On a bad day

“As Norman Mailer once put it, the main difference between an experienced and an inexperienced writer is the ability to work on a bad day.”
–Madison Smart Bell’s Narrative Design

Many quotations express this valuable idea in similar ways:

Agatha Christie’s An Autobiography: “There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.”

David Halberstam’s Everything They Had: Sports Writing: “There’s a great quote by Julius Irving that went, ‘Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.'”

“A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn’t feel like it. ”
– Alistair Cooke

“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”
– Colin Powell.

“Success seems to be connected with action. Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don’t quit.”
– Conrad Hilton.

Controlling point of view

I’ve been reading Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. It is the third of the Neapolitan Novels series. I’ve found them all compelling. The book is narrated in a distant remembering first-person. Notice how completely and naturally this narrating character moves within the inner lives of other characters/people in her life:

He wasn’t in a good mood, in fact he seemed emptied of energy, as if the practice of violence had swallowed up his craving for action. . . . Certainly he was bothered by the critical tone she had used in alluding to the morning’s expedition. He’s convinced, Lila thought, that I don’t understand why he hit Gino like that, why he wanted to beat up the guard. Good or bad, all men believe that after every one of their undertakings you have to put them on an altar as if they were St. George slaying the dragon. He considers me ungrateful, he did it to avenge me, he would like me to at least say thank you.

The quotation begins and ends one paragraph, though I haven’t quoted the paragraph in its entirety.

Context lets readers know that this paragraph begins with the narrator’s female friend interpreting a male they both know. We’re reminded that we’re inside Lila’s head by the attribution “Lila thought” which also creates an opportunity for an “I” (in “that I don’t understand why”) besides the “I” of the first-person narrator (who rarely uses the first-person pronoun, probably strategically, making room for others’ use of it). The next sentence is unattributed, but it seems likely that readers will see it as another of Lila’s thoughts. The sentence after that comes from deep within Lila’s consciousness, deep enough that it includes “me.” This sentence reveals the most about her, her perception of the guy she’s thinking about, and significantly the first-person narrator. That first-person narrator’s interpretation of her friend and their mutual friend also characterizes the narrator. It allows her to write in first-person and move deeply within another character’s inner life in compelling, but not confusing, ways.

So, to characterize, consider the following technique: a minimal, distant remembering first-person that uses an explicit attribution of feeling or thought (“Lila thought”), followed by an “I” referencing that other character (Lila), at least a sentence that can be considered more of that other character’s thoughts (the “St. George” sentence), and then a sentence deep within the other character, one that references that character explicitly, with “me,” in this case.

The way stone excites a sculptor

In an essay called “On Reading Poetry,” Kenneth Koch wrote:

Suppose you want to get an experience into words so that it is permanently there, as it would be in a painting—so that every time you read what you wrote, you reexperienced it. Suppose you want to say something so that it is right and beautiful—even though you may not understand exactly why. Or suppose words excite you—the way stone excites a sculptor—and inspire you to use them in a new way. And that for these or other reasons you like writing because of the way it makes you think or because of what it helps you to understand. These are some of the reasons poets write poetry.

Lessons from a sentence

I’ve just finished reading Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West: A Novel. It’s an excellent text book on novel writing. Allow me to demonstrative (hopefully) with just one sentence, written as three of the characters cope with the death of another:

“Saeed’s father encountered each day objects that had belonged to his wife and so would sweep his consciousness out of the current others referred to as the present, a photograph or an earring or a particular shawl worn on a particular occasion, and Nadia encountered each day objects that took her into Saeed’s past, a book or a music collection or a sticker on the inside of a drawer, and evoked emotions from her own childhood, and jagged musings on the fate of her parents and her sister, and Saeed, for his part, was inhabiting a chamber that had been his only briefly, years ago, when relatives from afar or abroad used to come to visit, and being billeted here again conjured up for him echoes of a better era, and so in these several ways these three people sharing this one apartment splashed and intersected with each other across varied and multiple streams of time.”

First this sentence is a reminder of one of Donald Barthelme’s exercises, called, I think, “Assignment: Write a sentence with some attention to the notes below.” To summarize, Barthelme asks what should readers demand from sentences in fiction? He mentions four things: sentences should surprise, be true, be beautiful, and turn “the mind toward original questions, first principles, the deepest sort of search for meaning.” Barthelme’s exercise encourages those performing it to consider possible examples in the light of each of these criteria. As high as these expectations are, Hamid’s sentence meets them.

His sentence also illustrates two other principles. The first is that setting reveals the characters. Readers come to know and understand these characters because they are seen in this particular place. The objects that they have chosen to surround themselves with helps identify the characters.  Saeed’s father, having kept objects that belonged to his wife, is jolted from the present as he encounters them. Nadia, encountering objects from Saeed’s past, is reminded of her own. Saeed experiences nostalgia as he rediscovers a childhood room. In all of these cases, characterization and setting blur.

Secondarily and similarly, characterization and plot blur. The characters in this sentence are all responding differently to the death of Saeed’s mother. Their responses involve tiny changes in how they see and are in the world. What has happened to these characters has changed their way of being in the world. Their encounters with the objects and the place around them, the sentence clearly suggests, is different than it had been. Saeed’s father’s consciousness is swept from its current moment, Nadia finds connections between her past and Saeed’s, and the setting conjures up memories of a better era for Saeed. Characters acting or being acted upon, even in these subtle ways, are forms of plot.

And it would be easy to go on by considering how characters can mesh in thematically significant ways like they do here, or how the sentence is organized, or this sentence and Charles Baxter’s counterpointed characterization from his book Burning Down the House.

If you want to do any of these things, Hamid provides a model.

The important question

Remember that a story is always trying to get at the business of human nature, to tell us that this is what it’s like to be a human being and this is how it feels. To do that we have to get below the surface. Below the action and down to the values and motivation. The important question that the story must ask is: Why? Not: What? Why does N. do what she does? One thing she does is fall in love with X. Why? How did that happen?

–John Dufresne

Characterization and work

This exercise has its roots in Benjamin Percy’s excellent Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, specifically the “Get a Job” chapter.

Characterize by writing about the character’s job. Address at least the following prompts:

  • How did the character get the job?
  • How does the setting/dress of the character change as a result of it?
  • Describe the character’s relationships with at least three people at work.
  • Describe/contrast these relationships with at least three people not at work.
  • How does the job change/shape/impact the non-job relationships?
  • Given this job, what point of view makes sense? How is the character likely to see the world?
  • List three metaphors this character would use.
  • What new language/jargon/jokes does the character learn as a result of the job?