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?

The Influence of Anxiety

When I avoid something that I know I must do, I end up feeling guilty.  So every year as summer approached and I had ten weeks of free time, my anxiety level would begin to climb. I knew I had two and a half months in which to write if I wished, and I was terrified to begin because I had a number of fears that I just did not want to face.

— Elizabeth George, Write Away

This morning I picked up and read for a few minutes in George’s book on writing novels to jump start myself into working on my novel, and came upon the above passage, coincidentally after I had been thinking about the necessity of anxiety to the writing life.

If you’ve followed this blog, you know that I’ve gone through periods in which I’ve felt detached from my old self, a faltering sense of self as a writer. A routine appendectomy almost a year and a half ago left me in such a state. Or rather the aftereffects of the surgery heightened a lost sense of self, a lost sense of purpose that had been creeping up on me after a 360-degree career change — launching from newspaper feature writer to adjunct writing The_Screaminstructor to textbook editor to no career at all.

From my recent studies of Buddhism I’ve gathered that a detachment from the Self is just what a body needs. I’m not sure how this is a good thing. It seems to strip you of purpose.

Which is what I feel — stripped of purpose. I should be revising my novel today. But I came to a point in the revision yesterday when I lost interest. I lost interest in the characters. I lost interest in the story. I lost interest, worst of all, in the process. I began wondering, Why am I writing this novel anyway? and Why am I writing at all?

When I first set out to write the novel, I knew why I wanted to write the novel.

First, I wanted to tell a story. A particular story. A fictionalized version of a romance. Though not a romance novel. Something along the lines of A Farewell to Arms or James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (a grammatical aside: Why does “pastime” have one “t”?). A serious look at love and the relationships between men and women.

Second, I wanted to involve myself in the process of writing a book again. I had immersed myself into writing books before, completing two manuscripts, neither of which went beyond first drafts. This time I set out to immerse myself in the process, determined to stick it out draft after draft until I had something perfect enough to submit.

After a false start or two, I finished the first draft in about a year. Within another year I had teased out a second draft.

I set the book aside for various reasons after I finished the second draft. For the most part, I needed a break from the book, although a career change, then a period of unemployment, another career change, several moves, a marriage, and further unemployment, along with an extended bout with detachment from my writerly self also contributed to the manuscript gathering dust.

As I think about it, I set the book aside because I felt detached from my writerly self. For some reason, my desire to write had grown stale. The energy I got from writing had flattened. I tried to galvanize my desire: blogging more, writing a long piece on my first experience under the knife, writing and submitting a short piece about my struggles with religion, writing a couple of freelance pieces.

These things briefly electrified my system. Still, something was missing. Time? No, I had plenty of time, especially because I wasn’t working.

When I first set out to write, I always felt anxious about finding time to write. I chipped out times to write, scheduling around work schedules and family. Once I set a schedule to write, like Elizabeth George, I would feel guilty if I missed a set time to write. Anxiety would build up. The anxiety would get to me. It drove me to the desk, to the keyboard. I had to write. Otherwise I would feel guilty, and overcome by the anxiety that I had failed myself as a writer.

Now I have time to write (and yet that free time creates another form of anxiety—the stresses of not having a job). For several months now, I’ve been writing, a set schedule, working around time spent looking for a job.

Up until a few weeks ago, I worked enthusiastically on revising my novel. A renewed sense of purpose came after receiving a critique of my manuscript and some encouragement from debut novelists Karen Harrington and Joe O’Connell.

That renewed sense of purpose spurred a whole new vision of the novel. I still had a vision of a serious novel about romantic relationships, but one that was funny, and not morose and bordering on the nihilistic. Now I have a vision of something closer to Nick Hornby’s How to be Good.

Over the past few weeks, however, several things have overwhelmed my psyche.

Like the band Styx, I think I have too much time on my hands. Paradoxically, all the years I that I worked full time and scheduled in time for writing, I craved working independently as a writer: I wanted writing to be my full time job. At the moment, I don’t have anything to schedule around. I’ve been losing the feeling that if I don’t write I have failed myself as a writer. I miss and crave the anxiety of making time to write.

Also, not working has conjured up a whole new state of being, a whole new state of anxiety, one that’s not good for the writing life. Or for the self at all. Almost daily I experience a free floating purposelessness, as if I’m living in a nihilistic vacuum. There are moments when I really have no idea what I want. In this state, I’m numb to writing.

Over the summer, one event numbed my psyche against writing more than anything since: the hope of returning to work, to my old newspaper job, got crushed by an absurd rehire policy. Rejection by my former employer — a place where I developed my writing more than anywhere else — was a kick in the sternum. Besides easing the stress of not having a job, this rejection cast more doubt than anything else on my ability to write.

A new anxiety cropped up. Each time I’ve sat down to write since the rejection, doubt has cropped up.

Yesterday it surfaced again as I started working on my novel. My imagination seemed to fail. I lost interest in the process. Suddenly I’m facing a fear I’ve neglected to face: The question of whether or not I’m a writer at all.

Booking Through Thursday: My Own Question

Today’s Booking Through Thursday asks readers to ask their own question. My question is about online media in general more than it is about books:

Do you prefer online publications (newspapers, magazines, etc.) or reading devices like the Kindle to actual print?

I think this question in one way or another has been asked before, but it was recently brought to my mind again as I tried to navigate the online edition of the Austin American-Statesman, and found it, well, really unwieldy. There was little pleasure in it.  The experience made me crave a hand-held paper newspaper. (I just went to the page to make a link to it and found another annoyance — a drop-down ad that flowed over links to stories.  You have to close it to make it go away.)

At the same time, I like the additional features such as videos, Twitter pages, blogs, etc.

But, I really hope I never see the day that I use a Kindle, especially if it’s being monitored by marketers waiting to plunge deeper into our private life.

I like online previews, though. It’s nice to get a sense of a book by reading a few pages before buying it or checking it out of the library.

The Sunday Salon: Well Wishing to Garrison Keillor

Earlier this week humorist Garrison Keillor had a stroke. According to reports yesterday, he’s now at home recovering. Which is good news to hear. It’s also good to hear Keillor plans to carry on with  “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show.

I also hope he plans to continue writing for Salon. His columns underscore his trademark understated humor and insight, as a recent piece on the New Media/Old Media divide demonstrates.

I think he’s spot on here about a chief illness making Old Media sick:

I’m an old media guy and I love newspapers, but they were brought down by a long period of gluttonous profits when they were run as monopolies by large, phlegmatic, semi-literate men who endowed schools of journalism that labored mightily to stamp out any style or originality and to create a cadre of reliable transcribers.

As someone enamored of Old Media, it’s a shame seeing it crumbling; it’s a shame especially to see the demise of stylish — and substantive — magazine features. Of seeing once-great magazines like Rolling Stone shrink — it literally shrunk in size, but its features have been shrinking for years. Could you imagine a 6,000-word piece by a literary journalist like Tom Wolfe in Rolling Stone‘s pages now?

The style and compactness of some features now would make Hemingway feel constipated,  and his prose transmogrify into something Faulknerian.

And what will the next version of Gay Talese’s classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” be? “Paris Hilton Has a Brain Cell”?

Keillor’s also spot on about one of New Media’s chief cancers — tumors of information on superficialities:

What the new media age also means is that there won’t be newspapers to send reporters to cover the next war, but there will be 6 million teenage girls blogging about their plans for the weekend. There will be no TV networks to put on dramas in which actors in costume strut and orate and gesticulate, but you can see home video of dogs and anybody’s high school graduation anywhere in America. We will be a nation of unpaid freelance journalists and memoirists.

This, of course, as Keillor adds, may not be that bad. Maybe in a decade all our brains will be able to handle will be videos of dogs or reading updates on teenage girls’ plans. And we’ll be unable to laugh along with Jay Leno when some college graduate can’t identify the Gettysburg Address. We’ll scratch our heads along with the graduate, and go on to the next text message.

I wish Garrison Keillor good health.

Publishing News: Graphic Novel Receives Monstrous Bid

In the Sunday Books section of the Austin American-Statesman, I read a review of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by debut author Reif Larsen. According to the review, the book is a graphic novel in a similar vein as Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine. It follows the narrative “of a 12-year-old boy on a secret trek to Washington, D.C., who speaks in a mixture of Victorian formality and eighth-grade goofiness.”

Somehow T.S.’s scientific drawings receive an award from the Smithsonian Institution, according to the review, and he’s on his way to Washington. The review applauds the artwork and narrative, except for a large section that recounts a story about his great-great-grandmother. That story, the reviewer says, falls short of T.S.’s voice. The reviewer also says the final quarter of the novel “evaporate[s] into gassy sentimentality.”

I haven’t read the novel so I can’t pass judgment on it, but the review also notes the manuscript received almost $1 million when New York Publishing houses bid on it. This bothers me. While I think writers should receive vast sums for their work, I really can’t see how such a huge bid can help publishing at a time when publishing is suffering gigantic woes.

Such a sum seems a greater risk on a debut work than, say, on a J.K. Rowling manuscript. From the description, this book is a piece of experimental fiction, rarely high-bid, bestselling work. Do the publishers expect a monstrous return on their investment?

And just in case anyone out there is interested, I’m pretty sure my novel manuscript is worth at least $1 million. Any takers?

Sunday Salon: Bigfoot Dreams

When I was a reporter, I covered religion, an under reported part of the human experience, covered sometimes it seems only when it bleeds, shows its flaws.

Unless there were flaws, sometimes covering religion wasn’t very exciting in the way other news could be, and I would joke with a colleague about the headlines of the now defunct Weekly World News — those headlines were fun, things were action-packed in the world of religion:  people found slivers of God’s beard, people found the Garden of Eden, the devil got locked in a tool shed somewhere in Argentina.

The tabloids had exciting stories of talking dogs, UFO abductions, and Bigfoot.

And Bigfoot is a favorite of tabloid writer Vera Perl in Francine Prose’s novel Bigfoot Dreams, the latest selection for my hundred-novels reading project.

Vera writes for a Weekly World News sort of tabloid in New York, and thinks she’s making stories up until weird things start happening after one story she writes appears to be true.

I’m about halfway through the novel, and as always, blown away by Prose’s prose, her storytelling, and her gift for satire and parody. And it’s a plus that Bigfoot will probably make an actual appearance, if what I suspect is true — that Vera’s fictional news is starting to become real.

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Editor’s Note: This post has been written as part of Sunday Salon.

Booking Through Thursday: Author Blogs

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday question:

Do you read any author’s blogs? If so, are you looking for information on their next project? On the author personally? Something else?

Yes, I do read author’s blogs.

Sometimes I’m looking for information about their next project, or links to other pieces they’ve written or that have been written about them.

But more often than not, it’s to get to know the writer better, or at least their online personality. With blogs, you get the writer doing what he or she does best — write.

At the same time you get to know more about the writer, who they are what they’re doing, and get to enjoy the snippets of insight or humor or voice that you enjoy from their books or articles, as I did this morning when I read Nick Hornby’s post about swimming at the gym. That short post delivers a bite of Hornby’s humor, a taste of what you might get in his novels or essays.

You get to see their concerns, and find that you share similar concerns, as I did when I read Joe O’Connell’s post about potential ax-dropping at the Austin American-Statesman.

As a former newspaper writer who still loves reading newspapers, I hate seeing good writers potentially getting the ax, as it does seem as if papers are chopping their noses off to spite their faces. I believe that readers do (or did) follow particular writers (and maybe that’s the real problem with newspapers, magazines, publishing, writers, etc. — maybe we’re all delusional; maybe no one is interested in good writing; maybe they just want quick information, sound bites, links and coffee-quick fixes; maybe reading for pleasure and enjoyment or engagement or even edification really is dead.)

Enough of such a pessimistic aside. So yes, I do read writer’s blogs, for the same reason I read blogs, newspapers, magazines, books, etc. — for the pleasure of reading, for the one-to-one engagement with another person, with language, with all that high-minded stuff.