Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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The Authentic Illusion

Everything is illusion, the Buddhists tell us – our lives and loves, our fears and troubles, the very earth and air and we ourselves. None of this is real. This concept is intended to help us let go of our attachment to longing, hunger, desire. But to fiction writers, it is almost a validation of our work. If everything is illusion, then the fictional world has as much significance as any.

Maya
Think of the word “fiction” – something feigned, invented, a made up tale. And yet, in fiction we often discover and express the most profound human truths.

Fiction functions to create its own reality and, through it, to reflect on mankind’s foibles and trials, and to touch the human heart. There is power in this experience for both writer and reader. There is also freedom, sometimes learning, and often pleasure. Some novels are entertainments – escapes. We enjoy stepping out of one illusion into another, and for those brief, shining hours, we exist within them completely.

What does this say about the nature of reality, so easily created, so easily left behind? If anything, fiction serves to confirm the illusion of maya, as it’s called – as insubstantial and yet convincing as life itself.

In a recent conversation between Jeffrey Eugenides and Colm Toibin published in The New York Times, Jeffrey Eugenides said, “There is something about reality, and especially about human consciousness, that can be accurately described and the novel is the best way to do it.” Toibin added to the discussion, “The essential impulse [to write] is to rehaunt your own house, or to allow what haunts you to have a voice, to chart what is deeply private and etched on the soul, and find form and structure for it.”

In the illusion that is life (“real” life), there is rarely form or structure. Life comes to us randomly and it is up to us to make sense of it in whatever way we can. Only in the distilled, premeditated fabrication we call the novel can we cut away the tangles, straighten life’s many nubbly threads and look at our illusion from a tenuous (and somewhat safer) distance.

That distance doesn’t promise perfect clarity. It offers the same challenge as middle-aged eyes. If we hold the paper a little far, a little close, somewhere in between, we will see and understand what was there all along, that we couldn’t quite make out before.

This is one of the the great challenges of fiction – both reading and, more importantly, writing it. Well-wrought fiction should not be wooden, predictable or definite, even though we’ve learned to trust that good fiction should, in the end, make sense, more or less. As writers, it is our obligation to give the reader that sense of inevitability, as we emphasize themes and craft motivations for our characters, consistencies of purpose that in “reality” are rare, but in novel writing are inherent and essential.

We wish our own lives could seem this way. On our deathbeds, perhaps we imagine that it will all make sense. Or perhaps this is clinging too much to samsara, the Buddhist term for the eternal state of suffering. In good fiction, we treasure ambiguity, complexity and a sense of “chance” that the story may not go the way we expect or the way we want it to. This reflection of “reality” makes fiction all the more believable, and therefore relate-able – all the more authentically approximating the uncertainties of life itself.

Whether we are creating it or experiencing it, our fiction becomes our reality. Any writer will tell you that, when we are deep within our work, real life and real time completely fade. We are operating on a different plane, literally smelling, tasting and feeling our created world. Our characters become living, breathing people. They wake us up at night with something they just have to tell us. And yet, they only exist in our minds.

“You’re alone in a room with the stuff that won’t go away,” said Eugenides. As writers, we experience that stuff – those memories of the past, those concepts and characters – like whispers in the dark. They are as real to us as the life we wake up to each morning, so powerful that we fixate on them until we become possessed, obsessed enough to finally sit down at our keyboard or with a pen and try to make this other level of illusion real.

The job of the fiction writer is to create a completely believable illusion. And, if we work hard enough, if we’re really lucky, someone else just might one day find our words and choose to enter our illusive world.

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Huh…? vs. Hmmm…

We writers love the mystery of a story’s unfolding. Half the time, honestly, we’re not quite sure where it’s going ourselves. Isn’t that part of the fun – the exploration and discovery? And isn’t that the same amazing journey we want to share with our readers?

In our attempts to invite readers into the adventure, we strive for thoroughness, complexity, grace and subtlety. But our efforts, however earnest, can sometimes leave our readers overwhelmed or confused.

Don't wake me from the fictional dream.

Don't wake me from the fictional dream.


The Data Dump
Beginning writers often feel compelled to get everything down all at once. I call it a data dump, and it’s a natural tendency. We get so filled with our vision. It’s glorious and we want to share it all. We’ve thought long and hard about our characters and their circumstances. So we write it all out furiously and are only satisfied when everything’s on the page–until we go back and realize that it’s an unsightly mass of thoughts with no tension, no nuance. Everything is just laid out – splat! – without any shape or form.

Historical novelists (and others who rely heavily on research) are particularly prone to the data dump disease, as Michelle and I discussed at our panel last Sunday at BooksNJ 2011. We tend to fall in love with every measly, obscure detail and get so caught up that we forget that most readers don’t want to know how many lice were in the midden pit in a particular chieftain’s homestead in 10th century Greenland. (Yes, I once could have quoted you exact counts, back when I was working on The Thrall’s Tale!)

No novelist wants to offer up for mass consumption a poorly masked treatise. A certain perspective is required to decide how much to give, how much to hold back, and how to layer in just the right details to give the flavor to our thoroughly researched work without making it too rich to swallow. A fiction writer’s first concern must always be characters and conflict, rich emotions and lives that are made, transformed, destroyed…. Truly, don’t we all want to be swept away?

Don’t Hold Back
The next writerly menace is to hold back too much. This is where our readers are likely to say, “Huh…?” Perhaps our character is a speechless orphan who wanders the city streets holding out his hand. Since he cannot communicate, we never know what happened to him. Still we follow because he’s fascinating, sympathetic, forlorn. We are dying for our readers to comprehend his true depth and sorrows, but we give them only in hints and grunts, heart-wrenching looks and shuffling feet. See, dear reader, those huge, hungry eyes?

By trying to be subtle, we often end up being obscure. We neglect to take advantage of opportunities to slip in tidbits of back-story, a flashback or two of the past, or something said by a passerby who can shed a little light. If we don’t give something, our readers will eventually lose interest in our carefully crafted prose. They’ll be left saying, “Huh…?” instead of “Hmmmm….” and leave us behind.

Missing Bits
Even when you don’t fall victim to either of the above extremes, there are always little things that we authors understand implicitly but that our readers are completely unaware of. It’s not their fault. They’re trusting us to tell them what they need to know. We might drop hints that are too veiled for their own good, or forget to follow up a critical off-hand comment with proper reinforcement. All of these are cases when our readers are likely to say, “Huh…?” not “Hmmmm…”

Any time we leave our readers confused, we take them out of what John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous fictional dream.” In his classic, The Art of Fiction, Gardner goes on: “In bad or unsatisfying fiction, this fictional dream is interrupted by some mistake or conscious ploy on the part of the artist. We are abruptly snapped out of the dream, forced to think of the writer or writing.”

We never want to draw our readers’ attention out of the book and we never want to draw attention to ourselves. The minute they say, “Huh…?” we’ve lost them. But a subtle or direct hint, an emotionally charged accusation, a dirty look or a crumpled photograph in the orphan’s pocket might reveal the character’s inner workings. It would leave the reader wanting to know more, and then, if we’ve done our job well, they’ll read on.

So how do you achieve the perfect balance between dump and hold? Think of sand through the small cracks between your fingers. You need to drop just enough, but not let the whole thing fall. One writer friend calls it “seeding”; another “tucking”; I often think of it as “layering” or “brush-stroking”. But one way or another, you drop in the details so discreetly that your readers hardly notice as they take it all in, organically understanding the terms and stakes, the characters and their interior complexities, the painful past and foreshadowed fate. We lay the groundwork and then carefully nurture it by giving our readers subtle reminders and more hints, building a stronger picture for them bit by bit until the moment when our story finally comes to full bloom, when everything will come together with the sense of random inevitability. We are swept away and returned. At last, the truth is revealed.


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Grace in Few Words

The Writers Circle has been graced with the voices of several poets this session, some who declared themselves as such and others who have, unintentionally or out of sheer desperation, stumbled into this most challenging realm of brevity, nuance and meaning.

It’s a miraculous thing to be able to distill words to their most compact and powerful. I’ve toyed with poetry for years and have rarely succeeded. I seem to prefer to wallow in the luxury of prose, all those words with which to play, expound, expand, express. See, I use far too many!

But poetry’s spareness packs a wallop. In a few magnificently chosen phrases, the entire sweep of life or a single moment can be intimately shared. I’ve always been amazed when I’ve reached a good poem’s finish, feeling that visceral pressure in my heart as I take in its meaning, usually going back to read it ever more carefully, again and again.

April is National Poetry Month and there are plenty of venues for celebration.

From The Academy of American Poets come 30 Ways to Celebrate, from taking a poem to work or out to lunch to writing one on the pavement. (Must do that with the kids!)

In New York City, the Pen American Center is holding its 7th Annual World Voices Festival from April 25-May 1, featuring great writers of all ilks, including poets, from around the world.

The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, host of possibly the best poetry festival ever (held right here in New Jersey!), is posting daily videos from the 2010 festival at NJPAC.

Similarly, The New York Review of Books is posting a daily poem from their awe-inspiring archive.

Check out all of these offerings. If you know others, please share them with us in the comments below.

Most of all, I challenge each of you to take a moment out of your April and write a poem. Whether you have never tried it before, do so every day or every once in a while, the effort will transform you.


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The Writer’s Journey

My son pulled a book from the bookstore shelf the other day that he thought might be good for my writing students: The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.

It is written for screenwriters (which I’m not – at least not so far), so I’d never noticed it before. But I was immediately drawn to the hedge labyrinth on the cover for its symmetry and symbolism, recalling my days at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine and my early search for my writer’s voice. It all began with the exploration of myth.

I hadn’t thought of it in a while. I had long ago learned how to create a story without a distinct, preordained template, but as I paged through the book, I saw that it turned on the theme of some of my earliest writings: The Hero’s Journey.

I’m probably showing my age here, but I remember distinctly when the freedom and daring to write a long, plotted novel came to me. It was while watching Bill Moyers’ fantastic conversations with Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”, on PBS.

In that series of insightful interviews, Campbell embellished on the classic structure of the heroic “monomyth“: the hero’s call to adventure that takes him out of the ordinary world; his descent into darkness, enduring terrible trials and ordeals; and his eventual return, usually older or almost certainly wiser.

It was such a strong and obvious journey – one I knew I could follow. And I did. My first novel was based on it; and in some ways perhaps all that has followed has fit some version of that mold.

It brought to mind a saying that there are only three basic plots, but infinite variations. I looked it up online and found infinite variations on the saying itself, and exponential granularity in the distinct central themes of those supposedly limited plots.

It made me think of a fractal, which is a geometrical structure that expresses itself with ever increasing complexity, creating endless and fascinating variations. They are everywhere in nature: in microscopic strands of DNA, in the unfurling of a fern, in the staggering structure of a giant redwood tree, in the jagged contours of the Himalayas.

Can it be that our play with words is part of that same unfolding magnificence? Are we simply following the natural path set out for us, but taking our own route? Each step and story leads us farther on our own writer’s journey, which can be heroic indeed.

I have no doubt that there’s much to be learned from Christopher Vogler’s “The Writers Journey”. Though I haven’t read it yet, it’s been added to my towering, ever more precarious pile.


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Peeling the Onion

In his insightful essay, Found in Translation from last Sunday’s New York Times, author Michael Cunningham peels the many-layered onion of the authorial relationship.

His initial premise is translation, which one immediately assumes means language to language. And it does. Every book is re-formed into something completely new when it is translated, effected by the subtle shifts of meaning and even comprehension that come from refocusing through a different cultural lens.
Peeling the onion
But the layers of translation go deeper than that. Cunningham points to the truth that all of us are writing works in translation – that our conception can never be wrought in concrete form without undergoing a kind of transformation. It is never pure, never precisely what we’d original felt or witnessed in that perfect vision that lives in our minds. Writers learn to accept that we can never quite midwife our imagination into existence here on earth as it is in heaven.

And then there is the translation of our words by our reader. How many of us have discussed a character or scene we’ve enjoyed, only to discover that another reader envisioned the moment quite differently?

I was sharing the experience of a young adult novel, called Fish by L.S. Matthews, with my son. It’s a fascinating, simple story of a family’s escape from a nameless, war-torn village in Africa. What’s interesting is that the narrator is also nameless. About fifty pages into the book, I asked him how he imagined the character. “Oh, he’s a boy, about 7 or 8.”

“A boy?” I said. “I saw it as a girl!”

We both had shared the same words, the same journey. Yet our experience, our translation of the author’s intent (which was, no doubt, a translation of her own archetypal vision) was markedly different.

Our best hope in the struggle to achieve the purity of our vision, is to paint our tales with all the lushness, distinction and visceral truth that we can. Though we cannot create our perfect world here on earth, or in the minds of our readers, the vision they each experience as they read our words is the perfect merging of our imaginations and theirs.


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Mediocre Books and One-Time Wonders

We all hope and pray that the writing we’ve been slaving away at for weeks, months or years is brilliant, publishable, praiseworthy.

Sometimes we’re right. More often than not, it seems, we’re wrong.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re bad writers. I found two links this week that brought home the point that every writer, no matter how skilled, talented, lauded or adored, sometimes misses the mark. And some of us (God help, please no!) have only one really good book within us.

Take note of “Great Writers, Bad Novels” in last week’s Wall Street Journal. I particularly love the honesty in Flannery O’Connor’s quoted letter to a friend: “It appears that I have finished my novel [“The Violent Bear It Away”].…Just in that state of not knowing if it works or is the worst novel ever written.”

We all feel that way, sometimes afterward, but more often than not right in the midst of creation. Some days the words don’t flow. Some days they do, until we go back the next day and realize everything we thought was brilliant really was just a pile of lard!
A Writer's Obsession

How do any of us stack up in our earnest efforts to get our hearts on the page? As Robert McCrum muses in his column in the U.K.’s Guardian, “Writers who flourish at the peak of their powers for longer than a decade, or even two, are rare birds.”

Indeed! How many of us struggle just to get a few words on paper, to complete amidst the daily demands of our busy lives, a single short story or a somewhat lengthy essay? Wouldn’t any of us give our right arm (or perhaps more critically, each of our ten fingers) to have written one of the novels in The Huffington Post’s list of “Great Literary One-Hit Wonders“?

Writing is struggle. Perhaps that’s why I witness such incredible reluctance in some of my younger students. Writing IS HARD, especially if you have nothing particular that inspires you, as is often the case with essays that are required for school.

But some of us “rare birds” (in a less rarefied form than above), feel a literal pressure within our bodies as a story forms and pushes upward, forcing itself upon us, demanding with such force that we cannot refuse it.

So we write. We have a passion as powerful as any new-found love. If we neglect it, even for a day or two, we feel guilty as if we’ve forgotten to feed our infant. After a while, we can no longer separate the story from ourselves. We carry it around with us and listen to it, think about it even when we are occupied with something else, take notes at odd hours of the night, in the middle of meetings, when we’re chatting with someone on the train. We know we cannot give it up no matter how tired we are, no matter how bored we are with it, or how frustrated with the awareness that our love, our soul, may never find its way to a wide, appreciative audience, that we are all almost inevitable victims of what McCrum calls “the murderous cannon fire of indifference and critical disdain”.

None of that matters somehow when we’re in the midst of writing. It is creation itself that drives us. If our effort is mediocre, we know we will try again, searching forever for the unforgiving truth that something’s living inside us and we are its slave, not its master. Our stories are our essence. They inform our existence and give us our sense of self. If they were anything less, why would we bother?

We write until the well runs dry. Then we rest until we’re ready to take up the challenge again. We are grateful for our mistakes. We learn from them and slowly, with plodding certainty, we actually get better.

But no writer travels a straight or steady path. This is not a staircase; it’s a mountain. Sometimes we trip up. But that, too, is part of the journey.

In The Wall Street Journal essay, perhaps the most poignant thought comes at the very end: “No writer sets out to produce a mediocre book; sooner or later, most do. Forgiveness is in order. As Aldous Huxley once said, ‘A bad book is as much of a labor to write as a good one, it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.'”


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My Little Crusade

I’ve started to realize why I keep writing about the South Mountain Reservation. It certainly isn’t for the money (see my last post!), though I’m grateful to be paid at all (thank you, Mary!).

Still, each story I post on our local Maplewood Patch is my chance to make a difference in my tiny corner of the world. The state of our environment and how we care for or abuse it is something that’s concerned me since I took my first rather mincing steps into the woods when my husband and I began dating years ago.

Before that, believe it or not, I was rather disinclined even to get dirty!

Trail Working in the South Mountain Reservation

Trail Working in the South Mountain Reservation


More and more I sense that we are slowly killing ourselves through arrogance and neglect. I’ve been following Nicholas Kristof‘s far more influential crusade against chemicals in our environment, not to mention his extraordinary reporting of the state of women and children in Africa, Cambodia and elsewhere in the “third world”. While his words coalesce for me as a call to action, the scale of the issues seems far too vast and removed from everyday life. What can I do besides donate a few dollars and monitor my own household’s habits?

While my writing may not have Kristof’s reach, I happen to know my audience – personally. If my little crusade spurs a couple of friends and neighbors to take action and responsibility for the environment in which we live, then I’ve achieved my goal.

If I can encourage our local schools to get our children out into the woods to learn about civic duty, ecosystems, biology, botany, and maybe even a dash of history (all virtually for free, mind you), then I’ve achieved my goal.

If all I manage to do is get my own butt up the hill and do something more than shake my head in pity at all the trees that have fallen in the latest storm, then I’ve achieved my goal.

So, perhaps off-topic from my usual musings about the writer’s life (or perhaps not, since it’s all about the power of words), I invite you to read my latest on Maplewood Patch, Trail Working in The South Mountain Reservation.

If you live here or if you don’t, I hope my story will serve its purpose and bring at least one more pair of boots and a sturdy back into our forest or a forest near you. Or maybe just remind you that recycling may be a pain, but it’s worth the trouble.