Archive for writing process

The Shape of Fiction: Structuring the Novel

Posted in The Literateria, Upcoming Events with tags , , , , , on 02/03/2017 by Janet Fitch

On Feb. 10, I was invited to speak on a panel about the Shape of the Novel with Christian Kiefer (The Animals), with whom I frequently teach at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers,  also Jeff Jackson (Mira Corpora) , Esme Weijun Wang  (the Border of Paradise) and Kirsten Chen (Soy Sauce for Beginners).

Like most writers, I am fascinated by the shapes the novel can take. What a commodious form it is.  It encompasses everything from straightforward chronological  stories– from the 19th Century novel in third person, Anna Karenina say, to the more contemporary and voice driven version first person variety, like Sapphire’s Push, to braided narratives like Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible–where the story is handed off between stories or characters, each advancing the work further. It’s a shape popular among writers, because it’s so useful. It gives us somewhere to go when we’ve exhausted  a certain narrative burst–we can hand it off to the next character’s story line.

There’s the retelling of a story from the point of view of a minor character (The Wind Done Gone, Grendel) and the Rashomon-style narrative, where the same territory is readdressed by  a number of different points of view.  A work like the Alexandria Quartet involves many of these shapes. The first book, Justine, is Darley’s story,  but the second book, Balthazar, interlineates the first one, “here’s what you didn’t know at the time”–like Rashomon. The third book , Mountolive, goes back and describes how the situation came to be (prequel), and the fourth, Clea, moves the narrative forward again.

There are novels made up of single sentences, like Markson’s work–Readers Block is my favorite–and Carole Maso’s Ava, and novels that are one single sentence, like Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch. There are novels that are closed universes (Pynchon’s novels, especially Gravity’s Rainbow) where everything comes around again, and there is no ‘outside’ the system.  There are epistolatory novels–novels in letters like Les Liaisons Dangereuses and The White Tiger, and novels in diary form, like Diary of a Madman and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and novels with framing devices (an older character thinking back in time, say, like Evening by Susan Minot) or a past story and a present story like A.S. Byatt’s Possession.

Then there are novels which begin with shape as a game.  Mark Danielewski’s genre-breaking visual novels  the multivolume The Familiar,  House of Leaves and Only Revolutions all contain literary and visual games.  Only Revolutions, for example,  has 360 pages, 36 lines per page, and eliminates whole categories of vocabulary in support of its protagonists, young his-and-her gods in the making. So no religious words, no structural words, no interior words. I loved the way that the two narratives begin, his and hers, one at either end of the novel, and cross in the middle.  You read through and then you flip the book over and start again.

The ultimate gamester is the Oulipo group’s Georges Perec, the one who eliminated the letter e from his novel A Void–which called for a tremendous discipline, as e is the most used letter in the French alphabet, and precludes the use of “the”(le) or “I” (Je.) The Void was not only  the absence of ‘e’ but also the story of an absent person the others search for. The obstruction absolutely shaped the story. In his novel Life a User’s Manual, stories arise from the examination of the contents of a French apartment house, rooms visited on a grid via the knight’s move, with hundreds of obstructions–which he saw as “a machine for inspiration.”

So the shapes and obstructions and rules writers set themselves  aren’t there to frustrate themselves but as challenges and  prompts to the imagination.  In Joyce’s Ulysses–very loosely based on the Odyssey–each chapter was written in an entirely different style.  Rabih Alameddine’s I, The Divine is a novel comprised all of opening chapters as a woman tries and fails to tell her story in various ways.  On the flip side, John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman gives us three different endings.

With many of the more innovative shapes of novel, the reader has to learn how to read the novel as they go.  That is certainly the case with Danielewski’s typographically intricate works, and notoriously with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, where the reader must decide whether to read the text and the footnotes concurrently, or get to the end of a chapter and go back for the footnote, or read all the way through, and then go back and read the footnotes all the way through.

There’s the nested novel, like Cloud Atlas, stories within stories–I call this the Sargasso Manuscript novel, from the movie where each character tells a story, and then that story is interrupted by the tale of a character within that story–going down seven layers and coming back out. Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days was an interesting example of the same-ish story being told three times, in three different genres–ghost story, noir thriller and sci fi. His novel The Hours was more a braided story, but elements of each story bleed into the others.

And don’t forget the novel in verse, which I think is enjoying a comeback due to the openness of young adult fiction to new genres and mashups–many popular young adult novels are written in verse such as Ellen Hopkins’ Crank which will result in an adult audience which isn’t as doctrinaire about genre as past generations. In the adult category, novels in verse can be anything from the tight meter and rhyme of Vikram Seth’s San Francisco novel Golden Gate–Onegin stanzas they’re called, in homage to the greatest of all novels in verse, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin–but there’s also the looser, more narrative free-verse werewolf novel Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow.

And I’m reaching to describe the brilliant motival technique of Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece Under the Volcano, which I’ve always called the Spiral Novel. This novel is shaped by the buildup of images (motifs), like a Beethoven concerto–you get the image or phrase once, then it comes around again and gains power with each repetition, as more emotion and resonance adheres to it. (Like the first time Oaxaca is mentioned, it’s just a place. Then 40 pages later, he says, “Oaxaca meant divorce.” after which every time it’s mentioned, it gains more gravity.) There are hundreds of images and phrases like this whirling around in the book–the feral dogs, the barranca or crevasse which runs unpredictably through the landscape, the Peter Lorre movie Los Manos d’Orlac ) repeating and repeating as it whirls tighter and the images grow ever more dense with meaning  until the whole thing explodes inside your head.

For myself, I’m working to shape the reader’s emotional experience. So I work mostly on what I call the symphonic level–like a longer piece of music, or an opera. I want to have big thunderous moments and quiet ones. I want to have the full chorus singing their lungs out, and then a solo, a duet, a trio. Then chorus again. I like to follow an interior scene with an exterior one, day with night, active with meditative-and keep changing it up.  I’m mostly thinking, how is the reader experiencing this?

Wish you good writing!

 

A Night with Patti Smith

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 11/17/2015 by Janet Fitch

I can’t get enough of Patti Smith. Not since first seeing her in Portland Oregon in 1979, an artist I’d never heard of, but the ticket was $2, so why not? She took the stage, in an old theater–this skinny… boy? girl? in white shirt and necktie. She began, in a voice that was both gravelly and breathy, very very slowly: Jesus died… for Somebody’s sins… BUT– NOT –MINE! she screamed.  The audience went nuts. I went nuts.  My sins, they belong to me…. And then launched into the rock standard GLORIA–with the sexes remaining unchanged.  It was permanently mind-blowing.  My mind is still blown.  Like someone whacking the top of my head with a board.  Ever since, I’ve craved more–the music, the poetry,  the preacher-like gestures with those sensitive, little-tipped fingers–rising, hushing, reaching out. The power of her voice, her control of it, belting, murmuring. The rhythmic skeins of language–chants and incantations, true bardic rapture.  Her unabashed joy in art and in the things of the world, her sense of outrage, her sheer energy.

I have seen her turn gray, and sweeten with the years, a real surprise. Then her book, Just Kids, was published. It absolutely charmed me, a gorgeous recollection of how artists are made, that’s what got me about it, what commitment to art looks like,  the attitude of wonder and openness and goofiness and non-judgement–here’s my review of it on goodreads if you’re interested: Just Kids

A new book has now hit the bookstores, M Train, a dreamy memoir, and to celebrate, she came to LA and spoke at the Los Angeles Public Library Aloud series last night, in conversation with the novelist Jonathan Lethem. Of course I dumped everything to be there. I’d drive 100 miles just to hear how her mind works.  It’s so inspiring to see an artist who considers herself an artist. Who still has a creative vision as fresh as it had always been, whose layers of wisdom and experience manage not to rob her of her artistic vitality, her openness to the world–something I treasure more and more the older I get. How cheerful she is, unpretentious and direct, without any pose– unless naturalness itself is a pose, and if it is, it’s the best one to have.

The book sprang from a dream. She allowed one association to suggest the next, uninterrupted, and then explained that she edited it down and inserted small title heads so readers can rest and orient themselves, little ‘stations’ on the mental train… – Lots of pieces from her travels, photographs… I look forward to just spending time again inside her mind–that quick, broad, childlike, unjudgemental, alert, appreciative space.

Here are some notes from the evening I managed to jot down in the dark.

I learned that she works simultaneously on a number of books at once. “This was the first one to cross the finish line,” she joked.  She jokes a lot–I love the way she  takes her work very seriously, but not herself.  She spoke about her sense of responsibility to the reader, to the audience–“There was such responsibility in Just Kids–to chronology, and the people and the times.” To get it right. Where the new book is more a meditation, a dreamlike work.  She enjoyed writing M Train because it works associationally–didn’t have to be as responsible to truth and people in the outside world.

I liked hearing her talk about the difference between writing lyrics and writing poetry. She was talking about   a poem she wrote about Amy Winehouse and her death, which became a lyric to a song,  “This is the Girl.” She’d written it, and then her bass player shared a piece of music he’d written, and she realized that her poem would fit it perfectly. But the difference: “There’s a responsibility with a lyric, to others.” With a lyric, you have to think about the audience being able to understand you, follow you, it also has to not  violate the mood of the music.  “But with a poem, the responsibility is to the poem itself.  There are a lot of different sensations encoded in poetic language. Your blinders are on this way”–she held her hands up in front of her eyes–“in, towards the work.” The poet’s task is not to explain or make clear to the outside world, but to speak to the work, to deepen within the poem, a very intimate thing.

A lot of her musical work is improvised, a process that fascinates me, part of that shamanic element of her poetry. It often starts with a riff from the musicians, like  in Radio Ethiopia, or that incredible run in Birdland, about Wilhelm Reich and his son Peter, one of my all-time favorites. The musician starts, and then she mprovises language out of that, around that, a real bardic trance.

Great questions from the audience. Here were a few of them:

An audience member, an actor and writer, asked her about how to find/define success.  She said, “My definition of success is doing something really good. That you can read again and know it’s good. even if it doesnt get published or anything, even if nobody else sees it, I’ll read it and go, man, that was good!”    Not numbers or sales or followers, image etc. Just to do good work. “How it transformed other people, that’s another way.” Its contribution to the conversation.   And simply accepting that she’s an artist who does work across genres–“I always wanted to be Joan Mitchell. I saw her sitting in front of a big canvas in a film once, and she’s smoking and she said, ‘I’m a painter. That’s what I do.'”  But Smith’s been a poet, writer, musician, performer, mother, wife, all of those creative parts.

There were lots of references to films and other poets and writers. She lives in a cultural world, everything from Funny Face–‘that’s who I wanted to be, Audrey Hepburn in her little beatnik pants, working in a bookstore.’ to Rimbaud, Nina Simone, Blake,  Moby Dick–“I read it when I was about 13–but I skipped the whaling chapter.  I was a good reader but I’m a girl, and I skipped the whaling.”

About gender: “I staked the right not to have to be fettered by gender.”

One audience member asked her what she would recommend for reading material for juvenile offenders who are looking at long sentences. She said, “Who’s to say.  Depends on their reading level. With one you could give them the Glass Bead Game, with another it’s comic books.  The one thing that can’t be incarcerated is your imagination.  Genet was in jail at 14, and read Proust. It changed his life.  Who’s to say that a little thug like that shouldn’t read Proust. I think we should widen the choices of prison libraries.”

On the subject of responsibility, an audience member asked about writing non-fiction, ‘what if you’re writing about someone very close to you, who would be hurt…’ a question frequently asked of memoir writers.  Smith surprised us by saying that you have a responsibility to the living breathing people around you… that in Just Kids–full of real people. She felt a responsibility not to hurt anybody, even the ones who–she didn’t even say hurt her, she looked for a kind way to say it ‘weren’t that careful with me.’ “Books last a long time.  I think you should be careful with people in print. It’s up to you, but that’s what I did.”

“I’m not afraid to look uncool.” What I like best about Patti Smith is her absolute lack of cynicism, of irony, of beentheredonethat.  Her direct apprehension of reality, her mixture of air and earth–her emergence as the quintessential American artist. I left there inspired in about nine different ways. THIS is how to be an artist. THIS is how to age–joyfully.