Friday, August 28, 2015

All You Have to Do Is Click Your Beak Together Three Times

This week I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was a true phenomenon when it came out in 1970, but I've talked to some friends about it and I'm quite surprised how few of them know the book. To me it's almost a culmination of the national attitudes in the air between 1965 and 1975, a Free to Be...You and Me nominally for grownups, but it seems to have vanished from cultural memory.

In my opinion, this is A-OK, because Jonathan Livingston Seagull is an extremely silly book. I'm being dismissive, and (without walking that opinion back) I apologize, because I'm genuinely glad that so many people found solace in it during the early 70s. But if they needed self-actualization lessons in the form of seagulls who want to fly for the pleasure of it, maybe they should have tried yoga instead. Just a thought.

The book preaches that freedom (and evidently the ability to teleport?) is within us all the time, and we don't need to go looking for it. It's also quite short. I read it in probably half an hour, and you could too, if you want to understand a bit about the pre-Watergate years in this country. I am endlessly fascinated by the way America moved and thought and danced and wept and consumed during the twentieth century, so I'm not a bit sorry I read it, but I wouldn't necessarily say it was a book to change your life if you're a resident of the twenty-first.

Apparently we got a halfway decent Neil Diamond album out of it,

I also read Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino, which was far better. I'm two for three on Calvino now, but the ones I've liked I wish I'd written. I do not wish I'd written JLS, but I sort of wish I could capture a cultural mood like that book did, if only to enjoy building a house in Bermuda with the proceeds.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Missing Scenes

Over the weekend, I wrote a scene between two characters, a revelation scene, that I intended to be the centerpiece of the second-to-last chapter of the secret project. As I'm nearing the end, I feel the need to tell all the secrets I've been keeping for ten chapters, hence these revelations.

I was dissatisfied with what I'd written. In an intense but vague way. It was like indigestion - an unease in the gut, something not sitting right as it works its way through your plumbing.

I compared the scene with an earlier dialogue scene with which I'm far more satisfied. The differences were myriad: ages of the characters, positions of power held by each, what was at stake for each, relation between them, content of the discussion, I could go on and on. The scenes had very little in common. Mostly, though, one was good and one was not. I kept poking at them with sticks until I figured out why.

These are notes Virginia Woolf wrote and drew for her novel To the Lighthouse.

I got this from the fascinating website Woolf Online, which has a huge cache of archival materials about To the Lighthouse - original notebooks that have been both scanned and transcribed, page proofs corrected by Woolf, letters written to and from her about the novel, etc. Check it out.
If you can't read the above, it says "All character - not a view of the world. Two blocks joined by a corridor."

The novel is divided into three sections. The first and third take place over short periods of time, a day or so, but explore in enormous depth what is going on inside and between the characters. Each of these days is of no special consequence to any of the characters - not the day everything changed for them, not the day they learned what it is to be a woman, etc. Just a fairly regular day. The middle section, "Time Passes," takes place over a much longer period of time, 10 or 15 years, I think, but it's only 17 pages long in my edition, and that's because Woolf doesn't go very deep on anything during that time. She instead summarizes with remarkable brevity the major events that occur over that span: births, deaths, marriages, World War I. In between she describes the gradual decay of a summer house et al.

She's up to a lot of different things in "Time Passes," a lot, but I think I figured out one of the reasons she structured the book this way. As readers, we learn a lot more about the characters, and are ironically a great deal less bored, by the little stuff, the days of no consequence that pass in a family life, than we are by the big turning-point moments that matter so much to a character's makeup.

Reading scenes of large, important emotional events is not terribly interesting at this point in literary history. Most people react to a revelation with surprise. They react to loss with grief. They react to danger with fear, and potentially with bravery or cowardice. These reactions do not take imagination to write, nor do the scenes themselves. Twenty-first century audiences have seen and read these scenes everywhere, in old books and movies and in bad TV. Contemporary literature does not need me to write a scene where a woman tells a girl that she has to sacrifice herself to save her best friend; in itself, this situation may not be cliched, but the things that the woman and the girl say to each other during this scene absolutely are. I was bored writing it, which means people will be very bored reading it.

This scene is a key point of drama for certain of the characters in my book, so it has to exist. But the question I began to ask myself as I was thinking about To the Lighthouse, the $64,000 question that may lead to much, much, much better writing: does it have to exist in the book?

Infinite Jest had missing scenes like this, moments the characters kept thinking about or referring to but which were not included in full scene form in the novel. Some of them I kept waiting to read, because I presumed all things of import would be included in an 1,100-page novel, but they never appeared. And I think it's because those scenes were fairly easy for the reader to imagine for herself and would have been uninteresting for Wallace to write.

Woolf, too, decided to dispense with the big stuff in mere phrases and parentheses, and stuck with the little stuff for the main body of the novel. She knew what we already knew about the world, and she knew what she could show us afresh.

What is included and what is not included - but not left out. Discretion that jazz musicians must understand before they can really play. Choices that true craftsmen of short stories comprehend. Judgment that I suspect can be the codex for making a novel that's a work of art, rather than a novel that's merely good to read.

Events in fiction don't have to happen more than once to be what a professor of mine terms "repeated events", which "occur once, but are narrated multiple times throughout the story." Hamlet refers to his father's murder over and over and over and OVER again. Stephen Dedalus's mother's death haunts several chapters of Ulysses (usually with the very same sentences). It's the same little scratch on the roof of your mouth that your tongue keeps returning to, unbidden, but it has a different sensation on day one than it has on day four. The same death, but different reactions, depending on Stephen's surrounding company and the strength of Hamlet's metaphorical sword arm.

So even though this revelatory conversation has to occur, has to keep being considered by the characters, I don't necessarily have to write the conversation into the book. The characters know it exists, and readers of the characters therefore cannot miss its existence. What exact words passed between the characters in that room on that day is not of much importance, because the reader can imagine them and possibly a great deal more than I could put in her head directly.

How useful this is! What I can put in place of these scenes are scenes that have not been read and seen hundreds of times by a postmillennial audience. Matt said this sounded like an interesting challenge, alluding to a crucial moment well enough for the reader to imagine it rather than just writing it, and I agree. But, for once, such a challenge fills me with happy anticipation instead of terror. Even though it will be hard, I'm not stuck writing boring scenes I don't want to write. And it's all hard, anyway. No writer gets a pass on hard.

Friday, August 21, 2015


Something I learned for the 18,467th time on Wednesday: even if you're pretty sure that the beginning of the story is going to be junk, and hence you really shouldn't bother to write anything down until you have a good beginning in mind, you are wrong. About the second part. Even if it turns out to in fact be junk, junk on the paper feels superlatively better than not writing anything at all.

Hi, my name is Katharine and I'm a recovering perfectionist. See you next week, everybody.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Need She Be Thirsty?

Disclaimer: I am going to talk about contemporary novels I did not like in this post. I'm genuinely sorry to call out living writers this way, especially writers who are not rich and famous and bulletproof.


If you so much as dip your toe in the vast pool of Writerly Advice, chances are that certain items will stick to your skin. Famed writers have had their advice distilled into short lists that appear over and over again on inspirational websites and in books. Not all of them are useful for all writers; Henry Miller's enables bad habits that keep me from writing, Neil Gaiman's is lovely but unhelpful for the stage I'm at now, Elmore Leonard's is as pleasurable and katana-sharp as his prose but a little too specific and definite for my taste (though #10 is one of the greatest pieces of advice ever).

The list that has settled into being a good guide for me is Kurt Vonnegut's. I'm pretty sure I've quoted this list here before, but I can't remember when, so perhaps it'll be new to you.
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things - reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them - in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.

My writing became a lot tighter when I started obeying rules #4 and 5, more satisfying with rule #6, and more focused and confident with #7. #8 and I don't agree yet, but maybe I'll grow into it.

Today I want to talk about #3. Something occurred to me while I was running yesterday morning about rule #3.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Instinct with Handrails

Last week I was on vacation, and I made a sincere attempt to go "screen-free". I didn't watch any television, or use the iPad to watch movies, or look at Facebook, or type anything on a laptop, or send any emails. I did look at my emails - the single one I hoped for didn't arrive, but I got six from Facebook in four days (six!), reminding me of all the cool stuff I was missing by not logging in. With one exception, all the others (25+) were not-really-needed notifications or junk.

But I'm not here to write about the meaning of that little experiment. I'm here because the main things I did on vacation, in place of my usual screen-focused activities, were 1) read Proust and 2) write. Volume II of Remembrance of Things Past is just as all-encompassing and gorgeous and tedious and witty and self-indulgent and YESTHISFOREVERPLEASE as Volume I.* School starts in just about two weeks, so I don't know if I'll finish it before then, but I'll make room thereafter if need be. I tried to find the best blog post from last summer that talked about the experience of reading the first volume, and found that everything old is new again; last summer I started it on vacation and hadn't finished before school started. Ol' Repetitive, that's what they call me.**

Anyway, I took intermittent breaks from Proust to read David Shields's How Literature Saved My Life. Though I've owned and wanted to read Reality Hunger for some time now, I'm glad I started where I did. It was just the right book to slingshot me back and forth (yelping in joy) between the early years of the twenty-first and twentieth centuries. The writing I'm doing is in some ways positioned closer to Proust than Shields, but the collagist sensibility of Shields is exactly where I want to live, creatively. So the work proceeded apace.

I've now told two people what the secret project is, and both were very interested, so I'm a little reassured about the idea. I'm on the ninth pie piece, of twelve, but I know already that there will be lots of rewriting, lots of wholesale throwing into the fire and starting over. What I'm doing now isn't quite down to placeholding, but it has the distinct sensation of impermanence about it - Play-Doh instead of real fireable clay. I needed to write all these thousands of words to get to where I am now, which is: everything starting to hang together, a better understanding of the characters and their conflicts, an utter exhilaration at how ideas are sprouting out of the earth of the draft. I had no idea that I was writing about at least two of the themes that are at the very core of my life and work, but poof, up they came, like onion sprouts in the pantry. So I'm writing in that direction, vaguely, tottering, half-blindfolded, hoping that the work will lead me as ably as it has so far.

I'm sure this method, drafting first before theme enters into it, contradicts questioning and assertion that I've done right here on this very blog, because I resisted the idea really strongly when it came through Pam Houston to me in 2013 - that putting theme first makes for crappy writing, and you should let the sentences lead you to theme instead. Maybe other projects won't work this way. But this project is evidently going prose first, whittling second, themes third, rewriting fourth, and after that I have no idea.

I mean, what am I doing? Is this a quantum leap in my work or just a muddle that no one will like except me? I'm pretty sure it's teaching me a great deal (and what else is there?), but it's so different that I'm nigh consumed with what even is this?!? It's like writing was when I was in high school and knew thimbles about it: instinctual. Yes, that, but now with handrails. I think of Mary Gaitskill and the fucking power in her sentences, of Joanna Newsom and the bizarro brilliant songs she makes, of Lidia Yuknavitch and the library full of rules she breaks when she uncaps her pen, of Kate Bush and how she allows others' ideas to swim peaceably into her own. These are artists I couldn't call on when I was a teenager. Plus, to no small effect, there's the writer's toolbox I've equipped over the past decade via enormous expense and personal irresponsibility. Somehow all that makes a line to grasp when I write into that weird dark room where I spent so much time last week.

As ever, iunno.

The picture at the top of this post, in case you were curious, is of a Last Straw. On Friday night I closed the lid of my time-worn spillproof travel mug, which contained a little leftover tea from the prior Sunday, and dropped it in my carry-on bag to schlep upstairs with the rest of our luggage, and IT SPILLED FIVE-DAY-OLD TEA ALL OVER MY PROUST AND MY DRAFTING NOTEBOOK, and so I am throwing it away. It is a rather elderly travel mug, in travel-mug years, and I'm kind of sick of looking at it and didn't ever love its appearance much anyway, so after this appalling insult, in the trash it goes. Shallow as I am, I hate reading water-damaged books (I still remember which Beezus & Ramona book I dipped in the bath as a girl and had to read with an accompanying crinkling noise ever after, grrrrrrrrr), so I ordered a new Volume II from Amazon, a total waste of $16 but HONESTLY, TRAVEL MUG, YOU HAD ONE JOB. The stains are kind of distinguished on the drafting notebook, but I'm still very disgruntled. At best, it made for an interesting picture, and a nice visual overview of the post, thematically.

See? Writing into the theme. Pam Houston knows what the hell she's talking about, folks.

*I have the silver Vintage paperback editions, which are bound in three volumes: Swann's Way and Within a Budding Grove in the first volume, The Guermantes Way and Cities of the Plain in the second volume, and The Captive, The Fugitive, and Time Regained in the third volume. These seven "individual novels" (which they aren't) were split into eight volumes, rather weirdly, when À la recherche de temps perdu was originally published, and have been published in many different ways under various English titles in the intervening century. To say that I'm working on "the second volume" is extremely confusing in conversation, but I know I sound pretentious when I talk about reading Proust anyway, so whatever.

**No one calls me that.