Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Missing Link Between Realistic Fiction and Magical Realism

I have magical realism on the brain thanks to a YA novel I'm working on (maybe "wrestling into submission" is more accurate).   I think "magical realism" is a modern term, coined in reference to Latin American and Caribbean literature.  In college, Wilson Harris' GUYANA QUARTET made quite an impression on me for its immersion in dream imagery.  Often the examples cited are modern works by authors such as Neil Gaiman or Toni Morrison.    Still, the genre is so deeply woven with the visions of dreams and myths and fairytales that I can't help thinking there are older examples to explore.  A  fellow writer once told me Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND fit the magical realism genre.  I reread it and was struck by how episodic the plot was.  Almost too dreamlike, the very issue I've run into on my own piece.

In the midst of all this contemplation, it dawned on me that there is a "missing link" literature between realistic fiction and magical realism.  You could call it "heightened realism."  I think of two images from Dickens that illustrate this idea.  The first, and perhaps most famous, is Miss Havisham's wedding cake in GREAT EXPECTATIONS:

Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimney-piece faintly lighted the chamber, or, it would be more expressive to say, faintly troubled its darkness. It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was a table with a long tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks stopped all together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite indistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies run home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.
This is just a "slice" of the cake (maybe my "Moldy Leftovers" post sent my mind down this road), but it's an excellent illustration of what I'm talking about.  There's no magic involved here, but the heightened, nightmarish quality of the image goes beyond the bounds of reality.  Miss Havisham herself, and all her surroundings, follow a similar vein.

The second Dickens image that came to mind was from LITTLE DORRIT.  It is the sudden collapse of the Clennam House, near the end of the novel, caused not by earthquake or natural disaster but seemingly out of the blue after a lifetime of lies and deceit:
In one swift instant the old house was before them, with the manlying smoking in the window; another thundering sound, and itheaved, surged outward, opened asunder in fifty places, collapsed,and fell.  Deafened by the noise, stifled, choked, and blinded bythe dust, they hid their faces and stood rooted to the spot.  Thedust storm, driving between them and the placid sky, parted for amoment and showed them the stars.  As they looked up, wildly cryingfor help, the great pile of chimneys, which was then alone leftstanding like a tower in a whirlwind, rocked, broke, and haileditself down upon the heap of ruin, as if every tumbling fragmentwere intent on burying the crushed wretch deeper. 
In both of these examples, Dickens unabashedly embraces the metaphorical potency of his images and places it outside the boundaries of reality by heightening the reality to a nightmarish level.

Some of the best, most intense moments in fiction, for me, do this, especially when it comes to disturbing images.  Melville's MOBY DICK is another great example, full of realistic events that are given a metaphorical and surreal import through mood, tone, exaggeration.  The final images of that novel still haunt me.  

So, with Halloween coming up, perhaps it's time to think about creating haunting, potent images through heightened reality.  Consider letting the old masters be your guides.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Yes, and ...

In improvisational comedy, and also in good brainstorming, there's a rule that you don't say "no" to any idea.  You say "Yes, and ..."  It's a hard rule to follow.

Last weekend I thought about this rule as I was slogging through one of my bouts with my friend the Big D (Depression).  The Big D doesn't like to say "yes" to anything or anyone unless it's something that keeps me at home.  For example, both members of my writing group had to cancel.  One asked if it was ok.  The Big D said "sure."  The rest of me desperately needed the connection, but felt incapable of asking for it thanks to Big D's super powers of sluggishness.  Then, another writer friend, one I've never hung out with one-on-one before, asked if I wanted to go to a Wordstock event.  "No!" insisted the Big D.  But the rest of me stopped and thought, "This is an answer to my sadness over canceling writing group this week."  I said "Yes" and was glad I did.

This got me thinking about the application of "Yes, and ..." to life, and also to writing.  When you're writing a first draft in particular, or are stuck on a piece, applying the rule of "Yes, and ..." can help break through.  The editor brain often wants to say "No."  Agents and publishers are looking for reasons to say "No," not because they hate you but simply because they can't publish or represent everything.  But your creative brain, the one that writes the damn stuff in the first place, needs to be trained to say "Yes, and ..."  "What if my protagonist jumps out the window here?"  "Yes, and then discovers she can fly."  "Yes, and then crashes into a building."

In my other writing group, someone mentioned the plot strategy of "Therefore" and "But then."  I'm tempted to sit down and rewrite my whole synopsis using only these 3 transitional phrases after the first sentence:  "Yes, and-"  "Therefore"  "But then."  It's bound to make the plot go SOMEWHERE.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Exploring Moldy Leftovers

I'm working on a YA novel of a teenage girl's nightmarish vision quest in the vein of Terry Gilliam or Guillermo del Toro.  (Can you tell I've been ruminating on pitches?).  Now, I've done several drafts and synopses of this piece, but I don't feel like I've finished a real draft yet.  Why do I say that?  The story changes every time.  Radically.  Characters, major plot points, themes, story arcs.  It's a different animal with every pass, which is ironic since there's a lot of transformation that happens in the story itself.

I'm currently stuck at that awful precipice right before you launch into the potentially boggy morass of the middle.  And I'm afraid to go forward because the whole damn thing has been such quicksand I'm convinced I'm just going to go down another wrong tunnel.  Then I decide, "Let's look back at some of those old drafts."  So I do.

The experience is a lot like going through the leftovers in the fridge.  You know - the ones in tupperware containers that are too opaque to make out the contents.  The vague shapes wrapped in aluminum foil.  I open the container - in this case some old computer file labeled something like "Feathers Version 5".  At first, I'm not sure what I'm  looking at.  Then I get a little closer ... and the smell hits me.  And all I can say is "Yuck!  What a mess!  Why did I keep that?"

Then there's the ones that I sniff at and taste and try to remember how old they are and whether they've gone bad or not.  I find myself scraping off the mold and hoping to salvage chunks of the leftovers, like you might do with old hunks of cheese, or burnt toast.  And some of it seems worth saving.  You might call this the manuscript version of dumpster diving.

I'm not sure if I've just progressed a lot as a writer since I wrote these drafts, or if it's simply the nature of what Anne Lamott calls "shitty first drafts."  A friend in one of my writing groups recently suggested rereading Lamott's thoughts on this subject, and as I was writing this blog post, I did.  They were comforting, even inspiring, a reminder that those moldy leftovers served an important purpose in their day, and that maybe they still have a purpose to serve.

I'll close with a moldy leftover story from my summer.  My Mom and Dad celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this August by renewing their vows.  The day before the ceremony, Mom took a foil-wrapped lump out of the freezer.  It was a piece of their original wedding cake.  For years, they took it out and had a bite on their anniversary.  At some point, obviously, they thought better of that tradition for health reasons.  But there it was, this piece of 50-year-old wedding cake, preserved through five decades of change and life.

For the post-vow-renewal celebration, Mom put the lump of wedding cake out on a plate, under glass.  She placed it in the entry way for all to see, along with their original bride-and-groom cake-topper.  Then she had second thoughts about this and wanted to hide it in the corner somewhere, or even put it out of sight all together.  It was turning greener with every passing moment of exposure to air so it looked a bit like a lump of Kryptonite.  She was afraid someone might think it was an exotic cheese, eat a piece, get ptomaine poisoning and die.

When she went to hide it, I got furious.  "You didn't make it through 50 years of marriage by hiding the moldy parts!  You didn't get here by being perfect!  You got here because you love each other even with all the flaws and imperfections.  They're part of who you are.  They're part of your journey.  That moldy lump of wedding cake is beautiful.  Don't you dare hide it away!"

So, here's to moldy leftovers.  Who knows what they might teach you?

Friday, October 05, 2012

Scriptus Interruptus

I wonder if I'm the only one who gets cranky and irritable when a great writing session gets interrupted.  The other day, I was cruising along with my 5 AM writing session before I left for school and I was on a roll.  Deep into the story.  Messy plot points were clicking into place.  Tangled logic was untangling itself.  It was great.

Then I looked at the clock.  And I had to stop.  I had to stop because I am a teacher, which I love being, and teachers can't be late for work.  It's not just bad form.  It's a minor disaster.  You can't do it.

So I had to stop writing.  And I was ticked off and in high cranky mode for the rest of the day.  It was worse than PMS.  I think my students could sense it because they were not at their best that day either, which didn't help matters.

I honestly believe my day of irritability was a direct result of what I'm dubbing scriptus interruptus.  Mind you, having to stop in the midst of a productive writing session can be a good thing.  It means I have a place to pick up from the next day so it's easier to get rolling.  Most of the time, I'm okay with that.  I've been able to embrace that.  With my school-year writing schedule, I've had to embrace that.

But sometimes ... it just ticks me off.

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