Trust

Punctuation seems to me one of the few human inventions without bad side-effects, and I am so fond of all the little dots and curls that I once taught a whole writing course devoted to them.

— Ursula K. Le Guin

I was tempted to post that quote all by its own self because (1) I agree with it, and (2) Ursula K. Le Guin wrote it, but reading Le Guin reminds me continually to pay attention to context, and I’m continually railing at online memes that encourage us to do the opposite.

So, context: The quote comes in “Examples of Dignity: Thoughts on the Work of José Saramago,”  in her most recent nonfiction collection, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016).

Saramago, the 1998 Nobel laureate in literature, was not a big fan of punctuation. Writes Le Guin: “So a Saramago page, one dense thicket from top to bottom with only commas to indicate the path, was hard going for me, and I was inclined to resent it.”

After a couple of attempts, I bailed on Joyce’s Ulysses for similar reasons. Saramago had been commended to Le Guin not only by his reputation but by a friend whose opinion she trusted, so she didn’t stop with resentment. If she was going to persevere through this difficult book, Blindness, she had to trust the author, her guide, and “the only way to find out if he deserved such trust was to read his other books. So I did.”

This worked. “I returned to Blindness and began it again from the beginning,” she writes, “by now used to the thicket and confident that wherever Saramago took me, however hard the going, it would be worth it.”

She doesn’t learn to love Saramago’s ways with punctuation: she “learned to accept them, but without enthusiasm.” She also notes that she has little difficulty when she reads his work aloud, “probably because it slows me down.”

All of which reminds me of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s much-quoted (and -misquoted) lines:

You write with ease to show your breeding,
But easy writing’s curst hard reading.

It doesn’t seem that Saramago wrote with particular ease, and “breeding” in Sheridan’s sense he certainly did not have, but — point taken. At the same time there are editors out there who think any irregularity that slows the reader down is anathema, and readers who want to barrel through one book after another without engaging with any of them or remembering them later.

I like Le Guin’s approach. She’s willing to put out considerable effort if she trusts her guide.

Me too — but I did give up on Ulysses, although I’d liked some of Joyce’s other work. The trouble was that too many other guides were clamoring for my attention.

R Is for Readers

Writers may write in solitude, but there’s nearly always at least one other person in the room. Maybe we see them. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we see them but try to ignore their existence. Maybe they’re in our own head.

Readers.

Editors are test readers of writing that hasn’t gone out into the world yet. Our job is to help prepare the writing for its debut. We’re hired because we’re adept in the ways of spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, structure, and so on, but on the other hand we’re supposed to be professionally stupid: if the writing isn’t clear enough, if gaps and inconsistencies exist in the sentences and paragraphs we’re reading, we aren’t supposed to fill them in from what we already know. The writing is supposed to do the work.

This is fine as far as it goes, but sometimes editors forget that despite our expertise and the fact that we’re getting paid, we can’t speak for all readers. If an editor tells you that “readers won’t like it if you . . .” listen carefully but keep the salt handy: you may need it. Editors should be able to explain our reservations about a word or a plot twist or a character’s motivation without hiding behind an anonymous, unverifiable mass of readers.

readers at outdoor café

One of the big highs of my writing life was when my Mud of the Place was featured by the several Books Afoot groups who traveled to Martha’s Vineyard in 2013 and 2014.

Readers can and often do take very different things away from the same passage, the same poem, the same essay, the same story. At my very first writers’ workshop (the 1984 Feminist Women’s Writing Workshop, Aurora, New York), day after day I listened as 18 of us disagreed, often passionately, about whether a line “worked” and whether a character’s action made sense or not and whether a particular description was effective or not. It was thrilling to see readers so engaged with each other’s work, but also a little unsettling: no matter how capable and careful we writers are with our writing, we can’t control how “readers” are going to read it.

This is a big reason I advise writers to find or create themselves a writers’ group — and to develop the skill and courage to give other writers their honest readings of a work in progress. This may be the greatest gift one writer can give another.

I just came to “Teasing Myself Out of Thought” in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016), and what do you know, it articulates eloquently and clearly some of what I’m feeling my way toward here.

“Most writing is indeed a means to an end,” she writes — but not all of it. Not her own stories and poems. They’re not trying to get a point across: “What the story or the poem means to you — its ‘message’ to you — may be entirely different from what it means to me.”

She compares “a well-made piece of writing” to “a well-made clay pot”: the pot is put to different uses and filled with different things by people who didn’t make it. What she’s suggesting, I think (maybe because I agree with her), is that readers participate actively in the creation of what the story or poem means. Readers are “free to use the work in ways the author never intended. Think of how we read Sophocles or Euripides.”  What readers and playgoers have discovered in the Greek tragedies has evolved considerably over the last 3,000 years, and it’s a good guess that Sophocles and Euripides didn’t embed all those things in their works.

“A story or poem,” writes Le Guin, “may reveal truths to me as I write it. I don’t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.”

If this reminds you of “J Is for Journey,” it does me too. And notice where that particular blog post started.

And finally this: “What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do.”

That’s a pretty amazing and generous statement, and one editors might consider occasionally, especially when we’re editing works that aren’t simply means to an end.

J Is for Journey

“A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you.

That’s Ursula K. Le Guin in “Talking About Writing” which you can find in her Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1979). I don’t write fantasy, but I’ve read a lot of it, which may explain why fantasy elements keep sneaking into my real-time fiction.

It may also explain why for me writing is a journey, especially writing fiction, and everything Le Guin says about fantasy applies. The journey I’ve been on for three years now started with a dog running through the woods and a girl sitting on a playground swing. As I wrote my way toward them, I began to understand who they were and how they were connected.

I also ventured deep and deeper into my own subconscious, or memory, or imagination, whatever it is, and found images and questions that preoccupied me in the past but that I’d set aside. Rescue — both rescuing and being rescued — was a big one. In my novel in progress, the rescue of the dog turned out to be pretty easy. The rescue of the girl is still working itself out. I’m still not 100% sure of what she needs to be rescued from, but it’s a lot clearer — and more unsettling — than it was when I started. So are the stories and motivations of the would-be rescuers.

One of my mantras is “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.” It will, but the catch is that you have to keep doing it. My hunch is that a fair amount of what’s called “writer’s block” stems from the cautious mind’s fear of those subconscious places where reason has to relinquish control. The fear is totally justified because, as Le Guin wrote, the journey will change you.

It may change you in ways you don’t expect and can’t control, that may sharpen or blur your vision enough to unsettle your view of the world. It’s a wild magic, writing.

As the letter J drew closer in my passage through the alphabet, I couldn’t decide between “journey” and “journal.” The two words had to be closely related, I thought, and so they are: both stem from the Latin word for “day,” diurnis, by way of the Anglo-French. If you know any French, or even if you don’t, the “jour-” in “journey” and “journal” probably suggests jour, the French word for “day.”

“Journey,” it seems, originally suggested a day’s travel. Now a journey can take much longer, especially if you’re working on a book-length work, but breaking it down into days isn’t a bad idea. The journey may indeed lead into dangerous places, but the closer you get, the less scary they seem — because you’re getting braver with every step you take, every word you write.

The journey continues.

 

UKL’s Challenge

We interrupt this blog to bring you an important message. Ursula K. Le Guin has been high in my literary pantheon for a very long time. The other night at the 65th National Book Awards, Le Guin was honored for her distinguished contribution to American letters. In barely five minutes she proved that her distinguished contribution continues. Her speech seems to be going viral. Good. It’s a challenge to writers, publishers, and readers. Let’s live up to it.

And here is The Speech, as transcribed by Parker Higgins and posted on his blog. He notes that the bits in parentheses were ad-libbed to the audience. Thanks!

Thank you, Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.

 

Whatever Works

Are you a “plotter” or a “pantser”? For many writers this is a far hotter topic than liberals versus conservatives, dogs versus cats, or Macs versus PCs. Plotters work it all out in advance. Pantsers — you’re way ahead of me here — fly by the seat of their pants.

The other day I learned about “swoopers” and “bashers.” Swoopers dive in and write write write till they run out of steam. Bashers knock each sentence into shape before they move on to the next. Their first drafts are polished and almost ready to go.

Some how-to guides emphasize planning. If you fly by the seat of your pants, they warn, it’ll take a lot longer. You may never finish at all.

If you’re writing to a deadline, whether imposed from without — say there’s a contract involved — or within — say you’re participating in NaNoWriMo and trying to write a novel this month, time is of the essence and “longer” is a liability.

I’m not writing to a deadline, beyond producing a few new pages for each week’s meeting of my writers’ group, but there’s no question in my mind: planning has its uses. Last spring my novel-in-progress (working title: The Squatters’ Speakeasy) ran out of steam. It was all sprawl and no trail. I pushed it to one side and went to work on Wolfie, the current project. Eventually I diagnosed the Squatters problem as a “surfeit of subplots.” There wasn’t a main plot in sight.

Some planning is clearly called for.

At the same time — Wolfie started as one of those multitudinous subplots. It appeared when I was flying by the seat of my pants. It’s taken on a life of its own.

Planning has its uses. So does flying by the seat of your pants. So do swooping and bashing. Whatever works — and when it stops working, try something else.

steering coverAs usual, Ursula K. Le Guin got there long before me. Her Steering the Craft (Portland, OR: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998) is my favorite how-to book. Sometimes I open to a page at random, as if I were casting the I Ching or laying out tarot cards. The other day I was flipping through looking for advice on plot. This is what I found:

“Somebody asked Willie Nelson where he got his songs, and he said, ‘The air’s full of melodies, you just reach
out. . . .’ The world’s full of stories, you just reach out.

“I say this in an attempt to unhook people from the idea that they have to make an elaborate plan of a tight plot before they’re allowed to write a story. If that’s the way you like to write, write that way, of course. But if it isn’t, if you aren’t a planner or a plotter, don’t worry. The world’s full of stories. . . . All you need may be a character or two, or a conversation, or a situation, or a place, and you’ll find the story there. You think about it, you work it out at least partly before you start writing, so that you know in a general way where you’re going, but the rest works itself out in the telling.”

About her “steering the craft” image, which organizes the book (and which I love), she adds: “The story boat is a magic one. It knows its course. The job of the person at the helm is to help it find its own way to wherever it’s going.”

In Wolfie the other day, my main character, Shannon, was sailing along on course. She knew where she was heading. Then two things happen, boom, boom, one right after the other. The first shakes her certainty; the second tells her she’s heading in the wrong direction. She’s got to do something, but she doesn’t know what.

I generally depend on my characters to tell me what’s what. I was no help — but I’m at the helm and lingering in irons in the middle of the bay is not an option.

So I picked out a pen that hadn’t seen much use lately and filled it with red ink. (For days I’d been cruising in more somber colors — gray, brown, black cherry. Red woke me up.) With a sheaf of my new blank paper in my lap, I slipped into Shannon’s head and we wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Now she knows what she’s going to do, and I’ve got a pretty good idea. We’re back on course.

Red ink collage

Red ink collage

Heroes & Villains

I can’t plot my way out of a paper bag.

plot book

By the late Ansen Dibell (aka Nancy Ann Dibble)

Actually this may not be true, since I managed to write a novel that more than one reviewer called “tightly plotted.” Let’s just say that plotting doesn’t come easy. One of the few how-to books I consult from time to time is called, simply, Plot.

My internal editor is forever nixing the kind of scene that makes for an exciting plot. She thinks they’re melodramatic or unbelievable. This is probably because my life has a meandering plot that would be deadly dull in fiction, though it leads through some interesting scenes and encounters some very interesting characters.

Evidently other writers are plot-challenged too. There are at least a gazillion websites out there to teach us how to plot.

Many of them start with protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). The main characters (i.e., the ones you like and want your readers to identify with and care about) want to get somewhere. The antagonist(s) get in their way and have to be overcome or neutralized somehow.

Call them heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys.

I get it, but there’s nothing that turns me off faster than a character whose sole purpose is to mess with the hero’s head and/or life. Why are these characters messing with the hero’s life? Because they’re villains, that’s why. Because they’re evil. Because the author needs a bad guy or two to give the good guys a hard time because otherwise there would be no plot.

Um, no.

“Everyone’s the hero of their own story.” I can’t remember where I picked up this brilliant insight, but it applies both to real life and to writing. It’s especially important when you’re creating (or giving birth to) characters you don’t like who are going to mess with the characters you do like. Nearly all of them have their own stories. Some of their stories are muddled or inchoate or otherwise incomprehensible to a rational person. Some are crystal clear: If you interrupt them in mid-stride, they can tell you exactly where they’re going and what they plan to do when they get there. Sometimes the story is driving the bus and the character is along for the ride, maybe willingly, maybe not.

devil“We are each other’s angels” goes the song. My teeth start itching at any reference to angels. There’s something about the concept that makes smart people start babbling in clichés. But OK, point taken: we are each other’s guides, teachers, helpers, and so on. But if we’re each other’s angels, we’re also each other’s devils, roadblocks, obstacles. When a character is the hero of her own story but the villain in someone else’s — that’s where things get interesting.

And more than a little scary.

When we call someone “evil,” it’s often because we can’t imagine what story they’re the hero of. We don’t want to. The story is probably icky. Maybe we’re so sure we’re on the side of the angels (oops) that we just don’t care why the other guy does what he does.

Writing well means grappling with the icky, in other people and in ourselves. So far all my less-than-heroic or downright nasty characters have been facets of my own self: I understand their impulses, I’ve often thought their thoughts; I just haven’t acted on them either because I haven’t had the opportunity or I didn’t have the nerve. There but for fortune . . .

In Wolfie, my novel in progress, I seem to be walking toward my first real villain, a man I’m sorely tempted to call evil. He’s a successful lawyer, and he sexually abused his stepdaughter over a period of time when she was seven years old. She’s now eleven, and it looks to me as if he’s going to try it again.

At the moment I can’t imagine what story he’s the hero of. Well, no: I know a good chunk of the story. What I don’t know is how sexually molesting a seven-year-old fits into it. What does he see when he looks in the mirror? When he looks at his wife, who is the girl’s biological mother? When he looks at the girl herself? Statistics suggest that he may have been abused himself growing up. Was he? By whom? A family member, a neighbor, a teacher, a priest?

So far I can’t see out of this man’s eyes, but when I’m doing dishes or walking in the woods glimpses of him appear in my peripheral vision. He’s taking shape.

Part of me wants to stuff him back into my imagination, turn the lock, and pile heavy stones on the lid.

In her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” (1973; reprinted in The Language of the Night) Ursula K. Le Guin was writing about fantasy, but much of what she says applies to other writing as well, both fiction and nonfiction. This is how the essay ends:

“A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you.

What she said.