Category Archives: audience

On giving readers an experience

“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn.  Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one.”—Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Sketches

If writers desire readers to breathe life into their words, then they must breathe experience into their words as they write, says Peter Elbow in Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. “I don’t know why it should be the case,” he writes, “that if you experience what you are writing about—if you go to the bamboo—it increases the chances of the reader’s experiencing the bamboo. But that’s the way it seems to work.”

This idea holds clues to the weird power of scenes. Elbow speculates that images tap more of the writer’s memory fragments, thus becoming vivid experience rather than abstract ideas or conceptions. He notes that one drawing technique forbids the artist to look at the paper but to pour all energy into seeing, and explains:


The drawings people produce when they can’t look at their paper are very instructive. They are liable to have obvious distortions of one sort or another. But they usually have more life, energy, and experience in them than drawings produced when you keep looking back to your paper and correcting your line and thereby achieving more accuracy. They give the viewer more of the experience of that torso or apple. . . .

It may be complicated for psychologists or philosophers to deal with this distinction between seeing and really seeing, but it’s simple enough to notice it on certain occasions: you stand there on the lawn and really see that beech tree and somehow the perception fills you or fully occupies you—the tree is wholly present to you. Or else, you stand there and, yes, you see it, but somehow you don’t see it fully, for you are slightly distracted or numb or unable to focus your attention. Some of your energy or attention is elsewhere. There is incomplete impact or commerce between you and the tree.

So the principle, at least, is simple:

If you want your words to make a reader have an experience, you have to have an experience yourself—not just deal in ideas or concepts. What this means in practice is you have to put all your energy into seeing—into connecting or making contact or participating with what you are writing about—into being there or having the hallucination. And no effort at all into searching for words. When you have the experience, when you have gotten to the bamboo, you can just open your mouth and the words that emerge will be what you need. (In the case of writing, though, you will have to revise later.)

It is probably easier to really experience something if you are actually standing there looking at it. But not necessarily. And it is probably easier to really experience something if you have actually seen it—that is, you will probably do better writing about memories than made-up events. But not necessarily. For the essential act in experiencing something is wholly internal . . .

In other words, as Ford Maddox Ford supposedly said, the writer must see characters as if they are on a lighted stage. Elbow expands and refines this idea:

For you as a writer, then, the crucial distinction is between trying to experience your subject fully versus trying to find the right words. In the one activity your energy and attention are directed wholeheartedly to what you are describing, in the other your energy is directed at your language or at your reader or at considerations of what kind of writing you are doing. . . .

When your raw writing grows directly out of full experience of your subject, the life entrapped in those words enables you to generate more words during the revision process that also contain life. The life in those original words keeps you in touch with the experience and enables you to dart back into it even if only for a moment as you search for a better word or phrase—even though you are engaged in the cold, calculating process of revising.

Elbow believes writers succeed more often in rendering small moments than in big, dramatic ones, which they refuse to experience as they write. He says keeping the mere thinking self—the pushy ego—out of the way tends to simplify the words used and emphasizes the essence of the experience. In any case, “Experience the tree” is better advice, he says, than “Give more details.” And beware of later feelings that flood the memory; they can prevent the writer from re-experiencing the original feeling in order to create.

Next: Elbow’s tips for conveying experience.


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Filed under audience, scene, working method

It’s reading that’s hard

Writers complain a lot about how hard their work is. But dipping into Peter Elbow’s 1981 classic Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (2nd edition, 1998) gave me a new appreciation for what readers are up against. Start with this insight: it’s readers who bring meaning to texts. For every word a writer uses, the reader must supply its meaning, either from pre-existing knowledge or from looking up the damned thing.

“Meanings are in readers, not in words,” writes Elbow. “When the page says chat, English readers bring thoughts of a cozy conversation; French readers bring thoughts about cats. Readers build meanings; words just sit there.”

For a writer, obviously, this means you must get readers to construct your story and its meaning. Elbow says this is akin to asking readers to make a sculpture, using a pile of limp balloons they must inflate, from your instructions. Or it’s like making them pedal a bike—do all the work—while you steer. He elaborates on this idea of the reader as creator:

You can’t give readers a finished product no matter how much you want to—any more than a playwright can actually send a live play through the mail. She can only send the script—a set of directions for producing a play. The best you can do is make sure you have overhauled the bicycle so that the pedalling isn’t harder than necessary. You can promise not to go up unnecessary hills. You can make sure there aren’t any holes in the balloons or misprints in the paint-by-numbers picture that would make the tree come out purple—unless you want it purple. But no matter how good a job you do of preparing the piece of writing, still the reader has to do all the work of pedalling, blowing, or painting-by-numbers.

So maybe, with work, readers can take your meaning. But Elbow then asks how can they have the experience you wish? This is a second layer of work, which requires the readers’ consent, as well as their supplying the imaginative or psychic energy necessary to form an image. Elbow uses an example of his trying to read a flawed novel, in which he was also frustrated with its author, a student, and explains:

Whenever in the past I had stopped reading because of this kind of frustration, I had tended to describe it as a case of the writing ‘not working.’ For the first time I now realized that beneath most cases of words not working lies an act of refusal by the reader. (There are, I admit, some cases where the reader doesn’t refuse and tries as hard as she can and still gets no meaning or experience. But readers usually refuse to try any more long before they’ve really given their all.) . . .

What emerged finally was this distinction which now seems so important to me: I allowed that writer access to my mind, but I didn’t allow her access to my experience. It’s as though I were a musician reading the score for a symphony on paper in silence. I was looking at it, seeing what key it was in, seeing what kinds of melodies and harmonies it uses, how it blends winds and brass, seeing where it is loud, dramatic, quiet, and so on—all without hearing any sounds in my head. I was doing a competent job of reading the directions for the production of music, but it would have taken an extra piece of effort, an additional investment of self—however automatic or subliminal that effort might be for a good musician who enjoys what she is reading—actually to hear the sounds, to experience the music.

At every moment, he emphasizes, the reader makes a choice whether to merely to get the gist—to read the directions—or to continue to invest the effort to have the experience implied in the words. In the hands of a skillful writer, a reader may feel the writer is giving her the experience—but she’s given her consent and is supplying the energy. The directions were clear, fun, easy, and the reader had and maintained the desire to do the work of decoding.

Is it any wonder that professional writers tend to write simply? That they emphasize vivid showing (scenes) rather than abstract telling (summary) to convey human experience? Elbow’s insights give me some sympathy with students who bounce off challenging prose and just give up. It explains the fatigue I sometimes feel in reading a student writer’s work that requires me to do far too much work. And it explains why some of my own writing has been rejected: too much effort for insufficient reward.

There’s another factor, Elbow says: Trust. Sometimes readers lose heart because the instructions are poor or the subject doesn’t interest them, but in others they may not trust the writer. “There are lots of experiences that I won’t let writers persuade me to create for myself till I trust them,” he explains. “No one can make me feel terrified or make me cry unless somehow she wins my trust. Thus, a piece of writing is likely to fail with me if someone tries to put an intensely scary or sad scene right at the beginning. I simply won’t row if she steers me toward that waterfall. I won’t let her play with my feelings. Yet, often the very experience I refuse to create for myself in the opening page or two is one that I am willing to have later on, after I have become involved—which is the same as saying after I have come to trust the writer.”

For Elbow, trust is built by a writer who begins her story by talking, telling an interesting idea or starting a narrative, or by describing a room or landscape, easing him in. He needs to experience the texture of the writer’s mind. The writer, he believes, must be completely focused on the experience she wants the reader to have—not on how she’s manipulating him. He says readers also pick up signals when a writer is trying too hard. And they resent it when the writer uses taboo subjects like sex or violence simply to capture attention and consent. On the other hand, readers may consent to go along with an overpowering writer whom they’d run from in person. Children, he warns, are literally more “impressionable”—more likely to create an unwelcome experience—and so must be protected until they develop their powerful refusal muscles later in adolescence.

Next: Elbow’s advice to writers on rendering experience.

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PowerPoint’s infamy grows apace

A PowerPoint diagram clarifying U.S. strategy in Afghanistan

Having gone on record against the narrative-killing malevolence of PowerPoint (“Unsure? Tell a story . . .”), I was pleased to see that the most popular story in The New York Times this week documents military commanders’ disgust with the fancy slide show. But we haters have little impact: recently someone asked me if I could give a presentation in PowerPoint on a magazine article I wrote. No and no!

The Times‘ April 26 story by Elisabeth Bumiller refers to a recent evisceration of PowerPoint in Armed Forces Journal by retired Marine Corps officer T.X. Hammes, who writes in his essay, “Make no mistake, PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making. It has fundamentally changed our culture by altering the expectations of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and how they make them.”

Bumiller writes:

Like an insurgency, PowerPoint has crept into the daily lives of military commanders and reached the level of near obsession. The amount of time expended on PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation program of computer-generated charts, graphs and bullet points, has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat. . . .

Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Not least, it ties up junior officers—referred to as PowerPoint Rangers—in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.

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Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.2

John D’Agata’s new book About a Mountain portrays Congress deciding to make Yucca mountain a nuclear dump, and, as if in response, a sixteen-year-old boy makes a suicide leap off the balcony of a skeevy Las Vegas hotel. In an otherwise rave review last February in The New York Times Book Review, Charles Bock took D’Agata to task for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). D’Agata is a gifted writer but what he did there does seem, well, weird. Using the actual date surely wouldn’t have undercut his emotionally associating it with another event.

Bock writes of D’Agata’s choice:

In pursuing his moral questions, he plays fast and loose with a verifiable historical date, one involving a kid’s suicide. He does this just for the sake of a tight narrative hook. To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites — a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.

Bock is the author of an acclaimed novel, but he’s as offended as some fuddy-duddy journalist defending the franchise against this openly admitted instance of creative license in nonfiction. Many folks are policing the nonfiction genre. There’s no telling who’s going to shout out a rule for practitioners. But does memoir differ from literary journalism like D’Agata’s? What of that memoirist who remembers every facial expression and each slant of light from twenty years before?

I think she’s using both memory and imagination in trying to convey an emotion-laden fragment of personal, otherwise private, and completely subjective experience. For us to feel it, we must share it. And to experience that moment, resonant within a larger, lost world, we must trust and rely upon the writer’s imagination as much as we believe in her core memory. Otherwise, she can only summarize, not convey. But the story must be true, and with as many telling particulars as can be summoned.

Sophisticated readers understand that much fiction is drawn closely from experience, and perhaps we’re coming to understand that successful memoirs contain some fiction—not falsehoods or gross distortions, but the writer’s attempt to feel her way back into the past and to take us with her. I agree with David Shields in Reality Hunger that memoir is literature, not a public record—not reportage. Though it is nonfiction, it’s very different from coverage of a city council meeting or even from a literary journalism participatory account or immersion profile.

Of course, the chief problem of writing about this issue is that it sounds, inescapably, like you are rationalizing deceit. As if you’re approving of those who make up or wildly exaggerate their basic narratives, or that you do it yourself. I imagine this is what keeps more writers from addressing the subtleties of this aspect of memoir. However, in his impressive Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, Sven Birkerts tackles the subject of “what are the limits of invention in memoir,” and he defends Vivian Gornick, who several years ago ignited a flap when she admitted to a roomful of journalists that some incidents in her memoir Fierce Attachments were “composite recreations,” as Birkerts terms it.

He writes:

Common sense tells us that not all so-called nonfiction can be—or needs to be—accountable to the same standards of strictness. Documentary reportage, kin to journalism in its treatment of character and circumstance, is pledged to absolute factual veracity, though I doubt any work in the genre is completely free of grace notes and bits of embroidery. But memoir, a genre that not only depends upon memory, but has the relation of past to present itself as an implicit part of its subject matter, is different. So much of the substance of memoir is not what exactly happened? but, rather, what is the expressive truth of the past, the truth of feeling that answers to the effect of events and relationships on a life? And from this angle, Gornick’s conflations make sense; for she uses them to better, more truthfully (if not more accurately) communicate the essential nature of what she is after. What she is doing—heightening, conferring definition—is in some ways not so different from what writers like Nabokov and Woolf are doing when the zoom in on minute particulars to the exclusion of the more customary narrative proportions. The truth is in the specific psychic residue, not in the faithful mapping of episodes to external events.

 

I offer this knowing that there will be many people who disagree. But it seems to me that memoir, unlike reportage, serves the spirit of the past, not the letter. Indeed, no one who reads memoir believes—how could they?—that exchanges happened exactly as set down, or that key events have not been inflected to achieve the necessary effect. The question is only how much departure is tolerable, and at what point does the modified recollection turn into fiction?

The grayness of his position—regarding honesty as a private, individual burden—won’t satisfy rule-makers. My provisional stance is that memoir must be honest not in the micro-ethics way reportage is, because of superficial facts (“true” even if they create the wrong impression), but in the macro-ethics sense of writing, in which the challenge is for the writing to be true in the deepest and widest sense and for the writer to become ever more human through its practice. Memoir reflects the reality that our memories are sifted and tumbled and recreated, rather than being fixed in an unchanging inner transcript. The memoirist melds discovered inner truths and feelings with fragments of memory into art that conveys lived reality. A simple statement at the front of a memoir I read recently pretty much gets it: “This is a true story. Some names and details have been changed.”

Those details! Since the writer is never the same person who experienced those details in the first place, isn’t his selection itself a form of fiction? And the person being portrayed perhaps wasn’t consciously aware at the time of those details, or he was focused on others, or saw them gradually, in memory. So what is true? In an interview about The Men in My Country, her spare, elegiac memoir about her affairs with three men during the time she spent teaching school in Japan, former journalist Marilyn Abildskov argues for the word “authenticity” for memoir rather than “truth.”

I get frustrated with the whole debate about accuracy and whether or not the memoirist can make something up because I don’t think it’s the right question or the most interesting question or the most useful question. When you write, you’re making something up. It’s that simple.  You’re putting words onto the page; creating something you hope seems whole.  You’re using your imagination.  Even if you’re writing from memory—maybe especially—you’re using your imagination. You’re trying to create this thing that’s alive. And you’re doing what a novelist does only instead of asking that age-old question that prompts fiction—What if? —you’re turning to your past, asking:  “What was that?  Who were those people?”  So maybe literary memoirs should be called memory-novels.

In this interview, with Jennie Durrant for Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Abildskov said she consulted her notebooks, which were sometimes useful, and added about memory:

There are things that you just don’t forget.  These things are imprinted onto you.  And the job writing-wise becomes making meaning out of that that someone else will understand. That’s why I don’t think the issue of accuracy is as important as authenticity. And I don’t know how else to say it except that there is something incredibly authentic about the personal essays and memoirs that have meant the most to me, some trueness of voice . . .

 

I remember a friend reading the manuscript in an early form and saying there was way too much logistical information about getting from A to B. Which I think comes from a desire to be accurate. And then what I had to do was shed that desire and go deeper, find a more purposeful interiority, the voice of vulnerability, and rely on that, hope that the emotional truth could rise from that. But you’re figuring all that out along the way. You, too, as a writer, have to go from A to B, boring as that may sound, and make all these mistakes, the ones everyone makes, in order to figure out the more important stuff. . . . And there’s something to be said for the imagination of the memory. We all embroider, and isn’t that a wonderful thing? The minute we tell a story, we’re going to add some details, because that’s the nature of storytelling: it’s the nature of reinventing.

I think I’m going to steal her word, authenticity, so rich and nuanced compared with the reductive “truth” or the slippery “honesty.”

(Abildskov’s complete interview with Durrant is here on the Mary site.)

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Frank Conroy on mystery & memoir

Frank Conroy (1936 – 2005), author of the classic memoir Stop-Time (which has the strangeness of true art about it), as well as novels and essays, was director of the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. He sat down for an interview with Lacy Crawford of Narrative magazine before his death. Some excerpts:

“The power and almost obscene wealth of parts of America resemble nothing so much as the Roman Empire. I don’t understand why people aren’t completely scandalized by the degrading of humanity through films and television over the last twenty years, a degradation of the soul. I’m not religious, but I insist on being able to use some of the concepts generally scorned in a secular society. The soul and spirituality are important parts of life. A lot of artists are trying to reclaim some of the language and territory so scorned. Life is a mystery, but you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream of America, everybody watching a rerun on TV. The country is in danger, but I don’t think that serious literature is in danger. Not yet. The spiritual emptiness of society is very deep and unsettling, so people are looking for something better.”

“I don’t believe in the natural writer. I believe in the natural reader who gradually begins to write. You can’t write independent of literature, so you read, you read, you read, you read, you read, and then you begin to write. A lot of it is mysterious. I see writing from many super-bright people, IQs of 165, and I have to say, smarts doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere with writing. High intellect may affect what you write about, but finally what makes writing stand out is not about intellect. I’ve known three people whom I would call astrally intelligent—and all three of them tried to write, and they couldn’t.

“Good narrative puts the reader and writer in a position of equality. The text forms a bridge between two imaginations. A challenging narrative must nonetheless be welcoming to the reader. A good narrative has drive. But I don’t care for theory, and we don’t spend any time here on theory. Talking about writing is one thing, and writing is another. On the page you have to teach the reader how to read you. I once had a student who couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag. And then she wrote an amazing story, and The Atlantic published it, and I said, What happened? And she said, Back then, it was all in my head. I knew instantly what she meant, because it’s not supposed to be in your head; it’s supposed to open between you and the reader.”

“[Self pity in a memoir] puts the reader in a position of being asked to sympathize with the ill fortune of another person, to be the witness rather than the co-creator, which is what I want out of the reader, someone whose energy is pouring in. I’ll tell you what I think motivated the writing [of Stop-Time]. Rather than, Oh, what a tough time I’ve had, one of the engines that drove the book—beside the fact that I wanted to be a writer—was anger. I wrote the book to try to get even, in a way, to extricate myself, Hey, fuck you guys! I wasn’t aware of it then, but in retrospect I see it was definitely there.”

“To write Stop-Time, I had to go well past any imaginative boundaries I’d set for myself. And there was the feeling that every writer has described: you don’t feel like you’re doing it—it’s passing through you in some way. Also, I was able to write the book because I’d read so much. Before I got to college, I read everything. I read the Russians, the Brits, the French, the Americans. I was years into college before I was assigned a book I hadn’t already read. In the beginning I read in order to escape my circumstances. I absorbed so many of the conventions and the rules and the rhythms of good prose. When I read [George] Orwell, I couldn’t believe it, it was so beautiful.”

“I didn’t remember everything about the past when I started the book, and I had a lot of chronology mixed up, and a lot of stuff was just repressed. The act of concentrating on the writing and trying to write perfect sentences opens closed doors.”

“In the culture at the time, everything was drugs, and beatniks, the whole beginning of the revolution. And there I was with a sort of semiclassical book, and they didn’t know whether it was fiction or nonfiction. Just before the book was published, the editor called me up and said, Should we call this fiction or nonfiction? And off the top of my head, I said, Everything in the book actually happened, so I’d call it nonfiction. Which they did. It was nominated for the National Book Award under the Belles Lettres category, and it didn’t win. About five years later, I spoke to one of the judges, who told me that the fiction prize winner that year, Thornton Wilder, was the compromise candidate because the judges couldn’t agree on the other books. Then, this judge told me, Do you realize that if your book had been listed as fiction, you would have won? I think what caused a certain amount of confusion both at the retail level in the bookstores and among the critics was that, when the first chapters were published in The New Yorker in 1965, it was almost unheard of to use fictional techniques to write about real situations. My name stayed the same, but I changed every other name.”

“I still write in longhand. I couldn’t compose on the typewriter, so I would write in longhand, and then, as I typed it up, that was a draft, and then there would be another draft and another draft … I think I typed the book by hand at least seven times. And each time, I was editing, and correcting, and changing little stuff. But again, I just had faith in it. Nobody can hold a whole book in his head. It’s impossible. You can’t do it. So you—Marilynne [Robinson] and I talk about this a lot—you jump in the pool, and then you learn how to swim. You don’t really know a lot about what’s going to happen. You just can’t! If you do, then you’re a hack.”

“Writing is a funny business. At its higher levels, there’s so much involved that we don’t understand, and can’t explain. One reason so many writers are anxious, drink so much, and fuck up their lives is that they hate not being able to control the writing completely. They’ve always got a big bet on the table, and the roulette wheel is spinning and spinning, and they can’t control it, and they’re afraid. You realize how miraculous and mysterious the act of writing is. You’ve been reading and listening to the voices of many hundreds of writers, and they succeeded, so perhaps you can. But you have fears, everybody has fears. Look at Joyce at the end, on his deathbed, saying, Doesn’t anybody understand?”

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Filed under audience, creative nonfiction, discovery, memoir, narrative, NOTED, reading, religion & spirituality, teaching, education, working method

Unrolling those narrative threads

“We construct a narrative for ourselves, and that’s the thread we follow from one day to the next. People who disintegrate as personalities are the ones who lose that thread.”—Paul Auster

A friend who is writing a complex book on evolution has been inspired by watching his artist daughter screen-printing layers of a picture successively in different colors, so that the image gradually emerges organically as a whole. He’s realized he needs similarly to line out his ideas slowly, giving readers the tools necessary to understand his theory’s major revelations deep into the book, as opposed to “describing each of the parts separately in detail, which just doesn’t work.”

Narrative literature must bring readers along, too, and for similar metabolic reasons. Multiple storylines are a commonplace in drama and comedy—watch almost any movie—and sometimes there are current-action threads while past threads move, in successive flashbacks, toward the present: How did that screwed-up guy or gal get there?

I’ve struggled with tugging along more than two storylines, however, in a book-length work. I can keep the main narrative unfolding across many chapters, maybe with a related subplot—a reappearing villain, say—but want to tie off other threads as they arise. Introduce them, wrap them up, get them over with. Snip! This is because I feel I’m already doing a lot in a chapter, and shoving one more thing into it seems to imperil its shapely arc. Sometimes, I think, a thread must be used in a discrete heap. But maybe then it’s not really a thread? And too much of such summary turns narrative essayistic, in the old-fashioned sense—bloodless.

I like narrative, event sequence leading to incidents that culminate in a big incident. But readers need to experience, with the main character or characters, all threads develop if they are going to feel the emotions the writer desires. This is how it happens in life too: ongoing issues and layers of backstory keep moving into the present. Rarely does something arise out of nothing. The car with bald tires wrecked at least partly because you were broke because of your troubled friend and because, two years ago, your dumb brother-in-law got you a deal on those tires, a deal, you learn, that really benefitted him . . .

Unroll all those threads over the course of a larger narrative and, wham, what a payoff the reader receives, when the car wrecks, for all that you’ve shown across 300 pages. It took me an embarrassingly long time to see that leaving out any element from the prior narrative, such as that mendacious brother-in-law, greatly dilutes the climax. His role cannot be revealed and wrapped up when the car wrecks without the reader feeling distanced or cheated.

Feeding the threads out inch by inch is both difficult to do and rich, conceptually and emotionally, for readers. To pull  all the strings, a writer must see clearly his main threads—surely defined as those connected directly to climaxes—and bring them along steadily. There’s much craft and artifice to this, unfolding while steadily and consciously withholding, and readers love writers for it.

An example in nonfiction is Jon Karakauer’s Into the Wild, as well as the movie Sean Penn made from it, which shrewdly dramatizes the book’s twin-story parallel structure. The ostensible main narrative is of Alex steadily dying of starvation in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. There’s a flashback thread, magically vivid in the movie, of his road adventures that took him ever-closer to the bus: he tests himself dangerously by kayaking through whitewater rapids and repeatedly turns his back on promising human relationships. A recurring thread set farther in the past explores his difficult early family life.

It fascinates me how much we get invested in the thread that gets Alex to the bus, when that setting constitutes the story’s present action and is the only thing “really” happening. But the bus is boring compared with Alex’s past adventures on the road, plus his disturbed childhood explains his final wilderness ordeal more than anything. There’s actually very little action in the “now” of Alaska compared with the long physical and emotional journey toward it. And those backstory threads within Into the Wild connect directly to the death of the smart, ascetic idealist who realizes, too late, that he must rejoin humankind for the meaning that he craves. All story elements support the same theme and form a whole that resonates.

Such thematic and event layering works beautifully but doesn’t happen accidentally. It takes work and conscious craft. Even then, there are no guarantees. A novelist once defined a novel as “a book with something wrong with it.” And in her 1989 New York Times essay “Write Till You Drop,” quarried from her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says, “Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too—the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed.”

So, it appears, I’ve noticed my latest impossible task: driving more story threads through a larger narrative, so that they run along with the main story, without creating a worse problem than what I’ve already got. To fix this flaw I’ve got to pull apart a bowl of spaghetti—making a mess of what I so carefully built. The result may work better but will be a different book, one surely with its own unique blemish.

Yet, Saint Annie promises, “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.”

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Filed under audience, braids, threads, Dillard—Saint Annie, emotion, evolutionary psychology, narrative, structure, theme

The blockbuster in America

I attended two holiday  movies, Avatar and Up In the Air, both of which delivered the promised shock and awe but which on balance provoked in me a quiet despair. And this felt bad. So, I’m out of step. But there’s a great article, “A World of Hits,” in The Economist that chases my blues with the insight that, hey, such a reaction may be a small downside of living in a blessed wealthy mass-consuming Democracy—tyranny of the majority and all that—that rewards blockbuster movies and best-selling books.

An excerpt:

“Although you might expect people who seek out obscure products to derive more pleasure from their discoveries than those who simply trudge off to see the occasional blockbuster, the opposite is true. Tom Tan and Serguei Netessine of Wharton Business School have analysed reviews on Netflix, a popular American outfit that dispatches DVDs by post and asks subscribers to rate the films they have rented. They find that blockbusters get better ratings from the people who have watched them than more obscure ones do. Even the critically loathed Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is awarded four stars out of five.

“Perhaps the best explanation of why this might be so was offered in 1963. In Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour, William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.) A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.

“This explains why bestselling books, or blockbuster films, occasionally seem to grow not just more quickly than products which are merely very popular, but also in a wholly different way. As a media product moves from the pool of frequent consumers into the ocean of occasional consumers, the prevailing attitude to it—what Hollywood folk call word of mouth—can become less critical. The hit is carried along by a wave of ill-informed goodwill.”

You can read the whole article here.

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