All Books Are Mysteries

November 22, 2016 § 8 Comments

It was Uncle Claudius in the garden with the ear-poison!

It was Uncle Claudius in the garden with the ear-poison!

Every so often, I’m asked to edit a memoir that’s more of a case file. That is, it’s a series of incidents showing an antagonist in the worst possible light, a justification of actions taken by the protagonist, and a summing-up that involves bravely coming into the light.

They don’t work.

Not because they’re badly written on a line-by-line level, but because structurally, there’s no mystery. We already know whodunit, because they’re the person being textually crucified.

We can learn a lot from Agatha Christie. Or Dorothy Sayers. Ruth Rendell. P.D. James. Any of the stellar writers of relatively formulaic mystery novels. There’s a crime. There’s an investigation. The culprit is identified and caught, and the book usually stops right before the punishment—it’s the “Law” half of “Law & Order.” Chung-chung.

In a classic mystery (and Hamlet), the question is, “Whodunit? And will they be caught?”

In narrative nonfiction, the mystery is “Where did this thing/idea/practice come from? Where is it going?” or “What really happened here?”

For memoir, it’s “Why’d I do that?” or “What really happened to me?”

Laying out the facts in a row and (often unconsciously) slanting them toward the protagonist’s hurt feelings is boring. It’s boring because there’s nothing to discover—it’s all right there. Telling instead of showing, on a whole-book level. No-one wants to be lectured about how everything adds up to a solution they just got told. Instead, make the reader your detective.

The fun of reading—whether it’s playful excitement or intense engagement—comes from spotting the clues and making deductions. The reader needs the a-ha moments of “Oh shit! He’s a bad guy!” or “Wow—no wonder they turned out like that.” The reader needs the investigative moments of “What’s going to happen? Who will it happen to?” The more the reader autopsies with you, the more they engage in the book. We don’t know what’s about to happen, but we want to. This tension makes us read to the next paragraph and flip to the next page. The more the reader almost-but-not-quite pieces together the solution, the more satisfying the final revelation that fits it all together and confirms a hunch. The reader experiences the situation with the narrator and makes their own emotional realizations (which are often but not always the same as the narrator’s).

On a narrative level, that means don’t give away the solution first and then present all the evidence that adds up, which is the format of a scholarly paper. We need a burning question—What happened to me?—and then to investigate with the narrator, and make discoveries not just along the way, but that must be made to get to the answer.

Investigating mystery leads readers to enlightenment, to empathy, and to catharsis. George Saunders says,

The idea I love is that is a story is kind of a black box. And you’re gonna put the reader in there, she’s gonna spend some time with this thing that you have made, and when she comes out, what’s gonna have happened to her in there is something kind of astonishing–it feels like the curtain has been pulled back and like she’s gotten a glimpse into a deeper truth.

As a story writer, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

It’s a bad start to write a memoir already knowing what the story is, and going there with fixed intention. “Let the story surprise you,” Saunders urges–what you think you know may not be the story, even if it happened to you. Be ready to look underneath.

With memoir, looking underneath is sometimes interrogating our imagination and sometimes out-there-with-a-recorder research. It can be challenging to change our own minds, especially about an experience or situation so powerful that we must write it, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt, how we reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why. When we lay out the clues on the page, and allow ourselves to investigate, too.
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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching a webinar on story structure in fiction and memoir for Editors Canada, December 3&4 (recorded for on-demand viewing after).

 

 

Writing Actually Is Hard Work, Which Is Fine

January 8, 2016 § 27 Comments

pic-victorRuth Carmel writes in response to Mike Minchin’s guest blog post, “Writing is Not Hard Work”:

I’m in the winter doldrums and the writing is slacking off. More precisely, I’m slacking off it. Too much late night television, forgetting to write down my ideas. At least I have an excuse for the moment. One of my sons has winter vacation, so until school kicks in again, it’s him and me facing the world together.

He’s fifteen but less independent than a typical kid his age, so I’m his buddy these days. We spent this morning at a warehouse store. I knew better than to troll the aisles, which I find headache-inducing even when I’m shopping solo. We stuck to business. After we ordered my son’s eyeglasses (cheaper than at the local optician, with its seasonally-appropriate window displays, but less risky than the hit-or-miss of an online pair), we headed straight to the produce and the thrill of color: Powder-skinned blueberries (I lifted the tray to check the bottom; no crushed berries to threaten the rest with rot). A Carmen Miranda of tomatoes. Avocados, with their waxed-linoleum rind. Mangoes, blushing beauties stacked six to a box, either all-unripe or all nearly-overripe. I chose a batch of hard greenish specimens, then swapped out one of them for a softer fruit.

And tonight, when my husband came home and dumped the mail on the table, the first gardening catalog of spring had arrived, resplendent with promise. After the boys were fed and the laundry folded, I opened it at random. Clusters of indigo blueberries beckoned, even prettier than in the store. Luscious adjectives promised more-luscious desserts. But I know enough not to fall for lies. Sure, they make it sound easy: check your zone, place your order, stick the plantlet into a hole in the dirt, water it and stand back. They don’t tell you what it’s really like. I never tried to grow blueberries, but I’ve planted vegetables and herbs on my tiny balcony. I dragged the paraphernalia outside — seed packets and tender shoots, earthenware containers and giant green-and-yellow plastic bags of potting soil, tiny implements and rubber gloves — and began. The tomato plants grew starter leaves and kept growing up and out, and I staked them and fertilized them and watered them, hauling a galvanized-zinc bucket sloshing through my living room to combat a July heat-wave. A plague decimated the marble-size green fruit and the plants went from growing to dead within days. The parsley was easy, needing only watering, or so I thought. One Saturday morning, I saw something moving among the leaves. A striped caterpillar was perched on a stem, taking actual bites with its tiny insect mouth. Suddenly there were half a dozen of the beasts. It was the Jewish Sabbath and I couldn’t kill them, so I watched, more fascinated than annoyed, as the parsley was slowly, steadily devoured.

We won’t talk about the carrots that never progressed beyond the orange-thread state.

I decided the effort wasn’t justified. A couple of years ago I found one answer: grow flowers, not produce. The neon-pink vinca were beautiful, and the marigolds were fine; those are unkillable, anyway. For a time I was content with the ratio of work to joy. But I finally caved. Now I visit the flower district on West 28th Street in Manhattan. Every few months I navigate the greenery festooning the sidewalks, pop into the familiar stores, and point: I’ll have these spiky bronze chrysanthemums, please, or those glorious lavender hydrangea. Everything potted, delivery extra. I water my flowers a few months, they look good, I get bored or the weather turns, they die, I buy replacements. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I loved Mike Minchin’s blog post. But can I disagree? To me, thinking that writing should be easy is like believing that shiny catalog. What you’re a novice like I am, you read an essay or short story and every sentence is perfectly crafted, every word inevitable, and you think: simple. But you start writing — assuming you have an idea to write about — and watch your words thud across the page like the hapless giant pursuing Jack.

In a recent class I took, our teacher drilled it in: writing is rewriting. But it’s so tempting to think that if you are truly talented, a draft or two should do the job, and if it doesn’t, you just might not be good enough. If I don’t experience writing as the life-affirming, non-work it is to Mr. Minchin — and more power to him — am I in the wrong business? That’s why TV is important. I recently saw Stephen Colbert interviewing George Saunders. Saunders (who, incidentally, played a mean guitar) discussed the writing process and the torment of pruning away at what seems at first perfectly good prose. Is this word necessary? you ask yourself. What about the other one? And so on. He said he writes hundreds of drafts.

Hundreds of drafts. Doesn’t sound easy.

So maybe my gardening was cursed, but maybe I was too lazy to get it right. Maybe too sure of myself, or not curious enough. I know this: if those tomatoes had been the only thing between me and starvation, I would have found a way to grow them.

As it is, if I’ll never be the green-thumber I thought I aspired to, I’m at peace with that. I don’t need to be more diligent or successful at gardening than I already am: not very. I’ll buy what I can’t make.

But if I’m going to consider myself a writer — I like “wordsmith,” with its shadings of honest labor — I don’t think the work needs to be, or will be, easy. I think I need to stop letting the perfect paragraphs of great writers scare me into hopelessness. Perhaps good writing is not magic or happenstance or bliss but, simply, as much work as it takes. And being willing to sweat a bit.

Metaphorically, I mean, Mr. Minchin.
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Ruth Carmel – a pseudonym – is a lawyer and writer who lives in New York with her husband and children. Her essays have been published in Ducts, Aish, Talking Writing, and Alimentum, among other publications. She is working on a memoir.

George Saunders on Story

December 18, 2015 § 7 Comments

Photo by Redglass Pictures.

I think a good story is one that says on many different levels, we’re both human beings, we’re in this crazy situation called life that we don’t really understand, can we put our heads together and confer about it a little bit at a very high non-bullshitty level.

Then all kinds of magic can happen.

The idea I love is that is a story is kind of a black box. And you’re gonna put the reader in there, she’s gonna spend some time with this thing that you have made, and when she comes out, what’s gonna have happened to her in there is something kind of astonishing–it feels like the curtain has been pulled back and like she’s gotten a glimpse into a deeper truth.

As a story writer, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Take a moment for a video break (it’s worth watching with your full attention). Redglass Pictures has made a small and beautiful 7-minute film–so much more than an interview–with George Saunders.

Saunders is best-known for his fiction, and he’s approaching craft from that angle. But what he says applies to essay and memoir as well.

A bad story is one where you know what the story is and you’re sure of it, and you go there with your intentionality fixed in place.

Let the story surprise you, Saunders urges–what you think you know may not be the story. Be ready to look underneath.

With nonfiction, looking underneath is often less interrogating our imagination and more out-there-with-a-recorder research. It can be challenging to change our own minds, especially about an experience or situation so powerful that we must write it, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt, how we reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why.

We talk a lot in memoir about the “so what” factor–why should anyone else care what happened to you? Most of the time, readers understand when someone does something shitty. It’s not necessary to tell them how we felt when Mom slapped us or Dad came home drunk again or the doctor started with “It’s not good news.” They already know how they’d feel, and letting the reader have that experience by observing well-written scenes is more powerful than telling them our own feelings. By looking at actions and questioning them, rather than explaining the impact of those actions on the narrator, we take a big step towards answering “so what?”.

Go enjoy George Saunders.

 

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

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