Thursday, June 30, 2011

Revising from something rather than nothing

So I've been revising novel #2 for a week. Maybe two weeks. I've lost track. This thing is a mind-sucker. Keeping track of all the details of the murder mystery, like who knew what, and when, and who believed what, and why, and how the investigation got all screwed up but plausibly so...and I'm not even into the string theory section. Yes, really. I DON'T KNOW WHAT I AM TALKING ABOUT.

Still, it's going well. And once again I must attribute it to my new practice of (relatively) rapid prototyping, i.e. getting *something* down and moving on and not worrying too much about anything until the whole draft is done. Because, here's what I keep discovering, to my eternal astonishment: You just need something to work with. That something need not be good; it need not even have that much to do with what you now understand your story to be.

Years ago, when I thought I was a visual artist, I used to go through the process of gessoing canvas. Gesso is that white stuff you put down first, to keep the paint from soaking into the canvas; I understood that the tedium of stretching the canvas and gessoing it was supposed to be meditative or something, but I was usually really impatient to just get started, and I turned to writing because I thought there would be less laborious prep and you could just, you know, do the thing. Joke's on me! Turns out the first draft is the gesso. You still have to do it, but the good news is that the second draft almost entirely covers it up. The first draft is really not much more than a layer to put the revisions on.

You just need something, rather than nothing. That's all.*

*Speaking of something rather than nothing, Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance posted a very interesting discussion of that question--Why is there something rather than nothing?--a few years ago. It's worth reading the whole post to follow the reasoning, but the overall point is that it's actually not a good question. Our "experience" tells us that the presence of "something" is somehow significant, and less "natural" or "simple" than the state of nothingness. In other words, we assume that the presence of "something" has to be explained (i.e. by the existence of a god or similar). But according to Carroll, there's no reason why nature itself should "prefer" nothingness. It's not necessarily a simpler state, so the presence of "something" does not necessarily demand a special explanation.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why we need models

Writing models, that is. Not supermodels. Well, I suppose we need them, too. They make us feel fat and old, which causes us to buy lots of clothes from China, which stimulates the economy and allows us keep on existing in the state of anxious pseudo-prosperity we have come to know and love. Or something.

Still with me? On the Ploughshares blog, Angela Pneuman takes up the age-old question of whether creative writing can--and needs to be--formally taught. On the matter of whether MFA programs are helpful to writers, and to contemporary literature in general, she says, "I am--helpfully--100% ambivalent." But she is certain about the importance of models as part of teaching.
It is impossible to teach without, on some level, invoking guidelines, and it is impossible to invoke guidelines without invoking the culture’s dominant aesthetic, which is most likely as familiar to us--and often as unexamined--as the air we breathe. We are either teaching to this aesthetic or calling it out and teaching against it, but there is no getting out from under the umbrella of (some) ideology--contrary as we may be, far as our meaning-making systems may be flung.
It's true that you need to know the rules in order to break them. And it's not enough to recognize those rules in some abstract way: You have to have engaged them, gotten inside and driven them around as if they were a car. Only then do you begin to realize that total, flagrant, mindless imitation of said rules is much harder than using them to go your own way.

Case in point: In one of the most fun classes I've ever taught, I had students rewrite a scene from the movie Ghost World in the style of Jane Austen. Now, assigning students to write in Austen's style wasn't a new idea, though the Ghost World angle might have been. One point of the exercise, of course, was to see what Austen's style "did" to the Ghost World story, to understand that style and story cannot be separated. At the same time we discovered that Ghost World is not as different from Pride and Prejudice as we had thought: The propriety in Austen's voice brought out the rule-bound nature of Ghost World's 1990s suburbia. Enid, the movie's heroine, struggles against these rules, as does Elizabeth Bennet; Elizabeth finds a way to thrive within that setting, while Enid finds another, more ambiguous solution.

But what was really exciting about this exercise was that each student's piece was quite different. It wasn't that some had failed to fully grasp Austen's style (or Ghost World). Rather, because each writer was different, they were drawn to different aspects of that style, and chose different scenes to translate into that style, which further destabilized it. A's Jane Austen was not B's; just as Elizabeth's choice wasn't (really wasn't) Enid's.* The sincere attempt to imitate actually brought out originality.

Having had this and countless similar experiences, though, it's still hard to keep this need for models in mind. There's probably never a point where you can fully dispense with them; conversely, they can always help you, especially if you're struggling with some writing problem. Yet my instinct still says: I want to be original. I want to do this on my own, not copy someone. The thing to remember is that the best models (Pneuman celebrates Virginia Woolf in this instance) show us what's possible, not what's impossible. They show us possibility in general. When we start rejecting models or guidelines entirely, that's when we start to reach for cliches--because that's what comes most readily to hand for everyone.

The other key is to know when you have a good model, one that opens up possibilities rather than shutting them down. Formal education helps with that.

*In fact Enid's departure on the empty bus at the end suggests suicide, which I hasten to say I'm not advocating for writers who find "the rules" or the so-called MFA style oppressive. Please don't off yourself, literally or as a writer, because you find Raymond Carver boring. Let's say instead that you need to take the bus farther out. Look at 18th century literature or international literature or...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Return to Pynchon

It has been years, nay even a decade or more, since I last read Thomas Pynchon. Now I'm starting Against the Day (thanks, KS!).

So far it's about a team of balloonists/adventurers on their way to the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. How I have missed this sort of thing:

At one end of the gondola, largely oblivious to the coming and going on deck, with his tail thumping expressively now and then against the planking, and his nose among the pages of a volume by Mr. Henry James, lay a dog of no particular breed, to all appearances absorbed by the text before him. Ever since the Chums, during a confidential assignment in Our Nation's Capital (see The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit), had rescued Pugnax, then but a pup, from a furious encounter between rival packs of the District's wild dogs, it had been his habit to investigate the pages of whatever printed material should find its way on board Inconvenience, from theoretical treatments of the aeronautical arts to often less appropriate matter, such as the "dime novels"--though his preference seemed more for sentimental tales about his own species than those exhibiting extremes of human behavior, which he appeared to find a bit lurid. He had learned with the readiness peculiar to dogs how with the utmost delicacy to turn pages using nose or paws, and anyone observing him thus engaged could not help noticing the changing expressions of his face, in particular the uncommonly articulate eyebrows, which contributed to an overall effect of interest, sympathy, and--the conclusion could scarce be avoided--comprehension.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Plot and plotless

Two excellent essays were recently posted on The Millions, arguing somewhat opposite points. Michael Rowe's piece on Philip K. Dick exhorts us to stop getting hung up on Dick's "occasionally terrible" prose style. For whatever reason, Dick was never concerned about style, Rowe explains:

Dick isn’t out to crystallize a particular sentiment. He does not aim to be quotable—to be, in a word, reducible. Instead, his novels feel like labor, as though they are tabulating the results of some desperate experiment. So, it isn’t the prose style, but the plot assembly that gases up the moving parts of Dick’s fiction.

Meanwhile, another essay by Mark OConnell celebrates "plotless novels" like Oblomov, the hilarious-sounding Voyage Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre, and Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker. In Baker's novel,

[p]retty much literally nothing happens; the closest we get to action is when the narrator exhales forcefully in the direction of a paper mobile hanging from the ceiling of the baby’s room, and the paper flutters around for a while. And here’s the thing: there’s not a dull moment in the book. Baker’s brilliance as a writer lies in his ability to make the (apparently) utterly trivial utterly compelling.
So: plot or style? PKD or XdM? It's an old question, of course, and ultimately a matter of personal taste.

Re: PKD. I suspect this is why I have always really enjoyed having the plots of Dick's books told to me; yet I have never made it through a single Dick novel. (One exception was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and that possibly was only due to post-Blade-Runner-viewing momentum.) I should mention, before going any further, that Dick is occasionally quite a brilliant stylist. Especially at the beginnings of his novels, before he's racing toward his deadline, or realizing he has to make a novel out of what was in fact only a short story, or whatever happens to cause the book to collapse like a circus-tent disaster, he zaps off some of the most hilarious, spot-on condemnations of consumer culture I've ever read. Also, I haven't read many of the books people consider to be his best, so I should probably reserve judgment overall. Anyway, Rowe's essay makes me want to give old PKD another shot, and maybe, to be fair, start with the Modern Library anthology edited by Jonathan Lethem.

Still, those collapses are so disappointing--in Clans of the Alphane Moon, for example, when this brilliant premise about a bunch of mental patients governing themselves on a distant moon turns into long passages about a guy loathing his ex-wife. I guess I'm saying that confronted with a whole bookfull of Dick's prose, I'd probably gravitate instead toward a plotless novel, and cop to whatever upper-middle-class anxiety Rowe says that reveals. Style is important to me. However--and this is still something I'm trying to learn as a writer--self-conscious style is wretched. Style for the sake of showing off one's writing ability never works, and is even more off-putting than Dick's desperate scrabbling.

So how would you write a story in which nothing happens, without overwriting to make up for the lack of plot? This seems like a terrific challenge to take up. Especially for those of us whose new short story has just driven itself into a corner.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What's a mystery?

While I'm on the subject of mystery, which I have been a lot lately, even though it may not technically be a "subject" as such because we don't, by definition, know what it's a perspective from Leonard Susskind:

[I]n the past few years the science sections of newspapers have been reporting that cosmologists are mystified by two astonishing "dark" discoveries. The first is that 90 percent of the matter in the universe is made of some shadowy, mysterious substance called dark matter. The other is that 70 percent of the energy in the universe is composed of an even more ghostly mysterious stuff called dark energy. The words mystery, mysterious, and mystified get a very thorough workout in these articles.

I have to admit I find neither discovery all that mysterious. To me, the word mystery conveys something that completely eludes rational explanation. The discoveries of dark matter and energy were surprises but not mysteries. Elementary-particle physicists (I am one of them) have always known that their theories were incomplete and that many particles remain to be discovered. The tradition of postulating new, hard-to-detect particles began when Wolfgang Pauli correctly guessed that one form of radioactivity involved an almost invisible particle called the neutrino. Dark matter is not made of neutrinos, but by now physicists have postulated plenty of particles that could easily form the invisible stuff. There is no mystery there--only the difficulties of identifying and detecting those particles.
Susskind goes on: "The real mystery raised by modern cosmology concerns a silent 'elephant in the room,' an elephant, I might add, that has been a huge embarrassment to physicists: why is it that the universe has all of the appearances of having been specially designed so that life forms like us can exist?"

As Susskind's book is called The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design, we can be sure that for him (as for me), the answer "[A] god did it" is neither helpful nor interesting. The book, which I am just now starting to read, promises to untangle the seemingly simple (and seemingly wrong) "anthropic principle." I thought I had finally understood this thing awhile ago, but now guess I don't.

Anyway, it does seem worth considering what we really mean when we use the term "mystery." By this definition, a murder mystery really isn't one. It's a...oh, hell, Rumsfeld is a prophet after all..."known unknown."

Now, once more into the cosmological breach.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Popular Crime

I'm reading Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence, by Bill James. So far it's lighter on the reflections and heavier on the celebration--or at least the giddy interest in piecing together clues and debating theories, which some of us share.

James at least does give cover to readers like me, who hope our interest in certain mega-famous crimes is not *primarily* lurid fascination. He says it's largely driven by a desire to see justice done. I'd add a closely related need for things to make sense. Life's a mystery, like that guy in Shine said. We're surrounded by walls we can't see past all the time: what our parents were really like before we were born; where the universe came from; why that agent who was perfect for my book never even wrote back. Surely, surely one self-contained event--this murder, which left so much "evidence" behind--can be understood, the answer known. But often, it just can't. As I've said before, information does not always add up to knowledge.

For my own problem, I choose to blame The Brothers Karamazov. It tells us that life is not just a mystery, but a murder mystery, and God is the prime suspect.

Anyway, as someone who's dug a little too deep into the Sam Sheppard case, I found James's take on the matter...interesting. At first it seems far-fetched, but then again, the more I thought about does explain a lot. (No, I won't spoil it, but the NYT review did, if you're curious.)

On the other hand, an explanation is not an answer, either.

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Thursday, June 09, 2011

Permanent Vacation

No, not a description of my career aspirations, but a fabulous new book from Bona Fide Books: Permanent Vacation: Twenty Writers on Work and Life in Our National Parks.

Have you ordered your copy yet? Why the heck not? Don't you love the outdoors? Haven't you ever wondered about those people making the beds in the lodge, or repairing the trail after a rainstorm?

What's that? You are/were one of those people? Well, good news for you, too. Bona Fide is taking submissions for a second volume.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

First and third

A writing teacher of mine once said that beginning fiction writers tend to write in the first person. As they grow, they "graduate" to writing in third.

Like the honor student I used to be, I took this as a task to be fulfilled. I was writing in first person in those days, for god's sake, which meant I was not a mature writer. How embarrassing to be revealed in this manner, when I'd thought my narrators were ever so sophisticated! When I did start using third, and managing not to screw it up completely, I felt I had made it to a new level of respectability. Writing in third meant I was in control, surveying the whole story from a height of my choosing. At least in theory, I was able to incorporate the sweep and scope of the great 19th century novels, the likes of which I didn't particularly aspire to write, but could have. Maybe. The point is, the third-person writer has authority. The first-person writer not only acknowledges her subjectivity but flaunts it, or worse, hides behind it, afraid to deliver any bigger truths than one individual's epiphanies.

However, I have since regressed. My second novel and the new short story I'm attempting to write are both in first. What has happened? All of a sudden I'm finding third person far more limiting. True, you can justify traveling among places and times and consciousnesses in ways you can't do in first--in a realistic first, I might add. But I can't let go of the notion that someone is always telling the story. She may be all but effaced behind the opaque screen of minimalism, or you may have the chatty, confidential "I" of much 19th century fiction, who does not sense his perspective as limited at all. In any case, there is a narrating consciousness. Some may simply decide that's the author's consciousness, with no intervening figure between it and the reader, but I somehow can't see that. To me, the narrating voice is always created, through the act of writing itself; it's artificial, which I don't mean in a negative way. So I feel like I have to understand that voice, and who it's coming from. In other words, third keeps blending into first for me anyway, so why not save a step and just do first?

It may be that first limits you in terms of saying what other characters are really thinking, and keeps you from being in two or more places or times at once. On the other hand, first gives you a tremendous amount of internal latitude. It seems to me it's much easier to justify flashbacks, for instance, in first. We suddenly remember stuff all the time, and having the memory can be part of the story, rather than (god forbid) a sort of pat psychological underpinning for some character. You can also just stop the story and muse (engagingly, of course) on the narrator's pet obsessions: Why does my father insist on wearing those glasses? How can my best friend believe in ghosts? Did the world really exist before I came into it? (Try thinking about that through the mind of a fictional character!)

Anyway, I'm finding there's lots of terrain to explore in the first-person point of view. But I wouldn't rule out authorial immaturity, either.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Consciousness and character

It seems the whole consciousness thing is as tough a nut to crack as the whole what-is-the-universe-made-of thing. Over at 13.7, Alva Noƫ suggests a different way of approaching consciousness:
For a while now I've been arguing that we shouldn't look for consciousness in the brain. We haven't found it there, and we won't. Not because consciousness happens somewhere else, in the soul, say, or in the environment, or in the collective. But because consciousness isn't something that happens; it is something we do or make. And like everything else that we do, it depends both on the way we are constituted — on our brains and bodies — but also on the world around us.
Sidestepping the actual question of what consciousness is, I think this discussion has implications for fiction writers. (Well, everything has implications for fiction writers.)

Literature and literary characters give us more direct access to other minds than we have in everyday life. At least we seem to have access, in the form of other people's interior thoughts. On the other hand, this access is limited to what can be expressed in verbal language; and the other people are, at least to some extent, fictional.

I won't wade into the morass of how much language itself creates or forms consciousness. But we do experience a sort of merging of consciousnesses when we read. The author's words steer our minds in directions they might not otherwise go. Her language, for a time, becomes ours, though what we see and feel through that language can't be exactly what the author saw and felt when she was writing. We're drawn in by generalities, a shared language and similar broad-strokes experiences (love, loss, fear, ecstasy). But it's the edges, where the differences are negotiated, that give art life.

About character specifically: It seems to me we could think of characters as consciousnesses, by which I mean ways of seeing and being in the world, which overlap in general ways but not in specifics. I think I've too often pictured my own characters as different, atomized mixtures of my own consciousness (which I'm sloppily eliding here with personality): That one has more of my prickliness and less of my confidence; this one embodies my secret desire to become a hairdresser. But I haven't thought enough about how these guys relate to each other as consciousnesses.

In other words, just like us real people, characters should be aware that others have minds, and be equally aware that they can't quite reach them. They are as alone, and as connected, in their world as we are in ours. And moments when consciousnesses seem to touch and interact--as when an author suddenly shows us an entirely new way of seeing--should be as amazing for characters within the novel as they are for us on the "outside."