Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Through Glass

Welcome back guest blogger Laura Jones. Thoughts this time on Dave McKean's His Story from Pictures That Tick.

I thought I was in love with the way McKean combines abstraction and representationalism. But if that's love, then love isn't a good enough word for how I feel about the metaphor he just created for artistic vision. And it's gruesome, yes, but fabulous. In 'His Story,' the story told to the narrator by his father is represented by a piece of broken glass.

When confronted with the shard as a child, he mishandles it, or misunderstands it, and is injured by it. He cuts his hand. He puts away the glass for several years. Older, he views the glass again. “It was still clear and cold. / But I was sure there was / more to it than that. / I had to get inside it. / Or let it get inside of me. / I had to look at it / in a different way” (172). And then he takes the shard, and he shoves it into his eye.

The narrator, through the simple metaphor of a piece of broken glass, illustrates the idea that an artist's creativity comes from looking at the world through the lens of pain and prior experience.

It is no accident that the central image of this short piece is a human form with a shard in his eye. It is a grotesque image. It elicits a visceral reaction. We like to protect our eyes from harm. The thought of piercing our eyes on purpose, obscuring our vision intentionally, is nearly unthinkable. And that gives this image a great deal of power. It gives the concept of an artist as a bit of a masochist a sense of literalness. The first person narration combined with the illustrations depicting what happens to 'I' suggest that there is a kinship between the writer/artist and the narrator. The sense of ars poetica makes it personal. The artist must suffer for his or her art.

It is also no accident that McKean relies on primary colors in this story to convey a sense of rightness. Prior to the narrator altering his vision, the illustrations are shown in shades of yellow or blue. With the entrance of the shard of glass and its piercing of the narrator, red – blood, pain – completes the trinity of colors. It is only with the metaphorical acceptance of red blood, the suffering of others, the stories of the past, that the images and the overarching plot become balanced and acquire a sense of completion. “Later,” the narrator says immediately after red becomes predominant in the imagery, “I thought I had made a / mistake. There was some pain. / And the way I saw everything / seemed to have changed. / But I had taken an / important step. / I could not go back now” (173).

The heightened balance of color and form in the imagery supports the idea that the pain shown is not gratuitous self-mutilation, but rather that it is a necessary part of the narrator's life progression. The text concurs.

As the written story progresses, the shard of glass through which the narrator views the world works its way through the narrator's head until it is no longer a part of his vision, but is instead behind him. The prism that gave color and depth to the narrator's life – the story that his father told him – has been forgotten piece by piece. At one point that narrator realizes that he is seeing the world, “through my own eyes entirely” (177). He looks for his father's presence again, searching in mirrors and microscopes. His father's story has fallen out of focus. His “memories all seemed frozen, / and cold, and hard” (179). With the lens of the broken glass missing from the narrator's vision, McKean's illustrations lose their color balance again. As in the beginning, the images of the narrator without the memories of his father are shown in muted shades of blue and yellow. Without the piece of glass to draw blood and show the world in a prism or clarity, the narrator is left in a dreamlike state of disbelief and monotony.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Stephen Koch's The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction

Welcome back guest blogger Carol Owens Campbell. Carol is an MFA student studying fiction at Pine Manor College's Solstice in Creative Writing program. Her current work in progress explores the turbulent echos of the Kent State Massacre as seen through the eyes of a young college student.

In this second of two installments, Carol considers perspective as discussed in the popular fiction writers reference book: The Modern Library Writer's Workshop.


In Koch’s extraordinary book, he commands, “Whatever feeling you ask the reader to join, let it be strong. If your talent is connected to your passion, it will all find expression in a thousand signs, in turns that will be too multiple in meaning for one simple value judgment. The real issue isn’t whether you love or hate your characters. The real issue, whatever the bond, is the vitality and force of what you do feel.” (111)

With almost every sentence highlighted in my copy of Koch’s book, I find his perspective profound. I relish my discoveries about inventing and re-inventing myself as a writer. I also find Koch’s personal stories poignant.

When Koch shares the anecdote of informing his student, three weeks from her graduation deadline that her work is a mess, that she must toss it and start over (163-165), I froze, then panicked. Through Koch’s capable storytelling, however, I calmed and understood the merit of his counsel.

I read Koch’s personal story at the conclusion of the book and wish, as he had, that a book like “this one” had been available to him. I also wish that The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield had been published before 2003 so that Koch could have referenced it in his fifteen pages of “Notes,” in his twelve-page index, and in his text.

Finally, as I read Koch’s perspective and reverence for W. Somerset Maugham “whose notebook is one of the most instructive ever to have gotten out of the desk drawer and into print” and whose “notes on places (Maugham visited) are models of how to capture a setting and the atmosphere of place and time” (214), I reflected on all I had learned.
I appreciate Sandra Scofield’s suggestion to read Koch’s book. I value the voices of writers through the years sharing their own perspectives with me. At times I wish Koch had not bounced from one writer to another so quickly for I felt I was at a tennis tournament with my thoughts going back and forth, again and again, to grasp the insight of Hemingway then the perspective of Kerouac, the brilliance of Austen then the humor of Lamott. Nevertheless, I celebrate Koch’s applause of those writers for whom I am their ideal Reader, including W. Somerset Maugham whose literary work, The Moon and Sixpence, is one of my favorite books.

Ultimately, I cherish this book. I plan to reference Koch’s words and ideas often as I find my way on the path to discover the story I most want to tell. I also cherish my stroll through the history of lawn tennis, particularly my final discovery.

Upon reading that Dwight Davis, a student at Harvard, chose the lawns of the Longwood Cricket Club as the site of the first Davis Cup tennis tournament played between the United States and Britain in 1900, I was stunned. After all, the Longwood Cricket Club is on Hammond Street in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, across from the CVS Pharmacy, on the street that intersects with Heath, mere walking distance from Pine Manor College, the place where I first learned of Stephen Koch.

This serendipity reminds me to thank Sandra Scofield for recommending this book. It also thrills me that Koch is hitting the ball into my court as he reminds me with a rallying cheer: “Your business is spinning the dusty straw of your uncertainty and fear into the pure gold of clarity and conviction. It is the task of a lifetime.” (29)

The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, Stephen Koch, 2003, Modern Library, an imprint of Random House Publishers

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Stephen Koch's The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction

Welcome guest blogger Carol Owens Campbell. Carol is an MFA student studying fiction at Pine Manor College's Solstice in Creative Writing program. Her current work in progress explores the turbulent echos of the Kent State Massacre as seen through the eyes of a young college student.
In this first of two installments, Carol considers a popular fiction writers reference book: The Modern Library Writer's Workshop.

The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club merits acclaim in the pantheon of sports as the place where Major Walter Clopton Wingfield invented the game of lawn tennis. Now known as “Wimbledon,” it hosts the only Grand Slam tennis tournament in the world still played on grass. It is also where the term “Centre Court” originated.

The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch merits acclaim in the pantheon of books about the craft of writing for within this book Koch assembles a lawn full of stellar writers to encourage those just beginning. Now known in this annotation as “TMLWW,” it is where Koch’s words play out on pages bound by a cover of vibrant green, the color of summer grass and the color most associated with “beginning.” This book is also where the word “invent” serves as a writer’s central focus.

A Writer’s Central Focus: To Invent

Wingfield honored the Greek heritage of the game of lawn tennis by calling it “Sphairistike” (Greek for “skill at playing at ball.” Source: Wimbledon official website, “About Wimbledon”). In TMLWW, Stephen Koch quotes Paul Johnson who addresses a writer’s skill. “In writing, as in all art, confidence is the beginning of skill.” (203)

Koch also honors the heritage of the word, invent. “The Latin root of the word invent means to discover.” (58) Koch supports a writer who wants to tell a good story by urging the novice to “Begin. Begin right now. Begin with whatever gives you the impetus to begin – anything at all that arouses your imagination. The rightness of things is generally revealed in retrospect.” (3, 4)

Koch is persuasive in his argument that a story must be discovered as a writer writes it. A story, he insists, is not something a writer-storyteller knows in advance. Rather it is through the discovery process that a writer “invents” the story s/he most wants to tell. “Let’s get one basic thought into play right now. You can make up a story only by finding it, and you can find a story only by making it up.” (14)

Quoting scores of famous writers, Koch joins their chorus urging a writer to invent characters, story, plot, style, voice, conflict, structure, and, in a revelation to this writer, one’s Reader. “This mute attention, this imagined experience of someone else hearing and grasping what you have to say, inevitably guides any writer’s work. Your prose must be shaped in part by your understanding of how the Reader is listening to it. And this – all of it – is something you must also invent.” (182)

Other treasures of wisdom to be discovered in this book include:

“A bad novel is better than an unwritten novel, because a bad novel can be improved; an unwritten novel is defeat without a battle.” Paul Johnson (43, 44)

“Sometimes – many times – the muse appears wearing the mask of a deadline.” Stephen Koch (44)

“You will recognize her or him (your protagonist) by the way you care.” Stephen Koch (93)

“First drafts, even pretty good ones, can be excruciatingly hard for anyone but their authors to read. The primary issue, line by line, is not their higher meaning. It is their basic meaning.” Stephen Koch (173)

To Score or Not to Score

Major Walter Clopton Wingfield proceeded to give meaning to the sport of lawn tennis in 1873 by creating a scoring system that includes the terms, “love, deuce, match.”

One hundred and thirty years later, in 2003, Stephen Koch offers what this Reader considers a “scoring system for writers” that could employ these same designations.

Love reflects a writer’s passion, obsession, and desire to write. In TMLWW, Graham Greene is quoted: “Talent, even of a very high order, cannot sustain an achievement, whereas a ruling passion gives to a shelf of novels the unity of a system.” (31)

Koch agrees. “Your talent will go to waste unless it is sustained and strengthened by the nagging, jagged, elusive thing called obsession, that stone in the shoe of your being known as a calling, a vocation. Call it dumb persistence. Call it passion. Call it fire in the belly or the madness of art. It is less the ability to write than the insistence upon writing.” (31)

“Katherine Anne Porter said, ‘This thing between me and my writing is the strongest bond I have ever had – stronger than any bond or any engagement with any human being or with any other work I’ve ever done.’ ” (31)

“Betsy Lerner observes, ‘If the voices keep calling, if the itch remains, no matter how punishing the work or inhospitable the world, then you must take a long hard look at all the writing you’ve been attempting to do all your life and commit to it.’ ” (32)

Koch states, “If you are lucky, writing will be and will remain your greatest pleasure; intense, surprising, a kind of lifelong love story.” (53)

Deuce refers to the distinction between two near synonyms, “story” and “plot.” In a tour de force explanation of the distinguishing characteristics of these two often-batted-about terms, Koch states: “A story is an account of any real or fictitious sequence of linked events. Yet in order to be fully told, every story must have a plot. The plot will consist of whatever makes the story move.” (65) He then references the story summary and plot movements of “Hamlet” proving the brilliance of Shakespeare and also the acumen of Koch, the former chair of Columbia University’s graduate creative writing program.

“Feeling the story,” Koch writes, “followed by figuring the story – can start working together in a dynamic reciprocity from which the real shape of the story can emerge in an alternating shimmer of certainty and surprise.” (67)

Of course, another example of “story” and “plot,” that Koch cites is more succinct. “The cat sat on the mat’ is not the beginning of a story but ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is.” John LeCarre (74).

Match refers to the Writer and Reader relationship. “You create the Reader with your style,” Koch states. (118) “This invention of ‘the Reader,’ the secret sharer of your every syllable, is a defining element of style. It ends up as a relationship. As a writer, you have a great deal to say about what this relationship is to be. But it is not entirely in your hands. It is ultimately a collaboration, an exchange. Whatever the relationship, it should offer the real person reading your prose the gift of some larger, richer consciousness.” (119)

The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, Stephen Koch, 2003, Modern Library, an imprint of Random House Publishers.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Rabid Dwarves and Misplaced Senses

Welcome back guest blogger Laura Jones. This musing written to her MFA mentor, on Margaret Peterson Haddix's Just Ella. 

I must begin by admitting that I never intended to read this book. It's not on my reading list, it probably shouldn't be on my reading list, and I should probably be writing about Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales which I enjoyed greatly and which is probably overdue because I had it out from the Boston Public Library and forgot it was in my school bag when I left Boston for Central New York. Maybe even I should be writing about The Sandman Papers, edited by Joe Sanders, which is a compilation of critical essays about a very well known graphic novel that was freakishly influential to me. At least The Sandman Papers feigns to be academic. Just Ella does no such thing, which is, in fact, probably part of why I read it.

I mentioned in my last missive that I intended to reread books I had enjoyed as a child or teenager, with an eye for what drew me to them. As a self-exploratory exercise, it appeals to me. It's also an excuse for me to buy up books I don't need; I found a copy of Just Ella at a Salvation Army Store. I paid somewhere around 39 cents for it. I remembered reading it as a kid; I remembered that it was about a princess that fell in love with her tutor. What I didn't remember until I started rereading it was that it was a retelling of Cinderella (specifically a delving into of what happens when a self-sufficient young lady is forced into proper royal behavior and realizes that what she thought was love was just infatuation, and must deal with the consequences).

If Just Ella hadn't ended up being shockingly relevant to my current academic and creative interests, I would have written it up on my annotated bibliography and otherwise ignored it. I mean, it's a children's book. I powered through it in an afternoon after having accidentally sedated myself by mixing a tranquilizer with an allergy pill. It was that accessible. But as I said: it's relevant. Two or three years ago I took a class where I was expected to read Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. That was an awesome educational moment: I was required to read something that I ended up loving instead of something that I was merely required to have read. It was also at that moment that I realized that I'm fiendishly attached to retellings of fairy tales. I should stop ignoring it.

Another book I grabbed at the same time I got Just Ella was a hardcover copy of fairy tales ($1.23); of course I've read them all, but not quite with this wording, and certainly not with these illustrations. My god, it occurs to me that I'm ignoring something major when it comes to my creativity. I mean- the desktop background on my laptop is a really tweaked out illustration of Snow White (she looks possessed and the dwarfs (who are on rope leashes) look rabid).

And the funny thing is, it wasn't so much reading Just Ella that forced me to consider my love affair with reworked fairy tales as the fact that I was going over all of the books I've read in the past few weeks, trying to figure out what I had interest in writing about, and it occurred to me that yet again I passed up books I probably should have been reading in favor of a rewritten fairy tale that made me happy and was downright effortless to consume. As simple as breathing, reading stories based on long tradition and tried-and-true themes delights me.

I'm not really sure right now why I'm not writing fairy tales. I wonder if it's because I have a [perhaps misplaced] sense that contemporary fiction should be realistic. I wrote last about how delighted I am by fantasy that is portrayed as realism. The thing is, I'm also over the moon about fairy tales that aren't pretending to be anything but fairy tales. It may also, of course, be in my [perhaps misplaced] sense that if I write fantasy, I'm delving into the realm of Children's/YA. Of course that's foolish and I should know better. Just because many of the reworked fairy tales I've read are classified as YA doesn't mean they all must be, and – and this is probably more important – even if I am writing YA, I shouldn't be concerned about it. It is, perhaps, because I have a [certainly understandable] sense that poets are all a bit strange, nonfiction writers are all a bit too normal, and YA writers are all a bit too damned happy all the time. Mind you, that sense is probably also misplaced, but it's there. I stereotype other writers. So sue me.
But to get more to my point, once I justified having read Just Ella, and once I decided that it wouldn't be the end of the world if I wrote about it instead of writing about Dracula (main nit-pick: its format as a collection of letters and diary entries and the like kill suspense by way of ensuring that a reader knows at least one person survives long enough to write about the events), it occurred to me that one of the things I really actually like about Just Ella is that Haddix used the word 'automaton.'
No big deal, right? Well, I wrote with a group of people for a few years starting when I was about fifteen, and they were more or less obsessive compulsive about using language that was appropriate to the content and type of story. So a story taking place in a locale that is very Middle English shouldn't use latinate language, it should use germanic language. A sci-fi story that's heavily technology-oriented probably shouldn't feature a lot of thees and thous unless there's good reason for it. I had it drilled into me that the language the a writer uses should reflect the realities and truisms of the world s/he is trying to create.

And Haddix used the word 'automaton' in a story about glass slippers and dungeons. That's about as understandable to me as having Queen Elizabeth I talk at great length about robots and microchips.

But the thing is... I'm not at all certain that there's anything particularly wrong with using whatever language springs to mind. It didn't hurt the story any that Ella felt like she was expected to be as obedient as something synthetic. It just stood out to me as something that I wouldn't do. I notice it more in YA novels than I do in general literature: almost as if the authors don't notice their word choice, or as if they don't care, or as if they don't expect their readership to notice it. As somebody who loves Poe's short stories because of the poeticism of his word choice, it really catches my attention that you can just go out and write a story and not be all that concerned about the appropriateness of your word choice.

It's almost reassuring, in a way. Stories can be considered both clever and enjoyable without necessarily needing to be endlessly edited for linguistic merit. Of course linguistic merit is important too, but reading Just Ella brought a few really key things to mind:

  • There's nothing inherently wrong with writing fun and flippant stories.
  • I don't always have to show off my honed vocabulary when I'm writing.
  • I really need to get my shit together and stop ignoring the things that make me feel both happy and creative.
  • And so I finish thusly, with a meek apology that I wrote about a book that I wasn't really supposed to be reading.