Thursday, December 10, 2009
Course description: Most good writing -- whether fiction or non-fiction -- arises from a writer's obsessions. In this session, we'll discuss how to explore our obsessions on the page, without falling pray to self-absorption or sentiment. We'll start by looking at the work of Nick Hornby, Calvin Trillin, and other obsessive writers, and proceed to a broader discussion of passionate attachment.
Course conclusion: Embrace your crazy. People want to read it because, deep down, they are muzzling their own.
I love Steve Almond.
Here are some of his wise quotes from the evening:
"Obsession is passion plus self-destruction."
"The path to the truth runs through shame."
"Style is produced by the dogged pursuit of truth."
That last one's quite good, isn't it? If you tell the story, and if you follow your obsessions (and the characters follow theirs), the language will follow. Or how about this:
"The obsessive narrator provides bias at the cost of perspective." This, of course, is why we read, isn't it? We don't require an unreliable narrator, per se, but in a good story with strong characters, "there are in fact two stories: the one they think they are telling us, and the one they are telling. Good fiction is about this discrepancy, and about what happens at the point of collision."
What does obsession mean in fiction? It means that when your story starts, the reader is asking the questions, "Who do we care about? And what do they care about?" And it means that the author should answer those questions as quickly as possible.
We don't read to get a mere slice of life -- "if you want to give your readers a slice of life, set up a web cam" -- we read to see the slice of life where everything happens: the moment where the narrator's perspective collides with a contrary reality. If the narrator isn't obsessive, where's the tension?
Most of the written excerpts provided in class to illustrate these points are too long to reproduce here, but I can provide one short opening sentence by Calvin Trillin (mentioned in the course description!) from his book Feeding a Yen (the essay is called "The Frying Game"):
No, I do not believe it's fair to say that for the past 15 years I've thought of nothing but the fried fish I once ate on Baxters Road.
Twenty-nine words. Instantly, you know who you will care about in the story, and what he in turns cares about. You know that he's obsessed, kind of embarrassed about it, but still not willing to abandon the obsession... after all, why would he, when he can talk about the food in question with you, dear Reader?
Ah, but what if a character is too obsessive? The narrator above clearly has some self-awareness, heck, even Humbert Humbert got introspective once in a while, in his own damaged way... but some characters have so much intense focus, so little perspective, that it would exhausting for both the writer and the reader to try to sustain that voice through an entire novel.
Consider, then, the "deeply invested observer." Ahab's Ishmael. Gatsby's Nick. A narrator who sees, and understands, and maybe even identifies with the most powerful character in the story... but ultimately can provide a little balance.
One of the best compliments I've gotten about my first novel was a comment that the book was reminiscent of Moby Dick because of the way the main character exhaustively sets forth certain details of her work as a graphic artist.* She's a name nerd, and she's a font nerd. She cares passionately about typeface and the etymology of names. Could this being boring as hell if done badly? Of course. As Steve said last night, "without Ahab's obsession, Moby Dick is nothing but a treatise on rendering whale blubber." But these are the things Dani obsesses over, and so they are incorporated into how she views the world. I hope that if you care about her, you'll start caring about these things right alongside her.
WHAT ARE YOUR OBSESSIONS?
WHAT ARE YOUR CHARACTERS' OBSESSIONS?
And, WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE OBSESSIVE NARRATOR OR AUTHOR? We've established that I enjoy the obsessions of John Irving and Stephen King, but I'll also give a shout-out here to Scott Sigler, whose sci-fi novel The Rookie actually made me want to go watch more pro football. I don't care about football. I root for the Eagles 'cause my dad's from Philly, and that's as far as it goes. And yet, Sigler's infectious love for the sport and his story about a futuristic lethal pro football league starring both human and alien players (take a moment) made me want to learn more. He got people so fired up that one reader got a tattoo of the team logo from the novel. Seriously.
Embrace the crazy, people. It works.
Tomorrow: Santa Claus, Pippi, and other amusing childhood tales
* For anyone who hated Moby Dick and thinks this is a horrible criticism, please note that my novel is a zippy 60-70K words, not 215K like Melville's oeuvre. I promise you won't get bogged down.