Saturday, 22 August 2015

Breaking the Addiction

Today, while I perused the pens and pretty notebooks at my local newsagent’s, I resisted buying a writing magazine. Silently, I vowed to stop reading about writing and just write.  At home, I have piles of Mslexia, Writing Magazine, Writers’ Forum, Write Right, Write On, and The Writer’s Block cluttering the flat surfaces of my living room and office (those last three titles, in case you’re wondering, are fictitious – hey! I’m a writer! – but if they existed in the real world I undoubtedly would have bought them, too). 

Most of the writing magazines I’ve purchased over the years are lightly thumbed, with rings drawn round competitions I might enter, and the details of agents and publishers seeking new clients highlighted in neon green.  At one time, I studied the articles intently, gleaning what I could about point of view and how to write a synopsis but over time I have seen the same topics discussed and the same advice repeated.  I’ve been teaching Creative Writing for over a decade, now, and have published several dozen articles and short stories, and though I know I still have much to learn, I’m no longer convinced these magazines have anything new to teach me.  And yet, I continue to buy them.

Several years ago, I tried to become a tidy writer, and found a place within my bookshelves for a stack - or three - of magazines which I told myself would be a useful resource, both for my own writing endeavours and when looking for ideas to use with my students.  And there, for the most part, they have stayed.  Recently, though, while preparing for a week-long visit by a friend from the States, I had a bit of a clear out.  In my frenzied attempts to give the appearance of order, I cleared my shelves of a dozen lever-arch files containing handouts and lesson plans produced during my PGCE (2006), photocopied readings and writing exercises from my MA (2005), essays on the teaching of Basic Skills (2002), and countless reflective comments from a counselling course I did at the turn of the millennium. During this frenetic purge of a large part of my academic career I also managed to transport a short stack of writing magazines to the recycling bin.  And it wasn’t easy: my inclination is to collect and compile not declutter.

Archives, after all, contain secrets and knowledge and wisdom, all of which I fear I lack.  I’ve yet to publish my first novel, and though I have completed a fairly detailed outline of my second, I find myself struggling with some of the basics: characterisation, motivation, organisation elude me.  You still need those magazines, a little voice whispers, for they contain the key to a successful writing career.  It honestly feels like I’m trying to break an addiction. If only I search their pages long enough and hard enough, the voice tells me, I’ll find that key.  But if I toss those magazines into the bin with my yoghurt pots and tin cans, what then?  

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Fishing for Readers

A number of months ago I read an article which was critical of the advice we often give to Creative Writing students in which we encourage them to begin their stories in the thick of action, or in medias res.  The argument goes that writers must capture the reader’s interest right at the beginning by ‘hooking them in’ so they feel compelled to continue reading.  Often this ‘hook’ is achieved through the creation of intrigue, something or someone which is obviously out of place or which otherwise encourages the reader to ask questions.  At other times it involves a piece of high drama and the reader is dropped straight into a piece of unfolding action. 

At the same time that we encourage students to work on their hooks, we tend to shoo them away from using too much description at the beginning of a story.  Readers’ attention spans have shortened, we say, and if a writer doesn’t grab reader’s interest in the first couple of paragraphs – or in the case of short stories, in the first couple of lines – then the work is doomed.  But I wonder if these warnings are really true.  Are ‘hooks’ and description really mutually exclusive?

In an effort to see how writers have succeeded in gaining my attention, I have looked at the openings to a random selection of some of my favourite pieces of literature.  I’ve included novels, short fiction and one example of non-fiction to help me pinpoint what it was that encouraged me to keep reading.

 1)      Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (novel)

See the child.  He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.
              Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heavens. The Dipper stove.
              The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.

McCarthy begins by speaking directly to the reader. Rather than simply showing us the boy, he first commands us to ‘see’ him, emphasising the boy’s importance in the story to come. This opening paragraph sets the theme and tone of the novel, contrasting light and dark images, and we get a powerful sense of the simmering violence that is at the novel’s core. The biblical reference to ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ hints at the curse the boy is under and, with the Wordsworth paraphrase, sets the heightened and allegorical language of the story. All of these things combine to make the boy an intriguing figure and compel me to read on despite the lack of action. In fact, the quality of the writing alone makes me trust McCarthy.  I know he’s not going to waste my time.

2)      Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (autobiography)

This is the most beautiful place on earth.
There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome – there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment.

The opening here poses a philosophical question regarding the concept of beauty. We do not know where ‘this’ place is or what it looks like at this stage, only that Abbey considers it to be uniquely beautiful. No details are given to provide his personal definition of beauty, but the list of places which others might consider ‘the most beautiful place on earth’ suggests that his definition is very different.

3)      East of Eden by John Steinbeck (novel)

The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.
              I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer – and what trees and seasons selled like – how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odor is very rich.
              I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding – unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of east. Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say, unless it could be that the morning came over the peaks of the Gabilans and the night drifted back from the ridges of the Santa Lucias. 

Steinbeck opens his novel with a detailed description of place, recording not just the physical features of the landscape but also its character and history.  He imbues the landscape with human characteristics, showing it to be both nurturing and threatening with the representation of the two mountain ranges hinting at the novel’s conflict between good and evil. The whole of the first chapter focuses on the shape of the landscape and its history up to the time the narrator’s grandfather arrives there to homestead. No action, no dialogue, no introduction of characters.  Just landscape.

4)      One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (novel)

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet. A heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands, who introduced himself as Melquíades, put on a bold public demonstration of what he himself called the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists of Macedonia. He went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge, and even objects that had been lost for a long time appear from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Melquíades’ magical irons….

This is one of the most intriguing of opening lines to any novel I’ve ever read. The phrase ‘many years later’ immediately thrusts us into the future before we are given any sense of the implied ‘here and now’.  In the same sentence, we are placed in front of the firing squad alongside the Colonel – a good example of in medias res, with all the immediacy and urgency of that life and death moment. Before we are given any detail of that particular moment, however, we are thrust backwards in time to a ‘distant afternoon’ in the Colonel’s childhood. Within one sentence, we glimpse three different time periods. Marquez then opens up the world of the Colonel’s memory, but instead of leaving us in his point of view, an omniscient narrator takes over and we move into a sort of fairy tale time when the world was new and magical things happened. 

5)      The Hellhole by Annie Proulx (short story)

On a November day Wyoming Game & Fish Warden Creel Zmundzinski was making his way down the Pinchbutt drainage through the thickening light of late afternoon. The last pieces of sunlight lathered his red-whiskered face with splashes of fire. The terrain was steep with lodgepole pine giving way on the lower slope to sagebrush and a few grassy meadows favored by elk on their winter migration to the southeast. Occasionally, when the sight lines were clear, he caught the distant glint of his truck and horse trailer in the gravel pullout far below. He rode very slowly, singing of the great Joe Bob, who was “…the pride of the backfield, the hero of his day”,* in front of him walked the malefactor without hunting license who had been burying the guts of a cow moose when Creel came upon him. The man’s ATV was loaded with the hindquarters. The rest of the carcass had been left to rot.

Proulx opens the story with her main character performing an action, walking downhill through the woods towards his pickup but her focus is on description of place, not action or event. She is setting the scene for the story to come which depends entirely on the landscape we see in this first paragraph. Landscape is more than setting, however. It is a character in its own right. It has agency and it moves the story forward. 

6)      A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (novel)

At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute, on County Road 686, which ran
due north into the T intersection at Cabot Street Road. Cabot Street Road was really just another country blacktop, except that five miles west it ran into and out of the town of Cabot. On the western edge of Cabot, it became Zebulon County Scenic Highway, and ran for three miles along the curve of the Zebulon River, before the river turned south and the Scenic continued west into Pike. The T intersection of CR 686 perched on a little rise, a rise nearly as imperceptible as the bump in the center of an inexpensive plate.

Again, the focus is almost entirely on place. In the first paragraph Smiley provides a detailed picture of the landscape in which her novel is set with a description that is so specific we could locate the precise location on a map. Over the next three pages she expands that description of landscape and place before slowly introducing her characters and hinting at the conflict at the center of the novel. For some readers, this type of opening may be a slow burn, but for me it is bliss.

7)      Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (novel)

Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoanuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a white man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shovelling & sifting the cindery sand with a tea-spoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, ’tis not down on any map I ever saw.

While Mitchell does provide us with details about the setting, the focus here is on establishing the character of the first-person narrator and the situation. Written in the form of a diary entry, we see the world as the first-person narrator sees it and it is the details he chooses to include that help us to know him and which also help to create the intrigue surrounding the appearance of the mysterious Englishman. Notice how the narrator’s language, along with a few specific details work together to establish the time period.  

8)      The Search Engine by Sherman Alexie (short story)

On Wednesday afternoon in the student union café, Corliss looked up from her American history textbook and watched a young man and younger woman walk in together and sit two tables away. The student union wasn’t crowded, so Corliss clearly heard the young couple’s conversation. He offered her coffee from his thermos, but she declined. Hurt by her rejection, or feigning pain – he always carried two cups because well, you never know, do you? – he poured himself one, sipped and sighed with theatrical pleasure, and monologued. The young woman slumped in her seat and listened. He told her where he was from and where he wanted to go after college, and how much he liked these books and those teachers but hated those movies and these classes, and it was all part of an ordinary man’s list-making attempts to seduce an ordinary woman. Blond, blue-eyed, pretty, and thin, she hid her incipient bulimia beneath a bulky wool sweater. Corliss wanted to buy the skeletal woman a sandwich, ten sandwiches, and a big bowl of vanilla ice cream….

Alexie begins by placing the protagonist within a vague setting – the student union café – but instead of looking directly at Corliss, and providing a physical description of her, our attention is diverted to a young couple sitting at a nearby table.  From Alexie’s description, we know that this is merely a casual, probably first-time meeting.  But of course as readers we are not really meant to be focused on this anonymous couple, and as Corless eavesdrops on their conversation, Alexie hints at her personality through the way she interprets what she sees. Like any fiction writer, she is a student of character and as she watches the young man trying to chat up the young woman she makes up backstories to explain their behaviours.  More importantly, though, this first paragraph very subtly introduces the main theme of the story – that of being an outsider.

9)      Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway (short story)

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white.  On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun.  Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.  The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building.  It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes.  It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.

Hemingway packs this first paragraph full of information, giving us a very precise description of place.  We get a clear view of both the wider setting – of the arid hills in the distance, and of the immediate surroundings – the shaded table outside the station bar.  Even though we are not explicitly ‘told’ that it is hot and dry, this is the main impression we are left with.  We also know that the protagonist is American.  We have no further detail about him at this time, but the fact that he is foreign to the location adds a sense of the ‘unknown’ which is an important clue to his character.  This first paragraph also includes a reference to the ‘two lines of rails’ which run past the station, and with this image Hemingway begins to build a motif which illustrates the central theme.  The station is at a junction between Barcelona and Madrid, and for the couple sitting at the table there are important decisions to be made.

10)      Homesick by Guy Vanderhaeghe (novel)

An old man lay asleep in his bed. This was his dream:

He is young again, once more an ice-cutter laying up a store of ice for the summer.  The Feinrich brothers and he drive their sledges out on to the wide white plain of the lake.  The runners hiss on the dry snow, metal bits in the harness shift and clink, leather reins freeze so hard they lie stiff and straight as laths down the horses’ backs.  Before them the sky lightens over purple-shadowed, hunch-shouldered hills.

Dream sequences are intriguing as they always provide important clues about a character’s psyche, revealing unconscious or suppressed aspects of their personality that help to explain their waking actions and behaviours.  Often there is a surreal quality to dreams, but here the scene is presented through very realistic imagery.  We are given precise details which help to set the story that follows within a particular landscape.  We don’t yet know anything for certain about the protagonist, other than that he is ‘and old man’, but the specific imagery used in this opening creates an overriding impression of coldness.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Completion of PhD with Excuses and Explanations

The Lewis-Clark Valley
After submitting my novel and thesis for examination in February, sitting my viva in April, and resubmitting my work with minor corrections in May I returned to the States in the summer to travel through the Pacific Northwest - land of my birth - and reconnect with my home.  

Much of the work I did in my thesis involves an exploration into my own identity and the emotional links I still have with my homeland - not, I want to stress, with America but with Idaho - so after a four-year absence it was a particularly meaningful homecoming for me.  With an almost constant focus on the land, people and history of Idaho I had come to wonder if the attachments and the homesickness I felt had simply been fabricated during the intensity of the PhD. After all, I've happily lived in the UK for the past twenty-six years: more than half my life. I have a home here;  I have a husband here;  I have a life here.  This place, too, is my home.  Yet the UK will never be my homeland. I will never be from here. I will never be British. And it was partly this sense of being somehow other that caused me to question the emotional ties with my childhood home. Would it, in fact, still be my home? Or would I find that I was ultimately a stranger there, too?

I have considered myself a writer for as long as I can remember, but there are still those things which I find difficult to put into words.  Emotions, usually. Which is a dangerous thing for a writer to admit. The best writers, I believe, are those who channel  the emotions we all feel - writers who touch us in a way that makes us feel we are not in fact strange. Or alone. Writers who confirm that our feelings are valid. But the feelings I have about returning HOME stir physical responses, not words. Breathlessness. Not words. Tears. Not words. A choking sensation in the throat. A racing pulse. A desire to photograph each and every inch of the landscape so that I can carry it with me - not in my heart where it truly belongs and has always remained but in my camera. And that again is what I felt. My homecoming elicited an emotional response, not an intellectual one. I cannot, as Steinbeck could have done, put into words what that place means to me. I can only tell you that in my heart it is still, and always will be HOME.

Now, though, I am back in the UK and earlier this month my PhD journey was completed when I graduated from the University of Chichester. But while the thesis is written and the novel is being edited yet again in the hopes of finding a publisher, the real journey is not over. I am told that the PhD is not in fact a destination but a launching pad and so it is that I find my questions about identity and homeland and authenticity remain. And while this blog has been sorely neglected in the past year my intention is to keep it going. I'd like to offer my experience of completing a Creative Writing PhD as encouragement to others, to provide information where I can about the process, and to continue my investigation into Western American literature. My postings will doubtless be sporadic, but as I settle into a 'new normal' I hope to find something worthwhile to say.  Watch this space.   

Dr. Loree Westron