Extending Gaze Beyond the Surface

When there are many writers all employing the same idiom, all looking out on more or less the same social scene, the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn’t just doing badly what has already been done to completion…

The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p. 45

Same goes for the preacher: don’t do what’s already been done to death, especially if you can’t do it as well as others who’ve done it. You’ll just end up being a bad copy of a bad copy. Extend your gaze beyond the surface always.

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Trusting Something Enough to Find Your Own Words for It

Speaking of writers using cliches.

…dead expressions, the cranked-up zombie emotion of a writer who feels nothing in his daily life or nothing he trusts enough to find his own words for.

-From John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, p. 11

Preachers, push the Scriptures enough into your own experience that you demonstrate you’re trusting them enough to find your own words for what they are saying.

Obscene

…The great acts of classical brutality (Oedipus gouging his eyes out; Clytemnestra slitting her husband’s throat) are never portrayed but rather reported by the characters or chorus – told but not shown. These days, tell is a bad word. But in the golden age of Athenian drama, telling was a celebrated technique. Acts of violence in Greek tragedy were rendered ob skene (literally ‘offstage’), from which comes the present day word obscene.

-Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, p. 52

The worst things happen offstage. This includes real life – what happens in our minds.

Bodies in the Basements of our Minds

Fiction writers believe in total depravity.

Evil is banal. And the point is emphasized through the use of the obscene: when the violence occurs offstage, the reader creates it and becomes a perpetrator. Goethe famously said, ‘There is no crime of which I do not deem myself capable,’ and O’Connor and Oates imply the same is true of us. You are a molester, I am a murderer. We have, each and every one of us, bodies in the basements of our minds.

-Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me: Essays in Fiction, p. 54

 

Widowed Images

I like the phrase and agree with the idea:

Charles Baxter says that we write to make sense of the widowed images in our lives. Widowed images. Startling images. Haunting images. Whatever you want to call what ends up clogged in our imaginative filter. We don’t always know why they’re important, but for whatever reason, our mind won’t release them.

-Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, p. 41

On Finding Your Voice

On ‘finding’ your voice or the voice of a character in writing. This could apply to preaching and real life as well:

Though you shouldn’t consciously work on your voice as you write, there is a way to encourage it when you get to the self-editing stage. Start by rereading a  short story, scene, or chapter as if you were reading it for the first time…Whenever you come to a sentence or phrase that gives you a little jab of pleasure, that makes you say ‘Ah, yes,’ that sings – highlight that passage in a color you like, or underline it. Then go through and read aloud all  the sentences you highlighted or underlined. Don’t analyze them for the moment, just try to absorb their rhythm or fullness or simplicity or freshness or whatever made them sing to you. What you’ve been reading aloud will represent, for now, your voice at its most effective. And making yourself conscious of it in this mechanical way will strengthen it.

Now read through the same section again, and when you come to those passages that make you wince – or just leave you cold – highlight the passage in a color you dislike, or draw a wavy line under the uninspired sentences. Go back and read consecutively all the passages you didn’t like, and this time try to analyze what makes them different from the passages that sang to you. Is the writing flat? Strained? Awkward? Obvious? Pedestrian? Forced? Vague or abstract?…

If you do this exercise often enough, you will develop a sensitivity to your own voice that will gently encourage the development of the confidence and distinction that you want. And this is as true of a character voice as it is of a narrative voice…

– Browne and King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, pp. 178-179

If We Hand It Over

Below is a quote from an interview with Jonathan Franzen on why it is essential to good writing that traditional publishers and editors continue to exist. This could be applied to a lot of things today, including the need for traditional denominational structures and ordination processes in churches. It also speaks to the need for isolation and meditation in a world inundated by technology.

Okay, let’s talk about those guys. What do you really think about Twitter?

[Laughs] I have a particular animus to the social-media world because I feel as if the kinds of writers I care about are just temperamentally not very good at that. Hard to see Kafka tweeting, hard to see Charlotte Bronte self-promoting. If we don’t maintain other avenues for establishing a literary reputation and finding some kind of readership – things like traditional publishers and reviewing, where the writer could just be a writer and not have to wear the flak hat, the salesman hat, the editor hat, the publisher hat – if we don’t maintain those, then we hand over the literary world to the personality types who are, I would say, less suited for the kind of work I care about.

It could be that my model of literature is simply outmoded, but I feel closer to Joyce with his ‘silence, exile and cunning.’ I worry that the ease and incessancy of communication through electronic media short-circuits the process whereby you go into deep isolation with yourself, you withdraw from the world so as to be able to hear the world better and know yourself better, and you produce something unique which you send out into the world and let communicate in a non-discursive way for you…

It’s not like I’m militantly opposed to discursive interactive communication. It’s fine, it’s great. But there’s a tipping point you reach where you can’t get away from the electronic community, where you become almost physically dependent on it. And that, I persist in thinking, is not compatible with my notion of where terrific literature comes from.

-From Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin, pp. 266-267

Learning Plots as a Way of Understanding History (and Ourselves)

In an essay in his book, Stranger than Fiction, Chuck Palahniuk outlines two benefits of writing: 1) It can help you make sense, and take ownership, of your own life and 2) it can help you better understand history (which in turn can help you understand how history is shaped).

One of the money lines from the quote below is, “if we’re too lazy to learn history history, maybe we can learn plots. Maybe our sense of ‘been there, done that’ will save us from declaring the next war.” Aside from that, the idea that forcing yourself to unpack ideas and pictures of the world beyond the detail we’re accustomed to thinking about is helpful. Maybe you really should try to imagine what a happy version of yourself would look like (and thereby try to figure out what you’re lacking in the present).

Controlling the story of your past—recording and exhausting it—that skill might allow us to move into the future and write that story. Instead of letting life just happen, we could outline our own personal plot. We’ll learn the craft we’ll need to accept that responsibility. We’ll develop our ability to imagine in finer and finer detail. We can more exactly focus on what we want to accomplish, to attain, to become.

You want to be happy? You want to be at peace? You want to be healthy?

As any good writer would tell you: unpack “happy.” What does it look like? How can you demonstrate happiness on the page—that vague, abstract concept. Show, don’t tell. Show me “happiness.”

In this way, learning to write means learning to look at yourself and the world in extreme close-up. If nothing else, maybe learning how to write will force us to take a closer look at everything, to really see it—if only in order to reproduce it on a page.

Maybe with a little more effort and reflection, you can live the kind of life story a literary agent would want to read.

Or maybe . . . just maybe this whole process is our training wheels toward something bigger. If we can reflect and know our lives, we might stay awake and shape our futures. Our flood of books and movies—of plots and story arcs—they might be mankind’s way to be aware of all our history. Our options. All the ways we’ve tried in the past to fix the world.

We have it all: the time, the technology, the experience, the education, and the disgust.

What if they made a movie about a war and nobody came?

If we’re too lazy to learn history history, maybe we can learn plots. Maybe our sense of “been there, done that” will save us from declaring the next war. If war won’t “play,” then why bother? If war can’t “find an audience.” If we see that war “tanks” after the opening weekend, then no one will green-light another one. Not for a long, long time.

Then, finally, what if some writer comes up with an entirely new story? A new and compelling way to live, before . . .

Sorry, your seven minutes is up.

You can read the entire essay (entitled You Are Here) HERE.

Be Interesting, Be Interested

Stop worrying about how many people follow you online and start worrying about the quality of people who follow you. Don’t waste your time reading articles about how to get more followers. Don’t waste time following people online just because you think it’ll get you somewhere. Don’t talk to people you don’t want to talk to, and don’t talk about stuff you don’t want to talk about.

If you want followers, be someone worth following. Donald Barthelme supposedly said to one of is students, ‘Have you tried making yourself a more interesting person?’ This seems like a really mean thing to say, unless you think of the word interesting the way writer Lawrence Weschler does: For him, to be ‘interest-ing’ is to be curious and attentive, and to practice ‘the continual projection of interest.’ To put it more simply: If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested (pp. 129, 131).

-Austin Kleon, Show Your Work, pp. 129, 131

I also happen to be reading Barry Hannah’s book, Boomerang, right now. The foreword actually mentions that it was Hannah who made this comment to one of his students. Interestingly, Hannah grew up in the town I now live in, and I happened to have been in contact with Barthelme’s brother just this week. Small world.

If you want to be interesting, be interested. And not just in people like you. Be interested in people, and stuff, that you aren’t naturally interested in.