Monday, August 13, 2012

The Swiss Army Knife of Writing


You’ve put forth considerable energy into defining for yourself the nuances and ramifications of point-of-view.  At first, this was selfish to the extent selfishness relates to a wanna-be craftsperson, learning to use a tool.  In the process of this definition, it has come to you that the tool you think of as point of view has evolved from a more-or-less one-dimensional telling to the literary equivalent of the Swiss Army knife.

In the most simple and direct terms, you discovered by virtue of reading narratives from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries that point-of-view has evolved, reminding you as well that some eighteenth- , nineteenth-, and twentieth-century writers were ahead of the evolutionary curve, which is one way of saying their narratives not only hold up, they seem to you every bit as insightful and deep as some of the better contemporary narrators of story.

Not until you began teaching classes on approaches to writing point-of-view were you able to do your own equivalent of a teenager discovering sex, which is to say you really fell down the rabbit hole when you conflated types of narrator—naïve, reliable, unreliable—with the various person perspectives.

Somewhere midway through your evening walk, you were hit with the awareness that you’d missed something of possible consequence.  You’d neglected—you have neglected all this time—to turn the light of inquiry on yourself.

If point-of-view in all its ramifications and nuances is the Swiss Army knife of fiction—and you believe it is—your experimental and practice sessions with it have not until today caused you to wonder much less ask yourself straight out, What kind of narrator are you?

Are you a reliable narrator?  Does  your narrative vision convey what you hope is an easy-going-with-a-touch-of-edge vision into the landscape you purport to represent?

A writer of fantasy often gets to design an entire universe.  She may not use all of it nor do you use all of yours, but is your more-or-less contemporary landscape, which is set in central and southern California as real and honest as the fantasy writer’s built-from-scratch-ingredients  universe?

This is not so extreme an example as it might seem.  Both universes are alternates from the Reality going on in actuality.  How convincing is yours?  Does yours need some props or details or focus to convince anyone who might read your work that the setting resonates with some recognition of other fictional and Reality-based setting?  

Do your characters appear to have plausible goals?  Are their responses in some kind of sync with the responses of individuals of Reality and of fiction the reader will use as standards of comparison?

Asking yourself these questions reminds you of a forthcoming agreement you made to attend a large pot luck gathering and the resulting call from the host, wondering what luck you will contribute to the pot.  “Please,”  the host said.  “No pasta dishes.  We’re already up to our asses in pasta dishes.”

You had in fact given serious thought to a pasta dish involving broccolini, garlic, fruity olive oil, and your favorite balsamic vinegar, with the viscosity of a motor oil.

Desert is always safe for potluck gatherings.  Beverages are safe.  Anti-pasta angst to the contrary not withstanding, you’ve never seen lasagna leftovers after such gatherings.

Your decision was to go ahead with the broccolini.  Fuck it.  If no one else eats it, you will because you fucking enjoy it.  The point of all this potluck stuff being risk.

There is risk in any point-of-view approach, which is part of the reason you so enjoy writing these blog essays in the second person.  The emotional settings vary from time to time, in particular if you are “on” about something, aware there is more vitriol or perhaps frustration in your literary cocktail shaker than usual.  

A portion of the risk is that you will not be as honest, which is as good a way of saying elements in your narrative will be more generic, more shorthand and thus less tangible in your vision.

You have in mind if not in a notebook at your desk a list of potential things to look at from editors who , as you do when you edit, give some thought to how a narrative emerges.  Your great pal, Barnaby Conrad, prizes so-called pop-up books, remarkable and surprising books where, when you turn a particular page, a setting opens up in three-dimension.  The pop-up book is such a fine metaphor for your hopes and intentions when you compose.

Against that vision come recent comments about the length of your sentences, your choice of words, your vocabulary in general.

And yet.

There are words such as rebarbative and tantivy that pop up in your narratives as though they belong there.  Preternatural.  Perfervid.  Onomatopoetic.  Of course tintinnabulation, and its magisterial verb, tintinnabulate.  Her laughter tintinnabulated through the room.  Denizen is another resonant word.  You use them because they are there, thinking you will spot them in subsequent drafts, then replace them.  But in that splendid sense of voice, they are invisible when you reread them; your targets are such words as “that,” and ‘very,” and “somewhat,” the literary equivalents of empty calories.

Let the dialogue begin; this is not an issue you will solve in short order.  In all likelihood, it will add ingredients to your attitude, which becomes represented in your voice.  Some readers will think you wanting to show off.  But you already knew that; you do in fact show off—for yourself.  This is where the deep pleasure is.  You do not write to impress yourself.  Rather you write to become impressed as much by what you’ve discovered as by what you do not know.

Your interest in the noir narrative is no accident; there is clear causality.  The ongoing discovery of the degree of things you do not know is overwhelming in its noir presence, daring you to get it down on the page or screen as a living testimony of the journey you have ahead of you.


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