August this year was a strange month for me – two surgeries, a lot of lying around, interviews via Skype, a ceremony at the Town Hall, my first children’s book published, a new – fake – blog (Everybody Needs Two or Three Friends), and a trip to Wales. (Wales is a strange country: let’s admit it.) The months in my life, like the days of the week, can blur sometimes, especially when I’m not leaving the house much, and my day is structured around reading, writing, and gorging on episodes of BREAKING BAD.
Much of the first week of September was spent reading Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch, in preparation for interviewing her for the Listener. I loved the book, and I loved talking to her – perhaps because I’m such a shut-in right now, and miss conversation. (You can talk all you like to the mothers in TODDLERS AND TIARAS, but really, they’re not listening.) So poor DT had to listen to my Leontine Price anecdote, and discuss the McDonald’s in Grenada, Mississippi, just off the I-55.
Reading the novel got me very excited about writing again, about the possibilities of story and setting in my own novel. And talking to DT about the notion of mystery sent me back to Flannery O’Connor’s essays in Mystery and Manners. I think I’m going to get my students this year to read “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” at least:
“The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions. It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object that they actually see. But the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are very loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions. They are apt to be reformers and want to write not because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion. They are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and of everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth.”
At the end of the essay, she also talks about what writing classes can and can’t do:
“[So] many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.”
This is the hard thing to explain to some students – and clients, and people who ask you to read their manuscript and give them honest feedback. (FYI: what this latter group really want is your agent’s phone number and a fast track to the Pulitzer or Booker: anything approaching honest feedback will displease or outrage them and they will dismiss it as evidence of your jealousy, profoundly limited imagination, and overly commercial – or overly literary – frame of reference.)
I think that in order to write a story – short or long – that transcends competence, you need talent, a story to tell, and enough grasp of the possibilities of language and technique to get the story onto the page in a way that is true to your vision of it. And that’s the key thing: you need some kind of vision. Other readers – teachers, editors, classmates, etc – can help you identify weaknesses and maybe even help fix them. But we can’t supply the vision for your novel or story. Nobody else knows the path through your own particular wilderness. That’s the challenge of art: looking around, learning from other’s examples and experiences, and then forging ahead.
Sometimes people talk to me about their manuscripts, complaining about conflicting advice they’ve been given, and throwing up their hands in despair about working out the best way forward. But that’s the thing about writing – about creating any art, I would imagine. Finding the way is the thing.
As readers of this blog know, I like puzzles – jigsaws, crosswords. I like to hold up the cracker/hat ritual at Christmas by trying to guess the answers to the stupid riddles. (They’re just puns: we can all do it!) Writing fiction is the most interesting puzzle of all to me, because there aren’t clear parameters or start/end-points. It took me several years to work out how best to tell the story in Rangatira: I think it came about when I saw the date “1886” on a photograph of Paratene Te Manu, read about the eruption of Mount Tarawera that same year, and remembered the conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. There are hundreds of ways to tell the same story. At some point, you have to pick one that excites you, one that cracks the story open for you and leads you somewhere unknown and intriguing.
I’ve read lots of competent manuscripts written by people who are deeply frustrated by rejections – from writing programmes, agents, publishers. The thing is, there are a lot of great manuscripts that get rejected too. Even published great books may be rejected by the majority of readers (not to mention reviewers, if the book gets reviewed at all); the writers may remain obscure to the world at large. Other people may not like you, or get you. There are so many writers, and so many books. Don’t do it to get love or acclaim or prizes or money. And don’t pretend, like the mothers on TODDLERS AND TIARAS, that you’re doing it because it’s just a lot of fun, fun, fun.
Time for a story update:
196: ‘Territory’ by David Leavitt (1982)
197: ‘Oil Field Vignettes’ by Jim Thompson (1929)
198: ‘Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip’ by Charles Bukowski (1944)
199: ‘April in Paris’ by Ursula Le Guin (1962)
200: ‘The State of Grace’ by Harold Brodkey (1954)
201: ‘The Geranium’ by Flannery O’Connor (1946)
202: ‘The Debutante’s Return’ by Jay McInerney (2008)
203: ‘A Day in the Open’ by Jane Bowles (1945)
204: ‘Tam-O’-Shanter’ by Donna Tartt (1993)
205: ‘Housebreaking’ by Sarah Frisch (2012)
206: ‘Yellow Woman’ by Leslie Marmon Silko (1974)
207: ‘The Use of Force’ by William Carlos Williams (1938)
208: ‘Happy Endings’ by Margaret Atwood (1983)
209: ‘My Life with the Wave’ by Octavio Paz (1949)
210: ‘An Act of Vengeance’ by Isabel Allende (1990)
211: ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ by Angela Carter (1979)
212: ‘La Sainte-Vierge’ by Daphne Du Maurier (1959)
213: ‘Charisma’ by James Salter (2013)
214: ‘The Country of the Blind’ by H. G. Wells (1904)
215: ‘The Sailor-Boy’s Tale’ by Isak Dinesen (1942)
216: ‘This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen’ by Tadeus Borowski (publ. 1967)
217: ‘The Assistant Producer’ by Vladimir Nabokov (1943)
218: ‘The Overcoat’ by Gina Berriault (1991)
219: ‘Where the Tides Ebb and Flow’ by Lord Dunsany (1910)
220: ‘Boys’ by Rick Moody (2000)
221: ‘Tell the Truth’ by Nicholasa Mohr (1975)
222: ‘Mines’ by Susan Straight (2003)
223: ‘Guests of the Nation’ by Frank O’Connor (1954)
224: ‘The Chrysanthemums’ by John Steinbeck (1938)
225: ‘Meet the President’ by Zadie Smith (2013)
The usual rules apply, by the way – only stories that are new to me, and no repeated authors. Of late I’ve been leaning a little hard on a few anthologies. Though I’m chafing at my own restrictions, I feel honour-bound to stick with them (at this late stage, as Kath and Kim would say).
I’m also worried that my home-bound recuperation means TMiddy is spending too much quality time in my presence. He’s starting asking me things like: “Did you know that Chad Lowe is Rob Lowe’s brother? Did you know that Zooey Deschanel has a sister?” Normally, his points of reference are Scientific American and the TLS. I may be a destructive influence on his mental development.
Please visit my alter-ego, Jane Shore, over at Everybody Needs Two or Three Friends. And please remember that it’s satire, and an invented character, and American spelling. The opinions expressed are not mine, or those of any normal person. For example, I would never get inspiration for a wedding from Paula Abdul (her marriage #2), even if autumn is my favourite season.