Thursday, February 25, 2016

Questions, Always with the Questions

Among persons you know who have participated in writers' conferences over the years, there is the recognition that the two most prominent questions from the students are (1) Where do you [established writers] get your ideas? and (2) How do I secure the services of a literary agent? 


Any given writers' conference is not truly over until one or both has been asked at least once. Sometimes, a conference is noted for its appeal to the true beginner when these questions are repeated numerous times.

You like to think you never asked those questions when you were a few degrees back on the learning curve. In all probability, you were right, because you had so many other questions related to choices and craft that a source for ideas and the representation of agents was the least of your worries.

The questions related to how you were going to wrap your mind around a way (or ways) to implement an idea you had buzzing about you like a mosquito in search of her evening meal. Who, then, is telling the story? That seemed easy enough at first; an I or a She or a He. If you were into something longer, you could even make it a they, as in multiple point-of-view.

What was harder come by was the answer to the next question, Why?  Why that character (or those characters)? Learning that answer came only after you'd yanked untold numbers of pages from the typewriter. Like all such technique- and craft-related answers, there were special cases, by which you include the additional time for you to slough through the times when all your approaches were special cases, meaning there was more to consider, more to understand. 

Things are a tad easier now because of the convenience of the delete key on your computer, but some sixth or seventh sense appears to talk to you from time to time, suggesting you write pages in longhand on a notepad until you're on firmer ground in your answer to the Who? and your greater certainty of the Why? 

You last read Moby-Dick about five years ago; you will surely read it again. But you think of it with great regularity as a reminder for the Who? and Why? Ishmael is the first-person narrator because he is the only survivor of the crew of the Pequod and, accordingly, of the entire novel.  The author wanted a survivor to tell the tale. To get you, previous, and subsequent readers literally and figuratively on board, he gave you a character who was vulnerable. When the world was too much with him, Ishmael took himself to sea. This one time, when he took himself to sea, he signed on a ship captained by a megalomaniac.

Reading for pleasure has come to mean reading novels past and current to see how others have accomplished the goal of transferring the idea to the form. Only a small part of you reads to see how well the protagonist made out. 

The major part of you is looking to see if there could have been better narrative filters for relaying the idea into the reader's imagination, and a significant part is also looking for possible hand-offs, such as Valerie Martin's retelling of the Jekyll-Hyde story through the point of view of an Irish immigrant maid, or of Cynthia Ozick's brilliant take off on the Henry James novel you tend to like above most others (except maybe What Maisie Knew).

Other questions abide, such as What will the characters do, after you've wound them up and set them loose?Have you stressed them enough, driven them up an unsteady-enough tree, then proceeded to throw the rocks of circumstance at them? How do you use the language to convey that most shadowy of all qualities, verisimilitude, the apparent sense of reality that causes the readers, once and for all, to stop thinking goose bumps, and then actually begin to notice them appearing on their skin? Is it through the spare narrative of Hemingway and Raymond Carver, or the mischievous wit of Dorothy Parker or Cynthia Ozick? And was there ever anyone better than describing a river than Mark Twain or the wavy rustle of prairie grass than Willa Cather?


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