Passion Lost, Passion Regained

Sometimes you find the right book to read. Or perhaps it finds you. However it happened, Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola became for me the right book at the right time to read.

As you know,  I have recently hit a dead zone with my writing. While my passion for writing isn’t fully revived, it’s getting resuscitated by attempting  Tell It Slant‘s writing prompts. In the past, when I’ve been stumped by the blahs, I’ve turned to exercises, but the prompt and exercises I tried were from books on writing fiction. This is the first time I’ve ever tried creative nonfiction prompts, though in the past year or so I’ve made attempts at the form.

Switching genres when the passion for writing wanes is one thing Miller and Paola recommend in the book’s brief but inspirational Epilogue “Regaining Passion”:

Sometimes when you’re in a writing class or studying writing intensively, it’s easy to lose, temporarily, the passion that brought you to writing in the first place. It’s easy to feel as if you’ve taken all the magic out of it, and you sit at your desk, bored or resistant, unable to find one single thing worth writing about.

. . . .

When this happens (and it happens to all of us), you must do whatever it takes to “refill the well.” This might mean just taking some time out to roam the city or spending a week on the couch with your favorite books and comfort food. It might mean making a date with your writing group or deciding to write poetry or fiction for a while instead. The important thing to remember is that your passion for writing will come back. Your passion for writing will always return, doubled in force, after a period of dormancy. The writing life is one of patience and faith.

Booking Through Thursday: Contemporary Classics

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

Do you think any current author is of the same caliber as Dickens, Austen, Bronte, or any of the classic authors? If so, who, and why do you think so? If not, why not? What books from this era might be read 100 years from now?

There are several writers on my shelf who are already knocking on the door of becoming “classic” writers: Cormac McCarthy and Harper Lee come to mind. It’s hard to imagine a time when such an accessible novel as To Kill A Mockingbird won’t be taught in English classes. In some ways it is a perfect novel to study basic literary techniques such as foreshadowing.

The spare prose of McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men is a perfect Hemingway imitation, and his dark vision has fewer exits than Jean Paul Sartre. The darkness visible of his vision seems to sew itself into the nightmarish visions of the bleaker edges of the literary canon.

Another canonical candidate is Ian McEwan. Atonement declares its classic theme in its title.  But personally, I like his novel Amsterdam, which is a sinister piece of black humor.

And if there is a literary canon a century from now, I hope nonfiction isn’t lost. I hope Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas rides blearily along, and Joan Didion’s recent The Year of Magical Thinking is a beautiful meditation on grief. I still can’t get the image out of my mind of Didion’s desire to run the film backwards in the hope of recovering a life before loss.

More on Exposition and Scene in Creative Nonfiction

In The Practical Stylist (6th Edition) Sheridan Baker offers an excerpt from Loren Eiseley as an example of exposition:

The apes are not all similar in type or appearance. They are men and yet not men. Some are frailer-bodied, some have great, bone-cracking jaws and massive gorilloid crests atop their skulls. This fact leads us to another of Wallace’s remarkable perceptions of long ago. With the rise of the truly human brain, Wallace saw that man had transferred to his machines and tools many of the alterations of parts that in animals take place through evolution of the body. Unwittingly, man had assigned to his machines the selective evolution which in the animal changes the nature of its bodily structure through the ages. Man of today, the atomic manipulator, the aeronaut who flies faster than sound, has precisely the same brain and body as his ancestors of twenty thousand years ago who painted the last Ice Age mammoths on the walls of caves in France.

A detailed descriptive passage, but no motion, and some abstraction. It doesn’t set a scene in the same way narrative summary might. In Write Away, Elizabeth George cites as an example of narrative summary — though fiction —  a passage from E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India:

So the cavalcade ended, partly pleasant, partly not; the Brahman cook was picked up, the train arrived, pushing its burning throat over the plain, and the twentieth century took over the sixteenth. Mrs. Moore entered her carriage, the three men went to theirs, adjusted the shutters, turned on the electric fan and tried to get some sleep. In the twilight, all resembled corpses, and the train itself seemed dead though it moved — a coffin from the scientific north which troubled the scenery four times a day. As it left the Marabars, their nasty little cosmos disappeared, and gave place to the Marabars seen from a distance; finite and rather romantic. The train halted once under a pump, to drench the stock of coal in its tender. Then it caught sight of the main line in the distance, took courage, and bumped forward, rounded the civil station, surmounted the level-crossing (the rails were scorching now), and clanked to a standstill. Chandrapore. Chandrapore! The expedition was over.

A detailed but quick summation of  a train trip. Compare the above to a passage from a scene from Richard Selzer’s “Under the Knife” cited in Tell It Slant:

There is a hush in the room. Speech stops. The hands of the others, assistants and nurses, are still. Only the voice of the patient’s respiration remains. It is the rhythm of a quiet sea, the sound of waiting. Then you speak, slowly, the terse entries of a Himalayan climber reporting back.

The passage further explores the surgery Selzer is describing; it extends it to the dramatic moment the surgeon discovers a cancerous deposit.

These examples are clear to me when another writer points them out. Where I feel I falter is differentiating between fully evolved scene and narrative summary in my own writing.

This week, to reinvigorate the writing juices, I’ve been working on the exercises in Tell It Slant. The first exercise says to go through a piece of your writing, pick out a passage of summary that might work better as a scene, and then write that scene.

Here’s the passage from a piece of writing that I selected:

Of grief I was aware. My August 1, 2006 blog post contemplates what my father might have felt as he lay dying in the hospital. Almost two years after my dad died, I was still haunted by his death. I was not there in the hospital at the moment of his death. I was there several hours before, watching his kidneys fail, his blood rinsing his catheter, while me, my sister, my aunt and my uncle huddled with Dad’s pastor to pray. On my part the prayer was forced; it was to a god long dead, one indifferent to my grief.

Clearly summary of  a dramatic event. Here is the scene I wrote:

For days my father lay semi-conscious in a hospital bed, a rasping ventilator tube unnaturally twisting his lips. The ventilator is off, he is alive, but not conscious, or at least, as far as I can tell, not aware anyone is with him, when I get to his room in ICU that Sunday evening. His body is swollen and distorted. His mouth is probably slack, ringed with the vestiges of peppery whiskers. But the image I remember the most is this: a stream of blood, bright red like children’s cough medicine, flushes through the clear plastic catheter tube and winds its way into a clear plastic box at the foot of the bed. Someone — a nurse perhaps — told me kidney failure is the first sign a patient is dying. Or the last. As the blood spills into the box, its tendrils reach into a pool of brackish urine.

At about this moment, if not before, my aunt, uncle, and father’s pastor materialize. When I see the three of them, I become aware of how thick my breath is with beer. The reverend huddles us up for prayer. Her hand touches mine. She and my aunt and uncle bow their heads. The beer fogs my breath so much the odor seems like a permanent fixture in my nostrils. The reverend is saying something, probably my father’s name, something like blah blah blah your servant Parker. I can’t wait until we break our huddle, I can’t wait until the pastor leaves, I can’t wait until my sister gets here.

What I wonder is if I was successful in revising my initial passage into a scene. Or is the revised passage narrative summary?

Scene v. Exposition

We all tend to use too little scene in creative nonfiction. We especially forget the possibilities of representative scene. Even when we’re reporting a typical rather than specific event, use of scenic elements . . . conveys a sense of character and situation far more effectively than summary does.

Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola

I’ve just started reading Tell It Slant and early on I’m pondering, When do you use exposition and when do you use scene?

When writing newspaper features — and to some extent freelance magazine features — I often felt limited to exposition. At times, when I had the space, I would beef a feature up with mini scenes, usually with short descriptive passages of place or a brief — very brief — description of a person. I rarely had dialogue. Much of what I wrote was expository or quickly dashed-off narrative summary, often out of necessity.

I was envious of writers I read at larger papers, or at alternative weeklies, who seemed to be given the space and time to write detailed, compelling features, alive with scenes, dialogue, characterization. And envied even more New Yorker writers like John McPhee (talk about detail) or Susan Orlean.

And yet, with my recent forays into creative nonfiction I find myself slipping into exposition and narrative summary more than scene. Often I’ll start out with scenes and then slip for pages into exposition. When I read and revise, I see the exposition, and in the back of my mind I think I should cut it, revise it, build a scene, but then, at the same time, the exposition seems to fit so well with the essay. And I think of some the essays and booklength works of nonfiction by writers such as Larry McMurtry or the wonderfully lyrical Diane Ackerman and those writers rely heavily on mixes of scene and exposition.

And I wonder, When should a scene be used, and when should you use exposition?

Booking Through Thursday: Biography or Autobiography

Here’s this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

Which do you prefer? Biographies written about someone? Or Autobiographies written by the actual person (and/or ghost-writer)?

I like both, although technically a ghost-written autobiography isn’t an autobiography, is it?

My favorite biography is Hemingway by Kenneth Lynn. My favorite autobiography is Father and Son by Edmund Gosse.

The Influence of Anxiety, Part Deux: Or If Not Writing, What?

A little over a week ago, I wrote a post about my recent bout with self doubt (maybe bad poetry is my real calling?), and since then have received some great encouragement from commenters.

One commenter, Richard Gilbert, sent me a link to Junot Diaz’s essay “Becoming a Writer” in O, The Oprah magazine, in which Diaz talks about the doubt and despair he went through when composing his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2008.

I had heard about Diaz’s essay in passing and had seen one quote frequently pop up:

You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.

A very powerful statement. (I have to recommend this essay to any writer, whether you’re struggling with self doubt or not. It’s one of the most evocative essays about self doubt and the writing process I’ve ever read.) But the image that struck me most was this:

While I waited for September to come around, I spent long hours in my writing room, sprawled on the floor, with the list [of other professions Diaz might be qualified for]on my chest, waiting for the promise of those words to leak through the paper into me.

Diaz had gotten to the point of wondering whether or not he really was a writer after working on his novel for five years without success. He was planning to go back to school. He had made a list of professions he was qualified for or might be qualified for. Nothing suited him. And yet his future as a writer was in doubt. What else was there to do but to lie on the floor and look to the void for answers?

While my circumstances are different Diaz’s, I can picture myself with a list of options on my chest (I keep an unsatisfying list in my head) and I can see myself sprawled on the floor looking up to the void to waiting for an answer.

If not this, what?

Part of my anxiety is the dread of doing anything other than writing or editing. I’ve worked in such worlds as retail (a nightmarish experience that awakened me fully to Sartre’s “Hell — is other people”). And while ideally “a writer is a writer . . . when there is no hope,” I sink at the prospect of not writing professionally in a day job (no one seems to want me); I sink at the prospect of having to work outside of  professional writing.

And yet that Sartrean nightmare Reality demands I have an income. In my mind I lay on the floor, looking up, wondering, If not writing, what?

As far as my novel goes, I’ve set it aside, though an inkling of inspiration came to me Saturday after hearing a talk by Elizabeth Berg, who at one point addressed the conflict between the writing life and “real” life, one of the larger conflicts in my life at the moment. I may tinker with parts of the book. There may be some potential in it, yet.

But I’m still fumbling with self doubt. My writing has been sporadic — blog posts, journal entries — as I sprawl on the floor asking, What do I write? and If not writing, what?