, specifically narrative structure, and how conscious craft might foster intuitive art instead of seeming to be in tension with it. Craft’s highest role may be in helping writers find their true subjects, those areas they can’t neatly explain but can explore.

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Pitfalls of first-person

I’ve been struggling through Gilead this July, trying to ascertain why I’m lukewarm, at best, toward this acclaimed book so many have savored with such pleasure from an author I respect and admire. Marilynne Robinson’s novel won the Pulitzer and rave reviews from all the large-circulation review outlets that remain in America. Gilead has earned a raft of adoring reader reviews on Amazon—too many people to have been deceived by the superficiality and log-rolling of major book reviews. But there’s a contrary subcurrent who say they were bored to tears and shut the book halfway through, which is where I gave up before deciding to soldier on.

I know that a work of art that fails for me may be another’s huckleberry. Yet I believe my minority response springs from more than mere taste or temperament—there are technical issues here of interest to writers. Gilead puts its eggs in the basket of first-person narration, which like any point of view has strengths and weaknesses, and is a risky novel in its breaking of literary and storytelling conventions.

The book is told by an elderly minister in the form of a letter to his seven-year-old son, really to the man that boy will become. John Ames knows that his heart is failing and that he will not guide his son to adulthood. The dying man rambles over his life with scant narrative thread and plot structure. Ames writes of life’s fleeting beauty—Gilead is largely a hymn to existence—and meditates upon theology. He depicts the conflict between his crazed, abolitionist minister grandfather and his mild, liberal minister father. A prodigal figure appears in the form of Ames’s namesake, his best friend’s despairing son, whom Ames is threatened by, dislikes, and fails to comfort. The novel has been called essayistic, which I suppose is a way of saying  that it explores subjects and lacks narrative drive.

There’s a difference in how literary novels unfold story and in the dominoes-falling action of plot-driven potboilers. But even serious readers enjoy discerning meaning (really, in grasping the conflict) in subtle narrative, in putting an author’s particular puzzle of existence together. Readers can feel betrayed when their efforts do not add up. That is, when there’s insufficient causality in events. Robinson has said she wrote the novel like a serial, in chunks she sent off for publication, which may account for what feels to me like insufficient authorial shaping. But it may be that Gilead is simply too subtle for this reader. I enjoyed its father-son stories but failed to find a meaningful thematic link in them.

The author’s stroke of genius was to find Ames’s voice, which gives Gilead its intimacy and its elegiac tone. Such literary ventriloquism is problematic if the author loves a narrator more than her readers do. People who adore Ames revere Gilead. I think this is affection at work rather than fascination stemming from suspense, because Ames lacks interior and exterior conflict for most of the book, interesting flaws, and even garden-variety regrets. But then I dislike Ames. He’s the central character, and I find him inane. He doesn’t spark my interest or sympathy—nothing seems at stake with him—and so his cherished truths strike me as tedious wanderings. His weary “I suppose” began to grate.

When I don’t want to slap Ames silly, I want to edit the hell out of him. Robinson uses language gorgeously, and Gilead contains some great insights as well, but too often Ames’s wistful “letter” dredges up mush. A typical passage: “If I were to go through my old sermons, I might find some that deal with this subject. Since I am presumably somewhere near the end of my of my time and my strength, that might be the best way to make the case for you. I should have thought of this long ago.” And potentially I might almost agree, were I to somehow summon a whit of interest that would overcome my waning desire to turn the page. I think Robinson likes Ames and doesn’t mean to depict a smarmy old coot, but he’s enough to make me revoke my pledge to National Public Radio and stick a National Rifle Association decal on my Prius. To others, obviously, he is wise and lovable.

Consider another first-person narrator, Nick Carraway, of The Great Gatsby, who consciously thinks well of himself—he’s full of himself—and who, in that and other ways, is deliciously human. He’s not riddled with doubt like most people, but readers identify with uncertainty’s flip side, his conceit, and thrill to the clever aphorisms and mean pronouncements of this man who claims to be totally nonjudgmental. He’s also telling us a story primarily about other people, dramatic actors in tumultuous action—affairs, negligent manslaughter, murder.

Gildead’s prodigal figure, the son of Ames’s best friend (another minister, who’s also dying, at a rate faster than Ames), is a great character, by nature an ecclesiastical man riven by his inability to believe in God and by his self-destructiveness and inexplicable meanness. The stories of how, when he was a boy, he tormented Ames with malicious pranks are compelling—he was a satanic Dennis the Menace—and funny, if Ames irks you. The best thing about the guy is that he brings in mystery and tension. Ames can’t understand him, and neither can we, and he actually gets Ames riled. But this all late in the book, after much saintly Ames and his distant memories, and by then I was skimming.

Dramas are narratives of trauma and struggle by flawed characters. This rule has special relevance for personal essayists and memoirists, who are almost stuck with a first-person narration in which the narrator is seen as being identical with the author, or perhaps with a past version of the author. The inherent self-serving nature of first-person must be addressed in some way. Another pitfall of this point of view is that it tends to pitch the balance of showing vs. telling toward telling. There’s a voice lulling us with story, yes, but that virtue is in tension with the creation of images in the theater of readers’ minds. The power of showing is that it bypasses analytical receptors and triggers emotional ones.

Art trades in emotion. As such, it always risks sentimentality, which is unearned emotion. Yet one reader’s disgust with the maudlin is another’s experience of pity and sorrow. I experienced Gilead as deeply sentimental because its narrator and structure didn’t earn what they asked from me, that I be moved by the fine thoughts of a dying man.

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The abomination of faked memoir

from “Fiction, Fact, and Faked Memoirs,” by Thomas Larson, author of The Memoir and the Memoirist, in New English Review

“Writing a memoir, one is tormented less by the particular truth of a character’s emotion, as in fiction, and more by the emotional truth of one’s own experience. Both ‘emotional truths’ are valid; both fictionist and nonfictionist are after a similar truth—fully fleshing out the authenticity of the emotion. But now the integrity of the memoirist figures in. He must honor the pact: the emotional truth lies only in what he has experienced and how he has remembered his experience, and not in what an audience or a plot or an imagined reality deems necessary, or targets him, to reveal.”

Larson1“The real tyranny of the faked memoir is not that one has factually lied. That’s bad enough—stupid, really—in an age of Internet searches and viral circulation when anyone can be found out and quickly shamed. No, the faked memoir is an abomination because of its intentional ‘goodness’ as literature and of its wrongfully elevating dramatic truth over experiential truth, the esthetic over the ethical.”

“Since drama and truth are both elements in fiction and nonfiction, it’s best to simplify these terms first. By drama I mean narrative; by truth I mean analysis. The showing and the telling. True, some memoirs do read like novels: enraptured scenes, revelatory dialogue, “real” characters drawn and destined like those in fiction. But in memoir one gets to show and tell. And it is by telling the truth—the struggle to find what the truth is and then to tell it honestly—that distinguishes the memoir from its narrative competitors. Put another way, the reason the memoir exists is to give the writer a vehicle for telling the truth, for unlocking the meaning of personal experience through memory, whether shaped by narrative or analysis.”

“Which, at last, brings me to the label many of us labor under. Nonfiction. As memoirists, as writers memoir-izing nonfiction, we’re ambivalent about the word (forget, for now, it’s further confusing creative tag) not only because the word is defined negatively but also because it’s an apt label: what the non-ness in nonfiction is telling us is to seize the identity of memoir and other narrative forms from fiction. That memoir is not fiction. But it’s too easy to say this. Nonfiction writers can easily succumb in a world of movie-tie-in’s to the culture’s desire for another love story or hero’s journey. It’s a tendency we must resist and reveal in our writing why we are resisting it. This struggle comes with the territory: to seize life-writing back from its fictionalizing sensibility where the culture and the media and Oprah keep steering it.”

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