Sunday, October 18, 2009


I’m always wary when people ask me for feedback about their writing or even, like that reckless Lance, think I might be a good writing teacher. In the first place, I soon discovered that what they really wanted me (or someone) to teach them was not about writing, but rather about success. But success as a writer is an elusive phenomenon that can’t really be taught because so much of it is uncontrollable, a function of time, place and culture. Also, “success” in most people’s minds is commodified, which is not about the writing at all -- it’s about the creation of saleable objects we used to call “books” but now call, in our sophisticated way, “codexes” meaning bound pages, piled up on shelves. (Thus the prob with virtual ebooks.) The idea used to be that discerning investors would put capital into buying the content, shaping and illustrating of these objects, then send them out to stores for sale. Promotion, of course, is crucial. A terrific book, exemplary in every way, is not going to sell (succeed) unless people know it exists.

Since the investors are now corporations whose shareholders demand ten per cent or more return on their investment, Manhattan publishers put a lot of money into market research in the belief that books are commodities like any other and that questionnaires will tell them what is a valuable commodity. This is a side-aspect of writing which really has nothing to do with the writing itself. I know little or nothing about the commodification of books as now sold by big box stores. Except that the factor of imagining the Emperor’s New Clothes is really big and so is the principle of “the son of” or “part X” or “the continuing story.” Branding.

As for actual writing, I’ve learned a few things like the trick about dialogue that I shared with Lance. (No one really teaches writing -- we all just sort of blunder along together.) For instance, besides making dialogue more convincing and engaging by letting characters talk past each other in fragments designed to reveal the underlying agendas of the speakers, there are tricks for getting rid of those pesky “he saids” and “she saids.” An amateur might get the thesaurus and begin saying things like, “he ejaculated,” which is a little alarming, depending on the circumstances. “She interlocuted,” which is pretentious, and other multi-syllabics. A trick I use is to include an assigned action just before the quote: “The lumberjack picked up his chainsaw. ‘Say that again and you’re a tree!’” Of course, it’s always good for characters to have distinctive enough voices that confusion is reduced. If there are only two people, they can just go back and forth with nothing but “DI”(two)alogue. Hemingway did that. Ping pong. Make it snappy. Or badminton. Make it stylish.

Two lessons came from a weekend workshop with Peter Matthiessen two decades ago. I had a sentence that would NOT behave: it went in kinks and loops that would not lie down and make sense. Peter changed a prepositional phrase into a gerund, threw out an intensifier, and made a participle into a modifier. The sentence now worked. (A sentence like that is sometimes best made into two.) The point I took was that if all you learned from your English teacher was to name and identify the grammatical construction of a sentence, you have gone to a lot of work for nothing. The point of seeing what they are IS to have the ability to convert constructs from one to the other. People who have taken Latin seem to find this easy, even fun. It’s not a matter of synonyms, but rather controlling the underlying message by structuring grammatical relationships. As well as meaning, one must consider what using more complex or simpler constructs and so on will do to the “rhetoric” which is (I think) the tone and style of the words. This is high octane stuff and requires a LOT of reading to perceive, something like training your eye by looking at art.

The other lesson came when I said that buffalo have purple mouths like chow dogs. Peter suggested that since I was trying to present buffs as majestic and impressive beasts, using a comparison to a dog was not a good idea. The lesson is that people will associate any image with ALL the traits of the subject. Buffs are not pets. (I’m more impressed with chow dogs than Peter is.) I took the point, but another writer at the table did not. He entered an argument about whether it is true that either animal has a purple mouth. Like so many people these days, he got entirely stuck on fact and lost the artfulness.

There are many many ways to use image, metaphor, comparison. Barrus often uses the displacement of a word properly belonging to one of the senses as a modifier of another sense, like saying music tastes of salt. We do it all the time, but he does it in a vivid incantatory way which is his personal style, learned in a time when it was characteristic of a society that is now gone (or underground) and largely unrecognized.

Ivan Doig often uses a noun as a verb or some other displacement of one “part of speech” into another, which is possible because we (maybe unconsciously) understand the grammar as well as the word. It is sometimes startling and IMHO if it is TOO startling, it stops the reader’s flow in order to figure it out. Ivan is also a product of his time and place, which happens to be close to mine except that he was in journalism and I was in theatre, which made a LOT of difference.

Which brings up the issue of the author as an exemplar. Again, IMHO, what makes writing truly absorbing and valuable is the underlying life. One who wants to be a significant writer, as opposed to a best-selling one, must develop him or herself as an instrument in much the same way as an actor. I don’t mean acting like one’s fav protagonist. I mean expanding one’s knowledge of the world, understanding of what’s going on, and something I can only call morality, a sense of how things ought to be or at least the possibility of what it could be -- sometimes through a dark portrayal of why the status quo is evil and destructive. This is self-serving, because what really finally let me see what my own writing should be was seminary: the consideration of human life in an a-human context. It is also one of the strong ties between Barrus and myself, which no one who doesn’t consider this dimension will ever understand.

Truth, in my sort of writer’s terms, is not a matter of factuality, but rather integrity, empathy, and other connections to the world, both ecstatic and fatal. There’s a lot more to talk about later.


Lance M. Foster said...

Thanks for this post too Mary. When I was younger, even up to 10 years ago, I had illusions of being "a novelist," "a writer," which meant the usual dreams of making a living writing books that people read and talked about.

Of course even before the Internet, I had hints that was naive of me. I had scripts running though my head of past teachers saying I had a gift, blah blah blah. I had fantasies, not of exactly being rich (oh maybe a little rich) but at least only struggling when I was young enough to take the struggle, and let it make me strong...that when I was old and tired, I could have a nice modest home and not worry about money all the time. I pretty much suck at money. We don't seem to get along, money and me.

Now all I want to do is keep working on my "Bucket List" as such. And one of them is writing a novel. Just get it done. Make it the best story I can write. It would be nice if it sold, if people read it, if it became a bestseller, if it was optioned by Hollywood, if it made me enough money to pay all my debts and get a little house to get old in. But hey, let's get real. And doubly so based on the insights I now have about publishing and the fragmentation of the reading/entertainment attention/dollar, ...I might as well play the lottery. But I suck at gambling too.

My illusions have been burnt to cinders in the fires of this last decade, personal and cultural. Maybe I can use the ashes to make ink. While I suck at gambling, love, and money, I can be pretty good at random acts of magic. I made a tornado hop over a strip bar once.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Ink from ashes is good.

I never expected to have this house, though it's a little "sub-modest."

It's not over 'till it's over, Lance. And you DO have worthy published books!

Prairie Mary