Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Show, don't tell" and hoarding

I spent the past two days purging old clothes from my closets. I hauled five bags of stuff off to Goodwill, and upon returning home, I felt ... awful. My sense is that one is supposed to feel liberated on such occasions, and also not a little holy for contributing to charity (though one is also aware that clothing donations from the first world can interfere with nascent clothes-making businesses in the third). While I kept reminding myself of how lame it is to hang onto stuff I don't wear, when others might be able to use it, when I drove away from the Goodwill container I felt almost like I was fleeing the scene of a crime I had just committed.

Yes, things are just things. And yet they are not. In the same way that in fiction, the specific, telling detail is a window into a character's psyche, things--in our consumer society, anyway--are portals to the past. To me, even the most trivial piece of clothing I heaved into the Hefty bag had some bit of memory stuck to it, along with lint and cat hair. I almost always remembered where I'd bought the thing, and what life was like at that time (I really have hung onto things far too long). If the piece of clothing was a gift, well, so much the worse. How ungrateful I felt for never wearing that jacket (even if it didn't fit, or made me look like Carmela Soprano, or both). How I felt like I was stabbing the giver in the heart, like I was tossing a kitten out of a car into the rain.

It's my guess that although I may be nuttier than many in this area, I'm not alone. (I am fortunate, too, that our condo is small enough that full-on hoarding is simply not possible.) Consumerism, I think, depends on this fear of loss, especially of the loss of memory. We buy to ward off Alzheimer's, and we give to keep others from forgetting us. Those aren't the only reasons, of course, but they come into play--maybe more so when we feel ourselves isolated, and people close to us start dying, and we start to think of how many people we've already lost track of over the course of our lives.

What will keep our memories for us, if not objects? Stories? Facebook? The Cloud? Fine, but we can't touch and see these things in the same way I could have--but didn't--wear that TV-test-pattern sweater I bought in England two-plus decades ago. You can tell stories to kids and grandkids, but if they're not connected to tangible things, those stories mutate and dissipate over generations, even if they're written down. Objects don't change, although they do decay, and their original appeal or function can become questionable.

This is where Buddhism is supposed to help, right? Impermanence, impermanence. Further: giving up clothing is nothing compared to giving up one's life, which is what Memorial Day is about. Yet Memorial Day is also about sales. It really seems like this endless circulation of stuff through our lives is really the presence (presents?) of death.

Anyway, I've moved more junk into the empty spaces in the closets, so there's lots more space in my office now. That's kind of nice.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Personification enlivens abstraction

Here's another thing writing teachers always tell us: Be concrete. Use words that create images in the reader's mind; make them feel or hear or see or smell something specific. (Smell is an especial favorite.) This dictum is a variation of the dreaded "Show, don't tell," and, like its counterpart, it has its merits. For example, concreteness leads to specificity, which is always a good thing, because specific details form the Lilliputian army with which you beat back the Giant Art-Killing Cliche Worm.

But, let's face it: abstractions exist. Language itself is an abstraction. Also, if a writer has any ambition beyond accurately rendering the physical experiences of daily life, she'll need to use some words denoting concepts, ideas, theories. Yet she doesn't want to end up with a dry philosophical treatise, drained of all life's blood. What to do?

Well, cleverly blending the abstract and the concrete is one way to go. Let's take a cue from Benjamin Black, the pen-name of John Banville in his thriller-writing mode. In Christine Falls, his main character, Quirke, is working his way through a bad meal in an overrated restaurant, while trying to extract some information from his brother-in-law. As Quirke mulls his interlocutor's evasive answers, Black tosses off this gem:

Quirke's palate recalled the salmon with a qualm.

First off, the personification here ratchets up the interest right away. Having Quirke's palate "recall" the salmon gives an otherwise dull and largely abstract concept, one's "palate," a life of its own, literally. We've all had this experience of unwillingly retrieving a bad food experience (I'm not talking about the more dramatic, literal possibilities here)--and having the palate do the honors, rather than Quirke himself, creates that involuntary dynamic.

The second word that benefits from this treatment, in this same sentence, is "qualm." This is another word that can't really attract any interest on its own. It's part of a cliched phrase, having qualms about x, and although it's an amusing-sounding word, it can't overcome this history by itself. But, again, it's the palate that has the qualm, not Quirke, and this makes all the difference. When something that we assume can't have a qualm (or whatever) is shown to do so, the all-but-dead word comes back to quivering life. The "qualm" now sounds like a little spasm of the throat or tongue, and is funny and vivid and very close to our own recalled experience.

So, personification of abstractions is one way to infuse them with specificity. You can't overdo personification, of course, or it will quickly grow preposterous--but it is a way of mixing the abstract and the concrete, so that you can use abstractions without floating off into the high desert of pure theory.
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Monday, May 14, 2012

Flashbacks in fiction: Do they suck?

A writing teacher once told me that you should resist including flashbacks in your fiction at all costs. If you absolutely must add a flashback, each one can be no more than three lines (or was it sentences? Lines, probably, because with sentences you could cheat, spinning out subordinate clauses for pages, sprinkling liberally with commas and semicolons).

The reason for this perhaps extreme prohibition is that flashbacks can lead to a static narrative in the story's present. The reader can almost picture the character sitting on a couch in a dim waiting room, tapping her foot as you methodically plod through all the steps that got her to this point in the story. Perhaps worse, because you know you need to get back to the present, and rescue your character from that waiting room where she's growing more sullen and uncooperative by the minute, the flashback can fall into a weird neither-nor land: not quite summary, not quite scene. Especially if the flashback seems to you to have a primarily explanatory function--how did Suzy get to be so sensitive about her appearance?--you're especially likely to fall into this mode.

I find that in my own writing process, the early stages of a novel tend to be full of flashbacks. Probably even more flashback than present narrative. What that tells me is that I've either set the story at the wrong period in the character's life, or that I need to give some of these experiences to other characters. I have to find some way to get these flashbacks into the main story. Either that or I'll have to come up with some kind of lovely, stylistic move to weave memory itself into the story, without making the story about a person being struck by random flashbacks over the course of an otherwise ordinary day, or week, or ... OK, in the right hands, I can see that being a very good story.

In this case, though, I think I'm going to hand off some of these experiences to the other characters. Because that's the other thing I find that I do in the early stages--create a bunch of characters, and then not give most of them enough to do. So instead of having the mother's experience at her school be a flashback, I'll have it be her daughter's experience in the story.

More thoughts on flashbacks: the lack of them in the Odyssey (per Auerbach), and as a function of point of view.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

In praise of the writerly surprise

I've been dipping into George Saunders's essays in The Braindead Megaphone. I've always admired Saunders as a writer of the kind of surreal, hilarious, and deeply sad fiction I wish I could come up with myself. But man, can he rock an essay.

I suppose that what makes his fiction great is something he also does--less often, and therefore perhaps more strikingly--in his nonfiction: He surprises us. I don't mean that his work is startlingly good, or shockingly original, though that's true. I'm talking about these little explosive surprises that he drops in, mid-sentence or mid-paragraph, that make you stop and go, Wow.

Case in point, from "Thank you, Esther Forbes." This is a celebration of Saunders's childhood discovery of Johnny Tremain, and with it, the fact that fiction did not have to be awful:

Before Johnny Tremain, writers and writing gave me the creeps. In our English book, which had one of those 1970s titles that connoted nothing (Issues and Perspectives, maybe, or Amalgam 109), the sentences ("Larry, aged ten, a tow-headed heavyset boy with a happy smile for all, meandered down to the ballfield, hoping against hope he would at last be invited to join some good-spirited game instigated by the other lads of summer") repulsed me the way a certain kind of moccasin-style house slipper then in vogue among my father's friends repulsed me.

Who on earth would think of comparing the mediocre prose in a 70s children's fiction anthology to a moccasin? But the thing is, I think we all make leaps like this. Only for must of us, these leaps remain in our subconscious. We'd never articulate them to ourselves or others, because it feels ridiculous that we get the same feeling--the creeps--from reading a stupid story as from looking at someone's slippers. Neither of these things should give us the creeps in the first place, right? The fact that both do is beyond wrong, even a little shameful. Yet it's true. I instantly recognized this feeling of getting the creeps from an apparently, indeed strenuously innocuous story. It's the insistence on innocuousness that causes the creeps to descend.

Later in the same essay Saunders drops a much more shocking bomb, quoting the bureaucratic prose of an SS officer on how it's better to leave the lights on in the gas chamber before turning on the jets, to keep "the load" from screaming and pushing against the door. Good God. Is it really a straight line from the story of the tow-headed boy, through the slippers, to this grotesque evasion of responsibility for mass murder? Well, Saunders suggests, kind of. An inauthentic relationship to language is no small matter. It means you can distance yourself from what you say, and what you think you mean. Using language well--giving it its full due--means taking responsibility.

Much better, then, to be honest about how a bad story reminds us of a house slipper, in that both made us feel deeply weird. That kind of honesty is a small salvo in the fight against the bureaucratization of the soul. Plus, when you say it out loud, it turns out to be so right, it's hilarious.

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Thursday, May 03, 2012

Just a little more on 2666

...because I'm obsessed, still hung over, grasping at the fading glimmers this novel's explosion left in my psyche.

I came across this piece, In the Labyrinth: A User's Guide to Bolaño, on the New Yorker web site. Now, I actually receive the New Yorker at my home on a mostly regular basis, but I hadn't read this piece. I believe that's because, back in February, I was still resenting Bolaño for being dead and yet *still* getting published in the New Yorker more often than almost anyone else. This writing gig is hard enough, New Yorker editors! Must we compete with the deceased as well?

Anyway, the "User's Guide" is mostly interesting and helpful, although I plan to read all of Bolaño's work anyway. And then there was this:

Avoid “2666” for as long as possible, and for heaven’s sake, don’t start with it. The book is a desert of negative space across which the panting reader will search in vain for the traditional pleasures of the novel: form, character, coherence, meaning.

No, no, yes, yes, yes, and this is why you should read it. It's not a "traditional" novel, but what 2666 proves is that the novel is not synonymous with the bildungsroman or the romance. True, it's the rare writer who can pull off the *appearance* of formlessness and characterlessness. Melville, I'd say, was one. As in Moby-Dick, the only real character here is the universe (differently conceived, but still incomprehensible). And as for the piece's other complaint, that the huge section on the killings in Ciudad Juárez leads to nothing but "exhaustion," again--yes. I believe that is the intended and the appropriate response.

Anyway, read 2666!

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