Saturday, November 19, 2011

Technology for Reading and Writing, part 1

So I was supposed to meet Kurt Vonnegut my junior year of college. He was scheduled to visit Butler, where Tracy and I both studied creative writing. They told me about it like half a year in advance (the faculty) because they knew I loved him so much. I was asked, perhaps prematurely, if I might like to introduce him, I think. I don't remember the specifics well because I didn't believe it was possible, and so immediately discounted the idea, even as I said "yes yes yes" to whatever it was I'd been offered. It was likely I would shake his hand. The semester Vonnegut was going to come I was taking a class on the works of our visiting writers with Tracy. It was one of those unbelievably easy lit classes you treat yourself to sometimes. Anyway, Vonnegut fell down and soon thereafter died. It was awful. In the visiting writers class, we were supposed to write letters to two of the visiting writers. Well to be honest Vonnegut was the only one I really liked. Mary Karr was fine (we read The Liar's Club) but not my style and I found A Map of the World actively distasteful (with all its imprisoned noble savages and clumsy literary-isms). I wrote to a poet whose work I barely enjoyed then and would most likely hate now, and I wrote to Vonnegut's ghost. The professor passed our letters to the visiting writers. In the case of Vonnegut, his family came in his place; his son Mark read the speech; I told the professor not to give my letter to the family. Maybe I should have said to go ahead but the idea seemed so shameful, especially because I had tried to be clever and interesting in the letter, and I didn't think they should have to see me doing that.

One of my other professors, I think, told me to submit the letter to NUVO, our local alternative weekly. And I did. They didn't print it, but they published it on their website. Jim Poyser, NUVO's editor, wrote me and said maybe we should meet sometime. We got along well. (I'm sorry I don't e-mail him more often, now; I never know what to say, to him or anybody else.) He ended up reading two of my novels, the one I had just written and the one I wrote next. He was extremely supportive. He helped me get my first agent (as it stands, my only agent), who seems to have a good reputation but also seems to have stopped reading my e-mails because I am not as easy to sell as he'd hoped. At the time I thought that was the biggest thing Jim could ever do for me. In retrospect, here are the two things he did for me that were most important:

1. He danced with me at my wedding. The sound system was not very good and it was difficult to make people relax in the way that I wanted them to relax because no one is as comfortable dancing as me (except maybe people who are actually good at it). So Jim had to leave but I asked him to, before he went, come dance with me, because I knew he would relax (he seems so comfortable in himself) and it would be fun and maybe inspire other people to have fun. I was right about the first couple things, at least: we were jumping around four feet at a time. It was great.

2. He gave me great writing advice. Of course when you're in college anyone reading your novels at all is a huge deal -- I spent so much time on those, and I think about four people read each -- but then he even invited me over, sat down with me, and talked through his thoughts and reactions, which were so consistently perceptive and practical that I carry a lot of what he said with me in my writing to this day. One of the things he said that seemed like a small thought at the time but has sort of grown in reconsideration to a major cognitive gift was the idea that sometimes you should ask yourself, when considering a revision to a story, "What would I think about this if it were published?"

There was a plot point in one of the novels that seemed to Jim undercooked. (I can guarantee you that it was, in retrospect, really not there yet.) But he said--and would repeat, several times, in other circumstances--that he thought it might not have even occurred to him if the book were published, or he might have seen it differently. This is, among writers, a sort of heroic admission. We like to think a book is itself no matter how it is presented. And yet this cannot be true or we would not love beautiful books so much more than their ugly counterparts so often. Jim understood that the ethos of a published novel is fundamentally different from the ethos of a manuscript bound only by a rubber band; he understood that things sometimes seem important in drafts and totally inconsequential in finished, published fiction.

This can be a way of letting yourself off the hook. ("No one will even notice that gaping plot hole!") But it also provides some much-needed perspective to an art where it's exceptionally easy to make a huge deal about things most readers will never notice. A writing instructor once said that one of his friends read an entire novel of his without apparently noticing that half the chapters were in the past tense and half were in the present. It didn't even occur to him. And yet these things seem so important when we're writing, though they have so little to do with the real experience of most actual readers. They are looking at other things.

Again, you don't want to let yourself off the hook. But think of it this way: in a fiction workshop, a perceived inconsistency of story or character, tone or etc., can become the focus of an agonizing forty-minute conversation, when in fact no reader could possibly care less about the supposed issue of "craft," and in fact you can make your story much less fun in trying to fix it. I've seen that happen before and it's frustrating because you don't want to say "don't worry about it!" because we are supposed to worry about everything. We are making ART. But in other forms people are generally less careful about these things. They tend to ask themselves, "Is this awesome? Will people enjoy it?" And if the answers are yes, they let it stand, or they build on it to make it even better.

We can all think of books we read in a sort of disbelief because others enjoyed them so much and we find them wholly unpersuasive, shockingly artless. Perhaps we can also think of books we loved that others felt that way about: totally gobsmacked by the idea that we could love them. Writers inevitably alienate the majority of their readers. Not because fiction isn't great, but because readers and books are such particular things. When I'm not sure if I'll be alienating people in the right way for the right reasons (and the inverse as well), I often think of Jim's advice. I ask myself how I would feel about the book if it were bound and published. If the answer is that I would feel good, I try to relax a little. I keep going.

Someday I hope one of these books really is bound and published. That has been the goal for so long.

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