Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The responsibility of the first-person narrator

Thrashing on in my struggle with point of view in my fiction, I'm reminded by my friend Kate that the first-person narrator's responsibility is, first and foremost, to the reader. In my first-person stories my narrators spend a lot of time in self-reflection and commentary. That's because I gravitate toward hyper-self-conscious narrators, and also because I'm flummoxed by "narrative occasion"--why is the narrator telling the story now?--which leads to questions of what he or she knows, and when, which leads to more reflection. Not unexpectedly, the actual story tends to suffer under these conditions. As important as it is for *me* to understand what the narrator knew and when she knew it, it's more important to hold the reader's attention. So that's the narrator's real job: tell the story as well as it can be told. Displaying my awareness of narrative occasion and its pitfalls is for me, not the reader.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Two ways of looking at Yosemite

That's my photo from Inspiration Point. Pretty and all, but most notable for our purposes today is the depopulation. I stood on a stone wall to get over the heads of the people and cars in front of me, so as to produce an image such as John Muir, and the many who came before him, could have seen.

Now Trev's:

He says this is the "National Geographic" style of photo, showing what the place is really like--people interacting with the landscape. (Mind you this was taken in spring, which explains both the waterfall and the relatively sparse crowd--which was still too big for me.)

I tend to think that when people (non-native at least) and cars show up in nature photographs, they somehow invalidate the whole picture. But why would I think that? Are these people not part of this place? Are they not using (by driving through, photographing, walking on) the land? Especially in Yosemite, how are tourists anything but a central feature of the landscape?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

On blocking

No, not writer's block, but writer's blocking. I learned this from Eric Puchner last fall and it's helping me in my never-ending quest to slow down and unpack. (Ann Patchett says that a teacher once compared her work to "concentrated orange juice" which needed water. I have the same problem; it's nice to have something in common with Ann Patchett!) Anyway, blocking is basically what they do in the theater. Where are the characters? Who's standing where and in what relationship? How far is the floor lamp from the vampire's coffin? I'm now beginning to see why some writers physically sketch out scenes, even storyboard them. Of course one doesn't want to go overboard: "She stood in the middle of the front lawn ten feet away from him (with her on the lower left end of a diagonal line and him on the upper right). Her gaze was aimed perpendicularly to his, so that in order to speak to him, as she will as soon as I'm done explaining the blocking, she had to turn her head approximately 45 degrees. Because she was angry at him she chose not to face him directly, and she turned her head without moving her feet, which was awkward but she had a stiff shoulder from sleeping on it the wrong way the previous evening (also due to anger), and besides the grass was slippery from the dew (it was morning) and she was afraid of losing her footing." Yet the writer does have to have such a clear physical picture of every scene, and how the characters move through it, in her own mind.

Lately I've been looking at houses on distant hills (because I'm writing about someone who spies on people in such a house through a telescope) and trying to figure out how far away they actually are and how high up. The question adds certain dimensions, as it were, to the story--I begin to wonder how long it would take the spy-ee (once he's discovered the spy-er) to drive down the hill in a rage and bang on the spy-er's door. All this does help add texture and create a sense of being there in the story. So I hope, anyway. I've always tended to leave my characters suspended in the air, not being especially interested in setting on the technical level. But now I'm beginning to see how setting, and specifically blocking, have their own ways of driving the story.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Amy Hornstein's Six Sentences have been posted.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Poem in your pocket day - April 17

In celebration of National Poetry Month, April 17 is Poem in Your Pocket Day. Carry a poem in your pocket; produce and read it unbidden for friends and strangers!

h/t Natalie.

Update: Speaking of Natalie, here's her column on the subject. She's got it covered.

Mining your territory

People own the territory that they are born into. That's the richest ore writers can mine.... Get in touch with where you're from. No matter where you're from, even if it's a subdivision in Kenner, Louisiana, that is your literary heritage. If you look at it closely enough, you'll see that it is as exotic and unique as some Central or South American culture in the mountains.

I can't understand these people who say that anybody can write about anything and any time if they do enough research because they cut themselves off from the speech of those they grew up with.

--Tim Gautreaux, Novel Voices, ed. Lavasseur and Rabalais
Gautreaux writes about southern Louisiana and its "priests, drunks, train conductors, unemployed workers, and card-playing grandmothers with sharp-tongued wit." All very well. But what if one's heritage is rust-belt suburbia? (OK, it does sound kind of exotic when I put it that way.)

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Thoughts on persistence

Willpower is a muscle, according to this from the NYT. You exercise it; it gets stronger.

Willpower and persistence are relatively new concepts for me. Most of my life I've assumed that if something doesn't go well the first or second time I try it, that means it's not going to happen. The idea of regrouping, coming back, regrouping, coming back, etc., still seems like a revelation. These days I'm surrounded by highly successful, highly persistent people. Some are almost like machines, moving inexorably forward--they roll into a closed door, bounce off it, and roll at it again until they push it open.

I also learned about persistence from Norman Fischer's book Taking Our Places (and thanks to Sara for this recommendation). Zen meditation is the practice of persistence, especially because, in my experience anyway, it is not immediately rewarding. One sits there and wonders why one is bothering. Enlightenment does not come; relaxation, even, does not always come. Yet one sits down and does it, at the appointed time, again and again. (I say "one" because at the moment *I* am not doing it persistently, or even very often. OK, but I did get the concept; really I did. And I am persisting in my writing, despite hitting a dismaying patch that I won't go into just now.)

A big part of persistence is recognizing the value of what you're persisting at, even--or especially--if no one else does.

Stubbornness and passive or active aggression are not persistence. It can't be done in anger or revenge, or to prove a point. It should not be destructive. This is why I'm having a hard time admiring what Hillary Clinton calls her "resilience." Yes, she's a survivor, but that seems to be all she is and all she can ever be at this point. It's not her fault, entirely--she's had to make compromises and those compromises have trapped her. But surviving is not governing, and I'm afraid it's not even a good example in this case.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Should we worry about the LHC?

I'm in high anxiety mode these days, so when I read about the lawsuit against the Large Hadron Collider, I added it, Outlook-style, to my task list of worries. Seems a couple of scientists (at least one of whom, according to the Bad Astronomer, is way out there) think the collider could create a black hole or else a kind of cascade of "strangelets." Both of these things would be bad, although the word strangelet is quite good. Anyway, the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, says not to worry. I'm glad, because I really want to like the LHC. I'm a particle-smashing groupie, have been for years. Besides, now I'm consumed with cell phones (and wireless) causing brain tumors.