“I don’t see myself as an artist. I see myself as a craftsman.”
A short and wonderful dialogue from John Irving, author of The Cider House Rules, The Hotel New Hampshire, and many others.
source: Book Lounge
Dear Filthy Writers, Filthy Lawmakers, and Filthy Sloths in Fear of their Lives on the Jungle Floor,
I talked to a creative writing professor the other day, and he mentioned a concept I’d like to explore. The room had alabaster walls, ruined over time by greasy, mind-numb college students. The room’s rug was a speckled universe of blues, whites, and greens. In one dark spot of the rug, near the corner, was a black hole stain that caught my attention. My eyes drifted upwards to a lingering pipe, fashioned in the 60s by a burly South Jersey man in flannel who wasn’t exactly getting paid by the hour.
Though all of that was entirely fabricated, it involved realistic details that contributed to a certain tone. The details may have been abstract, but we understand the futility of existence, the quest of the Pelagian v. Augustinian argument, string theory, the greatness of Domino’s Pizza. Whatever the theme was, the details left behind an image my professor called the clutter of reality.
The clutter in the story is what gives it depth. Even in narrative poems, certain details anchor the reader and provide images that act as emotional triggers. These triggers can either fashion a mood that the reader will feel, or transform the reader in some oddly convenient way.
Sometimes writers take this too literally and, as my professor says, have all arrows pointing in the same direction. Obviously, achieving a dramatic effect in a story involves the inclusion of details that contribute to a greater meaning. However, the reader starts to believe that the writer is a conman and the story is a true falsehood when all of these supposedly “random” textures of life have an all too coincidental meaning. For example, when you’re writing about the meaninglessness of marriage, it’s okay to have a ring break, symbolizing the destruction of some matrimonial bond (though that may even be a little hokey). Yet it’s incorrigible to have not only a ring break (and have it rust on top of that), but to have a wedding cake ornament snap apart, a TV show talk about the decline in marriages across the nation, passing conversationalist talk about how their marriages failed, yada yada yada. The reader’s going to say, “Hey! I’m onto you, filthy writer!”
Keep your motifs in balance. Motifs are sub-themes that aren’t exactly grabbing at some universal truth, but contribute to greater themes through reflection on the nature of certain human motives. For example, Moby Dick has an overt “Jonah and the Whale” motif, carrying over with men in the story named after characters from the Bible. One of the greater themes that this motif contributes to is man’s madness in the face of revenge. Other motifs involve details concerning the royal ass-ripping Captain Ahab gives to his crew time and time again. However, Moby Dick doesn’t have arrows pointing in one direction. As we follow Ishmael’s journey, we explore a lot of territory, and since some arrows point in logical directions, some in emotional, some in abstract, the novel becomes realistic and worthy of reading. If you’re into reading Melville’s poetic drivel, of course (keep your fists away, angry Melville scholars. I enjoyed it all the same.)
You can develop your motifs by keeping a track record of your details with a “motif grid.” After writing your story, think about at least five different motifs that occur consistently. Next, comb through the story and find all the details that you’ve used; these details can be descriptions, objects, or even relationships between characters. Every component matters, and every detail contributes to the end result. Organize these details into your motifs. If a detail doesn’t fit, ask yourself why you included it. If a detail does fit, see if it needs development, or if it’s necessary at all (assuming there are stronger details that give way to the same tone and feel). When done right, the motif grid will aid your writing significantly.
By having a clear sense of your story’s details, whether they are overt or covert, and to what motifs they give their substance, you will achieve a greater clutter of reality in your story. Successful realism, if intended, will convince the reader that you are, indeed, not a filthy writer after all.
Thanks for reading. Hopefully you garnered something from this semi-didactic article and experience. You can give me some credit, but give 97% of your “Awesome!” to Professor Ron Block of Gothenburg, Nebraska for his impeccable way with words.
By the way, there really is a dripping pipe and an awful stain. I didn’t make that up.
photo credit: Elisabeth Stonaker
Dear Readers, Writers, Megalomaniacs, and Respected Ministers,
So there’s always advice pouring from writers, editors, agents, and other haphazard insectoids. I would argue that some of the greatest universal advice comes from non-writers.
Even more specifically, physicists.
If you go to a university and talk to most physics majors about writing, he or she will throw a brick at your face. However, what these science-oriented brick-monsters do not realize is that their pursuit for the greater understanding of our physical universe entails many of the same ideals we writers also strive to conquer.
I won’t pretend to know the contexts of these quotes. In fact, most quotes on the internet are inaccurate misattributions to famous people. Nonetheless, they’re great quotes. You’ll encounter some of the same advice you’ve heard already, but shut up, you’ll like it.
1. Write Simply – Albert Einstein
Einstein is usually the “last but not least” to mention in these lists, but today he’ll be the “first but not least.” He was a German physicist who first worked in Sweden, and then escaped to America to eventually collaborate on the Manhattan Project. He said this, at some point:
Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.
Think about all the long and droning books you’ve read. Think about the plot. How many characters were involved? How many characters showed up and didn’t matter? How many plot twists occurred, without any ounce of breadcrumbs to lead you down those paths?
Sometimes, complexity doesn’t amount to a smart read. Long back stories, strange connections between characters that seem outrageous, yarning plots that span eons of time. After reading those books, did you really enjoy being a pseudo-historian? Did you brag to your friends about the illustrious history of Mrs. H. Y. Wonderpots and how many weird ties she fictionally has to the Kennedys? If you find accounts of the ridiculous to be funny, then go ahead and have a 1,000 page laugh.
Einstein indirectly proposed that the simpler an equation, the more depth, timelessness, and, therefore, genius it holds. The same applies to writing. While writers like Hemingway and Bradbury will be remembered for their fluid and memorable classics, Mrs. H. Y. Wonderpots will only be remembered in a Master’s thesis on obscure literature.
2. Read a Lot – Eric Allin Cornell
Cornell is a living physicist who discovered the Bose-Einstein Condesate with colleague Carl E. Wieman in 1995, winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001. Pretty cool guy. Whatever the hell Bose-Einstein Condesate is. However, he had this to say about reading:
My head was always bubbling over with facts and it seems to me this had little to do with my paying close attention in school and more to do with my voracious and omnivorous reading habits.
Think about your style of writing in correlation with your reading habits. How often do you read? What do you read? Do you write after reading? These questions matter when considering your voice, considering convention, and considering what publishers want.
Confirmed by successful authors I’ve met, reading what you want to write seems to help an awful lot. If you’re a fantasy writer and you want to work with Tor, an imprint of Macmillan, you may want to pick up a few copies of their bestselling list. You’re not going to want to gorge yourself on Tolkien’s canon before you write. As great as Tolkien was, his brand of fantasy has already been done. In a bloated market like fantasy, your writing has to be savvy to current trends. However, you may also choose to read the classics so you know what not to include. Using clichés that were originals from Tolkien’s work is just as incorrigible as writing like Tolkien himself.
Knowledge of the market doesn’t come from what you’ve learned is right, according to Cornell. This knowledge comes from research, having a comprehensive understanding of the expectations around you, and having the ferocity to formulate this understanding. So when you’re attempting to write a fictional account of the Kennedys’ lives, read that novel about Mrs. Wonderpots and develop an idea of what horrible alternate-universe Kennedy fiction entails.
3. Small Details Contribute to Big Stories – Paul Dirac
Paul Dirac was a brainy theoretical physicist who predicted the existence of antimatter with his self-named equation and won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933 with Schrödinger and his cat. Interestingly enough, Dirac seemed to hate poetry, essentially saying that poetry and physics are diametrically opposed. Funny, since his quote is dramatic and literally flowery:
Pick a flower on Earth and you move the farthest star.
Think about every detail you encounter in a story. Think about how each detail relates to the characters, the plot, the setting, and even the tone. What details are these? What significance do they seem to pose? What the hell does a flower have to do with a star?
Everything. Every detail counts in a story. Raymond Carver’s minimalist alcoholic husband stories, for example, all exhibit objective narratives with no emotion. Why was he a successful author, then? He set along his stories emotional triggers with landmines set meticulously throughout, all leading to the climax. This climax may just be a gesture, but it’ll sure make you wonder.
Dirac commented on how the smallest action makes the biggest impact. Probably in context with one of his science-things. But a map of minute details helps the reader achieve an extraction of the psychological depth you dug out in your story. If Dirac returns among the living and ever reads a story and says, “Wow, that’s a piece of worthless shit; nothing happened!”, then (I trust your writing skills) you’ve probably done something right.
4. Strange Observations Lead to Great Stories – John Archibald Wheeler
Johnny Wheeler was another American theoretical physicist, famously coining the terms quantum foam, black hole, and worm hole. Cool. Very cool. But he also had some unintentional advice for his unintentional students, those who didn’t study under him at Princeton, gleaning his physics wizardry:
If you haven’t found something strange during the day, it hasn’t been much of a day.
I have met many people that say their lives are uninteresting. I’ve also noted that these people are interesting in themselves and do not realize how weird they are, or that these individuals are, in fact, surrounded by the most perplexing situations I’ve seen, but just don’t see it. Think about your own life. Are you a weirdo? Admit it. If not, are you surrounded by constant freakshows and quirky phenomena?
Either way, that’s great. These odd happenings are the foundation for many great tales. Kafka’s surreal The Trial takes a lot of stock from the writer’s late nights in the law firm. Stephen King’s “The Mangler” was inspired by his occupation at a laundry-folding company. If your perception of life comes into with conflict with Wheeler’s insinuations, you may have to open your eyes just a little bit more.
Although I’ve never written about her, I’ve definitely seen Mrs. Wonderpots. She lingered in Kmart when I worked there and frowned with a furry lip when I told her I couldn’t find a wooden L. Then she barked and stumbled away. I hated working at Kmart. It’s sometimes horrifying. But it’s definitely given me a multitude of ideas.
5. Write it All Now, Worry About Perfecting it Later – Austin O’Malley
All I know about the late Dr. O’Malley was that he was a physicist and that he died in 1932. I also realize that his quote is so vague, it could be applied not only to writing, but to football, war, gardening, cooking, and any field that involves some kind of effort:
A pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood.
Alright, so this quote may be a little gross for cooking. But for everything else, including writing, this makes sense. When you start a piece, whether it’s a short story or a novel, how far do you get before you say “No, I hate this. It’s not good enough. No one will ever like it”? Admit it. You’ve abandoned projects because you thought the idea was unintelligible, too simple, too contrived, or whatever. I’ve done the same. But you cannot think that way.
Write it all out. Don’t stop. Okay, take breaks so you don’t get a weird floating Carpal Tunnel jitteration. But don’t stop, especially if you think the idea is awful. You can decide that later—after you’ve written it. By stopping short, you limit the potential of having a great work, a diamond in the rough, or even a wonderful character you could extract like a good heart and put into a new and better body of work. You lose so much by giving up on yourself.
Although I’ll never know who Dr. O’Malley really was, unless I do another twenty minutes of thorough research, I’ll take his vague quote to heart. Put in the morale-reducing effort in now, and you’ll save yourself the pain of realizing that you never published anything in your life.
Scary thought, right?
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, tell me. Or like it. Or something. If not, enjoy a vague life in my new novel about the saga of Austin O’Malley and his odious fiancé, Mrs. H.Y. Wonderpots.
Joyce Carol Oates ruminates on poetry, characters, and other Oatesian delights. For a longer discussion, click the link below. Oates reads from “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” Oates’ 36th novel, published in 2007. It’s a thorough discussion, but if ye be thorough too, ye be ready.