I can be:
All at the same time! So how do I do that in fiction without driving my reader batty? Some writers clearly don’t care how their readers feel. Joyce’s Ulysses is a great example of an author trying to deal with this multi-layered understanding of time without much concern for readability (just my humble opinion).
In the most recent issue of the New Yorker there’s a great article on David Eagleman by Burkhard Bilger, “The Possibilian.” Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, although it’s clear that he’s a man who covers a lot of ground (including fiction). He’s most interested in the question of how the human brain understands time. I highly recommend reading this article. It produced a number of mind-boggling questions for me. If for some reason you can’t access it, let me know as I’ve copied the full text.
The part that really struck me was about how our perception of the world, and thus time, is delayed. In this paragraph Eagleman talks about how that delayed understanding is directly related to language:
“If someone says, ‘The mouse on the desk is broken,’ your mind calls forth a different image than if you hear, ‘The mouse on the desk is eating cheese.’ Your brain registers the word ‘mouse,’ waits for its context, and only then goes back to visualize it. But language leaves time for second thoughts. The flash-lag effect seems instantaneous. It’s as if the word ‘mouse’ were changed to ‘track pad’ before you even heard it.”
“[The brain] gathers up all the evidence of our senses, and only then reveals it to us. It’s a deeply counterintuitive idea in some ways. Touch your finger to an ember or prick it on a needle and the pain is immediate. You feel it now—not in half a second. But perception and reality are often a little out of register, as the saccade experiment showed. If all our senses are slightly delayed, we have no context by which to measure a given lag. Reality is a tape-delayed broadcast, carefully censored before it reaches us.”
Our brains seem to operate so quickly that this delay in understanding feels insignificant. But in written work, whether consciously, or unconsciously, we are manipulating this delay in understanding, in the “reality” of the work and the passage of narrative time. We can interrupt time for pages, chapters, an entire novel. (Isn’t this how most jokes are constructed? By establishing expectations, allowing the listener’s/reader’s brain to come up with a logical progression, and then in the end throwing out a zinger that re-casts those expectations?)
Another part of the article got me thinking about the relationship between description and action in story:
“One of the seats of emotion and memory in the brain is the amygdala, he explained. When something threatens your life, this area seems to kick into overdrive, recording every last detail of the experience. The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. ‘This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,’ Eagleman said—why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.”
I feel like I’m constantly struggling in my work with the relationship between slowed-down, super-detailed, extra-rich sections, and the naturally quick pace of dialog. Is it because dialog uses a familiar format of back and forth quotations that makes it feel so quick? And the build-up of detail in descriptive passages that can make them feel so slow?
And what about this layering of thought and memory within time? At one point in the article, after conducting some testing Eagleman says “It suggests that time and memory are so tightly intertwined that they may be impossible to tease apart.” It’s clear that our memory is fallible, but this idea that our brain is creating our reality for us after the fact indicates that every moment of our reality is a memory, every moment of our reality is constructed.
Like I said - mind boggling.
In Ken Waldman’s post for 49 Writers “Late-Bloomer, Are You?” he listed five lessons that helped him. The very first one on the list is one that I’m currently going through:
“1) In the late 80's and early 90's, I read all the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series. In the volume by Robert Bly, Talking All Morning, he advised that if you want to learn to write, don't take a writing class, but, rather, apprentice under a master in a field you're passionate about. According to Bly, as an apprentice, you'll learn what it takes to become truly expert, and from there it's a relatively easy process to adapt those kinds of skills to writing. Bly went on to explain that the biggest benefit in working this way is that when you do turn to writing, you have fresh stories from the field in which you apprenticed, as well as an authentic vocabulary from that field.”
I just survived the 37th Alaska Folk Festival here in Juneau. Our folk festival is a uniquely amazing event: it’s a week-long festival, totally free, and anyone who applies can play for a fifteen minute slot. Two folk fests ago I played for the first time on the main stage. Last year I was at the AWP conference for most of the festival, so this was really my first festival in which I was a true player.
Andrew and Erin
My partner, Andrew Heist, is the mandolin player for The Great Alaska Bluegrass Band (which includes Scott Burton on the guitar (Scott is a non-fiction student in this program). Andrew and I celebrated our sixth anniversary on the Monday of Folk Fest. While I’ve always loved music, and especially traditional American music, I was always on the outside until I met Andrew. After I met him every party we went to was a music party. The majority of the people would play and I would sit on the outside listening and chatting with other listeners. Finally, four years ago I asked him to start teaching me guitar. Three years ago I sang in front of him for the first time.
Finally, when I got up the courage to start jamming with our friends, and then jamming with people I knew less well, the learning truly started. The kind of music we play is mostly bluegrass, but includes old timey, country, and now Cajun. All of these are kinds of music that are played socially, featuring improvised solos, simple structures, and no written notation.
So how do you sit in and play with a group of people you’ve never met playing songs you’ve never heard?
By learning new kinds of communication.
The first step is starting to understand that for each kind of music (bluegrass, honky tonk, Cajun, old timey fiddle tunes) there are common structures. Songs are “straight” or “crooked” based on whether or not they adhere closely or deviate from these structures. The next step is a numbering system in which the chords on a scale are given a number. So if I’m trying to explain a new song to someone I might say: “It’s in C and it’s a little crooked, there’s a quick 2 on the B part.” Translation: “We’re playing in C and while it’s going to go from C to F to C to G to C, on the chorus it’s going to go from C to F to C, quickly to D, back to C, up to G, and the C again.”
But regardless of what is said, what you’re doing is looking for other non-verbal cues: listening as hard as you can for the changes, watching other players’ fingers to see any obvious signs of changes, and sometimes watching their faces to see if they’re going to signal you in any way. Solos are dished out by whoever started the song, usually the person singing, by nodding or pointing at someone. That same person is the one who decides when it’s over, often indicated by kicking your leg out.
These are the universal forms of communication amongst the different genres I listed (as far as I can tell), but every single group of people is different. If you’re playing with a group that has played together for a long time, the communication is much more subtle, maybe a glance, maybe nothing.
So much of it comes down to listening. (This is where I get to the point.) If you’re not listening carefully enough and not teaching your ear how to listen, you’ll throw everything off.
I think every single teacher I’ve ever had has recommended reading written work out-loud, even academic essays, because your ear can find the truth much more quickly than your eyes can. Eyes play tricks, skip over sections, make you believe that a word works because it takes up the space and provides the meaning you’re looking for. But your ears can hear when a sentence is false and overreaching, when dialog is hollow, and when a word sticks out like a sore thumb.
I think the goal for every writer should be to inspire the reader to read the work out loud. I’m sure we’ve all been there, when a book is too beautiful to be read silently, when the words beg for sound.
Bly’s advice via Waldman rings true in another way: mastering a craft takes time, dedication, and the understanding that you will always be learning something new. Speaking to some of the musicians I most admire, it’s clear that they’re always searching, always working, always listening. While awe-inspiring, it’s good to remember that a master of a craft was once a beginner and someday, if you put in the time, you could come close to mastery, too.
Part 2 on Writing Novels and Feeling Inept and Unworthy and Despite All That Continuing to Write: Jo-Ann Mapson
When I signed off last time, I was at the crucial juncture of looking at my writing as being one of two things: OK or not OK. I’m sure this sounds limiting, but after decades of writing I’ve learned this is only sphere in which to operate. Anything else will mess you up. Just the other day I took my Tony Lamas to a shoe repair place that made me stop in my tracks. Why? It was another world. One guy at the counter was about 500 years old and wearing an oxygen thingy that went into his nose. I was surrounded by hundreds of pairs of shoes. It was dark in there; there were so many shoes. The counter guy who waited on me was like a dad. Middle aged, Latino, and smartly dressed. I was embarrassed to show him that my boots had holes in the soles.
“These are very nice boots,” he said.
Of course then they seemed to me to be doggone incredibly nice boots that just had unfortunately developed a few holes that once fixed would be even cooler boots. Immediately I started to think about what great taste I had in boots, and began planning to take them out on the town as soon as they were fixed. The boot buyer in me was overwhelmed with her ability to find perfect boots, possibly even classic boots, when what I should have been paying attention to was how much it was going to cost to fix them. I never did ask. Now whatever the boots cost, I have to grin and bear it and write a check.
And you know what? The little universe I’d just entered would make a great story. I should have been taking notes. Listening to conversations filled with talk of shoes, and the biker guy in front of me in line, whatever he was saying. But no, I was overcome with, “My gosh I have great taste in boots, don’t I? Let’s see. What else about me is great? Maybe I should stop off at Party Town and pick up some crepe paper and horns and spend all day having a party for myself.”
No, I needed to go home and write, so I did.
The way to write a novel is to show up every day in front of your computer and sit there. Put your hands on the keyboard and see what happens. If nothing does, read over whatever you wrote the day before and tinker a little with it. Writers need to warm up just like athletes. If you can’t think of one thing to write, try one of these starters:
Mary (insert your narrator’s name here) regretted…..
Five things Clarence remembered:
Words will arrive. They might be not so great words, but if you read my initial blog entry, you will know that you have
Something to work with
What writing is like
And that is all you need. Now some days this will feel like extruding chicken, other days you’ll sit there and look at the blinking cursor with a savage kind of anger at whomever invented this fresh hell that is a word processing program and computer. Think then, of manual typewriters without automatic correction. Or pens that had to be dipped in ink to write a single letter. I promise there will also be days that are filled with that writer’s high when ideas flow right out of your fingertips as if they are pure energy. Or you will look up from your screen and realize three hours have passed. That is the best it gets, folks. The writing process is that simple and that exacting.
Writing can be lonely. It kind of has to be. For the novel length story to release itself you pretty much have pay complete attention. It isn’t that you want to be antisocial, but that you are practicing your craft. My younger brother is a musician. When he plays gigs, inevitably someone comes up to him during the band’s break and says, “I would give my soul to play like that.” He always smiles and says, “Good, because that’s what you have to do.” The same is true of writing. You have to give yourself to the process, spend less time with social events, and you have to do this by yourself.
By James Jowers, George Eastman House
Which isn’t a smooth entrance into talking about the writer stuff no one wants to address: namely, depression, discouragement, alcohol/drug problems, etc. By now I’ve probably alienated some of you, but you know what? I’ve taught creative writing for 20+ years and seen the gamut of problems. Even experienced a few myself. It’s taxing on the psyche to look deeply into things and it has an effect if you do it every day. Read William Styron’s book, Darkness Visible. Yes, some days you are white hot and racking up the pages, but imagine this: Styron had a 27-year-long period where he couldn’t finish a novel. Before you succumb to playing solitaire on the computer or reading Twitter messages, think of William Styron and get yourself back into the chair.
Good Reasons for Depression:
Ta ta for now,
Novels are long. Filling 400 blank pages is intimidating. I have written 11 and am working on my 12th. In the beginning stages of writing a novel, every creative known writing term known to civilization comes to haunt me. You call that a narrative hook? Have you ever heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell?” Remember, never describe what a character looks like by having her look in a mirror. Um, isn’t that a clichée? Do you even recognize the term “objective correlative?” Of course. Then why can’t you use it properly? Sheesh, they should take your MFA away from you and give it to someone who could use it.
I could go on, but I don’t want to spread my paranoia cooties.
“Try not to let the critics into your head,” my literary agent told me when I was starting my second novel, sold on a verbal proposal. I’d had many good reviews and some really unpleasant ones. So of course the critic moved right in, painted the walls a painful mustard yellow, added fraying furniture with bad springs, hung Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream” on the wall. Then it set out room temperature macaroni salad and some questionable fish, scattered tacks on the floor, and put on the soundtrack to “Jaws.”
Newsflash: This happens every time I write a novel.
I might appear normal on the outside, grocery shopping, brushing my hair, engaging in ordinary conversations with people other than my dogs, but inside, I’m nearly paralyzed with doubt. I start writing anyway, hoping to reach the magical page 200, proof to me that these inflated meanderings may yet become a story. When, after many months of writing, hurrah, I arrive at page 200, I am thrilled. By this time I’ve rewritten every word, started over in six different places, and banished characters that were intent on hijacking the story for their own illicit purposes.*
*Warning: The second a writer makes blanket statements like this, the characters gang up to prove her wrong and turn out to be excellent guides. I don’t want to think about how much control I assume I have, I just want to write.
The reason page 200 arrives is because I have stubbornly pursued it. I have written passages and even chapters that I know will be axed, but the number 200 quiets the critic for a while. I can breathe. Then I forge ahead with more conviction, because now there’s something to work with.
Something to work with.
This is what it takes to finish a novel. Even the most horrible first 200 pages prove that I can write probably another 200 without imploding. 200 + 200 = the most beautiful phrase: a first, full draft. Yes, there will be massive rewriting, doubt dressed in go-go boots, and even potentially rejection, but right now I can write the pants off of a novel.
At this point there are only 2 ways to look at your writing: It is OK, or it is Not OK. Anything else (this is brilliant, call the MacArthur Grant people, this is dreck, this is amazing, this is pointless) is going to stall me out.
I hope I am gone from this earth when someone first says, “Remember books, the kind that you could hold in your hand and the words were printed with ink, on paper? Books were cool.”
I was talking with my son Macklin today about lost books, specifically my hardcover copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, which he had read and I hadn’t. In a moment of altruism I donated it to an auction to benefit a visiting writer series at the last university I taught at. Many times since then I have wished to have that book back, and I wish so now, too. And so it is with almost every book I with which I have parted.
I let David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion go before I moved to Alaska. What was I thinking? I suppose I was thinking that I was keeping my unread copy of Infinite Jest and that as much as I admire DFW, the only work of his I seem to actually read is his nonfiction in Another Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. All of this DFW guilt was brought painfully to bear when he committed suicide in the fall of 2008. I am sure he had no idea how widespread the heartbreak his death would engender among strangers. This week his permanent work in progress, The Pale King, is published to much attention. Our hearts break all over again.
And here’s another. I was in a seminar with Gary Snyder’s publisher, Jack Shoemaker, who had originally founded the much-admired North Point Press and he said the book he admired most that he had published but which had never found its rightful audience was Ross Feld’s Only Shorter. I was living in California at the time and remembered that I had once owned, but not read, that book, and in fact it had been one of the few I had sold back in Salt Lake City before moving to Davis. The next time I was in SLC, I retrieved the book from the shame shop to which I had sold it, paying for it more than I had received for the whole carton of books I had let go. I have not yet read it.
Oh, and Shoemaker? He read my novel manuscript and took the time to say, “This book would be twice as good if it were half as long.” He’s probably about half right, of course, but I respond in my best Jeff Bridges’ Lebowski voice, “That’s just your opinion, man.”
So, when I moved up here from Illinois, I got rid of about twenty boxes of books. Oblivion was one. I also mailed up here in five boxes the books that were most valuable to me, mostly as a test of the US Post Office, to see if this was a viable method of transporting books thousands of miles. (It’s not.) What happened was, only four of the five boxes arrived. Then a few weeks later the fifth box arrived, torn open with about half its contents missing. I soon determined that the missing books were American Alpine Journals, a yearly journal of which I own about fifty volumes. I have been an editor there at the AAJ since about 1995, so the books’ value was also personal. I have been slowly recollecting the missing volumes. I picked up 1998 just this week.
The creepy thing is that I’m pretty sure that my missing books were sold to Title Wave, the great used bookstore here in Anchorage. I search their copies of my missing books for any personal signs—bookmarks, marginalia, my name (which I generally don’t put in books). I find none. And yet, I don’t let go of this barely rational hunch, this sense that I’m buying books which I already rightfully own.
There is the not irrational fear that fewer and fewer books will become physical objects in the world and we will miss them before they even appear. I am certain that the language will live on, that narrative, and poetry will survive. It’s just the print book as they call it now that I worry about. They may just be a delivery system, but to me they remain sacred objects.
This Week's Blogger: