Monday, December 20, 2010

Soloist or thief?

Back in October Lev Grossman did a post about writers who read fiction while they are writing their own, vs. those who read no fiction. He calls these two groups Thieves and Soloists. He himself claims to be a thief, and I'd put myself in that camp as well.

Grossman seems mostly to "steal" stylistic or otherwise intangible elements of the fiction he reads (such as the "pure wonder" he finds in C.S. Lewis). That is also my experience. To put it another way, I use previously published fiction as a kind of permission slip to do things I wasn't sure it was OK to do. Oh, you can go on at great length about the childhood of a minor character. You can switch point of view in the middle (provided you do it with clear intention) and then switch back again. You can include drawings and diagrams. Etc. I think this is related to what Grossman says about reading Neal Stephenson to "raise my own game." You're shooting yourself in the foot (I believe) if you avoid authors you believe are truly great, because you fear they'll intimidate you into not writing at all. I say, read them, and raise your game.

Sometimes my thievery is even less direct. Kind of like playing the radio in the car, the "sound" of another person's prose in my head seems to skim off my excess intentionality--which is maybe the same thing as the superego/editor voice we're all supposed to stifle until much later in the process. Anyway, it's that urge to try too hard, to labor over the surface of the prose, to show off, even. The other author's prose drowns that out--so that, as I'm reading, suddenly I'm reaching for my pen and notebook to jot down an idea that's completely unrelated to what I'm reading. I'm not stealing an actual plot point, or character trait, or even a metaphor. Rather, some notion--some concept or sound or emotional experience--has been freed, by engaging my overly conscious mind with something sufficiently challenging. I think it goes beyond distraction, but that's a thought for another time.

All this is why I don't worry to much about what exactly I'm reading at any given time. Just because I'm writing a (sort of) mystery doesn't mean I feel I should be reading Raymond Chandler. Although maybe I should. I figure whatever I'm reading at the time is something I need to be reading, for reasons I may not consciously understand.

I think in the past I made more of an effort to avoid reading fiction while writing (and because I was writing most of the time, I read little fiction). I suspect this was a sort of juvenile fear about not being "original." But I actually think the Soloists steal too; they just have better memories for what they've read in the past.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Turn of the Screw: Dialog that does things

First, before we delve into this week's writing lesson from The Turn of the Screw, two fascinating and unrelated points:

1. You may be the sort of person who's relieved to know that, unlike in the first post, I've settled on italics for the novella's title.

2. While searching the e-text for the word "arm," because the section I want to focus on contains that word, I counted six instances of the word "charm" or its variants (charming, charmed, etc.). Mind you, that's in the first fifteen pages, which seems like a lot of charm(ing) in the early going. I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest this is significant. The concept of "charm," I think, is an interesting and complex one, and I think everyone should take some time and reflect on its potential as a generator of fiction. That is to say, the intersection of beauty and creepiness should produce a lot of generative tension for storytelling. OK, done?

Anyway, my interest this week is in dialog, especially dialog in mystery-type stories. I myself am now writing a mystery-type novel, and am finding that these things seem to require large quantities of dialog. About 3/4 of the movie Murder on the Orient Express, I seem to recall, is a series of interviews between Hercule Poirot and a parade of famous actors in the dining car. In general, I suppose this is the way evidence gets uncovered in the real world. People get talked to, and they reveal stuff--whether they're witnesses, perpetrators, or some place in between that the detective has yet to determine. But the question--at least for the literary author using the detective story as a vehicle--is how how to make all these different dialogs interesting in their own right? In other words, how do we keep the conversations from simply becoming sources of information--though we need them to be that--and use them to develop character, tease out themes, ramp up conflicts, etc.? How do we make dialog (as some writing guru once said) do more than one thing?

One key, which Henry James does especially well, is that both characters in the dialog want something different. While they may, on one level, be on the same side, still their desires--particularly their hidden desires--come into conflict. And this plays out not only in the way they express themselves verbally, but in other behaviors that become part of the dialog.

Here's an early example. The narrator, a young governess, has recently arrived at her new post, where she's in charge of two exceedingly charming children. She has just received a letter explaining that the boy, Miles, whom she has not yet met, is being expelled from his school. Here, she describes the contents of the letter to the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose.

"They go into no particulars. They simply express their regret that it should be impossible to keep him. That can have only one meaning." Mrs. Grose listened with dumb emotion; she forbore to ask me what this meaning might be; so that, presently, to put the thing with some coherence and with the mere aid of her presence to my own mind, I went on: "That he's an injury to the others."

At this, with one of the quick turns of simple folk, she suddenly flamed up. "Master Miles! HIM an injury?"

There was such a flood of good faith in it that, though I had not yet seen the child, my very fears made me jump to the absurdity of the idea. I found myself, to meet my friend the better, offering it, on the spot, sarcastically. "To his poor little innocent mates!"

"It's too dreadful," cried Mrs. Grose, "to say such cruel things! Why, he's scarce ten years old."

"Yes, yes; it would be incredible."

She was evidently grateful for such a profession. "See him, miss, first. THEN believe it!" I felt forthwith a new impatience to see him; it was the beginning of a curiosity that, for all the next hours, was to deepen almost to pain. Mrs. Grose was aware, I could judge, of what she had produced in me, and she followed it up with assurance. "You might as well believe it of the little lady. Bless her," she added the next moment—"LOOK at her!"

I turned and saw that Flora, whom, ten minutes before, I had established in the schoolroom with a sheet of white paper, a pencil, and a copy of nice "round o's," now presented herself to view at the open door. She expressed in her little way an extraordinary detachment from disagreeable duties, looking to me, however, with a great childish light that seemed to offer it as a mere result of the affection she had conceived for my person, which had rendered necessary that she should follow me. I needed nothing more than this to feel the full force of Mrs. Grose's comparison, and, catching my pupil in my arms, covered her with kisses in which there was a sob of atonement.

Notice the volatility in the dialog (which the narrator attributes to Mrs. Grose's being a species of "simple folk," perhaps telling us something about herself--or about James, I can't be certain--in the process). It does not flow rhythmically back and forth, in a smooth, cooperative, boring Q and A. Even though the two women are apparently in agreement, the dialog moves in bursts, and Mrs. Grose's "flame-up" lights the governess on fire, too. But notice, also, what is not said, what is omitted: "she forbore to ask me what this meaning might be," "I needed nothing more than this..." The governess and Mrs. Grose are both hiding certain feelings or suspicions, not only from each other, but from themselves.

Then, in the very next line:

Nonetheless, the rest of the day I watched for further occasion to approach my colleague, especially as, toward evening, I began to fancy she rather sought to avoid me. I overtook her, I remember, on the staircase; we went down together, and at the bottom I detained her, holding her there with a hand on her arm. "I take what you said to me at noon as a declaration that YOU'VE never known him to be bad."

She threw back her head; she had clearly, by this time, and very honestly, adopted an attitude. "Oh, never known him—I don't pretend THAT!"

I was upset again. "Then you HAVE known him—?"

"Yes indeed, miss, thank God!"

On reflection I accepted this. "You mean that a boy who never is—?"

"Is no boy for ME!"

I held her tighter. "You like them with the spirit to be naughty?" Then, keeping pace with her answer, "So do I!" I eagerly brought out. "But not to the degree to contaminate—"

"To contaminate?"—my big word left her at a loss. I explained it. "To corrupt."

She stared, taking my meaning in; but it produced in her an odd laugh. "Are you afraid he'll corrupt YOU?" She put the question with such a fine bold humor that, with a laugh, a little silly doubtless, to match her own, I gave way for the time to the apprehension of ridicule.

But the next day, as the hour for my drive approached, I cropped up in another place. "What was the lady who was here before?"

Though it's a long way from ending, this dialog stays compelling because of all the ways it gets interrupted. It stops and starts over the course of several days, as the narrator steps back, regroups, and "crops up" again in a way that turns Mrs. Grose into her prey. Also the speakers interrupt each other and themselves in this second section. The whole thing proceeds by fits and starts--it's action. It is also exposition, and it does reveal clues, but it does so obliquely and unpredictably. We see that the narrator is conscious of her own motivations--she likes Mrs. Grose and already senses she'll need her as an ally, but she can't stop herself from coming back after her--going so far as to clamp onto her arm, and tighten her grip as Mrs. Grose tries to get away. For her part, Mrs. Grose seems more desperate; since she can't get the governess to release her physical grasp, she resorts to a kind of verbal jiu-jitsu, which both of them seem aware of, but are unwilling to openly resist.

So, a few take-aways here for improving our dialog, especially dialog functions as exposition:

  • The characters in the dialog have hidden desires that run at cross-purposes to their apparent desires.
  • The dialog may productively be interrupted by action, internal monologue, etc., so that the pursuit and/or avoidance of the dialog (by one character or the other) becomes part of the drama.
  • Physical actions can and should be motivated by the content of the dialog--as opposed to "beats," like smoking a cigarette, taking a sip of coffee, or--god help us--"pausing a beat."
I'm sure there are more.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

What your novel requires of you: reflections on junior high school architecture

As I've said before, writing my second novel has so far been much easier. One reason is that I've set it in the suburbs of Cleveland, in a thinly disguised version of my hometown, which makes it just a hell of a lot faster to locate objects and events in space. I spend almost no time wondering about what someone's living room, or a street, or an afternoon sky might look like--it's just there in my mind. Even better, it's in the form of memory, so I get plenty of layers of emotional varnish for free. (Well, not for free. I paid for it.)

Another reason is that I've come to expect that the novel will make unexpected demands of me. I've learned to welcome (for the most part) these surprises, rather than fear them. I no longer assume that I'm going off the rails; instead I'm following a trail of clues that the story, from the future, is leaving for me in the present. Or something like that.

So anyway, today I found myself reflecting at length on the architecture of my old junior high school. I actually don't even know what has happened to that building in the intervening years, since the "junior high" concept has been superseded almost everywhere by that of "middle school." The difference in philosophy is almost entirely contained in the names. Junior high is a stepping stone, a "junior" version of high school. Middle school is meant to recognize these ages as a unique developmental period in themselves, both/and and neither/nor. Junior high is two grades and middle school three, and all the fundamental differences between twoness and threeness apply here.

The architecture of my junior high really embodied the stepping-stone philosophy. The design reflected two (of course!) basic concepts: aspiration and revelation. Aspiration in the high ceilings that tended to draw the eye upward (toward high school, your future career, or the eighth graders' floor if you were a lowly seventh-grader) and revelation--in that what you saw in those high ceilings was, as I recall anyway, a tangle of exposed, brightly colored pipes. You see? What was once hidden--plumbing--was now revealed. By education.

I wonder what has happened to that building. It can't have survived in the above form; it would be such a relic of the seventies, outmoded in both design and educational philosophy. I do know the middle school is now housed in one of the really old elementary schools, which I hope has been refurbished inside. Because before aspiration/revelation, we had the school-as-factory concept. And boy, did they look (and feel) the part.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

My physics fantasy

I want to be a physicist! Physics is so cool! Why am I not a physicist?

Oh, yeah. For two reasons.
  • One: I was always very, very nervous around numbers. Also symbols, like sigmas and such. I took calculus in high school and again in college, and did OK, but the very thought of those classes (particularly the college one) causes my esophagus to seize up. Actually a secondary fantasy of mine is to take calculus again but in some setting where there are no tests. Or no-pressure tests. Like, I would take a test if I knew that if I screwed it up I could take it again till I got it right, because isn't the point, really, in the great scheme of things, to learn math, not to be made to feel like a moron who will never understand anything just because you didn't catch on the first time?

  • Two: I forget what two was.
But anyway, at some point during high school (it had to be), some enlightened teacher--and I'm terribly sorry, I've forgotten who you were, sir--took us to a lecture on cosmology, which I think was at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Out came this guy with a bushy brown beard, who paced back and forth on the stage for an hour and showed slides of curved space with grid marks on it, and a little picture of a spaceship riding the curve. And he said that ship could travel to a whole new universe, or our universe at another time, or... And that was SO COOL! And then in college I took Astronomy for Non-Majors (or whatever it was called) with Robert Kirshner, and that was SO COOL TOO!!

So I've always gobbled up books and TV programs about physics and astronomy in particular. In a way, I can't understand why anyone thinks of anything else: this is what the universe is made of. Where it came from. What it is. Why would a person spend their time, I don't know, writing stories and fucking around on the Internet when there is physics??

My favorite popular physics writer, as of about three weeks ago, is Brian Greene. Greene as a writer is a recent discovery. I was not a huge fan of the TV version of The Elegant Universe. Now, it's not awful. There are far, far worse things on television, even on PBS. But it seemed to be aiming a little too hard for the attention-impaired brains of adolescents. Lots of CGI thingies zipping and zooming around, and--worst of all--every scientist interviewed appears in front of a strange assortment of glowing, blinking panels, which seems to suggest that what they're saying is too boring just to, you know, listen to, so you must instead be flashed and strobed to the brink of epilepsy. If you are looking for the successor to Cosmos as the awesomest intro to the universe ever, I recommend Brian Cox's shows--the recent Wonders of the Solar System, and a couple of earlier Horizon shows, both from the BBC. Cox tends to eschew CGI and create models using rocks and lines drawn in sand, which is both more charming and more effective. (Of the physicist-Brians with one-syllable last names, we must mention in passing Brian May, who, like Cox, is a [former] rock star.)

But back to Greene. I just finished reading The Fabric of the Cosmos, and in terms of explaining really complex stuff, really clearly and engagingly, this blows away everything. Sorry, S. Hawking et al! I now *get* why nothing can travel faster than light speed, why time slows down when you travel close to that speed, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I've heard before but had to just accept, because there was no explanation forthcoming. Greene's particular gift is for anticipating exactly what the non-expert reader will be wondering about after an initial explanation, and then filling in the gaps with really effective analogies (though his fondness for The Simpsons is maybe a bit too cute).

I'm almost done raving, but I'll just say that somehow I came upon this book at exactly the right moment for my new novel. I wanted to say some things about time and order and uncertainty, and this book just poured itself into all the gaps. I'm now making my main character a physicist--though a troubled one, of course.

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