Wednesday, April 23, 2014

How do you create an alternative world?

I've been reading Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam (the third installment of the trilogy), and marveling at how complete her post-apocalyptic world is--how thoroughly thought-out, how detailed, how true to its own internal logic. How the hell, I ask myself whenever I encounter such a world, does a writer accomplish this?

For Bigfoot and the Baby, I did end up creating a somewhat alternative world, mostly but not entirely like Southern California in the 80s. Apart from providing a sort-of habitat for a sort-of real Bigfoot, that world differs from ours by containing a domed city in the Mojave Desert. So I had to posit a technology to do that, though I don't explore the technology's plausibility in any great detail (it's not that kind of book). Other than that, I don't remember setting out to build an alternative world as such; it just sort of arose, over time, from the needs of the narrative.

I don't know if that's how Atwood proceeded. And I really don't know how, say, China Mieville created the far more alien world of Embassytown, or how any number of so-called "hard" science fiction writers do it. You probably have to know more than I do about ecosystems, architecture, ancient civilizations, high tech, low tech, organizational psychology, and everything else besides.

One strategy I've heard of, which I suspect came from the Poets and Writers writing prompts page, is to consider a world exactly like our own, except with one difference. That difference, I suppose, could be big or seemingly small--an entirely different government in the US, or people walking on four legs rather than two, or trees having black leaves instead of green. This difference becomes a seed that, as it grows and sends tendrils throughout your story, changes almost everything in subtle or enormous ways.

You could probably go really small-scale with this, too. Say, imagine the room you're in, with one thing different. My God, what if this very room were ... clean?

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

No Idea of Order at Key West

In my sudden zeal to relive the heady days as an undergraduate English major, I came across this relic in my Norton Anthology:

Here we see a long-ago incarnation of yours truly, taking notes on Wallace Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West," most likely in Intro to Poetry, circa 1985. It's clear from the flat, dutiful quality of these notes that I was recording my professor's statements as he walked us through the poem. That is to say, I had literally no idea what he, or Stevens, was talking about. The interpretation of the poem was as incomprehensible to me as the poem itself. Yes, this is auditory. Yes, this is conditional. This is spiritual language. So what? I didn't understand how any of these concepts elucidated the poem, or vice versa. Thanks in part to the New Critical practices my teachers were steeped in at the time, the whole discussion became an echo chamber of abstractions.

The final proof of how lost I was lies in the title of the next poem, "The Poems of Our Climate," where you see my younger self filling in the o's. Now, I was not normally one to engage in this activity. In fact, I recall thinking at various times in my youth that filling in o's and p's and e's in printed text was a sure sign of idiocy. Yet here I am, not only doing that very thing, but carefully shading the o's for a 3-D effect. I had completely thrown in the towel on Stevens.

Rereading the poem now, I find both more and less here than these notes suggest. I'm certainly less intimidated by it, and can sort of relate to it without being able to articulate exactly what it's "about." And that's probably because I simply have much more experience, with poetry and with life. Also I don't have to write a paper about this, which reduces the anxiety level considerably; but if I did have to write one, I would likely spend a lot more time on the poem's aesthetic qualities, and how they create an experience that doesn't necessarily represent anything beyond itself. That is, poetry happens within the poem. It is not always, or at least not solely, a pointer.

With this hindsight, it seems critical that anyone teaching such poems in high school and college remember how increasingly distant our young charges' experiences and concerns are from those of a middle-aged white poet in 1935. How might we bridge the gap?

I think we could start with the advice Dean Bakopoulos gives in this marvelous piece from the NYT. Before even beginning to wrestle with a story or poem's "meaning," whatever we're trying to get at with that, first let students select sentences or phrases or words that move them. They don't have to know why these words speak to them, only that they do on some level other than pure logic. They might like the words, in fact, because they're confusing. They present a new, unfamiliar experience.

After a while, you might begin to introduce some context, like Stevens's particular interests and concerns, and some general concerns of his time and place and class and culture. How is this individual mind interacting with external ideas and questions, as well as with physical places and experiences like hearing and seeing and feeling?

I frankly have little experience teaching poetry, and find more experimental pieces much harder to deal with than this one. But it does behoove us, when we teach, to try to put ourselves in our students' shoes, remembering how little we knew, back in the day, about the lives of those to whom this poem speaks more readily.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Empathy vs. justice for characters

I just finished reading Donna Tartt's first novel, The Secret History.* I found it almost insanely absorbing. The characters felt realistic and compellingly distinct.

Yet I did not care about them in the same way I care about, say, Ivan Karamazov or Oscar Wao. Yes, I cared what happened to them, but what I wanted to happen was comeuppance. While feeling some sympathy for their plight--which was entirely of their own making--I also wanted them to be caught or at least punished somehow. This seems rather different from the awkward situation of rooting for an anti-hero to get away with a crime, which can also be an interesting reading experience.

I'm not exactly sure how Tartt creates this sort of double-consciousness in the reader. I suspect it has to do with her precise attention to detail in every aspect of the story. We know quite clearly what the characters look like, which is often not the case in literary fiction. We understand the social milieu, its arcane hierarchies, its dangerous gray areas. We see, feel, and breathe the Vermont setting, the crushing winter and the hopeful--and then also, suddenly, crushing--advent of spring. These elements, rather than any aspect of the characters' (including the narrators') almost entirely self-serving behavior, draw us into the story. I really did feel, at every single moment, like I was there.

At the same time, I, at least, take some satisfaction in knowing--knowing--I would not fall into the particular trap the characters find themselves in. Often, fiction makes me wonder what I would do when faced with some extreme moral dilemma. Not in this case. These people are vivid and palpable, but they're really and truly not like me. Maybe it's just good old class resentment at work. I can't deny there's a certain pleasure in seeing fictional rich preppies and wannabes doing stupid, violent things to each other.

Several years ago I wrote a post about "altruistic punishment," which is the scholar William Flesch's term for a particularly satisfying plot formula. Readers, according to this theory, love seeing wrongdoers discover the error of their ways. They much prefer this outcome to virtue rewarded (sorry, Pamela). However, they also want justice meted out, well, judiciously. The punishment can't be too severe, or readers begin to feel sorry for the punishee. In fictional practice, this means "just" endings have to somehow feel a little ambiguous; a simple eye-for-an-eye won't do. I won't give away how, but Tartt mainly succeeds in striking this balance.

What's my point here? I suppose that we don't always have to empathize with characters in order to engage with them. We can stand very near them without actually stepping into their shoes. And we can care what happens to them by rooting against them rather than for them.

So this is just another permission slip to create unlikable characters. You have other, powerful mechanisms for engaging your reader.

*No, I haven't read The Goldfinch yet. I attribute this to two factors: 1) The Secret History, not The Goldfinch, was under the T's at my favorite used bookstore. 2) Frankly the plot of TSH appealed to me more than that of TG; at the time of purchase, I strongly wanted to read a story about preppie killers at a second-tier liberal arts college. In fact, I only wanted to read stories about preppie killers at second-tier liberal arts colleges. That desire more or less continues today. Any suggestions?

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

What does "write what you know" mean?

Glad to see the NYT Book Review taking on another workshop canard. Actually "workshop canard" is itself a canard. I've taken many workshops that never offered such formulaic advice, at least not uncritically. And both of these NYT pieces more or less lead to the conclusion that "know" is a tricky term. What does it mean to "know" something in the first place? How, and how well, must you "know" it in order to write about it? Zoe Heller puts the matter succinctly:

You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources.

Just because you have never been to outer space does not mean you cannot write about an astronaut--or an alien. Still, for a writer just starting out, the injunction to "write what you know" does seem to mean "mining your own life," and that can just about shut you down. It almost did me.
At least from an external point of view, and frequently enough from my own, my life seemed to be pretty boring. Writing about a girl or a woman who grows up in the suburbs, gets good grades, plays the flute, almost becomes a bowling champion but soon becomes too embarrassed to continue with this particular endeavor, goes to college, goes to grad school ... well, I, for one, couldn't find a hell of a lot of material in these events as events. (I did write a bowling story, though.)

But, as Mohsin Hamid explains:

It may be that the DNA of fiction is, like our own DNA, a double helix, a two-stranded beast. One strand is born of what writers have experienced. The other is born of what writers wish to experience, of the impulse to write in order to know.

I have similarly learned that it's the interaction of known and unknown experiences that makes characters and events believable. Like Hamid, I think some element of not knowing is central to creating a successful story. The act of stretching to make something you don't know into something you do forces you to consider viewpoints, details, and sensations you might otherwise overlook.

So, for example, I could put a nervous, overthinking type like myself into a situation I've never actually been in--say, on a moon colony. Now, I'll have to do some research to make that moon colony plausible, though I don't feel I have to understand every element of the ventilation system and what have you. What's more important is how someone like me would inhabit a place like that. Would I become obsessed with ventilation, and air, and is there air? what is air? why can't I see it? am I going to die in the next two seconds? I imagine so.

Or flip the terms: how would a person completely unlike me--or a talking dog or a lobster from Titan--live the life I've led thus far? Would the dog ignore taunts about bowling as a working-class non-sport and proudly lead his team to the Ohio state championship? How would the lobster handle literary event-planning? (Better than I did--that's one thing I know for sure.)