Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Writing about states of mind: the telling that shows

This Iris Murdoch lady can write. Did you guys know? I had never read Murdoch before, but picked up The Good Apprentice recently, and am, like, captivated. Yes, it comes with a blurb from Harold Bloom, but don't let that dissuade you. It is that somewhat rare bird, the truly entertaining philosophical novel. It's about a college student who accidentally kills his friend by slipping him LSD. It's also about the student's family--all deranged in varying degrees, but, like Dostoevsky's characters, they've earned their nuttiness by sincerely trying to understand how to live. It's engrossing, creepy, and quite often hilarious.

I've been revising my own novel frantically as I read Murdoch. I know writers differ on whether it's a good idea to read similar works while writing one's own. I've gone back and forth on this myself, but at the moment I'm firmly in the yes! read them! camp. There's the worry about possibly copying, or--more likely--trying to fit your work into what seems like the other writer's more successful formula. I actually don't think there's much of a risk of either, as long as you understand that your work is different. Whatever the other writer is doing has to be translated into your circumstances and idiom--it must, and will, become yours. I am looking to Murdoch, whose subject and themes are quite similar to those in my new novel, for ways to solve certain problems with pacing. I am not borrowing her prose or even her plot lines, but I am learning patterns and structures.

Specifically, there's the matter of portraying a character's state of mind. As literary theorists, notably Jonathan Culler, remind us, fiction is the one mode that gives us seemingly transparent insight into other minds--though those other minds are, necessarily, fictional (because it's a fiction that we can have access to other minds). Anyway. My question, as a writer is, how do you do that? What's the best way to represent another mind in action?

The dreaded "Show don't tell" mantra doesn't help here. You can show distress by having a character pace and run his fingers through his hair and mutter. You can have him tell another character he's distressed--but not in so many words, of course. But if you want to represent interior life, the life the character lives when he's alone--and I think you do, because otherwise your character is an automaton, simply a reactor to stimuli--you need another mode. You need a form of telling that shows.

Murdoch is a master of showing by telling. Here is just a sampling of Edward's thoughts, shortly after his friend's death:

If only he could have, somehow, somewhere, a clean pain, a vital pain, not a death pain, a pain of purgatory by which in time he could work it all away, as a stain which could be patiently worked upon and cleansed and made to vanish. But there was no time, he had destroyed time. This was hell, where there was no time.

The reason this passage (and pages and pages of similar passages) works is that it doesn't bore us with mere, abstract telling. The narrator shows us what's in Edward's mind by using the language and rhythm Edward himself uses when he's thinking. He's obsessed, so his language and thoughts are repetitive. He's overwhelmed, self-punishing and self-pitying, so his language is grandiose. At the same time, Edward is intelligent. He is the kind of character who strives to think through his problems, and he has access to concepts that allow him to do so in a sophisticated--if ineffectual--manner. (And his thinking should be ineffectual; there is no easy way to live with, or comprehend, what he's done.)

Reading Murdoch has opened my eyes to the possibilities of this kind of narration--the self-aware interior monologue, in which telling and showing merge. I think such possibilities offer themselves more easily once we learn to really respect our characters. We can give them the ability, which we ourselves possess, to wonder and marvel and obsess and worry inside their own heads. Let them seek truth, as we do, through them.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Counting minutes, not words?

Via the PEN Center, Aimee Bender writes a nice piece on the importance of routine and structure for writers. Probably more people will be wowed by the information that she used to write in a closet. But I'm more interested in the fact that she sets a time limit, as opposed to a word count, for her writing sessions.

In my rule book, I don't have to do anything except sit at the computer, but I'm not allowed to do anything else, and I usually get so bored I start to work. 

I think this strategy puts Bender in something of a minority. I'm used to hearing about word counts, like Stephen King's 3,000 per day (though he suggests 1,000 for mortals like us). I have used this myself. The idea is that you can't get up till you do your 1,000, so you might as well bang through it. Who knows, you could be done in half an hour, and off to more rewarding things like staring into the fridge and muttering "fuck."

But I'm interested in this time business. First, it accommodates those of us--most of us--with other jobs and/or obligations. If you "write" from 7-9 every morning, or 7-9 every evening, you can state with confidence when you will and will not be participating in the flesh-and-blood world. There is also, let's face it, something particularly draconian about the word count. On days when the words aren't coming, and you just can't bear to kick out your internal editor and pour out crap like you're supposed to, "597 to go" is a deeply lousy feeling. The time thing seems a little more gentle. Better to write from boredom than from obligation, perhaps.

Setting time frame seems especially applicable during revisions, when a word count doesn't really make sense.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Is silence golden?

Insert usual excuses for not blogging here.


I have been wondering lately about this whole imperative to say stuff on the Internet as often as possible. Where does this very recent, overwhelmingly powerful requirement to write in public come from? I think it's safe to say it comes from corporations, whose need to draw "eyeballs" to advertisements intersects powerfully with 1) the human need for connection and attention generally, and 2) writers' need to write and be read specifically.


1) This is not necessarily bad. There's a real discipline to rapid, public writing--which is still evolving, and whose shaky tenets many, many people don't practice. But still, discipline is good. Learning to write both reasonably well and reasonably fast is good. And who will finance this sort-of-real/sort-of-fake form of publication for aspiring writers, if not the makers of dangerous diet pills and fly-by-night, for-profit colleges?

2) My ambivalence about the compulsion to write is neither a satisfactory excuse for not writing, nor an indication I intend to give up blogging, or tweeting, or anything else.

3) I'm just saying.

What am I saying? I'm saying that last week I had in mind a post about the Ronco Rhinestone and Stud Setter, which was inspired by a pair of jeans I'd just bought at a thrift shop. They are Michael Kors, very nice, $14, but until I brought them home I was not fully aware of the large amount of studs adorning the front and back pockets. Normally I'm not a fan of adornments on jeans; I'm sure these will make my life a living hell if I forget and wear them through an airport scanner or if I happen to amble past a giant magnet. Also, they reminded me of Barbara Stanwyck in The Thorn Birds, stomping around the ranch with her dentures and bowed legs. By which I mean, too much stuff on jeans is either for 1) very young people or 2) old people trying to look young. Neither of which I 1) am or 2) wish to be.

But then the Sikh temple shooting happened, on the heels of the Aurora shooting, and those are just the awful happenings I happened to be paying most attention to, thanks to the Internet. A breezy post about the Ronco Rhinestone and Stud Setter had to be out of the question for at least a period of time (how long? Is now OK?). But was I supposed to say something instead about the shootings? Does saying something mean you are automatically more concerned than if you say nothing? I started to feel like the better move was to say nothing. Or, rather, that speaking just for the sake of speaking was not helpful. I don't know what *is* helpful. But maybe the traditional "moment of silence" is more than just a mask for "let us pray," when you're not supposed to say that publicly. I'd like to think it also means: let us shut our traps for just a second. Let us pause. Let us not jump and react and flail our arms and demand attention. Perhaps only silence is as enormous as certain events, and speech is too small a thing in such circumstances.

So there. I said something about saying nothing. You're welcome, Internet.