Friday, April 23, 2010

Alice McDermott on whatever you can get away with

In my never-ending quest for reassurance from famous writers, I came across this 2000 article by Alice McDermott in the AWP Writer's Chronicle. Here's one reassuring bit:

For the first half of the composition of each of my novels I have been consumed by a sense of not knowing what I'm doing, and for the second half I have been consumed by the certainty that I know exactly what I am doing and should not be doing it.

Check, and check.

McDermott turns out to be one of those writing teachers who says writing can't be taught. What she's really saying, though, is that writing can't be taught *directly.* She's right, I think, on this count:

[O]ne of the most subtly disconcerting things a writer can say to a student goes something like this, "John Cheever [or Updike or Chekhov or Flannery O'Connor, or Munro or James or whoever] did exactly what you're attempting here in a story called." That slow burn you can detect behind the student's enthusiastic nod as she diligently copies down a title is, I believe, the one true indication of a real writer, a real writer who even as she obediently copies down the suggested reading is thinking, No one has ever done exactly what I'm attempting to do here, you stupid ass.

Not that I am ready to claim the mantle of "real writer" by any means--but more and more, I feel this resistance to models as such. Yet I'm reading widely and voraciously, looking for...well, inspiration is too hackneyed a term; more like some glancing blow that shakes up a locked-up portion of my mind--or heart, I should probably say. When I'm reading, I'm not so much thinking, I could create a scene or character like that--as, Oh, this is possible; therefore this other thing (that I want to do) could also be possible.

That sense of possibility is the point of McDermott's article. The bulk of the piece is taken up with a sort-of reading of Nabokov's Bend Sinister, not as a model to follow, but an example of what can be done in fiction. (First of all, thank you, Alice McDermott, simply for not presenting us with yet another Raymond Carver story, whose brilliance we are assumed to already recognize and desire to emulate.) Nabokov, McDermott points out, breaks pretty much every rule beginning writers think they know. Which means, of course, there are no rules. Except for one. Pivoting off a quote from Nabokov describing what the novel was "about," McDermott says:

The plot moves, turns, develops, not in order to accommodate the author's cleverness (and there is much cleverness in contemporary fiction), but to reveal, to record, the beating of Krug's loving heart. [....]

Advice to writers then: without that heart at the center of your fiction, advice can't help you. If it is there, then no one, no one, can-or needs to-tell you how to write your stories.

It seems the advice we most need is how to write with heart--with our hearts, to put it ever so sappily, because no one else's can do the job for us. No writing class can teach us how to do that. I suspect we can only learn this indirectly, by immersing ourselves in other stories that have heart. We can recognize how we feel when we're reading them, and see if our own work makes us feel the same way. In fact, writing with heart is painful and scary. As Nabokov puts it, we're delving into the "torture an immense tenderness is subject to," and that tenderness is really our own. No wonder we need reassurance, and still need our teachers.

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