Tuesday, April 15, 2014

No Idea of Order at Key West

In my sudden zeal to relive the heady days as an undergraduate English major, I came across this relic in my Norton Anthology:

Here we see a long-ago incarnation of yours truly, taking notes on Wallace Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West," most likely in Intro to Poetry, circa 1985. It's clear from the flat, dutiful quality of these notes that I was recording my professor's statements as he walked us through the poem. That is to say, I had literally no idea what he, or Stevens, was talking about. The interpretation of the poem was as incomprehensible to me as the poem itself. Yes, this is auditory. Yes, this is conditional. This is spiritual language. So what? I didn't understand how any of these concepts elucidated the poem, or vice versa. Thanks in part to the New Critical practices my teachers were steeped in at the time, the whole discussion became an echo chamber of abstractions.

The final proof of how lost I was lies in the title of the next poem, "The Poems of Our Climate," where you see my younger self filling in the o's. Now, I was not normally one to engage in this activity. In fact, I recall thinking at various times in my youth that filling in o's and p's and e's in printed text was a sure sign of idiocy. Yet here I am, not only doing that very thing, but carefully shading the o's for a 3-D effect. I had completely thrown in the towel on Stevens.

Rereading the poem now, I find both more and less here than these notes suggest. I'm certainly less intimidated by it, and can sort of relate to it without being able to articulate exactly what it's "about." And that's probably because I simply have much more experience, with poetry and with life. Also I don't have to write a paper about this, which reduces the anxiety level considerably; but if I did have to write one, I would likely spend a lot more time on the poem's aesthetic qualities, and how they create an experience that doesn't necessarily represent anything beyond itself. That is, poetry happens within the poem. It is not always, or at least not solely, a pointer.

With this hindsight, it seems critical that anyone teaching such poems in high school and college remember how increasingly distant our young charges' experiences and concerns are from those of a middle-aged white poet in 1935. How might we bridge the gap?

I think we could start with the advice Dean Bakopoulos gives in this marvelous piece from the NYT. Before even beginning to wrestle with a story or poem's "meaning," whatever we're trying to get at with that, first let students select sentences or phrases or words that move them. They don't have to know why these words speak to them, only that they do on some level other than pure logic. They might like the words, in fact, because they're confusing. They present a new, unfamiliar experience.

After a while, you might begin to introduce some context, like Stevens's particular interests and concerns, and some general concerns of his time and place and class and culture. How is this individual mind interacting with external ideas and questions, as well as with physical places and experiences like hearing and seeing and feeling?

I frankly have little experience teaching poetry, and find more experimental pieces much harder to deal with than this one. But it does behoove us, when we teach, to try to put ourselves in our students' shoes, remembering how little we knew, back in the day, about the lives of those to whom this poem speaks more readily.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Empathy vs. justice for characters

I just finished reading Donna Tartt's first novel, The Secret History.* I found it almost insanely absorbing. The characters felt realistic and compellingly distinct.

Yet I did not care about them in the same way I care about, say, Ivan Karamazov or Oscar Wao. Yes, I cared what happened to them, but what I wanted to happen was comeuppance. While feeling some sympathy for their plight--which was entirely of their own making--I also wanted them to be caught or at least punished somehow. This seems rather different from the awkward situation of rooting for an anti-hero to get away with a crime, which can also be an interesting reading experience.

I'm not exactly sure how Tartt creates this sort of double-consciousness in the reader. I suspect it has to do with her precise attention to detail in every aspect of the story. We know quite clearly what the characters look like, which is often not the case in literary fiction. We understand the social milieu, its arcane hierarchies, its dangerous gray areas. We see, feel, and breathe the Vermont setting, the crushing winter and the hopeful--and then also, suddenly, crushing--advent of spring. These elements, rather than any aspect of the characters' (including the narrators') almost entirely self-serving behavior, draw us into the story. I really did feel, at every single moment, like I was there.

At the same time, I, at least, take some satisfaction in knowing--knowing--I would not fall into the particular trap the characters find themselves in. Often, fiction makes me wonder what I would do when faced with some extreme moral dilemma. Not in this case. These people are vivid and palpable, but they're really and truly not like me. Maybe it's just good old class resentment at work. I can't deny there's a certain pleasure in seeing fictional rich preppies and wannabes doing stupid, violent things to each other.

Several years ago I wrote a post about "altruistic punishment," which is the scholar William Flesch's term for a particularly satisfying plot formula. Readers, according to this theory, love seeing wrongdoers discover the error of their ways. They much prefer this outcome to virtue rewarded (sorry, Pamela). However, they also want justice meted out, well, judiciously. The punishment can't be too severe, or readers begin to feel sorry for the punishee. In fictional practice, this means "just" endings have to somehow feel a little ambiguous; a simple eye-for-an-eye won't do. I won't give away how, but Tartt mainly succeeds in striking this balance.

What's my point here? I suppose that we don't always have to empathize with characters in order to engage with them. We can stand very near them without actually stepping into their shoes. And we can care what happens to them by rooting against them rather than for them.

So this is just another permission slip to create unlikable characters. You have other, powerful mechanisms for engaging your reader.

*No, I haven't read The Goldfinch yet. I attribute this to two factors: 1) The Secret History, not The Goldfinch, was under the T's at my favorite used bookstore. 2) Frankly the plot of TSH appealed to me more than that of TG; at the time of purchase, I strongly wanted to read a story about preppie killers at a second-tier liberal arts college. In fact, I only wanted to read stories about preppie killers at second-tier liberal arts colleges. That desire more or less continues today. Any suggestions?

Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

What does "write what you know" mean?

Glad to see the NYT Book Review taking on another workshop canard. Actually "workshop canard" is itself a canard. I've taken many workshops that never offered such formulaic advice, at least not uncritically. And both of these NYT pieces more or less lead to the conclusion that "know" is a tricky term. What does it mean to "know" something in the first place? How, and how well, must you "know" it in order to write about it? Zoe Heller puts the matter succinctly:

You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources.

Just because you have never been to outer space does not mean you cannot write about an astronaut--or an alien. Still, for a writer just starting out, the injunction to "write what you know" does seem to mean "mining your own life," and that can just about shut you down. It almost did me.
At least from an external point of view, and frequently enough from my own, my life seemed to be pretty boring. Writing about a girl or a woman who grows up in the suburbs, gets good grades, plays the flute, almost becomes a bowling champion but soon becomes too embarrassed to continue with this particular endeavor, goes to college, goes to grad school ... well, I, for one, couldn't find a hell of a lot of material in these events as events. (I did write a bowling story, though.)

But, as Mohsin Hamid explains:

It may be that the DNA of fiction is, like our own DNA, a double helix, a two-stranded beast. One strand is born of what writers have experienced. The other is born of what writers wish to experience, of the impulse to write in order to know.

I have similarly learned that it's the interaction of known and unknown experiences that makes characters and events believable. Like Hamid, I think some element of not knowing is central to creating a successful story. The act of stretching to make something you don't know into something you do forces you to consider viewpoints, details, and sensations you might otherwise overlook.

So, for example, I could put a nervous, overthinking type like myself into a situation I've never actually been in--say, on a moon colony. Now, I'll have to do some research to make that moon colony plausible, though I don't feel I have to understand every element of the ventilation system and what have you. What's more important is how someone like me would inhabit a place like that. Would I become obsessed with ventilation, and air, and is there air? what is air? why can't I see it? am I going to die in the next two seconds? I imagine so.

Or flip the terms: how would a person completely unlike me--or a talking dog or a lobster from Titan--live the life I've led thus far? Would the dog ignore taunts about bowling as a working-class non-sport and proudly lead his team to the Ohio state championship? How would the lobster handle literary event-planning? (Better than I did--that's one thing I know for sure.)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Good vs. interesting characters

I've been meaning for some time to take up this discussion again. How does a writer make her readers feel empathy, or compassion (maybe the same thing, maybe not) for her characters? The question goes hand-in-hand with recent discussions of how/why/whether characters must be "likable." I'm glad that conversation is finally well underway; it feels like I've been grousing about how stupid that terminology is for years. And one thing I never really grasped till recently was how gendered the "likable" requirement is. Women characters, it seems, must be "good," while men are only required to be interesting. Let's make "interesting" our universal standard from now on, shall we?*

On Glimmer Train's website, Geoff Wyss writes: "[M]y favorite characters in literature are those mysteriously human enough to startle me into empathy. It's that word mystery that seems to be the point: The characters that most powerfully evoke my compassion are the ones who, paradoxically, most resist being known." This resistance to being known is precisely what makes the characters appear realistic, because, Wyss points out, "we don't understand people in real life, not in the sense of comprehending them and holding their keys, not even our friends, not even our husbands and wives, not even close."

I agree. Compassion and empathy arise, first and foremost, out of curiosity. You may never "like" a character or a person, much less understand them, but you can find him--or let's say, for the sake of advancing our feminist agenda, her--interesting. And, at least for fiction, that's enough. Better than enough--necessary.

Wyss further addresses another little peeve of mine, that old saw that "story begins with character" (perhaps a mistranslation of the maxim "character is plot," which Wyss restates here). What that *cannot* mean is first constructing a character outside of any context, or, in Wyss's words, "monstering characters together from a charnel pile of traits—'Let's make him bigoted but sentimental, obsessed with film noir, and hypochondriacal'—and sending them into my stories with their stitch-lines showing." I swear, in writing workshops, I've been told to do exactly this, and it does not work. For me, character and context evolve together in a close, unending dialetic. Personally I like to start with the situation and see who shows up there; then I turn the character back to face the situation and see what she does to it, what it does to her in turn, and on and on.

But I have still created monsters from time to time. In fact, early in writing my first novel, I was hell-bent on creating a female villain, who is now the story's hero. I found I'd assembled Jackie from an inorganic collection of "traits" to serve my predetermined theme, and she turned out both unbelievable and boring. So I gave her some of my own physical characteristics. And all of a sudden, I was much more concerned with how someone might come to think in these ways I totally disagreed with. I didn't like being a straw woman very much at all, and as a result, that character started insisting on her own mystery and autonomy.

*I'm talking about fiction here. All real people have to be good, according to my definition.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Thoughts on re-watching Season One of Battlestar Galactica after 10 (!) years

So we've been re-watching Battlestar Galactica.

1.) The rebooted series started in 2003. Just think about that. I feel like we watched it, oh, five or six years ago. Not freakin 10-plus. Jesus.

2.) This is a post-9-11 show if ever there was one. Everything about it is 9-11, 9-11, 9-11. Terrorism. Torture. Religion. Realization that "we" can't always tell who "they" are, and that "we" don't always have the moral upper hand. General dread and claustrophobia.

3.) So far, the show holds up really, really well, apart from a few things (see 4, below). For the most part the acting and dialog are excellent. Olmos rules. Michael Hogan still possesses the most outsized Canadian accent I have ever heard.

4.) Way, way too much of Boomer and Helo running around in the rain on Caprica. Now as then, it feels like the directors said, "We can't resolve this plotline till Episode 13, so, um, OK, run that way for awhile, and now run this way, and that'll be it for this episode." Novelists have something of an advantage in cases like these; if we have a plotline we don't want to resolve till later, we can just *not write about it* for awhile, or just mention it cryptically or briefly every so often. On a TV series we have to be visually reminded of these characters' existence and what they are doing--and if they're just biding their time on behalf of the storytelling, that shows.

5.) How does one portray a butch, straight female character in a typically male profession? I remember the ruckus (and adulation) when BSG fans learned the new Starbuck would be a woman. For the most part, she's an appealing character, believable in her toughness ... except that we are given to understand that, as with all women, that toughness hides a deep vulnerability. Every now and again we're treated to the sight of Starbuck crying or crumpling into a ball and sort of squealing. We also see her in an evening gown, knocking the space socks off Apollo. Do "tough" male characters show vulnerability in any similar ways, or just pour themselves another drink and/or race off on their motorcycles? Do these brief bursts of stereotypical feminine behavior add dimension to Starbuck, or reassure us that she's really a little girl at heart? And straight! Don't forget straight! Though having a butch woman turn out to *be* straight also challenges stereotypes, I think in 2003 they were more worried about having one of our heroes be gay. OK, they're still worried about that in 2014.

That is all for now. Galactica out.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Why writers must become better actors

For two reasons.

One: writing is quite a bit like acting. Your characters inhabit you, of course, but you also inhabit your characters. As you write them, you see the world through their eyes, acting and reacting as they would. For this reason alone, it seems to me, learning a bit more about how actors practice their craft can only benefit writers. How do actors access and express those parts of themselves that coincide with their characters'? How can you convey emotions and concepts indirectly yet effectively through body language, voice, pacing, etc.--all of which you can convert into words?

Two: at some point in your life, you are most likely going to have to read your work in public. And by "read," I actually mean "perform." For a long time, it has been something of a mystery to me why people go to author readings. I mean, we can read the book ourselves, right? So what's the value in having something read to us, especially in the rushed, hushed, even apologetic monotone that too many authors employ? Does having the words come out of the author's mouth really add anything to the story?

It can, if the author interprets the story through her performance. Now, here come the caveats: we are writers, not actual actors. We can't be expected to put on costumes and cavort around the narrow and labyrinthine confines of, say, a bookstore. However, we can learn to read from our work to help the audience better understand and--this is no small thing--more fully enjoy our presentation. We can learn to use pace, timing, eye contact, gesture (within reason), voice modulation, and other techniques to convey not just the words but the meaning of the story as we understand it.* This is why series in which actors, not authors, read short stories--such as Word for Word in San Francisco or the New Short Fiction Series in Los Angeles--are so damn fun.

And this is also why I've signed up for some private coaching from actor and teacher Valerie Weak as I prepare to read at various venues this summer. Having experienced just a single session thus far, I can say that learning to perform one's fiction is, first of all, exhausting. The level of concentration required just about drained me, to the point where I spent the rest of the day on the couch (not the casting couch, ha, ha). However, as I worked to inhabit, not just quote, my characters, I began to discover layers of emotional nuance in them that I hadn't actually been aware of. As Valerie told me, even small physical gestures can help you unlock the voice and meaning of the words--even if the audience can't see the gestures, which a podium might obscure. These discoveries alone have amazed and even thrilled me. I can now say I'm truly looking forward to upcoming readings, rather than mildly fearing them.

So, I say, fellow writers, get your actor on!

*Which is not to say that writers own the meanings of their stories, or that public readings serve the purpose of instilling a particular interpretation in the audience's mind. We're just offering some possibly helpful or provocative insights, which the reader can then respond to at his leisure.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Bona Fide at AWP -- through Amy Tan's lens!

Look who's front and center in this Twitter pic from Amy Tan!