Category Archives: structure

Salman Rushdie’s new memoir

Joseph Anton is a splendid book, the finest new memoir to cross my desk in many a year.—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Salman Rushdie is in the news again. Not because he’s living under a new Muslim sentence of death, which sent him into hiding for a decade after the publication of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, but because he’s written a memoir about the period. With the fatwa now almost fifteen years behind him, Rushdie has perspective from which to assess and portray. The New Yorker has published a long excerpt of Joseph Anton: A Memoir—Joe Anton being his self-bestowed code name, taken from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, that British cops used when he was in hiding. The excerpt is available for now on line.

It’s always thrilling when a great novelist writes a memoir: John Updike’s Self-Consciousness, reviewed on this blog (see the Favorite Memoirs page), is one of my favorites, and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (also with links on that page), reviewed here once negatively and once positively, is nothing if not interesting for how he follows his aesthetic star. What you first notice in Rushdie’s long New Yorker excerpt, “The Disappeared,” is that his memoir is written in the third person. That’s an interesting and, to me, exciting choice; the third-person, though uncommon in memoir, maybe because writers fear editors will think their work is fictionalized, offers memoirists a different and perhaps keener perspective on themselves: third person in nonfiction is a distancing perspective.

The second thing you notice in Rushdie’s excerpt is that it’s non-chronological: the fatwa was issued in February 1989, and his essay procedes under these headings: 1989, at the imposition of the death decree, a section which is dramatic and scenic; 1966, when he learned about the “Satanic Verses” while studying history at Cambridge; 1984, when he began writing the novel, which took four years; 1988, when The Satanic Verses was published and began to ignite rage among Muslim extremists; and 1989 again, a long closing section that returns to the fatwa and to Rushdie’s life in hiding.

The third thing you notice after all this innovation is that he uses any memoirist’s tools: scene and exposition, seamlessly in the dramatized bits, and in the purely expository, smooth summary and reflection. Yes, he’s a good writer. Here’s the essay’s first two paragraphs, dramatic and straightforward, that set the scene and convey deftly an incredible amount of backstory:

1989

Afterward, when the world was exploding around him, he felt annoyed with himself for having forgotten the name of the BBC reporter who told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She called him at home, on his private line, without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.” This is what he thought: I’m a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left, and guessed that the answer was probably a single-digit number. He hung up the telephone and ran down the stairs from his workroom, at the top of the narrow Islington row house where he lived. The living-room windows had wooden shutters and, absurdly, he closed and barred them. Then he locked the front door.

 

It was Valentine’s Day, but he hadn’t been getting along with his wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins. Five days earlier, she had told him that she was unhappy in the marriage, that she “didn’t feel good around him anymore.” Although they had been married for only a year, he, too, already knew that it had been a mistake. Now she was staring at him as he moved nervously around the house, drawing curtains, checking window bolts, his body galvanized by the news, as if an electric current were passing through it, and he had to explain to her what was happening. She reacted well and began to discuss what they should do. She used the word “we.” That was courageous.

Later that morning, after Rushdie and his wife attend a memorial service for a friend, the writer Bruce Chatwin, the police tell him he can’t go home. Too dangerous, Rushdie writes. “Although he did not know it then—so the moment of leaving his home did not feel unusually freighted with meaning—he would not return to that house, at 41 St. Peter’s Street, which had been his home for half a decade, until three years later, by which time it would no longer be his.”

Whisked to CBS’s offices in London for an interview, Rushdie depicts his disorientation: “But he also knew that his old self’s habits were of no use anymore. He was the person in the eye of the storm, no longer the Salman his friends knew but the Rushdie who was author of ‘Satanic Verses,’ a title that had been subtly distorted by the omission of the initial ‘The.’ ‘The Satanic Verses’ was a novel. ‘Satanic Verses’ were verses that were satanic, and he was their satanic author.”

In the next section “1966,” Rushdie flashes back to his second year at Cambridge, when he was studying Islamic history, along with Indian colonial history and the first 100 years of American history. His supervisor, a medievalist named Arthur Hibbert, whom he calls a genius, told him never to write history “until you can hear the people speak”; this turned out to be great advice for a novelist as well, for speech reveals origin, class, temperament, and “beneath their temperament, their true nature, intellectual or earthy, plainspoken or devious, and, yes, good or bad.”

In this purely expository section, Rushdie explains Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Koran in such an elegantly clear and simple way that anyone can understand it—and see his respect for one of the world’s great religions. In a nutshell: “The ethos of the Koran, the value system it endorses, was, in essence, the vanishing code of nomadic Arabs, the matriarchal, more caring society that did not leave orphans out in the cold, orphans like Muhammad, whose success as a merchant, he believed, should have earned him a place in the city’s ruling body, and who was denied such preferment because he didn’t have a powerful family to fight for him.”

Ensconced for the first time in cities, the early Arabs became patriarchal, and were worshippers primarily of three deities, goddesses who specialized in different realms, with Allah an unpopular fourth deity. Muhammad, a successful and spiritual merchant, rescued Allah from obscurity and elevated him over all, deposing the goddesses, who were economically important to Mecca’s elite, since offerings (taxes, in effect) were collected at their shrines. Their ouster threatened the city’s rulers. The “Satanic Verses” stemmed from a vision of Muhammad’s that restored the goddesses, and which he later recanted.

“After that,” Rushdie writes, “the monotheism of Islam remained unwavering and strong, through persecution, exile, and war, and before long the Prophet had achieved victory over his enemies and the new faith spread like a conquering fire across the world.”

It was a good story, the young Rushdie saw, but it would be years before he wrote it. After that digression into history, “The Disappeared” explains the novel’s composition, its earth-shaking reception by extremists who misunderstood it, and depicts Rushdie’s underground life. I found the scenic end of the first section, with Rushdie and his wife on the run for the first time, touching and powerful:

     The night in Lonsdale Square was cold, dark, and clear. There were two policemen in the square. When he got out of his car, they pretended not to notice him. They were on short patrol, watching the street near the flat for a hundred yards in each direction, and he could hear their footsteps even when he was indoors. He realized, in that footstep-haunted space, that he no longer understood his life, or what it might become, and he thought, for the second time that day, that there might not be very much more of life to understand.

 

Marianne went to bed early. He got into bed beside his wife and she turned toward him and they embraced, rigidly, like the unhappily married couple they were. Then, separately, lying with their own thoughts, they failed to sleep.

Those paragraphs provoke as much as any my fellow-feeling for Rushdie’s human plight and, admittedly, my admiration of his heroic response to the mob, which he’d just denounced in his first TV interview. As well, throughout this fine essay and concentrated here, I identified, as a memoirist myself, with this fellow writer, albeit brilliant and of historic attainment, as yet another scribe laboring with the humble tools of his craft—scene, summary, and reflection (all working here in service of more than one story being told)—to show how it was, how it looked and felt and seemed.

Just another soul, after all, suffering more than most here, who lately has patiently made art from life’s dusty remains, which he retrieved from one very lonely valley of existence.

Next: Salman Rushdie on the craft of memoir.

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Filed under craft, technique, memoir, NOTED, politics, religion & spirituality, scene, structure

Q&A: Aldrich on order & randomness

Marcia Aldrich reflects on her Companion to An Untold Story.

On her book trailer, Aldrich reads from “what was mine to tell.” After my recent review of her memoir, she gave the e-mail interview below to Narrative:

How did you decide upon the “companion” form for your memoir?

A prior version of the book was organized chronologically and told a fuller, more conventional story about Joel. There was, for example, a much longer discussion of his relationship with his brother. At one point I thought I was writing a literary biography of a suicide under the mistaken assumption that if I put together a biography it would provide me with answers as to why he killed himself and what my role in his story was. But each account led me farther away from my subject. This earlier form implied that I had confidently grasped Joel’s life and death, whereas I was haunted by questions. What I discovered at nearly every turn was an inexplicable gap between the gifted man I knew and the man who suffered so many disappointments. Why do some people with modest gifts succeed, while others blessed with ability struggle to survive? Why can you help one person, while another person turns away your help? There are mysteries in this life, and I needed to find a form that allowed me to reveal them in this man, a truer picture of the aftermath of his death, the little pieces that I tried to assemble. What was my experience, my role? I needed to find a way to puzzle through my own unruly and mixed feelings.

There is the story of Joel’s actions and there is the companion story of my actions in response to what his suicide set into motion.  These are not neat strands running in parallel formation, but narratives that cross, tangle, knot, and break.

This fragmentation and entanglement is reflected in the book’s form. It is modeled on an adult’s reference tool and guide to something already known called a “companion” (one of the books my friend gave us, for example, is the Oxford Companion to English Literature). The alphabetical approach imposes a kind of order, but an order that contains randomness within it, an order that undoes order. One thing I have learned is that suicide imposes a narrative on a life. The alphabetical form goes some way in counteracting that narrative inevitability. It is the reader’s task to assemble a story by means of the elements provided in my companion to it. I have also chosen the “companion” form to imply that the story it accompanies has weight, and the subject merits the treatment I give it, as much as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman insists that his subject’s death is worth presentation as a tragedy.

You resist filling in all the blanks, letting some facts emerge but making no attempt at a complete narrative or exhaustive portrait. Was this decision hard to keep to, or natural for you?

What was hard was composing the early versions of the book in which I attempted an exhaustive account of Joel’s life, writing against the grain of what was essentially characterized by gaps, holes, incompleteness. My initial approach was at odds with the shape of Joel’s life. Once I found the right structure and realized what was mine to tell, everything got much easier.

How did you decide what got what treatment, a sentence instead of a page?

In some cases an aphorism came to me that struck a strong spark and seemed complete. Sometimes I worked against what I thought would be the reader’s expectation of a long discussion. Although in my remarks here I’ve emphasized the incompleteness of the story, the reader does need some background to make sense of things, and in some cases the material needed a longer, narrative form—for example, Joel’s history as a student. The fact that I had done the labor of producing a more complete book allowed me the freedom to carve a more nuanced and surprising book out of the material.

I also wanted uncertainty, a variety of tones and lengths, to keep the reader’s ears pricked.

Did you wonder as you worked what Joel would make of your efforts to depict his life, his death, and your relationship?

Over a period of months Joel gave away or disposed of everything he owned. His apartment was empty when he died. I interpret his behavior to mean that he didn’t want to leave any record of himself behind. On that point I am defying his last wishes. I refuse to erase Joel from the records of the living, from love’s ledger, as I put in the Companion. We may not be able to save people from disaster, but we can remember and honor them—that is the intention behind my writing.

I hope he would not say, were he to look over the book, that I’ve badly misrepresented him.

What did you learn in the writing process?

That writing isn’t emotionally cathartic! At least, I’m not a great success story for the therapeutic model. I can still go to pieces talking about Joel’s death. Recording the voice-over for the book trailer was pure misery. I was stepping back into the tangled mess of my emotions once again. I’ve learned that you don’t get to the end of any powerful experience and are done with it. Part of the reason I employed a system of cross reference in the book—a forward sweep that is simultaneously looping backwards, is to suggest there’s always another ripple in this dying business, in this business of feeling.  Thus, even the final entry returns the reader back to the beginning through its cross references.

I have, nonetheless, over the years achieved a measure of acceptance, even admiration, of what Joel did.

What works inspired you?

Marcia Aldrich’s “holy book”

In writing I found myself returning to my modernist training. I thought about the great quoting poems of modernism: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, and Marianne Moore. Samuel Beckett is never far from my mind. I read Krapp’s Last Tape every year.

Closer to my time and within the field of memoir I have learned from Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir—a holy book to me.

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Filed under Author Interview, memoir, modernism/postmodernism, structure

An alphabetical memoir

Marcia Aldrich employs an unusual structure to explore a suicide.

Companion to an Untold Story by Marcia Aldrich. University of Georgia Press, 262 pp.

 It’s a gorgeously written, geniusly structured tale about a friend of Aldrich’s who committed suicide. I loved it.—Cheryl Strayed, in an interview

A straight-ahead chronology may seem the natural way to tell a tale. To convey experience by showing it unfold. But as many a memoirist learns—and many a novelist, for all I know—chronology is a hard mistress. Time’s weight traps the writer and bogs down his story. This happened and then this and then . . . Tempted to include too much, because it happened and was so interesting, the memoirist finds his narrative plodding. He wonders, Where in all this stuff is the story?

Marcia Aldrich, a creative writing teacher at Michigan State and former editor of Fourth Genre, avoids this in Companion to an Untold Story but takes another risk. She tells the story of a friend, his suicide, and the aftershocks by using an unconventional structure, that of an alphabetical reference book called a companion. Scenes, narrative summary, and reflection are organized in alphabetical entries. Some consist of a few words; some run a couple pages. Her first entry lays out the stark story and teaches the reader how Aldrich will proceed:

 Age at death. In obituaries, a proxy for the worth and fullness of

the life. Joel was born May 23, 1949, and died, according to the

official determination, on November 20, 1995, at age forty-six.

Brilliant and introspective, in youth a poet, Joel spent most of his working life as an underpaid substitute teacher near San Francisco. The marginal job barely supported his meager existence in a tiny apartment. A diabetic since childhood, he suffered from seizures and blackouts, even though he injected himself with insulin each morning. As he aged he developed excruciating pain from nerve degeneration. He struggled to pay for medicine and for repairs to keep his beater cars running. His clothes were threadbare. He was alone.

Aldrich becomes his companion in Companion to an Untold Story. He’d been her husband’s boyhood friend and remained his best friend. She inherited him. And she and her husband adopted him in the way that many a young couple gathers the odd person as a third wheel, a companion and witness to their abundance. Over the years, some friends fall away; but for Aldrich and her husband, Joel didn’t. He gave them their marital bed, having space himself only for a couch, and befriended their children. Yet when he left billboard-sized clues of his plan to kill himself, they missed them. He was crafty, to be sure. His cover story: paring down his life. He boldly drove cross-country, on bad tires, ferrying to them in his Ford Escort wagon the bulk of his modest worldly treasure.

Too late they entertained their unspoken fears when a box containing his last possessions came by mail, delivered more quickly than Joel had foreseen. Aldrich’s husband called, and they ascertain that Joel listened to the message on his answering machine in his empty apartment. By then he had mailed the police his suicide note and keys. Next he went in his bathroom and put a .38 revolver to his head. Aldrich feels guilty and, as a writer, compelled to make sense of what happened. How, she wonders, could she have failed to admit what she saw? When she uses the binoculars he gave her, she feels herself looking through her dead friend’s eyes.

How natural and revealing the book’s structure is—entwined glimpses of a man’s life, his violent death, and the memories Aldrich lives with. Yet how clearly imposed and partial it is. Incompleteness is one point: a complete narrative is never possible and efforts to make one are tedious. We know early that Joel scraped by as a substitute; late in the book we’re informed that in his twenties he worked for a time as a salesman and was good at it. The years closed behind a different path.

In “Higher education” we learn of Joel’s struggles in education, including never receiving a high school diploma; after attending several colleges he earned an undergraduate degree at Cal-Berkeley. While working on a master’s, he turned down a permanent berth in a school and then was unable to complete the degree. In a letter, entered under “Spin the bottle,” he reflects on teaching’s appeal for him. Subjected to psychiatry as a youth when “I should have been playing spin-the-bottle” he’s also angry because he feels his father abdicated his  responsibilities to teachers. Yet Joel chose a life “emulating and building upon” his own father surrogates and implies that teaching was a way for him to act in a father’s role himself.

Mostly this memoir isn’t “reported” or “researched”—though it uses effectively the available evidence, including Joel’s sardonic letters and a former girlfriend’s e-mails to Aldrich. Companion to an Untold Story, winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction, is ultimately a meditation on memory and mystery. Released from event sequence, its approach searching but indirect, like poetry, Aldrich’s memoir is compulsively readable and surprisingly moving.

Next: An interview with Marcia Aldrich.

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Filed under memoir, narrative, REVIEW, structure

Balancing honesty and artifice

John Casey on that “low vaudeville cunning” necessary in writing.

Once I asked for advice about my idea of adding a fourth act to my memoir. I’d seen how it would break up the long second act, give readers a fresh resting place. And the more I’d lived with the notion the more I’d liked it: adding an act also would emphasize a new phase in the story’s arc. My mentor at the time was really offended, however. The reason was artistic: it’s a perfect three-part book, the thinking went—don’t monkey with organic rightness.

As if writers don’t impose everything anyway, I thought. Paragraphing itself is arbitrary. And line breaks? Some writers throw them in as transitions and emphasis devices even within scenes; others use nary one or only when changing topics.

I thought of this issue today when reading an interview with writer John Casey in The Writer’s Chronicle (September 2012). Interviewer Nancy Bunge asked Casey about the importance of honesty in writing, and Casey responded:

Honesty by itself won’t get you very far. I love the thing Peter Taylor said about why certain poets are lousy prose writers: they just don’t have that low vaudeville cunning. Honesty plus low vaudeville cunning might get you there. But it’s true; if you don’t have honesty then you’re in trouble. If you don’t have low vaudeville cunning, then you’re also in trouble. And the honesty and the low vaudeville cunning are somewhat unteachable.

I need to hear such rough-minded talk when I get too artsy—or forget that everything, even low vaudeville cunning, is an artistic choice. And of course reading Casey’s words I thought of a certain poet, Robert Frost, who said much the same thing in an interview with Richard Poirier for The Paris Review :

The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this? Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score. They say not, but you’ve got to score, in all the realms—theology, politics, astronomy, history, and the country life around you.

I suppose this matter ultimately goes to the writer’s psychology. Or rather more precisely, perhaps, to his temperament. Choices must be authentic but in the end all must made coolly to achieve certain effects. Writing is sentimental when you don’t earn what you ask for. And it’s dull without some humor, some pizzaz. I like Casey’s thoughts on this—

I think that modesty and simplicity might be as important to writing as the enormous vanity that it also presupposes: showing off so that other people will notice you and love you. How could you logically combine those two things? Who demands that they be logical? Maybe they’re braiding around like a maypole: a combination of childlike simplicity and expectation that if one has an idea it will be attended to by an audience, coupled with the big, arrogant, showoff urge: love me, love me, love me.

—because they echo what I know of humans’ evolutionary history. Homo sapiens is only 200,000 years old, a show-off species, vain and chattering and flashing with brilliance, but built atop over six million years of hominids’ quiet existence and group mind. Those twin strains are in us, along with the first layer deep down, the primitive primate and his urge to dominate. Two against one, at best. Politics anyone?

No wonder I get confused about issues like act structure. I want to show off and score! I want to be gentle and organic and authentic. And dammit, sometimes I just want to monkey around with the mess I’ve made.

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Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, evolutionary psychology, NOTED, structure, working method

Studying ‘Wild’ for its structure

Reading my memoir printed out like this, two pages on a sheet, helps me see it in a new way.

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir is narrative-driven but reflective.

 Every book has its inherent impossibility. For Wild it was about me walking alone through the wilderness for 94 days; it could have been really boring. The challenge there was to convey what was happening inside of me. The trail was always there, that was the great constant, but I was always different on the trail.—Cheryl Strayed in an interview

I threw out the first act of my memoir in June—it was too slow to start—which helped me cut forty pages, and I broke up two chapters on my father and threaded him throughout. That project took the entire month. I felt I was seeing my material with a colder eye, and placing it or cutting it for effect, not using it because I loved it or because I hoped it was working.

At the start of July I printed out hard copy of my manuscript and also began rereading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. My practice was first to read some of Wild, my morning book, and then to read and edit my memoir printout. Over the years I’ve picked up the notion of reading and rereading three, and only three, books as models while writing. But I don’t strictly follow that regimen, in part because I’ve worked on my memoir for so long that I’d go insane with just three books; however, I do try to operate in that spirit, one of concentrated devotion to a few books that I aspire to emulate. As a memoir, Wild truly cooks, that much was clear from my first reading, and in the way I needed my book to cook.

Along with reading aloud, reading hard copy—sometimes with the type enlarged to at least fourteen points—is useful for me. But this time I printed out my book with two manuscript pages side-by-side on one sheet of printer paper; this makes the type fairly small, but the copy looks and feels totally different. Not so much like me. And more like a real, bound book. Stuff jumps out.

As I write this, I’m halfway through the memoir again. But the day I read Chapter Five looms in my mind like a bad day on the Pacific Crest Trail. Like a landslide. I felt doom creep upon me as I read the chapter so recently reworked on my computer . . . a leaden despair and a roaring in my ears. Chapter Five was a mess. The through story had collapsed, and the chapter’s various sections seemed like just a bunch of this ‘n that—useless rubble, even though as individual pieces they read fine. I might have felt the earth fall away on my own, but the contrast between my effort and Wild’s narrative probably was what gobsmacked me.

And yet, despite the fact that seeing such a problem was a gift, I melted down for a day or two. Fear and confusion riddled me. Could I dig out of this one? How? I whined to Bill Roorbach about how lucky Strayed was to have the PCT to hang stuff on. Bill, who had recently reviewed Wild on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, shot back:

 The thing about WILD as an example is that we have to build our own Pacific Coast Trail through our books, and be clear when we’re on or off the trail so the reader can be clear: Ah, we’re back on the trail!  Also, as she did, we can skip large chunks of the trail if the snow’s too deep, just so long as we explain what’s going on with the weather.

Yep. Right. True.

And so, as I suffered in my failure, I pondered. And finally my subconscious barfed up one of those gifts of insight you earn by work or by suffering, usually by both in my case. In Wild, everything happens on the trail, one damn thing after another, and that indeed could get tedious. Except, as Bill says, she doesn’t tell everything she goes through but compresses and leaps ahead. More to the point for my chapter: the through-story itself is suffused with Stayed’s commentary and reflection on the experience she’s having. She’s not just plodding along and telling us about it, but rather she’s conveying her inner landscape as much as the outer.

In fact, I felt rereading it, that Wild, this narrative-driven book, is just this side of chatty.

I saw why my chapter felt slack, certainly in comparison with Wild but even in regard to my own chapters that preceded it. It featured a sluggish foreground story and a fuzzy expression of the inner story. Each section and its actions and musings seemed isolated, each one a dead-end. I needed more snap to the action, so the narrative didn’t feel like merely “this happened and then this,” just time passing, and I needed more cohesion in the commentary. Most of the content was okay, but the whole pace of the material and its relevance were off.

So I junked my chapter’s opening section, which I loved but which was static. I restored a passage I’d cut that had a lot of action and reflection. Into that passage I integrated several of the previously freestanding sections—Wild has relatively few line breaks but I use them a lot, and to a fault in Chapter Five, I saw—so that the reader sees what to focus on as the story of my farming adventure moves through time. Integrating necessary but less major sections into the opening caused an instant ordering of priorities: the action-packed, reflective opening became the dominant story, the integrated bits obviously secondary, sharpening the chapter’s focus.

I love line breaks (aka space breaks or narrative breaks, white space) but had too many in Chapter Five only because each section was too much an island, cut off by white space. Strayed doesn’t use them much but she uses them well; I was excited by how she used a break within one of her backstory flashback passages. It underscored how line breaks emphasize but also can help meld a narrative, letting it breathe but holding it together and integrating it as a dramatic unit; its use recognized that her readers were into that passage, not as mere filler background but as drama in its own right. That line break showed how cohesive her entire chapter is.

When I began to fold some of my formerly freestanding passages into my new opening section, I added a line break or two within the section; the breaks no longer signaled New Topic Transition but Dramatic Emphasis within an ongoing story.

Next: Wild’s structural deployment of backstory.

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Filed under memoir, REVIEW, revision, structure, working method

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writers

1.     Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2.    Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3.    Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4.    Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

5.    Start as close to the end as possible.

6.    Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7.   Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8.   Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

These are from the Introduction to Vonnegut’s 2000 book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction. Although obviously pitched toward fiction writers, his rules apply equally to nonfiction. His last rule, for instance, is a precept of Annie Dillard’s, who said to get the trauma out front rather than springing it on readers.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, emotion, NOTED, structure, working method

Kurt Vonnegut on story shapes

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January 17, 2012 · 11:40 am

Amos Oz’s ‘Tale of Love and Darkness’

By Olga Khotiashova

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

On January 6, 2012, it was 60 years since Amos Oz’s mother took her life. The memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, written in 2002, was a tribute to her memory as well as the act of Oz’s reconciliation with his own memories. It took him half a century to gather enough strength to perceive and articulate what had happened that day; and it turned out to be a long story beginning in Eastern Europe centuries before.

In my ignorance I had never heard of Amos Oz, a distinguished Israeli fiction writer, before I watched his conversation with Charlie Rose. This brilliant conversation is worth a separate review. I was so impressed by the writer’s personality that I immediately wrote his name in the top line of my reading list. I decided to begin with his memoir for several reasons: he is a descendant of Jews who immigrated to the Promised Land from Eastern Europe; he had never dropped a single word about his mother’s tragic death before writing the memoir; he mentioned in the interview that his memoir had not caught much attention in the U.S. So there it was, a 560-page volume lying in front of me.

The English translation by Nicholas de Lange is marvelous. I believe it gives the true impression of the original.  Long, flowing paragraphs are followed by ragged sentences; you can hear the strong Russian accent of Oz’s father whichever language he speaks; you can feel the throbbing development of Hebrew language. I was struck by the thought that the book may sound sharply out of tune for American ears; that a story of some Inuit village may appear more customary. For me, the book was surprisingly soothing like a tender touch of a close relative’s hand. Oz’s note about evolving Hebrew correlated with my non-native speaker’s feeling about living in a foreign country: “Perhaps that is how a short-sighted driver feels, trying to find his way at night through a warren of side streets in an unfamiliar car.” I wonder if Amos Oz would be pleased to hear that a Russian immigrant to America indulged her nostalgia in reading his memoir.

The book is densely inhabited, and each character has a distinct voice. You will never mix up the mesmerizing tales by Amos Oz’s mother with his father’s clumsy literary jokes or his grandfathers’ guidance and inept poems. Here is how the grandfather Naphtali Hertz Mussman spoke about love:

I said a little compassion and generosity, but I didn’t say love: I’m not such a believer in universal love. Love of everybody for everybody—we should maybe leave that to Jesus. Love is another thing altogether. It is nothing whatever like generosity and nothing whatever like compassion. On the contrary. Love is a curious mixture of opposites, a blend of extreme selfishness and total devotion. A paradox! Besides which, love, everybody is always talking about love, love, but love isn’t something you choose, you catch it like a disease, you get trapped in it, like a disaster. So what is it that we do choose? What do human beings have to choose between every minute of the day? Generosity or meanness. Every little child knows that, and yet wickedness still doesn’t come to an end. How can you explain that? It seems we got it all from the apple that we ate back then: we ate a poisoned apple.

In the memoir, the story of the nation, country, language, and family interweaves with the personal story. The structure is subtle. The author goes back and forth, travels in time and space, returns to seminal moments again and again. He draws unforgettable scenes, so vivid that a slight hint immediately revives them later. He repeats the long lists of streets and names. Those names are so unusual you don’t even try to pronounce them; and eventually they make up a visual, almost topographic image, so you can follow the writer in his memory tour, not looking at the signs but just relying on the images deeply imprinted in his heart. The narrative does not go smoothly. Sometimes the cart of memory becomes overloaded with personages and details and gets stuck on sharp turns.

I may also have heard this from Zelda, my teacher, that summer when we were close: if you want to draw a tree, just draw a few leaves. You don’t need to draw all of them. If you draw a man, you don’t have to draw every hair. But in this she was inconsistent: one time she would say that at such and such a place I had written a bit too much, while another time she would say that actually I should have written a little more. But how do you tell? I am still looking for an answer to this day.

A hundred pages in the middle are probably the place where the author wrote “a bit too much.”  It seems he was experiencing a painful transition from the macro-world of the family-tree at large to the micro-world of the twelve-year-old boy in Jerusalem, who had just lost his mother. He came to the point where the bitter words had to be said. And it is there where he reflects on the nature of memoirs:

It’s like a woman you’ve known for a long time, you no longer find her attractive or unattractive, whenever you bump into each other, she always says more or less the same few worn-out words, always offers you a smile, always taps you on the chest in a familiar way, only now, only this time, she doesn’t, she suddenly reaches out and grabs your shirt, not casually but with her all, her claws, lustfully, desperately, eyes tight shut, her face twisted as though in pain, determined to have her way, determined not to let go, she doesn’t care anymore about you, about what you are feeling, whether or not you want to, what does she care, now she’s got to, she can’t help herself, she reaches out now and strikes you like a harpoon and starts pulling and tearing you, but actually she’s not the one who’s pulling, she just digs her claws in and you’re the one who’s pulling and writing, pulling  and writing, like a dolphin with the barb of the harpoon caught in his flesh, and he pulls as hard as he can, pulls the harpoon and the line attached to it and the harpoon gun that’s attached to the line and the hunters’ boat that the harpoon gun is fixed in the sea, pulls and dives down to dark depths, pulls and writes and pulls more; if he pulls one more time with all his desperate strength, he may manage to free himself from the thing that is stuck in his flesh, the thing that is biting and digging into you and not letting go, you pull and you pull and it just bites into your flesh, the more you pull, the deeper it digs in, and you can never inflict a pain in return for this loss that is digging deeper and deeper, wounding you more and more because it is the catcher and you are the prey, it is the hunter and you are the harpooned dolphin, it gives and you have taken, it is that evening in Jerusalem and you are in this evening in Arad, it is your dead parents, and you just pull and go on writing.

A Tale of Love and Darkness covers several centuries but you always feel the presence of the narrator: Amos Oz sitting at his desk in Arad in 2001. There and then he soldiers on with courage and candor. His tale is tragic and funny and thrilling and annoying and unforgettable. He wrote about his heritage, “I understood where I had come from: from a dreary tangle of sadness and pretense, of longing, absurdity, inferiority and provincial pomposity, sentimental education and anachronistic ideals, repressed traumas, resignation and helplessness.”

While I was reading the memoir, a rather bizarre recipe came to my mind: mix healthy European pragmatism with Jewish sentimental romanticism, add a generous portion of alcohol and you will get what is called a mysterious Russian soul; stir the mixture vigorously, skim the cream off, and you will get a fertile substance to germinate an American. It is just a joke, no offense, as Amos Oz’s father used to say.

About three years ago I read one critically acclaimed contemporary Russian novel. I was shocked by how gloomy and pretentious it was, so I have focused solely on American literature since then and have been enjoying my greater journey. A Tale of Love and Darkness made me turn to Russian literature again. Oz’s prose is often called “Chekhovian.” It was Chekhov’s prose, the only one of all Russian classics, which I tried to avoid in high school and never returned to later. Probably, it’s time to reread Chekhov now.

Olga Khotiashova reviews memoirs periodically for Narrative.

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Filed under memoir, REVIEW, sentimentality, structure, syntax

An ancient lesson in structure

Henri Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), 1905-1906

A version of this post first ran October 3, 2008

The King James Bible’s stories and ancient words and lovely turns of phrase have influenced legions of writers. I’m charmed by its liberal use of sobering colons: like so. And by the nonsensical italics.

And then there’s Jesus: talk about someone who works on multiple levels. He’s always getting thronged and spied upon—What’s he gonna do now?—and he delights in flummoxing. He speaks in riddles to the dumbfounded masses, though perhaps his rhetorical strategy is to intrigue them and, by using symbolism from their lives, as in the parable of the sower, to drive his meaning deep. Just in case, he clues in his disciples (and us, privy to the inner narrative). He works on the sabbath and rebukes hypocrites, establishing his character: a dramatic temper bearing a message more spiritual than doctrinal. He’s a hoot, and nothing like his skeevy interpreters would have you believe.

But it wasn’t until recently, reading Mark’s gospel in the New Testament, that I saw how beautifully structured a Bible chapter can be.

Verily, I speak of flashbacks.

Momentous events occur in Mark’s brief sixth chapter. Jesus performs two famous miracles, feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes; and he walks on water, strolling past a ship that’s struggling against a headwind on the Sea of Galilee. Yet what stayed with me was the artful placement of a scene that transitions into another scene set in the recent past. The passage has emotional richness and drama, and it foreshadows Jesus’ fate.

The essay is structured like so. First, Jesus goes about preaching in the synagogues “and many hearing him were astonished”—offended—because he’s just a carpenter and they know his humble family. (It’s the recurring theme about him: Who does he think he is?) Jesus responds to their unbelief with the “prophet without honor” line and leaves for the villages to teach and heal.

Second, he gives his twelve disciples their marching orders, basically to tell people to repent but to expect rejection— which he tells them to handle angrily, I must say. The guy was no mellow Buddha in this tale. But, again, we readers have knowledge the extras don’t.

Third, setting up the flashback with a scene, King Herod gets word of the revival and says Jesus is John the Baptist, returned to life. Herod’s courtiers try to comfort him, saying, He’s just a prophet; or It’s the devil. No, Herod says, “It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.”

Exposition explains Herod’s guilty conscience: “For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison” for his wife’s sake. His wife was first his brother’s wife, and John had told Herod not to marry her. John’s edict made her so mad she wanted him not just jailed but killed. In the flashback we see how she maneuvered Herod into separating John from his head. It involves a sexy damsel’s alluring dance and Herod’s folly in making a loose-tongued promise in front of his vengeful wife.

At the end, we’ve got the resurrection theme. And we understand Herod’s character—a threat to this latest holy man. The narrative timeline resumes with the apostles reporting back to Jesus on their mission work.

Next: miracles.

The ages have burned much fat from biblical narratives, and what’s left has poetic compression. But I was sore amazed at how deftly Mark 6 tucks in the resonant Herod scene and flashback. In this chapter, narrative, deeper meaning, and structure work elegantly together within the New Testament’s larger story.

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Filed under NOTED, punctuation, scene, structure, symbolism, theme

More metaphors & Gail Caldwell

Still thinking about Gail Caldwell’s deft metaphors in Let’s Take the Long Way Home, I was struck by these remarkable lines by John Steinbeck from The Grapes of Wrath:

 Can you live without the willow tree? Well, no, you can’t. The willow tree is you. The pain on the mattress there—that dreadful pain—that’s you.

I sure didn’t remember that passage, and it makes me want to reread the novel, which also has—I do remember this—an amazing scene of several pages of a turtle trying to cross a highway. The lines above are the epigram of Tom Piazza’s passionate recent novel City of Refuge, about two New Orleans families blown out of their frames by hurricane Katrina, which caused the greatest human dislocation in America since the dust bowl. Piazza was influenced by Steinbeck, and in Piazza’s novel, right before the storm hits, one of his characters, the editor of an arts weekly, approves a review of Philip Roth’s latest book with this headline: “The Gripes of Roth.”

I laughed out loud.

And I came across a great interview with Gail Caldwell in Smith in which she said she writes in longhand:

I used to write on the computer for The Globe book review deadlines every week for many years. Whenever I had writer’s block as a young critic, I’d go sit on my kitchen floor with a pen and a legal pad–I could write myself out of it in 30 seconds. So I learned very quickly to use that as a trick to relax my brain. I wrote my first book in longhand and transcribed, and that’s what I did with this book, too.

I never delete in a Word doc, either. If I know I’ve made a mistake, I write WW for “wrong word” and keep going. You can’t delete when you’re in that state, because it might take you somewhere important. When I transcribe it, I understand what I was trying to do, and it often takes on a second form on transcription. It sounds laborious, but for me it is what it needs to be.

What she said about structuring her book also was interesting, and it confirmed my impression while reading that she was gradually paddling me toward a chronological unfolding. Isn’t it fascinating that even when we know, as readers, the basic story—her friend died—we want to receive the experience? The story is never really the events but our response to them, how they looked and felt, and this is why time-tested narrative endures. Caldwell:

 I sit down and without any thought–I’m not trying to write, I’m trying to herd my thoughts into one place. And then from there I make notes on my notes, and I start to see if I can make maps about the beginning of the relationship, and where we both come from, and specific points in it.

I knew that I wouldn’t have to do much to organize it once I got to Caroline being sick. The heartbreaking ease with which I was able to write the last half of the book–it was like writing a police report, because it was so heartbreakingly matter of fact: and then and then and then. There was a part of me that said, I know this is heartbreaking and devastating to me; it is presumptuous to think that it is going to be to a stranger until you make it that way.  . . . After the first draft, I did have to go back and work very hard to distill into the story it is now.

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Filed under emotion, memoir, metaphor, narrative, structure, working method