Monthly Archives: April 2013

Ma vie in sentences


Celebrating my new digital subscription to the New York Times and happily zooming around the site, I came upon a recent blog piece by Jhumpa Lahiri titled “My Life’s Sentences,” which is her distillation of her craft at the sentence level and a deconstruction of her process. Typically I don’t care to read about deconstruction of process—and maybe that’s strange, since I’m a writer and process is what produces not just prose but a prose of one’s own—but I liked her post, and maybe this was because of her focus on sentences.

We writers get to the final product however we get there—we can listen to how other writers get there, and maybe that knowledge will help us, but mainly, as with other types of artists, we have to find our own way. Possibly that personal, unique way (process) informs the result (product + voice) completely causally. If the former is altered, will the latter necessarily be?

I don’t know. I know that what works for me works, and what doesn’t, doesn’t, and the product is the product, and eventually it has to stop evolving and become the something that you ultimately walk away from.

But what of a discussion about sentences? These are to writers what notes are to musicians, what paint is to painters, what body parts are to dancers, and what a room’s objects are to interior designers. Taking the latter as an example: when we walk into a room that makes us feel, say, alive and stimulated, we can point to the way object, space, color, and pattern (among other things) are carefully arranged (which is to say either harmonic or purposefully discordant) to produce “sense,” to evoke the magical synchronicity of place. My experimental-composer brother once told me that, growing up, he realized that music—but more specifically, sound—“did something to [his] body.” This profound, perhaps mystical, experience of sound made him the composer he is.

Similarly, the effect that sentences (and, by extension, phrases and words) “have on my body” is responsible for my becoming the writer I am.

I did not begin with story. That is to say, although I liked stories as a child and even wrote a few (with illustrations) in grade school, my mature encounters with words, phrases, and sentences came in the form of writing poems. This was in middle school and high school, and, looking back, these early experiences formed my whole relationship with language. It was such meditative joy to lie in a quiet room and give symphonic, linguistic life to emotional impulses. Even the struggle (the search for the right word, the effect of white space or a dash, the struggle to get the “word music” exactly right) was joyous.

It was then that I, like Lahiri, could be caught anywhere with some compilation of words forming in my head, and onto that scrap of paper they went. Sometimes this random (divine?) intervention becomes the jumping-off point (or literal first line) of a work I haven’t even conceived of yet. (Is it worth pointing out that the point of biological conception happens before the mind-body is aware of it?) Sometimes the scraps of paper get scrapped. Most writers would probably agree with me when I say that the ratio of used-to-scrapped is not that important: what’s key is that the words flow, and keep flowing, because if they don’t, the body isn’t registering anything and you lose a part of yourself.

Lose how? We hear psychologists talk a lot about interpersonal dynamics. Sometimes certain personalities are continually drawn to the same kind of other personalities, and usually the context of these discussions is that the unthinking “drawing in” is hurting both people by allowing them to constantly re-enact misfortune and trauma in a futile attempt to “solve” it. The parties keep subconsciously wrestling with themselves, unable to recognize the pattern.

Like all of us struggling with dynamics and patterns, I also struggle, as a writer, with a similar confrontation—but in relation to characters and even plot. I think of this struggle as “the great wrestle” I have with any given piece of work, lately mostly fiction. The great wrestle is the frictional, anxious process of making sentences work together to create character and story. Despite now being a more mature writer, I still wander through the chaos just as I did in middle school, gathering promising pieces of half-conceived puzzles and throwing them down somewhere, forming sense out of nonsense, and not really resting until they are together both coherently and distinctively.

But the great wrestle is not just winning the fight against chaos, because as you proceed, you learn about life. The great wrestle is about learning how to think about something or someone, or some human tendency or type; it is about formulating personal and ethical internal responses; it is a constant reminder that we are all different but also exactly and maddeningly the same.

The great wrestle helps writers understand the real world, which in turn informs their fictional ones—even their fantastical ones.

And we get there word by word, sentence by sentence. The wheels keep on spinning, interpretations get re-interpreted, thoughts get thought again and again, and together they are the story of humanity.





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“Nice lines” #1

“The permanent mystery was how much you seemed to know before you knew anything at all. Or maybe the permanent mystery was how stupid you could be and yet how you clung to evidence that your stupidity knew things you didn’t.”

–from “Porn Critic,” a story by Jonathan Lethem

Now I have to go think up some permanent mysteries.

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You can’t make this shit up

At one point in the endless coverage of the manhunt for Marathon Bomber suspect #2, an officer noted that the car chase along Memorial Drive and into Watertown was “like something out of a movie.” Bullet slugs in the living rooms of Watertown residents? Blood on the side of an over-wintering boat in a quiet neighborhood? Grenades? Phones going dead? “Shelter in place”? Shootouts? Standoffs?

Years ago, I had a landlady who broke out in loud laughter when I said that I wrote fiction. She said that she read only nonfiction because fiction is “a bunch of nonsense.” One day, her partner told me a story of how she communes with bees.

A friend recently told me that she was chased out of the cemetery by a swarm of bees, which she thought was her dead father’s way of telling her to move beyond her grief.

In 2009, the bees vanished.

I believe all the bee stories. (I adore the second one so much that I put a version of it into a chapter of the novel I’m writing.) Actually, there isn’t a whole lot that I don’t believe.

Life imitates art imitating life imitating art. If you can think something up, then you know it has probably happened somewhere. If it has happened somewhere, it will find its way into fiction, and lots of these stories will be similar, even across cultures and ages. The collective unconscious is an astonishingly powerful thing.

Author Sheila Heti said in an interview that “increasingly, I’m less interested in writing about fictional people because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story.” A fake story?

If you try to directly import “reality” into your fiction, you will find that you have to fake-ify it. (Assuming that you are writing a story with some semblance of plot–Heti’s third book is formless and eclectic.) If you’re writing a fake story, then you can make the plot be what it needs to enhance and affect the non-fake people. Or whatever. Shape and mold, shape and mold–the thing becomes the thing and answers only to the thing that it is.

Well-meaning people often ask writers this question: How much of your book is true? I hope I never get asked that question.

The line separating truth from fiction was always blurry. Lately, the revelation of faked memoirs seems to have exposed this blurriness.

I’m going to go talk to some bees. They obviously know everything.


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