I’d like to take some time with my next entry: Dickens. So please stand by for that heart-breaking and world-shaking entry. Coming soon!
It occurred to me as I turned the last pages of The Years that the number of people in the act of reading Virginia Woolf in the world might be an easily acquired number. In fact, the amount of people reading The Years, during this last week of 2013, might be slimmer. What does this have to do with my post? I suppose it’s my particular reaction to her, this many years after her death. She has crumpled me, turned me inside out and instead of having the effect that people who almost kill themselves experience, which is to declare a new lease on life, I feel like I’ve turned around and seen myself aging and am unloosed at that picture. And this thought contributes to the whole thought “Who is reading Woolf? And why aren’t they reading her if they aren’t?”
Reading The Years, I heard time pounding forward, a train pulling me too quickly through my life. Beyond that identity crisis, Woolf, like Dickens or Hardy doesn’t merely describe a character to introduce them, but the description contributes to the whole. In The Years, EVERYTHING moves forward and reveals this theme. No one can escape time. Not the brilliant. Not the rich. Not even the well-respected. Here is Uncle Edward in the Present Day section:
“He was spare and thin. He looked as if his face had been carved and graved by a multitude of fine instruments; as if it had been left out on a frosty night and frozen over. He threw his head back like a horse whose bit no longer irked him. His movements were from habit, not from feeling. What had he been doing all these years?”
Woolf historians have written endless commentary and research of her novels, so I won’t attempt to cross-reference or compare. I only want to declare the utter affect her words have on a passerby like me and stand at awe. The novel is broken into years, like one’s life, so that you can engross yourself and forget that time is passing. This is her design. Also, you get to see how homes change, belongings begin to stand for time, and the family dog never has a good end.
The Years looks at the moments of life in which Buddhists would advise us to hover. However, Woolf seems to say that no matter how you look at it, however much you try to hold it down and observe it, life rushes by and can never stop for mortals. To Thornton Wilder’s question, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?–every, every minute?” Woolf seems to answer in The Years with: It doesn’t matter. We all end up with dead dogs, sad servants and children singing off key to stand for a future we won’t inhabit. (My interpretation, of course.)
Whenever I’m stuck writing abstracts and long confessional passages that bore my reader, I pull my fingers back from my keyboard. How to get back into the present? How to touch, smell, see and maneuver through the mundane minutiae of life?…Say that ten times fast. I usually pull Raymond Carver off the shelf and remind myself how a room full of dysfunction looks. What objects give the reader hints and what actions build to a story?
The recent Sun Magazine’s short story Marvel Sands did the trick. Emma Duffy-Comparone must have channeled Carver for this tactile world she created. There are times while reading this story where I thought, “This is real life.” I don’t think that a lot, and in fact, stories like this one make it hard to read others that aren’t as well rendered.
In this whole short story of the main character’s first job, there’s not a lot of telling going on. But I did find a show and tell example. It’s during a conversation with her boss:
I felt a vague flutter of laughter in my chest and swallowed it. I watched him pick bits of garden detritus from his green state-issue shirt and flick them out the window. One of the front pockets had an iron-on state park patch that looked like a kid’s police-badge.
“And tell them they have to park in a normal spot,” he continued. “Unless they really don’t have legs or something. Obviously, show those people where the handicapped spots are. And don’t argue with folks about whether they have working legs or not. I already made that mistake.” He scratched his chin for a moment. “I mean, how the fuck was I supposed to know some cars have pedals for your hands?”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt like I was dealing with an insane person. I watched a sea gull peck under its wing. Two feathers sprang loose and floated to the pavement. He was the fattest one of the bunch. I decided to name him Gus, like the mouse in Cinderella.
This last description reflects back on the main character’s innocence, which we need because near the end, her boss opens the shower door on her naked body. I bolded the parts in the above passage that could be categorized as “telling,” but they are amidst so much “showing,” we don’t even notice the word “felt.” The whole story could have been told in a few sentences: “One time my boss opened the shower door and saw me naked. It was embarrassing and enthralling at the same time.”
Instead, the whole story takes us by the hand, through her first job so we experience her follies of leaving sand on the floor and not putting the bills all the same way in the till. The backdrop of seagulls and silence reveals her maturing view and reflects her world that she’s still learning.
It’s times like these, when I read something so great, that I wish I had access to writing help earlier on, in my teens so that I could have been writing this way for years. I feel, though, that I emerge to sand every day, and have to feel each grain anew, or I’ll never get past the telling to really show.
In this brilliant craft book for fiction (and I would say any writing), Scofield offers writing exercises throughout that I’ve never encountered. They are fresh and gave me a way to analyze my scenes as if I put on visceral vision goggles. With the goggles on, I can go through a checklist to make sure my scenes live and go somewhere.
One fantastic exercise in particular has the writer conjure a favorite scene from a movie. Now, go write that scene. So far, everyone who’s done this has come up with action and descriptions surrounding that action. The goal is not total recall, just your memory of the scene as it unfolds in your mind.
My favorite scene that I re-wrote was from the movie version of The Shipping News (originally by Annie Proulx). The scene doesn’t exist in the book, but borrowed from several scenes. While in the act of writing it, the characters and actions were chiseled in my mind, hard edges and easy to dictate. Here’s a sample of Annie Proulx’s description (from the text):
“One night he worked a crossword puzzle in bed, heard Petal come in, heard the gutter of voices. Freezer door opened and closed, clink of the vodka bottle, sound of the television, and after a while, squeaking squeaking squeaking of the hide-a-bed in the living room and a stranger’s shout. The armor of indifference in which he protected his marriage was frail. Even after he heard the door close behind the man and a car drive away he did not get up but lay on his back, the newspaper rustling with each heave of his chest, tears running down into his ears.”
The scene I wrote was just after this, and doesn’t exist in the book, only in the movie. Here’s my take:
The front door slammed against the wall downstairs. Quoyle had fallen asleep to wrestling again, his socked foot just touched the tip of Bunny’s night gown. At the noise, they both rose like cats, alert and ready to decipher further noises.
“Fuckin’ door,” Petal laughed and her high-pitched scream pierced up through the staircase. A man’s voice laughed with her as Quole and Bunny heard bumping boots against the floor.
Quoyle tip-toed downstairs, showing his palm behind him to Bunny. She wasn’t allowed to follow just now.
“Petal?” As Quoyle turned on the landing, he just caught Petal’s pink stiletto heal fly off and the door slam behind her and the stranger in the guest bedroom. He tip-toed back upstairs to Bunny who sat mumbling, “Mommy?”
The morning came quickly since Petal had brought her new beaux home at four. Quoyle got Bunny up to brush her teeth and cleaned up the mess of coats that had fallen off the front hooks. He found Petal pulling on jeans that were too tight over her fish nets.
“Fuck,” she jumped around and stripped them off into a ball in the corner.
“Petal. How long are you staying?” Quoyle rubbed at the square patches on his elbows.
“I’m leaving. Why don’t you find a girlfriend?” Petal pulled up a pink plastic skirt to meet the puffy sweater.
“I only want you. I love you,” Quoyle said and stretched a hand to touch her sweater. Petal pulled herself out of his grip and blew a pink bubble from her magenta lips.
“I will only destroy you,” Petal pushed at her red bangs in the mirror. She was still porcelain, with high cheek bones and eyes that glowed under dark mascara.
“When will you come back?” Quoyle followed her out into the hall.
“Mommy? Petal?” Bunny stepped out of the bathroom in her bare feet. She almost tripped over her night gown to hug her.
“Hi, Bunny. What’s a thumper doing in her pajamas?” Petal kept walking down the stairs and Bunny’s arms broke free of her. Bunny hopped down each stair, grasping after Petal.
“Mommy’s gotta go.” Petal stuffed another scarf into her bag and opened the door. By then, Bunny took her by the hand and pulled her to a stop. Her brown hair was in small snarls around her face. Her nose, Quoyle’s, scrunched.
“Don’t go.” She pulled on Petal’s necklace that hung past her full cleavage.
“Here.” Petal stooped and put a beer can pull-tab around Bunny’s pointer finger. “Pretty.”
“Petal. No.” Bunny pulled once again on the necklace that hung in her hair as she was given a last hug and it snapped into an explosion of beads, baubles invading every space of the landing.
“Shit. Look what you did?” Petal pulled her auburn hair behind her and slammed the door. Quoyle didn’t say a word more except to hunch on the landing’s linoleum to help gather every last bead Petal left in her wake.
So my scene doesn’t touch the Proulx style, nor does it scream art, but what this activity showed me was if I put my own characters in that immediacy of film, they will have conflict, they will embody the 3-D world of clothing, behaviors unique to them, and sounds/sights that push the plot. Now, you try.
(P.S. If you haven’t read or seen the Shipping News, read it first, then watch the movie.)
Brenda Ueland said once about her writing, “For many years it puzzled me why so many things I wrote were pretentious, lying, high-sounding, and in consequence utterly dull and uninteresting.” That changed after approaching writing in a “careless and reckless” way which brought Ueland to what she called writing with “microscopic truthfulness.” The discovery of the “living, true, touching, remarkable,” writing came after much dull stuff. For me, the “how” of the above statements was still missing until much soul-searching and re-writing (sometimes not only second drafts but hundredth drafts). What I found in what Anne Lamott calls the “down-draft” or the “shitty first draft” is that we leave ourselves markers and they’re cleverly disguised as descriptive writing.
What I mean is this: I might miss a scene that blocks the reader from entering it because it seemed like I used image and description, when in fact, I just told the reader without knowing it and the whole passage was actually summary. For example, the passage:
“I would sit with my best friend at poolside, reading a New Yorker, watching the afternoon reflecting against a wide Colorado sky.”
Maybe parts of it are recoup-able? The changed passage turned out to be a page and a half of the actual meeting of my friend, describing her, describing her apartment building, the pool, then the moment at which I put down my New Yorker, and sang a song to the radio. Then I describe a bee in the pool and open up the meaning behind the scene, that basically we don’t have any more than this physical world and can only guess at the afterlife.
I learned to comb through my manuscript to look for the breadcrumbs I’d left for myself. When I came across an “I’d” or “I used to” or “We’d” then I looked for the summary of a scene. Did the scene need to exist or could I cut it? If it needed to exist, then I’d write out the physicality of it.
Here are some notable “physicalities.”
From Peter Schneider’s Eduard’s Homecoming:
“Having climbed a flight of stairs flanked by green walls, he opened a steel door beyond which everything had been suddenly, freshly whitewashed, and he now recalled the feeling that had overwhelmed him on going to the window. The newly painted and carpeted room might have been dangling from a gigantic crane above a cityscape destined for demolition.”
That description not only captures the room the character views, but reflects his doom, which develops character and moves plot.
“Bailey spends the entire day willing the sun to set, but it defies him and keeps its usual pace across the sky, a pace that Bailey has never really thought about before but today finds excruciatingly slow. He almost wishes it were a school day so he would have something to help pass the hours. He wonders if he should take a nap, but he is far too excited about the sudden appearance of the circus to possibly sleep.”
This is an excellent example of “telling” and “showing.” We are told “he almost wishes,” but the “almost” reveals a little character, as does the description of the school day’s mechanism to “pass the hours.”
I know this is disparate, but Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree:
“Farmer Shiner’s was a queer lump of a house, standing at the corner of a lane that ran into the principal thoroughfare. The upper windows were much wider than they were high, and this feature, together with a broad bay-window where the door might have been expected, gave it by day the aspect of a human countenance turned askance, and wearing sly and wicked leer.”
Hardy doesn’t even get to the character or actual being of Farmer Shiner, but reveals his character through the long description of his house. We know all we need to know about Farmer Shiner and we haven’t even been introduced to him.
Look for the woulds, coulds and any summaries masquerading as description, and you’ll get to the “microscopic truthfulness” Ueland so well names.
I’m a slow reader. That’s terrible for this blog, which is ALL about the books I’m reading at the moment and the sublime passages therein. When I don’t finish a book, you don’t get a post…So, I’ve decided to post some interim genius passages.
The first from Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club (about Grandma):
“I was grateful, at least, that she had her leg on that morning. She’d even covered it up with these thick support hose, Support Hose, they were called. They were orange and heavier than sausage casings. Anyway, she had worn those and had wedged the black shoe back on the plastic foot. (There’s something overdressed about a shoe on a plastic foot, like it’s besides the point.) Once we were in her room, she closed the door and posted herself, wheelchair and all, right in front of it.”
What we don’t get in the above passage is inner monologue or reflection. It’s pure action, and the action develops both the character of Mary and her grandmother.
Next up? Gogol. I know, huh? From Dead Souls. The main character has just entered a grand ballroom.
“Everything was flooded with light and black frock coats kept flashing by, singly and in clusters, like flies on a gleaming white sugar loaf on a sultry July day as an elderly housekeeper breaks it into shimmering splinters in front of an open window: the curious children gather to watch the movements of her roughened hands as they lift the mallet while the soaring squadrons of flies, riding in on the light air, land boldly as if they owned the place, and taking advantage of the old woman’s poor sight and her being blinded still further by the sun, scatter over the tasty pieces, here singly, there in heaps.”
Tell us how you feel about the ball, huh Gogol? Count the prepositions. Can we get away with a passage like this, part metaphor, part simile? I say yes, because we still get a feeling for how the main character sees the ball and we’re locked into the theme, which is this big-city stranger dropping in to dance with country folk.
It started with the hilarious Bossypants by Tina Fey (Notable: The remembrance of being a little bit fat and the remembrance of being very, very skinny). Then I read Mindy Kaling’s side-splitting Why is Everyone Hanging Out without Me? (Notable: all her childhood pictures. Wow. Messed up.) A very good friend turned me on to a British comedian, Miranda Hart.
I guess I should come clean on some of the humor I like.
- Dumb and Dumber: Mocking Bird scene. Deliciously funny.
- Team America:. F. Yeah.
- I’ve waxed on about Elf in other blog entries. If I’m ever a little sad, I just watch the spaghetti, syrup and pop-tart scene. Here’s the recipe: spaghetti, maple syrup, sprinkles, mini-marshmallows, Hershey’s chocolate syrup, M&M’s, and Frosted Chocolate Fudge Pop-Tarts.
Don’t get me wrong, I like intelligent humor. If you count Curb Your Enthusiasm as intelligent humor? (Especially when Larry gets ideas for his wife’s yeast infection from their Native American healer/gardener. She walks out of the house to have the gardener ask her, “How’s your vagina?” That’s funny.)
The goods on Miranda Hart’s Is it Just Me? Just as knee-slapping and raucous as her well beloved show across the waters. If one could do a slow-mo trip over boxes or an ankle twist in a crack in the cement on paper, that’s what Hart does for us. She writes her 80s teen self as a character and uses her as a “normal” and “sane” self. It’s a funny disconnect. Especially when she lists ten good and bad things about being tall (and we’re talking past six foot) for her young self. I’ll just list a handful here.
#2 If you have short hair, you will occasionally be mistaken for a man and referred to as “sir.” This is a boon when trying to avoid the Ladies queue at the theatre (though you may find yourself rumbled at the urinals).
#4 People always have something to talk about with you. “Are your parents tall?” or “Have you ever met a woman taller than you?” and “Do you have awful trouble finding clothes?”
#2 If you have short hair, you will occasionally be mistaken for a man and referred to as “sir.” Which means that old ladies will sometimes ask you to help them with their heavy shopping. If you dress up in anything vaguely sequinny, you might be mistaken for a transvestite.
#4 People always have something to talk about with you. “Are your parents tall?” or “Have you ever met a woman taller than you?” and “Do you have awful trouble finding clothes?” This can make you want to punch them in the face. After all, you can’t say to someone, “Gosh, you’re fat, aren’t you?” or “Gosh, what a massive mole that is,” and “Have you met a woman with a mole bigger than that?”
If you have a hard time watching Miranda Hart on YouTube, don’t blame me. Blame the BBC for not getting it over to us Americans in a cheap and accessible manner. I don’t know why this show isn’t available when Catherine Tate streams as we speak on Netflix and Larkrise to Candleford is freely watchable, the whole thing, on YouTube.
Needless to say, Hart picks fun at herself in a manner that is so human that if you’ve ever been a dork or had dorky moments, she’s your woman. If for some reason you’re too thin or pretty to remember these handful of times you experienced dorky-ness, Hart is not for you. Or maybe you should read her memoir because some of her jabs are subtly against you and your colleagues.