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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