Archive for December, 2009

Story Vs. Language

Sugar Pie Recipe from WatchMojo.com

Hope everyone had a great Christmas, if you celebrated it.  The highlight of ours was the food – along with all kind of roasted things (turkey, potatoes, carrots), we had a Quebecois theme going, with homemade doughnuts (beignes) for brunch, “sugar pie” for dessert at dinner, and poutine for lunch the next day. I’d never had sugar pie before, and it was really interesting—it tastes a lot like it sounds. It’s made with brown sugar, has a grainy texture, and reminded me a bit of maple fudge. Amandine got a cool red retro-style Radio Flyer tricycle, and had a great time popping wheelies in our little living room, which is gradually recovering from its encounter with that tube of purple lipstick.

The book is coming along. My heroine has gotten her heart thoroughly mashed and has set out on a quest to find Truth (with a capital T), God, the meaning of life, and a boyfriend. Man, but it’s been a traumatic couple of weeks on the writing front. Every time I sit down to write, I become a faucet—the tears start jetting out and spraying everything in sight, which is embarrassing when I’m writing in a public place, like my favorite local neighborhood coffee shop for example.

On the subject of literary craftsmanship, I’m starting to think I’m one of those writers for whom the story and content is primary and language is secondary. That’s not to say I think it’s okay to be sloppy in your use of language. It’s just that for me, the main focus is on having a story and characters that are engaging, and the job of the language I use is to let the reader envision the events and people in the book as clearly as possible. I don’t mind interesting metaphors and striking, original word choices if those are helpful in getting the job done, but I don’t go out of my way to put them in. Mostly I just cross my fingers and hope they will appear along the way as incidental, serendipitous byproducts of  my attempts at clarity.

There are people out there who would probably say this is not a very literary attitude to take, although writing of the literary variety is what I’m trying to do.  The story-before-language principle is more closely associated with genre fiction. I guess the problem for genre writing is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if the story comes first, then it is okay if the language is sloppy, and so you do in fact get a lot of sloppy, bad writing. Maybe I’m too idealistic, but I think clear writing is never sloppy or bad; in order to be clear, there can’t be any elements in it that distract the reader from the message, such as awkward syntax, bothersome cliches, or too many adjectives and adverbs piled on top of each other (a crime of which I’m frequently guilty—not to mention all those wretched qualifiers). In any case, I’m no book snob, and I think good, clear writing can be found in all genres.

The other day I read the submission guidelines of an online literary magazine that said the editors cared more about the language than the story. They wanted the striking diction and fancy metaphors, and the plot could pretty much go to hell as far as they were concerned. I think that is such a big mistake. I read more literary fiction than anything else, and while I don’t see this problem with my favorite classic authors like Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann, I’m constantly getting frustrated with more contemporary authors who get praised to the skies for their nifty language but have boring, boring plots or characters I couldn’t care less about, or more usually both.

Take Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, for example. The writing is full of technical bravura. Unforgettable imagery, awesome similes (speaking of writing about sex, who could forget the depiction of a couple of married chefs, Denise and her husband, doing the deed as though they were making a souffle, or Gary and his wife as, ha ha, “the screwing wounded”?). There’s no denying that Franzen’s language is masterful and poetic. But the plot? The characters? Meh.

Franzen tries. He clearly does. We are supposed to care about Alfred because he throws himself off a boat, and Franzen does at least have the courtesy to send Chip to Lithuania to witness the downfall of a country. And there are some nice insights into the nature of seduction and dominance-submission patterns from Denise’s relationship with Robin. By the end, I did kinda sorta care a little about what happened to everybody, but it was by no means a page turner, and the only way I was able to finish the book at all was through sheer force of will. I was determined to finish it only because everybody said it was so good, or I would happily have abandoned it halfway through. But on the whole, I thought a lot of the scenes didn’t add much or move the story along, and should have been cut—maybe a fourth of the book could and should have been excised. The characters started out deeply repugnant, and by the end managed to become only endurable. The story just wasn’t engaging, I think at least in part because it played second fiddle to Franzen’s clever use of language, resulting in a sadly trivial book for all its magnificence at the level of the words.

So, yeah, that’s the kind of book I don’t want to write, even if writing it would make me rich and famous. Although, in Franzen’s defense, it’s better to have tried and not pulled it off than not to have tried at all, and I respect his intellectual ambitiousness. And goodness knows, she who is without literary sins among us should be the first to cast stones, not me, the one with the half-finished novel that’s turning into one big annoying cry-a-thon. Sigh.


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Orchids and Dandelions

Orchids on display at the Krohn Conservatory of Cincinnati

Orchids on display at the Krohn Conservatory of Cincinnati (Kabir Bakie/Wikimedia Commons)

I really enjoyed the piece in this week’s Atlantic about the orchid and dandelion children. Oversimplifyingly summarized: Certain genes can predispose people to conditions that make them more fragile, like depression, attention deficit, or being restless and risk-prone. New genetic research shows that these genes can be as helpful as they hurtful; much depends on what conditions a person grows up in and lives with as an adult. The “orchids” are people born with more fragile combinations of genes, while “dandelions” are the people with hardier gene patterns. I also appreciated the exchange between authors David Dobbs and David Shenk clarifying some of the limits of the orchid-dandelion metaphor and the subtleties of genetic science.

While the critical thinker in me sagely agrees that oversimplifying metaphors are tsk, tsk, not to be taken lightly, the writer in me loves the orchid-dandelion imagery. The happy dandelion goofing around on every field and lawn, cheerful and nice to look at, the decadent orchid languishing in its hot-house solitude, or withering away to a colorless little crisp when exposed to the harsh outside elements. So poetic.

You’d think most writers and a lot of other creative types would be complete and total orchids. So it’s interesting that a lot of the famous and great writers you hear about worked under such difficult conditions. Dostoyevsky exiled to Siberia, later saddled with massive debts, a compulsive gambler, battling depression, all the while writing frantically to pay the bills; George Orwell racing to finish 1984 before dying of tuberculosis; F. Scott Fitzgerald an alcoholic, his wife Zelda suffering from schizophrenia, etc. All of which makes you think that these people must have quite a lot of dandelion in them, too.

I was thankful for the dandelion in me (such as there is) the other day; I was upstairs editing a manuscript and Amandine, my 2-year-old, went downstairs and seemed to be playing quietly down there for a while. I was happy for the chance to get a little work done. After about ten minutes, I heard her come up the stairs again, saying “Mommy – I all dirty.” I was like … uh-oh. And I look at her, and at first I think she’s covered from head to toe in purple mud—she was only wearing a diaper that day because she has those days when she’s anti-clothes. So I go to look closer, and gradually I realize she has slathered her entire body in my expensive Lancome Plum Passion lipstick, which she got out of my backpack pocket that I’d left open downstairs. She’d used the whole tube on herself.

Okay, so it’s not quite like dying of tuberculosis, but I ask you, did Dostoyevsky or Kafka ever have to interrupt their literary endeavors to spend an hour washing lipstick out from between the toes, underarms, and neckfolds of a squirming toddler, not to mention another hour wiping down the walls and scrubbing the stuff out of cheap beige shag carpet? We mom-authors are seriously underrated with regard to the challenges we have to overcome in order to get any writing done, is all I’m saying.

I can’t believe it’s almost Christmas (or whatever your winter holiday of choice is). Happy holidays, everyone!

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I’ll start with the bad news. I’ve now come to the part in the novel I’m currently working on where my heroine gets her heart broken. Up to now, the book has been mostly ironic philosophical humor mixed with giddy teenage infatuation, and it has been really fun to write. But now it’s going to be sad for a while, and I’m kind of dreading getting into the part that comes next. I don’t know if it’s like this for other writers, but in my forays into story writing so far, whether fictional or memoir, I find I get so wrapped up in what’s happening in the story that I end up empathizing strongly with all my characters, even the kind of jerky ones. When they’re sad or upset, it puts me in a bad mood, and when they’re happy, I’m on a high.

I wonder if it’s the same for actors when they have to play a character—if on stage they get so “in character,” so far inside the character’s head, that they almost start to get their own identities mixed up with the ones they’re portraying. I’ve heard it said that some actors do this, and that it leads to bad acting. Some say the actor has to keep a certain distance from his or her dramatic character, in order to maintain the presence of mind that’s needed for good acting to happen. Others might say the opposite, that an actor has to lose herself completely in the character to portray her realistically. I wonder if this also applies to writing—that if you get too wrapped up in your characters, it leads to bad writing, and so you have to keep a certain emotional distance between yourself and them; or whether maybe the converse is true, and losing yourself in your story helps you write realistically and with greater sincerity. I’m going with the latter strategy for now, as I’m not much good at distancing myself.

Now the good news. I’m nearing the halfway point with my book, both narratively and, erm, spatially (i.e., in terms of the size of book I had imagined), at just over 40,000 words. Also, I decided to put in a gratuitous sex scene, to make it more fun and interesting and to help make up for the depressing part that’s coming. (Yay for gratuitous sex scenes!) I’d never written one before, so that was interesting. Apparently, much more experienced writers than me find these hard to get right. I found it funny in the linked-to article that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is on the list for worst sex scenes in fiction, given that I thought one or two of those in One Hundred Years of Solitude were hot as all get-out. No quarrel with Ian McEwan’s Atonement being on the list of good ones, though.

Life offers its small consolations. In the past year I’ve spent lots of time and postage submitting essays to literary magazines, and usually get back only form rejections. But every now and then, I’ll get rejected with a personal note from the editor saying they liked my piece even though they weren’t able to take it, and they’d like me to send more (as if I wouldn’t have anyway). I love these personalized rejections, which are almost as nice to get as acceptances. Yesterday I got a particularly effusive one, calling the essay I’d submitted “a revelation.” It was so nice that I did a happy dance in the living room for fifteen minutes while my two-year-old, Amandine, looked on and giggled and kept asking for “mo, mo.” And to top it off, after dinner, Amandine told me I had beautiful hair. (Okay, what she actually said was, “Mommy, you boo-ful … hairs,” and stroked my hair while she said it.) So that was a good day.

But what I really meant to post about this week is totally unrelated to any of that, namely, qualifiers. Qualifiers are the bane of my existence, or at least of my writing, which seems to make up a good portion of my existence these days. Qualifiers are the reallys and verys, the almosts, sort ofs, nearlys, hardlys, maybes, quites, rathers, extremelys, somewhats, sometimeses, oftens, frequentlys, perhapses, significantlys, totallys, completelys, trulys, genuinelys, of courses, and so on, that try to creep into prose at every turn. I try to write 1,000 words a day on average. Lately, I find myself going through my day’s word quota afterwards and crossing out qualifiers, which can easily reduce the word count to three-quarters of what it was. I exaggerate, but it’s surprising how persistently these little buggers infect my writing, how little they add, and how hard they are to get rid of.

In talking, I use qualifiers constantly to convey a lack of certainty in my statements. My inner Socrates is always telling me to hedge my assertions to avoid sounding like I know things that I don’t really know. I want to do the same thing when I write, but I end up overusing these verbal hedges and sounding wordy and weak. Conviction counts for so much in descriptive writing—and when I go back through what I’ve written, more often than not I see that the qualifiers are unnecesary.

If anyone has any tips on how to break the qualifying habit, I’d be glad to hear them …

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I have a newly published essay out in the latest edition of Ducts.org. It’s a humor piece on dating called “Smug Married Advice to the Single.” Enjoy!

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Escapism vs. Creativity

Last night my big sister and I went to see the movie 2012 (my daughter and I are in Phoenix this week visiting her, and I’m taking advantage of getting to go to the movies more often than I do at home). It was fun – very campy and over-the-top, not high film art or anything, but fun.

(WARNING: Potential spoilers follow …)

So it’s funny, the main character of this movie is a writer who’s separated from his wife and two kids. He’s had one book published with a small print run of 500 copies, but naturally, his writing indirectly saves hundreds of lives, because it inspires another character to make a heart-warming speech about how the self-serving government bigwigs ought to let more people onto these gigantic ships they’ve built to save humanity from the apolcalyptic floods.

And, conveniently, after this writer has proved what a big-hearted guy he is by rescuing his ex-wife and kids and her new boyfriend, and after he’s shown how mature and forgiving he is by admitting that his ex-wife’s new boyfriend isn’t so bad after all, the ex-wife’s new boyfriend just happens to get painfully ground up in a giant can opener-type contraption (whoops), and (surprise!) his ex-wife realizes that he, the writer dude, is the one she really wanted all along, even though it’s clear from the film that he was a terrible husband and spent most his time when they were together ignoring her and his kids so he could sit around and write.

This plot definitely sounds like some writer’s escapist fantasy, which isn’t to say I don’t sympathize with the guy, since of course I also like to sit around and write.

So then afterwards my sister and I were talking about how much of writing (the literary or creative kind) comes from escapism and how much of it comes from being driven to do it. Of course, every writer is different, but I find that with my own writing, I definitely go back and forth. I like to write about things that I enjoy thinking about (e.g., nice people, beautiful settings in nature). That kind of subject matter provides a great little mini-vacation from real life sometimes. It’s like with Westley in The Princess Bride when he’s getting tortured by the evil six-fingered count – when I’m stuck waiting in line at the post office, or changing the fourth poopy diaper of the day, or inching along in rush hour traffic, I can just go to my happy place and work on a story in my head.

But I also like taking on projects that are more ambitious and potentially painful, and not out of pure masochism either, but because there’s a certain drive there to construct things – to start with nothing and end up with something. It’s a creative urge that’s there regardless of how pleasant or painful the act of creation might be. It’s kind of a strange thing, sort of the opposite of entropy – a force that wants to impose new structure and order on the raw material of one’s thoughts and experiences, to push this new structure out of potentiality into actuality, to bring something into being.

And there’s a sense, too, in which this urge to make something is unrelated to how good the final product is. You might know from the outset that everyone will think it sucks, and yet you still want to do it. You might know from the outset that no one besides your mom will ever read it, and yet you still want to do it.

The escapist urge is logical and easy to understand. The creative urge is just plain weird. There’s something mysterious and miraculous about it. As with other alleged miracles, it’s entirely possible to doubt whether it’s even real and there aren’t more sordid explanations behind it, like that it’s some sort of escapism gone bent and twisted. But I think it’s for real.

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