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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I Give Up!

No, this is not an announcement. I am not even thinking about giving up on my novel. In fact, revisions are going rather nicely. Though I’ve been inundated with other obligations over the last two weeks, when I return to my manuscript, I see that my vision is becoming clearer and the suggestions that I fought against back in the fall are resulting in a much better story overall. I am, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, married to the long, slow, sometimes torturous process of completion, even if it – and sometimes it threatens to – kill me.Man with his Head in his Hands by Vincent van Gogh

Nonetheless, over the last few weeks, a couple of writers have come to me at wit’s end. Exhausted, they’ve announced that they’re ready to give up, or at least to shelve their half-formed creation for a little while. (Subtext: maybe forever!) Their frustration is thick in their voices, in their carefully worded emails, in their slumping body language and their labored sighs.

Believe me, I do understand!!!

In class I’ve often referred to my unpublished novel, my first, the one that “belongs in the drawer”. I’m truly grateful that it never made it’s way to print, though I labored over it for four years.

Some of you also know that, right after The Thrall’s Tale was accepted for publication and while still in the throes of nursing my second son, I charged ahead on new novel, what the industry would call my “sophomore attempt”.

The term “sophomoric” comes to mind when I look back at those pages now.

Several months of research and about a year of writing went into that work – about 120 pages of stilted language, over-weighted plot, and characters who whined so much, they annoyed even me.

I knew something was wrong when I kept going back to the beginning. The first few chapters just felt stiff. Though I tried to move ahead, I felt their tug like something icky stuck to my shoe.

After well over a month rewriting a particular chapter, I paused, printed out all the pages so far, and sat out on my deck to read. By the time I finished, I was crying (and not because I was moved). I didn’t stop for several weeks, as I knew with all the crushing weight of Jovian gravity that that book was headed “into the drawer” with my first. It was going nowhere.

I’m not sure what the real problem was – writing under the influence of post-partum hormones, dealing with the challenge of having an infant and toddler on hand, or simple the very real effort of letting go of The Thrall’s Tale’s voices that had occupied me for so many years. Whatever it was, the writing sucked! (And you know I don’t use words like that often or lightly.)

A recent New York Times article, “Why Do Writers Abandon Novels?“, details how other authors have faced the same hopeless end of their fraught labors. It’s a frightening moment, a step that no writer takes blithely after months and even years of sweat, agony and pages crumpled and torn, especially in this high pressure publishing environment where all authors feel the breath of oblivion at our necks, demanding another book soon or be forgotten.

But in that moment when I finally let go, there came a very real, if very painful, release. And not long after, out of the deep darkness of writer-ly defeat, there shined a glimmer of hope. As so often happens to me, I received a sort of “sign”.

In this case, it came in the form of a PBS documentary about Central Asian burial mounds, a topic that probably fills none of you with awe. (Sorry, but I’m fascinated with long-dead things.) In fact, the docu was about a burial I’d read about long before, but filed away for down-the-line when I wasn’t in the midst of a 500-page project.

There I sat, watching as archaeologists uncovered warrior-priestesses of an ancient nomadic tribe. The gruesome faces of the burials grew flesh and blood in my mind. In that moment, I felt the weight lift from my body and a new adventure opening before me.

What I learned was that, through those wasted pages, lost time, and frustration, I had cleansed myself of all that had come before: the voices I had served for so many years, the baby-hormones, the mommy-chaos, the elation and despair that are unavoidable steps on the author’s first publishing journey. All of it. I was reborn, ready to begin anew.

The next day, I went to the library and chose my first book to begin my research. Holding it as preciously as a baby in my arms, I went home, sat on my deck, and began again.


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Musing with Aristotle

For me, the older the better as far as reading tastes and research go. For my latest novel, I’ve nearly memorized parts of Herodotus’ Histories. (Book IV is fascinating – really!) I’ve regularly perused Pliny the Elder, Strabo and Tacitus. OK, maybe I’m just a little weird, but I love hanging with the ancients.

I recently returned to 2360-year-old roots for a clearer understanding of the elements of good fiction. Aristotle’s Poetics details six critical pieces: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle and Song.

In our many discussions about writing, particularly on Thursday nights, we have argued over terms like “character-driven” and “plot-driven”. Both are essential and inextricably intertwined.

Aristotle calls Plot “the first principle” and “the soul of a tragedy.” For him, character held second place, as he compares it with painting: “The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait.” In other words, we need to know the structure surrounding our characters’ existence and what’s happening to move them forward. The most beautiful, poetic, well-observed characters must be propelled by a reason-to-be, something that answers the ever troubling questions, “What’s happening here?” and “Why should I care?”

Aristotle perceived Character as “objects of imitation… personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought…. These – thought and character – are the two natural causes from which actions spring.” (Part VI) So character causes action. And action, or plot, affects character. Some stories are propelled more by external forces (plot) than internal forces (character). But you absolutely need both. Otherwise, per Aristotle, you end up with a lot of beautiful colors but no form.

Of course, we live in the post-modern era. We’ve seen Jackson Pollack splatters and monochrome canvases. In literature also, we’ve grown to appreciate writing that intentionally veers from Aristotelian parameters. But at least when starting out, we are wise to attend these ancient guidelines. Before Picasso played with Cubism, he painted quite a few realistic works. The same should be true for new and developing writers.

Aristotle continues with Thought, essentially the story’s big ideas and thematic motivations. According to Poetics, Part XIX, “dramatic incidents should speak for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech.” Thus the hackneyed literary adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Show the inherent themes and motivations, don’t explicitly tell them through long winded explanations. Easier said than done.

Next comes Diction, which he defines as “the mere metrical arrangement of the words”. In Part XXII of Poetics, Aristotle speaks about the perfection of style. He goes on at length about parts of speech (Part XX), the use of meter (Part XXIII) and metaphor (Part XXI). After more than 2000 years, the questions and tools remain the same. Well-crafted language is an vital overlay, bringing uniqueness and specificity to characters, and musicality to plot and exposition.

Aristotle also wrote that Song – literally music – “holds the chief place among the embellishments.” Of course, he was writing primarily about drama and stage craft, not prose; but it doesn’t hurt to imagine a soundtrack to your writing. I’ve been known to play certain music to bring the mood of a scene more strongly into my thoughts as I write. Song or music express emotion, excitement and energy that can subconsciously infuse your prose.

Finally, we come to what Aristotle calls Spectacle but that we’d describe as special effects. Lots of shooting, explosions and chase scenes are eye-catching and exhilarating, but they’re better when compelled by reasons inherent to the plot and characters. “The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry…. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” (Part VI)

The elements are all there – one through six. Simple, right? Not! As we each struggle to cultivate a voice, we should think of Aristotle’s “Diction”, striving for the sense of music in our words, even if they are never meant to be read aloud. We should validate the use of spectacle, without getting carried away. But we should lean most heavily on the dual elements of plot and character. One without the other cannot really exist. Both together, well wrought and intricately tied with language, music, spectacle and rich ideas, we can only hope and pray will result in a story that’s completely engaging, able to hold our readers’ attention for, say, a couple of thousand years.

Special thanks to The Internet Classics Archive for access to the S. H. Butcher translation.


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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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Don’t Quit Your Day Job

None of us can deny that day jobs eat up valuable time for writing. We accept but resent them, knowing that bills do pile up and, unless we are fortunate recipients of the largess of a trust fund, inheritance or a well-padded spouse, most of us have little choice but to forfeit some portion of our soul’s calling to fulfill the need for shelter, clothing and food.
Don't Quit Your Day Job
Many writers, especially those young or idealistic enough to believe we will one day “break out”, take on (intentionally or otherwise) dull jobs that eat our souls, but supposedly keep our minds clear for our literary vocation.

I spent years as one of those naive hopefuls, accepting underemployment as a logical consequence of a life dedicated to the pursuit of art. Besides, I was used to it. Having started as a professional dancer and then an actor, it wasn’t much of an adjustment to carry over the sacrifice-for-art theme into my underemployment as an aspiring novelist.

I had already worked as a waiter, a make-up artist, and one of those annoying people who squirt perfume in your face when you walk through Macy’s. I honestly found some comfort when I finally discovered that I could work as a temp, filling empty desk space to answer phones and type memos at corporate offices all over New York City.

In fact, I turned to writing in part because of those very dull days when there were no memos and all those stiff business suits were stuffed into a conference room down the hall. In those spare, odd hours when I was required to “look busy”, I turned to the voices whispering in my head. I started writing stories, poems, scenes from plays that would never be produced. Most of them were terrible. (Trust me, I still have a draft or two in boxes in my basement.) But they reminded me that I actually enjoyed playing with words and, in contrast to being the interpreter of someone else’s choreography or script, I enjoyed being the master of my own creation. When one of those stories grew too long and complicated to be stopped, I followed it down the path to becoming my first (and thankfully unpublished) novel.

Whether writing is our original passion or something that comes to us by accident, the way we spend our time deeply influences our work. “You are what you do,” says author Winston Groom (of Forrest Gump fame) in a recent NPR interview about a new collection of essays, Don’t Quit Your Day Job. “Experience in life is informed by all the things that you do, and work is most of it.”

The longest and worst of my day jobs was a soul-crushing stint as a legal secretary in a corporate law firm. That job inspired the theme of slavery at the core of The Thrall’s Tale. Why I accepted this torture for eight – yes EIGHT – long years is, at this point, completely beyond me.

But then I remember how it all began – how I used to write fiction between memos and briefs. I was an incredibly fast typist, motivated by my desire to get back to my own work; so they kept me on and paid me reasonably well. Yet I was plagued by paranoia that I’d be discovered and fired, and by certain co-workers who clearly resented that I wasn’t “one of the gals”. All this fed the drama that was growing in the password-protected document that was my manuscript. Read the first chapter of Thrall and you’ll see just a touch of how it all got intertwined.

So when I think back to those years of self-imposed torture, I feel a sense of gratitude equal to my relief that I’m no longer there. These days everything I do has something to do with writing. Yet I’ve learned more from my “real life” experiences than I ever could have learned locked up in a room all alone with those psychotic whispers.

In an excerpt from Don’t Quit Your Day Job published in The New York Times last week, John Grisham relates his sweaty trials with manual labor and the humiliation of selling men’s underwear at Sears. Somehow the path for him, as for so many of us, in the end led to writing success: “I had never worked so hard in my life, nor imagined that writing could be such an effort. …Writing’s still the most difficult job I’ve ever had — but it’s worth it.”


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Reaching a “Singularity”

It’s been a while since I wrote one of my “eBooks are transforming the world” rants. Maybe because I’m as confused as the next publishing professional. Maybe because the media world is changing so rapidly that none of us, no matter how diligent, can keep up. Maybe because I’ve given up trying to understand what’s going on.

It used to be that the concept of “reaching the singularity” was far-fetched science fiction. As futurist and author Ray Kurzweil puts it, “The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.” Honestly, his definition is more optimistic than I’d heard. I always understood the term to describe a moment when technology would evolve so quickly that it would literally leave the human race in the dust.


Does anyone feel the velocity of the tech revolution picking up speed? I do. Lately it seems many of us feel we’re hanging onto the roof of an out-of-control train by our fingernails.

And it’s not just writers. Look at anyone who has decided to buy an iPad or a new Smartphone. How do you want your media served? Personally, I pick “over easy”. A very intelligent friend recently spent a week in agony after purchasing the latest must-have device. Is it really worth wasting all that time figuring out how to make the damned thing call your mother while you read thirteen newspapers, buy a gift, answer twenty emails, and order food for dinner?

I use my cellphone only to make phone calls and it works perfectly.

And what about all that time lost for daydreaming?

OK. You all know that I’m a loud advocate for “living simply“. But a couple of recent articles in The New York Times (including the above link) seem to indicate a trend that I’m not the only one. Outdoors and Out of Reach observes a scientific study of the brain on and off “digital speed”. And an Op-Ed, Reclaiming the Imagination, presents a fascinating argument for the evolutionary value of human imagination.

Wait a minute… Imagination is a writer’s stock-in-trade. Is this really something we have to justify?

But these are the times we live in. It’s easy enough to dismiss, easy to hide our heads in the sand, but eventually we will get left behind. The singularity is coming and we’re all running to keep up, however reluctantly.

So, in the spirit of running together, check out The Brian Lehrer Show’s new weekly segment, Book Futures. Topics so far have included The Rise of EBooks and The Fate of Bookstores. (Or perhaps they should just be conflated to read: “The Rise and Fall of the Publishing Empire”.) More predictions will be forthcoming from Michael Cader, founder of Publishers Marketplace and the daily industry newsletter, Publishers Lunch. (You probably should subscribe to both, if you don’t already.)

Of course, predictions are just that. No one can see the future. I’m thinking back to my blog-post, The Evolutionary Invention, that linked to “The Message Is the Medium” by Wen Stephenson, published in 1995. Stephenson argued strongly and philosophically against the effects on onscreen reading. His predictions clung amusingly to the inherent and indelible value of experiencing words in physical print. Today we’re having the same argument, but the result is a fait accompli.

Yet literature is surviving. Or is it? Either way, it’s a startling reminder of just how rigidly embedded in our own experience each of us can be. Who are we to judge this strange monster we’ve made? Whatever it is, like it or not, there’s no putting it back where it came from.