Friday, May 11, 2018

Craft Talk with Jennifer Egan: Character

I love this craft talk by Jennifer Egan. I recommend watching these three short videos if you have any interest at all in the following:
  • creating full, complex characters
  • conveying a great deal of information in a small space
  • making every word in your manuscript count
  • using dialogue to characterize
  • avoiding clunky exposition
  • writing characters we find compelling even if we don't like them

Part 1

  • 0:00-2:47 How the elements of craft operate simultaneously and inseparably from each other
    • "One thing that I'm always thinking about [...] is how to get language to do the greatest number of possible things at one time."
    • "How can we suggest a whole human being, all the textures of an individual life and history, in as economical a way as possible?"
  • 2:48-5:40: The mistaken notion of character consistency
    • "That is the problem, in my opinion, with so-called consistent characters: they feel familiar, not because we've met them before, but because they are types."
    • "Getting at the particular conflicts at work in an individual is the critical job of characterization."
    • "Time is always passing, in life and in a work of fiction, and therefore stasis is not really possible. Even someone who hasn't changed reads differently, both on the page and in the world (I think we all know some people like this) after time has passed."
    • "Successful fiction, to my mind, owns those changes and controls them rather than trying to establish and then sustain an artificial stasis."
  • 5:41-6:37: How Jane Austen defies everything that's been said so far
    • "How she pulled that off, I still don't know. To me, one of the great literary mysteries is how her novels can be so good. They shouldn't work, and yet they work better than almost anything else, which is why another thing I strongly believe is that there really are no rules at all in fiction writing, despite what people standing at podiums might tell you."
  • 6:38-10:22: Close reading of a character description in Lorrie Moore's "Dance in America"
    • "What we have here is a cascade of surprises: each observation sets up an expectation that the next observation obliterates."
    • "So again and again, an observation is undercut, and yet oddly, the overall portrayal is amplified with every single contradiction. Each time you could say, 'That's not consistent,' and you would be right, but the inconsistency is exactly what makes the portrait exciting and alive, because this is actually how people are."
  • 10:23-13:38: Two-way description--Close reading of character description of Bertha Dorset from The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
    • "Good description is good because it reveals as much about the observer as it does abut the person or thing being observed. The ideal is what I would often find myself calling with my students last semester at NYU 'two-way description,' meaning that something or someone is being described, and the quality and choices of language reveal to the reader the character of the observer as well, so we're basically learning two things at once."

Part 2 

  • 0:00-1:21 Continuing with the Bertha Dorset description
    • "The elements of the description are not just fun and colorful and revealing of the object and the observer, but they're also completely significant. There's nothing extraneous here. Everything that is laid out gets used later."
  • 1:22-8:01: Jack Stepney and Gwen Van Osburgh
    • "It would have been so easy to leave these characters in a state of stasis or to let their stories be a playing out of their characters [...] but instead Wharton tells us a mini-story of their courtship and marriage, in which in some sense their roles are reversed, and she does this with pretty much every peripheral character in the novel, and when you add all of that up, the overall power of the work is exponentially increased."
  • 8:02-14:13: History, compression, and habits of mind--close reading of opening paragraph from Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
    • "Every word you choose in describing someone tells us a great deal about their past and present states, ideally more than one thing at a time. This is how we achieve the compression that I was talking about earlier, because so much of what the reader needs to know about a character can be said indirectly through suggestion and inference."
    • "After contradiction, which I would say is, for me, the most important aspect of characterization, habits of mind is the next most important one, and by that I mean what are the mental tricks a particular person uses to organize the world and make it familiar to him or herself?"

Part 3

  • 0:00-5:27: Voice, dialogue--close reading of Underworld by Don DeLillo
    • "Voice is the equivalent of a cooking stock. Without a good stock, the best ingredients in the world are not going to add up to anything [...] but with a really good stock, you could throw in almost anything. You could put a boot in there, and it will be delicious."
    • "Good dialogue relies on exactly the same kind of compression and history, word choices that tell us not only what someone is saying, obviously, but much more importantly, who they are, where they come from, and what they want."
  • 5:28-15:28: Likeability vs. humanity--close reading of A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone
    • "I don't think that characters need to be likeable (some of my readers disagree) and I'm actually wary of the term because it sounds to me like a code for blandness and simplicity. However, I do believe very strongly in attending to the humanity of anyone you're writing about and avoiding contempt or ridicule. I don't have to want to be friends with the people I read about, but I do crave a sense of what it feels like to be them, their history, their habits of mind, and some sense of what's driving them and why."

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Everything I Know About Writing, #2: Don't wait until morning to write down your midnight ideas.

Stephen King and I have a bit of a disagreement.

A while back, I watched this video of King giving a talk at UMass Lowell. At the 10:25 mark, King says, "People will say, do you keep a notebook? And the answer is, I think a writer's notebook is the best way in the world to immortalize bad ideas. My idea about a good idea is one that sticks around and sticks around and sticks around."

This was very reassuring for me. You mean when a random piece of vivid imagery, character, or prose pops into my head without warning in the middle of the night, I don't have to turn on the lights and jump out of bed and leap over hurdles and grab a pen and jot down the idea before it dissolves into the ether? Awesome!

I proceeded on the assumption that King was right for a good while after that...until one day I stumbled across an old sheet of scratch paper. I had written a scene on the back of the paper, dropped the sheet into a box, and completely forgotten about it.

Guys: it was great.

Hey. Stephen King is doing just fine. I'm not saying he needs to change his habits. But me? I keep a notebook and a pen on my nightstand. Index cards in my pockets, Paper Mates in my purse. And when an idea occurs to me in the middle of the night, I don't kid myself that I'll still remember what it was in the morning--or that, if I don't, the idea wasn't worth remembering anyway.

You never know.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Everything I Know about Writing, #1: The best way to have good ideas is to have lots of ideas.

Twyla Tharp does this exercise when she lectures on creativity. She walks onstage with a random object--say, a stool.

Then she tells the audience to come up with sixty uses for that stool in under two minutes. I'll let her describe what happens next:

To meet the quota, people begin by listing the most obvious uses for a stool, such as sitting on it, standing on it, or burning it as fuel. After that come the more imaginative uses--a doorstop, an anchor, a weapon, a projectile in a riot, as raw material for sculpture, as a surface to drum on. Then the final ideas come straggling in--as a surface for gymnastics, as a tool for taming lions, as a dancing partner. The closer they get to the sixtieth idea, the more imaginative they become--because they have been forced to stretch their thinking. (from Tharp's brilliant book The Creative Habit)

In The Magic Words, Cheryl Klein recommends a similar method. Klein confines her quota to a modest twenty items, but the object of the exercise is the same: to push past easy answers and arrive at something fresh. Protag confronting a thorny problem? List twenty ways she might solve it. Secondary character not fully fleshed out? List twenty facts about his background, desires, and opinions. Not sure what happens next? List twenty possible events and form your plot from the best five.

Don't get me wrong; the first idea that pops into your head might be brilliant. But it might just as easily be stale and generic. To find surprises, you have to force yourself to move beyond your initial thought. You have to stretch.

Monday, February 26, 2018

"Tamitha and the Dragon" is in Cricket Magazine!

The January 2018 issue of Cricket magazine is out now and contains my short story "Tamitha and the Dragon."

This is my second lead story for Cricket.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Gesture of the Day: Alias Grace

I want to talk about Dr. Jordan's apple.

In Chapter 5 of Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, the imprisoned murderess Grace Marks receives a visitor. It is Simon Jordan, a young psychologist--keep in mind that this is 1859--bearing a gift: an apple. Grace has consumed nothing but bread and water for several days now:

I am so thirsty the apple looks to me like a big round drop of water, cool and red. I could drink it down in one gulp. I hesitate; but then I think, There's nothing bad in an apple, and so I take it. [...] I lift it up and smell it. It has such an odour of outdoors on it I want to cry.

Aren't you going to eat it, he says.

No, not yet, I say.

Why not, he says.

[...] The truth is I don't want him watching me while I eat. I don't want him to see my hunger. If you have a need and they find it out, they will use it against you.

Now there's a lot going on in this chapter, and there's a lot going on with this apple. Much could be said of both. But I want to say just one thing. Dr. Jordan wants Grace to talk to him, to become his patient, the subject of his research. Grace distrusts him. She's been down this road before, and she resists his suggestion.

Will they take me back to the Asylum?I say. Or will they put me in solitary confinement, with nothing to eat but bread?

He says, I give you my word that as long as you continue to talk with me, and do not lose control of yourself and become violent, you shall remain as you were. I have the Governor's promise.

I look at him. I look away. I look at him again. I hold the apple in my two hands. He waits.

And then, in the very last line, this happens:

Finally I lift the apple up and press it to my forehead.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you write a gesture. Wouldn't it have been easy enough to have Grace bite the apple, thereby signaling her acceptance of Jordan's terms? And isn't this, the raising of the apple to her forehead, so much better? Less expected, more ambiguous, more emotionally resonant. Better.

These are the moments that make good fiction.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What I'm Reading: Wide Sargasso Sea

I first read Wide Sargasso Sea as part of a postcolonial lit class I took in college. In fact, I signed up for the postcolonial lit class solely and expressly because I wanted to read Wide Sargasso Sea. I was not disappointed.

Recently I gave a craft talk on setting at the Jefferson Parish Public Library. I pulled Sargasso down from the shelf because I thought I'd find some good use of setting in there. And I was right:

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible—the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered—then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and very strong. I never went near it.

How terrific is that? How vivid, how rich, how perfectly demonstrative of one of the book's primary themes, the simultaneous beauty and indifference of nature?

For the uninitiated, Sargasso is Jean Rhys' retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of Antoinette-cum-Bertha, the madwoman in the attic. It's a slim little volume, scarcely 100 pages, but in that limited space Rhys manages to change and challenge our reading of Bronte's classic forever.

Like Jane Eyre, Sargasso begins with its heroine's lonely childhood:

I took another road, past the old sugar works and the water wheel that had not turned for years. I went to parts of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track. And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think "It's better than people." Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin--once I saw a snake. All better than people.
Better. Better, better than people.

Wow! Doesn't that break your heart? Doesn't that pack a wallop?

The latter part of the book chronicles Antoinette's reluctant, dead-on-arrival marriage to an unnamed husband, i.e., Edward Rochester. Rochester enters this loveless marriage because, as a second son, he has no other way of acquiring money, but English primogeniture is only one of many forces that combine to doom them both. There's also the English legal system that deprives Antoinette of her property, the social isolation of European Creoles in Dominica, racial/gender/geographic stereotypes, and the plain old malice of petty, embittered people. A study in cruelty and misunderstanding, told in simple but powerful prose, Sargasso not only invites questions about colonization and gender politics; it also expands our understanding of and feelings for a character that Bronte (and don't get me wrong, I love her) threw under the bus.

When people say that literature helps create empathy, they're talking about books like Wide Sargasso Sea. Oh, my gosh, y'all. Just read it.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Post-It Monsters and the Creative Life

"I was born in Denmark in 1978. I write and direct television shows for kids, I have a set of twins and not much time for anything. But when I do have time, I draw monsters on Post-It notes. It is a little window into a different world, made on office supplies."

This is how John Kenn Mortensen introduces his first book of Post-It note drawings of monsters. Sticky Monsters has pride of place beside my writing desk, for two reasons. First, the pictures seem so pregnant with stories to me. How can you lack for inspiration when you look at a picture like this?

Or this?

Or this?

Second, I think the whole concept of Post-It Note artwork is an apt encapsulation of what creative work is like for most people--that is, people with jobs and families. We write and paint and act and dance on the margins of our day. From eight to five we make copies and phone calls, we grade papers, wait tables, change diapers, and sweep parking lots, and somewhere, in some blessed fifteen minutes, we do what we were born to do. We make art. We may not have time to do all the creative work we would like, but damn it, we can fill a Post-It note-- and a Post-It note is all you need to make a new world.

How wonderful that these monsters, with all their charm and terror, were created the way so much art is created: on the fringes of a hectic life.