Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Look a Little Harder

I have only the vaguest idea what I'm about to write about. But I have that vague idea so I'll charge ahead and see what happens, okay?

I've never really given much thought to the idea of having an individual style as a writer. I've always concentrated on figuring out what I think will work for whatever book I happen to be writing at the time. The Astrologer is written in a sort of modernized Elizabethan English, very rhythmic and clipped and careful. Cocke & Bull is Colonial American English as informed by the King James Bible, thick and heavy and always rolling forward. The Last Guest was my attempt to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf at the same time, all startling modifiers and jangling description and long stretches of interior worlds. I never cared--and I still don't care--about having an identifiable authorly voice. If nobody ever points to a passage of my prose and says, "That's Bailey; I'd know him anywhere," then I'm still happy enough.

But for the last several years I've had a sort of idea about a type of writing I'd like to be able to do. I've only been able to describe it to myself in an imprecise manner because I didn't know how to do it so I didn't really know what it was. What I've hoped to be able to do was create a narrative that somehow expands to fill the whole physical world, that casts the reader's eye (and imagination) not only to the inmost thoughts of the characters, but also to the physical world around them, both in broad strokes and in finely-observed detail. But I also wanted a unity in all of this. I didn't want layers of description atop the essential actions and themes. I wanted it all to be One, all to interconnect and for all of the narrative elements to be necessary and singing in tune, as it were, as if the novel was a symphony maybe.

I'm certainly not there yet, but a few days ago I got a step closer. I'm writing a scene which is basically a guy sitting in a chair on the patio behind his house, his mind smeary with painkillers as he recovers from knee surgery a day or two earlier. He's home alone, his wife at work and his daughter at school, and he's drifting along under the influence of narcotics. Not much happens. A neighbor drops by and then leaves. He nods off a lot. He forgets where his wife is. He daydreams. This goes on for 5,000 or so words.

Certainly I could've summarized the entire chapter into a paragraph, but of course his daydreams are important and I want them to be vivid. I also wanted the feeling of being outside on a summer afternoon to be vivid. The other thing I wanted was for the boundary between the real physical world of the back patio with the Adirondack chair and the sun umbrella and the flower beds, to be blurred into the character's internal world of daydream and painkiller-induced confusion.

The technique I seem to be using is to think of the scene in terms of the interior action, the confusion and the daydreams, and to sort of pull that scene into bits and fill the gaps with visions of the real world. For example, David (the guy on the patio) halfway remembers that one of his neighbors has dropped by for a few minutes but during his recollection of the visit he's also sort of hallucinating, or he's remembering hallucinations he had when the neighbor was there; he can't tell which is which. What actually happened? What did he say? What did she say? David doesn't know, not really. During this poorly-remembered sequence of events, David looks around and sees the patio. It's sunny, and there are flowers. I wanted the flowers to be vivid and weird, real and surreal, so I describe them as opening their arms in supplication to the sun like virgins offering themselves up for sacrifice to the high priest of some primitive cannibal religion. So you get the reality of the flowers and the sunlight, but you get the weird narcotic effects, too. The bees are buzzing from flower to flower, and David sees them as mechanical beings made of onyx and amber, and the air around the bees seems to change shape and warp as they fly around in the flowerbed. And so on.

The internal action, which is mostly imaginary, is described as realistically as I can, while the external action is described as weirdly and slantwise as I can, to draw it all together into a single unified thing. It's pretty easy when you're making all of the world hallucinatory, I just realized, but in order to use this technqiue of mixing the inner and outer worlds into a single narrative thread while writing a more realistic passage, I'm going to have to work harder. The thing (I just realized) about the chapter I'm writing is that little of the external description has real meaning; it's mostly just setting and extension of David's mental state beyond his head. Maybe that's not enough.

This has been something I've struggled with for years, though. I want my narratives to have an expansive feel, all-encompassing writing that gives the reader The Whole World. I think that I get there in isolated paragraphs once in a while, but I just can't manage to make it a habit, something I can reliably produce. I really don't know what I'm doing in that regard. For now I'm trying to stop during scenes and look around, look some more, look a little harder and see what I see. It's not the best way to accomplish what I'm going for (which, as you've seen, I can't even define very well), but it's what I've got right now.

Maybe what I should've written about today is how reading poetry is making it possible for me to come up with things like the line about flowers being virgins prepared for sacrifice. That might be useful. Well, maybe later this week.


  1. Scott! What an awesome post, and I'm really happy for you. I definitely have some vague notions of what I'm trying to do with my writing, and I think in your case you've gained an entry point into your larger goal. Fantastic! It does seem like the hallucinations were helpful. Maybe this is the start of a much bigger breakthrough.

    What you say here--I think--also clarifies a lot of what you've said about writing being one unified thing in the past. Am I understanding those past comments correctly now?

    1. When I was writing the scene (I'm sort of still in the middle of writing it) I remember thinking Yes, yes, this is exactly how I want to write! I was excited and I can't wait to get back to the writing to see what else I can do with it.

      You're absolutely right: this is maybe sort of what I've been saying all these years about unified narratives. Maybe a useful metaphor is a long tapestry, where if you take out any of the threads or cut out any of the images, the whole thing will begin to unravel. Maybe there's a better metaphor, though.

      It's weird trying to write something that's unified and self-contained but at the same time open and pointing out away from itself. Maybe it's not possible. But maybe the illusion of it is possible?

    2. I feel like it's possible. It seems like the development of really intricate prose. As far as illusion, that's interesting, because it could be that no one else will interpret your success the same way you do. They might like it and describe it in a completely different way.

    3. "intricate" feels wrong, somehow. No, I don't have a better word for it. And yeah, I could figure out exactly what I want to do and it probably wouldn't work the same way for anyone else who read it. Them's the breaks.

  2. OK.

    Is this kinda like the narrative style of The Road? A sense of single minded purpose while being wholely disconnected from your physical surroundings? The Man in The Road story had a specific purpose - to get The Boy to the ocean. Nothing intruded on his goal. He interracted with his environment only when it interfered with his journey. He also seemed emotionally stuck in a his ideal plan to save The Woman. I got the sense that he lived only to show her that his plan to get to the coast with The Boy would somehow save them all, even though she was no longer there. This was a coping mechanism for things outside of his control.

    Perhaps the style you are aiming for is to show that single minded purpose? A mindset so focused everything else is overwhelmingly important?

    This month's eFiction Magazine stories are so abstract they take a second or third read to fully grasp. One in particular - Stories of the Undead - is written in such stream of consciousness it was hard to know what was real and what was imagined by the narrator. Creepily fascinating would be my review.

    As you say though, you'd need a reader perhaps to know if your end product depicts your concepts/style attempts. You've chosen a unique writing style Scott, but I'm sure there are other like minded authors out there who would totally get what you're doing.


    1. McCarthy was really stripping away in The Road, I think partly to show how the world had been stripped down to dead rock and the bones of a dead civilization, and his most lovely writing is at the very end of the book. I think his prose style was very much tied to his themes and mood.

      I think I'm doing something else, and the internal action of the character--while it certainly informed my choices for point of view and vocabulary and such things--is sort of separate from what I think I'm trying to talk about here. Maybe I got closest to it in my reply to Michelle, when I said I was working with focus. I think that's really the key to this idea.

  3. This makes me think of how I felt reading A Death in the Family. Agee (his editor really) made the choice not to start with what most would call The Story, but instead with the Knoxville: Summer in 1915 vignette. But I felt that external scene was totally unified with the rest of the novel, that it was part and parcel with the sharply delineated inner worlds of the characters. Maybe this sense of unity is illusory, but that doesn't seem to make the experiencing of it any less compelling.

    1. In the end, what's the difference between true unity and the illusion of unity? I don't know if there is one. A piece of fiction is all artifice, all mannerism, anyway.

      I think about how in a lot of Faulkner, you're not really sure what's happening, but it all sort of accumulates into a picture, or into a bunch of related pictures and it feels complete but unbounded. You get that--in a different way--with the best Shakespeare plays, too. Though WS works in a different way than WF.

  4. Davin is right - this is a really great post, Scott! I'm not sure I get exactly what you're saying, but I'm trying. I do know that I hate too much detail. And I do know that I've read too much writing that tries to do what you're saying, and fails because the point seems to be about the detail more than about what the detail is doing. And I'm sure you're not really talking about detail at all, but a good example of this not working for me was Tinkers. I feel like that book was trying to do this, and it just didn't quite get there for me. The whole dust specks floating in the air just killed me, and I'm not sure why. Maybe I was paying too much attention? Maybe I didn't want to like it?

    I do know that poetry changed my writing and opened my mind. The more poetry I read, the more doors open up before me. It's brilliant, and I always want to write a book that's like one big huge poem - you know, like The Waves or something - and I think when I finally manage that successfully, I'll be 85 or something. Who knows. I'll keep trying. Just like you're aiming for your goal, and I adore reading about what you're doing and thinking in your writing. It's really fascinating. I wish I could capture my writing like this.

    1. I don't know if I'm talking about detail, either. It might have more to do with focus, and moving that focus around, and focusing on and then past things. I really don't know. I'm making it up as I go along.

      The thing about poetry that I'm really beginning to appreciate is how it can seem to imply a dozen meanings at once yet still be written in very solid, specific language. The images can be concrete and vivid and even so open to many interpretations. I think I want to do something like that in my prose. The language will get sharper but become more open at the same time. Maybe.

      It's a whole new way of thinking about writing for me, so I don't really understand it yet.

    2. Yes, that makes sense, Scott. I got into a way of thinking similar to this in college when I was immersed in poetry. It really opened a door for me and allowed a new side of writing for me to explore. I'm still exploring it.

  5. Okay, here's an excerpt:

    [David, our hero, has tumbled out of his lawn chair onto the brick patio. He's not quite sure how it happened. He is, as I say, drugged up.]

    There was a noise, a chiming, high and clear and annoying, coming from the house. The chiming drifted through the kitchen door, soft and insistent. The doorbell. Motherfuck the doorbell. The dog barked and stumped through the house to scrabble at the base of the front door. Shut the fuck up, David said. Some time passed. The sun was warm on David's skin. He rolled away from the chair, onto his back across the brick patio with his arms flung wide and his t-shirt worked up to expose the large pale mound of his belly.

    Hey, Violet?

    What is it, baby?

    Are you here, Violet?

    No, I'm at work. You're pretty fucked up, baby. How many of those painkillers did you take?

    I don't remember. Where am I?

    There was no answer. He opened his eyes to the shrill blue expanse of heaven and turned his head, shading his face with a hand. Why was he lying here on the patio? He heard the kitchen door open.

    Hey, Violet? Penny?

    There was no answer. He opened his eyes and saw the underside of the big canvas umbrella. He was sprawled in the Adirondack chair. Across the patio Violet's flowers spread their petals to the white sunshine, offering themselves up to the heat like holy virgins supplicating before the high priest of some primitive cannibal religion. Bees dropped and hovered and bounced across the flowers, indistinct and mechanical beings like living bits of amber and onyx that deformed the air around them as they reeled drunkenly from blossom to blossom. In the corner of the yard a skyline of delphinium and gladiola pushed against a slight breeze, the tips of the plants swaying in slow rhythm. It was early afternoon. David's stomach complained and his tongue felt thick and papery. His head felt thick and leaden.

    Had he been on the ground, lying on the bricks? How had he gotten back onto the chair? David began to think three pain pills was too much for one morning. He was pretty fucked up. He had the sense that someone had been in the yard with him earlier, but he couldn't remember. He tried to concentrate. He closed his eyes and drifted off, or back, or sideways; it was hard to say in which direction David was moving. He swam, he floated, he bobbed along.

    He saw Audrey standing over him. She was wearing a blue spandex top with short sleeves. Maybe she'd been doing yoga in the living room. David's living room? That didn't seem likely, did it?

    Are you okay, David?

    The sun was directly overhead, directly behind Audrey and her hair burned in a great shining circle behind her head like the halo of a Renaissance saint. David could see the whites of Audrey's eyes and her perfect white teeth; he was aware of her perfect body and the smell of gardenias that always surrounded her. The corner of one brick set unevenly in the patio rubbed against David's left heel, far far away from his brain.

    You're pretty, Audrey. You know that?

    Do you want me to help you into the house?

    Audrey's voice had buzzed like the bees, indistinct and heavy with pollen, gyring lazily in the sunlight. David pushed his face against the sounds of Audrey's words, a chubby tomcat nuzzling. He thought he might purr. His face was against Audrey's shoulder. She was pulling him into the chair.

    Rough, but you maybe get the idea.

    1. Scott, this is quite beautiful. I feel like what you're doing is processing everything through the characters, so that the reality is all tainted by his interpretation. It reminds me a little of John Updike, but there's more fluidity in your writing. It is more expansive, and the speed of the movement feels like it speeds up and slows down, zooms in and out. It's interesting.

    2. "reality is all tainted by his interpretation"

      That's something I'm doing a lot in general nowadays. Setting and atmosphere are all aspects of character, not things external to the people. I'm binding the inner and outer worlds together, or trying to. And I'm trying to control the speed at which time passes. Making things slow down by focusing on details is an easy trick; I'm looking for other, more difficult tricks. On the whole, I feel like I'm just now starting on the road to figuring how to really write. Everything I've done before now has been stumbling along, reproducing other writers. Now I'm stumbling along, off-road and making it up for myself. Though maybe I'm still trying to copy other writers but I'm too close to the work to see that? I do know that some of what's going on in the scene above reminds me of scenes from Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading, which I just read. So I don't know.

      But thanks for liking it!

      Updike's prose needed to loosen its tie and take off its shoes.

    3. Thank you for sharing that, Scott. You say: Setting and atmosphere are all aspects of character, not things external to the people.

      I think that's a good way of putting this. It feels more immediate to me, almost as if we're in first person, but not. The point in this piece that really pulled me in was Audrey's description of her hair burning. Really nice piece and example of what you're after!

  6. I'm with Davin; beautiful prose. The emotional level is intense, and I like how absorbed he is in his own sensations, yet still aware on some level of the world about him. I really liked it.

    5000 words seems about I could handle in this style I think, but I don't think I could say until I read it all. Seems like a good wordcount to shoot for.

    Even if you are being influenced by other writers, you still have a definite unique voice. I've always enjoyed your writing conepts. It stretches my world view.


    1. Thanks! I'm glad you liked it. This is just one chapter in the middle of the book; the rest of the book is in more straightforward (but equally beautifual, I hope) prose.

      One thing that occurs to me is that by the time I have made my way through a first draft, my writing style has evolved and the first chapter seems like it was written by someone else; I always have to do the most work on the first chapter, just to get the prose style to match. My next book is going to be quite long. I'll be interested to see what happens with style there, especially as it's to be in three big sections each written in a unique voice. With interludes. Hmm.


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