Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nine Signs You're a Neurotic Writer

You subscribe to eight journals but only read the contributor notes when they come.


You are on page 50 of the first draft of your novel but have rewritten the opening sentence 60 times.


You write an angry letter to the editor who has held your story, essay, or poem for six months without a response. Then delete it and decide you will call instead. You decide a phone call is too uncomfortable for you, so you rewrite the e-mail. You decide to reread the story, essay, or poem before you send the e-mail. You further decide the editor is right even though you have never heard from him. It’s shit. You get up the next day, rewrite the e-mail, threaten silently to send it, and then delete it. You reread the story, essay, or poem again. You can’t admit to anybody how much time you've wasted doing this.


Your author’s photo for the planned first novel, of which you are still stuck on page 50, is now four years old. You had it taken, well . . . in anticipation and just because you looked so really good that day. You spend the morning talking on the phone to your best friend about whether you should update the photo or not. “Do you think it still looks like me?”
“Have you finished the—“
“Never mind,” you say, cutting her off. And hang up.


You send an e-mail to yourself convinced that those same editors you are mad at have failed to contact you because your server is down. When your e-mail goes through, you delete it, and then stare at the empty space.


Your spouse, partner, child asks you, So what have you been up to today? and you answer, “What’s the point? What’s the goddamn point! Fine, you want me to quit, is that it! Okay, I quit, satisfied now? Are you goddamn satisfied? You want blood? Is that what you want? I’m fucking slicing my arm right now. Happy? Happy?”


You have an idea. You will read aloud the first fifty pages of the novel that you are stuck on and finally determine whether it’s worth ever finishing. You close your office door so no one will hear you, stand at your desk, pick up the first page, and commence reading in a strong voice. Suddenly it hits you. You know what’s wrong. You sit down and rewrite the opening sentence for the 61st time and never make it to page two.


One day, after checking your e-mail, you see a message with a subject line of your story’s title. You click hurriedly and the first word is “Congratulations.” You read on. Your story has been accepted for the next issue. They are very pleased to have it and thank you for sending it—they are thanking you! Proofs will be sent, and as stated they are paying forty dollars per published page. You’d given up on ever hearing from the editor after composing daily e-mails to him that you never sent. This is by far your best publication yet! The very motivation you need to get past page 50 on your novel. No one can deny the prestige of this publication. You go online to post your good news on Facebook. You see that someone you know from graduate school has just had a story accepted by The New Yorker. You cannot believe how disappointed you feel.


You get over your disappointment and write the editor a gushing thank you note. You tell him what it means to be published in his amazing, wonderful, venerable journal and how you never thought you’d ever have a story in such a good journal. You thank him again, promise to send your contributor note that you will spend two days writing and say once more how delighted you are. Then you add a P.S. It is only a small P.S. and will not take up much room in your otherwise grateful thrilled stunned message thanking him.
P.S. Would you mind reading the first sentence of my novel and giving me your opinion . . .

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Ten Most Obnoxious Comments a Writer Can Make

I have too much free time.

I’m exhausted from my book tour.

My agent wants me to go on The Daily Show. Should I?

I wish my publicist wouldn’t call so early.

Are stocks still the best way to go for such a large advance?

I got a headache reading over my 23-page contract.

My assistant handles that.

My hand is tired. Would you mind if I use a stamp to sign your book?

I remember what it was like to be rejected.

I can’t remember all my titles.

And (from Antonya Nelson) it's been so difficult after winning the Pulitzer.

Monday, October 11, 2010

That's Private

A word about my father: If there’s anyone I’ve written about directly it would be him, a born salesman who sold furniture for fifty years, working since he was thirteen and taking over as head of the family when his father died. And who called me Stevie all my life, as in Stevie, tell me everything, and then would cut me off after the first sentence with “That reminds me of when I was in Paris!” and launch into his own tale. I remember his reading one of my stories, clearly based on him, slapping the book closed afterward, shaking his head with great mirthful incredulity and proclaiming about the main character, “Can you imagine anyone acting this way!”

There are two kinds of families: those who see themselves in everything you write and those who never do. Fortunately, regarding my father at least, the mirror was always opaque. It affords a great freedom, especially when your material is largely drawn from your family. The other option is to say the hell with it and write about them anyway, under the threat of being disowned or, maybe worse, subjected to their hard, enduring silence, as if you were not an author but the family exhibitionist.

Joyce Carol Oates, who’s received her share of criticism for using—some would say exploiting—the tragedies of real people in her fiction, writes in the New York Times that it’s a murky issue ethically and legally as to who has the right to publish private letters. Oates cites the case of Robert Lowell who included intimate letters from his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, in a book of his poems. When asked what gave him the right to do this without her permission, Lowell responded, “Why not say what happened?” Oates goes on to warn “that anyone who confides in any writer risks being transmogrified into art if he or she is sufficiently interesting. The best protection,” she advises, “is to be dull, bland, and predictable.”

But when exactly does a private experience become a public fact? At what point does the private boundary protecting the material dissolve?

About six months ago I gave a reading of a story that used some facts, and I mean the straight facts, about an accident that was fatal for a colleague’s wife. My colleague, Dick, and his wife had been driving to their family farm in Nebraska from Colorado when they were hit broadside by another car driven by an elderly lady. My colleague’s car overturned and in the immediate aftermath, while they were upside down, still in their seat belts, he asked his wife if she were okay and she answered, “I don’t think so.” Those were her last words.

There was another detail I used: Because the car was totaled and their luggage along with it, Dick, who was staying in a motel across from the local hospital, had to wash the clothes he’d been wearing in the motel room sink, wring out the blood, and put them back on again. I didn’t hear these facts from Dick directly but they were well known within the department.

At the reading I knew it wasn’t a good sign when one of my closest friends, a colleague, too, left immediately afterward and didn’t contact me until a few days later to say he was upset about my using the details of Dick’s wife’s death in the story; he felt the story didn’t rise to the appropriate level of seriousness to justify using such intimate and tragic details. It would have been easy, my colleague pointed out, to change these facts about the accident.

But that’s the point: it would have been too easy if not right, right for me, that is.

The fact is I was very affected by what happened to Dick and his wife. I’d known them for years and like everyone felt great affection for them. But Dick was an English professor, not a geologist as in my story; he didn’t have children as the main character does in my story; and he and Sally were not on the verge of divorce as was the situation for the husband and wife in the story I wrote. So why not change the other “real” details?

Because they’re the very ones that made me believe in the story enough to write it in the first place, the cornerstone of its imagined existence. And of its promise. Put another way: to include those true details is a constant reminder that a person’s life is on loan to you to make use of—good use—as a character. Implicit in that agreement is that the author honors the compact by not blowing the opportunity. Have you trivialized those true details taken? Made fodder of the person’s life for gossip? Extracted only spiteful revenge without redeeming artfulness? Or just as bad, falsely glorified or sentimentalized someone by a poor treatment of the material? Yes, it’s a sort of tacit agreement with the person whose life you use, but it’s a covenant of one, and only the author knows when it’s broken. Though it might seem like stubbornness, my insistence on keeping the actual details are a footprint of the world the story came from and a lasting mark for me of its necessity to exist.

The question arises, of course, why didn’t I show Dick the story first before I published it? Chances are he would have given his approval. Was it because I feared he wouldn’t like it? Be offended? Threaten to sue? I didn’t show him the story for the reason I don’t check with anyone before I write something: If I did, I’d be wanting preapproval. But fiction doesn’t work like that; there are no guarantees that it will be acceptable, and to seek such assurances out in advance is to deceive oneself about the difficulty of the work ahead. Writing with someone’s okay in mind places you in the position of having made a bargain with an outsider. No matter how much you try to put that person out of your mind—and your writing—he or she will become an unseen influence, a faux collaborator, a silent colluder. I have to put myself, my family, and my friends on the line every time I sit down to write. And I have to determine each time whether “it’s worth it”—those three nagging words—to those I might harm, offend, or embarrass in the process. Any writer telling you otherwise is lying to himself.

The answer will never be easy. Some people, such as my father, no matter how much you cull directly from their lives, never will be troubled. Others never forget or forgive the invasion of their privacy. Perhaps, though, it’s not so much invasion as distortion that bothers people when it comes to fiction. With nonfiction, people often resent the sheer naked exposure of themselves. But in fiction, it’s more, So that’s what you think of me! The mousy face; the dirty, limp hair; the purple-veined nose. And my dog is not fat and he doesn’t have an overbite! In fiction perception is character and makes no attempt to be otherwise objective. So the question and challenge in fiction becomes how successful the writer is at freeing the character from the person. If there turns out to be on balance more person than character, then you’ve shortchanged both the writing and the individual whose life you’ve appropriated.

Yes, I could have changed the specifics of the accident, not made it happen in Nebraska, not had Dick washing his bloody clothes out in the sink, substituted instead parallel facts—after all these true details amounted to only a couple hundred words at the most out of the seven thousand in the story—but these “actual” details were the very ones that gave me permission to write the story. That is, the permission to write about anything, whether it be another’s gender or race or history, your family secrets, the illness your child almost died from, any of the tender, difficult, and personal subjects, this permission comes not from the outside but from oneself.

I’m not sure what that appropriate level of seriousness a work of fiction has to reach to justify using someone else’s tragedy. Who of course is to be a judge? You can’t worry about any of this as a writer or you’ll never write a lick of anything from another’s life that’s become personal to you. Something about that life holds something vital and precipitating for you as a writer, and there may be no way to excuse it other than to say Thank you, I apologize, Vaya con dios, and Please contact my lawyer. Invading one’s privacy in writing is a very complicated issue. Families are ripped asunder for such actual or perceived transgressions. But all writers committed to the process have to wrestle with the question of using the lives of others and deciding whether they can live with choices that offend more than please, risk being misunderstood more than celebrated, and justify themselves only to themselves.

Monday, September 13, 2010


After dropping our daughter off for her first year at Hampshire College, we took a buffer trip around the Berkshires before heading home to the prospect of an empty house. Unexpectedly, because I only dimly knew it was there, we stopped at Arrowhead outside Lenox, Massachusetts, Melville’s home from 1850 to 1862, where he wrote some of his most famous work, including Moby Dick, The Confidence Man, “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby.”

Bartleby was written on the porch or piazza (see above photo) as Melville called it. The house and grounds couldn’t be further away in spirit from the deadening Wall Street of the story and its unnamed narrator’s lock-step existence. Surrounded now by fields of crisp yellow flowers and woods at the perimeter, in Melville’s time it was a working farm where all 11 family members pitched in while the author wrote from early morning to late afternoon in his study above the piazza.

After Melville wrote Moby Dick, looking out his window at Mount Greylock, which indeed, as it was said to have inspired the tale, does look in silhouette like a great leviathan, he virtually stopped writing for the next forty years. He moved the family back to New York and worked at a customs house for four dollars a day.

Melville’s troubles are fairly well known: the rebuke to his writing with the failure of Moby Dick. Readers found it too expensive ($1.50), profane, and, well, if you’ve read it, hard going. He never quite recovered: he drank more, endured the tragedies of three of his four children dying from illness or in one case his son’s suicide, and--the bitter fruit on top--a mother in law who disliked him second only to how much she disliked his writing

Standing there on the porch at Arrowhead I could only imagine how hopeless he must have felt to leave this beautiful place and have to return to New York to try to make a “real” living. You’ve written a masterpiece of American literature, you’ve penned (literally, in his rocking chair on the piazza)the magnificent “Bartleby,” and you have little to show for the efforts other than a mother-in-law who harangues you about not making a decent living for your family and hates your writing.

I went around touching all the articles--the steamer chests, the wooden toys of the children, the trundle bed--that actually belonged to Melville and his family and weren't replicas, and hoping as if by some animism I might absorb the spirit of this most prolific period of the author’s life before dissolution and failure set in.

Any visit to a great writer’s house is a pilgrimage at which one--another writer, that is--tries not to feel too self-conscious about his own insignificance in being there. I certainly felt that way when I saw Faulkner’s home in Oxford and his very, very tiny typewriter and comprehended that he wrote those densely packed works of often opaque modernism on an instrument barely the size of a large man’s palm. No fancy software to do that magic; it instantly disabused me of thinking any auxiliary object, pen, pencil, computer, the perfect writing room, could compensate for talent. And a writer’s will to persist.

But of course the question arises as to what happens when the will flags? And flag it will. At Arrowhead, the question cast a dizzying spell over my visit there: how bad does it have to get before one gives up (or the world causes you to give up on yourself)? If someone with Melville’s literary powers could be defeated, how can we mere mortals hope to go on in the face of rejection and doubt?

One of my favorite quotations is by Jean Rhys:

“Listen to me. I want to tell you something very important. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are trickles like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters.”

Equally appealing is Flannery O’Connor’s infamous retort when asked if universities stifle writers: “My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.”

As a teacher I tend to share Jean Rhys comment freely and hold back on O’Connor’s. But they actually make a complete set. At any given time, the writer has to be willing to subjugate the ego enough to persevere, humble oneself to accepting that you will be only a small trickle and that as such your work may never see the light of day outside the confines of your house. And that this is enough reason to go on, and indeed the only reason to go on: that you are making something of importance aside from any grand notions you might have of quenching the thirst of millions with the great river of your work. Only the lake matters, which no one owns, no one controls, no one can tell you to stop so barely trickling toward.

On the other hand, there is O’Connor with her inimitable blunt wryness telling us to put a sock in it, stop the madness, kill all the writing programs and the wannabes, cease and desist from subjecting everyone to your neurosis, your hand-wringing failure over your career, your pus-like envy of those more successful than you. This is valid too, but not in the way of it being more truthful than Rhys. Rather these two represent the poles that writers have to live with every day, with every work begun or finished, whether there’s the glow of success or the shame of a public flogging, exultation and celebration or paralysis at trying to write a single word.

After Melville finished Moby Dick, he famously wrote to Hawthorne “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb." And then began the wait for recognition that never came. So obscure was Melville by the end of his life that the obituary in the New York Times referred to him as “Henry” Melville.

Some very fortunate few may have consistently lasting and unbreakable doses of confidence in themselves that never fail them. But for most of us, we vacillate between writing for favor and writing for ourselves, convinced that we should be praised one moment, stifled the next. Melville of course, as few will, did have his great audience, if years after he died. In the meantime, he reduced his efforts to writing a book of poetry for his wife alone. Such are the vicissitudes of the profession. You come to accept the mysterious design in all its disappointment, satisfaction, occasional glory, and guiding humility.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Always the question: what to do next? After finishing the story, essay, poem, fill-in-the-blank, where do you go from here? Back to something you started and abandoned? To a single image or line of dialogue logged in a journal? To an anecdote too good to be true and therefore confounding as to how to make it into a story (or essay)?

The in-between time, as in “I’m between novels,” always does sound like an apology for not having any idea what “job” you’re going to get next. This becomes even more complicated when you’re trying to decide what form you want to work in: A story? A novel? A personal essay? A literary essay? A—horrors!—screenplay? And then there are those true switch hitters who write poetry as well as fiction. One often spends an inordinate amount of time trying to determine what literary mode calls out and how to decide. By mood alone? By looking through old journals and trying to assess if the material will dictate the form? By just “knowing” such and such has to be fiction or told as putative fact in an essay?

I can more easily talk about the benefits of moving among modes than how to pick one on any given day. I’d never considered writing personal essays until a journal solicited a piece for a special issue on Jewish writing. Once I got past the hang-up of being pigeonholed or my writing being as such, I found having “an assignment” just the motivation to do something I wouldn’t have tried on my own. That solicitation, which by the way didn’t appear in the original journal (a long story) but somewhere else, started a run of such essays that helped me out of rut in writing fiction. I’d been stuck or maybe tired of my own voice in fiction or perhaps just weary of having to make up a world rather than investigate one I already knew well. Eventually I went back to writing fiction but with a renewed sense of purpose about it. And this was mainly a result of having been able to exercise my voice in a way I’d never allowed myself in fiction. I’d permitted myself to analyze more directly, indulge in introspection and in turn bring that to characters in my fiction. In short, I could have them think. This may seem like non-problem for most writers, but I had grown up during a time when minimalism reigned and telling was verboten and in general the more your characters thought, that is, had ideas, the more archaic your work was considered.

But still the problem persists: what form best suits the subject? The biggest surprise for me when I started writing nonfiction was that I could use the same material that I thought I’d exhausted in fiction. In my mind, there was a prohibition about writing, say, about my father’s troubled relationship with his two brothers in the furniture store they ran together for 40 years. Done that, been there, etc. And why repeat myself? Hadn’t fiction done the subject more justice than I could by directly apprehending the experience in an essay? And furthermore, there was always the possibility that because I hadn’t written about the subject directly I could still mine it for further projects. If I wanted to keep the material alive and fruitful I’d best not tell its secrets nakedly.

So it surprised me to find out that one can indeed reuse material not only in the same form but in other modes as well, and that the result actually can add to the overall sum of work without being seen as the definitive word on the matter. What might, for instance, be the focus of a fictional work—in my example here, stealing money from the store by my uncle—received only a passing mention in a personal essay that instead dealt with issues of money problems passed down by the generations to my brother and me. In fiction, my narrative needed a central dramatic event with the opportunity for elaboration; in nonfiction, I could take a much broader and retrospective view and assess a family history without being as bound by the demands of all the narrative requirements in fiction.

Importantly, I think switching between forms allows the gears to unlock that may have seized up from trying to over think a particular project. Just changing the “company,” that is the implied audience and the writer’s attitude in relation to the form, often creates a shifting and fresh perspective: stale imagery in one mode becomes reworked to advantage in another; narrative dribbling becomes undammed and gathers force in a new context; characters who refuse to pop out dimensionally take on an inherent presence when inventing an identity from scratch isn’t the challenge.

I know several writers, highly successful at prose, who have lately taken up poetry, renewed by working within its general parameters. But I don’t think you can just arbitrarily decide, oh, I’m going to write a poem today. Or a play. I think there has to be something within the material, in combination with the writer’s ambitions, unconscious as they may be, that dictates the form. One has to start with some intuitive understanding of how the imagination will interact with one's previous knowledge of the subject. It’s true, as has been said, that material is often neutral and waiting to be shaped by the writer. But that doesn’t mean that on any given day—factoring in the writer’s curiosity, past work, rustiness or flexibility, current reading and impressions, and expectations for one’s voice—that you won’t find a subject almost whispering its intentions for a suitable form.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Skimming and Glancing

Writing is as much movement as it is sitting still. Everyone has had the experience of their fingers literally dancing over the keys. Things are cooking, and you can barely type fast enough to keep up with making the letters match your thoughts. Granted, it’s a rare experience, but the sensation indicates just how much writing is located in the body as well as the brain, how even for someone who lives in his head as much as I do and equates exercise with the joy of cleaning out the garage, I can barely sit still when this happens. On occasion, I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve even stood up, as if I were playing an organ keyboard. Is the result any good? Never mind about that right now.

For sure, some sort of a current courses through the body that suggests language being accessible at high speed and a nearly indestructible focus. Try disturbing the writer during such a moment: you’re blown back by the sheer force of the wild and crazed look you will get.

When I’m going over a work at this stage of early revision, I notice that I’m often a little more physically distant from my screen, or if reading a hard copy, I’m holding it at a bit of a remove—as if to get a more objective view. I’m also, if this makes sense, “running” my eyes over it at a much faster pace than I would if, say, I were further along in the revision process.

A writer only has so many objective readings for each given piece. They can be renewed by time passing, like getting additional minutes on a phone card, but essentially taking advantage of unfamiliarity becomes limited. The value of glancing or “skimming” one’s own writing comes into play here. For it’s in skimming that many intuitive decisions are made about the larger structural issues of a narrative. You can get a good idea of where a significant wrong turn or choice has been made for the narrative on an early reading of a draft. As I said, because we have a limited amount of objective readings in us before we turn to someone for editing, the key seems to me to be preserving that productive separation between oneself and the text, as if restricted airspace, and not violating it by losing one’s commitment to instinct at this stage. In short, don’t get too cozy with your work before you’re really ready to sleep with it.

One of the biggest shifts in the revision process is when you decide to show the work to someone. At that point, you no longer have an exclusive relationship with the writing. Someone else’s eyes have set upon it for better or worse, and you’re now collaborating. Collusion is not a bad thing. But the trade-off is that there are two (or more) of you judging any given aspect of the work. The taut distance you’ve previously established, that “running” across it with your eyes under the auspices of your sole attention, is modified by this new cooperative relationship.

This is the best reason to keep a piece of writing to yourself for as long as possible, so you can figure out its intention on your own. Of course this can prove especially hard with a novel, when you crave validation and encouragement, if not an outright guarantee that your loooong project is worth pursuing. But again, it’s a trade off. Certainly, someone can save you a lot of time if you’re immersed in an unproductive eddy (see previous post on “Bogs”), but doing so prematurely may result in abandoning the authority of your own judgment in favor of an internal debate with your readers (“But he really liked this part, though she didn’t, but her friend did, but wait that was someone who hates everything I write . . .).

It goes without saying that writers all have their own approaches to revision. Some writers, Cynthia Ozick comes to mind, craft each sentence until they’re satisfied it’s finished if not perhaps perfect and don’t move on until they’ve done so. Others, verging on hypergraphia, write multiple drafts, slashing and burning with reckless abandon. Most of us, however, fall in between these two poles and make our way as best we can.

My sense is that one has to keep the major parts of the work as flexible as possible before they’re fixed in place, as if moving heavy furniture around a room. Your eyes are actually doing the heavy lifting, comprehending necessary changes before your reasoning takes over (certainly important at other times in the process). But during this time sound and sense are keen prognosticators of what changes have to be made: the very glancing or skimming that you’re doing allows you to also hear the authentic voice of the piece, and make changes based on the confluence of sight and sound.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What's Happening?

At the recent Warren Wilson MFA residency in July, there was considerable talk about the pesky question of making something happen in fiction. And indeed this is much of the problem with early drafts of stories: the elements are all set up and then . . . the story comes to a slow halt like a tired old dog, panting away its promise and its premise.

I've been thinking a lot about why this is, and why, in many ways, it's a natural part of the draft process and unavoidable. Part of the reason is that any story needs time for gestation. The writer's impatience for the story to work is usually greater than the time it takes to make the various elements braid together into a strong narrative cable. For instance, one character's trajectory might occur easily on a first draft, while another character might confound your best efforts to make her significant. This is more apparent in a novel than a short story, when there is more of everything, of course, and you may completely know one character's purpose in the book--and her path--but can't seem to incorporate the laggards who appear to be standing still and without a destiny.

Only time takes care of this, trying first to see if a particular character does in fact have a role (or can be made a composite with other characters) or somehow has just not lived up to his potential.

Which can lead to the problem of finding out "what happens" in a story. The secondary characters, often overlooked in favor of the main or viewpoint character, have not been properly developed so that the (forgive me for this dirty word) plot may proceed. The author has made great efforts to move along the story, find that "defining" or "transformative" moment when things will never be the same and then, zzzzzz, it's a dud. The whole feels less than its parts; the narrative cable that you were counting on to become a tight steel braid suddenly unwinds.

At this stalled moment, I often look at who is missing in the story. Who has gone AWOL. That is who can make a difference and needs to step up (or return from AWOL), which character can come in to “reset” the story and create the necessary dynamic that will put the events in motion again. Yes, the story may be stalled in terms of not enough action but the key to which action that should be can become clearer by investigating the thinner parts of interaction among the characters. Rather than trying to impose a contrived event on the story, the solution often lies in reexamining what you already have going on in the fiction, frequently in terms of your secondary characters, and how you’ve kept them on too short a leash to be effective. And frequently too the author has laid down some "clues," almost unconsciously, that indicate where these thin places exist that need to be strengthened to prepare for the “something happens.”

Recently I was working on a piece that had lost its way. I imposed an event on the story, an occurrence that had a certain degree of wackiness, ghostly implications, and head-scratching meaning. Once I started along this line, I felt it necessary to keep going, wedded to the direction, and the next thing I knew my main character had died--or had he? Never mind. The point is my understanding of "something has to happen" was in terms of forcing the story to take a turn for the sake of surprise. And surprise is not enough, or not by itself. The narrative needs something else.

Surprise alone can produce breadth without depth, intrigue without insight. Oh! but no Aha. What’s missing is revelation. If you think of "something happening" as a continuum, with one end being surprise (the O. Henry twist), and the the other end revelation (e.g. Joycean epiphany, consider "The Dead") then it's easier to envision which way your narrative will lean.

But the ideal, of course, is in combining the two, surprise and revelation. "The Dead," after all, takes us by surprise, Gretta's confession of having loved another, but also offers astonishing revelation in Gabriel's penetrating sorrow and contemplation of mortality.

There are a great many stories where surprise is predominant: think of Tobias Wolf's much anthologized and very brief story "Bullet in the Brain." It takes us by complete surprise, but the revelation comes in what actually happens inside Anders’, the main character's, head once the bullet enters his brain: wild technical effects of language mixed with an ending of great pathos. In Robert Coover's “The Babysitter” the something happening is that it keeps happening--to the point that we can't tell what is real and what isn’t. Each time the reader believes he's discovered the actual version of events, Coover thwarts our expectations. The surprise is that you'll never know what really happened--"the truth." The revelation is that your expectations about fiction and reality are undermined to the point of frustration and embarrassment at one’s fierce desire for and dependency on objectivity, despite ample evidence to the contrary. In Susan Minot's "Lust," a story made of short vignettes that eschew chronological order and that defy us to chart neatly any so-called narrative arc, the surprise is that there is no surprise--the vignettes are glimpses or angles on the same problem--but the revelation is how deeply and emotionally the narrator's voice alone compels her story to be told and heard. In all these stories, whether realistic or experimental, linear or associative, narrative or lyrical, surprise and revelation forge a simultaneous alliance: your attention is gotten at the very moment that you realize something you didn't before. In fact you not only know it, you feel it, the two in tandem being the verifying evidence of having made “something happen.”

How to accomplish this? As I said in a previous post, I don't see any way around trial and error. My elaborate and bizarre choice of action for my character spun out for eight pages before, while walking our beagle, I thought, of course, it's so simple—just consider what the character really needs to happen, not what you want to happen to him. Easier said than done of course. In the meantime, one creates placeholders to make bridges to the next draft.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Bog On

A frequent question for writers: How do you know when a piece of writing is finished? One famous reply to that question: when you put back in the same periods and commas that you just took out.

My own experience, just recently, has to do with "bogs." That is, those morasses that writers sink into when trying to make their work perfect or, let's be frank, invincible. Standing up against any anticipated criticism. So here's an example.

I just wrote a story and one of the sentences that I kept trying to work in was "Janice could almost be alive in Las Vegas." I'll skip the story summary; in fact, I'll skip any context, and just tell you that I worked with this sentence, with some coffee and bathroom breaks in between, for 3 hours, a long time for one sentence. I tried rephrasing it: "Janice, Gene realized, with stinging regret, could almost be alive in Las Vegas" and "Janice, Gene realized, with stinging longing, could, in this city of might happen, almost be alive out here." But wait! It changes everything when I use an em dash: "Janice--he realized with stinging longing--could almost be alive out here."

If that wasn't enough, I tried it in parenthesis; in a paragraph by itself; as part of another sentence; at the top of the page; at the bottom of the page . . . you're perhaps getting the point. What I wanted from this sentence wasn't possible. I wanted it to "explain" the story, that is, bring all the ideas, subtext, conflicts, themes to a head and make it the zinger that would perfect the piece.

But of course this is impossible, and happens when the ego gets too involved in trying to make the story's meaning foolproof. So much stress is put on the revision process to make a story "fully realized" that one often pursues a quixotic search for readerly clarity at the expense of, if I may, a story's confidence. The story has to have confidence aside from the author's own intentions or wishes for it. Such confidence necessarily requires a certain degree of ambiguity that actually lends the story authority. Once you start searching for the definitive sentence or paragraph, the ultimate line of dialogue or story's final word you can be pretty certain you have lost the initial thread that allowed you to subordinate and proportion all the complicated fiction elements in their proper places. Yes, Mark Twain memorably said that the difference between the right word and the next to right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. But the right word has a spark of spontaneity and grace to it; the perfect word has a whiff of sweat and pushiness.

In other words, you need to back off and let the narrative take its chances. This is not overwriting, for who knows when that is exactly, as much as clinging, and you'll feel it in your body as a slight revulsion. You're in a bog and struggling to get out. Stop flailing, turn off the power to your computer, take a walk, wait twenty-four hours, reread the twenty drafts of the obsessive line, word, or passage and then watch how easily it peels away like a fatty tumor. And what have you lost? Nothing. And was it necessary? Yes. You'd have no way to know otherwise.