Category Archives: diction or vocabulary

John McPhee on writer’s block

In which he nails the issue & I rename this blog Draft No. 4.

If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.

—John McPhee

—source unknown

—source unknown

Thursday night, I told my wife about my notion of renaming this blog, called Narrative now well into its fifth year. “It’s getting confused with Narrative the online magazine,” I said. An acquaintance recently offered me a fine guest post, I explained, but withdrew it when I told her this wasn’t that Narrative.

Kathy nodded, taking this problem under advisement.

“Today I came up with the perfect name,” I went on. “I’ll call it The Fourth Draft. You know, that was my book’s transforming draft.”

“I’ll have to think about that,” she said, giving me pause. I saw that The Fourth Draft sounded like a minor-league baseball team or a microbrewery.

Friday morning, I sat down with my oatmeal and opened my new New Yorker, the April 29 issue, to John McPhee’s latest piece: “Draft No. 4.”

More than a title, it struck me as a sign.

McPhee’s essay, my favorite so far in his valedictory series on writing, is about writer’s block. He suffers the torments of the damned in forcing out his first drafts. “How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?” he asks, nailing the existential problem writers face in trying to make something out of nothing. “Until it exists,” he adds, “writing has not really begun.” Much of this grandiose problem of facing the blank page with the self seems simply the difficulty of thinking: writing is concentrated thought. Yet it’s true as well that one writes in Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling.” One wants—no, wishes—to be worthy.

And first drafts don’t feel very worthy.

For McPhee, though, subsequent drafts just get easier and better. At last, in draft four, he draws boxes around many of his chosen words. He explains:

You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don’t linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one. If there’s a box around “sensitive,” because it seems pretentious in the context, try “susceptible.” Why “susceptible”? Because you looked up “sensitive” in the dictionary and it said “highly susceptible.” With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus. If you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you.

McPhee allows himself to enjoy the fourth draft, his final draft.

Honestly, I thought producing the fourth draft of my book, a memoir of farming, would kill me. I’d enjoyed writing the first draft, so much so that after some cutting and polishing, I was ready to shop around what I was probably calling draft three. Luckily I ran into an editor who bluntly directed me to get the services of a developmental editor. So I found one. Namely Bill Roorbach, a novelist, award-winning short story writer, and memoirist.

Development? That isn’t a big enough word for what Bill did to my book. I mean for my book. From sentences to story arc, he laid about with a heavy sword. But with a strangely positive energy and kindness—he believed in my story! All the same, when I got his report I crashed for three months.

My persona wasn’t working—there was blurring between me then, the guy in the action, and me now, at the desk recalling (plus he mentioned a meta-level of “me” beyond all that: the me creating the me at the desk; that one still tests the limit of my cognitive abilities). The narrative arc wasn’t working, either, because I’d bring up a character who should have appeared throughout, but dispose of him right away, as if the chapter were a stand-alone essay. And my scenes weren’t sustained enough to dramatize fully my experience.

Whew. Bill’s markup in Word looked like the Fourth of July. I say I crashed for three months, but the actual fetal position surely lasted only about three weeks. Then I got up and thought, and walked and thought, and read voraciously. I questioned myself down to the soles of my feet. I grasped what Annie Dillard said about sitting with a book as with a dying friend. I decided I’d worked too long and hard to quit and let my book fully expire. Though I’d cobbled together an awkward narrative homunculus, I still yearned to share my story.

And the heart of my monster was there, weakly beating. Bill said the creature just needed major surgery.

My crisis over Bill’s editing turned out to be trivial. For the first time, I had to force myself to the keyboard. The resistance, I’m sure, was fear of failure. Then the usual happened: it took me an hour to re-enter the work; in the second hour I started producing; in the third and final hour, all I’m usually good for, came any good stuff. My usual hourly rate held steady, a page an hour.

I’ve just polished my sixth draft, and my book is ready. I hope to announce a publishing contract soon. Meantime, it’s not easy for me to rename this blog, because I love the word narrative and think of myself as writing for an entity I created called Narrative. But everyone else loves the word too, and with a literary magazine having claimed the name, I feel like someone who writes about TV news calling his blog CNN.

So in honor of my agonizing but fruitful fourth draft, and in hopes that I might one day emulate McPhee’s comparative ease and pleasure in his fourth drafts, I hereby rechristen this old blog Draft No. 4.

Advertisements

24 Comments

Filed under blogging, craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, memoir, MY LIFE, Persona, Voice, POV, revision, working method

Richard Russo’s ‘Elsewhere’

Narrative risks & rewards in a talky memoir about Mom.

“You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”—Russo’s father to him when he was twenty.

Elsewhere by Richard Russo. Knopf, 243 pp.

From the book's cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

From the book’s cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

Rather dense, slow-moving, and expository, Elsewhere isn’t a memoir I’d make students read. Smoothly written, interestingly structured, a complex portrait of mental illness, love, and lower middle class life in a wretched town, Elsewhere is a book I’d recommend, with caveats, to adults. They must be serious readers, or blessed with at least one difficult parent, or love and hate their hometown, or be writers. For memoirists, Elsewhere offers lessons in narrative structure, in the power of the reflective voice, and in how to blend diction both elegant and conversational.

Richard Russo’s focus is on his mother, who, wherever she was, wanted to be elsewhere. She most especially didn’t want to be stuck in Gloversville, New York, a depressed mill town where she’d grown up and where her son was born and grew up. If that meant following him off to college in Arizona when he graduated high school in 1967, so be it. She suffered from “nerves,” as people called it in that bygone era. When Rick Russo was young, his divorced mother was stubborn, demanding, and resentful. She worsens with age, and gradually one comes to see that this isn’t garden-variety “nerves,” or mere ego, but a shaky defense. She’s barely able to control her anxiety so she tries to control what she can.

Although Elsewhere is largely chronological, there are retrospective explanations and huge narrative leaps in which years and even decades vanish in a scant line. A writer unrolling a story this way for the first time might wonder—Can I do this? Is this possible?—but it works surprisingly well to jump ahead. Readers are hooked on the heart of the story, not on every last daily event, and most surely appreciate confident summary. Russo tells the story very much from “now,” as an adult looking back. We’re in his head more than in the experience of his younger self who lived it. The first true scene doesn’t appear until page twenty-five. The writer’s stance in the present and his reliance on voice as much as on dramatized action have a distancing effect. This made the book less emotionally involving for me even as its appealing sadder-but-wiser narrator lured me onward.

Elsewhere does have a surprising narrative pull. Somehow Russo generates suspense, probably because although we know from the start the book ends with his mother’s death, we crave the story’s particulars. Details tell the world what it lost. Though I can barely remember his mother’s name, Jean—mentioned in stray quotes by family members referring to her—his mother interests because she’s made unique and her suffering and the problems she causes made palpable. Would that Elsewhere’s elusive lessons were as simple as bringing one troubled woman to life. Legions of memoirists and novelists get their work rejected each year for lack of drama, for being boring, while they burn with their stories about difficult parents, divorces, and deaths. “It’s full of details and events!” they cry.

Yeah, but . . .

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It’s safe to presume that Russo, the author of eight novels and the winner of a Pulitzer prize, knows what he’s doing. While he chooses a rather talky approach—like some other prominent novelists who’ve turned to memoir, he uses it to tell more than to show—he controls all elements of the narrative. And he’s telling an iconic and resonant American story of place and people. From the start, we feel we’re in the hands of a writer who knows what he has to say and where he wants to take us. Those readers who don’t close his memoir in boredom with Jean Russo will follow him. Ultimately they will be impressed by his candor, by the truly hard-earned wisdom of a dutiful, long-suffering, and humanly flawed son. The book becomes moving as Russo becomes more self-protective and then aware of it. Too late he realizes, or finally admits consciously, that his mother suffered from severe, undiagnosed mental illness her whole life.

Aside from his stature, all those other books and that big prize, why does Russo get to tell his story, and rather successfully per his strategy? First, despite memoir’s popularity it’s not unusual to hear people disdain the genre. In large part they can’t get past a very human resentment. My mother was odd too. Why should I read about yours? Agents and publishers who feel this way, but who must scout new memoirs to sell, will read five to fifty pages to see if a writer can overcome their innate reluctance if not repugnance. Is this narcissistic or boring? A writer must do many things right, but there’s no formula—neither the purely scenic approach of many bestsellers nor the tweedy mastery of literary memoirs like Vladimir Nabokov’s and John Updike’s. And of course a manuscript’s reception is influenced by the market, by the author’s stature, and by the reader’s preferences.

Finally the proof is in the reading. The thing must transcend its elements; it must get airborne; it must become art. Elsewhere meets that test.

20 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, emotion, memoir, narrative, REVIEW, scene, structure, style

Richard Ford’s novel ‘Canada’

A retrospective narrator gives Ford’s fiction the feel of memoir.

Canada by Richard Ford. HarperCollins, 420 pp.

The hand of a master storyteller . . .

. . . “Canada” is blessed with two essential strengths in equal measure — a mesmerizing story driven by authentic and fully realized characters, and a prose style so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.—Andre Dubus III in his Times review

I’m reading two memoirs now, one an immersion and the other postmodern, but the book that’s riveting me is Richard Ford’s acclaimed new novel, Canada. I’m about halfway through and eagerly return to its world. I say about halfway because it’s in two big acts, and I’ve finished Part One; but there’s a tiny Part Three, maybe one more short chapter. Meaning, in other words, it’s really an epilogue, and it annoys me, when writers do that, call an epilogue an act. But that’s my problem, I guess, and may only mean I want to do it myself and annoy some irritable someone. I’ll find out, when I get there, whether Ford earns his designation. Which I doubt, fervently, in advance. Yet maybe, after all, an epilogue would make this great novel seem too much like a memoir, and act could be the correct literary term here.

That’s what struck me right off, how much like a memoir Canada is in its presentation of story. Along with Ford’s pleasing sentences, of course: their balance and his deft dashes, employed the way his narrator would use them—the classic parenthetical, sure, but also how he jogs with them at the end of sentences—and the way the man who tells the tale misuses “who” for “whom” and uses “only” in place of but. (The latter feels so true and colloquial, or at least individual and believably and unconsciously idiosyncratic.)

The narrator is a middle-aged schoolteacher, Dell Parsons, whose parents robbed a bank in North Dakota when he and his twin sister were fifteen. Ford exploits the dual narrator (Dell then, a young fifteen, and now, when he’s about sixty) to great effect. Mostly the story is told through the boy’s eyes. Ford smoothly explains how Dell knows some things by having Dell tell us his mother wrote a memoir in prison. A big difference between this novel and a memoir, so far, is we don’t get any wailing by the adult Dell of how his parents and their crime messed up his life. It’s clear it would, and did, to a point, but that’s implied. And worlds reside in that phrase “to a point,” for Dell is an individual and individuals are, in good fiction as in life, unpredictable.

What really hooked me at the start was the way Ford-as-Dell depicts and describes his parents. They are ordinary middle-class postwar people: only they are not so ordinary, like anyone when looked at closely. And Ford manages to set them in motion in your mind’s eye so you feel like you know them—or, rather, don’t know them in the same way we know-and-don’t-know anyone we meet. How we place and then imagine a person by appearance, countenance, dress, and voice. How we notice in an instant and largely unconsciously their shoes, complexion, smell. Ford has looked closely and he’s thought carefully; you feel yourself, for so many reasons, in the hands of a master.

12 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, fiction, memoir, Persona, Voice, POV, punctuation, REVIEW, syntax

Rampant use of the term ‘narrative’

I want to raise the question of what the world thinks “narrative” means, what educated media commentators and writers mean by it, and what relationship does the widespread use of “narrative” have to do with the use of the term narrative journalism?—Gerald Grow, “The Invasion of the Term ‘Narrative’ “

Gerald Grow, now retired, a Shakespeare scholar who ended up teaching journalism at Florida A & M University, keeps an eclectic and useful web site about writing and teaching. It brims with neat stuff, including journalism and magazine-writing teaching strategies, ideas about visual art, AP and APA style guides, and thoughts on Eastern spirituality, to name a few categories. His beef about narrative’s proliferation is lodged in his annex of article ideas for “anyone who wants to take them, develop them, use them, disprove them—in the interest of continuing the conversation on journalism education.”

Grow gives examples from reviews and news stories of what he considers misuse of the term, and says:

I am puzzled by what looks like a tendency to reduce events in the world that can mean life or death (e.g., men with guns, big storm, food shortage, job lost, clash of cultures, core beliefs) to the terms of literary criticism (narrative, story, margin). In many cases, I would expect some term like theory, explanation, understanding, picture, biography, motive, version, alibi, etc.

What is going on? What does it mean to conflate so many useful and content-filled distinctions into the vague theoretical term “narrative”? Calling so many types of discourse “narratives” is rather like referring to both wood pulp and voters as “biomass.” Where did this reductionistic use of the term “narrative” come from? Who is promoting it? Who benefits from it? Why do so many articulate, educated people so easily slip into using it when they are trying explain something? To question this devil in its own terminology: What is lost when the term “narrative” colonizes public discourse?

So, reading this, one begins to wonder. I admit I’m a prime offender—Exhibit A: this blog—but I love the richness and connotations of “narrative,” even if Grow’s got a point that the word’s rampant usage appears trendy and mindless. (A clothing section of a department store in my town is labeled Narrative, big letters up on the wall above the racks.) The other day, reading about the Penn State scandal in The New York Times, I saw this usage in a story about Coach Joe Paterno meeting with President Graham Spanier:

In 2004, Mr. Spanier, Mr. Curley and select board members twice went to his house in efforts to get him to retire. Mr. Paterno declined, and the moment was looked at in the narrative of Paterno’s career as an instance of his overcoming adversity.

Something else may have sufficed, but here “narrative” embodies ongoing and mythic overtones that seem just right.

1 Comment

Filed under diction or vocabulary, journalism, narrative, teaching, education

Igniting your need for words

From Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing:

It doesn’t bother me that the word ‘stone’ appears more than thirty times in my third book, or that ‘wind’ and ‘gray’ appear over and over in my poems to the disdain of some reviewers. If I didn’t use them that often I’d be lying about my feelings, and I consider that unforgivable. In fact, most poets write the same poem over and over again. Wallace Stevens was honest enough not to try to hide it. Frost’s statement that he tried to make every poem as different as possible from the last one is a way of saying that he knew it couldn’t be.

So you are after those words you can own and ways of putting them in phrases and lines that are yours by right of obsessive musical need. You are trying to find and develop a way of writing that will be yours and will, as Stafford puts it, generate things to say. Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feelings, that triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. You way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.

7 Comments

Filed under diction or vocabulary, discovery, emotion, NOTED, poetry, working method

Nabokov’s ‘Speak, Memory,’ ver. 2.0

Olga Khotiashova responded to my review of Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory by posting as a comment a lovely essay, which I have also featured as a guest post, below; it unites her personal history with her reading of the book and with literary and political analysis. A mathematician by education, she now lives in Houston.

Reflections on Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory

by a Russian native speaker recently immigrated to the USA

By Olga Khotiashova

I read the famous Lolita by V. Nabokov in mid-1980s. The book, a Russian translation copied from the original printed in the West and hand-bound, was secretly given to me by a friend with a comment, “If anybody asks you where you got it, answer that you found it in a dumpster.” I’m not sure if the original was smuggled through the Iron Curtain, probably the friend just wanted to heat my interest. Anyway, although it was mid-1980s, not mid-1930s, it was safer not to ask too many questions about the book: “The less you know, the better you sleep,” as the Russian saying says. I read Lolita quickly, liked it partially because of the romantic flavor of forbidden reading, and forgot about Nabokov for years.

The next encounter with the writer happened ten years later when the works by Nabokov were widely published in the former Soviet Union. I liked his novels especially those written in Russian a lot, and Drugie Berega (Other Shores) has become one of my favorite books. No wonder that having moved to the US, I was interested in the English version of the book—Speak, Memory.

Well, it appeared to be not an easy reading. Nabokov’s vocabulary is enormous and peculiar. I had to read sitting at my desk and checking up to 10 words per page in the dictionary, and some of the words needed even a deeper research. I even wrote down the new words first but gave up shortly as it became clear that I would unlikely ever use them. For me, with my freshly learned English, Nabokov’s prose seemed kind of staged: stylish and exquisite as his unique Russian but a little tied up in the limits of English grammar.

While reading Speak, Memory, I tried to answer two questions: 1) What may an American reader like about the book? 2) What does the book mean for me in comparison with its Russian vis-à-vis?

No doubt, Speak, Memory may be interesting to an American reader as an exotic butterfly for its unusual and mysterious beauty. But is there anything more? I borrowed the book in the library, and it had some notes and a library receipt which told me about the previous reader. The pencil notes on the margins affirmed that the reader looked for the connections with everything American, was interested in Russian cultural traditions, and was confused by Nabokov’s playing with words. It was funny that sometimes, when the American reader put a bold question mark having not found the word in the dictionary, I could easily guess the meaning based on the rules of word building in Russian. The receipt included two books: Nabokov’s memoir and the biography of Ernest Hemingway, and a DVD with the movie The Night of the Iguana based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Interesting! The choice itself may become the topic of a research. Anyway, I would join the same book club as that unknown reader and we would definitely find what to speak about despite obvious cultural difference.

I can imagine Speak, Memory in the reading list of a scholar specializing in 20th century literature. But it arguably may be interesting to a casual reader as well.
The book gives a private and subtle look at Russian life at the beginning of the 20th century. Nabokov shows the best part of Russian society: educated, broadminded, bearing rich cultural traditions. Most of these features were swept away by the October Revolution and were replaced by the fierce image of a hostile Russian which became a cliché. Nabokov reveals his vision of Russia and makes a reader avoid stereotypes and develop his or her own view.

Nature, landscapes have always been essential for both Russians and Americans. Russian landscapes, as Nabokov pictures them, give a key to the Russian spirituality. The book produces the strongest feeling of home and loving family—the values which cannot be overestimated. Viewed from the point of a boy raised by loving parents in close connection with nature and art, with great respect for the family history going through ages, and admiration of both native and foreign cultures, the picture of “perfect childhood” drawn by Nabokov may appeal to a reader as the source of first-hand information and particular spirituality.

As for my personal impression of the memoir, it hasn’t changed a lot after reading the English version. It just became more refined as I looked at Russia from the same shore the author did. Only looking from far away one may cherish the native language as the most valuable possession. Only living abroad one may feel the overwhelming beauty of the native land.

It was also a thrilling experience to observe Nabokov’s famous alliterations and decipher his allusions. “The spiral is a spiritualized circle” sounds like a poem in English. I wonder how Nabokov said it in Russian; no doubt he found some singing equivalent. Unfortunately, my Russian version of the book was left on the bookshelf in my St. Petersburg apartment. I know exactly where it is: on the right side, between Dostoevsky and Brodsky. The search for the adequate translation haunted me even in a night dream where I could easily reach the book, turn the pages quickly but still could not find the corresponding page. Alas, it was just a dream.

Writing in English, Nabokov preserved grace and magic epitomized in his Russian prose. Speak, Memory works as a magic lantern switching the reader from the narration to his or her own or even ancestral reminiscences. While reading the book, I caught myself several times feeling as if I was looking through the eyes of my great-grandmother whose namesake I am and whose youth coincided with the beginning of 20th century. I never met her. But due to Nabokov’s prose, the stories told me thousand times by my grandmother and stacked somewhere in the depth of the memory miraculously got alive and transformed into the vivid pictures of a sunlit apple orchard, Cossacks suppressing a students’ rally, train tours to the Crimea. I expect even more miracles.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote his memoir approximately the same time he was working on Lolita. He counted on the former to help him make living but it was the latter which turned out to be a great commercial success.  Well, the life is all about unexpected things. As for me, I’ll probably never return to Lolita and will definitely reread both Speak, Memory and Drugie Berega, which connect distant shores and times and serve as bookmarks in the memory pinpointing treasured places and images.

3 Comments

Filed under diction or vocabulary, memoir, politics, religion & spirituality, REVIEW

Dinty Moore on revision & discovery

“Too often, in my opinion, beginning writers focus on what point they want to make, what the message will be in their writing, the ‘theme’ or ‘thesis,’ whereas the seasoned and successful writers that I know are always after what they can discover. Being too sure of what you want to say from the outset can be a bad thing in writing—you just end up re-stating the obvious.”

“If you want to be a writer, you have to love to write, love revision, love shaping sentences. You have to adore words and the endless possibilities of words in combination.  You have to know in your heart that even if no one ever read a word of what you have written, you would still do it, for yourself, because the process, the practice, is thrilling and inescapable.”

These quotes are from Dinty W. Moore’s interview with Writer’s Digest about his new book, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. As befits the founder of Brevity, the interview is concise. But in it he touches on pretty much everything a writer needs to know. His personal practice is simple but obviously effective in getting the work done: he says he rises about six o’clock, “writes for a few hours,” and goes off to his day job.

AARP on line currently features his distilled tips for people who want to get started writing a memoir. Elsewhere on this blog are other Moore tidbits, including excerpts of a previous interview with him by Mary Richert and my review of his textbook The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction.

3 Comments

Filed under diction or vocabulary, discovery, revision, teaching, education, theme, working method