whitney roberts hill

"One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began." -Mary Oliver

Category: agile writers

Leaving Space for the Reader

We entered into a productive discussion last week at Agile Writers, my local novel writer’s group. It centered on the problems inherent in writing (or acting, performing, producing) for an audience of peers rather than an audience of. . . people.

The topic arose because we are making our way through Lawrence Block’s classic on writerly craft, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. Block’s chapter, which served as the launchpad for our discussion last week, was entitled “Never Apologize, Never Explain.” In it, he states bluntly that the sort of temperament that draws a writer to writing–the amount of “ego” and “self-condfidence” (Block’s words)needed to write– often brings with it a desire for control. This includes a desire to control the reader’s experience.

Obviously, this is fraught. Any time we attempt to control or manipulate another’s experience, I would argue, we have overstepped our bounds–we have done both too much and too little in the creation of our art. Too much in the sense of condescending to the reader, telling him or her how to feel and think about what we have made. And too little, in that it takes far more skill to master the art of leaving space for the reader’s own experience.

I am egregiously guilty of this. I find myself over-writing, particularly in a first draft, as I am explaining the work to myself as well as eventual readers. I think this is a necessary phase of mastering any craft. I’ve never written a novel before. This process is a long exercise in on-the-job-training. So I have to begin with both an absence of skill and a distrust of what abilities I do possess.

The real delight and craft comes in the subsequent cullings–the adventures in trimming the fat from my work, leaving only what is essential, true and beautiful (not merely aesthetically pleasing). This is a sort of tuning process. We strike each scene, sentence, each word with a kind of internal tuning fork. We ask it “are you essential?” and wait for the answer. If not, we break it off and let it go. The more we listen, the better we get at divining the difference between the essential and the discardable. I am reminded of the famous Faulkner quote:

“I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”

The second place I have encountered this idea in recent weeks was while listening to an interview with the author Junot Diaz on the New York Public Library Podcast. Diaz’s assessment of the essential mistake of contemporary novice writers is that they don’t leave adequate room for the reader.

Diaz himself takes this “leaving room” principle all the way to the level of genre. In the interview, he discussed his work The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which could be categorized as a loose collection of interrelated short stories, or a novel. It mixes languages, moves nimbly through time and space, switches from first to third person points of view, employs ample footnotes, all in an inevitable attempt to disorient the reader in precisely the way one might be disoriented as a part of the immigrant experience.

The result is lots of room for a reader to interpret and glean from the book different understandings. It isn’t anarchy though; Diaz is clear that Oscar Wao is about how it feels to be an immigrant, to live under a dictator and in a democracy, to grapple with masculinity as it is represented in two different cultures. These themes are undeniable and so vital that they could not be left to chance, even while elements as basic as genre and narrative voice are fluid and loosely defined.

What is most interesting to me about Diaz’s statements in the interview, is his diagnosis of the origin of this lack of ability to leave space for the reader. According to Diaz, who is a creative writing professor himself at MIT, the root of the problem is that writers are emerging more and more in a context of other writers. They go to conferences to talk to writers, they enter MFA programs to spend years in the company of other writers–both their peers and their mentors. Inevitably, the echo chamber this produces runs the risk of promoting the mastery of craft over originality, vitality and popular appeal. The writers of today, Diaz notes, are simply out of touch with readers.

Block outlined the crux of this more than twenty years ago: “A short story or novel constitutes a subtly different experience for every person who reads it, simply because each reader brings a different perspective and background to bear upon what he reads[. . .]The best we can do is write as carefully and as honestly as we can and let the reader make of our work what he will. If we write well, enough people will get enough of the message.”

So, who are readers, and how do we write for them? This issue strikes me as an elitist, ivory tower problem. Looking around the room at my fellow writers collected on a Wednesday evening, I see less danger of squeezing out the reader. We are not locked in higher education environments. We are chemists, teachers, parents, partners, and writers. One foot in the ordinary world, and one foot in the writing world.

Perhaps we are just putting our finger on the widening fault line between literary and genre novels. Those of us who seek to straddle the two (I would include myself here) face an increasingly difficult task. And those of us who unabashedly aim for salability and readability in our works need feel less ashamed. By shirking the masses, maybe the highest literary MFA-driven, conference-attending, adjunct-teaching, upper echelon of writers who write for other writers will go the way of the dinosaurs?

Lest I come off as too harshly critical of MFA programs, writing absolutely is a set of skills that can be taught. At their best, MFA programs are designed to do just this. To foster confidence in the execution of craft that can lead to wildness and vulnerability in the subject matter. But the ability to see and convey truth, to speak to a reader and move him or her without over-explaining and condescending, is an art. And art is stifled by closed environments and over-valued rule books. A writer, through trial and error, could perhaps land on the best crafting of stories. But given only the lessons of craft, and sealed off from the larger world, a writer risks going deaf to the murmurations of truth, the concerns and motivations of her readers.

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The writer, if she is going to be a lightening rod for truth, and not merely a wordsmith, must trace the inevitable cycle of seers and sages of every stripe. Time alone on the mountaintop for the act of creation must be balanced by trips to the proverbial village, where the work is gifted to the world and the writer can drink in the cultural garb necessary to make her work relevant in contemporary society.                                                
The acquisition of technical prowess is a slow and steady climb balanced by the grounding of our shared human experience. When you spend time in the world, and come to know your reader intimately, you will no longer underestimate their abilities or your own. You will leave space for their experience, and they will reward you with their readership.

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Plumbing the Depths of Your Own Life

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In a recent chapter of Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit he talked about a phenomenon he calls “burning the raft at both ends.” By which he means, consuming one’s own life experiences in the service of one’s writing. According to Block, you can use up your life. You can run out of experiences. You can write through your life faster than you can live it.

I’m vested in believing he is wrong about this.

I write from my own life. Maybe it’s because I come out of a poetic tradition. Or maybe I was drawn to confessional poetry, in particular, out of a compulsion to use my own life experiences in the service of my writing.

Part of maturing my writing has been learning how to do this more skillfully—to take the emotional kernel, the essence of my own experiences, and of the social and psychological realities I know intimately, and allow that essence to sprout circumstances for my characters that are not so easily traceable to my own life. In part, I do this to avoid libel charges, sure. But I also do it—like most writers—to protect the innocent, or at least the loved.

But as I have expounded before, I write as one vehicle toward self-knowledge. Writing without explicit self-examination is impossible for me.

I happen to believe that human beings are infinitely complex. That the material in any one human life is inexhaustible and ever-deepening. I was listening to a podcast by the New York Public Library yesterday. In it the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard seeks to dispel the rumors that people with good childhoods can’t be writers. That well-adjusted, ordinary folk have nothing to write about. He describes himself as such a person who was lucky enough—and as a writer unlucky enough—to have supportive, well-adjusted parents and no major traumas. And he talks about learning, through the works of such writers as Flannery O’Connor, that every human life is engaging and interesting if you zoom in close enough.

Frankly, I don’t trust writers who claim not to write from their own experience. Maybe they don’t write from their own experience in such an obvious way. Maybe they use persona. Maybe they write science fiction or supernatural horror or murder mystery. Maybe they haven’t  personally experienced taking someone’s life but their hero is a serial killer. I would argue that even that person is writing from their own experience—maybe from their Jungian shadow side—maybe it’s unconscious. But to write that character in a compelling way they must be in touch with the human impulse to violence (whether expressed or unexpressed) in themselves. We each have it, after all.

We each have the capacity for all human emotions and psychological experiences. The entirety of your novel must spring from your own mind, which has been shaped by your experiences. That’s part of the mystery of writing. Somehow all of that stuff is in you. “[You] contain multitudes,” as Walt Whitman said.

So can you burn the raft entirely before you reach the shore? I would argue that you cannot. You have no choice but to keep living while you are writing. The raft keeps getting built as you are burning it. And as you refine your craft, perhaps you are also refining your attention, and you will see things in your life you never saw before. And they will be revealed to you through the act of writing itself.

Authorpreneur

quotescover-JPG-77Confession time. Half of this word scares me. Also it makes me a little angry, a little frustrated, and a little unsure about my ability to succeed as a writer.

Here’s why: I’m not sure that the skills needed to be a successful writer can cohabitate with the skills necessary to be a great entrepreneur, brander, marketer, social media mogul and sales executive.

I’m afraid I only have the former set of skills. I like to be alone, I like psychoanalysis, probing deep questions, imagining alternative realities, crafting language, and communicating my most dearly held truths.

The following things, on the other hand, make me feel icky: self-promotion, money, too much time on the internet (especially social media), strategizing, marketing, thinking about the salability of my most dearly held truths.

Am I doomed in the new arena of writing and publishing?

I hope not.

But I worry that developing the skills to hold up the entrepreneurial end of this equation will take place at the expense of the author end. Time spent in strategizing, marketing and social media blasting is time not spent writing, after all. And I only get the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else, unfortunately.

The alternative, of course, is to hire others to do the parts of the business that I don’t have an affinity for. This upsets me for an entirely different reason. Are we kidding ourselves about the great egalitarian wild west of self-publishing on the web? If time and money must be invested now by the author, instead of by the traditional publisher, aren’t we empowering some kinds of authors (those with an abundance of time and/or money) over others even more than we were before?

This troubles me. And I don’t have an answer.

But, if I may be permitted to play devil’s advocate against my own argument for a moment, I can see some of the proclaimed advantages of this new author-centric system of publishing. For one, authors have greater creative control over the final form of their work than ever before. If you don’t want to listen to a bossy editor or publisher, you don’t have to. You want to write an 800 page debut novel? Knock yourself out. “We don’t see a market for that” is no longer a full-stop for writers seeking publication.

Authors stand to take home a greater slice of their profits than ever before, too. People are not writing novels in the hope of becoming millionaires by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s nice that the time and energy vested in such a long project can be rewarded by a higher percentage (if not all) of the profits of the book’s sales.

And I do think that for some, the skills used in the writing process are transferrable to the realm of entrepreneurship. After all, entrepreneurs must also be highly creative to be successful. Blogging is just more writing (a good place to put all the ideas in your brain that don’t fit into your novel!). And many writers also have a knack for the visual arts, making designing their own covers a fun challenge, rather than an overwhelming chore.

I’m still hoping to be picked up by an agent and a traditional publisher. But, in the meantime, I’m learning how to build a platform, generate blog posts, and talk about my project to any willing listeners. Dogged determination, after all, has always been a part of the writer’s toolkit.