Revising rough paragraphs from the house memoir…realized it was actually a handful of deflated, sad sentences wanting to be a poem so I wrote them into a poem. And right now, I’m in love with the poem.
…revision’s cool heart, still to come, and time, will tell. (But for now it’s fun to fall in love with this unplanned poem.)
I can’t yet write deeply/fully about my experience at Lynda Barry’s WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE Omega Institute workshop last week, because it’s all still coalescing, and it’s summertime, and I just don’t have the mind space word space right now. But I wrote a message to my former students and couple colleagues, because the message does scratch the surface (cliche, I know) in telling about how it was to be in the room with LB. More, more deeply, when I can.
I’m just back from an amazing workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, where I spent the week along with 70 others working with Lynda Barry. Some of you know her work, maybe some of you don’t…but I wanted to pass these links along in case they are of interest to you.
If you like her vibe and work, I recommend the workshop very highly. It got me moving in the creative flow, writing and drawing and working really hard, and also unlocked a lot of stuck ideas I had about making art and what it’s all about.
(Or, in shorthand: Lynda Barry rocks! And so can you!)
She’s very generous about her teaching. She considers her work open-sourced, and wants anyone and everyone to have access to it. Her book that contains the most teaching stuff in it is Syllabus, but it has as much for the maker of art as the teacher. (Okay, by now you know how I feel about Lynda Barry’s work.)
Here’s her TED talk, a good, longish introduction to her work:
Often, new writers use extraneous stage directions and phrases that aren’t needed to show characters action. (So do I.) The reason, I think, is similar to my last post: First, the writer needs to see it all happening, in detail. Once that vision is established, however, it’s great to trust the reader to and winnow what’s possibly bloating the sentences. Here’s an example from my novel:
FIRST VERSION: (I had to figure out where the character was going, and sort of lay it all out, with too much stage business describing what’s happening.)
She stumbled through the fire pit and into the hotel, quietly as she could, and went straight toward the stairs, but was stopped by Mr. Suspenders’ voice from the direction of the kitchen, where there was a light. “Whoever you are, a little help!”
PARED DOWN: (Once I realized I could see it, I pared down.)
She stumbled into the hotel, quietly as possible, and went toward the stairs, but Mr. Suspenders called from the kitchen. “Whoever you are, a little help!”
I just had that feeling again: Final tweaks to my carnival novel, paper manuscript having been read aloud by me, inked notes having slashed many paragraphs, sentences, and words, now typing it up…
…this novel’s first of its nine lives was so overwritten, so many adjectives…I piled them on until the pile slid down into a word-hoarder’s jumble and hid the story…
…but the feeling I just had, again, slashing, slaying, comes back to TRUSTING THE READER…but also remembering that as writer, first, I had to KNOW (that the goggles were cloudy and tight, the straps were safe, there was “so much wind and motion”)…
…I had to see it & know it before I could show it…
…a very satisfying feeling, knowing now what I don’t need to say on page…
…there must be a word for that feeling…the first-knowing-then-trusting-before-being able-to-do-the-showing…
I’ve long been meaning to post about some fabulous and intriguing books I’ve read recently. First in line is Robert Edric’s The London Satyr.
From the cover:
1891. London is simmering in the oppressive summer heat, the air thick with sexual repression. But a wave of morality is about to rock the capital as the puritans of the London Vigilance Committee seek out perversion and aberrant behaviour in all its forms.
Charles Webster, an impoverished photographer working at the Lyceum Theatre, has been sucked into a shadowy demi-monde which exists beneath the surface of civilized society. It is a world of pornographers and prostitutes, orchestrated by master manipulator Marlow, for whom Webster illicitly provides theatrical costumes for pornographic shoots.
But knowledge of this enterprise has somehow reached the Lyceum’s upright theatre manager, Bram Stoker, who suspects Webster’s involvement. As the net tightens around Marlow and his cohorts and public outrage sweeps the city, a member of the aristocracy is accused of killing a child prostitute…
After reading his PS Publishing novella, The Mermaids, in 2012 I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Edric. (Part 1 of the inteview is posted here. I intend to transcribe the rest of it as time allows.) The London Satyr was very different but no less pleasing to read than The Mermaids. The plot layers within The London Satyr allowed me to get lost in the corners of its streets and backstage world, but this novel can’t and won’t be boiled down to that. Edric’s prose–his sentences–are little gifts in themselves. As Webster walks through this perilous situation, I felt I was walking with him through London, always considering things, interpreting glances and shadows, always on guard, falling into more and more danger alongside him. Thrilling, to say the least.
In his sentences, Edric does beautiful and hypnotic things with repetition. One of the currents within this novel is Webster’s grief over his seven-year-old daughter Caroline, who, many years before the story is set, had died. Without spoiling anything (because I do hope you will read the novel) I’ll say there’s a passage near the end of the novel which keeps haunting me, so I am indulging in the pleasure of typing it:
“When Caroline had been alive, she had often waited for me at the corner of the street, a few doors from our own, looking out for me as I climbed the gentle slope. And upon seeing me, seeing me wave to her and then crouch down and hold out my arms to her, she would run towards me at a gaterhing pace, stopped only by her collision into me, whereupon, having steadied myself, I would rise and lift her into the air and spin her, holding her against my chest and over my shoulder until all of her sudden energy and momentum was lost, absorbed into my body and then passing in a tremor through me into the solid ground beneath us. I would feel this happen, feel her small and fragile body and all its vital forces absorbed into my own.
There were days when I had set off home already looking forward to this meeting, always disappointed when something kept her from the corner. She would hang laughing uncontrollably over my shoulder and then babble her day’s news into my ear. News of the things she had done, the people she had seen, what she had eaten, what she had worn, what her mother had said to her, what her sister had said, what she had said to them. A whole day in those few spinning seconds.
And later, these stories would resume at bedtime, when I would sit with her as she fell asleep. Sometimes, I would go on spinning these tales long after her eyes had closed, lowering my voice to a whisper for the simple pleasure of sitting with my child and watching her sleep, secure in the knowledge that she was happy and well and safe, and secure too in my own fierce conviction of the endless future and what it held for us both.
For a year after her death, I could not turn that corner except with the hopeless expectation of seeing her there again, running towards me with her arms out. And when she did not come, when that one small miracle did not occur, I could not help but also feel the sudden blade of sadness which pierced me again and again, and nor could I stop the tears which filled my eyes as I continued home to that cold and lifeless house.”
It’s when I read passages like this that I know something in my bones: reading makes us more human.
Here’s the first installment transcribed. I will post more as time allows.
This spring, I’m teaching a creative writing course, and looking at a examples of well-written fiction and nonfiction, approaching reading as painters look at brushstrokes, to understand how the thing was made. I’m assigning The Mermaids because I love it, because of its economy, and its unity of place and action. I think it’s a great text to focus on.
With regards to the actual writing itself, it was one of those books that actually got smaller and smaller and smaller. I wrote it in a week, twelve years ago, when we’d just moved house, and I didn’t have anywhere to work. And every autumn, I get the urge to write a book again, and so I sat down, and I wrote three novellas, of which The Mermaids was one. I originally spent a fortnight, I only ever work for a few hours in the morning, and I spent a fortnight writing it, and then I typed it up, which takes a very long time for me, and I put it away. And I didn’t look at it again for three or four years, because…I don’t know what happens in America, but in England, novellas, short novels, were just a no-no for publishers, and I had another book on the stocks, and I put these three novellas to one side, thinking they would make a nice trilogy eventually. With The Mermaids, I much enjoyed writing it because as you may have guessed, that kind of language over anything much longer than that length isn’t sustainable. It’s very unreal language… it’s loquacious and it’s poetic…it hovers between language of the real world, and language of dreams. The book itself is posited on the notion of the existence of mermaids, of course, and we all know they don’t exist. So you have to take out of the equation, instantly, the reader’s suspension of disbelief. You can’t depend on your reader thinking, “Oh, I believe in mermaids, so I’ll read this,” or, “I don’t believe in them, so I won’t.” The language somehow has to reflect that lack of the concrete… the language itself isn’t concrete because the facts aren’t concrete, because the reality of the situation is that it all exists inside a girl’s head. She’s fifteen, just about to be sixteen which sort of turns her into a woman in the eyes of them all, so the language is the language of thought, and dream, and fantasy, as opposed to the language of the real world. Nowhere in the book is there a suggestion of time, and place. I know where it’s set, and the timing is about the mid 1930s. There’s a very tiny reference to a major war having been fought fifteen years earlier. And the language somehow has to be as timeless as the notion of mermaids, which is why the language is as it is, which is a consequence of the book having been revised and revised and revised downward. My manuscripts are invariably twice the size of the finished product because of the way I work. I work very organically. I know this sounds a little precious but I sit down, and I write for about two hours, and I produce 6000 or 7000 or 8000 words, usually a whole chapter, in the case of The Mermaids, five or six chapters, five or six pieces rather, and then I literally leave it a year, having written for two or three months, and then go back to see what’s there. I’m not a planner. I don’t work things out, I don’t know what happens the day after and the day after and the day after. I write and write and write until I’m exhausted, and don’t want to do it anymore, and then I go back to create some kind of order out of that particular chaos, and I create the form of the book out of what I’ve written, as opposed to worrying about what’s missing or what should be there. I see what I’ve written, and then I work out how to best structure it. And so the language, I suppose, is all there in the very beginning but you need then to create the spaces in the language. And I’m very conscious of the fact that it’s the most poetic thing that I’ve written. I’ve written crime novels where the language is completely different. But I’m also a writer who’s very aware of language. I love reading well-constructed sentences. I love finding out how meaning has come into being through language. One of the important things a lot of reviewers and critics never seem to want to know about, never want to talk about, is how something was actually created. It always concerns me that there’s a kind of belief that the thing was there, and what the writer’s done is give it some kind of meaning and structure. You scream at them and say, “No, it’s all been made up! It’s all come from my head, it’s all come from my imagination!” But it’s an intangible. It’s one of the things that they don’t know. And they don’t know about fine writing. You never see in a review, “Well, this is beautifully written,” well, they’ll say it as a throw-away, it’s like calling a meal “well-cooked.” It’s very edible. Well of course it should be! And writing should be clear and simple and straightforward. It should do what the writer wants it to do, and most importantly of all, for me, the writing should reflect the nature of the story being told. And that brings us back to the idea of this being fantasy, dream… it’s a kind of vaporous language, the language in The Mermaids. It’s very suggestive, and you can disagree with practically everything that’s written about the mermaids from the girl’s perspective. The counterpoint for that, of course, are the three men who are questioning the girl. And their language, and the writing which reflects and represents them, is very very different.
I’d like to pick up on several things you said, but I’d like to start with some very heartfelt praise about what you’re talking about in the language, because I’m very concerned with sentences and phrases. You have so many watery images and words and so much, I would say, hypnosis, within the sentences, that I felt the sentences and phrases were often mimicking the movement of waves on the shore. And it just thrills me when words are so beautifully steeped in the essence of the book.
Thank you for that. Do you know something, one of the greatest things for me in writing is being able to do that. It somehow doesn’t matter that the reader doesn’t pick up on it–it’s always nice when it happens–but it doesn’t matter, because the ability to put things in is more important than the ability to take them out at the end. And I’m a great fan of something called euphony where words simply look right, the tone… I mean I’m one of these ridiculous writers. I think James Joyce used to do it. I read a sentence and instinctively I know if it’s right or wrong. And if it’s wrong, and I don’t know why it’s wrong, I work out the number of syllables, and it’s a ridiculous way of structuring a sentence, but sometimes it is simply the number of syllables in a sentence which is wrong. And it’s not something you pick up, it’s instinctive, like walking or running, you know how to do the thing you do well, but it goes wrong sometimes and if you were that good at doing it, why does it keep going wrong? And yes, you’re right, there’s an incredible amount of watery imagery in The Mermaids, and there’s a lot of reflection, there’s a lot of looking glass, there’s a lot of surface of water, there’s a lot of the tide rising and falling, just as the tide rises and falls through the little village. And there are a lot of people changing direction just as the tide comes and goes, and there are lots of people being believed and disbelieved in equal measure. And I live at the seaside, I walk my dog on the beach once or twice a day, and I know what a difference living by the sea makes. I don’t suspect you get that there.
I sure don’t! Sadly.
It’s interesting about sound–it’s such an intimate connection with words and sound and how things look and sound. I remember being at a seminar that Cathy Smith Bowers, an American poet, was giving, and she handed out this chart of vowel sounds and the feelings that we get from different vowel sounds, and I realize that I hear that and I experience it intuitively, but looking at it now, on later drafts, I can see, “Oh, I have lots of o sounds here, what’s going on with that,” and then make more of it. In The Mermaids, there is a passage on p. 41 where you have such beautiful repetition: “She herself had told no one except the photographer, and had told no one else of what she had told and shown to him–told no one that he and she had gone back to the cave together before the sea had returned and filled it again…” and the repetition of “had told” was somehow very luscious. And the vowel sounds supposedly cause, in the reader, feelings of sorrow, awe, dread, gloom, heaviness, but also of calm and soothing, so it’s an interesting and very complicated way to look at sentences but it’s a poet’s look at sentences, I guess, and I love seeing that in prose.
Most writers who’ve served their proper apprenticeship–I mean, I’ve published, God knows, 20, 22 books now–and so I daresay that intuitively, you do pick up these things without being told what you’re doing. It almost seems preposterous to tell a creative writing student that there are too many i’s or too many o’s and why do you use the word “told” four times in two sentences? Well, one answer for that is it’s like a bell being tolled, and if you’re telling someone, you’re not simply whispering or speaking or saying or remarking or answering or suggesting, telling someone is a different thing entirely. I love deciding which words work best. And I think with things like The Mermaids, it is an allegory, and most allegories depend on a very very simple language… not childlike, but a language a child would easily understand. My first instinct on writing The Mermaids was to make it so a ten-year-old could read that book. And there’s not a word in it that they wouldn’t understand. I know it has a few dark shadows in the book which children wouldn’t appreciate, and I know it’s about puberty and adolescence, which a lot of people don’t want to sort of face up to, from either side of it, so to speak, but the language of the book is–I hesitate to use the word “biblical”–but biblical language is incredibly straightforward. If somebody’s saying something, it is “I said” “he said” “I said” “he said” and I think that that’s great. People worry about this; people worry in creative writing, they say, “Oh, you’ve used ‘he said/she said/he said/she said’” and I normally say to that, “Well, if we know who’s speaking, there’s no need to tell it, but by telling who said it, you’re making another point. It’s a bit like the old cliché about Raymond Carver, “Oh, God, he overdoes it,” but he doesn’t. “What’s the weather like?” he said, “It’s raining,” she said. “Is it?” he said. “Yes,” she said. It’s the “he saids” and “she saids” in that sentence that make it the desperate little conversation it is. And I don’t know how you can tell people that that’s a good thing or the right thing or the proper way to do it, but it is. Like most writers, you do intuitively know it.
And it becomes a metronome, sort of.
It does. And part of euphony, part of words looking and sounding right is of course the rhythm. I love the rhythm of words. I love words that somehow look to be doing the job they’re doing. In a very simple way, “he said/she said” does, but then you can describe the flow of water, the flow of seaweed, the flow of air, the flow of time, the flow of a narrative, the flow of a dress, the flow of anything. You can describe words using the same one, you can describe events using the same few words. Short stories, and novels, have to have some kind of cumulative effect. The nice thing about The Mermaids, from my side, is that, with it being only eighty pages long, I can control that flow from beginning to end. I would love that book to be read in a single sitting because there will be echoes and reflections throughout it which depend upon each other. You read the first ten pages of a novel, and by the time you get to page 400, there are meant to be echoes and reflections of 400 pages ago, so you might be two or three months away from that first page, whereas with something like The Mermaids, you’re very close to the first page still. It is, in a sense, like writing a piece of music.
So I’ve been working on this terribly overwritten draft of my novel in progress. Gone through the printed pages carefully, cutting, pruning, taking out piles of adjectives and phrases. The typed pages are a mess now, not unlike this other mess from a previous project. I keep thinking, “Which gremlin scribbled all over these neat pages here that I now have to type up?” though the gremlin is me. This novel I have been writing since 2004. Part of its problem is uneven terrain: while I was figuring out what it was, I was writing along, letting time pass in the story, and the story emerged like sourdough bread (a terrible metaphor!) that, 100 or so pages into it, actually begins to take shape. So now as I comb through the years of words on these pages, I see where things need to be built up, and where torn down. With this project, I pushed language and narrative beyond anything I’d ever done. On purpose. Because I could! Here I gave myself license to write a really bad first draft, and use all the purple colorful clang I heard in my head. (Knowing I would cut later.)
Too many adjectives! Oy vey! Too many phrases strung together that unwound from my mind and at one moment in time made sense but now hang like random junkyard decoration. Get that egg beater out of there! What did I just step on? Is that stench overripe banana? And so on.
Get it out of here!
I realize at least two things about this draft, both of which were essential to my authority in telling the story. I needed both:
1) The self-indulgent “let everything be in there” messiness. As author and creator of this world, I had to see how dingy and dusty and clangy and rotten the nouns were. I had to see the layers of adjective like paint on an old carnival sign, repainted over crack and crumble. How else would I know the patina of this place? And;
2) The excessive phrases that are stage directions: “She put the scissors on the round table to the left of the door” and so on. If it’s even important that she put the scissors down (question everything!) does it matter where? She put them down. Fine. But the writer, again, to establish authority, must see the whole thing happening like a play, must know and track where the scissors are put down. In case someone else needs to bob her hair! And so on like that.
If I know this world I’m writing is dusty and clangy and I know where the scissors are, I don’t have to tell you (unless it’s important to the story). If I am doing my job well enough, the reader will trust me. She will thank me for sparing her unnecessary words. Doing so will leave me more room for the things that really need to be there. It’s like all the doing of research that doesn’t end up in the novel. Having those things, knowing them, seeing and breathing them, is what allows me to tell the story in a way that will keep people reading.
As I read Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s repetition of images and phrases hypnotized me, as did her peeled and still-peeling layers of story. As with The Year of Magical Thinking, here I felt Didion recounting memories in the way we actually experience them. As if she set out to articulate against the linear necessity of language: one letter, one word, one thought at a time, arranged tidy in a row, which is one way we make sense. The intentional fragmentation of narrative was accessible and didn’t fall off the page (or render me lost in the land of “what the fuck?”) because of Didion’s clarity. Because of her sentences. And perhaps because of the fact of what she was doing: the narrative act of slowing down, examining, opening drawers and closets brimming with iconic possessions. As Didion names these ghosts on p. 45: “The objects for which there is no satisfactory resolution.” The detritus of the lives of the people she loves best, and lost. As she opens each drawer and tells the stories of what she finds, she assumes the role of docent in the Joan Didion Museum of Loss.
(In the essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion writes: “Someone works out the numerology of my name and the name of the photographer I’m with. The photographer’s is all white and the sea (‘If I were to make you some beads, see, I’d do it mainly in white,’ he is told), but mine has a double death symbol.” I read that passage again after I’d read The Year of Magical Thinking, and could not avoid thinking of her life story’s foreshadowing in that moment, the double death that awaited her.)
In addition to the quandary about what to do with all that stuff (and my own eventual stuff, should I live long enough, outlive someone I love) I felt the writer’s grief and discomfort at the ache of questions she turns over and over, things upon which she shines a light, unable to avoid the vast shadows of murk.
Shadows which, despite the fact that some people, including me, happen to believe Didion walks on water, do not flatter her.
There’s something about that peeling, that sad onion, those haunts, her willingness to shine light despite what might crawl out, which makes me feel more human.
In hopes of assessing how many one sentence paragraphs I had in my novel, I changed the magnification on my word processor window, which made the text appear much smaller than usual. This allowed me to see most of a page on one screen. As I scrolled through the pages, stopping whenever I saw a one sentence paragraph, I joined what I could with longer paragraphs, and omitted some. This was prompted by a piece of advice in Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, namely not to overuse the one sentence paragraph. As I combed through the text, some unexpected things happened:
1) I realized that sometimes one sentence paragraphs are necessary, the best choice. I want to trust the reader, and not lean too heavily on the structural signal of a one sentence paragraph as alert: “Hey you reader! Look here! This line is so important I set it up on its own! Read carefully!” And yet sometimes a one sentence paragraph just feels right. (It was good to interrogate each occurence, however, to be sure.)
2) The decision about where to break paragraphs has its own intuition, and the writer should take time to quiet down enough and follow it.
3) I was doing a lot of changing and then changing back, doing and undoing. A lot of tinkering, but maybe the act of tinkering confirmed that I’d gotten some bits “right” before questioning, if such a thing as “right” is possible in a thing so subjective as fiction.
4) Another nuance I hadn’t considered, in defense of keeping some one sentence paragraphs in this novel: my protagonist is seven years old. The child’s close lens on her world and the visual smallness of a one sentence paragraph seem connected. I don’t think this is overly precious, in this case.
5) The exercise was a great lesson, and proved the point that Prose includes in her book. On p. 68-9, she quotes Rex Stout’s novel, Plot It Yourself, in which “Nero Wolfe is called upon to determine if three manuscripts that figure into a case involving accusations of plagiarism could have been written by the same person.”:
“A clever man might successfully disguise every element of his style but one–the paragraphing. Diction and syntax may be determined and controlled by rational processes in full consciousness, but paragraphing–the decision whether to take short hops or long ones, and whether to hop in the middle of a thought or action or finish it first–that comes from instinct, from the depths of personality. I will concede the possibility that the verbal similarities, and even the punctuation, could be coincidence, though it is highly improbable; but not the paragraphing. These three stories were paragraphed by the same person.”
So is the paragraph like a fingerprint, individual to each writer? Maybe.
Another thing happened as I worked through the manuscript, not related to paragraphs, but worth noting. As the text looked so much smaller to my writing eye, it performed a visual trick on me. I’ve done this bird’s-eye thing before, but this time I was pulled into some scenes despite (or maybe because of) how hard it was to read the words. The clusters of words formed different shapes in my brain, pulling me in. Like those little sugar Easter eggs that you peer into, I had to look closely and see the world that was hiding there. And thus I did a whole lot of unexpected line editing than I planned to do. Good.