Monday, October 15, 2012

A World of Writing Advice

I've just finished reading the last half of Mentors, Muses & Monsters and found helpful writing advice in two more of the essays: "The Seducer," by Lily Tuck (about Gordon Lish), and "Harold Brodkey," by Edmund White.

Gordon Lish (in my mind, anyway) is most notable for his editing of work by Raymond Carver: Lish is the man who shaped Carver. The book, Raymond Carver: Collected Stories (Library of America) includes the original Carver stories and the Lish-edited ones. Carver rambled a bit, but gave the story more nuance and detail. When Lish edited them, the stories became tough gems, quite tightly woven and spare: very different.

In Lily Tuck's essay, she shows how Lish had plenty of amazing advice, but was tough, made people cry, and if he didn't like the work, he would cut the reader off after the first sentence. He said, "Your first sentence ordains your world; do not be trivial or petty.…Own your first sentence, make it yours…" (172). You are setting the tone, the mood, the kind of world this is, and grabbing the reader's attention all with this first line. Comedy. Trauma. Fantasy. Irony. Your world has to be conveyed; we shouldn't read it and say, so what?

The first line of Tuck's story creates a mood, of sorts, but it is confusing. When she begins to read it in class, "The back of my mother's head was like the prow of a ship—" Lish cuts her off and says, "don't strain for a trope." His preference for comparisons included, "Quiet as a church" (172). A simile should make it easier to visualize the scene, not harder, and it should not be used as mere embellishment. I keep trying to imagine a head like a prow of ship and that image, I'm sorry to say, just makes me laugh. I'm not sure what she wanted to convey with that line, and she doesn't explain in the essay. They uncover a first sentence that Lish likes:
Every day and it is my husband burning, is how Janet…begins her story. Gordon approves.…"You see…there's a cross-indexing in her sentence.… Think of two circles somewhat merged and the area created by their overlap. Therein lies the meaning, that's where the story is." (172)
The images rub against each other to make the third feeling. "Every day" suggests a habit or routine, "my husband" signals a relationship, and "burning" alerts us to a conflict. The story squirms in our bodies, we feel it intuitively. If we try to analyze it further, we may ruin the allure. Lish says, "Do not proclaim…Instead, show the world being made…'His feet are together' is bad. 'His feet pushed together,' is better" (173). I like this example because many times when we use a form of the word "to be" we can use a specific, active verb, such as "pushed" instead. I am also wary of proclamations such as "She is pretty." How? Who says? Her soft skin? Her new clothes? Lish would probably want her described so that, given the evidence, we feel that she is pretty, too, without proclaiming her to be so.

The line that stood out to me in the essay about Harold Brodkey by Edmund White was:
 Perhaps because it suited my own temperament, I learned from Harold to "defamiliarize" the world and to render it in the freshest, most Martian way possible. Where I disagreed with him was that I thought not everything could be treated so thoroughly. There had to be background and foreground, and what was in the background necessarily should be sketched in—not with clichés but with some familiarity, even facility. (186)
I've written before about making the familiar strange, the strange familiar (at the end of this post), but White adds the layer of contrasts. Making everything evenly strange is like listening to a musical piece with no louds and softs. After a while, it all sounds the same, puts you to sleep, or sends you out the door. In this case, the louds and softs, the background and foreground, can be highly nuanced. How much detail will you provide? A little here, more there. Where is the detail important? It should help the narrative and keep the reader's interest.

A college drawing professor once said to me something I did not understand until decades later, "Your work is so serious it scares me." I believe he meant that I was trying too hard to draw realistically and wasn't showing my unique vision or style. These particular essays suggest that we are responsible for uncovering and then presenting our individual ways of seeing. We create parallel worlds that are familiar, but rebuilt with words to our unique specifications. We can provide new insights for others by rearranging and juxtaposing images, but we must keep those images clear. Our responsibility is to guide the reader on a journey through those worlds and to keep the journey exciting by alternately making them familiar, and then strange. And to own our worlds and our works. 

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