29 January 2011
I’m thinking about this because I’ve been reading and teaching stories by Flannery O’Connor. Her characters are so vivid and real, so particular and alive; but O’Connor does not much go in for psychologizing. We know who these characters are, but not so much WHY they are the way they are or how they got that way. We accept them as fact; she is that good at incarnating full human beings and staking out their territory of reality. A student observed that O’Connor clearly knew their psychology inside and out, which is how she is able to render them so well, via their externalities. This, I think, is a kind of argument for “write what you know,” i.e. write the characters you know inside and out, intuitively, so that the external details you select to characterize them will inevitably (one hopes) evoke both the present and the past of that character.
O’Connor’s characters are also no doubt creatures of the South, of a particular era. Those of us working in a more heterogeneous, multi-cultural, multi-geographical universe perhaps are required to consider more these questions of back story, of childhood experience, of what brings adult character A to situation or conflict X – that psycho-experiential map.
A colleague spoke the other day (during a thesis conference) about the coming-of-age genre, how that genre’s power is in giving the reader a compact story, the most formative experiences from ages x to xx; and then leaving us at that juncture, at the precipice, before the character transitions into adulthood. The emotional impact is in the projection and the resonance; the reader feels how these experiences may shape the character’s adult journey, we have a sense of knowing what paths the adult life will take – tragic, hopeful, what have you.
I don’t know. Psychology is in many ways the enemy of art and literature; it claims predictability, a+b=c. And yet we are all so profoundly shaped by both the language and conceptions of modern psychology, developmental narratives, etc. I myself often query students to consider what has shaped their character in his or her past, WHY is he or she like this? I recognize the danger of it, the too-easy map from A to B; the draining of mystery, or, as O’Connor would put it, “the mystery of personality.” But on the other hand there is the question of coherence, of writing characters who behave in credible ways, who feel human by virtue of the ways in which they process and absorb experience.
But people are strange. This perhaps is the truth underlying all truths about human behavior; experience certainly confirms it.
20 January 2011
I love this feature from Boldtype about literary mentorships. I wish it was more common practice, what with the proliferation of writing programs, for experienced writers to take younger writers under their wing in a significant way. Certainly it happens, but not as frequently as one might hope.
There is “teaching,” and a lot of that happens; mentoring is something different. How does one live and sustain one’s life as a writer? Mentoring is necessarily long-term and blurs the professional and the personal, recognizing that, for a writer, they are really one. I suppose I’ve answered my own question about why mentoring doesn’t happen that often; it’s a serious commitment, a deep relationship – something that must happen organically, not systematically. Not unlike falling in love.
18 January 2010
I thought this Q&A was rather funny, and unexpected, from Jane Smiley (via Gotham Writers’ Workshop):
Q. What is your best method for overcoming writers block?
A. Learning something–either by reading a book or going somewhere or talking or gossiping.
I love the gossipping part! If gossipping can be creatively productive, there’s hope for us all.
Q. What is your favorite or most helpful writing prompt?
A: I always get into the hot tub and read a bit of a novel before I start the day’s work. If I feel reluctant, I reflect on the bills I have to pay. If I feel really reluctant, I time myself and say that I only have to work for an hour.
Lying in the tub and thinking about financial obligations. I love the ironic contradiction of that.
Q. What is the most valuable advice you received as a young writer?
A: Leonard Michaels told me that I had to change my name from my married name (Jane Whiston) to my maiden name (Jane Smiley) because JS was easier to remember and had more personality. I think he was right. My piece of naming advice would be that if your name is Kevin, you need to use another pen name, because the first name Kevin always seems to overwhelm its last name, and so no one can remember which Kevin you are, and therefore cannot find your books on Amazon.
I am only half joking.
This makes me laugh out loud, and then cry a little.
9 January 2011
A nice mention from a public library’s Best of Fiction list. This is the kind of thing that makes me feel like, Ok – it wasn’t a dream. I did actually publish a book in 2010. (If this sounds incredibly solipsistic, do forgive me; but with all the awards and “Best of” lists that come out at the end of the year, you don’t even realize how it’s affecting you until something like this reveals it to you.)
Northbrook Public Library’s Best of Fiction 2010
Sarah Blake, The Postmistress.
In 1940, an American woman’s radio reports on the Blitz are heard back home by the wife of a doctor who goes to war and a Cape Cod postmistress who makes a fateful decision about a letter in her care.
Chris Bohjalian, Secrets of Eden.
A minister has a crisis of faith after a parishioner he baptized is found dead with her husband in an apparent murder-suicide.
Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America.
A French nobleman whose parents survived the French Revolution is sent for his safety to America accompanied by an English servant.
Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures.
In 19th century England, a girl whose talent for discovering fossils makes her the target of gossip and suspicion is befriended by a like-minded London woman.
Sonya Chung, Long for This World.
Over 50 years after he emigrated to America, a man returns to Korea followed by his daughter—a war photographer recovering from injuries.
Jonathan Dee, The Privileges.
A couple marry straight out of college and ruthlessly pursue the life of privilege to which they feel entitled.
Anthony Doerr, The Memory Wall.
A collection of short stories focusing on the persistence and loss of memory.
Emma Donoghue, Room.
A 5-year-old boy has spent his entire life in a room where his mother is being held captive by a man who kidnapped her, but one day she tells her son it’s time to escape.
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad.
The past, present and futures lives of a former punk rocker turned record executive and his assistant.
Anne Fortier, Juliet.
An American travels to Siena in search of her Italian heritage and discovers she is descended from the woman who inspired the story of Romeo and Juliet.
Julia Franck, The Blindness of the Heart.
At the end of the war in Germany, a woman abandons her 7-year-old son in a train station.
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom.
A liberal couple with a seemingly idyllic marriage find their lives falling apart as their son gets involved with conservative neighbors, the wife’s behavior becomes erratic, and the husband’s environmental values are compromised in his quest to save an endangered bird.
Julia Glass, The Widower’s Tale.
A recently retired widower finds his routines disrupted after he agrees to lease his barn to a preschool.
Allegra Goodman, The Cookbook Collector.
Two sisters—one the successful CEO of a computer company, the other an environmental activist working in a bookstore—begin to question what’s important to them.
Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule.
A trainer attempts a horse racing scam at a small, backwoods track in West Virginia, but nothing goes according to plan. National Book Award winner.
David Grossman, To the End of the Land.
Fearing bad news about her son in the Israeli army, a woman goes on a hike in Galilee with a former lover who became a recluse after the Yom Kippur war.
Lisa Grunwald, The Irresistible Henry House.
An orphan who was raised by a series of women as a “practice baby” in a college home economics program grows up learning how to please women while remaining detached from them.
Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question.
A British gentile who envies his Jewish friend has an identity crisis after he’s attacked by a mugger whom he thinks mistook him for a Jew. Booker Prize winner.
Daphne Kalotay, Russian Winter.
As she prepares to auction her jewelry, an elderly woman recalls her past as a star of the Bolshoi Ballet.
Lily King, Father of the Rain.
After her parents separate, a girl watches her alcoholic father’s behavior become increasingly erratic.
Nicole Krauss, Great House.
The stories of four people are connected by a desk that was looted from the home of a Jewish man in Budapest during World War II.
Jean Kwok, Girl in Translation.
A girl who emigrates with her mother from Hong Kong to Brooklyn must work in a Chinatown sweatshop at night while trying to excel at school during the day.
Chang-Rae Lee, The Surrendered.
During the Korean War, an American GI brings a refugee girl to an orphanage where they are both drawn to a troubled minister’s wife.
Andrea Levy, The Long Song.
A Jamaican slave is taken into the manor house by her mistress and lives through the slave revolt.
Sam Lipsyte, The Ask.
A man is fired from his job finding donors for a university arts program but is rehired at the behest of a wealthy former classmate—with strings attached.
Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn.
A company of Marines in the Vietnam jungle face the enemy and the elements as well as racial tension, competing ambitions, and duplicitous officers.
Leila Meacham, Roses.
A multigenerational family saga centered on a woman who is determined to run her family’s Texas cotton plantation despite the personal cost to herself.
Maaza Mengiste, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.
A doctor and his family are caught in the turmoil of the 1970s civil war in Ethiopia.
David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
In 1799, a Dutchman comes to an island off the coast of Japan to uncover fraud at the Dutch East Indies outpost and falls in love with a Japanese midwife.
Kate Morton, The Distant Hours.
When a long-lost letter arrives 50 years late, a woman unravels the secret past of her mother, who was evacuated during the Blitz to a castle where three sisters lived with their father—a famous children’s book author.
Paul Murray, Skippy Dies.
When 14-year-old Skippy ends up dead on the floor of a donut shop, various students and teachers from his elite Dublin boarding school may have played a role.
David Nicholls, One Day.
A man and woman who met on the day they graduated from college go about their separate lives but maintain a connection to each other.
Howard Norman, What Is Left the Daughter.
During World War II, an young man orphaned by his parents’ suicides falls in love with a girl who’s involved with a German student.
Maggie O’Farrell, The Hand That First Held Mine.
The parallel stories of a journalist in 1950s London who became an unwed mother and a modern-day couple traumatized by a difficult childbirth.
Julie Orringer, The Invisible Bridge.
In 1937, three Hungarian Jewish brothers embark on separate paths, but their lives change as World War II begins.
Tom Rachman, The Imperfectionists.
The staff of an English-language newspaper in Rome deal with personal dramas while trying to keep the paper operational.
Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story.
In a near-future dystopian America, a middle-aged man yearns for a reluctant younger woman.
Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.
In a small English village, a widowed army major forms a friendship with a Pakistani widow who runs the local shop.
Tatjana Soli, The Lotus Eaters.
After her brother is killed in the Vietnam War, a woman goes to Saigon to work as a photojournalist.
Brady Udall, The Lonely Polygamist.
A man with four wives, twenty-eight children and a failing construction business has a midlife crisis.
Isabel Wolff, A Vintage Affair.
A woman leaves her job at Sotheby’s to open a vintage clothes shop and befriends an elderly Frenchwoman who’s reluctant to part with an old child’s coat.
5 January 2010
“All being finished means is that you haven’t started yet.” —Aaron Sorkin
I have 335 pages of something. It has characters, setting, plot, thematic ideas, a beginning, middle, and end. Which is to say I am finished; which is to say I haven’t started yet. Novel is labor: it’s not all play, but neither is it all toil.
I haven’t told the story I want to tell, nor in the way it needs to be told. Now the real labor begins. Exhibit A: rough storyboarding, and a character map. I use stickies, because that’s how fluid it needs to be. (Pax is there for good cheer and good luck.)
Notice Don Delillo‘s Underworld in the foreground. Structurally, and in other ways, it’s an influence, and I’m re-studying it. If you’ve read it, or any of Delillo, you know we’re talking about a complex, heady work. I wrote in my journal today: If it’s not complex, and a little impossible, then why write it? Over the years, I’ve sometimes gotten the feedback that I’m “taking on too much.” So I might have written: If it’s not too much, then why write it?
If there was room in the frame, you’d also see that I’m back to hand writing on legal pads.
All being finished means is that you haven’t started yet.
1 January 2011
Happy 2011 to all. We’ve started off our year with a fever in the house, which is unfortunate (poor J.); but at least we’ll get it out of the way, right? As for me, I am all about the Vitamin C and the Airborne.
I have actually been writing, but not fiction. I am working on a profile of James Salter, with whom I spent a day in Bridgehampton a few weeks ago. The piece is taking shape, it’s a new and interesting genre for me. I think Larissa MacFarquhar‘s work sets the gold standard for artist profiles, and I’ve been re-reading some of hers at the New Yorker.
In other not-writing activities, the holidays have driven me to movies. First, an animated set – The Iron Giant, and Up – both of which made me blubber like a girly girl. Then, some classics — I seem to be on a Burt Lancaster kick — From Here to Eternity (I swoon for Monty Clift, his sexual preferences notwithstanding, what can I say; and they just don’t make ’em – leading ladies, that is – like Deborah Kerr anymore), The Swimmer, The Leopard – which features Alain Delon, who is maybe the French Monty Clift? Maybe not. (This one I’m going to catch on the big screen at Film Forum. Anyone? Anyone?) Also: Chicago, which I’d never seen, which led to All That Jazz, also which I’d never seen. And The Third Man, which wasn’t as good as I remember it. I declined to join J. for Sofia Coppola’s newest, Somewhere, which seemed both too mopey and too blonde (nothing specific against mopers or blondes) for my mood; he enjoyed it, however. In the queue: Gilda, Bright Star, Jude, and Le Corbeau.
Christmas eve boeuf bourguignon turned out great, by the way.
Forgot to snap a pic of this morning’s dduk-gook (Korean New Year’s soup) and pa-jun brunch, but it was perfect for both the start of the new year and for the sicky in the house. Pax got a special fatty brisket treat.