On Writing FictionAbout writing fiction
From On Writing Fiction (originally released as Alone With All That Could Happen)
The WRITING AND THE SECRET LIFE I recently got two telephone conversations that made me think about the kind of fiction and poetics that I prefer to work with. There was one about a man who was telling me that he had just been reading a tale of me named "Rainier" about a diorced drunk whose boy died in a motorcade.
As he told me his tale, he stopped and said: I just wanted you to know that you are not alone. I have a history that is not autobiographic. I' ve never been to Montana or Wyoming where the tale is set; I have never been parted; I'm not an alcoholist, convalescent or not; and my boy, I'm glad to say, is very much alive. No.
Nothin' in this whole thing ever happen to me or anyone I know. It was not my heartfelt intention to tell this to the person calling; for the time of the telephone call I acted as if the tale was real and that I did not only share his sadness with imagination but quite literally. 2. That other call came from a Vietnamese veterinarian who had been reading my brief tale "Freeze", about a Vietnamese military man stepping on a mine that hasn't exploded yet, but still has a disastrous impact on his own world.
"If you weren't even there, what gives you the right to talk about a war?" he called. And, in a way, what is a fictionist, if not a trusted performer, someone who exchanges words for your faith, and - if he's fortunate - your moneys? How can authors accuse their readership of not realizing that fiction is fiction, not reality, if we do everything we can to make them believe that what we have envisioned is real?
There was no way I could have defended myself to this person who called - he almost immediately put the phone down after he accused me of being in a work of fiction - but if I had, I would have said to him that "Freeze", like "Rainier" and the remainder of my tales, is a real stop, but not the way he wanted me to.
It is not the one that can be caught by a security cam, but the one that comes into our imagination, a reality reinforced by distortions and the strange confrontation of a lifelong collection of pictures. It is like a nightmare to tell a tale when it is good, the reality about the author's mystery, his inner self, and as often as not, by lying about his external social-live. As Oscar Wilde said, "True living is so often the kind of living you don't have.
" Sometimes the readers know more about the character of this reality than the authors. The most common piece of counsel in the story of writing design is "Write what you know". "This is good counsel for authors who have a gift for dealing between the requirements of the facts and the requirements of artistry.
Like Garret Hongo said: "Sometimes when you are writing about what you know,".... the biography gets in the way. When you type "Grandfather's Backyard," you may see his astonishing array of hybrids, but the readers won't if you don't put them in the poet. "Moreover, writing about what you already know can be a recipe to get bored - and if you get bored, you will get bored.
Grace Paley did just the right thing for my price when she said: "You are writing about what you know, but you are writing about what you don't know. "You can' t help what you know - it is who you are, after all - but if you try to put in what you don't know, you will find things about yourself that you didn't know.
Briefly, you will find your hidden world, and so will your reader. I have tried in my tales and poetry to make my way into many personalities about whose lifes I know little or nothing: a Bangladeshi woman, a Dominican Republic baller, a Hmong fugitive, a 16th c. Spaniard, a 19th c. Soviet midget, the Bible Lazarus and various other figures, among them some real jazzmusicians and writers.
Gustave Flaubert is one of these writers who sent a note to Louise Colet about the joy of writing about life other than his own. About his work on Madame Bovary he wrote: "It is a delightful thing to be good or bad - not to be yourself anymore, but to move in a whole world of your own creation.
It is my belief that fleeing from the self, the idea of someone else's own world, is a precious, even sacred act. I also believe that through the human beings he invented, we experience as much or more about Flaubert's real self as through any open autobiography, for the idea of the other is in the end a way to discover the self.
" Jorge Luis Borges also understands this, as his abstract of an artist's biography shows: This is the face my reader should see, my real face, not the wrong faces I am wearing to unveil it. What will they see when they see my real face?
" Here is the paradox: just as you expose your own private existence when you think of others', so you expose the other' s private existence when you expose your own. It is enough to say that in thirty-four years of writing and eleven years of publishing literature magazines I have been reading about 40,000 unreleased shorts (not to speak of several thousand published), and I would rightly guess that between a quarter and a third of them can be seen as the culmination of this instant of abrupt realization, which we call "Blast-of-Trumpets/Choir of Angels".
Most of the time I am tired of all these revelation coming on time like traits in a fast growing state, and I admit that I am reliefed and pleased when I meet a history that does not even allow its protagonists to look at the eternal truth. and I wrote (and still write) them myself.
But as Flannery O'Connor may have said, a good revelation is difficult to find (and, as I can testify, even more difficult to write). I would like to begin this debate about the past and present of the present with a forecast about the future: when the literature experts of 3000 are writing about the fiction of our times, I believe that they will regard our use of the present as their most striking - and perhaps most problematical - characteristic.
Robie Macauley and George Lanning called it "the most common cliché of technology in the new fiction" in 1987, and since then it has emerged even more frequently. "Isn' t that the way fiction is to be spelled now," she said and then added: "The past form leaves a history somehow like in the 19th world.
" Why, I asked myself, has a form of time that has been used by the writers since the beginning of fiction lost its favour all of a sudden? I will begin by speculating on some possible responses to these issues, then I will explore the pros and cons of the present in fiction. CONTRACTION AND THE PHYSICS OF CREATIVITY For years I have been giving the pupils in my initial writing courses a two-part practice, which I only tell them half openly to give them practically everything they need to know about the creation work.
Here is the exercise: First I ask her to put her name on a sheet of sheet of paper, then I ask her to invent an undername. This little practice shows that the creativity of our processes demands a way of thought that is deviantly contrary to our normal way of thought.
If I ask my disciples to type their real name, there is only one right answer and an endless number of wrong ones, but if I ask them to invent an alias, there are an endless number of right answers and only one wrong one. When I ask them to type their real name, my pupils don't hesistate, but they do when I ask them to invent fictional name.
I tell them the whole idea of the creation lies in this reluctance, this element of insecurity. Because without insecurity, the fantasy just doesn't come into the game. There would be no invention without the scan processes caused by lack of awareness, without the ability to move the intellect in unforeseen ways. "It is not ignorance," he says, "but a challenging transcendency of the known.
While I believe what I am saying to my pupils - I am not sure about the need for insecurity - I also believe that learning to read does not help them if they are only encouraged to accept insecurity. Insecurity is too insecure for us to understand. Standing on the empty side, not to know what will be happening in the history or the poetry, or what its final significance will be, is for those pupils who know intuitive how to go on the waters of fantasy, but there are many otherwise very gifted pupils who are on the brink of insecurity and cannot go on.
Basically, these literate do one of two things---they return to converging thought and cause a DOA color-by-numbers tale or poetry, or they rewrite their every thought back into the stillness from which it came and don't type anything at all. I increasingly think that what Bertrand Russell said about giving lessons in philosophies also applies to giving lessons in writing creatively: our main aim should be "to learn how to be paralysed without knowing for sure and yet without hesitation".
" Hesitating is an integral part of the creation and without it divisive thought is not possible - but we must find a way to move through it and beyond, or we must run the danger of being paralysed by the insecurity that makes it possible. I think the answer to avoid such paralyzation is to cultivate it.
However, initial authors almost everywhere identify contradictions with errors and failures and therefore work intensively to avert them. Antinomy's real and beneficial significance lies in the fact that every real thing contains a juxtaposition of opposing aspects. "For Hegel, the opposition therefore brings us to the reality, not away from it.
"Widerspruch ", she says to us, "is the leverage of the transcendental. This paradox allows us to transcend the converging way of thinking that Weil simply refers to as "discursive intelligence" and the erroneous assurance that it generates. "The path to comprehension therefore leads through insecurity, and the path to leaving behind and entering the field of insecurity leads through the use of contradictions.
"Once we have thought something," she says, "try to see if the opposite is the case. "It is important that the aim of dialectical investigation of notions is not to wipe out one or the other of them, because contradictions, she says, are an important part of both reality and beauty: "We find contradictions in beauty," she says, and "every reality contains contradictions.
" In the dialectical approach Weil suggests that something can be truth on one plane, its opposite on another, and when synthesised, both can be truth on a higher plane at the same time. "The whole creation," he said, "is the mind of opposition in its highest state.
" And, in its highest state, the disagreement goes beyond the "either-or" mindset of mere negation - "That's right, that's not right" - and reaches the complexity of the Affirmation of what Cleanth Brooks termed the "two-sided" mindset. Amy Hempel says this is the way of thinking that triggers a work of fiction. "As she says, a narrative happens when two equal powers or two equal personalities or thoughts try to take the same place at the same moment, and both are right.
" Considering the part played by "mutual" thinking in the creation of processes, it is not astonishing to find it in the act of dreams, which is of course the kissing crony of the creation as well. This way of thinking, this kind of sensible disagreement, is what Weil recommends in our quest for truths and beauties.
This is because the counsel is particularly useful for authors, because the creation is not only inconsistent, but also incoherent. Ultimately, the very first stage in the creation proces is demolition.
For example, if we spell the words "flat as a", our first thought will most likely be to include the term "pancake", but if we chose that term, we have given in to the cliché and created nothing new. In order to start writing, we must do what Robert Venturi, an architectural defender of contraditions, recommends:
" This demands both devastation and creativity, and devastation demands repudiation, denial and aversion. As I have proposed, the response is the opposition. Keats' idea of negative ability must be taken a small but important leap forward: our aim as authors should be not only to remain in insecurity, but to search for it through opposition, even to deliberately achieve it.
It is paradoxical that the best way to prevent paralysis caused by insecurity is to increase it, and the most intensive type of insecurity is antagonism.