A Novelist’s Commitment

I’m making what I hope will be my last proofreading of the manuscript for Curva Peligrosa. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve made this journey through the novel, trying to track down any typos, spelling, or punctuation errors. And each time, I seem to find a few, making me wonder how I miss them to begin with. My publisher’s editor also has read the text closely, plucking out any weeds she found. But it’s almost impossible to find them all.

At times, I wonder why my publisher and I are so intent on releasing a product that is as close to error free as possible. What would it matter if a word here and there was misspelled or a punctuation mark was misplaced?

correcting-1870721_1920When I was teaching undergraduates, and trying to instill in them a reverence for correctness in their essays, I would point out how such mistakes undermined their credibility, especially if they were glaring. A reader would be reluctant to read on if the text was riddled with such oversights. Therefore, the paper’s content has less impact if a reader is struggling to find his/her way through the forest of error-filled text. It’s also one reason why self-published authors have trouble finding readers, especially sophisticated ones that know the difference between a comma splice and a run-on sentence.

What I’ve learned from this experience is how deeply committed a writer must be to his/her text, to seeing it through all of these stages until it’s finally ready to burst forth into the world. It’s not unlike the commitment required for any satisfying relationship that can be threatened by so many factors. Illness, job loss, family problems, and more, can intervene and threaten the integrity of the connection.

That’s why paying close attention to the nuts and bolts, to whatever holds together a text or a bond between people, is necessary in order to preserve it. And that’s why a writer will not succeed as a published novelist if s/he can’t make such a commitment. It’s an essential part of the territory!

Transiting the Real

Recently, my reading group selected Rachel Cusk’s novel Transit as our next book, and I recalled reading a review by Elaine Blair of Cusk’s novel Outline in the January 2015 New Yorker. Blair claims “Cusk has written admiringly about Karl Ove Knausgaard, and her proposed cure for the trouble with fiction sounds like a gloss of his. ‘Autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts,’ she told the Guardian.” Blair goes on to say that some writers are hewing closer to the author’s subjective experiences, of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal lives.

As a writer, I’m all for any kind of improvisation on the novel or any other narrative. I’ve read Knausgaard’s first book. Parts of it are tedious, yet as a whole it is compelling in a voyeuristic way. But I have devoured all of W. G. Sebald’s “fictions,” novels that are truly novel in that he has invented a hybrid form. Sebald incorporates travelogue, biography, memoir, speculation, and literary criticism, and the narrator is usually a wandering and thoughtful observer of his surroundings.

sofa-749629_1920Though I hadn’t read Cusk’s work when I read this New Yorker review, I am concerned with the idea that some writers may rely more on their personal experiences to create “fictions” than to employ their imaginations. Contemporary life is already too one-dimensional and focused on surfaces. Most people aren’t aware of their dreams and the unconscious, of what exists outside of our daytime awareness. Or they deny that anything other than the day’s residue is being circulated in these nightly dramas. What a loss!

As Carl Jung pointed out in Man and His Symbols, “Imagination and intuition are vital to our understanding” (82). He also says that it isn’t just poets or other artists who employ these ways of perceiving, but they are also essential to scientists. He emphasizes that the rational intellect isn’t the only way of knowing or understanding ourselves and the world (inner or outer) and claims that “the surface of our world seems to be cleansed of all superstitious and irrational elements” (86). This observation is even truer today than when Jung wrote this piece in 1961 near the end of his life.

If our novels adhere to portraying our everyday experiences, the chitchat that goes on in our living rooms and other social settings, then we are missing a whole level of vitality and knowledge. It’s the imagination in conjunction with the unconscious that produces myths, symbols, and alternate views of reality. Not that our personal experiences can’t be imbued with these elements, but if they are the sole basis for our fictions, then we are deprived of something much richer and more worthwhile.

(A future post will explore what I discovered from reading Cusk’s Transit.)

 

 

 

What is the REAL story?

“The artist must be deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of his particular age. He must watch only the trend of the inner need, and harken to its words alone.”  —Kandinsky.

Several years ago I entered a Masters in Creative Writing program as a poet, but I was equally interested in writing fiction and signed up for several short story workshops. My experience in the poetry classes led me into exciting new places as a writer, opening me up to undiscovered parts of myself and of the poetry world. But it has taken me all these years to fully recover from the fiction workshops.

First let me say that, no, my intent here is not to bash creative writing programs. I’ve found them useful in many ways. Overall I felt inspired and challenged, part of a community of writers. But it was the poetry workshops that completely turned me around. They made me aware of the amazing work done by writers I’d not read carefully before—many of them women, work that was more innovative than I’d been used to: Kathleen Fraser, Barbara Guest, Leslie Scalapino. This writing didn’t fit into the traditional genre of lyric poetry as I understood it, largely autobiographical material, emotional snapshots of the writers’ pasts including an epiphany or “point.”

Reading these poets was like voyaging into a totally foreign country. They made something happen on the page, treating it as theatre, letting the meanings emerge from the interaction of language rather than from recreating a remembered event. They pushed language to its limits, attempting to bring into the poem a larger world by shattering syntax, rethinking grammar, challenging the notions of narrative as we know it, forging beyond linear cause and effect thinking into new realms. They were questioning our assumptions about poetry—what it is, what it can be. Its subject matter. They were (and are) questioning the very fabric of our lives, the notions of subject and subjectivity, of art and its role in our culture.

galaxy-2481360_1280Through these classes, I came to see that experimental and traditional works are part of a continuum, not either/or, better/worse. These workshops show writing programs at their best. The poets who taught the classes embraced a wide variety of styles, from formalist to the most experimental. Students were free to experiment and didn’t conform to one particular party line.

Unfortunately, the openness and scope that I experienced in poetry did not carry over into the fiction workshops I took. The writers teaching these classes mainly followed the conventional notions of the short story, the realistic/naturalistic tradition, or the psychologically subtle stories that have descended from Chekhov, Joyce, and James. And, of course, minimalist fiction was hot then.

No room seemed to exist for what has been at the heart of American fiction since its inception—romance, combining the ordinary with the inexplicable. Richard Chase, author of The American Novel and Its Traditions, believes the main difference between the realistic novel and the romance is the way each views reality: “The novel renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail. It takes a group of people and sets them going about the business of life.” The characters, involved in plausible situations, become real to us, revealing their complexities, their human foibles, their multiple motives. In these works, “character is more important than action or plot” (12).

Romance, on the other hand,

feels free to render reality in less volume and detail…..Astonishing events may occur and these are likely to have a symbolic rather than a realistic plausibility. Being less committed to the immediate rendition of reality than the novel, the romance will more freely veer toward the mythic, allegorical, and symbolistic forms. (13)

Chase’s ideas apply equally to the short story, but as an undergraduate and graduate in creative writing, I learned something different. When I tried to do what was natural to me—to write symbolic dramas, Shirley Jacksonist contemporary folktales/fables that retained the details of everyday experience and psychological authenticity—I found the readers of these pieces did not have a context from which to judge them. I met a blank wall.

I was familiar with Marquez and Borges’ writing, where Western rationality clashes with magical native cultures, the natural and the supernatural intermingling, the living with the dead, each world as real as the other. I’d read the symbolist stories of Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, and James. For my first master’s thesis (in the Humanities), I’d investigated the literary fairy tale, parables, and fables, where characters tend to be caricatures rather than fully realized imitations of humans.

But when I tried to suggest there are approaches other than the usual conflict/resolution type of short story where character is the focus, or that caricature may be valid within certain contexts, I didn’t get very far. Since I was still feeling my way around in the short story form, I wasn’t able to clearly articulate yet what I was attempting in my narratives. Unfortunately, my writing instructors and my fellow classmates had not explored much beyond their turf as writers. Hence, many critiques were harmful if not totally destructive because the readers were trying to fit the work into a narrow perspective.

One teacher, after reading a draft of a story I was working on, said “Who are these people?” The characters did not fit into her ideas of what should happen in a story. She went on to say, “My overall impression at this point is that you have serious gifts in the area of the real, honest to God short story. I do not see you succeeding as a ‘magical realist’—in fact, I see you being led down a disastrous path, away from your own power as a storyteller. I would most strongly advise you to give all that up and start to write the real things. I don’t think you’ll ever regret it.”

The authority, she was saying that works of the imagination are not real; the true path is the conventional story. I hadn’t yet sufficiently discovered my voice as a fiction writer, so I couldn’t rebut her criticism.

Just as poets do, fiction writers have a rich, multiply textured tradition to draw from that includes more than the conventional narrative, and I haven’t even mentioned the fabulists and those writing metafiction. In an article in The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates says,

…Carol Shields’ third collection of stories, Dressing Up for the Carnival, is an intelligent, provocative, and entertaining collection of variegated prose pieces, both conventional and unconventional….[T]he majority are deftly, even sunnily written, and bristling with ideas, reminding us that fiction need not be emotionally devastating or ‘profound’ to be worthwhile (39).

Shields describes the process she went through in letting go of the rules of “what a story should be and how it must be shaped” in an essay entitled “Arriving Late, Starting Over.” After teaching the absolutes she learned in English Lit for years, she finally rebelled. She actually had no choice. Before she could go forward as a writer, she had to go back and release herself from the structure of the traditional story. It no longer was large or loose enough to allow in what had bubbled up in Various Miracles, her first collection of stories that she’d written in “a mood of reckless happiness” (245 & 246). They opened the way for Dressing Up for the Carnival.

While I enjoy reading all types of fiction, I don’t want to be captive of the realistic story. Reading and writing various story styles keeps me in touch with the strangeness, the unfathomable mysteries, of life. Realistic stories certainly can do this, too. But the stories I’m most attracted to view the world from an unusual angle, from what is invisible to ordinary consciousness—the content we often find in dreams (I’m thinking of Salman Rushdie’s work, as well as Reginald McKnights’, Jeffrey Renard Allen’s, Mark Danielewski’s, and especially Roberto Bolano).

Over the years, in the process of finding and accepting my particular preferences as a writer, I’ve had to teach myself what I didn’t find in the academy. At those times it’s been helpful to remember Eudora’s Welty’s admonition:

Writing is such an internal, interior thing that it can hardly be reached by you, much less by another person. I can’t tell you how to write, no more than you can tell me. We’re all different from one another even in the way we breathe. Writers must learn to trust themselves. (Dawson 27)

Yet this kind of trust doesn’t come easily. However, we’ll never discover in our fellow writers or ourselves what we’re capable of if we don’t consciously release these expectations and enlarge our repertoire. As writers and teachers, we need to be more aware of the range we have available to us so we don’t limit our own or others’ imaginations.

Works Cited

Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. New York: Anchor Books, 1957, p. 12. Print.

Ibid, p 13.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “An Endangered Species,” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 2000, p. 39. Print.

Shields, Carol. “Arriving Late, Starting Over.” Metcalf, John and Struthers, J.R. (Tim), ed. How Stories Mean. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill, 1993, p. 245 & 246. Print.

Dawson, Marie. “An Interview with Eudora Welty.” Poets & Writers Magazine. September/ October 1997, p. 27. Print.

This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Nearly 20 blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (28th – 30th July 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the links below to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.

2017 bloghop

 

Discovering Narrative Structure in the Dordogne

During our recent month-long vacation in France, we spent a week at an Airbnb rental in the Dordogne area. You, dear reader, may be wondering what this post has to do with writing or reading. But bear with me. You’ll eventually see the connection.

Located near the village of Pellegrue, our accommodations originally were constructed 700 years ago. At that time, the farmer lived in the upper level with his family, and his animals were housed below.

 

Having spent some years on a farm myself as a girl, I have some idea of what the smells and sounds may have been like! Fortunately for us, they hadn’t lingered.

But the external structure has retained its original shape, though its interior has been remodeled. My husband and I were impressed with how the owners, Jane and Mike, originally dairy farmers in Australia, transformed this ancient stone building essentially themselves, calculating how to move beams and hoist them into place, stripping the roof tiles and replacing their under layer before resetting the tile, merging the original stone walls and beams with modern trappings. Modern Italian tile floors meet the authentic stone enclosures on the ground floor, while hardwood floors graces the upper level. The four bathrooms and kitchen all have modern appliances. It’s the ideal blending of old and new, filled with character and charm.

It occurred to me that Jane and Mike’s work was similar to how a novelist constructs a narrative. Sometimes we start out with a basic structure in mind that might not even be conscious yet, but in the process of writing we uncover it, our words like the items needed to construct a building. We link them together until they eventually take shape and tell a coherent story. The story that the Dordogne Airbnb tells is many layered, still resonating with echoes of its past, just as our novels also have multiple levels, the images our words create transporting readers (and writers) into a new (novel) place. And while readers might not be aware of the work that goes into writing long fiction, it involves a lot of heavy lifting!

Travelling enlarges us so our previous roles/containers feel tight, inflexible

Recently, my husband and I spent a month in France: a week each in Provence, the Dordogne, the Loire Valley, and Paris. We were looking forward to a true vacation, not wanting to cram our days so full of sightseeing that we needed a vacation from vacationing when we returned home. Since we planned on spending much of our time in three different regions that are known for their abundance of small towns, we IMG_0018anticipated the slower pace of French village life. Except for our Airbnb apartment in the main center of St. Remy de Provence, our Dordogne and Loire Valley digs were in the country where vineyards, groves of trees, forests, and rich farmland surrounded us. We had our choice of hamlets to visit, each offering its own unique character, boulangeries, and cafes.

A few days into our trip, the battery in my watch died. It seemed serendipitous for that to happen because I had left behind chronos time and entered something more liminal—not bound by the time’s inexorableness. My usual routines largely dissolved and following a to do IMG_0043 2list no longer became the main factor in what I did. We ate when we felt like it. Got into our rental Citroen when we were ready. And let the road (or the GPS) lead us to a destination. These were two-lane secondary roads for the most part (though some were single lane!), and they didn’t promote speeding. It was such a luxury to glide along at our own pace, letting drivers pass us if they were impatient with our sightseeing mode. But for the most part, others motorists seemed to share our delight in being in the moment, many of them vacationers like us or residents who had long ago inculcated this more leisurely mode.

Since returning to our Bay Area home, I’ve had the battery in my watch replaced, and I can’t avoid the usual daily routines that eat up so much of my time: watching the news (we didn’t turn on a TV in France!) for more salacious stories about Trump or scrolling the Internet for what the TV news channels leave out; responding to endless streams of emails; IMG_0043marketing my novels; preparing to teach a new writing workshop; planning menus and shopping for groceries; cleaning the house and working in the yard; writing for a certain period each day; and so much more. However, I’m chaffing at these duties, having trouble fitting back into the old ways, the life I left behind.

 

IMG_0098Travelling enlarges us so that the previous roles/containers feel tight, inflexible. So I’ve been trying to make room for reexamining myself in light of this splendid French vacation, trying to incorporate aspects of the culture that I find so civil and healthy, like taking time to sit down and enjoy my lunch rather than eat it on the run. Or making room in my days to just look out the window and enjoy our garden. But it’s not easy to resist jamming myself back into the old ways. Like old shoes, they’re comfortable, though they also don’t fit the way they once did.

 

 

 

 

Words as Animals

I recently read the book Words as Eggs by Jungian analyst Russell Lockhart. The idea for the work, and the chapter from which the title comes, originated in one of Lockhart’s dreams. A voice in his dream said “Do you not know that words are eggs, that words carry life, that words give birth?” (92). Lockhart later points out that this dream revelation isn’t exactly new in the larger scheme of things. In the beginning, it’s rumoured that God spoke the world into existence: “the word is seed and gives birth to life and living things” (92). As eggs, words are constantly delivering new ideas and thoughts, filling our minds with possibilities and worlds we otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

A writer, I’m fascinated with anything to do with words and how they inform, form, and reform our surroundings—and us. They are magical and ordinary simultaneously, both grounding us in their multiple meanings as well as suggesting possibilities that seem limitless. That’s one reason why poetry and fiction in particular have such a profound grip on our imaginations and on us. In his exploration of his dream announcement, Lockhart does a compelling job of taking the reader into the soul and roots of language, demonstrating how mysterious and complex these 26 letters of the alphabet are that have an endless capacity to change shape.

So when I recently had an auditory dream that said “words are animals,” my antennae went up and the animal in me growled. What was the dream trying to convey by making this analogy?

Unlike humans, animals aren’t governed by consciousness. They simply exist, functioning instinctively, motivated by immediate needs: hunger, shelter, survival. Also unlike most humans, animals follow their impulses. Their innate drives are their engines. They just do whatever they need to do as they live each day.

text-1318193_1920How then are words similar to what I’ve just described? If animals, at least domesticated ones, allow us to corral them, to absorb some of their otherness, their wildness, then words must give in to our domination in similar ways. The very idea that we are abstracting something vital from the language we use in our attempt to create order out of the chaotic mess that unruly letters can make saddens me. We’re draining something intuitive and spontaneous from the method we use to communicate with others and with ourselves.

Is the dream suggesting that as we domestic words, as we drain their animal characteristics from them, we are civilizing ourselves too much, becoming more alienated from our animal origins and perhaps coming to resemble more the robotic gadgets we’re surrounded by? I don’t have any final answers, but I’m curious if others have thoughts about this subject.