Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Four Hoarse Men of the Apocalypse

Sitting at Peet's Coffee & Tea this morning, Jerry Freedman and I begin going over the notes we'd each made for the book on writing fiction it appears likely we will undertake. We have already begun looking for an edge, an approach that is at once positive and practical. Each of us, without consulting the other, came up with one of the more iconic--I seem to be in love with that word--writing books that while practical and positive enough in its way, seemed to give us the edge, the starting momentum. The book is Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird .

When Bird by Bird first appeared, Barnaby Conrad used some family connections to bring her from her Bay Area home to be a guest speaker at the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, where her performance was electric and inspiring. To a degree, so was her text, particularly the chapter entitled "The Shitty First Draft." 

 I am one of the few book reviewers in America to have given her in the L.A. Times a less-than-flattering review on an earlier novel, Joe Jones. She remembered. And roared. But afterwards, sent me the most lovely note and we ended up quite respecting one another. That's all back story to the fact that neither Jerry or I believe in shitty first drafts, and so the approach to our book began. A major focus will be on revision, but it is the manner of doing so that will make our project different and, I dare say, useful.

As it so happened, Conrad dropped among other things the Atlantic Monthly fiction issue on me at lunch yesterday. I am always suspicious of such issues, not only from the Atlantic, or the New Yorker, but many literary journals and the so-called Best-of-the-Year collections and the O.Henry Prize Collection, thinking it fortunate for me to find one story I really like per issue. 

The Atlantic had a Tobias Wolfe, "Bible." Ever since I stumbled some years back on "In the Garden of American Martyrs," I've liked his work and the way he makes it possible for him to present a good relevant chunk of a character thanks to back story and subtext, or to put it another way for The Individual Voice, what the characters bring on stage with the and how they often speak at crossed purposes with their true feelings.

"The Bible" is a lovely example; it is about a woman who is kidnapped by a man who is obviously but not overtly identified as a Muslim. The man makes it pointedly clear that his motive has nothing to do with money or sex. Within the arc of the story, the woman realizes she may have momentarily lost power to her captor but is rapidly gaining it back to effect a lovely and stunning ending. Talking about this story gave us another approach to dealing with the definition of what story is today and what it is not.

There is one more element related to finding one's individual voice that came from Jerry remembering back to the time when he was in my novel beginnings class and I gave him a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa that turned him on. Not to forget the alchemy that is to be found in the old Rogers and Hammerstein song, "If I Loved You,"as it relates to a vital psychological concept and a technique from the esteemed actor, Uta Hagen.

Pictures at eleven.

Screw it; pictures now.


z said...

Well, I'm realizing what subtext is and realizing it's completely missing from most dialogue I write which makes my dialogue very boring. I just started posting a "serial story" on my blog, and in the dialogue, everyone says exactly what they mean, though they do go off in irrelevent, absurd digressions. But they are all sincere people. At least so far in the story. I'll have to think about this.

lowenkopf said...

Everyone in Moby-Dick was sincere; some happened to be more sincere than others. Sincere people make great friends, but as you discovered, they do not translate well into characters. Try instead thinking of a character as a walking agenda. What does she want? What is she willing to do to get what she wants? How does she respond when she gets what she wants and discovers it wasn't worth while?